This is just for the record.
Bertha and I attended the SBC in Birmingham, arriving Sunday afternoon, June 9, and departing Thursday morning, June 13. I was one of 10 messengers from our church, the First Baptist Church of Jackson, MS where Chip Stevens is pastor.
I did not, however, attend any sessions of the SBC. (Had a controversy erupted which required my vote, I would have stepped into the auditorium and taken a part. But all was well.)
I had another function altogether.
For a number of years in a row, I attend the convention as the guest of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, a constant influence in my life since arriving on the campus in the summer of 1964. I have two degrees from there, have been president of the national alumni association, and have received a couple of distinguished recognitions from the seminary. For a number of years, I was a member of the adjunct faculty, teaching in the pastoral ministry division. I love this seminary. Bertha and I are presently active on the NOBTS Foundation Board. I send a monthly contribution to the Providence Fund for student support.
Each year, at the invite of the administration, I sit at a table in the NOBTS booth and sketch people. Last year in Dallas and this year in Birmingham, I’ve gone all the way and done it nonstop, from 8:30 in the morning until 4 or 5 pm. Lunch is usually a protein bar at the table where I’m working. Since each sketch takes only 2 minutes, there is no telling how many people came through the line over those three days (Monday and Tuesday were full days; Wednesday until noon). It’s a recipe for full exhaustion, I’ll tell you that! (Btw, the seminary pays my expenses in attending the meeting, but nothing more. Just so you’ll know.)
Observations on the Birmingham convention from my perch…
One. The convention is like a family reunion to many of us. Pastors like me who have served churches in several states over a half century will have beloved friends all over the country. This is the only time we see one another, and I wouldn’t miss it for anything. The official “messenger” registration this year was 8,185, but if you add in another 2,000 “guests” (like Bertha who signed in, but had no voting privileges) and another 2,000 who were working the exhibits, we had 12,000 people there. We’re told this was the largest convention Birmingham has had in this facility.
Two. We had been warned that the traffic around Birmingham’s convention center would be horrendous since the interstate across the downtown area is being replaced. Consequently, a system of shuttle buses was set up for people in hotels throughout the area. For us, it worked beautifully. The stress was non-existent.
Three. Some of the families I sketched have a series of these drawings tracing the growth of their children through the years. Two families invited me to attend the weddings of the oldest youngsters and sketch at their receptions. (I drew at a reception the day before we went to Birmingham. I’ve drawn for weddings in Springfield, IL, Atlanta, GA, Mobile, AL, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, etc.)
Four. Birmingham is lovely in a hundred ways. Now, the city is not exactly my hometown, but I grew up an hour north. My grandmother lived in Birmingham and many cousins whom I would visit in the summers. I went to college here and was baptized, met my wife, was called to preach, married, and ordained in this city. I worked in the downtown throughout my college years–back when downtown Birmingham was “the place to be.” Loveman’s and Pizitz were the two big department stores, just down the street from the glamorous Alabama Theater. I’ve seen the city change over the years and almost wept when downtown became a ghost town. These days it’s looking better and better. I love Birmingham’s mountains and hilly drives and trees galore. There are some great, great churches in this city. Dr. Chris Crain is the new associational leader, and we’re all excited about that.
Five. Each year on the weekend prior to the convention, our people flood the metro area for evangelistic events, called (this year) “Crossover Birmingham.” Hundreds of people are led to Christ. Those who criticize our denomination never mention this.
Six. But what drew the ire of the Pharisees among us was a little fun thing done by five of our SBC agency leaders on the day before the convention started. The North American Mission Board held a “Send Luncheon” to emphasize starting new churches across America. At one point, the leadership donned wigs and picked up guitars and lip-synced to Lynrd Skynrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” (You might recognize that “Sweet Home Alabama” is a theme adopted by the state and can be found on billboards and license plates.) The musical skit made all the news and the critics went ballistic. “Slide into apostasy” they hollered. “The devil has taken over.” I regret to say that some of our SBC people joined the chorus, pronouncing the demise of this denomination because of a harmless little fun thing. For shame.
My observation–from over 50 years of attending these conventions and 60 years of being a Southern Baptist–is that there is always a little Pharisaical group ready to pounce on anything negative about our churches. They are holier than thou, they are pious, and they are hypocrites. They claim to love the Lord, but what they love is negativism. For shame.
Seven. The morning we were leaving the hotel, I watched as an elderly couple were trying to force a tip onto the valet handling their car. I’m not sure how I know it was 75 cents, but the valet kept laughing and declining the coins. Finally, she took them. I am well aware that some people are poor and cannot afford a generous tip but the car these folks were driving said otherwise. So, when Bertha and I were leaving, even though we had not used the valets, I gave a generous tip to each one and said, “Thank you for taking care of the preachers this week!”
God bless your people, Baptists and all the others. For Jesus’ sake.