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Survey: Younger Southern Baptist involvement rising

NASHVILLE (BP) — Southern Baptists appear to be defying the prevalent notion that young adults are abandoning the American church — at least by one measurement.

Attendance by younger generations reached a 10-year high at the Southern Baptist Convention’s 2014 meeting in Baltimore, according to an annual survey of attendees. The survey, conducted by the SBC Executive Committee, showed nearly one-fourth (24.68 percent) of attendees were younger than age 40. That surpassed by more than 4 percentage points the previous best for the age group, recorded in 2013.

The 2014 survey also showed 10-year highs for SBC attendees who are under 45 (33.44 percent, a gain of more than 3 percent over the previous high in 2013) and under 35 (15.93 percent, again an increase of more than 3 percent over the earlier high, which came in 2012).

Though not a scientific sampling, the dramatic upswing in younger-generation participation at the SBC annual meeting since 2005 — especially during the last three years — reinforces what he has “noticed anecdotally,” said Southern Baptist entity head Russell Moore.

“The hand-wringers are wrong,” said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “There are always those who are, for whatever reason, drawn to a myth of decline. And there are always those who, for whatever reason, want to chasten the next generation for being disengaged. But they’re not disengaged, and they’re getting more engaged all the time.”

The survey results also provide encouragement to SBC leaders regarding the future of Southern Baptists.

“I love the passion and vision of younger pastors and church leaders,” said Roger S. Oldham, the Executive Committee’s vice president for convention communications and relations. “The older generations launched out, thinking that with God on our side we could reach the world in a single generation. This generation is no different. The tempering of experience, however, shows the value of multi-generational cooperation.

“Growth in attendance of younger pastors demonstrates the enduring value of cooperation and an increasing sense of ownership that we really can do more collectively than we can do individually,” Oldham said.

Moore said he “could not be more hopeful and excited about the future of the mission of Christ, and the Southern Baptist Convention’s place in that mission.” The future of the SBC is vibrant, Moore told Baptist Press in written comments, “and younger generations are leading the way. It’s time to harness this energy, and turn the SBC loose on a world in need of Jesus and the Gospel of His Kingdom.”

A “cultural savvy”

Two younger pastors offered various reasons for the increase in annual meeting attendance by younger Southern Baptists. The SBC’s leadership and direction were among key factors cited by Jon Akin and Dean Inserra in email interviews.

Younger Southern Baptists “are excited about where the convention is heading because they love the leaders in the SBC and are excited about the Great Commission Resurgence these leaders have championed,” said Akin, senior pastor of Fairview Baptist Church in Lebanon, Tenn. “They’ve seen a refocusing on streamlining our processes, getting more resources to the places with little access to the Gospel, and key leaders make the changes necessary.”

Inserra, senior pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Fla., said the convention’s new leaders possess “vision, and a cultural savvy, without compromising the convictions of our SBC forefathers. They are giving us something worth being part of.”

The desire to cooperate also is motivating greater numbers to the SBC annual meeting, they said.

“I believe this increase is showing us that a generation believes cooperation matters, the SBC is still an influencer, and that we will be stronger than ever in the years to come,” Inserra said.

Younger Southern Baptists, Akin said, “want to cooperate with like-minded brothers of all ages, races and backgrounds to accomplish the Great Commission.”

SBC President Ronnie Floyd, in his weekly column Feb. 2, noted that a record 18,000-plus “future pastors, missionaries and scholars” are enrolled in the SBC’s seminaries. “While some may believe that we limit ourselves due to our [conservative theological] beliefs, the reality is our six Southern Baptist seminaries are educating more seminary students than ever before in our history,” he wrote.

Floyd regularly has included young pastors and leaders in his call to Southern Baptists to be part of the focus on prayer for spiritual awakening planned for the SBC annual meeting in Columbus in June.

The SBC seminaries indeed are having an effect on attendance, Inserra said.

“They are exciting students about the Gospel and educating them on what cooperation looks like to take the Gospel to those who don’t know Christ in North America and across the earth,” he said.

Akin — a leader of Baptist21, a ministry by and for younger Southern Baptists — also pointed to events at the SBC’s annual meeting that interest the younger generation. Among these are the growing number of younger speakers at the Pastors’ Conference and the increase in auxiliary meetings during the convention, including panel discussions sponsored by the Executive Committee, Baptist21 and 9Marks as well as the Send North America luncheon of the North American Mission Board (NAMB).

SBC mobile app

The Executive Committee added a mobile app for its annual survey in 2013. Thirty-five percent of survey responses in 2013 were through the mobile app, but only 16 percent were in 2014.

Responses through the mobile app “have trended toward a younger demographic,” said William Townes, the Executive Committee’s vice president of convention finance, who also serves as convention manager for the SBC annual meeting. In a sense, he said, the mobile app’s addition “may be resulting in a better reflection of the actual demographic attendance at the convention.”

Even without the mobile app replies, he definitely finds “a trend of increasing younger representation” at the annual meeting, Townes told BP. 

Additionally, findings in other recent research also provide hopeful signs from younger Southern Baptists. A 2014 survey — commissioned by the Executive Committee and conducted by LifeWay Research — showed 30 percent of Southern Baptist pastors less than 45 years of age “strongly agree” the SBC’s Cooperative Program-supported entities “are moving in the appropriate direction with the strategies they have in place.” Only 20 percent of pastors from 45 to 54 “strongly agree” with the statement.

Cautiously optimistic

The results of these surveys “give renewed hope that Southern Baptists will continue to have an active and aggressive role to play in God’s purposes to reach our neighborhoods and the nations with the Gospel,” Oldham said in written comments.

In considering the participation of younger Southern Baptists beyond attendance at the annual meeting, both concerns and encouragements exist, leaders said.

Aaron Coe, NAMB’s vice president of mobilization and marketing, described himself as “cautiously optimistic about the future.”

“I am optimistic because we have a conservative theological vitality,” he told BP in an email interview. “If we didn’t have that, we wouldn’t have anything. Additionally, there is an increase in younger-minded thinkers who are getting involved, and that is good. 

“I am cautious because the challenges of ministry in the United States are increasing. Rapid urbanization and globalization have created a context that changes almost on a weekly basis. Historic institutions, like the SBC, are not really designed for rapid change and response. The real question is: ‘Will we be able to adjust to meet the demands of the Twenty-first Century missiological environment we find ourselves in?'”

Inserra said, “While we must be honest about the lack of young people in SBC churches, I am seeing churches doing a fantastic job of reaching them. There aren’t enough, but it is happening.

“I am encouraged about the involvement of younger Southern Baptists because they want nothing to do with cultural or nominal Christianity,” he told BP. “They are serious about the Gospel, church planting, church revitalization and international missions. They care about cultural issues, justice and their neighborhoods.”

A decline in young people in Southern Baptist churches can be expected for a combination of reasons, Akin said. Yet, evidence also exists “of the rise of committed Christianity among the younger generation, including in the SBC,” as “nominal Christianity and cultural Christianity seem to be diminishing,” he said.

Akin said he is encouraged “because we see more young people wanting to go overseas and give their lives to spread the Gospel among the unreached.” He told BP, “I am encouraged because we see an increase in church planting in America. I am encouraged because many of our seminaries are seeing record growth, and anytime I’m on one of our seminary campuses I get excited for the Gospel-loving army we are about to unleash on the kingdom of darkness. And finally, I am encouraged because I know [in] the end that Jesus receives the reward of His suffering in a redeemed multitude from every people group on the planet.”

SBC entity heads are encouraging younger Southern Baptists toward greater participation in convention life. As an example, at an October dinner sponsored by the Executive Committee in Nashville, David Platt, president of the International Mission Board, NAMB President Kevin Ezell and Moore urged about 125 pastors and leaders in their 20s and 30s to participate more in the SBC.

Reminding them that the “headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention is the local church,” Executive Committee President Frank S. Page challenged the younger leaders to remain involved with the cooperative ministries of the convention. Speaking to the group by video, he encouraged them to study, look at, and be a part of the Cooperative Program. By staying connected with the convention, you are “earning your right at the table” to help shape the SBC’s future, he told them.

By “being part of that local group, that state group, let your voice be heard,” Page said. “If you think [the way we do cooperative ministry] needs to be changed, change it from the inside.” This is the only way the convention and its Cooperative Program will remain relevant and effective in the years to come, he said.