GM and the SBC

Between the Times welcomes guest contributor Don Dunavant. Dr. Dunavant serves as Professor of Christian Studies and Director of the Bachelor of Applied Theology Program at California Baptist University at Riverside, CA.

Monday morning, June 1, 2009, General Motors filed for bankruptcy. The once number one car maker in the world came to an ignoble demise. Started in 1908, for most of its one hundred and one year history GM was synonymous with the America idea of success, an industrial icon that was as American as apple pie. That has all changed now. Speaking of GM’s bankruptcy President Obama optimistically asserted that the trauma of bankruptcy will help GM be a more viable company in the future. Yet he pointed to dark days ahead saying that more plants will close, more dealerships will shut their doors and more people will lose their jobs. GM as it has been up until June 1, 2009, will never be again.

What happened to cause the downfall of the car-making giant? Some will point to the economic downturn as the culprit. But, GM had survived all other economic downturns and even the Great Depression. No, there was something more systemic behind its failure. GM had developed a management culture so entrenched in the way it had always done business that it lost touch with the rapid changes taking place in the car-buying public and a union culture so preoccupied with self preservation that it entrenched itself against any change in the business model. Together both made GM too inflexible in a world of rapid change.

No one did anything on purpose to undermine GM. In fact, up until a few weeks before June 1, both management and labor argued passionately that what they were doing was the best for GM. But now their words sound hollow and their arguments mute in the wake of the ruins of GM. Inflexibility trumped the best of intentions.

Are there lessons the Southern Baptist Convention needs to learn from what has happened to GM? The SBC touts itself as the largest Protestant denomination in America, boasting sixteen million plus members. Together Southern Baptist have stood in the forefront of other denominations in sending missionaries around the world and across the nations, supporting theological education and so much more noble work. But does success in the past guarantee continued success in the midst of the seismic cultural shifts taking place in American culture and in the emerging generation of pastors?

While there are many areas that question demands we must explore, there is one that the GM demise has made much more urgent for Southern Baptists. It is the question posed in article IX of Toward a Great Commission Resurgence. The article, subtitled “A Commitment to a More Effective Convention Structure,” and the implication that substantive changes must be made in the bureaucratic structures that have entrenched themselves in SBC identity and life, brings us as a denomination to a critical point in looking to the future.

I have read the responses of both those who have signed Toward a Great Commission Resurgence with enthusiasm and those who refuse to sign the document because of Article IX. On both sides of the issue are good people who are voicing their best intentions for the future of the SBC. However, the best of intentions are not enough. This is one that we cannot afford to get wrong. The future of the SBC as a force in cooperative missions depends on it.

I come down on the side of those who believe that we must reexamine our structures, not just for some reorganization attempt, but for a substantive overhaul. I do so because I believe with all my heart that the duplication of work and the allocation of CP monies are issues that must be seen in the context of the rising young pastors who in the next ten years will determine the future course of the SBC.

I see three major movements that distinguish these young pastors and some commonalities they share. The first are those who identify themselves as Reformed. They are serious about theology, about the church, and about missions. They measure everything through the lens of their theological commitments. The second are those who I call fearless innovators. They plant or go to pastor churches with big, bold vision. They are serious about the church, the Scriptures and missions. Even when they grow big, they struggle with the tension of staying small. They want their people directly involved in missions and ministries. The third are those who are emerging (as opposed to emergent) in approach. They are serious about the church and culture. While they make mistakes they are passionate about contextualization and communicating with their generation.

These are three very different groups of young pastors, but they do share some things in common. Consider just three:

  1. They are more loosely tied to the SBC in their identity. They are Southern Baptist and are appreciative of their theological education provided by the SBC. However, their identity is broader. Have you wondered why it is that when you attend the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention or state convention that it looks a lot grayer? The reason is these young pastors are not interested in meeting just to meet and conduct business. They are looking for something much more in identity. You’ll find the Reformed guys at Together for the Gospel or Piper’s pastor conferences. You find the innovator networking with others who share their priorities in ministry.
  2. They are more loosely tied to the SBC in their giving. They will not give just to give. They are not concerned with what is counted as CP giving or with where they stand in CP giving in comparison with others. What they are concerned with is giving their money to make a difference in the world. If they perceive they can do that better by giving directly instead of to and through the CP, they will. They will not giving money to support bureaucracies. They will give to those things that get the money to the field.
  3. They are more loosely tied to the SBC in accomplishing their sense of missions. If they cannot get their people to the mission field by denominational mission agencies, then they will by pass the agencies and directly support those whom they send out.

Those of us who are in the 50 and up crowd can’t afford to miss what is going on and entrench ourselves in the way we have always done things. If we do then tragically the SBC could travel the same road as GM.

A Layman’s Perspective on the Generation Gap in the SBC

A Layman’s Perspective on the Generation Gap in the SBC

By Nathan A. Finn

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post titled “The Southern Baptist Generation Gap.” The next day, I received the following email from a brother who wanted to offer a “lay perspective” on the generation gap. I asked that brother if he was comfortable with me reprinting his email at Between the Times if I did not mention his name. He was amenable to that arrangement, so the following appears with the permission of the original author. (Note: The guys at the Baptist 21 blog has been interacting with my “Generation Gap” post recently. You can read their posts here and here.)

——————————

Nathan,

First, thank you for taking the time to read my email. I read the blog daily and wanted to offer my comments to you. Since I am sure that the majority of the people you interact with on this topic are seminary students, I thought I would share with you a lay perspective.

First, let me say that I have attended SBC meetings as a visitor, but never a messenger. Why? Several reasons, the most common is that I found myself going to a large church, and the limit on messengers was already taken by more senior members/staff. While I understand that these older and much wiser brothers/sisters are important at the convention, I have found by talking to them that it was as much a “reunion” experience as an experience in trying to shape and lead our denomination.

Second, I would say that, it appears, most leaders who saw us through the Conservative Resurgence are not inclined to “pass the baton” to the younger crowd. Now, I should tell you I’m not a “20-something”. I am 33, married and with a child. However, this type of attitude of “not passing the baton” doesn’t just exist at the convention level. Too many of my friends (especially those at larger churches) who are laity, are discouraged from taking leadership assignments in the church (especially Sunday School). We constantly hear our pastors/ leaders say (at the Convention level), “We need the young people involved. We need a new generation of teachers to teach our people.” But when we step forward, we are given the impression, overall, to wait. Wait till your 40 (it seems).

Now, let me qualifythis by saying that, on the whole, my experience has been only at my church, and what my friends tell me of theirs. What is also disappointing is that my senior pastor currently holds a very high leadership position in the Convention.

Solutions? I just want to dialogue with the older guys. Why are they scared or apprehensive of the younger generation? Are they afraid we are not ground in biblical truth (to which I would ask them if they felt they did a poor job teaching us?). Are they concerned that we will chase every theological fad? (Emerging Church?). Are they concerned we will become anti-missional? Are they afraid that we will become Calvinists?

I can’t speak for all of the younger crowd, but some of us do not go to the Convention because we don’t feel like its “our” Convention. What I mean by that is, we don’t feel like we belong “at the grown-ups table”. What that means, is not that we want to “re-write” the BF&M, have our own candidate for President, or anything of the sort. We just want to be included in the discussion. Allow us to learn from the older/wiser leaders while we can. We are students of the Resurgence. We read of its history. We can still talk with the soldiers of that battle. We hear of how bad things were. Don’t be afraid we will allow the Convention to go astray.

Sometimes, just sometimes, I wonder . . . as I listen to Convention speeches, or see the votes being taken . . . if I am watching our Convention slowly fade away. Much like a child watches his/her parents pass away. Not due to theological reasons, or decline in membership, or attendance. But by the slow good bye of our elder brothers . . . who loved us . . . but never trusted us. (NAF: ellipses in original).

And then . . . when the former leaders move on . . . we aren’t picking up a baton. We are fighting each other for what’s left. As some family’s do at the reading of the will of their much loved family member.

Just my thoughts . . .

Thank you again for taking the time to read this. I actively support SEBTS and I consider Dr. Akin my hero. Keep up the good work!

In Christ,

(Name withheld)

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.