LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A younger generation of ministers cannot be expected to support a denominational system that doesn’t advance their church’s mission, a panel said at a June 23 forum on the future of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).
Church leaders in what has been described as a post-denominational generation who don’t normally attend the SBC annual meeting made their way in droves to this year’s June 23-24 convention in Louisville, Ky., looking for a place in a religious body viewed by many as preoccupied with doctrinal infighting and out of step with today’s culture.
Jim Wells, the convention’s registration secretary, said this year’s registration of 8,790 messengers exceeded last year’s Indianapolis crowd by more than 1,500. Wells said an unusually large number were younger than in recent years.
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know if there is not a generation coming behind you there is no future,” SBC President Johnny Hunt said at Tuesday luncheon sponsored by Baptist21, a ministry affirming conservative theology and Southern Baptist heritage while trying to voice a relevant witness in today’s culture.
Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research, a department of the SBC publishing arm, said he was encouraged to see so many young faces at this year’s annual meeting, a marked contrast to recent years when younger messengers were notably absent in increasingly smaller and aging convention crowds.
“I’m encouraged, because in the not-too-distant future the baton will be handed to you and it will be your time to run with it as the older leaders in the SBC,” Stetzer said.
LifeWay Research projects that if current baptism and membership trends continue, total SBC membership will decline by nearly half — from 16.2 million to 8.7 million — by 2050.
“Business as usual among Southern Baptists has not been working,” said Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. “We have been losing ground for decades.”
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said he and many others from his generation “grew up thinking that God was a Southern Baptist” and viewed themselves part of the Southern Baptist “tribe.” Mohler said he still appreciates the Southern Baptist legacy but confessed the old SBC became a “tribal idol” that younger Baptists don’t — and shouldn’t — seek to re-create.
Mohler advised younger pastors today to “make every single contribution you make in your local church’s work in mission and ministry earn that support, and just look at it in terms of long-term deployment.”
Both panelists and audience members at the forum at Sojourn Community Church described a “Great Commission Resurgence” task force — approved by a majority convention messengers but opposed by traditionalists who question church-planting methods they view as compromising the gospel message — as a referendum for the future of the nation’s second-largest faith group behind Roman Catholics.
One of the task force’s assignments will be to evaluate the convention’s structure, which duplicates and overlaps ministry functions at the associational, state and national levels, all voluntarily funded by local churches over and above their own direct ministries.
Akin, who preached a sermon that inspired Hunt to propose the Great Commission Resurgence, said he hoped such a study would not result in good people losing their jobs but rather in finding jobs that better serve the kingdom of God.
“If in studying what we need to do would involve shutting down Southeastern Seminary and indicating that Danny Akin do something else that would actually be an impetus and an aid to the Great Commission, then that’s fine,” Akin said. “God doesn’t need Southeastern Seminary. God doesn’t need Southern Baptists.”
Daniel Montgomery, founding and teaching pastor of Sojourn Community Church, a Louisville congregation started in 2000 targeting prospects aged 18-25, encouraged younger ministers to bear with existing denominational structures in order to improve them.
“We have at times given very, very, very little, both locally and state(wide), and we realized that we don’t have a voice because of that,” Montgomery said. “I think a lot of people just don’t know how the system works and how to go about reform.”
Mohler said whether the division of Cooperative Program funds between state and national conventions is good stewardship varies, and as a an SBC employee it would be unfair for him to comment on what a local church should do in a particular state.
“I would say for Southern Seminary and for the Southern Baptist Convention, don’t give a dollar that you don’t think is well deployed in ministry,” he said. “And then hold us all accountable for what we do with those mission dollars.”
Stetzer, who has worked as a researcher with several SBC entities, said he decided years ago in analyzing data, “It’s not my role to try to save the SBC.”
“I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly,” he said. “I’m not impressed with the Southern Baptist Convention. I’m not seeking to get my identity from it.”
As a pastor and church planter, however, Stetzer said, “I still believe” in the SBC.
“For me, I’m kind of at the place now where we’ve got to make some substantive changes,” he said. “The voices of division are becoming more shrill at the same time as we are coming together, but I really believe if we can come together over the next few years that in the process of doing so we’ll have a better allocation of where our finances go with more focus on local missions and church planting in the United States.”
Stetzer said he recognized that as a matter of stewardship younger pastors on the fence will not wait forever for the Southern Baptist Convention to adapt to changing times.
“I do not think now is the time for you to pull the resources out of the established system,” he said. “Now is the time you can engage that system and to fix that system.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Allen is senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.)