The 2002 Texas Evangelism Conference held for the second consecutive year in San Antonio’s Municipal Auditorium, had its problems.
The local hotel chefs got together on a price of $25 per plate for banquet dinners. The Headquarters Hotel was in litigation with two major civil rights organizations on unfair booking practices, the 2001 event had been so overspent we were in the red before we started, the convention had lost more than 1,000 churches in 2000 and 2001 and many more wanted nothing to do with the BGCT as it was then.
There were times I felt guilty asking God to attend.
Numerous vocational evangelists told me they would not attend, out of sympathy for the departed churches. Numerous moderate-conservatives told me they would not attend because evangelism conferences were too tied to our fundamentalist past. Numerous more liberal-moderates would not attend under any circumstances. I talked to a lot of people who had very strong feelings about their non-attendance.
Finally, after all the preparation, prayer, problems and possibilities, it came time to have the conference itself. I was not not ready emotionally for what would follow.
"This is where last year’s main speaker had his melt-down," Wayne Shuffield told me, pointing to a spot on the floor "back-stage."
"I guess there’s a story there," I asked.
"The choir scheduled before him would not get off the stage," Wayne remembered. "They were late getting on, we were already behind schedule and they just had come a long way and wanted to sing their whole program."
"And the speaker wanted to get on with it. He had his melt-down right here, told us he would never have anything to do with us again and threatened not to go on at all," he finished his thought.
Please understand, I have been a preacher for as long as I can remember. The thought of "not going on" has never occurred to me. I have preached while running fever, with broken bones, after personal tragedy and with the usual slings and arrows falling on me. To threaten a boycott because I did not get on on time had never crossed my mind. The sudden reality it could happen to me, personally, in San Antonio, in front of a few thousand people, caused my stomach to refuse its office.
The "green room" where one waits for people to ready themselves to minister (some say "perform") was set up just down the stairs and around the corner from the platform itself. I spent agonizing moments there while waiting for various singers, musicians and preachers. Thankfully, everyone showed up in time to do what they were to do.
Freddie was first. Pound for pound, Freddie remains one of our great evangelists. When I asked Freddie to speak, he got so much grief from the other side of the aisle, a lesser human would have crumbled. Freddie kept his place on my worship list but, instead of preaching, he got up and read a list of people he admired in baptist life.
He did begin by praising my courage and work ethic. He also promised to get me a job with some other denominational group after that night.
Thoughts of self-immolation did cross my mind.
My lowest moment came when Freddie recommended Daniel Vestal’s children as great soul-winners but added, "I don’t necessarily recommend Daniel."
Daniel, you see, was my keynote speaker for that night. I was humiliated, hurt for Daniel (who shook it off and expressed nothing but admiration for Freddie afterward) and thinking it would be good to have another job lined up after this beginning.
Still, flags waved, singers sang, preachers preached and a crowd gathered. David Lindow, San Antonio pastor and my right arm in that area for this event, prayed with his people over the Auditorium before the program began. David wept openly as he prayed for a movement of God. This was the highlight of the two days for me. I have not mentioned it before publicly but it seems long enough ago now to highlight David, who would not want to be highlighted.
Looking out from the platform, walking through the crowd, I noticed what anyone would notice. Lots of older folks, mostly male, a strong cross-section of Hispanics, few of other ethnic groups and almost no younger people. In particular, young females were absent from our demographic. I did not need a demographic planner to tell me we would have to make some changes for the future.
A change is a choice. Wise persons make changes slowly, reasonably and with network consensus building.
I might have succeeded in restoring some cohesion, some coherent forward movement to the TEC given sufficient funds and twenty years. I was to have neither.