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FIRST-PERSON: What will it take to bring young leaders back?

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)–Dr. Jimmy Draper caused quite a stir when he said that young leaders were disconnecting from the Southern Baptist Convention. He then invited younger leaders to “help formulate a strategy to solve the problems” (BP, June 28). As a 37-year-old denominational servant, I am not sure if I am a young leader anymore but let me at least add to the dialogue.

I love young emerging leaders and I love the SBC — they just seem to be headed in different directions. I am connected to the SBC because I love our doctrine and our cooperation. However, many other emerging leaders have found those values in other places, started fellowshipping with other networks and in some cases decided that the SBC is no longer relevant. Now, we announce, “We want you back!” Should we expect anything more than, “So what?”

The conservative resurgence righted a convention that doctrinally was drifting leftward, but there also seems to be a surge toward gauging methodology as a measure of fidelity to conservative doctrine. For years, young leaders have heard comments like “contemporary music is not godly,” “real Baptists have it in their name,” “casual dress trivializes worship” and “Sunday School is the only Baptist way.” If this is what it means to be a Southern Baptist, we will see fewer and fewer young leaders in partnership with us.

If we are to reconnect with theologically sound young innovators, we will need to:

— Recognize that biblically sound innovations are being used effectively to reach the world. Two of our three largest churches (Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas, and Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif.) conduct purely contemporary services and also are leaders in baptisms each year. A contemporary style of service is not unbaptistic and does not compromise sound doctrine.

— Remember that being Southern Baptist is about theology and cooperation and not methodology. To be Southern Baptist means that we believe certain things and cooperate together to build God’s Kingdom. We have settled the doctrinal issues (though watchfulness is always needed). Yet, for too many, being Southern Baptist has been a matter of cultural or geographical identification and methodological conformity. Instead, we need to bless all types of scripturally sound churches.

— Avoid using our public gatherings to teach that originality is compromise. I have been to conferences where speakers have preached against everything from sitting on stools to wearing Hawaiian shirts. If even common and mild departures from pulpit norms are attacked when younger pastors go to our events, should we be surprised that they just stop attending? Preaching against them may get a “big amen” from some, but the Amen Corner gets older and smaller every year.

— Provide a vision of worldwide impact that will attract them. Emerging leaders want to be a part of something because of its impact and not just out of loyalty. Younger evangelicals are not waiting for the next convention program; they want to be a part of something that changes the world. A vision for Cooperative Program partnership and collaborative missions needs to be cast to emerging generations.

I cannot say that every young Southern Baptist is theologically sound and just methodologically progressive. Innovation for its own sake should concern us all — and many innovations need a biblical/theological critique. However, some of our institutions have forfeited their place in the dialogue because they are still arguing about whether you have to wear a suit to preach a biblically faithful sermon — and young leaders are far, far away.

Honestly, most young leaders are not pining away for their SBC partnerships. Emerging leaders struggle when they are asked to support a system that continually condemns the practices they endorse. Yet, if they do not become enthusiastic about the team, we all will be wondering what happened to our convention 25 years from now.

Many of us were too young to be a part of the conservative resurgence, but that does not mean we do not love the Bible, our cooperation and our convention. If we want emerging leaders to be enthusiastic about our team, we will need to offer them meaningful leadership roles because we value them and the way they do ministry.

I love the SBC and pray that other young leaders can feel the same way. But if we “invite” but do not “welcome” them, our overtures will go unheeded. Let’s do what it takes so that biblically conservative and methodologically progressive young leaders find the SBC to be the kind of partnership we all know it can be.
Ed Stetzer is manager of strategic networks at the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board, helping connect to young leaders for the purpose of church multiplication. He also is the coauthor with Elmer Towns of a new book, “Perimeters of Light: Biblical Boundaries for the Emerging Church.” He can be reached at [email protected].

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  • Ed Stetzer