Facts and Feelings from Orlando: The Road Back for Young Leaders and the SBC, Part 2

In part 1 of my post (link), I pointed out that the SBC messengers were not as young as we might have hoped. Since facts are our friends, we need to ask, “Why?” Certainly, this is not just an issue for Southern Baptists. Five decades ago, few would have written an article feeling the need to defend the existence and relevance of denominations, yet I felt compelled to do that very thing in the May 2010 issue of Christianity Today-and it appeared to be news enough to make it the cover story, with a tombstone for the artwork. Subtle.

The absence of young leaders is due (in part) to how we have treated younger pastors. I have written on that issue in what feels like countless articles (see here, here, here, here, and here) in our denominational press. But, I believe there are other forces at work besides the (very real) hostility that younger and innovative leaders have faced.

Thus, it is helpful to ask, “What else is going on that might keep younger leaders away?”

As I see it there are several factors to consider:

1. Mega Meetings – Popular large conferences targeting young leaders like the Catalyst Conference (12,000 in attendance at the Atlanta event, see www.catalystspace.com), Together for the Gospel (7000 at their recent event, see www.t4g.org), and Exponential (3,000 church planters, see www.exponentialconference.org) allow young leaders to choose where their travel money will go. Twenty-five years ago-when the downward trend began-many of these types of choices were not available. Today, and perhaps in particular in the recession, expenditures reveal what leaders value.

2. Methodological Disconnect – Some young leaders perceive that the standard for ministry is constantly being moved, leaving them little space to navigate from year to year. They believe in the confessional consensus of the SBC but are not interested in arguing over tertiary issues every twelve months. Thus, the idea of hearing another motion about the need for a better parking pass system or to adopt a denominational flag­­­­­ is not exactly something young pastors are just waiting to do each year. These types of discussions held by both older and younger leaders-none of us will forget the rapping motion this year-dissuade them from seeing it as connected to anything resembling ministry.

3. Theological Frustration – Young leaders have decided to stay with the SBC because of the confessional consensus of the BF&M 2000 and the Cooperative Program. But they are not going to attend meetings where their personal doctrinal stance or those of their peers is consistently attacked as if it were unorthodox.

One obvious illustration is with those identified as “young, restless, reformed” (to borrow Hansen’s title). They are a rapidly growing and influential group in Evangelicalism as a whole and in our convention as well. But we can count this group absent-along with others within our confessional consensus-if leaders and speakers continually cast aspersions on them for not towing a form of doctrine more narrow than our consensus statement.

Or, perhaps consider the contemporary church movement. It is a shame that once again, the fact that someone has (or does not have) Baptist in the name of the church they lead is a point of contention. It is an illustration of how some have made a methodological choice into a theological boundary. If conservative theology means traditional methodology, we have confused our standards and been dishonest about our means of cooperation.

As I mentioned in two earlier blog posts, (Confessional Consensus, Part 1 and Confessional Consensus, Part 2), if we keep moving the theological boundaries, people-both the young and the innovative-will grow frustrated and leave.

4. Lack of Relevance – Again, maybe this is just a young leader perception. The day-to-day demands of local church ministry makes traveling to denominational meetings where you have little influence seem a waste of time. Without the ability to offer a substantive voice to the conversation, they are choosing to participate in meetings (conferences, etc.) where they are given training and allowed to offer insight.

Added to that is the normal disconnect young leaders might have with a denomination. If your denomination has little impact on your local ministry, why would you want to listen to two days of agency reports? Many young leaders have disconnected with a system they feel does not understand their cultural context. They skip the meetings with the thought that little would be added to their ministry by attending.

5. The “Kids’ Table” Still Exists – The SBC Annual Meeting has undergone a major shift. Five years ago, who would have thought that the Pastors’ Conference would have young men such as Matt Chandler, Andy Stanley, and David Platt preaching? We are seeing a shift toward welcoming the influence of younger leaders. However, there is still a tension about their role in the decision-making of our tribe. We no longer hear insults about those wearing Hawaiian shirts; however, “young,” “missional,” “reformed,” “contextualization,” and “contemporary” are terms still held with suspicion by some. And, the young leaders who fall into these categories are not happy to sit at the “kids’ table” of the convention meeting just waiting for the grown-ups to finish their business.

There are many reasons that have kept younger messengers away (and, looking at the numbers, it is not just the younger ones). But, the underlying question (not a good one in my opinion) is, “Who is to blame for the exodus of young leaders from the Southern Baptist Convention?” There are many factors at work. It is easy to blame, but it is hard to fix the problem.

As Vance Pittman (and others) plan the next SBC Pastors’ Conference and Bryant Wright (and others) plan the next SBC Annual Meeting, I hope they will keep these challenges in mind. As I’ve said to many other denominations: “What you celebrate, you become.” If you celebrate controversy, narrowing parameters, and anger, that is what you get. Instead, if we celebrate rising leaders, the future, biblical fidelity, and God’s mission, we become focused on those very things.

Engaging young leaders is the subject tackled in the chapter “Ready or Not” in The Great Commission Resurgence: Fulfilling God’s Mandate in Our Time. The need is to move beyond the pleasantries of hand-shaking and pursue deeper friendships with the young leaders of our convention. Whether you feel ready or not, we do not have any more time to wait on raising up a new generation of leaders for the SBC, the Cooperative Program, and our global mission endeavors.

Over the next few weeks, Philip Nation and I will be blogging through that chapter at Between the Times. Feel free to weigh in, discuss, and even disagree. But, let’s not let be so naïve to think that this challenge is over. It takes a long time to change a trend, but we can do it if we will do it together.

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  1. Art Fulks   •  

    Thanks for being secure enough to ask hard questions. We have been asking these questions for a while now, but have seemingly thought that asking them would be enough to appease a generation that does not respond well to ‘tabling’ an issue until the next meeting.

    It can be difficult to be a ‘younger’ pastor, especially in a contemporary church plant and to remain engaged in mainstream SBC life. Many of your observations are reality. Financially, you must make choices, especially when going to the SBC means spending your paycheck.

    It is hard to justify the expense when you may be the only church planter in the room and someone will probably criticize you (hidden in some methodological rant). There are plenty of good programs out there. In most cases, we are no longer dependent on the SBC to put one on for us.

    It is also difficult to go to a conference led by ones who criticize your personal integrity for not having ‘Baptist’ in your church’s name, even when the FBC in your town broke from the SBC because of their liberal theology. Although I am not what would be considered a ‘Calvinist’, I have listen to many preachers readily quote ‘reformed’ theologians only to hear them bash their contemporary ‘reformed’ pastor brothers.

    To hear personalities work a crowd with rants about their preferences or pointing out the heresy of TV preachers just to build their speaking calendar makes many of us ill. Amazing that what gets a room of preachers going are often the barriers we must overcome in order to reach our communities for Christ.

    It was more than I could stand when a pastor approached me in Orlando relentlessly criticizing Andy Stanley for his ‘lack of preaching’. Give me a break! I was angry when I saw over 1,000 pastors get up and leave during the invitation to radical surrender given by David Platt.

    I am deeply endeared to those who led our conservative resurgence…many of them have invested personally in my life and ministry. However, it seems like there has been a trend (locally and nationally) of feeling like they have been ‘owed’ a position in SBC leadership. I would not argue that point, but only to say there are more than just one or two…and it takes a while to give them all an opportunity. In this process, you can miss engaging a generation who were not around to really appreciate their investment.

    I am grateful for what I witnessed this year in Orlando and plan to go to Arizona next year. I am also planning to stay engaged with my association and state convention. There is much to do and we cannot do it alone.

  2. Rick Garner   •  


    Thanks. The SBC needs like a Garner Motion or something.

  3. Adam Shields   •  

    Cracks me up when you have to talk about how good it is that young leaders like Andy Stanley were invited to speak. Andy is 52. Is 50 the new young?

  4. Michelle   •  

    Thanks for an honest reflection…If I have a choice between sitting at the “Kids’ Table” for 2 days or joining friends in serving and praying for our community, the decision is not a hard one to make. Young leaders want to make a difference, want a mission that is worthwhile and want the opportunity to hear and be heard. We will migrate to those places the Spirit is working, whether it is at the Convention or not.

  5. Adrian Bell   •  


    You took the words right out of my mouth.

    Good Post

  6. Nathan   •  

    I would add a #6 to the list (although it may overlap with a couple of others) … Generational Shifts – Those atendees ages 60+ are the same Baby Boomers whose large numbers are crashing the economy (w/ the help of the government, but that’s another issue). So, first of all, there are many more of them in our churches and convention. Second, they see participation in the annual meeting as being loyal to the institution (they wouldn’t say it like that). Younger generations (18-39) would say that they aren’t loyal to institutions, but to the mission. In fact, they may see the institutions and the annual meeting as a hindrance to carrying out the mission.

  7. davidinnashville   •  

    I always appreciate your writings, thanks!!

  8. Randy Chestnut   •  

    Maybe it is just my bias, but I think the key to building this type of depth of relationships will not happen best in the halls of the SBC Convention, but on the front lines of the mission field. Taking enemy ground together will build more camaraderie than more meetings. Instead of planning forums and discussion groups, plant churches together, travel on an international mission trip together and everyone go with a learners’ heart. If we do this for a few years, the summer meeting will have a different look, feel, focus and climate.

  9. Dave   •  

    So true, but particularly #3 #4. Those focussed on reaching their community for Christ and church planting where the gospel hasn’t been preached have little time and less patience for most of the nonsense that occupies time at denominational gatherings. So they don’t go. Can you really blame them?

    If denominations don’t get on mission, and help churches accomplish their mission, they’ll be as relevant as tent revivals, and have as much influence.

  10. Doug   •  

    #4 nails it.

    What makes it even worse for me is that, although I still feel like the young disaffected church planter I was 15 years ago, I am now 42 years old and so I don’t even make the list of those whom the SBC is seeking to court and bring into the conversation (39 and younger I believe is the age bracket in your last post of the “young” whom the SBC is concerned about).


    Concerning #3 I would say, yes and no. I think the concern of the “young, restless, and reformed” is not so much that of avoiding criticism but more that of a desire to be among those whom share the same desire to see God honored and glorified in a substantive manner, for there to be a sense of the gravity of the calling to which we have been called, for the centrality of the Word to be upheld, and for Christ to be preached.

    What I mean is that there is a great difference between someone opening a gathering with all the charm of a big tent mc saying “God is good…” and waiting for the reply “all the time!” and an introduction such as that which I heard at the Banner of Truth Conference this past year where the speaker’s first words were “I stand before you as a man who is a sinner and dependent upon the grace of God and if there is anything that I say that is of any help to you then to God be the glory.” The first I have no time for.
    The second, I will sit at his feet.

  11. joe white   •  


    I do not disagree with what you have said or the factors we need to consider. However, I am curious about the sample size from which you develop the graphs in the first post. Am I correct in assuming this information is taken from the survey distributed at the convention; and that it is somewhat less than the total messengers? If so; I wonder if another factor to consider in disecting these numbers might be that younger leaders don’t fill out extra surveys like their older counter parts. (:

    The convention sure looked younger this year to me!

  12. Pingback: What You Celebrate, You Become | Love God, Love People

  13. Matt   •  

    I know that this can’t be backed up with statistics nor is it a theological, philosophical or any other ogical debate, but I would reserve any conclusions on young pastor’s attendance until the convention is held next year. Two years ago in Louisville, half of SBTS attended. This past year most of the young families were there to go to Disney World. Let’s see how many young pastors fly out to Phoenix in 110 degree weather to sit through a 2 day business meeting!

  14. David R. Brumbelow   •  

    I was one of those “young leaders,” (well, at least I was young:-) attending the SBC in 1981, 1985… Somewhere along the line I graduated.

    In 1985 there was a strong reason to attend, even if it involved great sacrifice. We were having a battle over the truthfulness, the inerrancy of the Bible. Part of the reason fewer are attending today is that there is not a single huge issue at stake.

    I also wonder if part of the reason few young adults attend the SBC is because that is the way it has always been. It would be interesting to see a graph going back 100 years and see the trends. I think many may become more interested in the SBC as they get older.

    Also, after a few years in the ministry, they may have more financial ability to attend.

    Joe White may have a major point. Are the younger guys present, and are they interested in taking the time to fill out the SBC Convention survey? They may be less likely to be at that particular session, and have less inclination to fill out the survey than the older guys.
    David R. Brumbelow

    PS – Watch out, soon you guys will be the “old leaders” :-).

  15. A. Amos Love   •  

    Just wondering…

    You all talk about young leaders, and pastors, as those young leaders.

    Is the “Title” and “Position” of “Pastor/Leader” anywhere in the Bible?

    Where, in the Bible, does it say – pastor = leader?

    Did anyone, in the Bible, have the “Title” “Pastor?”
    I can find only “ONE” with the “Title” Shepherd. His name is Jesus. :-)

    Can anyone name one congregation, in the Bible, “Led” by a pastor?
    I can’t seem to find it.

    And didn’t Jesus tell “His Disciples” NOT to be called “Master/Leader”
    For you have “ONE” “Master/Leader,” the Christ? Mat 23:10 KJV

    Don’t know if you noticed or not but…
    NONE of “His Disciples” called themselves “Leader.”
    They all called themselves “Servants.”

    Rom 1:1 Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ,
    Php 1:1 Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ,
    Col 4:12 Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ,
    Tit 1:1 Paul, a servant of God,
    Jas 1:1 James, a servant of God
    2Pe 1:1 Simon Peter, a servant

    If Jesus instructed **His Disciples** NOT to call themselves “leaders”
    and someone calls them self a “leader” or thinks they are a “leader;”

    Are they NO LONGER a “Disciple of Christ?” Oy Vey!!! ;-)
    Or, are they just a **disobedient** “Disciple of Christ?” ;-)

    Why isn’t what Jesus said important? ;-)

    And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold:
    them also I must bring, and they shall **hear MY voice;**
    and there shall be “ONE” fold, and “ONE” shepherd.
    John 10:16

    One Fold – One Shepherd – One Voice.
    If Not Now, When?

    Be blessed in your search for Truth… Jesus.

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