This is Your Wake Up Call Part II – The Generation Gap

Posted: February 8, 2012 in Current Events, Statistics

[W]e are certainly an aging denomination. Our congregations are aging, as are many of our buildings, our programs, our strategies and our most visible leaders. Many of the mega-churches that have been our flagships for the past 30 years have quietly plateaued. There are numerous non-denominational churches and mini-denominations that have sprung up in suburbia everywhere — younger, more agile, cooler and basically baptistic but not in name or affiliation. These churches and organizations siphon off some of our best leaders and most faithful people. Sometimes it just seems like the SBC is tired (Scroggins 2011).

The Generation Gap

The numbers in Part I of this series paint a truthful if somewhat unpleasant picture of the SBC in decline. The long history of slower growth and, now, of outright year-to-year decreases in membership indicate a systemic problem that will not be an easy fix. It gets worse, though, and in this post we will look at a pattern that, if not corrected, could bring about the end of the SBC altogether.

More Numbers

At the 1980 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting 33.6% of the messengers present fell into the 18-39 age group (Kelly 2008). By 2007 this number had dropped to 13.1% (Ibid.). During the same time frame the 40-59 group jumped slightly from 49.9% to 51.6% (Ibid.). The 60 and above group exploded from 12.9% of messengers in 1980 to 35.4% in 2007 (Ibid.). The overall 27-year trend is that the youngest group dropped precipitously in attendance at the convention, the second group stayed relatively constant and the third group increased significantly. Add to these numbers the fact that on average 40 percent of messengers are senior pastors and it becomes clear that there is a decline in young leadership in the SBC (Ibid.).

Inevitably, some will deny these facts by trying to explain them away (Hall 2009) but the trend holds out even when one accounts for factors like the appeal of particular cities, travel expenses, etc. In fact, the decline in young leadership is still visible when comparing convention attendance in the same cities from year to year. Dallas, for instance, hosted conventions in 1985 and 1997. The percentage of young pastors at these conventions was 35.9% and 24.6%, respectively. Same city, same appeal, same amount of travel time but different years (Kelly 2008).

Other objections to these numbers are unconvincing (Hall 2009). While the aging population of the United States as a whole may explain some of the decline it does not negate the importance of reversing the trend. So what if the white, non-hispanic portion of the United States is aging? The last time I checked being Baptist had nothing to do with the color of one’s skin but, rather, with convictions. We should be reaching out to all people groups in the United States and internationally. We are making advances in that direction but there is a larger problem that we must address if we are to see significant diversification of the SBC (we’ll discuss diversity in some later posts). The point is that, regardless of the reasons, if each successive generation of Southern Baptists gets smaller, then, simply, there will eventually be no next generation of Southern Baptists.

So Where Do We Go From Here?

The great thing about facts is that they are clear even when they are inconvenient. The numbers point to the obvious fact that the SBC is losing young people and especially young leaders. The proper question is no longer whether this is happening but, rather, what do we do about it. As a young Baptist who very nearly left the SBC a few years ago I have some thoughts from my experience.

1. Baptists must not be afraid of our roots. Why did I come back to the SBC wholeheartedly after flirting with a younger and more agile non-denominational denomination? Because I discovered Baptist history and the Baptist principles of old. This is probably not too surprising given the general thrust of this blog but as Baptists we must never forget our history and we must be careful that we don’t push that history off to the side, either. Young people are smart enough to see the lack of depth in many of these non-denominations and mini-denominations that are stealing them away from our Baptist churches. We just have to make sure that they can see the alternative of our rich heritage, meaningful worship and sound faith.

2. Baptists must boldly proclaim Baptist (i.e. biblical) doctrines. Charles Haddon Spurgeon famously “said that he and his people ‘have no desire to sail under false colors, neither are we ashamed of our principles: if we were, we would renounce them to-morrow” (Mbewe 2001). In other words, Spurgeon thought Baptists should put up or shut up. The fact is that I couldn’t tell the difference between the preaching in the non-denominational congregation that I attended and the Baptist churches I grew up in. This wasn’t because of the outstanding doctrine of the non-denomination but, rather, because I didn’t grow up learning Baptist doctrine. If we aren’t willing to proclaim it and to stand on it, come what may, then we should get used to losing our young people.

3. Baptists must encourage aspiring young leaders. This time I speak not merely on my own behalf but also for many of my friends who have shared in the experience of being told “no” again and again when seeking to get to work in their local churches on this ministry or that. Instead of meeting with rejection and discouragement, young Baptists should be tested, trained, affirmed and sent into ministry. It is no easy or meager task that they are embarking upon. It should not be treated as one.

4. Baptists must not be afraid to challenge young people. We live in a culture where each generation is more sophisticated, more educated and more connected than the last. The younger generations are used to having new information thrust upon them and being forced to process it and they are used to being asked hard questions. As Baptists we cannot fail to challenge all the members of our churches (including the younger ones) to dig deeper into the truth of the Scriptures and to grow in their understanding of the gospel. Easy-believism doesn’t bring young Baptists into the local congregation but, instead, it drives them away by painting a false picture of the Bible.

Concluding Thoughts

The numbers are in and there is a very real and very stark generation gap in the Southern Baptist Convention. These numbers will continue to worsen unless we, as Baptists, are willing to step up and to fight for them. This means ridding ourselves of the fear of teaching hard biblical truths. Ridding ourselves of the idea that young people are best when sitting in the pew and not tackling the difficult work of ministry. And, finally, it means ridding ourselves of the easy-believism that now pervades much of our church culture. The younger generation must be encouraged and engaged or their exodus will continue.

References

Hall, Will. 2009. Analysis: What do the numbers mean — is the SBC in decline? Part 2 Generation Gap, Young Leaders. Baptist Press. June 11. http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=30662 (accessed February 8, 2012).

Mbewe, Conrad. 2001. Flying the Flags High in Africa: Baptist Hope for a Ravaged Continent. In Why I am a Baptist, ed. Nettles, Tom J. and Russell D. Moore, 95-101. Nashville: B & H Publishing Group.

Kelly, Mark. 2008. Study: Fewer young people attending SBC. Baptist Press. January 7. http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=27143 (accessed February 8, 2012).

Scroggins, Jimmy. 2011. SBC Discussion: SBC may be smaller — and better. Baptist Press. June 24. http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=35636 (accessed February 8, 2012).

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Comments
  1. […] Part I of this series we looked at the declining pattern of SBC membership. Then, in Part II, we focused on the fact that younger generations seem to be abandoning the SBC en masse and […]

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