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ANALYSIS: What do the numbers mean — is the SBC in decline?
Part 2 Generation Gap, Young Leaders

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the third of four articles which address research that has been published within the last year or so about people of faith in the U.S. The series examines Christianity in America, what the numbers mean for the Southern Baptist Convention and the imprint of evangelical voters in the public square. This article and article two examine the SBC.

UPDATED June 12 to add new paragraphs 50 & 51.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Much of the talk in Southern Baptist life lately has centered on whether the SBC is losing its young people and whether the “convention” is driving away young leaders.

Some have asserted that you can’t deny the “facts” that the SBC is losing young leaders and even causing them to stay away.

But one of the unique aspects of analysis is that data are not facts until they are understood properly within the context which expresses their true meaning.

In order to develop an accurate meaning of a number, it’s not enough to look at it in its raw state or to just subject it to a statistical test. It must be examined within the reference environment in order for it to make real sense. Unfortunately, too often conclusions are drawn before the critical questions are asked and answered.

If the SBC is losing its youth, what is the number?

Churches lose and gain members, young and old. While every church would like to keep every member, what is a reasonable level of loss? Certainly Jesus taught the principle of the importance of the one (e.g. the good shepherd leaves the 99 for the one). But is this principle of commitment one that He meant to use as a measuring rod for outreach effectiveness? How does the parable of the sower and the soils apply?

For example, if a church attracts and evangelizes 100 youth and 50 of them eventually leave, did the church lose 50 percent of these young people or gain 50 new members?

Also, if these former youth members/attendees leave, do they ever return? If so, should the church be faulted for the absences of these prodigals or should the church be congratulated for making enough of a lasting impression that the “lost” are “found?”

The same thinking should be applied to the issue of “young leaders” in the SBC.

Are we losing young leaders? If so, how many?

The claim is that it’s a generational issue, but is there another common denominator among them besides being “young” that might explain their breaking fellowship with Southern Baptists?

Accession and succession of leadership and followership are critical to any organization and this issue deserves serious discussion. These are matters not just vital to the future but to the present as well.


Unfortunately, unsubstantiated, undocumented rhetoric seems to dominate any discussion about young leaders or the younger generations.

Probably one of the most misused statistics over the last several years is “88 percent of teens attending evangelical churches will forsake their church, if not their faith, by the time they are 18” (Although different variations of this statement are floating around). What is disheartening is that this value-laden assessment is anecdotal information based on personal experiences, not data. In reality the situation is almost the opposite of what is represented in the statement.

In 2007, LifeWay Research reported that “70 percent of young adults ages 23-30 stopped attending church regularly for at least a year between ages 18-22.”

However, while such a figure might cause a loss of breath, the study also showed that the majority of those who dropped out returned later.

Among “dropouts” identified in the study, 35 percent returned to church and now attend twice a month or more, and another 30 percent returned and attend church, but less regularly than twice a month.

In other words, about two-thirds of those who left for any length of time during the four years after high school, returned during the young adult years — and that number may be even larger.

In the end, the loss of young people amounted to about one-third of 70 percent, or more precisely, 24.5 percent of young people who attended church to any degree as youths. (In other words, three-quarters attend church now.) However, the study did not consider those who may have returned after age 30. So, the retention might be higher than 75.5 percent of all youth!

Perhaps the insight to be gleaned from the study has nothing to do with what churches are doing to prepare their youth. Instead, there might be a basis for investigating the choices individual parents make regarding the environments they allow their children to enter during those college-age years. Such information might help parents intervene with their respective children to help them avoid the apparent spiritual interregnum between high school and college graduations.

One study that might relate was conducted by Gary Railsback to determine the impact of college choice on the faith of self-identified “born-agains.” He found that the greatest percentage of drop-outs from the born-again category occurred at private secular universities (33-45 percent dropout rate), public four year colleges (24-32 percent) and Catholic colleges (51-59 percent). By contrast, students at the evangelical Christian colleges he studied dropped out at a rate between only 6-7 percent. (http://www.bpnews.net/pdf/BornAgainDropouts.pdf — Figure 1, p. 50, Gary Railsback, “Faith commitment of born-again students at secular and evangelical colleges” in the Journal of Christian Education.)


Probably the most controversial topic of late in Southern Baptist life is whether we are losing “young leaders.”

Part of the argument that the SBC is losing its young leaders is that fewer are attending the annual meeting.

Some of the data used to make this case were presented by Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research, in a study reported out in 2008.

Stetzer’s point largely was based on data pertaining to high attendance in 1985, 1986 and 1992 -– bellwether years in the two-plus decades’ effort to restore conservative leadership to the SBC’s institutions. Consequently, it is likely a good deal of the variance in the demographics of those messenger counts can be explained by the politics employed by each side to get out the vote for their respective candidates for SBC president. On face value it would seem there is such an artificiality to the numbers that they essentiality have little value except to help explain the political changes during that time — and little else.

Other parts of the variance can be explained simply from the age profile for the whole United States for each of those years.

The point is that there were so many compounding and confounding factors at work in those years that plotting a trend would not produce any result that would be generalizable with any degree of confidence.

However, in the study, Stetzer also makes the point that the 18-39 year old age group for pastors represents 17 percent of all Southern Baptist senior pastors, but at the 2007 annual meeting only composed 13.1 percent of messengers.

“Oddly enough, in some quarters there has actually been a debate about whether the SBC attendance is aging and losing its young leaders,” Stetzer said. “Of course, facts don’t convince everyone. My hope is that now, finally, we will stop debating and instead ask the hard question: ‘What is causing so many young leaders to stay away?'” (http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=27143)

What is the proper context for assessing each of his three points?

(1) The reality is there is no debate about whether the SBC is aging. It is — and the biggest influences can be explained in terms of demographics for all Americans, and geography.

Even with the strides made in ethnic diversity, the SBC remains a predominately White, non-Hispanic population, and Census data shows this is the grayest segment of the U.S. population by a large margin — and getting grayer. It is contributing little to the growth of the U.S. now and by 2030 this segment of American citizens likely will not be adding anything because the actual numbers of White, non-Hispanics will begin to decline.

Aging also is a factor of geography.

The South (where the majority of Southern Baptists live) in particular has become much grayer than most of the rest of the U.S.

Prior to 1950, the South was the most youthful region according to Census data. However, since that time, changes in the population have resulted in the South now being older on average than every region of the U.S. except for the Northeast.

(2) Skipping ahead to his question, “What is causing so many young leaders to stay away [from the annual meeting]?”

It’s not enough to assert a presumptive cause such as generational disinterest or the strawman that the “convention” is keeping them away.

In San Antonio, the answer simply could have been the expensiveness of hotels, meals and travel.

In 2007, an estimated 5.1 million tourists visited San Antonio’s river walk, making it one of the top 14 most visited tourist attractions in the U.S. and driving up demand (and prices) for lodging and food, especially during high travel seasons like the one which coincides with the SBC’s annual meeting each year. Likewise, in 2007, headlines declared “Gas prices: Worse than ’81 oil shock.” Just prior to the 2007 SBC, $3.20 per gallon was the ninth straight record high in history at that time (even adjusted for inflation). Younger families with little disposable income would be more impacted by such costs.

(3) But what about his contention that the SBC is “losing its young leaders”?

How many leaders is the SBC losing? Is it significant statistically or even practically? How do such losses compare to other periods in SBC history? For instance, how many young leaders did the SBC lose during the generational turmoil of the 1960s?

Moreover, who are these young leaders the SBC is losing?

Too often, the conversation around this issue is laced with anecdotes of personal knowledge about this young leader or that young leader who has left the SBC out of frustration. But anecdotes typically represent something more than what is factual and often hide something meaningful from view.

Moreover, such assertions are broadly applied to the whole convention, when it is not evident that the situation is even broadly true about the “silo” of relationships which insulate the individual making the claim.

In 2007, LifeWay announced findings from two related studies, one completed by NAMB and another by LifeWay, showing that nearly thirty percent of recent SBC seminary graduates identified themselves as five-point Calvinists as opposed to 10 percent of all Southern Baptist pastors. It’s not unreasonable to surmise that there may be some among recent grads who are dissatisfied with the SBC because of the dissonance between their theological makeup and the theological character of available pastoral openings in existing churches.

Do not misunderstand.

Calvinism has always been a part of Southern Baptist life and will continue to be. However, something as simple as “supply” (more 5-point Calvinist grads) and “demand” (not enough pastorates that match a 5-point Calvinist persuasion) could account for the attrition of some young leaders.

Likewise, in every generation, multiple networks that “do church” differently than “what has been done before” lure away a certain percentage of seminary graduates to join their movements. It seems this is true today regarding such non-SBC networks as ACTS 29 and the Emerging Church.

At what expense is it worth trying to attain or retain these young leader’s in the SBC?

More precisely, what is the fix?

Do we overhaul the SBC, which is merely the “end user,” to adjust to this situation? Or do we correct the “input” and “throughput” elements that are contributing to this output in the accession process?

The bottom line is that as much as Southern Baptists would like to have the loyalties of every young man graduating from our seminaries, some in every generation are bound to leave.

On the bright side, there is good news about those wanting to join our fellowship.

In the last eighteen months, the SBC Executive Committee heard from about 120 pastors expressing interest in leading their churches to partner with Southern Baptists. Moreover, the EC’s Office of Convention Relations shared that the vast majority of these were either non-Southern Baptists who learned about the Cooperative Program in seminary and were excited about our way of doing cooperative missions and ministries, or young men who grew up Southern Baptist whose interest in the convention had been rekindled through exposure through the CP course taught by our seminaries. These young leaders are “running to” the SBC.

Finally, Southern Baptists look to leadership at all levels of the voluntary fellowship that defines our convention. However, at least at the national level, SBC entities are assigned ministry statements that read “to assist” churches. The charge to them is not to drive the ministries of the churches or to decide the partnerships of the churches or to change the theological character of the churches. The mandate is to ASSIST the churches of the convention, acknowledging that the local church is the recognized body to have authority in the Scripture.

In the end, Southern Baptists need to be wary of quick assessments and sound bite leadership. Instead they need carefully completed research that fully informs and equips them for making critical decisions.

NEXT: Are evangelicals fractured and losing influence in the public square?
Will Hall is executive editor of Baptist Press.

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  • Will Hall