Contrasting Church Conventions

A couple of weeks ago we attended the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, meeting in Atlanta. Today, I visited the convention of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, meeting here in Houston.

The Seventh-day Adventist General is a global denomination with 16.3 million members (counting only those adolescents and older who have been baptized by immersion). The LCMS is an American denomination with 2.5 million members (counting infants and children, since LCMS practices infant baptism). The LCMS is therefore a much smaller gathering, with far fewer visitors (the SDA GC got 70,000 on its final Sabbath). The SDA gathering is far more diverse, with attendees from all over the globe–the LCMS gathering is far more white.

Today we parked on the street (for free) a block from the George R. Brown Convention Center, and walked right into Hall E, where the exhibits were held. In Atlanta, we parked in a lot next to the convention center, paid $8, and still had to walk a half mile from one side of the complex to the other.

We were able to walk through the LCMS exhibits in about 15 minutes–after spending about 20 minutes in the Concordia Publishing House booth (which had only a sampling of its products). It took us hours to walk through the SDA exhibits–and the Adventist Book Center booth alone was about 1/2 the size of the entire LCMS exhibit area (with books from all the Adventist publishers, and probably some non-Adventist publishers as well).

The SDA exhibit hall was open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. most days, and open each day of the session. The LCMS exhibit hall is open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. for the first four days only (with a two hours reception Monday night).

The cheapest meals at the SDA meeting were $9 in the convention center food court–quite a ways from the exhibits. There was a buffet for $8 in the LCMS exhibit hall (I should have checked to see if a vegetarian could have found enough to eat). The SDA GC closed down the Starbucks in the convention center–the odor of coffee was everywhere at the LCMS gathering.

The SDA exhibits were crowded with thousands of visitors. The LCMS exhibitors looked lonely. There were few people wandering the exhibits. There were maybe half a dozen other people in the Concordia Publishing House booth when we were there.

The SDA GC appoints a nominating committee which, after about three hours of deliberation, returned a single name to the convention floor for consideration as president–he was summarily elected. The LCMS election process begins well before the convention–congregations offer nominations. The top vote getters are brought to the convention floor–and everyone knows in advance who they will be. They get to study the candidates, and their positions, and their background. This results in a more intense spirit of politicking. Lutheran blogger, Gene Veith, says, “Non-Lutherans, you had probably better just avert your eyes.”

Lutheran gatherings of all varieties provide for congregations to submit resolutions through their district conventions (like conference constituency meetings). These are considered by various committees at the national convention, which bring them to the floor individually or as a group, for various kinds of action. This means there can be substantive debate about the issues confronting the denomination, or about the structure of the denomination itself. The process is open, clearly structured by Robert’s Rules of Order, and messy.

The SDA GC is more about official reports and presentations, and though some resolutions come to the floor from committees, and there is some debate, informed delegates are able to come to the end and still not be sure what happened or how it happened. Someone observed that there is no way a General Conference today could have the debates that characterized the 1888 General Conference session because of this tight control over the proceedings–and I wonder if that is healthy?

8 thoughts on “Contrasting Church Conventions

  1. Interesting comparison, Bill. I think your last question my be appropriate. I don’t know how open debate can be done in a civilized manner, but it might be worth trying!

    • It’s done by observing Robert’s Rules of Order, as at a congregational business meeting or a conference constituency meeting.

    • I think that’s one reason … it would be very hard to get nominations or resolutions from every congregation, and to coordinate conventions at every conference, union, and division level prior to a GC to bring things up. So, given the size of the church, we have more of a republican than strictly democratic government. Nonetheless, more care could be taken to inform delegates in advance, to allow them time to consider candidates, to allow them to bring resolutions to the floor (even if they went through a committee first).

  2. Bill, I have noticed you mentioned Gene Veith’s blog in your post. I was just wandering if you read his book Modern Fascism The Threat to the Judeo-Christian Worldview. I finished reading it few weeks ago, and I still can get it out of my mind. It’s really fascinating. Written back in 1993, yet today when thinking about what’s going on in society and Christianity it seems that Veith’s opinions were quite accurate. Few days ago I have found Bob DeWay’s review on it, which was interesting, but I would like to hear an opinion of an Adventist theologian who has read the last chapters of the Great Controversy.

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