Jeff Harris is not a denominational outsider or a doctrinal novice.
He loves Southern Baptists and is rooted deeply among them. His father, George Harris, just completed two terms as president of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC) and recently retired as pastor of Castle Hills First Baptist Church in San Antonio.
Yet Harris, a young Southern Baptist pastor, believes Southern Baptists will play a diminished role in gospel work in the next quarter century unless Southern Baptist leaders begin envisioning the future through the eyes of an emerging generation less brand loyal than previous generations.
Unless such change occurs, “ultimately, only those congregations that persist in traditionalism will be supporting the Cooperative Program, out of principle or tradition,” he said.
Pastors like Harris and others less familiar with Southern Baptist cooperation prompted SBTC Executive Director Jim Richards in 2002 to ask the elder Harris, then SBTC president, to organize a plan to reach out to younger pastors with the hope of passing on the “core values” of the SBTC as they emerge in leadership.
“By the year 2020 most of the current leadership of the convention will be off the scene,” Richards said. “The kingdom will suffer if we do not prove the value of our historic Southern Baptist cooperation while being innovative in our approach to the emerging generation.”
Harris accepted Richards’ request, and with help from SBTC staff, the 20/20 Connection Project was officially born last year. The name connotes a clear future vision and relays the idea that those under 40 will be leading by 2020, said Robby Partain, 39-year-old SBTC director of missions.
In a preliminary meeting last February, about 20 young pastors from Texas churches met with several SBTC staff members to exchange views about the future of the SBTC and Southern Baptists. Both groups came away more informed about the other, Partain said.
“You look around and primarily we have connected with an over-40 group,” Partain said. “This focus group we assembled in February all have some connection to the SBTC, yet their ways of doing things, their philosophies about ministry, they’re just very different. How are we going to connect with them?”
Partain said the meeting led to a commitment to establish a “broader, more comprehensive effort to connect with these guys” and to pass on the SBTC’s core values?theological agreement (inerrancy), missiological activity (helping churches do the Great Commission) and methodological approach (SBC cooperation)?with what is vital and important to them.
Partain said the focus group communicated the need to be more “relational” in dealing with younger pastors and to add value to their ministries by understanding them. ‘Why do we need a state convention?’ and ‘Why should I invest my time in it?’ were questions that arose from the meeting.
“It wasn’t a matter of ‘do I connect with the SBTC doctrinally’ because they already did,” Partain said. “It wasn’t a matter of ‘do I believe in the Southern Baptist Convention’ or ‘do I believe in the conservative resurgence,’ all those kind of things, but more of a utilitarian question. What’s it for? What’s a convention for and why is it important for me to invest my time, energy, commitment into being an active part of the SBTC?”
“They communicated that they need somebody who takes the time to get to know them and what their ministry is all about?to add value to what God has called me and my church to do,” Partain noted.
Furthermore, the emerging generation is not comprised of joiners or attenders, Partain said. The builder generation that fought World War II were organizational loyalists with an organizational mindset. The baby boomers were less so.
The generations that followed have a different mindset, Partain insisted.
“Just because they agree with you about doctrinal positions, just because maybe they agree with you about core values or just because they may share some affinity with you does not mean they are going to come to your meeting just because you have it. It does not mean they are going to attend things just to be loyal to the institution or the organization. It’s much more utilitarian for them.”
Partain said parachurch organizations offer much more numerous and diverse ministry resources than in the era of the builder generation and younger leaders will focus on resources and events that they perceive as adding value to their ministries.
George Harris did not attend the meeting with the focus group because he was recovering from a motorcycle accident last February. However, he said his impression is that young leaders see denominational bureaucracy as “repelling” and are distrustful of it.
He said the Cooperative Program, for instance, needs a makeover because the younger generation’s understanding of missions requires a hands-on approach. “Missions must involve the local church on more than a dollar level for it to have meaning to them,” he said.
Also, George Harris noted, the emerging genera