Facts and feelings from Orlando: The road back for young leaders and the SBC
by Ed Stetzer
It sure looked a lot younger at the SBC annual meeting this year. Many of us commented on the presence, involvement and impact of young leaders and an intergenerational look to the meeting.
The Pastors’ Conference elected “contemporary” (sorry to use that word) leaders in their late 30s, early 40s. The Baptist 21 (www.baptisttwentyone.com) panel boasted an attendance of “around” 1,300, many of whom were first time SBC attendees. Pastors’ Conference speakers, as well as the main Convention program, provided a broad generational appeal. And, Bryant Wright was the youngest of the four SBC presidential candidates (and, to my knowledge, the only church planter ever elected SBC president).
So, all the young people were back, and everything is better, right? Well, uh, no—though some of the older folks were dressed more casually. This year, registered messengers were not significantly different than years past. Although there are reasons for optimism, our eyes and even our opinions don’t change the facts: the percentage of younger messengers was actually down from the last year.
The dramatic decline of younger leaders registered as messengers to our annual meeting has not been reversed. Aging of the SBC is a long-time trend, and it will take time to turn the tide.
More than one-third of the registered messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas in 1985 were 18-39 years old—the highest percentage in history. The 18-39 year olds who were in Dallas are now 43-64 years old. In Orlando, less than one-fifth (17.5 percent) were 18-39 year-olds. (The actual numbers are much more dramatic considering how much smaller the meetings are now.)
The downward trend of young leader participation has not been a rapid change, and the reverse is not going to be dramatic. Although we sense change and believe we’re making progress, the real numbers put us in an awkward position. Facts are stubborn things, and we cannot deny what we know to be true. The fact is that we have a long way to go.
The concern about the numbers does not stop at the youngest end of the equation. Another trend is the growth among those 60 and older (34.81 percent). Growth in the 60+ demographic has now increased for six consecutive years. When we examined the numbers, a friend asked me, “Is the SBC nearing retirement?” Perhaps. We honor and bless those who have led us through the years and will continue to lead. But if the under-40 crowd is disappearing, and some of the over-60 folks are retiring, who will lead in the future?
Some facts, however, do show promise. Certain demographic areas experienced modest increases. For example, several age groups have been up the last two years, at least from the four years prior. The number of messengers in the 45-49 age group increased by 3.6 percent from the year before. Also, the 40-44 year olds increased by 1.54 percent, and the 18-29 year olds by .96 percent. (Source: http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=33369) We celebrate these increases while acknowledging we still have work to do.
The reality is that we still face an unsustainable trend in regard to the age of messengers. Trends are pesky things. Trends don’t go away quickly.
Trends tend to last unless something changes them. This trend is merely a reflection of the reality of who we are as a convention—and who we are becoming. Yet, I believe the will exists among our churches and leadership to raise up a new generation of leaders for the work still ahead of us in God’s mission. The question is, “Will we?”