The SBC in NOLA

This week, Wes and I had the opportunity to go “cross cultural.” Yes, in the span of four days, we experienced two places that, until now, have been completely foreign to us, giving us the opportunity to learn and stretch ourselves in two mysterious and strange worlds.

We went to New Orleans. And the Southern Baptist Convention. Yes, I know. We visited two extremes all at once!

Wes has been a Southern Baptist since he was in the womb, so I don’t know exactly how he had never managed to attend the Southern Baptist Convention, but this was a first for him as well as for me, a relatively new Southern Baptist. (I say that, but I just did the math, and I’ve been a part of the SBC for fifteen years now. Guess I’m not that new after all!) A few months ago when we found out that this year’s meeting was in New Orleans, we talked about attending on behalf of our church, seeing as how it was within driving distance. We made big plans to leave early, the day before any of the events started, so as to leisurely drive to the Big Easy, figure out where everything was, and soak up the French Quarter before the meeting began over in the Warehouse District.

Those plans were somewhat thrown out the window when Wes unknowingly scheduled himself to officiate a wedding the evening of the day we were to leave. Sigh.

No biggie, though, because if living in Oklahoma and traveling back and forth to Texas for holidays with our families taught me anything, it taught me how to drive into the wee hours of the morning without falling asleep or hitting random deer that happened to wander into the road. Or random alligators, in this case. Wes fell asleep around Beaumont and didn’t wake up into we were rolling into the French Quarter. That’s what VBS and a late wedding will do to a pastor!

I expected that the atmosphere would still be “lively” when we arrived well past midnight. What I didn’t expect when we pulled up to our hotel at the corner of Canal Street and Bourbon Street would be that I couldn’t see the curb for all the people standing around dancing. Crazy! “I almost hit a group of Baptists back there!,” I yelled at Wes over the noise, indicating a group of people who looked like us — bewildered and shocked by the all-hours party going on around us. We checked in to the hotel, noting that there were complimentary earplugs on our pillows instead of mints. (For real!)

The morning began earlier than planned when a gentleman on the sidewalk outside the hotel spent an hour yelling, “HEY! HEY, YOU! I KNOW YOU’RE IN THERE!” For good reason, I’m sure. (Should have used the earplugs.) Our schedule for the day was open until that evening, when the first session of the Pastors’ Conference was set to begin, so we headed out and down Bourbon Street with our travel book, in search of beignets. (Thank you, Princess Tiana, for teaching us about their sugary goodness and “man-catching” properties.) As we walked down the street, I told Wes, “Wow! This is just like Disneyland!” He nodded, then added, “Yeah, but Disney is cleaner.” True enough, because the realism gained by adding an inebriated man passed out on the sidewalk probably wouldn’t fly with the Disney crowds. Oh, well.

We weaved in and out of the streets of the French Quarter, finally making our way to the original Cafe du Monde. We knew it would be worth the long wait when we saw tourists and locals alike in line, waiting on those beignets. After about thirty minutes of waiting, we got to the front of the line only to find out that they just took cash. We ran to an ATM and got back in line. Just as we got to the front of another long line and got ready to pick up our to-go order, it began pouring rain. The beignets, though, were worth it all!

From there, we visited the French Market, Jackson Square, and many, many different shops along the way. I convinced Wes to go to Jean LaFitte’s blacksmith shop, which is something of a historical landmark. It’s a bar now and fits in remarkably well with its surroundings, despite its age and appearance. Wes’s take on it? “It looks like it’s falling apart.” We found this to be true of a lot of places in the French Quarter, which I think is entirely unintentional but which makes the whole place that much more interesting and appealing. As we made our way back over to Bourbon Street (for Acme Oyster Company — yum!), I told Wes that the whole place reminded me of Beirut — historical and modern all at once, with its own very distinctive culture. And all the random people standing on street corners, staring at tourists. At least these guys were jazz musicians and not armed men in fatigues, though, right?

Earlier that morning, Wes had bought a fedora after seeing countless other men wearing them. “These are like New Orleans’ Mickey ears!,” he told me. And now that I think about it — THAT was probably why we were being stared at so much. Just a Mickey Mouse guy in a fedora on his way to the Southern Baptist Convention. I would’ve stared, too, probably.

After lunch and more window-shopping, we figured out the shuttle system for the meeting and made our way over to the convention center. We got our nametags, our programs, and went into the first of many evening sessions. We love hearing the success stories of churches in the convention and love hearing from their pastors even more. It does, however, become frustrating when these are the ONLY pastors we hear from at events like this. I know it wouldn’t be nearly as impressive to the world at large for the SBC to introduce as its keynote speaker a pastor who has been in a small country church faithfully serving for forty years or a pastor who has been beaten up by his church but is STILL GOING, but small, hard churches are the reality for the majority of the pastors out there. It feels fake when a megachurch pastor who got the position because his father has connections tells everyone else to be thankful where they’re at, without having any idea what they’re going through and/or have been through. Do I sound bitter? I’m really not. We’re in a wonderful, amazing church where God is at work in a big way. But for that pastor who is faithfully serving in a hard place, wouldn’t it be more encouraging to him to hear from at least ONE guy who can say, “Been there, AM there, and by God’s grace, I will STILL be faithful”?

Okay. Rant over.

That said, it was a great opening night. We heard some wonderful speakers and were super excited about Monday morning’s sessions. I wasn’t nearly as excited about waking up early on Monday morning to run on a treadmill, but that’s life. I was afraid I would get hit by a car or trip over someone lying out on the sidewalk (just keeping it real, y’all) if I ran outside, so I took it to the treadmill and finished up with only a little grumbling. Okay, so I grumbled a lot. But I did it! And forced myself back there two more times during the week.

We headed back to the convention center where Wes went to the Pastors’ Conference and I went to the Pastors’ Wives’ Conference. I’m not sure what went on during Wes’s conference, but ours was fantastic! The IMB (International Mission Board) president’s wife spoke first, and she was great. I didn’t know until she spoke that she and her husband had served overseas in Zimbabwe (near Namibia) and then spent most of their pastoral career in Oklahoma. It’s always neat to hear from someone who has been where you’ve been. I was thinking on this when I started talking to the woman sitting next to me, only to discover that she’s the wife of the pastor of a church in Lawton, Oklahoma! We even knew some of the same people. Small world! The ladies’ session ended with our keynote speaker, Pam Tebow. When I first heard that she’d be teaching, I wondered what “credentials” she had, apart from having a famous son. Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong, as she walked up to the podium and proceeded to give one of the best talks I heard all week. Every other statement she made was recited Scripture, and I filled up so many pages of my journal, taking notes on all the advice she gave on teaching our children Scripture. What an encouraging and challenging morning!

I met up with Wes in the hallway, only to find him surrounded by Okies. AHH!!! Just kidding. I’m not sure how he and every other pastor in Stephens County in attendance found one another, but they did. Maybe they have special magic rings or something. We all headed out to lunch together then back to the afternoon sessions, starting with Dennis Swanberg, who had everyone laughing, then David Platt, who shut that laughing up real quick-like. Oh, I kid. Well, not really. I don’t recall laughing much at all as David Platt spoke, likely because he spoke such convicting, hard truth at just the right time. Issues that Wes and I see in ministry regarding some of the ways we as a denomination have made real redemption in Christ into a damning religion were Platt’s focus, and it was SO good to hear these things so passionately communicated with such a heavy emphasis on Scripture. We were left with lots to think about before we headed back out to dinner with the Oklahoma pastors, this time to a hole-in-the-wall place that didn’t even make it into the guidebook I brought along with me. Wes had an alligator po’boy. Yes, they make such a thing.

After the evening session, we made it an early night so that we’d be ready for the first day of voting and resolutions. We thought that New Orleans was crowded with Baptists earlier that week, but that evening, more and more busloads, airport shuttles, and cars continued streaming into the French Quarter. We hadn’t seen anything yet!

The next two days were a busy blur. Speakers from churches, reports from seminaries, presentations from both mission boards, Guidestone information, lots and lots and LOTS of messengers speaking from the floor to several issues, some of them pertinent and some of them way out there in outer space. As Southern Baptist churches, we are autonomous and not bound to the convention like in other denomniations, and as such, we’re very democratic in the way we elect leaders and conduct business on a national level. This means that if you want to say it at the big annual meeting, you can say it for everyone to hear it… even if you probably shouldn’t say it. Such freedom is commendable, obviously, in a perfect world, but we have some wacky cousins in our big Southern Baptist family. Some of them have been wacky for years and were easily recognized by everyone in the crowd as they made their way to the microphones! That said, even with the hiccups and the assorted, random “point of order” tangents, important business was conducted, regarding what we believe on theological issues, cultural issues, and missional issues. I was in tears during the IMB’s presentation, so moved by what God is doing through the ministry overseas, and I was so excited during New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s presentation that I told Wes I was ready to enroll in classes just to be a part of what God is doing there. We learned so much during these business discussions about the SBC and how we can be better equipped by the SBC as a whole as our church works to impact Houston and the world. Amazing!

Perhaps the biggest event of the whole convention was the election of our next SBC president. Our denomination was formed in part because of our views on race and slavery during the Civil War era, and as our name “Southern” Baptist suggests, we were not on the right side of the argument. As a relatively new Southern Baptist, I probably don’t know the half of how bad it was, but those older than me certainly understood the significance of this vote, as evidenced by the tears shed as the SBC elected their first ever African-American president, Dr. Fred Luter of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans. Our ballots were hardly necessary in the vote, as EVERYONE in attendance stood and cheered as he was nominated. It was a proud day for our convention, and I’m looking forward to the direction the SBC takes under Dr. Luter’s vision and leadership.

After some “trouble with Tribbles” and the news that we’re now kinda/sorta/maybe Great Commission Baptists instead of Southern Baptists (but only if we want to be!), the SBC annual meeting closed. (Oh, and the name change? Was for the benefit of those of our pastors/church planters working in places where the name “Southern” is off-setting to the lost. The alternate name just helps to move people beyond a perception of an attitude that is slowly disappearing in our churches. And for that reason alone? I think it’s a good thing, even if I’m not sure it’ll make much of a difference for churches here in the South.)

Next year, the SBC will be in none other than HOUSTON, TEXAS, so we’ll definitely be there! A huge thanks to Memorial Baptist for allowing us the privilege of going as messengers to the SBC this year. We were so encouraged and feel so much better equipped to lead and serve here at home as a result…

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