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.

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?”