WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–The reaction to Jimmy Draper’s June 24 prophetic call for the Southern Baptist Convention to embrace younger leadership has been swift. Draper wrote, “I’m afraid the Southern Baptist Convention resembles the frog a bit too much these days, and it’s time for us to realize the water is heating up.”
Then Draper addressed two concerns for the SBC: a decrease in baptisms and the lack of denominational involvement and loyalty among younger ministers. Interestingly, the fascination with discussing and solving the baptism decline has been minimal while the passion for bringing younger leaders to the table has been dramatic. Much of this passion has been of the agonizing variety that regularly accompanies debates over the causes and cures of generation gaps.
Until now, I have not thought that my perspective on the SBC was all that unique. As the son and nephew of Southern Baptist pastors and as the grandson of Southern Baptist grandparents, I thought that my service as a staff member, pastor, professor and seminary administrator had afforded me roughly the same view of the convention that was available to most SBC pastors, if not to every member of the convention.
I now realize that I was wrong. My view is different. My vantage point is somewhat unique. I see the frog differently.
Far from being discouraged, disheartened or wringing my hands over the future leadership of the SBC, I am absolutely thrilled. Far from seeing a generation gap in the SBC, I am watching daily a continuity of leadership that promises a bright and hopeful future.
My viewpoint is the viewpoint of a seminary faculty member, watching hundreds of the finest, brightest and most dedicated men and women cross the platform twice a year, shake hands with their president, receive their diplomas and head out into the world to take the Gospel to every nook and cranny of the globe.
All Southern Baptists should visit at least one SBC seminary graduation service. They are free and open to the public.
Talk with the graduates and be impressed. Be impressed with their calling. Be impressed with their conviction. Be impressed with their knowledge. But most of all, be impressed with their God-granted, Spirit-empowered, Scripture-honoring leadership.
Could it be that we Southern Baptists are getting ahead of ourselves with all this lamentation? Dr. Draper was right in his observation, but he himself has not taken to hand-wringing. Some of what I hear reminds me of the United States’ mission in Iraq.
Some out there complain that one year after the war, Iraq is not yet a full-fledged democracy with mature governmental institutions, a glowing economy, and not a car bomb in sight. From where did such unrealistic expectations arise?
Yet we persist in the Southern Baptist Convention to question why we have not zoomed forward from our “victory” in the conservative resurgence. After all, we have been at this for 25 years now, right?
Wrong. The resurgence only began 25 years ago. Few seem to agree on the exact date the controversy ended, but we all know that battles still rage from place to place.
When we look at the training grounds for our young leadership, your SBC seminaries could not be counted as turned around in earnest until at least 1996. Perhaps the year 2000 would be a better line of demarcation. Even counting a 1996 date, we are now only eight years into genuine, solid, conservatively trained graduates after countless years of ambivalent, anemic and liberal conditioning. While strong individual graduates have departed from SBC seminaries every year since their founding dates, the difference in the graduating classes who have undergone the coherent and intentionally scriptural training since 1996 is enormous.
The first place to look for results from these graduates is in the smaller churches around our seminaries and in our mission fields. Many of the finest leaders your SBC seminaries have trained are serving on foreign soil, placing their lives and the lives of their families on the line every day. Some serve in places we cannot name for their own safety. Others serve in open harvest fields.
Unless you meet these young leaders, you cannot know the tears of joy your seminary professors weep each semester as a new group hits the field. Two I cannot name were scheduled to go to a country that broke out in open warfare. When asked whether they would now go elsewhere, they replied that, to the contrary, they wanted to leave early for the war-torn country. God had called them there, they said, and they must be obedient to His calling.
These new missionaries are cutting-edge, but they are not interested in turning their backs on the SBC. They know the SBC, just like any human organization, is not perfect, but they are convinced that the SBC is where God wants them to invest their lives in reaching the world for Jesus Christ.
Small churches around our SBC seminaries know these young leaders, and mid-sized and larger churches are beginning to know them. Pioneer states like Maine and Montana now know them well. Sold on the SBC and committed to the Cooperative Program, these young leaders are just beginning to make the monumental impact among us that God has in store. They are quiet and are not looking for places in the limelight.
Clay Alexander is a good example. Clay is a recent seminary graduate and pastor in Wright, Wyo., home to 1,300 people. With a congregation of 97 members (about 7.5 percent of the total population), Alexander is committed to evangelism and to the Cooperative Program and to more. In 2003-04, Clay led his 97 members to give $12,488.84 to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions.
Dr. Draper is right. We need to call these young leaders out to learn and to lead in the convention. But these young leaders are confident in the training they have received and are hitting the front lines against Satan every day. And yes, they do understand the tie that irrevocably weds biblical theology to godly methodology.
The SBC has nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to young leadership. We have every reason to be grateful to God. The future is much brighter than you may know. The new generation of well-trained leadership is already among us. Yes, they are young, they are exciting, and they are embracing the SBC. I see and fellowship with more and more of them at the convention every June.
A few more years will show it all. As one Oklahoma pastor recently concluded his written evaluation of student mission interns, “If [this couple is] just a sample of the passion for missions and a concept of ministry [among SBC seminary students], we truly are on the verge of a global awakening.”
God never promised a quick turnaround in the SBC, but He has made the great future of the SBC clearly visible to all who will see. Visit your nearest SBC seminary soon and meet the future of the SBC!
Waylan Owens, a former pastor in Louisiana and Alaska, now serves as vice president for institutional effectiveness at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.