The Next Generation of Baptists

This year I turned the ripe old age of forty-eight years old. I am a bit passed middle aged unless I happen to live to be ninety-six years old and if I do I hope I don’t need to wear diapers! Sadly and suddenly I have become one of those gray heads that line the hallways of BGCT gatherings with circles of old friends catching up on old times.

 One of the great threats to the future of the BGCT continues to be the attraction and retention of the next generation. Many of this generation exhibit the characteristics of what some have called “the emerging church” movement. Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones published a number of essays by the leaders and thinkers of this movement in a book entitled The Emergent Manifesto of Hope. I have found these essays insightful and helpful in critiquing the challenged faced by churches today. The church I serve is well over one hundred years old and yet hundreds of youth and young adults fill our pew each week. One question I wrestle with is how can I effectively meet their needs and not lose touch with the changing realities around me?

 One of the essays that caught my attention was written by Adam Walker. He entitled his observations “Prysbymergent: The Story of One Mainliner’s Quest to Be a Loyal Radical”. I was drawn to how Walker described how he became a Presbyterian, he recounted:

 
“Before I begin to explain how I became involved with Emergent, it’s important to understand one thing about my denominational heritage it’s a mixed bag. In his early twenties my father became a Christian through a Plymouth Brethren gathering in
Kentucky, and my mother grew up in a large Mennonite family on an Illinois farm. I was dedicated (not baptized) as an infant in a Presbyterian Church (PC USA), and I went to a Nazarene church youth group in junior high, an Assemblies of God youth group in high school, and a variety of mainline, evangelical and nondenominational churches in college. To say I’m a denominational mutt is probably an understatement.”

 
Walker’s journey is a far cry from the narrow Baptist path I have taken, and many of those who have gone before me took. Denominational lines are blurred for the generations following me. Many choose churches by how they “feel” rather than what they believe. They follow friendships rather than doctrine and traditions. So how do Baptist churches attract these young leaders and stay true to our heritage and foundational beliefs?

 

If you listen closely to what Walker is trying to tell us, it is clear we need to create and environment that invites them to join us on a journey rather than to a destination. The day we proclaim we have all the answers is the day that many of them will write us off as being irrelevant. I am not suggesting we throw out all of our values and biblical principles I am speaking more to an attitude and smugness that often comes with experience and gray hair.

 

Note how Walker describes what “loyal radicals” (a term coined by Bob Hopkins of the Anglican Church in the United Kingdom) long for in their fellowships of faith. Walker writes:

 

“One of the things I appreciate most about these friendships is the unspoken understanding that it is acceptable to question, critique, and deconstruct much of what we think and believe. Many today have more questions than answers, and the church has not always done a good job creating safe places for people to ask questions and share concerns.”

 

How can we create this “safe place” for “loyal radicals” to gather and think outside the box about the future and still hold true to our Baptist heritage? A good starting point will be learning to live by faith and not in fear. Luther started the Reformation with the stirring statement from the ancient prophet “the just shall live by faith.” Faith means not knowing all the answers but trusting the One who does. It means learning to live in the tension of the mysteries of life. In means coming to the Word of God with an open mind and open heart and allowing the Spirit to teach you with insights from within and from  the community around you.

 It’s my prayer we will make the BGCT (its universities and congregations) a “safe place” for the “loyal radicals” to gather so we can join forces (young and old) to change the world.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “The Next Generation of Baptists

  1. I sauppose only one of us who has been in the ministry for more than fifty years could know that even fifty years ago there were concerns about “white headed” people dying out and “who would take their place?” Well, many have died out and a new group of white-headed people have taken their place. It has always been this way. And we have always decried that it was this way.

  2. A lay perspective —

    It seems to me that there is a trend toward mass-customization within the churches today; different people require different approaches. There are some problems with this methodology though. Small congregations can rarely muster the resources for such a diversification of programs whereas large churches tend to become top-heavy with ministers to this-that-and-the-other. The attempt to enlist members to head various programs creates a potential loss of control of the message or may even cause severe burnout in the handful who seem to be the perpetual volunteers.

    My generation (the tail end of the baby boomers — the new white-headed generation) is one of the most difficult to engage in committed service. They typically will do the minimum to feel that they are fulfilling their “obligation” to the church. They usually will attend Sunday morning services but are usually highly critical of the entertainment value of what is offered. A subset of that group will attend Sunday School but virtually none of them will darken the doors for choir practice or for Prayer Meeting or anything outside of the most basic of attendance. Their level of committment seems to fade quickly during the week. Perhaps it is the unique demographic of the community in which we live — but I doubt it.

    How do you engage this group? How do you move them beyond a view of Jesus as Savior that stops prior to committment to Him as Lord? Perhaps the focus should be on mentoring the few who show promise as lay leaders within the church body? It is difficult to deploy those who have never fully developed the servant attitude of Christ.

    Do we just focus programs on getting them in the door with the hopes that the seine/sieve of the church will catch a few keepers while allowing others to slip through the net? That appears to be the methodology of many churches. How can we truly make the church a haven for those who need Christ? How can we make it a place of safety, nurture and growth? Is it by adding new programs to reach various groups? I don’t think so. I think that it is by cultivating an environment of radical Christianity in which people truly learn to value each other and to care for the needs of people. When people feel that they are cared for they will engage their lives in doing the same for others. They will commit to living as Jesus has called us to live.

  3. Lee

    This may get me in a little bit of trouble, but I think you hinted at something here that is important in getting young people “through the door.” And that will be an easier task for a local church than it will be for an organization like the BGCT. You mentioned that, for younger people, denominational lines are blurred. I think, in many cases, they are erased completely. I noticed this even as far back as 15 years ago, while serving a church three blocks from the main entrance of Western Kentucky University, a “suitcase” campus with 15,000 students living in the dorms, most of them from within a 3 hour drive of the campus. Students came to our church, and scattered throughout the community into others, mainly because of where their friends went, and because of the “student friendliness” of the church in its Bible study and worship offerings. The bulk of ministry activities took place on Wednesday nights in the local churches, which was when we had far more students in worship and Bible study than we did on Sunday morning. Perhaps as many as half of the students who came to our church on Wednesday evening were not from Baptist backgrounds, and they came to us because we had one of the more extensive offerings on Wednesday, and their friends came. Secondary doctrinal differences were of no importance, nor are they to many of our Baptist kids when they go away to college.

    Many of what we often refer to as “Baptist distinctives” are not nearly as distinctive to us as we would like to think. There are also a lot of differences upon which those of us in the “older” generation place a lot more value than the younger generation does, and I have to say that there are some things that I find hard to defend from a Biblical perspective that can be quite divisive for some people. But I think our future on the local church level will depend to a great degree on our ability to cooperate and fellowship with believers from other Christian backgrounds, and learn how to assimilate them into our churches without expecting them to adopt “distinctive” positions that are secondary or tertiary in nature. As Baptists, our belief in soul freedom, Bible freedom, and a free church in a free state should be a naturally welcoming environment in which Christians from a variety of differing secondary views can find unity in fellowship and in proclaiming the gospel. Unfortunately, many Baptist “distinctives” in some churches tend to be divisive, arrogant and judgemental toward those who have a different perspective.

  4. kfgray

    This really strikes a chord, especially Lee’s comment, and particularly his last paragraph. Zing! It’s not even having a different perspective that’s a problem, it’s just asking simple, open-ended newcomer-type questions: they are somehow viewed as a hostile challenge, or suspicious (“you’re a Calvinist!!”), or disloyal or at a minimum, ignorant.

    Hardly welcoming or safe.

    Why don’t we have elders? Bad question! Can you help me with this scripture on predestination? Bad question! Is our church pro-life? What do these “Options for Giving” mean? What is a Fundamentalist and why don’t people like them? Why don’t we include speaking in tongues in the list of spiritual gifts? We can’t interview a minister from that seminary? Why do we say “the priesthood of the believer” when the Bible doesn’t say that? Can we partner with Next Door Baptist Church on this? Bad questions all! Overreactions abound. Pat and patronizing responses, joking or “Don’t ask me!” cut off discourse. For new Baptists, it’s either a minefield or a brick wall.

    Why?

  5. kfgray

    I have to amend my uncharitable comment, which is not uniformly true.

    I found a retired pastor (many of you would know him) who answers these questions without hesitation or judgment – thoughtfully and honestly. Our young pastor welcomes questions, too. To me, this demonstrates a living faith and humility, as well as encouragement to keep seeking after God.

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