If someone stops you on a hiking trail and hands you a free bottle of water in the coming weeks, it could be a random act of Southern Baptist Convention kindness.
In some neighborhoods, folks will be given free light bulbs or 10-minute phone cards. They’re also random acts of Southern Baptist kindness.
The Baptists, who carry "convention" in their name, are coming to town for a convention. They will do church business, find and nurture new believers and, most of all, exalt and praise God.
American Protestantism’s biggest denomination has 16.2 million followers and will hold its annual convention June 17-18 at Phoenix Civic Plaza. It’s the first time the Convention has brought the meeting to Arizona.
"Kingdom First" will be the convention’s theme.
An estimated 10,000 "messengers" from some of the 42,775 Southern Baptist Convention churches are expected to conduct official business, but many thousands more will be on hand for far-flung related activities.
The church representatives are called "messengers" because they are sent to vote their convictions and return to their churches with the message of what took place. Churches may send up to 10 messengers, depending on church size and mission, according to a formula that is more than 100 years old.
The meetings will be preceded by a two-day pastors conference. The
record convention attendance was 45,519 in 1985 in Dallas.
Every five years, the Southern Baptist Convention goes well beyond the so-called "Bible Belt" to hold its convention in the West where Southern Baptists are less concentrated. Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Salt Lake City are among previous host cities.
The Salt Lake City gathering in 1998 especially raised interest because Southern Baptists were going into the center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While both are large, conservative and strong on proselytizing and family values, the two faith groups have sharp theological differences.
The Baptists will find Arizona more religiously diverse.
"The Arizona Southern Baptist Convention is really excited about our being there — it’s reinforcement of their work," said Jack Wilkerson, convention manager and vice president of business and finance of the Southern Baptist Convention, whose national headquarters is in Nashville, Tenn. Wherever Southern Baptists hold their convention, "it is high visibility in any city period, but especially in the West," he said.
"It’s kind of nice that the family is coming to town," said Mitch McDonald, state director of evangelism for the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention.
The majority of Southern Baptists live within 400 miles of Atlanta, he said.
"Anything west of Texas is still considered ‘pioneer country’ " in the church’s lexicon, he said. "It is a one-time event that I will never see again in my ministry, and it is just a great opportunity to see the family as a whole, to see how it operates and to see overall how we are structured and how we operate as a convention," McDonald said.
While there are about 125,000 Southern Baptists in 450 churches in Arizona, many of those congregations are very small, said Jerry Martin, director of the Valley Rim Baptist Association, a regional group of Southern Baptist Convention churches in the East Valley. "Two-thirds of them run 65 or less in attendance," he said.
"In the late 1970s, we had one church for almost every 7,000 people (in Arizona)," he said. "We have more than doubled the number of congregations we have, but today we have a church for every 21,000 people" because church growth has not stayed up with the state’s growth.
Martin is state coordinator for Crossover Arizona, an effort to generate new professions of faith. The 2002 convention in St. Louis led to 2,812 professions of faith.
The Compassion in Action part of the program will be led by Mountain View Baptist Church in northeast Phoenix. Ministries will be taken to three Valley skate parks. The "skate park takeover" will include demonstrations, free videotaping of skaters, a live band and free food.
Small American flags will be given out in public places on Flag Day, as well as other events are planned by congregations in multi-church partnerships.
"There is no hierarchy in Southern Baptist life, so all of it is on a partnership and request basis," Martin said. "So they (the Convention) ask for our help, and we volunteer to help."
A blitz of about 60 evangelistic events, as part of Crossover Arizona, will be held the weekend before the convention, Martin said. Forty more activities will take place the weekend after the convention outside of the Valley.
"That is the Crossover part," Martin said. "We are the first state that has tried to take it beyond the metroplex where the convention was held and do it after the convention."
"The emphasis on our convention is upon kingdom, growing the kingdom," Wilkerson said. "We have a process — not a program — that seems to be emerging about empowering growth. Christ talked a lot about the kingdom, so we want the kingdom to grow."
The goal is to have it be a "grass-fire movement" driven at the local church level "rather than a denominational program that says you need to do this," Wilkerson said.