The Southern Baptist Generation Gap

The Southern Baptist Generation Gap

By Nathan A. Finn

After the 2008 SBC annual meeting in Indianapolis, I was among the many commentators who noted the relatively poor attendance. I also specifically mentioned the lack of messengers under age 40. (The hordes of 20-somethings working the agency booths don’t count. They are all paid to be there, and relatively few of them are messengers.) This does not bode well for the future of a democratic denomination like the Southern Baptist Convention.

There are many reasons for this generation gap at the SBC every year. Some younger conservatives want to attend, but cannot afford to (some of my students fit this category). Some have a travel budget, but they feel it is better spent going overseas doing missions or attending ministry-related conferences rather than a denominational meeting (most of my pastor friends fit this category). Some are relatively ignorant of the wider Convention because they are focused on their own church ministries. Some are more interested in their state convention, or at least their general geographic area, than they are the national SBC. Some feel alienated from the Convention for any variety of reasons. And some simply don’t care.

Whatever the reasons, it seems apparent to me that we have a crisis on our hands. Simply put, the current generation of engaged Southern Baptists have not replicated their denominational involvement in the rising generation. There are notable exceptions: I think of seminary-sponsored Convention classes and internship-minded pastors like Johnny Hunt and Mark Dever. But as a general rule, the over-40 crowd has had little success in convincing the under-40 crowd that attending a denominational meeting is worth their time and money.

The last two decades of the 20th century produced a generation of SBC ministers who were quite involved in the Convention. This was in part because of the Conservative Resurgence: young conservatives wanted to have a stake in the Convention’s future. But even then, it doesn’t take much historical work to see that the Resurgence generation was not as involved over a sustained period of time as the generation that came of age in the 1950s and 1960s. Our contemporary numbers are not just smaller because the moderates disengaged; a lot of conservatives who used to be involved are now AWOL every June when Southern Baptists gather in Convention.

My president, Danny Akin, has noted on several occasions that he fears that his generation has not/will not produce an Adrian Rogers-like statesman. I think it is a valid concern. But my concern for my generation is a bit different. As much as I care about future leaders, I am more concerned about replacing the tens of thousands of “ordinary” pastors and laypeople during the height of Rogers’s ministry that thought the SBC was worth their time. Let me say it a different way: when I am President Akin’s age, will there be anyone left to lead?

I often wonder what role “fighting” plays in our generation gap. How many over-40 conservatives disengaged once there were no longer many moderates to fight? How many over-40 conservatives pulled out because they were tired of fighting moderates? How many over-40 conservatives quit attending because, once the real moderates were mostly gone, some Southern Baptists started inventing some new “moderates” so they could still have someone to fight? And since more than a few of our present squabbles are at least to some degree generational battles, here is the money question: how many under-40 conservatives never became involved because they suspect that many of the over-40 conservatives don’t really want their involvement (though their CP dollars are of course welcome)?

I may be off-base in my analysis: there may be numerous other factors I have not considered. But even if I am wrong in my diagnosis, the prognosis remains: as a general rule, my generation of conservatives is not involved in the SBC. And many of them are uninterested in future involvement.

This disinterest could potentially have numerous effects on our denomination:

  1. It will all but guarantee that the under-20 generation will be even less involved than my generation, if they are ever involved at all. If most of the children of the “Resurgers” don’t care, what reason do we have to believe their grandchildren will?
  2. It will almost definitely guarantee that the shrinking number of messengers who do attend will not accurately represent the full spectrum of conservative Southern Baptists. Some commentators already complain that the churches of the SBC aren’t adequately represented by the messengers to the Convention.
  3. It will likely contribute to more churches pulling out of the SBC to unite with other denominations and networks. While some of this may be good, let’s not assume that everyone who leaves us is either a “moderate,” not a “real” Baptist, “ecumenical,” or whatever. We are already losing plenty of folks who we need to keep around. I suspect that trend will only increase if we cannot convince the under-40s that the SBC is worth their time.
  4. The Conservative Resurgence will be shown to have ultimately been in vain. What a tragedy if a generation gained control of the SBC only to watch the next generation of conservatives decide the SBC isn’t worth having control of. And lest you think I am exaggerating, trust me when I say hardly a week goes by that I don’t hear a student or pastor friend make this type of comment.

I am not sure how to reverse the generation gap in the SBC. Some have suggested allowing messengers to participate in the Convention’s annual meeting without physically attending. Perhaps that is a good option. Others have argued we do not need an annual meeting at all, but could hold a handful of regional meetings. Perhaps that could make a difference. I will leave the nuts-and-bolts solutions to folks more capable than I of making such decisions.

This much I do know: we have to address our generation gap if the SBC is to enjoy a viable future as a denomination. Some already think the Convention is a dinosaur that just needs to go extinct, especially a number of folks in the under-40 crowd. Maybe they are right, but I am not ready to give up on the denomination just yet. I still think God has something for us to do as a Convention of autonomous churches. I continue to hold out hope that our best days lie ahead and that (Lord willing) my children and grandchildren can be a part of a great heritage of Baptist Christians who have been mightily used of God.

I hope you will join me in my mission to convince younger conservatives that the SBC is still worth it. And let’s all work especially hard to make sure it is.