Facts and Feelings from Orlando: The Road Back for Young Leaders and the SBC, Part 1

It sure looked a lot younger at the SBC annual meeting this year. Many of us commented on the presence, involvement and impact of young leaders and an intergenerational look to the meeting.

The Pastors’ Conference elected “contemporary” (sorry to use that word) leaders in their late 30’s, early 40’s. The Baptist 21 (www.baptisttwentyone.com) panel boasted an attendance of “around” 1300, many of whom were first time SBC attendees. Pastors’ Conference speakers, as well as the main Convention program, provided a broad generational appeal. And, Bryant Wright was the youngest of the four SBC presidential candidates (and, to my knowledge, the only church planter ever elected SBC president).

So, all the young people were back, and everything is better, right? Well, uh, no — though some of the older folks were dressed more casually. This year, registered messengers were not significantly different than years past. Although there are reasons for optimism, our eyes and even our opinions don’t change the facts: the percentage of younger messengers was actually down from the last year.

The dramatic decline of younger leaders registered as messengers to our annual meeting has not been reversed. Aging of the SBC is a long-time trend and it will take time to turn the tide.

The graphs below tell the story.

Graph 2Graph 1More than one-third of the registered messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas in 1985 were 18-39 years old – the highest percentage in history. The 18-39 year olds who were in Dallas are now 43-64 years old. In Orlando, less than one-fifth (17.5%) were 18-39 year-olds. (The actual numbers are much more dramatic considering how much smaller the meetings are now.)

The downward trend of young leader participation has not been a rapid change, and the reverse is not going to be dramatic. Although we sense change and believe we’re making progress, the real numbers put us in an awkward position. Facts are stubborn things and we cannot deny what we know to be true. The fact is that we have a long way to go.

The concern about the numbers does not stop at the youngest end of the equation. Another trend is the growth among those 60 and above (34.81%). Growth in the 60+ demographic has now increased for six consecutive years. When we examined the numbers, a friend asked me, “Is the SBC nearing retirement?” Perhaps. We honor and bless those who have led us through the years and will continue to lead. But if the under-40 crowd is disappearing, and some of the over-60 folks are retiring, who will lead in the future?

Some facts, however, do show promise. Certain demographic areas experienced modest increases. For example, several age groups have been up the last two years, at least from the four years prior. The number of messengers in the 45-49 age group increased by 3.6% from the year before. Also, the 40-44 year olds increased by 1.54%, and the 18-29 year olds by .96 percent. (Source: http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=33369) We celebrate these increases while acknowledging we still have work to do.

The reality is that we still face an unsustainable trend in regard to the age of messengers. Trends are pesky things. Trends don’t go away quickly.

Trends tend to last unless something changes them. This trend is merely a reflection of the reality of who we are as a convention-and who we are becoming. Yet, I believe the will exists among our churches and leadership to raise up a new generation of leaders for the work still ahead of us in God’s mission. The question is, “Will we?”

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  1. Jonathan McLain   •  

    So the younger SBC messengers come out when the convention is close to a seminary. When the convention was in Dallas you had several Christian schools and Southwestern to pull from. KY drew from Southern. New Orleans then looks to be a jump back into the numbers you saw at last years convention. Could be that they are made to go for some kind of credit. How about a blog on 18-29 year olds forced to go against their will. Love the post Ed thanks for the info and keep em coming.

  2. Greg   •  


    Funding, support, and resources created a huge brick wall for me when I planted a new church in GA in 2006. The “red tape” was unreal, and we ultimately accepted no dollars from the state due to the conditions.

    Is it your opinion that the same kind of red tape is limiting the commitment that young leaders are willing to make and ultimately the demographics of the SBC?

  3. Matthew   •  

    I think there are many factors, here are just two, which I see: (1) the down economy means less pastors attempting to relinquish their pulpit, and (2) more churches are requiring a minimum M.Div. degree (and even a Ph.D.), which places an age gap on the ministry.

    Also, on another note, I believe the economy is pushing some Associate/discipleship (etc.) pastors out of positions, and into more church planting (a good thing).

  4. Gene Brooks   •  

    It is also increasingly difficult in this economy for younger leaders with young families, in increasing debt, and with full-time employment obligations to make the time and financial commitments necessary for a national meeting.

    National gatherings across the board, secular and religious, are showing decreases in attendance, so the increase this year for the SBC was a very good sign in a very weak economy where a lot of our people and churches covering the travel costs are all finding it more difficult to find the funding.

    Our church took a full slate of ten messengers. All of them were retired (they have the available time and money) except the church staff and wives, all four of them 40 and younger. Frugal as we all were, we still went over budget by $3500 which will back the church away from sending so many messengers next year.

  5. Steve Davis   •  

    Not sure how relevant this is, but many people (including this study), measure how well the SBC is doing with young leaders by how well they’re managing to get young leaders to buy into an out-dated “political” system (using “political” to mean “way of making large-group decisions”, not as in “playing politics”).

    The US gave up the “Constitutional Convention” method of making decisions a couple hundred years ago and the political parties in the US have pretty much quit using conventions as anything but a multi-day infomercial.

    Yet the SBC is still clinging to that model, possibly making it the largest group in the world still using it. As a somewhat-young and very progressive SBC pastor, I can’t see going to a national convention unless it’s too close to avoid, there’s a vote too important to ignore, or they move past a decision model that was created because there was no such thing as telegraphs, telephones, fax machines, or the Internet.

    (This response in-part inspired by this blog by Seth Godin, http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2010/08/when-technology-and-tradition-diverge.html)

  6. Corey Olivier   •  

    I have a couple of thoughts…

    1. Most young leaders are not inspired or influenced by people in SBC Life.

    2. I travel a bit and attend many national conferences and have not seen a drop off but instead overflow compacity. All of them minus one (National Collegiate Week at Glorieta) were not SBC sponsored. This plays into comment # 1.

  7. Richard Spring   •  

    It will be interesting next year. With no “Mickey Mouse” or “Shamu” and being west of Dallas how many will attend. I am 41 and this was my 11th convention. I am in California and have always found it a priority to go. Have even paid my own way a couple of times because of economic uncertainties for the churches I was serving. I really thought there would be more this year. It was a “perfect storm” of events, location, and issues. I was pleased to see younger guys and their families in attendance. I am not so confident that the Grand Canyon, Sedona, and great golf courses will have the same influence.

  8. andy   •  

    Younger people don’t like business meetings and that is what the convention is.

    I went once and it was about as exciting as cardboard and not relevant to where we are at as a church.

    If they want more younger involvement they should consider streaming it live on the internet and perhaps more of us could afford to attend then by simply sitting in our office and participating that way.

    Just a few of my opinions

  9. David Mills   •  

    Could we explain this, in part, to demographics? We have fine young ministers, but births among us have dropped significantly since 1965.

  10. Alan Cross   •  

    Some of this has to do with motive as well. I am now 36 years old. I went to the SBC in Greensboro and San Antonio, watched it online in Indy and Louisville, and blogged, networked, contacted people, and exhibited a great deal of interest in things SBC for 3-4 years. I was one of those younger pastors that really tried to get involved. But, no matter how you look at it, those who actually participate in the SBC on a level beyond being an audience for a handful of people to speak at, are a very small number. At this point, I can’t really come up with a good reason to go to the SBC Annual Meeting and the expense involved makes no sense.

    This year, I used my conference money to spend a week in New Orleans and take an Ephesians/Ecclesiology class at NOBTS. It was far better and much richer than any conference I have been to in the past 10 years. It was cheaper, too. So, I’ll probably be doing that again in the future and leave the SBC to the handful of people who it makes sense for them to participate. Most pastors/leaders I know feel the same way.

  11. A. Price   •  

    OK, let me see if I have this right. Ed, your faint praise aside for us old folks, it sounds to me like you, ‘younger folks’, can’t wait for us, ‘old folks’ to get off the stage! It may be ‘vailed’ to some, but, having done a lot of research on this, (correct me if I’m wrong), but, you being an ‘ex board member’ of Acts 29 ( a church planting org.), would like nothing better than to bring that group ‘on-board’ and, have them ‘under the umbrella of the SBC, or in other words ‘fully funded’ one day. Right now, with the ‘age diff.’, that’s not possible. Many SBC folks, know what this org. is ‘really’ all about; being LIKE the culture to ‘WIN’ the culture!

  12. Jeremy Lucarelli   •  

    A. Price,
    You’ve just exemplified why younger pastors are bailing on the SBC.

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