A fractured convention?

The statistics are in and prove the point that many of us have tried to make for sometime and that is that the SBC is becoming increasingly irrelevant to younger leaders. In fact, according to these stats, they appear to be leaving our convention as fast as they can get their feet under them. It is far beyond time that we simply look around and write off those leaving as if they are doing so because of their immaturity or unorthodox doctrinal positions. Too many are leaving for that to be true. Those, and other excuses like them, are merely convenient opportunities to avoid the real issues. The question we must ask now is why they are these younger pastors &/or staff people leaving and can we adjust our convention to retain them? If we do not, our convention, and worse than that the Cooperative Program, will be reduced to denominational rubble in a matter of two to three decades.

In his “Presedential Perspective” article, LifeWay President Thom Rainer asks some good questions that I think are worth considering. He writes three paragraphs in particular that I am convinced are right on target. Consider these words:

Younger leaders see a decreasing relevance in the denomination and older leaders are not adequately casting a dynamic vision. Whereas older leaders connect tradition with loyalty, younger leaders connect loyalty with purpose. They want to see tangible reasons for engaging in the denomination’s effort. The denomination desperately needs an infusion of their creativity and passion.

There is cause for concern. The lack of involvement does not bode well for the legacy of the SBC. Our denomination is more than 150 years old and the Cooperative Program is 75. A significant amount of gospel-proclaiming work has been done throughout the world in that time. God has been so gracious to bless us with each precious soul won to His glory. We really can do more together than we can do apart. How I pray younger generations can get that. How I pray older generations will teach that in edifying and encouraging ways while incorporating the best of what younger generations have to offer.

How I pray we will rise above the things that distract us for the sake of the gospel.

Rainer is absolutely right. The younger generations, of which I am a part, are not satisfied to remain loyal for the sake of remaining loyal. There must be purpose infused into our activity if we are to be seen as relevant, and even more importantly, if we are to actually be relevant.

This is not a denominational issue, however, in my opinion. No, this is a local church issue. Our denomination does nothing more than reflect the norms of our churches. If we are to fix this problem all the Executive Board decisions in the world will not advance our cause if they are cut off from local church application. We must, at the local level, say that “enough is enough”. We must ask the hard questions and be ready to absorb the hard answers if we are to change and become effective again.

Thank goodness there are still men like Rainer and Ed Stetzer in the SBC, who find the gospel important enough that they are committed to pursuing its advance, regardless of the cost that may come their way. Surprisingly enough, they even like to hang out with Acts 29 churches. Hmm, I wonder if they’re on to something?

When it comes down to it, the ultimate question that must be asked is how important the gospel is to us? Is it important enough that we can allow each other to disagree on nominal issues and work together, unified by our common agreement on the essentials of the faith or are we so concerned with “doctrinal unanimity” that we stand by arguing points of eschatological or sociological differences while our neighbors die and spend eternity separated from God?

Micah is a husband to Tracy & a daddy to Grace, Kessed & Haddon. He’s Senior Pastor at Brainerd Baptist Church in Chattanooga, TN. Most of all, he’s a debtor to grace.

17 thoughts on “A fractured convention?

  1. Thoughtful post Micah,

    I would submit a bit of a difference with Mr. Rainer. I disagree that we can do more together together than we can apart.

    I would say that we can do more loosely affiliated than we can completely disconnected. I think that is why networks like A29 (there are others and they will continue to develop) are going to become the norm and representative conventional republics (such as the SBC and MBC) will continue their trend downward.

    There is so much time, money, resource, thought, and energy wasted on things that ultimately don’t advance the Gospel into real places and real lives at the convention levels (state and national).

    Look at the trend in charities among secular giving. People are starting to give to granular level causes at increasing levels and over-arching organizational causes at a decreasing level. Why? Because people want to feel connected to the end-result of their gifts.

    I think the same concept is what is fueling the decline of the era of conventions and the return to the network – which parenthetically is the mode in which the early church operated.

    I also think there’s some generational dynamics and sociological dynamics that contribute to this (i.e. WWII generation vs. Technology Generations).

    Just my thoughts but one thing can’t be missed. The younger you get, the less effective you see convention structures as being. I’m not sure that the trend will reverse itself..


  2. I read the article in Facts & Trends on the younger pastors not attending the SBC, and frankly, I think the point has been overstressed. The young pastors in the age group signified (18-39) comprise only 17% of the SBC; and 13% showed up at the SBC. That is NOT a significantly disproportianate segment.
    I wonder if this is one of those cases where the headline was basically in place before the stats came out? Sure, there may be some anecdotal evidence of young pastors leaving, etc., but these stats don’t prove it, IMHO.

  3. Micah, do you think the future of denoms in general will become less corporate and centralized and take on more of a supportive role? if so, that would translate to less Nashville and Hotlanta and even Jeff City, and more associations looking for Baptistic guys to get behind. thoughts?
    Casper, if you’re out there, can you weigh in on this too?

  4. One has to wonder when we’re going to give up on this sort of research. No one listens to it, nothing changes, and no one seems to actually care that the convention is probably going to die this century.

    I fully agree with the assessment, my generation and especially younger are growing entirely disillusioned with the convention and are exiting it altogether. But year after year these research numbers are thrown out there and nothing changes. It seems to be an exercise in futility.

  5. Lifeway provides the quantifiable data, I’ll provide a little antecdotal evidence from my neck of the woods:

    I’m 39 (40 next month); my kids range from 16 to 20. I was as SB as they come — RAs, youth choir, church camp at Windermere (sponsored by the convention, of course), saved at associational children’s camp (while singing “Just as I am” around a camp fire!).

    My kids are — praise God — just as saved as I am, raised in wonderful SB churches with great pastors. BUT, they don’t care one bit whether “their” church is Southern Baptist or not; whether their pastor is SB or not. They want a church where Christ is present and working; where they can “plug-in”. They might be SB when they’re grown up and on their own, but I KNOW if they are it isn’t because they feel any need to be — they will have simply found a good church (that happens to still be part of the convention). And that’s just fine with me.

    Charles Brazeale
    Neosho, MO

  6. Micah I’m thankful for your concerns. It’s very important that we stick with doctrine. But there’s a fine line for young leaders to relate to the younger crowd without compromising the word of God. Hopefully the older generation would be willing to disciple these younger leaders to spiritual maturity. I like what the apostle Paul says, ” to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak, I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” 1corinthians 9:22 NKJV. I think we all have to apply that whether were mature christians ministering to young leaders or young leaders trying to minister to the next generation of believers. The most important thing is that we do not compromise doctrine but we need to reach people at their level.

  7. Wow, I’ve got quite a few comments to respond to. Thanks to everyone for being patient. I have been relaxing with family this weekend.

    Marc- I am trying to process your thoughts about loose affiliations. I’ve heard that to great extent lately, and find some value in it. Having said that, however, I am curious how you would imagine international missions to operate in just such a structure? My great fear for a proposal like you are describing would be the loss of our IMB. I am thankful for our seminaries, but wouldn’t be distraught if they weren’t around, I really an unconcerned about the ERLC. LifeWay is great but it’s also self-sustaining. Glorietta and Ridgecrest are wonderful, non-essential luxuries. The IMB & NAMB, however, are important, I’m convinced, to our continued Kingdom growth strategies. Do you see a way to maintain their impact under your loose affiliation concept?

    Debbie- agreed

    Shawn- I think, if you’ll look closer, the statistics support the claims made by Stetzer, McConnell and others. Take, for instance, these stats:

    Messengers ages 18-39 represented 33.6 percent of the total in 1980 but dropped to 13.1 percent by 2007.

    Registrants aged 60 and above accounted for 12.9 percent of the messengers in 1980, but 35.4 percent in 2007.

    Or maybe these quotes by Ed Stetzer:

    “Simply put, the proportion of those under 40 attending the SBC is declining precipitously – down by more than 50 percent since the beginning of the conservative resurgence.”

    “Oddly enough, in some quarters there has actually been a debate about whether the SBC attendance is aging and losing its young leaders,” Stetzer said. “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?’

    I’m admittedly part of the smallest demographic of SBC Senior Pastors (3% 29 yrs old and under, although only for a short time more) and so I fully recognize that I may have bias, but the picture seems fairly clear from their statistics that there is a significant decline in involvement by younger pastors at the national level. Can that be disputed?

    Trey- I think you’re on to something. I know it’s what I’ve been promoting for a couple of years now. Some significant decentralization on the state level, combined with restructuring on the national level. In fact, I think I may need to work on a post describing my thoughts about changes needed in the convention.

    Jason- I really think the only hope, and this may be a longshot, is for much of the current generation to fade into retirement. Of course, the inherent problem with said solution is that our current generation is simply not satisfied to wait for that to happen. They want to make a difference now, thank goodness, and as such that may not bode well for the SBC. I’m struggling a bit with negative thoughts myself, though probably not to the degree that you seem to be.

    Charles- I don’t think you are alone in your perceptions.

    Monica- I agree with you. All things to all people is an often forgotten passage it seems. The one caveat I would mention is that doctrine must not be sacrificed, as long as we are talking about vital doctrine, essential doctrine that is. What is causing problems, however, is that too many people are elevating secondary and tertiary doctrines to the level of essential doctrine and then dividing over that. So, while I agree wholeheartedly with you, I would also caution that not all doctrine is created equal. 🙂

  8. 43,000 churches (or more) 7,000-10,000 attendees…
    I would say all ages are staying away from the convention. The question is why? I believe a good part of the reason is a lack of business. The primary purpose of the annual SBC meeting is to do the business of the convention. It is not a gigantic worship service. When you take away the ability to do business there is very little reason to attend. I have also observed, over the last 10 years the inability to get business on the floor. Case in point the resolution on church membership integrity.

    By the way I have observed this same thing happening at the local level. I would ask this question to many of the leaders, young and old, who don’t attend the SBC, “Do you have business meetings that involved the people or have you gone to a ‘let the leaders lead’ system and your business meetings are at best quarterly and then only for a few major items?”

    I am not necessarily critical of this so much as stating that is why I think many are staying away…they have no reason to go.

    One man’s opinion!

  9. Since we’re on to anecdotal evidence … it seems few and far between that older pastors are seeking to mentor younger pastors, Monica. So while I think this is something that the generation ahead has to offer, they don’t seem to eager to invest in the lives of younger leaders, this is from my personal experience as a young leader in the MBC (having just spent 4 years with the State Convention as the youngest staffer) and now as a younger church planter in the MBC.

  10. In thinking about why I am Southern Baptist and consider it important to be so, I think of two things. Obviously, as has already been stated, there is the power of the group in accomplishing things, particularly the Great Commission (“Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their efforts.” Ecclesiastes 4:12). Today’s mentality focuses on personal experience, which obviously is not bad – we should be personally involved in the Great Commission, acts of service, etc. But it can be short-sighted (i.e. if I don’t get any personal positive feelings from it, I don’t want to be involved in it). We need to emphasize what we are doing as a convention that we could not do as individual churches or individual Christians.

    The second reason I am a Southern Baptist is because of doctrine. I know, not all Baptists agree, but to legitimately be a Southern Baptist church, it is claiming certain beliefs as its own. That should allow me to feel safe doctrinally when I walk into an SBC church. We see in the broader church culture a heavy move toward “community” churches that have no denominational ties. I think probably the main reason for that is that denominations means doctrine, and today there is an aversion to doctrine. We see things like the emerging church that can hardly claim to know anything as truth. Doctrine divides – but it is supposed to (I Corinthians 11:18-19).

    If the SBC loses numbers because of people who don’t want to make doctrinal stands, stands for the Truth, then it is very likely losing people who are not Christians, for Jesus is the Truth. (John MacArthur makes a similar point in the introduction of his latest book, “The Truth War.”) If that is the case, we should be more concerned that there are lost souls who are going to be very difficult to reach because they think they’re already saved than we are concerned about the shrinking numbers of the SBC.

  11. I am coming at this from the outside looking in. I am a 29 year old bible college student who is not SB. I am however one generation removed from the convention. That is to say both my parents were raised SB. They left in the early seventies during the charismatic movement, hence my upbringing. I have since found myself at odds on many issues in the Pentecostal, and Charismatic movement and find the SBC to be consistant with my convictions. In fact both my wife and I feel God is leading us in the direction of church planting and we are both prayerfully considering joining the convention. I say all this to point out I am by no means an insider, and do not know the innerworkings of the convention, but I do know that at times an outside perspective is valuable.

    I used to work for a large denomination during a major restructuring of that organization, and the temptation was to take microscopic views as thing started to change, however in the end the denomination had actually reposured itself to allow for growth. No, things were not always done in the manner they should have and at times people felt disconnected, I guess that is because they are merely human, and make mistakes. I say all this because it would seem as though the Convention may be approaching a period of change and reposturing. Perhaps those in of the older generation are still coming to terms with it, but remember these men have been God’s Watchmen charged with a duty in a their generation. Honor them, and please guard your hearts and lips from speaking ill of them. On the other hand, there will inevitably be a changing of the guard, and God will entrust a new generation with the responsibility of moving forward, and standing guard. This new generation of leaders must protect the same things their predecessor did, but be able to engage their culture with the truth of God’s word. This may look different than their fathers, but the truth of the message must never change.

    So please to any young pastor, be patient God is not done with the Southern Baptist Convention. Support her and honor your Fathers by at least showing up, and unless you know with full confidence that God is leading you away from the convention, stay. It is not like you have a controlling denomination. Your Polity precludes this. I come from a denomination that if a pastor believes in eternal security they have the authority to yank your credentials, and replace you as the pastor, because they own the property, not the local church.

    Again I know I am an ousider, and who am I to address this matter? I do know that my family owes a debt of gratitude to the SBC I do not think I can ever repay. So I love you guys, and perhaps I may one day fellowship within the Convention.

    Ben Lovelace
    Modesto, CA

  12. I just noticed my wife Monica make a comment on doctrine, and I liked your response. However you made the comment that not all doctrine is created equal. Do you mean to say that some doctrines are not as important, or that our test of fellowship should not be determined on the basis of doctrines that are debated within the pale of orthodoxy. The latter being quite broad when you consider issues such as pedo-baptism, and trans-substansiation. The very definition of Baptist precludes pedo-baptism, so I think we can agree lines must be drawn, but where? Personally I agree with the premise that allowances need to be made with regard to certian views. For instance eschatology is a huge one, there is alot of disagreement on this issue, the five points of Calvanism vs. the five points of Arminianism. Dare I say cessationist and non-cessationists. These are very important issues and not to be diminished, but is the Convention big enough to encompase these? I hope it is, but not at the expence of the importance of these doctrines.

    Ben Lovelace
    Modesto, CA

  13. Ben-

    You have done well as you have described my intent with the phrase “all doctrine is not created equal”. I was not trying to wish away various points of doctrine, rather I was trying to define the fact there are a number of non-essentials that are not significant enough issues to cause us to part company. I, like yourself, hope the SBC is strong enough to hold that same line.

  14. Micah,
    I have been reading your blog since the MBC and have very much enjoyed your insights. I am a 54 yr old MBC pastor who has been in Missouri since 1991. I am greatly encouraged by your thoughtful appproach to analyzing where we are and what needs to be changed to make the SBC/MBC more relevant.

    I believe on both levels one of our BIG problems is lack of trust. Even though the politicking was necessary to swing the SBC & MBC away from a decline into liberalism it has left us with people in charge who border on paranoia in some cases. Our leaders simply seem unwilling to trust the rank and file to make good choices. Until we get to the point where we are willing to trust each other more I do not see how much positive change will be possible.

    It is unfortunate thatthe MBC places such power in the Executive Board. They do not seem very representative of where I sense most of the MBC churches are, even the majority of those led by older pastors. I wish therewas a way to make our concerns better knows other than “rallying the troops” on “our side” to elect a president for many years in a row to change the makeup of the Executive board. The process for change that we have in place within the MBC now is so destructive that it you almost do mor harm than good to attempt change.

    Perhaps the blogging community could come up with other ways to voice concern that would get the attention of our leadrs to say “enough is enough” we do not want to go where you are taking us.

    I would also be interested in hearing what folks thing about the Association and the role it is playing our could play as a change agent in SBC life.

    Ekkp up the good blogging….Allen C.

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