The Southern Baptist Convention announced Tuesday that its Annual Meeting has been canceled due to the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic.
An SBC Annual Meeting hasn't been canceled since 1945, during World War II, when the nation's largest Protestant denomination was prohibited from holding its yearly gathering because the U.S. government forbade meetings of more than 50 people.
"After prayerful deliberation, the Southern Baptist Convention officers, the SBC Executive Committee, and the executive heads of the Convention’s boards and institutions, acting in a body according to Article XI.4 of the SBC Constitution, have made the decision to cancel the 2020 SBC Annual Meeting, scheduled for June 9-10 in Orlando, [Florida]," the denomination announced on its website Tuesday.
"In light of the COVID-19 global pandemic which we believe constitutes a grave emergency, it is in the best interest of the SBC to cancel the Annual Meeting—for the first time in 75 years—out of a deep concern for the health and safety of messengers and attendees."
The statement continued: "We are calling on all Southern Baptists to pray for an end to this global pandemic and that God will bring His Church together at this time to sharpen our focus like never before. This is not a time for Southern Baptists to shrink back in timidity and fearfulness or be paralyzed with uncertainty. This is not the time to retreat. This is a time for us to advance the Gospel of Jesus Christ to every person in every town, every city, every state and every nation."
The cancellation comes amid a time of uncertainty around the world as normal life has been halted due to the pandemic. Several states have closed schools, and government agencies, and called on non-essential businesses services to shut down in order to prevent further spread of the virus. Avoiding large crowds and practicing what is known as "social distancing" is seen as the most effective steps to be taken against the disease.
"We know it is the right thing to do," SBC Executive Committee Chairman Ronnie Floyd told the Baptist Press. "We are extremely disappointed in having to make this decision, but God will see us through and give us a way until we are able to meet in person together again. ... We know our churches need to focus on ministering to their communities and to those who have been impacted by the COVID-19 global pandemic."
He added: "While we will not physically be coming together in June in Orlando, we will be going together in unity as we minister to our churches, our missionaries, our church planters, our seminary students and our own communities."
Messengers at the SBC's Annual Meeting this year were scheduled to vote for a new president to replace pastor J.D. Greear, who has served since 2018. Terms for SBC president are one year and the most anyone can serve is two consecutive terms. A vote is required to reelect a president and Greear was reelected at last year's meeting. Due to this year's cancellation, Greear will remain president for an additional year.
“I certainly didn’t plan for a third year [as SBC President],” Greear said. “But [I] trust that the God who ordains our days will give us strength equal to the task. This is an incredibly important time for the church, as we seek to demonstrate the certain hope that God gives to an uncertain world through Christ.”
Greear said in a recent podcast that he believes the pandemic is a divine reminder that the Earth is a fragile, insecure place while cautioning against both panic and bravado.
“God is saying ... the world you are living in is not as secure as you think it is, and you need to rethink the foundations that you have," Greear said.
“Christian witnesses throughout history have been known for hope, faith, and self-sacrifice,” he added. “We do this because we follow a Savior who ran toward tragedy, not away from it.”
The 2021 annual meeting is scheduled to take place in Nashville, Tennessee.