Round trip mileage expense, Houston to Amarillo, $685 (official government mileage reimbursement) . Food $100. Hotel, three nights including one enroute, $225. Total, $1010.00 (one messenger to the BGCT)
Round trip mileage reimbursement, Houston to San Antonio, $185. Food, $220. Hotel, two nights, $400 incl. tips. (2 messengers to the SBC) Total, $805. We got lucky, with the SBC being in San Antonio, just a three hour drive from home, we didn’t have to worry about airfare which, for two, will cost $700 to Indianapolis, plus car rental. For two messengers in Indianapolis, from Houston, $2100.
Slightly over 2,000 messengers were present for the BGCT meeting in Amarillo, up by a few over the Dallas meeting the year before, but the second smallest turnout since 1949. Messenger registration at the SBC in San Antonio didn’t top 9,000 last year. The BGCT has 5,700 churches, the SBC 45,000 which means that it is likely that fewer than 5% of the churches are conducting the convention business. And for both groups, that is a significant decrease from previous years. In fact, in the SBC, the total number of different churches sending messengers to the convention over a decade has been less than 15%.
There are several factors involved, and without some kind of polling data, I couldn’t put any weight on the reasons. Both groups have significant constituencies of individuals who are expressing discontent with what they call heavy handed and manipulative tactics related to distrubution of denominational political power. That’s certainly a legitimate claim. But as costs in the lodging, food service and particularly the travel industries have increased, fewer people, particularly those between 21 and 67 who work and have families, are able to afford the cost of attending, and fewer churches, in a denomination of mostly smaller congregations, able to afford the expense of sending someone as a messenger, unless they go at their own expense.
There is the question of “Why go?” Is the business of running a denomination’s entities and agencies important enough to require the regular attendance of messengers from your church, and does it justify the expense? Opinions will vary greatly on the answer to that question. I believe, mainly because I have been taught from a very early age in the very beginning missions education program of a Southern Baptist church, that cooperation in missions and ministry support carries with it an obligation to help provide the accountability and trust that is needed to operate in an efficient, effective manner. Our system is designed to bring independent, autonomous churches together in cooperation, so the more churches there are participating in the system, the better it works. I think we have seen, in recent years, the results of a drop off in participation, in both the BGCT and the SBC.
The problem, in recent years, is how to get people involved in the process. If you see younger messengers at the convention, they tend to be pastors and staff members of the churches. Most of the messengers are older people, past retirement age, who have the time and finances to attend, and a deeper understanding of the way Baptist cooperation works. I’d guess that the median age of messengers at a Baptist convention, state or SBC, is probably close to 70. Messenger participation is also dropping off. The numbers are way down in the SBC, which has recorded several gatherings in recent years of fewer than 10,000 messengers, and the BGCT drew less than 2,000 to its 2006 meeting in Dallas, the lowest since 1949. If there is not any change or effort made to increase participation and involvement, the system will not work. So we need to decide at this point if it is worth saving, and if so, how.
The objectives for “undergirding the work of the denomination” were largely contained in the Church Training/Training Union curriculum. I’d guess that there are few places today in most Southern Baptist churches where our members are exposed to the way our denomination operates. The BGCT’s Baptistway curriculum does have some course material on Baptist doctrine and polity, but overall, while it would be a big undertaking, I believe this needs to be a regular part of our curriculum.
2. Use of Technology
My previous employer operated two campuses of alternative high schools, one in Houston and one in San Antonio. We had faculty meetings together however, by means of video teleconferencing. Sometimes, someone they wanted to bring in for in-service wasn’t available to do both places, and it certainly saved on the travel expense. We used a big screen, video projector, and a top quality sound system. It was just like being there, you could interact with the people in San Antonio, ask questions, and see everything.
Perhaps a state convention could locate a dozen or more churches throughout the state, and send their registration and convention operations personnel to those locations, and then video conference the convention procedings, which could actually be done in a conference room in Dallas. At some point, maybe we could trust ourselves enough to have convention viewing locations in every association in the state. The creative options for doing it this way are endless.
3. Changing Methods
Of course, a technological approach would require changing the way we do business. But that might be a good thing. The time allotments for conducting business at Baptist conventions these days seems to fit the cut and dried, no discussion vote that the older generation prefers, but going high tech might allow a lot more input and discussion than we currently get. It might also lead to a completely different outcome than expected. It would definitely involve more people.
There are logistics that would have to be carefully worked out, but I think it could be done. The more people who are involved, the less likely it is that one special interest group can control the proceedings. Having 50,000 Baptists from 2/3 of the churches in the SBC paying attention to what is happening at the convention is a good thing, as would having 10,000 people from 2/3 of the churches in the BGCT.