In the last couple of days, I’ve read two very encouraging pieces from a couple of young Baptists that have been, to say the least, inspirational. Links to both are posted here.
I find them encouraging, first of all, because we do not hear from younger Baptists very often. “Younger,” in Baptist life, has become a relative term. Many times, in the past decade, as a forty-something, I have been among the “youngest” Baptists in the vast majority of gatherings of people either in the context of Southern Baptists as a denomination, in associational or state meetings, or in special interest group meetings such as Texas Baptists Committed. In most of those meetings or gatherings, there were few people younger than me. Among the friends and acquaintances with whom I attended college and seminary, few are left participating in Baptist denominational life, many for some of the reasons that Ken Williams speaks of in his editorial. Most of those still in the professional ministry serve in non-denominational churches and missions ministries, tired of what they see as a loss of ministry focus in the face of influence peddling and power brokering for control of Baptist conventions and institutions.
I also find “Agent Tim” to be very encouraging and inspiring. I spent the first 28 years of my vocational ministry service working with middle and high school students, as a youth pastor, Christian school faculty member, coach, and administrator, investing time, prayer and a lot of sweat equity in ministering to students and their families, helping them prepare for the challenges to their faith that they would encounter upon leaving home and going to college, praying that they would develop their own faith, and hear God’s calling in their lives. Most of us know the statistics that show that upwards of 80% of youth who are active in their church during high school leave by the time they have finished college. Tim’s blog is a bright light of hope, an encouragement that there are young people who are well on their way to “running a good race.”
The future of the Baptist conventions and institutions that we cherish depends on capturing the interest of the next generation. If Ken is right, and I think he is, if that is going to happen, the conventions are going to have to do some major re-focusing. It is pretty easy to see that denominational politics, political maneuvering, and the Baptist pedigrees and prominence that go along with it is a major turn off. Look at any gathering of Baptists in the last decade, and you will find that anywhere from two thirds to three forths of the participants are past 60, in most cases, considerably so. But then, look inside most Baptist churches on any given Sunday, and you’ll see the same thing.
The big question is, “How do we capture their interest?” My answer to that is “Listen to them.” Ken and Tim, among many others, will give us the answers if we will listen to what they have to say. What motivates them? Let them tell us, and let’s pay attention. And instead of merely offering “sage advice,” we should resort to dialogue instead.
There’s only one thing in Ken’s editorial with which I disagree. He said that “Baptists of tomorrow must adopt an entirely new set of values.” No, actually, I don’t think so. I think Baptists of tomorrow need to adopt the values of their Baptist ancestors of the past, because I think that is exactly what they are looking for. That would include a faith that is spiritually powerful, Biblically discerned, and which motivates believers to action, including social justice, racial reconciliation, and a servant heart.
Our worship must be powerful, and spirit filled. The Holy Spirit must be present in it, it cannot be an empty exercise of routine. That’s one of the characteristics I find in worship among younger people, they are looking for, and expecting an encounter with God in worship. In many Baptist churches today, frankly, that is missing. Our faith must also be centered in sound, Biblical teaching. The Bible is God’s written word, and it leads us to salvation in Christ, and to those powerful, spiritual encounters in worship. Baptists have long declared we have “no creed but the Bible,” and our faith must be grounded in it. These things compel us to action. Social justice and servant leadership are the themes of Christ’s ministry, and the examples he set for his followers. Faith without works is dead, and works without faith are meaningless. The younger generation is looking for a faith that has meaning and gives them purpose. We have plenty of examples, in American Christianity, of an over emphasis on social justice and servant ministry without Biblical guidance or spiritual power, of an over emphasis on spiritual power without Biblical guidance or ministry, and an over emphasis on doctrinal purity over spiritual power and servant ministry.
It is tempting to want to tell this younger generation of Baptists to devote their enthusiasm and energy to attending the convention meetings where votes make changes. The problem with doing that, however, is that in the system that currently exists, it would take half a generation to make those changes, and I’m not sure that the numbers of younger Baptists are large enough to do it over the long haul, anyway. I’m also not sure that maintaining “brand-name” identity, or institutions that work exclusively with churches inside a particular identity, is something that the younger generations of Christians are all that interested in doing. It is far more important to follow the Great Commission in making young disciples of Jesus than it is in making young Baptists out of those disciples.