Once upon a time, the Southern Baptist Convention knew how to make headlines. Whether battling over "hotbeds of liberalism" or declaring that a woman should "submit herself graciously" to her husband or feeding news holes with gay rights activists' arrests, the convention's annual meeting once drew a cadre of reporters -- a "who's who" list of Religion Newswriters Association members.
How far has the news value of the nation's largest Protestant denomination -- with 16 million members -- fallen?
Well, 11,000 Southern Baptists are staging their 2010 annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., this week, and it's drawing barely a blip of coverage from most media organizations, if that. Did you catch that? The Baptists are meeting in the home city of Walt Disney World, and nobody seems to care. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. (If you need an explanation of the Disney reference, click here and here. Or check out this new Time magazine piece on "How Gay Days Made a Home at Disney World.")
Seriously, what's going on here?
Not at the annual meeting herself, Godbeat pro Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today tackled the question in a blog post headlined "Who's watching Southern Baptists debate their future?":
What if the Southern Baptist Convention, the USA's largest Protestant denomination, had a contentious annual convention to set its path for the future -- and no one paid attention?
The SBC has gathered in Orlando to confront its flat numbers (although the rate of baptisms bobbed up slightly this year) and furiously debate the way it funds evangelization and missions (the "Great Commission" to bring people to Christ).
But unless you are tuned in on Baptist Press or Twitter, it's hard to find coverage. The wires services are walking the beaches of Pensacola with President Obama and religion reporters -- what's left of us -- are hobbled by lack of travel budgets and the rigidly local focus of many media.
Fewer religion writers. Tighter travel budgets. News holes focused on local, local, local. I have no doubt that all of those issues contribute to the diminished coverage.
But I don't think they are the only factors.
Could it be that the lack of interest is tied to the news media's insatiable appetite for religion news woven through the lens of sex and politics? Could it be that debates over missions priorities and how to grow membership in a post-denominational world aren't as, well, sexy?
As best I can tell, the only mainstream media organizations that flew reporters to Orlando were The Tennessean (read Bob Smietana's story) and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (most of Frank Lockwood's story is behind a subscriber-only pay wall). Please share links in the comments section if you know of others. It appears that the Louisville Courier-Journal (read Peter Smith's story) and Religion News Service (read Adelle Banks' story) are covering the meeting from home. Also, check out Jeff Kunerth's coverage in the Orlando Sentinel. And, of course, for a different (and enlightening) angle, a Scripps Howard News Service columnist named Terry Mattingly filed a piece this morning on Southern Baptists speaking out about the Gulf oil spill crisis.
Here's the top of The Tennessean story:
ORLANDO, Fla. -- A decade ago, Southern Baptists fought over the belief that Jesus is the only way to heaven and the inerrancy of the Bible. Today, they're divided over budgets and baptisms.
As the older hard-line conservatives fade into the background, a new group of leaders is jostling over the priorities of the country's largest Protestant denomination. These new leaders are less concerned about conservative politics and more concerned about saving souls.
"Status quo is not the way to go," said the Rev. Matthew Surber, the new pastor of Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville. "To pretend like everything is fine and we just need to try harder is not going to work."
At a gathering of 11,000 Southern Baptists on Tuesday at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla., Baptists overwhelmingly approved a plan that will channel funds away from established Baptist programs and use them to fund new churches and more missionaries. It's called the Great Commission Resurgence. The national meeting concludes today.
After typing all the above links, another thought strikes me: Could the rise of the Internet be another component at play?
I mean, anyone who is interested in what's happening in Orlando can quickly Google dozens of news links (albeit most of them from religious media) to the convention. If you want a primer on what's being debated, you can read an in-depth piece by Christianity Today.
By their apparent absence from Orlando, what are The Associated Press, The Washington Post and The New York Times -- not to mention regional papers such as The Dallas Morning News and The Oklahoman -- telling us? That the Southern Baptists aren't news anymore? Or that their own coverage of such events isn't relevant anymore?
Or is it as simple as the Baptists themselves working harder to get along and stay out of the spotlight?
If this week's meeting had anything to do with ordaining gay pastors or considering evangelical sainthood for Sarah Palin, I can't help but think the media would be there in droves -- travel budgets be darned.
My question for GetReligion readers: Is what's happening in Orlando this week news or not? Please weigh in with your opinions and rationale.