You would think that leaders of the first GCR Era Southern Baptist Convention Pastor’s Conference — scheduled to debut in Phoenix this June — would desire to have the biggest possible audience for this annual event. Knowing that the southwestern location would itself limit the number of pastors who could attend, one might assume that the Aspire 2011 SBCPC would focus on the content and casting (i.e., speakers) to leverage turnout.
Apart from last year’s two-day long commercial for the GCR, I have enjoyed the Pastor’s Conferences that I have attended in the past. As a life-long Southern Baptist, I am predisposed to like this time of worship prior to the SBC’s annual meeting. What’s not to like — great preaching and singing and an opportunity for many pastors like me — who are in the pulpit most Sundays — to get our spiritual batteries recharged.
I cannot speak for anyone else, but from the moment I first read about the content and casting for Aspire on SBCVoices, I have been hesitant to commit the extra time it will take to attend. Even though Phoenix is a relatively close drive from where I live in New Mexico, I am finding it hard to get enthused about this year’s conference. Is it worth leaving after I preach on Sunday to drive all afternoon to arrive in time for the first session that evening? As of now, I am still undecided.
Could I be persuaded to attend Aspire? Of course, although just to ask that question should raise other questions. Why shouldn’t SBC pastors, who otherwise intend to be in Phoenix for the SBC — want to automatically participate in this year’s Pastor’s Conference? Put another way, what would cause pastors to decide to save extra time and money (hotels, car rentals, food, etc.) by skipping this year’s event?
To answer these questions, it would be helpful to know the content of the conference as well as the all-star preaching/singing cast that has been assembled. First, the content. The SBCPC website gives us a sneak peek of what pastors and other attendees can expect to receive from Aspire:
The primary elements that are going to be discussed at the conference are church planting and God’s activity among the nations. In light of that, the theme, speakers, videos, goals and offering are all going to be centered around planting churches and engaging the nations with the gospel. (Conference Goals, Aspire 2011 SBC Pastor’s Conference)
No one would argue that the content of the Aspire Pastor’s Conference is anything but Biblical. Obviously, “church planting and God’s activity among the nations” are topics that would provide a wealth of encouragement to pastors. The central theme of the conference, which dovetails nicely with the content, is likewise solid in its Biblical foundation. No one that I know would dispute that church planting — at home and abroad — is not a vital need. We may disagree as to the scope, particularly with the new NAMB, but there are certainly insights to be gained from such a theme.
However, the content and theme — primarily centered on church planting — is narrow in its scope. So narrow, that many pastors, this one included, may choose to forgo this year’s conference. I do not know if the church planting theme was chosen because of the emphasis it has been given by the new NAMB or because of other considerations. Perhaps the leaders of this year’s SBCPC wanted to tie into the massive church planting movement that the new NAMB is spearheading.
As one who has strong reservations about the GCR and the radical re-invention of NAMB, the church planting emphasis does not provide the strongest appeal for me to attend the Pastor’s Conference. With that being said, as long as I was reasonably certain that the Pastor’s Conference would not morph into some cheer-leading session exalting planting new churches as the “best way” to reach North America and the world (over against established churches), then I would see no reason not to turn up and tune in at Phoenix.
But, here’s the rub. Even if the content and theme of this year’s SBCPC are Biblically grounded (which I believe they are), that does not mean that the cast chosen to showcase the content and theme will attract as wide and diverse an audience as the event’s planners might have hoped. In fact, some of the pre-event publicity surrounding some of the cast may cause some pastors to choose to miss this year’s Pastor’s Conference altogether.
Sometimes, wrong casting choices for even supporting cast members can cause loyal viewers to switch channels or to never watch a spin-off of an otherwise liked show. My wife and I find ourselves in that very predicament because of the ill-fated casting of Janeane Garofalo in Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior. For some, her addition to this Criminal Minds spin-off is not reason enough avoid the new show. For us, it’s a deal breaker.
Much has already been written — both pro (here, here) and con (here, here, here) — about one of the original supporting cast members, Jamar Jones (who has since withdrawn from the event), and the propriety of inviting him to participate in a Southern Baptist Pastor’s Conference. From my perspective, I think that the Jones’ invitation to participate in the First GCR Era Pastors’ Conference is merely a symptom of a much deeper problem within the Convention.
In finally responding to the critics of Aspire, Vance Pitman, President of this year’s SBC Pastor’s Conference, appeared to offer no concessions to those who originally raised concerns about Jones and other member of the cast of Aspire. In fact, like most producers of hit television shows who engender opposition because of their own unwise casting choices, Pitman seems intent on blaming everyone else for the kerfuffle, even Lifeway:
People Pitman trusts tell him “Jakes is not a modalist.” Besides, Pitman said, his books are for sale in SBC bookstores. “How ridiculous is it that we can sell his books but his music guy can’t play piano at our meeting?” he asked. (full article here)
That’s not the standard we will now use to determine if someone should be invited to speak at the SBC’s Pastor’s Conference, is it? I’m pretty sure Lifeway sells 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper, but I would much rather hear from John than Don. As for the “ridiculousness” of it all, perhaps Pitman needs to expand his group of trusted advisers. Surely there is someone within SBC circles that could have told Pastor Pitman that giving a part in Aspire — a Southern Baptist Pastor’s Conference — to anyone associated with T.D. Jakes’ church would have not been the wisest choice.
But, Vance Pitman and the leadership of this year’s conference have their own vision of what they want Aspire to be. The vision is big, to be sure. So big, apparently, that the critics just don’t seem to understand what this year’s Pastor’s Conference is all about, whether it’s the minor casting of Jones playing the piano or Darrin Patrick of The Journey/Acts 29 fame preaching.
Isn’t that always the case though — if you don’t understand the show, it’s entirely the fault of the audience. The producers, directors, writers, and cast never shoulder any responsibility for the resulting mess. That seems to be the argument Pitman is making:
The president of the 2011 Southern Baptist Pastors’ Conference defended a program he’s put together for June 12-13 in Phoenix, Ariz., saying critics who find it outside the convention’s mainstream hold too narrow a worldview.
“The Kingdom of God is bigger than Southern Baptists,” said Vance Pitman, 2011 Pastors’ Conference president and pastor of Hope Baptist Church in Las Vegas, a church plant in partnership with First Baptist Church, Woodstock, Ga., and the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.
“The main intent of our conference is to communicate the big picture of the Kingdom of God,” Pitman said in a telephone interview March 18. “God is alive and at work all over the world. We as the Southern Baptist Convention are one very small part of that.” (full article here)
While this makes for a nice diversion and strawman argument, no one is arguing that the Kingdom of God is not bigger than the SBC. Is the Southern Baptist Convention a “very small part” of God’s activity in the world? We might quibble on the smallness or largeness thereof, but God is at work all over the world, even outside of the SBC.
As to Pitman’s charge that “critics who find it outside the convention’s mainstream hold too narrow a worldview,” he may be right. But, then again, he may be wrong. If one can have too narrow a worldview, can one have too broad a worldview?
The problem with Aspire 2011: The Southern Baptist Pastor’s Conference might not be about the kind of narrowness that Pastor Pitman is thinking about. It just might turn out that the producers of Aspire have so broadened their vision that they have narrowed their potential audience — not that there’s anything wrong with that. Will I be in the audience in Phoenix? As long as Janeane Garofalo isn’t on the program, somehow I think I will make it after all.