Online Baptist Democracy

June 22, 2007

The Internet has drastically changed life for many people, such as by changing how we keep in contact with one another, where we find our news, and how we share photo and video memories. The Internet is even changing religious life as it provides a place for people to talk about religious issues. Bloggers have even impacted elections and discussions in Baptist life.

The Internet also makes it possible for people to watch events they could not attend. For instance, one can watch the recent annual meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention or the Baptist General Convention of Missouri. With this in mind, influential SBC blogger Wade Burleson has made an interesting proposal. Burleson suggests that the SBC should allow people to not only watch the annual meeting live online but also participate. He wrote:

I have been told that over 22,000 people logged in to watch the SBC via either the 316 Network or SBC.net. That is nearly three times the number of people who registered for the convention and nearly ten times the number of people who actually voted during the First Vice-Presidential election. That 22,000 number will only be growing in the future, and as 316 Networks also expands, the potential is unlimited for those who wish to either observe or particpate at the SBC.

We already register messengers electronically. We are but two steps away from establishing a secure server where a messenger who watches the convention via the internet could enter his Messenger I.D. number and actually vote on the recommendations brought to the floor of the convention.

... Establishing an offical presence on the platform where internet monitors could receive electronic email questions during debate from those who are watching via internet broadcast. However, internet participants would not be able to participate in the parliamentary procedures of the people in the arena. There could be no motions, debate, or calling for question or 'point of orders' by those observing the live broadcast from home. However, every registered messenger watching would have the ability to vote on every recommendation before the body. Electronic tabulation would be immediate and added to the visual count in the hall.
This is a very interesting proposal, and one that could actually work. It would greatly increase the number of people participating, especially younger or poorer people and those who are unable to take time off like bivocational pastors. Baptists are supposed to be democratic with the people in charge. This proposal would move Baptists much closer to our democratic ideals, although I suspect that many SBC leaders will balk at the idea.

Some Baptists, after all, do not seem to appreciate that the people are finding a voice online. For instance, in the newest issue of the Pathway, Scott Lamb argued:
Is it possible that the radical democratization manifested in the world of Web 2.0 technology is a "spirit of the age" from which Christians should flee?

... Will the Baptist blogosphere, under the banner of democratization, even allow for such an authoritative word to be spoken? Will this be the YouTube-generation of the SBC, where any Baptist blogger with broadband, along with a well-worn copy of Robert's Rules of Order, is able to drag the Convention down any path they wish?
Lamb apparently does not understand that in Baptist life the people are supposed to be in charge. Democratization--even "radical" forms--are good as they allow the people in charge to have greater participation. Baptist polity has historically been designed so that any individual Baptist can attempt to influence Convention actions. Blogs and YouTube are simply making that more possible. This will be an interesting discussion to follow and I hope that Burleson's proposal will receive serious consideration.

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