Pry the Baton Out of Their (C)old, Dead Hands- An Opinion on Age Trends in the SBC

September 1, 2008

Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” -1 Timothy 4.12

I am a Southern Baptist. I am also a young adult (23 to be exact). These two things alone put me in a declining population segment in American Christianity. Following this past years Southern Baptist Convention in Indianapolis the cat was officially out of the bag: the SBC is getting older (for discussion of this click here). Simply put, more and more young people are leaving Southern Baptist churches (as well as most other denominations in America) and the end result is that our congregations are getting overloaded with the grey-haired guys in three piece suits who sit in the front row and still use a King James Version of the Bible. Needless to say this is not a good trend.

Just today there is a book coming out by Lifeway Research director Thom Rainer entitled Essential Church? which focuses on dealing with the question, Why do so many young adults (18 to 22) leave the church, and what will it take to bring them back? I have a copy already sitting in front of me, though as yet I have not begun to read it. I do, however, have my own opinion on something that can be done to alleviate this problem.

Now, being 23 and not 53 I am not going to sit here and tell the middle-aged bulk of the congregation in our SBC churches what to do (though I think I may have insight, I don’t feel it appropriate to just throw them under the bus). Instead, the people I want to address are the target age group (18-22 year olds) as well as my population of young adults (23-35 years, roughly).

What is the cry that we hear coming up from the 18-35 year old “emerging” generations? Paint it any number of ways, what it basically boils down to is “I don’t like the way my church does things.” So, what are we doing about it? We’re dropping out of those churches and either roaming around on our own vague spiritual journey or starting new “avant-garde” churches which stick a thumb in the eye of our more traditional, orthodox roots.

Yet, why did we leave our original church in the first place? Did they teach a theology we disagreed with? Was the music boring? Did their modernist ecclesiology offend our superior post-modern sensibilities? The first question I think we need to ask is, What is a sufficient reason for leaving a fellowship? From where I stand there seems to be a lot of juvenile arrogance which comes into play when we assert our psuedo-justified reasons for dropping out of the congregation we grew up in.

But what is it that makes this arrogant? It is because we are in effect saying “I know a better way to do it.” That’s the rub. We are unhappy with our churches because they are unappealing to us and because we think we could do it better. This then leads to a youth exodus from traditional churches and a massive influx of new emerging congregations. Yet what do these look like? The emerging churches are composed of young (typically white, but that’s another post) believers who are experimenting with doing church their own way. And the traditional churches they left? They continue doing business as usual only without as many youth and young adult members as they had before.

So, we are left with this general picture: an emerging church with all youth and no experienced senior leadership and a traditional church with no vibrant, idea-filled young underbelly. The end result from this is that our traditional churches get stuck in their ways, moving further and further into legalism and ritual instead of authentic worship, and the emerging churches spin-off with all types of liberal theologies which are more of reactions to felt injustices and less of seasoned observations from a lifelong pursuit of the Truth in God’s Word. This is not good on either end.

Then what is the solution I propose? Simply this. Young adults, if you don’t like the way your church is being run and you have a biblical conviction to this extent, do something about it in your church! (This goes particularly for SBC members who have a congregational polity). What does this something look like? It looks like going to church meetings, working to rise up in leadership and making your voice heard.

But, you object, the old people won’t listen to me? Well of course they won’t. Look at Timothy in Ephesus. He was put in leadership by Paul as a young man and all of the older church members looked down on him, saying he was too young and disavowing the things he said because they thought he was rash and immature. But what does Paul tell him? He says, strap it up, live the way you know to live from Scripture, and go out there and show them what it really looks like to serve Christ (1 Timothy 4.12). Now of course, this doesn’t mean to disrespect people (1 Timothy 5.1-2), but what it does mean is to show them that when it comes to making a difference in the kingdom of God, there is no age requirement, only a passion and righteousness of life lived.

If as young adults we are dissatisfied with our church we have to step up and step into leadership in the congregation. And if the old guys on the deacon board refuse to pass the baton of leadership to you, you have to wrestle it from their hands. It is up to those generations to fix any flaws they may have in their service of the Lord in the local church, but what we need to do is not sit back and blast their failings, but instead aggressively pursue change. The church is meant to contain a spectrum of ages. Older men and women have as much to give to the younger people as the younger ones have to give to them. If either population is missing in a church then it will not be able to function completely as God intended it to.

I know this is hard. I understand that it is easier to just go off and start your own church instead of going through the frustrations of struggling for a leadership voice. But at the end of the day, God desires for us to take that torch from the older generations, using it to light the church for many more years to come, and not just letting it die out with them. To steal from a couple of youths who are vocal about this cause as well, we must buckle down and realize that God will be most glorified when we “do hard things.”