In an article in the Louisville Courier-Journal, religion writer Peter Smith writes that when the Southern Baptist Convention meets in Louisville today and tomorrow (June 23-24), most convention leaders expect one particular trend to continue — fewer young leaders (less than 40 years old) will be present.
The attendance of this younger group of leaders has been declining since 1980. This is verified by a report from Lifeway Research that indicates 34 percent of church representatives were younger than 40 at its 1980 annual meeting but only 13 percent in 2007.
In the article, pastor Jonathan Merritt of Georgia is reported to have said, “It seems to a number of younger leaders that Southern Baptists have been moving the theological goalposts. It seems every year Southern Baptists are drawing a line in the sand about various secondary and tertiary theological issues that younger pastors don’t feel the need to fight over, whether it is the role of women in ministry or the wisdom in alcohol consumption.” He further says this makes the convention “a brand that many churches and younger pastors don’t want to be associated with.”
So where have all the young leaders gone? Although I do not have research figures, I can attest from personal experience that they are not at the annual general assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The number of young leaders attending these meetings has increased for the last several years, and CBF leaders (especially on the state and regional level) have made significant efforts to get more young adults to the meetings.
OK. Let’s be realistic. We are not talking about the same people. Although they are all young adults, they are discrete groups asking different questions. The choice for young SBC leaders is not “Will I go to the SBC or the CBF?” The question is, “Will I go to the SBC or stay home and deal with things that I think are more important?” In CBF life, the question for young leaders seems to be, “What will I miss if I don’t go to the CBF General Assembly? Will I be welcome and heard when I go there?”
Connie McNeill, the CBF’s coordinator of admissions, said attendance by young leaders has grown at the national assembly. “We are being very intentional about engaging this group in meaningful ways. Much of that engagement happens through the number of social networks we are utilizing. Some is face to face. General Assembly is intentionally having growing numbers of young leaders … on platform. We aren’t where we want to be but … it is a strategic priority that we are giving serious energy and attention to.”
CBF has two great things going for it when it comes to its annual meeting. One is the development of various interest groups (Baptist Women in Ministry, Baptist Center for Ethics and Baptist Joint Committee, for example) who have identified the General Assembly as their meeting for promotion and networking. The other thing is the development of formal and informal networks (state and regional leaders, for example) who come to the meeting for fellowship and encouragement.
If CBF wants to reach young adults, the organization needs to continue to practice this “campground” approach to meeting that allows groups with different interests to come together around a few central events. The old frontier campground usually had one or more places for preaching and some big worship (evangelistic) events, but there was a lot more going on around the campground as people from many different churches came to know and support one another. The model can work today. Just throw a party and see who shows up!
Ircel Harrison is an associate with Pinnacle Leadership Associates and director of the Murfreesboro Center of Central Baptist Theological Seminary. A version of this column appeared previously on his blog.