Hearing the future

Postmoderns, Emerging, Emergent, Younger Leaders, Gen X, Gen Y, or whatever other you call them, the next group of church and denominational leaders is on everyone’s mind these days. I guess that’s fine but those of us with a little gray in our goatees don’t exactly know what to say about this new special interest group. To generalize, they seem disgusted with the status quo in ways similar to our disgust with it thirty years ago. Positively, they are trying to emphasize the things their elders have failed to adequately prioritize. If we avoid being too defensive, we might hear something useful in their criticisms. Here are some elements of the “conversation” I find pertinent, particularly to Southern Baptists.

Compassionate ministries — Baby Boomer Baptists are often leery of social ministry. The over-emphasis on human needs ministry by the Mainline denominations (Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, etc.), at the expense of evangelism, has made us suspicious that this gospel is incomplete. It may feed, house, and clothe people yet leave them in their sins.

It is not nearly fair to say that Southern Baptists do nothing in this area. Crisis pregnancy ministries, hunger relief, disaster relief, and prison ministry are very much a part of denominational and local church priority across our convention. These ministries are also among the most effective evangelism ministries we do.

But this ministry is often indirect — we send money instead of getting involved. I think we miss something when we do that. Ask anyone who helped with Katrina relief and they’ll tell you it was far better to both go and give.

The role of bureaucracy — Our current generation of denominational leaders (vague term?I mean agency heads, state execs, and SBC presidents) inherited an expansive system of seminaries, missionary structures, and other support ministries that they only partially managed to pare down and reorder.

Nothing drifts naturally toward vigor. Any organization that is not constantly reforming will one day have reform forced on it by a crisis.

Consider the possibility that some denominational leaders seem to younger Baptists similar to the way former leaders appeared to us in the 1970s?not liberal perhaps but out of touch, controlling, less accountable to the churches than they should be. We should ask ourselves what those earlier leaders did to make us mistrust them. Do our current leaders sometimes do the same things?

It is crucial for us to know that our denomination looks that way to many people. A defensive reaction to their questions or suggestions only magnifies that perception. You don’t have to be very young to see it that way.

A too-small leadership pool — Only a few hundred people get to be on boards and committees each year. It is not reasonable for everyone to feel he is owed a chance to bear greater denominational responsibility. On the other hand, there’s no need for the same person to go from position to position for literally decades. We have enough earnest and knowledgeable conservative people to involve a larger number than we do.

Many, me included, have served on multiple committees or boards over the course of the last twenty years. This was a critique we made of the moderate status quo in the 1980s. They trusted only a relatively few people and rotated them through denominational positions. A call for the involvement of more people, and people of a new generation is well-offered and timely.

Reform in this particular area does not merely call for more representation by younger Baptists, by the way. Many of all age groups are qualified and available for denominational service.

Since this is a frequent criticism offered by some pastors, I need to say one more thing about it. It is right that we stop calling on the same people repeatedly for leadership. It does not follow that our theological tent needs to broaden as we spread denominational responsibility. Terms like “evangelical” or “conservative,” or even “inerrantist” are not specific enough, Baptist enough, to describe those who would hold Southern Baptist’s ministry in trust. We need not return to theological vagueness in order to broaden participation in the denomination’s business.

Cultural engagement — This is related to the observation about compassionate ministries.

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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