Reporting on the Southern Baptist Convention for Dummies

by Derek Gentle

Say you are a reporter and you have been sent to cover a Baptist convention -- Southern Baptist Convention, a state convention -- it doesn't matter. And say you are not a Baptist; perhaps you have an Episcopalian background, or some other denomination with a very different form of government. You are not familiar with the Baptist way of doing business. What do you need to know to report on the proceedings accurately, and in a way that will connect with your readers? And how do you write so that your Southern Baptist readers won't wonder if you attended the same meeting they did?

Refer to the Delegates as Messengers
That's what we call them. Delegates have been told how to vote and represent their constituency. Messengers go and vote their own convictions and then report what happened to their churches. This is probably unique to Southern Baptists and is related to our emphasis on the priesthood of all believers.

Know the Difference Between a Resolution and a Motion.
Baptists discuss and vote on resolutions as a way of expressing their views on current issues in light of Biblical principles. A Resolution expresses the opinion of the messengers present. It does not direct convention officers to do anything. It is simply a way of staking out a position. It may ask a convention entity to do something, but it is not a directive. Sometimes, a resolution taking a stance on a theological or social issue will pass. The next day one reads stories in the papers about Southern Baptists "banning" or "requiring" something. All they really did was express an opinion. A motion to direct a convention officer or entity to take a particular action is different. This is something that all Baptists understand and agree on... and the distinction between a resolution and a motion is a basic concept in parlimentary procedure.

Understand the Autonomy of the Local Congregation
No action at the convention you are covering will ban or mandate anything in a local Southern Baptist Congregation. For example, even in our confessions of faith, we are merely stating the concensus of the group. The introduction to the Baptist Faith and Message states:

"(2) That we do not regard them as complete statements of our faith, having any quality of finality or infallibility. As in the past so in the future, Baptists should hold themselves free to revise their statements of faith as may seem to them wise and expedient at any time."

"(3) That any group of Baptists, large or small, have the inherent right to draw up for themselves and publish to the world a confession of their faith whenever they may think it advisable to do so."

"Baptists cherish and defend religious liberty, and deny the right of any secular or religious authority to impose a confession of faith upon a church or body of churches."

Remember that Southern Baptists Understand the Bible in Ways Almost Completely in Harmony with Every Other Other Christian Denomination's Historic Views
Southern Baptists are not radically different, never differing with other Christians on the Trinity, the Person of Christ, the atonement of the cross, etc. The differences come on how much water to use in Baptism and when to use it, and in our form of government. The rest is just worship style. The fact is, historically, Christian denominations have agreed more often than Christiandom's critics would like to admit. Even Baptists' emphasis on evangelism and missions probably appears in the historic confessions and catechisms of your own denomination. [Related article]

Don't Mistake the Left Wing in Baptist Life for the Concensus of the Denomination
I know, you are trying to get a story and to cover both sides. But you want your story to reflect the convention that is, not the one someone wants it to be. Baptists are, and have always been, a conservative, Bible believing people. A quarter-century of conservative leadership shows this to be the case. In local churches, moderate pastors are often in trouble with their congregations for their support of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. They are often replaced with someone with no such ties. It would be unspeakably rare to find a Southern Baptist Church whose conservative pastor has left, and now the Pastor Search Committee is looking to replace him with someone more liberal. Moderates, liberals, and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship members make up a very small percentage of Southern Baptists. Yet, some secular papers regularly quote them at a disproportionately high rate.

The term "Evangelist" is not a Synonym for Famous Christian
In Baptist life an evangelist is someone who travels and preaches in churches (and sometimes auditoriums and stadiums) explaining how to become a Christian. Evangelism is the process of telling others about Jesus Christ and how one might enter into a personal relationship with Him. Evangelism may involve a one on one encounter or preaching a sermon to a congregation. Just because a church has its worship services on television, does not make their pastor an evangelist. Just because a Christian leader is well-known does mean he or she is an evangelist. The term, "evangelist" does not mean "Christian leader on TV". When the word is misused in this way, the article loses its objective tone and has the ring of a prejorative (see "televanglist").

Characterize Doctrinal Debates Fairly
When a religion page article states that Baptist moderates believe that people have the right to interpret the Bible for themselves and that conservatives hold to a more rigid interpretation, that is just ridiculous. Yet one sees that sentence almost annually. ALL Baptists believe that the Bible must be interpreted. Moderates believe, though, that it is no big deal if one simply disagrees with the Biblical writer. They believe the Biblical writer could be wrong. That is NOT the meaning of the word interpret. While it is admittedly difficult to describe a entire doctrine of the church in one sentence, try to avoid using overly simplistic descriptions of our doctrinal positions.

Remember, "Priesthood of the Believer" is Not a Term for Picking and Choosing One's Beliefs
The 1963 Baptist Faith and Message (the statement most widely embraced by the moderate constituency of Southern Baptists) stated this:

"Baptists emphasize the soul's competency before God, freedom of religion, and the priesthood of the believer. However, this emphasis should not interpreted to mean that there is an absence of certain definite doctrines that Baptists believe, cherish, and have been and are now closely identified." --Introduction

Watch Your Use of the Word, "Target"
Every so often one reads a headline along the lines of, "Baptists Target New People Group for Conversion." The next thing you know, Larry King has guests from that people group explaining how they resent being "targeted." As a reporter, you are aware that this is a marketing term - as in the phrase, "target deomographic group." You know that it refers to trying to reach a segment of the market with your product or message. However, the average reader or viewer is not familiar with the term; in their minds, they are picturing rifles and bombs. They get the impression that Baptists are trying to coerce those who aren't interested. All the while, the Baptists are motivated by an attitude of inclusiveness and are reaching out. Baptists don't believe conversion can be coerced or take place against a person's will. To use the word, "target" in this way - without defining the term - creates a negative impression that is inaccurate and is biased.

Remember that pastors and theologians have a specialized vocabulary. As you try to "translate" for your readers, you will want to do so accurately. You are busy and this may be a strange environment to you. However, you will find that the people in the convention hall are a friendly lot and will always be glad to talk with you and define terms.