Southern Baptists missing reasons for optimism?
On the eve of the 152nd annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in Louisville, Ky., there is considerable handwringing underway over the future of America’s largest evangelical denomination.
Do not count me among the handwringers.
First, there will be debate at the annual meeting over the “Great Commission Resurgence” declaration. I have friends, colleagues and mentors on both sides of this issue and my prayer is they will continue to debate the matter in a Christ-like manner and trust Southern Baptist messengers to make the best decision if one is requested. There is much in the document with which I agree, but I, like Missouri Baptist Convention Executive Director David Tolliver and SBC Executive Committee President and Chief Executive Officer Morris Chapman, have concerns about the part that addresses possible “bloatedness” among state conventions (we’re cutting staff in Missouri while raising our Cooperative Program giving to the SBC, nice to see others getting on board) and certain SBC agencies. We must be good stewards. The denomination just restructured about a dozen years ago, but despite that some of our younger pastors feel the denomination could do better (when I was 35 I always thought my elders could do better, too). They may be right, but any such process must follow SBC governing guidelines and be supplemented with fervent prayer and respectful debate. If changes are found to be in order, then they must be compassionately implemented.
Speaking of our younger pastors, some Southern Baptists are concerned over the decline in attendance by those aged 18-39 and that a good number are becoming so disenchanted with the denomination that they may leave. “Oddly enough, in some quarters there has actually been a debate about whether the SBC attendance is aging and losing its young leaders,” LifeWay Research Director Ed Stetzer said recently. “Of course, facts don’t convince everyone. My hope is that now, finally, we will stop debating and instead ask the hard question: ‘What is causing so many young leaders to stay away?’”
Could it be because there are nearly 10 million less Generation Xers (those aged 25-44) than Baby Boomers (those aged 45-64)? This might explain the denomination’s drop in baptisms and church membership as well. There are fewer people. (No generation has been impacted by Roe v. Wade as much as Generation X.)
Southern Baptists are giving more than ever to support missions (2.3 percent more last year amidst an economic downturn). We have more missionaries in the field than at any point in the SBC’s history. The number of SBC churches continues to rise and the SBC Disaster Relief has become our nation’s third-largest relief agency, behind the Red Cross and The Salvation Army.
I do not believe we are a denomination in decline. Yes, we have problems and we can do more, but I think we have to be careful so that our pronouncements of the SBC’s demise don’t become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And even more importantly that, in doing so, we inadvertently attempt to rob God of His sovereignty and glory. God has done a mighty work through Southern Baptists. We dare not suggest that He no longer does based on a possible misinterpretation of data.
An optimistic viewpoint
I am optimistic about the future of America and the SBC. Postmodernism, with its radical skepticism and moral relativism, is a thing of the past, academics are now proclaiming. A window of opportunity exists for “something new.” That “something new” must be the Gospel.
Behind the Generation Xers is Generation Y or sometimes called “The Millennial Generation” (those aged 5-24). There are 30 million more Millennials than there are Xers and they are different in many ways. For example, unlike the Xers, Millennials reject relativism and embrace truth. This gives us a great entry point to share the Gospel with them. Millennials comprise the largest generation in the history of our nation and they will have a major impact on America just like the huge Baby Boomer generation. I look at Millennials and I see the potential for America’s next “Great Awakening.”
Demographers tell us Millennials will bring a new spirit of creativity and innovation to our nation. Let me explain. The Silent Generation (those ages were a numerically small generation due to reduced fertility brought on by the Great Depression, World War II and virtually zero immigration. When the much larger Baby Boomers began entering the workforce there were not enough jobs, so they embarked on the greatest entrepreneurial spree America has ever seen. Generation X does not have the critical mass to fill all the job openings created by the Baby Boomers. This has caused too many in Generation X to feel a sense of entitlement. If they get fired, they know they can get hired somewhere else – probably before they even cash their severance check. Demographer and author Kenneth Gronbach describes it this way: “Does ‘being in demand’ negatively affect Generation X’s performance and commitment? On a macro scale, the answer is, unfortunately, yes. Generation X by virtue of being in demand is often treated more favorably/differently in the workplace by their leaders and managers than their Boomer counter parts. I strongly advise my clients against this as it breeds resentment, is divisive and diminishes the quality of management. Before you know it, errors are being overlooked and standards are being relaxed. This is not good.”
Enter the Millennials.
Just like what the Baby Boomers discovered following the Silent Generation, there will be more of them than jobs available. This will force them to be entrepreneurs and innovators. They will create new businesses and jobs. As China ages (they have aborted 400 million babies – mostly females – in recent decades), look for manufacturing jobs to leave and return to the United States due to a young and highly motivated workforce.
So what does this mean for the church? We can expect Millennials to bring their creativity and their desire for authenticity to bear on our churches. This could be beneficial. I do not mean to suggest that there are no challenges to overcome in reaching Millennials because there are plenty: premarital sex and pornography topping the list. Teens giving birth hit a record high in 2007, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One in five teens have posted nude or semi-nude photos or videos of themselves on the Internet, according to a recent study by the National Coalition for the Protection of Children & Families. More than 70 percent said they sent the sexually suggestive material to a boyfriend or girlfriend and more than 40 percent knew the message would be shared with other people.
But even with their trials and tribulations, consider what Gronbach has to say about the Millennials: “Of all the generations that ever graced our land, the (Millennials), now 90 million under age 24, have the potential of being the best. This generation has been taught from its beginnings to be kind, sensitive and giving. This will translate into diversity, ecology and a work ethic like we have not seen before. They will leave the world a better place than they found it.”
It sounds like a perfect generation to win to Christ.