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 game for mobile

The Type of Statesmen Southern Baptists Need, Part 1

In honor of our national elections, I want to offer a reflection on the type of statesmen I believe Southern Baptists need. I think this is an important issue because Southern Baptists are in the midst of a transitional era. I assume there are few who would question this. And there is perhaps no greater evidence that we are a denomination in transition than the hopes expressed and concerns raised about Convention leadership (both present and potential) over the course of the last decade.

Over the past five years we have witnessed the passing of some of the key leaders of the Conservative Resurgence from the denominational spotlight. Adrian Rogers is now with his Lord. Jerry Vines and Jimmy Draper have retired from their noted positions (though not from gospel ministry). It is likely that in the next half decade or so we will witness the retirements of Paige Patterson, Morris Chapman, Ed Young Sr., and Charles Stanley. Men like Jack Graham and O. S. Hawkins are likely in the final decade of their current ministry positions. The younger pastors and agency leaders of the 1990s are now middle aged, many with grandchildren. This means we need some new younger leaders, or at least godly and gifted men who have the potential to be future leaders.

This need has not gone unnoticed on the part of some of our current leaders. Draper took several steps during his final years at LifeWay to reach out to younger pastors. The past two SBC presidents, Frank Page and Johnny Hunt, have called for a greater investment in future leaders. Hunt, who is the current president of the SBC, has long been known for his personal commitment to mentoring men for pastoral ministry and other positions of spiritual leadership. Many others have observed the phenomenon of “younger leaders,” whether real or perceived, taking a greater interest in Convention affairs, often through electronic media like message boards and especially blogs.

Many current leaders and other observers have expressed concern about some of these younger leaders (or perhaps better, possible future leaders). Some are concerned that younger pastors and seminarians may be insufficiently committed to the SBC in an increasingly post-denominational age. As a Baptist historian, this is certainly one of my concerns. Others fear that too many younger Southern Baptists are committed to, or at least show too much sympathy for, Calvinistic theology. The assumption is that Calvinism-or at least too much vocal Calvinism-is a threat to the SBC. Whether this assumption is true or not (I think not), there certainly are a lot of younger Southern Baptists who seem more interested in attending conferences like Together for the Gospel than regional pastor’s conferences hosted by SBC churches or state convention or even the SBC annual meeting itself. Other concerns about the younger generation include a lack of commitment to certain historic Baptist principles, an alleged antinomian streak, an unhealthy openness to interdenominational cooperation, possible Charismatic or Third Wave tendencies, an insufficient appreciation of the Conservative Resurgence, a lack of commitment to the Cooperative Program, and a lack of respect for past and current Convention leadership.

Concerns about leadership have always factored into our denominational controversies. William Whitsitt resigned as president of Southern Seminary at the turn of the 20th century because of grassroots concerns about both his orthodoxy and his character (he rejected the perpetuity of immersion in an anonymous article and then denied writing the article when questioned by his trustees). J. Frank Norris was shut out of denominational life because of the often outrageous tactics he used in criticizing SBC leadership. Both the Elliott Controversy and the Broadman Bible Controversy were, at their core, concerns about the orthodoxy of professors and the integrity of a denominational bureaucracy that often covered for them. This was also the principle concern of the Conservative Resurgence: compared to most Southern Baptists, SBC leaders were either too theologically progressive or were willing to defend a status quo that encouraged-or at least tolerated-theological aberration.

Even our more recent controversies are about leadership. Though the Baptist Faith and Message was revised at several points in 2000, no revision garnered more attention than the statement that pastoral ministry is reserved for biblically qualified men alone. All of our paid denominational leaders were required to affirm the revised BF&M, which caused tension at some agencies, especially the International Mission Board. Elected trustees are also required to affirm the confession and no would-be Convention officer has any hope for election unless he or she accepts the BF&M. The more recent imbroglio over the baptism and prayer language guidelines at the IMB has been, among other things, a debate about how well a particular trustee board has led its agency. There have also been tensions about potential trustees whose churches do not give 10% to the Cooperative Program or who personally drink alcoholic beverages, the biblical appropriateness of females serving as certain types of seminary professors, and the propriety of agency heads running for elected denominational office. All of these concerns have to do with leadership.

In light of the role that leadership concerns have played in current and past Convention controversies, my next post will offer my personal reflections about the type of statesmen that the SBC needs. It is my hope that these posts will be a reminder to our present leaders and a challenge to all those who may one day find themselves in a position of denominational influence, whether paid, elected, or mobi

Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence, Part 8: What Do We Mean by “Resurgence?”

The idea of a Great Commission Resurgence should call to mind at least two concepts with which many Southern Baptists will readily identify: mission and the Conservative Resurgence. My colleague Bruce Ashford has already done a fine job of explaining what we mean when we use the term Great Commission (see his articles here and here). My task is to define the word resurgence and shed some light on why we have chosen this particular word to help cast a vision for the future of the Southern Baptist Convention.

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a resurgence could be defined as “a continuing after interruption; a renewal.” Think about this definition in the context of the past thirty or so years of SBC history. The theological-political movement that began in the late 1970s has been called at least three things: a takeover, a controversy, and a resurgence. There is some truth to each of these descriptions, though we need to be clear just what we mean.

The movement was surely a takeover because conservative dissenters successfully replaced the denomination’s leadership by mastering the Convention’s polity, winning democratic elections, and selecting trustees who were sympathetic to the movement’s conservative theological aims. The movement was also undoubtedly a controversy-just ask anyone who was there. But neither of these phrases do the movement full justice; surely it was more than a mere political movement or just another denominational melee.

Despite the political means employed and the controversy generated by all parties involved, the movement that gained control of the SBC during the last quarter of the 20th century is best defined as a resurgence. Since at least the 1940s, SBC denominational leaders downplayed and sometimes rejected conservative theology. Our traditional Baptist distinctives were redefined so that they would be consistent with a hyper-individualistic understanding of the Christian life. This new understanding of Baptist identity fit neatly with a neo-orthodox view of Scripture and a pietistic de-emphasis on doctrinal commitments. Furthermore, it was shielded by a bureaucracy that was intent on defining cooperation as mere financial stewardship, with doctrinal commonality taking a back seat. The basic theological consensus that had existed in the SBC of 1850 had been gradually replaced with a commitment to theological diversity by 1950. Our commitment to conservative theology had been interrupted by pragmatic cooperation and a fascination with progressive theological trends.

Conservatives felt mostly shut out of SBC life and they feared for the future of the Convention, so they formed alternative schools, publications, and networks that functioned as alternatives to the denomination’s ministries. But by the mid-1970s, conservatives were galvanized by the discovery that the Convention’s polity was such that the face of the denomination could be changed through a strategic use of the appointive powers of the denomination’s presidency. Under the leadership of Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler, a grassroots movement was launched in 1979 that consistently elected movement conservatives to the Convention presidency. During the next two decades, moderates increasingly disengaged from denominational life, conservatives restructured the bureaucracy, and in 2000 a thoroughly conservative revision of the Baptist Faith and Message was adopted by the Convention.

This movement was a Conservative Resurgence because the conservative theology that had been eclipsed (or at least downplayed) by many denominational leaders during the mid-20th century was restored to a place of prominence in the Convention’s seminaries, commissions, and boards. There was continuation after interruption, and after years of focusing on other things-primarily financial stewardship, bureaucratic efficiency, denominational growth, and a more progressive approach to theology-the Convention’s elected and appointed leaders were again committed to a biblically and theologically conservative faith and practice. There was a renewal of historic Baptist theology in the halls of leadership within the Southern Baptist Convention.

The contemporary SBC is the product of the Conservative Resurgence. This is a very good thing. Every Southern Baptist agency head, missionary, professor, and other denominational employee who has been hired in recent years is a theological conservative. Our mission boards are appointing sound missionaries, our seminaries are educating sound students, and our publishing house is producing sound curricula, books, and other resources. Our Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is contending for traditional family values. Southern Baptists should be thankful for the Conservative Resurgence because these things were not always the case two decades ago.

But there is at least a potential a downside to the Conservative Resurgence, albeit an unintentional one. A generation and a half of Southern Baptists was involved in a pitched battle for the future of the SBC. Many are still involved in such battles in their state conventions and associations. These battles are important because truth matters. Nevertheless, we must recognize it is possible to become so accustomed to fighting during times of war that one does not know how to live peaceably with like minded brothers and sisters once the battles are over.

The above scenario is not mythical. It actually happened to many of the separatist fundamentalists in the 20th century. After they lost the battles for their denominations and withdrew from those groups, they turned on each other. Within a generation, fundamentalists were shooting each other and often fracturing over matters such as cultural engagement, degrees of cooperation with and separation from other believers (even other conservatives), Calvinism, Landmarkism, the timing of the rapture, charismatic gifts, the age of the earth, and Bible translations. To this day, there are Independent Baptists who have as difficult a time getting along with some of their fellow fundamentalists as they do the liberal Episcopal priest down the street.

Though I hate to admit this, I sense a tendency toward this very type of infighting among some contemporary Southern Baptists. We are even fighting about some of the same issues over which our fundamentalist friends divided. Southern Baptists must be careful that we do not become too preoccupied with secondary and tertiary matters, lest these issues distract us from the task at hand. According to the original constitution of the SBC our Convention exists for the purpose of “eliciting, combining and directing the energies of the whole denomination in one sacred effort, for the propagation of the Gospel.” Mission is in our denominational DNA. It always has been.

Conservatives frequently criticize the pre-1979 SBC for emphasizing mission work-and the financing thereof-to the exclusion of sound doctrine. This type of pragmatism created an atmosphere wherein aberrant theology was tolerated and at times even encouraged so long as missionary enlistment increased and the Cooperative Program kept growing. Conservatives rightly rejected this paradigm, arguing that one cannot do authentic mission without being committed to biblical theology and practice. This is a conviction that we must never surrender.

At our present moment in SBC history, it is important to remind ourselves not to confuse the ends with the means. If we are content with simply having theological conservatives leading our various ministries, then the Conservative Resurgence was only a half-victory. Our Conservative Resurgence must give birth to a Great Commission Resurgence. Our use of the word resurgence is deliberate. Just as our commitment to conservative theology was interrupted during the generation prior to the Conservative Resurgence, our commitment to the primacy of mission was interrupted during the Conservative Resurgence, at least in practice. There were important battles being fought within our denomination, battles that conservatives honestly believed would ultimately lead to theological renewal.

With the success of the Conservative Resurgence, that theological renewal is underway (though its completion is surely reserved for the eschaton!). The time has come for a missional renewal that flows from our doctrinal convictions. Zeal for the Great Commission needs to be restored to its place of prominence in Southern Baptist life, not just in theory and rhetoric, but in practice. No matter how much work still needs to be done to bring about further theological renewal in the Convention, we cannot lose sight of the “one sacred effort” that has united us since our earliest days. The interruption is over. The distractions must be set aside. God is at work reconciling the world unto himself, and Southern Baptists need to get serious again about making ourselves available to the Lord to use in his great work of bringing salvation to people from every corner of the earth. Theology and mission go hand in hand. One without the other is an incomplete agenda. One without the other is destined to fall short of what our Lord intends.