GONE SOUTH: The Millennials and their meaningful clash
The ongoing debate surrounding recommendations offered in the final report by the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force (GCRTF) reveal potentially devastating disagreements that could derail the Southern Baptist Convention.
The denomination is well known by its squabbles. Some consider such a hallmark of “being a Baptist.” Historically, evangelicals have entered into rigorous debate regarding theological precision and corporate confessional standards. The current dialogue in the SBC, however, no longer bears marks of an all-together theological discussion, but a corporate tussle that will result in permanent change to the SBC no matter what messengers decide about the GCRTF report.
The Southern Baptist Convention consoled itself during decades of recent controversy that theirs was a particularly theological crisis—agonizing, but ultimately valuable because such issues as the inspiration and authority of Holy Scripture became the ground for all future ministry outreach. During the past three decades, theological conservatives in the SBC resisted efforts to unite around missions precisely because they believed there was not a unifying vision of exactly what “the mission” truly was in an age of obvious theological downgrade. Ultimately, orthodoxy prevailed.
Soon after Convention messengers ratified the Baptist Faith & Message 2000, rumblings began to be heard across the SBC as to what was next for the denomination. Would confessional unity usher in a renewal throughout local congregations who would relish the Christian doctrines now pulsating through the lifeblood of Convention agencies and entities? Would the victory for orthodoxy result in a golden age for the denomination known for its grass-roots appeal to personal holiness and personal evangelism?
Jimmy Draper, former president of Lifeway Christian Resources, noticed a potentially disastrous trend most clearly observed at the SBC annual meetings: The SBC was aging. Draper assembled his staff and told them that the Lifeway report of 2004 would not be “the usual dog and pony show of the past.” He organized an outreach to younger pastors and publicly launched it at the Convention. Draper stated the obvious: the conservative resurgence did not bring about denominational renewal in a way that strategically unified the SBC.
Prior to the conservative resurgence, those who labored in denominational agencies and seminaries were, by and large, radically (and often intentionally) removed from the churches who supported them. There was a tacit understanding that theological conservatives dominated local churches, while more moderate ideologues inhabited the SBC’s massive (and expensive) infrastructure.
Some suggested that conservatives should starve out the moderates. The Cooperative Program was designed to leverage the power of each congregation to ultimately direct the affairs of denominational programs. Statistics reveal that over the past decade, few SBC presidents led congregations that were champions of the Cooperative Program. Time and again, the promise was made: correct the theology and money will once again massively materialize into CP coffers. It did not happen. Why?
Over the last century, the SBC has been strongest in the American southeast. In the same way that Hillaire Belloc once claimed that “the (Roman Catholic) Faith is Europe and Europe is the Faith,” Southerners were Southern Baptists, and the South was Southern Baptist. By 2000, the region accounted for almost two-thirds of the SBC’s recorded 16 million members. Since the early ’80’s, however, the footprint of the SBC has been moving north and west. This is due in part to evangelistic efforts in states such as Illinois, Indiana, California, Oregon and Washington. Shifting demographics have also played a part.
The Millennials, people born between the early 1980s and 2000, began appearing in sizeable numbers across the SBC in the late 1990s. This generation joins Generation Xers (born 1965-81) as the new future of the denomination in ways not yet conceived by Baby Boomers (born 1946-64) and Traditionalists (born prior to 1946). During the 1950s, the SBC reached some of its peak experiences in that its massive denominational program systematized a uniform code of practice that reinforced planks of operation that remained over time and were integrated generationally. It was possible to actually be born a Southern Baptist and never know anything other than life inside the Southern Baptist Convention—from womb to tomb.
Lynne Lancaster and David Stillman performed extensive research on Millennials’ attitudes about their life and work only to discover that the 76 million of them comprise the fastest growing segment of workers in the workforce today. The Millennials are causing a culture clash in the corporations, non-profits, and various government positions now coming open as a result of the accelerating retirements of many Baby Boomers. In their book, The M-Factor: How the Millennial Generation is Rocking the Workplace, they state that the Millennials “had barely kicked off their careers when employers started scratching their heads and asking, ‘Who are these people?’” Lancaster and Stillman reveal shocking behaviors that have sent more senior employees reeling against the generation also called Generation Y, GenNext, the Google Generation and the Echo Boom.
A new hire who calls the CEO directly to tell him ways the company could be improved or the Milliennial who featured a confidential new product on her Facebook page prior to its public release steamroll into observable generational characteristics which are fueling nothing short of a revolution throughout the nation—even (perhaps especially) in the church. Thom Rainer and his son, Jess, preformed research on this generation as well, and it is featured in their forthcoming book, The Millennials.
The Rainers note that “for most boomer churches, the community was perceived to be a place where prospects could be found. Entire systems of outreach were devised to find people to increase the membership of the church. In many of these churches, the community was seen to be a source of greater attendance and increased financial gifts.” No longer. Christians of this generation view their communities not as a place where congregations look for future prospects, but a distinct place where they are personally called to serve. “Millennials don’t ask what the community can do for the church; they ask what they can do for the community,” they state.
This attitude is most clearly displayed in their need for meaning in their outreach and their stubborn refusal to participate in processes which seem fruitless or possessed no meaning for them. According to a Kelly Global Workforce Index, they are willing (and often eager) to accept lower wages for a job that contributed to their feeling more connected and “meaningful” with their work.
“Such characteristics are certain to have an impact on local congregations and particularly the Southern Baptist Convention,” stated Ronnie Floyd, senior pastor of Springdale, Ark., First, The Church at Pinnacle Hills, and chairman of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force. “What we have learned through this process is the disconnect and often confusion as to how Milliennials view Baby Boomers and Traditionalists and why the actions of these groups often clash.”
Floyd has observed that the old South is changing so very rapidly that a new South is emerging with churches that are often in trauma over the way to reach their communities. “For the most part, programs no longer attract the attention and participation of younger evangelicals,” Floyd said. “Rather, they desire to be a part of something meaningful on their jobs, in their families and with their closest relationships.”
Floyd believes that the multiple generations who now comprise the outreach of the Southern Baptist Convention must “unite around the Gospel and be willing to welcome change without trampling the great legacy which is ours as Southern Baptists.” Regarding the report that will be formally considered by messengers to the Orlando convention, he thinks that “if the report is embraced by Southern Baptists, then there is a shot at unity—at getting together in ways that will mobilize future generations to directly impact lostness in our nation and throughout the world.”
Anthony L. Jordan, executive director-treasurer of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, agrees that some generational challenges are in play at the moment across the SBC.
“We need one another,” Jordan said. “There is simply too much at stake to simply not work to understand and grow together in unity. We live in a time when the culture is changing dramatically—often by the day. In order to impact the lostness of our nation and the world, we need to harness both the energy and insight of the Milliennials, as well as ground ourselves in the wisdom of those who have have worked so very hard to bring us to this point in our history.”
Douglas E. Baker is executive editor
of The Baptist Messenger.