The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in America, with yearly reported rolls at nearly 16 million members [more on this later]. Over at The Gospel Coalition, Trevin Wax has some really helpful thoughts on the next generation of Southern Baptists. I’m a child of the SBC. The Lord saved me at 8 years old and I’ve been a Southern Baptist ever since. My dad was a Southern Baptist pastor. I work at a Southern Baptist church.
The SBC is in the midst of a really crucial transitionary period. I attended the SBC this past summer in Houston. One of the things that I noticed at the Convention was crowds and entourages. I remember sitting at a coffee table with a pastor friend and watching Jerry Vines, Paige Patterson, and others in the older generation of Southern Baptists. About 15 people were gathered around. They spoke for a few moments and a few older pastors stopped to say hello. These are two former SBC Presidents mind you. About 30 minutes later, Mark Dever (Capitol Hill Baptist Church) walked by, not long after followed by Russell Moore (newly minted ERLC president). The amount of people wanting to shake hands and say hello was enough that it was clear it would be impossible for them to just ‘hang out’ in the hallway. My friend and I remarked about the changing of the guard and the waning influence of old heroes. It’s not that there is a loss of respect. It’s just that the SBC is changing.
Younger Southern Baptists and Political Engagement
Trevin thinks that younger Southern Baptist are drastically changing in regards to their handling of political issues. He writes,”Older Southern Baptists are more likely to see the U.S. as Israel. Younger Southern Baptists are more likely to see the U.S. as Babylon.” I think that is an important distinction. What Trevin doesn’t point out is how that affects their [our? I am one!] political engagement as a whole. Younger ‘so-called-Evangelicals’ have trended towards a sort of ascetic idealization of suffering (the cult of contrarianism) wherein they see the exercise of American rights as nationalistic, un-Christlike. To defend their legal right to religious liberty, given to them by the Bill of Rights, in cases such as the Hobby Lobby abortifacient case or the ‘bake-the-cake’ ordeal, is not what Jesus would do. This is a trend that I don’t see young Southern Baptists buying into. Instead of the separatist pushback against their father’s political interest, I think what we’re seeing is merely a shift in priorities. Religious liberties, not triumphalism. Social justice for the downtrodden (abortion, sex trafficking, etc.), not Moral Majority. It’s not that we have abandoned the moral cause. It’s just that it isn’t what we prefer to yell through a megaphone.
Are Younger Southern Baptists Reformed-ish?
Trevin is careful not to imply young Southern Baptists are all Calvinists. I agree with him. Though there are certainly thousands upon thousands more Calvinistic Baptists today than two to three decades ago, it’s still not the majority.
Trevin writes,”I’ve heard this comment (in multiple variations) from young non-Reformed pastors explaining why they frequent blogs and websites from Reformed guys: ‘The Calvinists are always talking about ministry and mission; the non-Calvinists are always talking about Calvinism.’ So, it seems to me that even among the young Southern Baptists who are not Reformed or even Reformed-ish, there’s an appreciation of this stream in Southern Baptist life.”
Trevin isn’t the only one who has heard that comment. I also hear it regularly from my own crowd. I tend to think, however, that it’s not the whole picture. Of course, many young Southern Baptist pastors and laypeople hold to a form of Molinism like Southeastern’s
Danny Akin (hearing I’m wrong on this. Prof. Keathley is, but Akin isn’t on the record), Amyraldianism like Russell Moore of the ERLC or are otherwise undecided. Each of the seminaries have a great deal of diversity in their thinking on this matter in their student body. At it’s core, Trevin is on to something. Of course there are more Reformed young SBC folk. Not only that, Calvinist ministries such as TGC, T4G, etc. have grown a great deal.
I think, however, that something bigger than Calvinism and non-Calvinism is at play here. I was at the T5 Presentation of the Calvinism Advisory Group at the Convention this past summer. There couldn’t have been more than 250 people there, if that, and many meandered in and out throughout. It seems to me that the Calvinism debate has been overplayed (mainly through SBC blogs like SBC Voices, SBC Today, SBC Tomorrow [What’s it going to take to get an ‘SBC: Back to the Future’ Site?]). Instead, it seems that the level of scholarship, of theological engagement has risen in each of the seminaries post-Conservative Resurgence. I don’t know that young SBC folks are merely Reformed-ish as much as they are comfortable with a wide range of Evangelical scholarship. Many young SBC men and women are reading N.T. Wright, Darrell Bock, John Piper, James K.A. Smith, and Ross Douthat all together. It’s not that they are embracing a ‘new’ theology; rather, within the bounds of the BFM 2000 plus a firm Evangelical conviction, young SBC folk aren’t scared to branch out. With that has come a spirit that is less combative and more irenic. Perhaps the younger generation has learned from their fathers to read critically, without feeling the need to read polemically.
A Few Notes
I think that Trevin pretty much nails it in regards to the waning of teetotalism in the SBC. I myself generally abstain from alcohol, though I would never say that the mere drinking of it is a sin. I wish we could have a more robust conversation about wisdom with alcohol and ministry. I fear that too many, in their rejection of ‘legalism’, are decidedly ignorant the the damage alcohol wreaks in millions of households, including Christian households.
Likewise, Trevin has nailed it on the eschatology point. Younger Southern Baptists are all over the map. A former Left Behind devotee who now despises the series, I’ll have to exercise wisdom here and not comment further.
Finally, I think Trevin was also spot on in his analysis of the Convention. Part of the problem is that the Convention is so utterly foreign to younger men and women in the Convention that it seems pointless to go. Many young pastors I spoke to wondered aloud how the Resolutions were even formed. Why were they just now hearing about them? Why are so few of these talks encouraging and equipping? Why does it seem like this whole thing is about numbers? Don’t get me wrong. Numbers are important. It’s going to be hard to get young Southern Baptists excited, however, if Baptism numbers are followed by rebukes to pastors to baptize more people because our golden calf of baptism statistics are suffering. We would like to think that more baptisms means more salvations. But if younger Southern Baptists are going to become active in the Convention, the leadership is going to have to come to grips with the fact that we live in an increasingly secular society. During the Conservative Resurgence, there were upwards of 45,000 messengers at the Convention. Those days are over, never to return (which I’m not celebrating− don’t hear me wrongly). It’s time we stopped harping on tired pastors for lower baptism numbers. Perhaps if we encouraged churches to take the deceased and dechurched off their membership rolls, which was attempted and failed, we could find out who we really are numerically and put an end to the unrealistic expectations. Young Southern Baptists aren’t averse to the Convention, from what I’ve seen. They’re averse to ‘playing the game’. They love NAMB, IMB, ERLC…. all of the entities! The Convention, I think, they find wearying− though events like ‘IX Marks at 9’ and the ‘SEND luncheon’ were huge successes in Houston.
I hope that younger Southern Baptists will take the time to learn their history. I hope they will learn about the founders and fathers, like James P. Boyce, E.Y. Mullins, and the like. I hope they will learn about the heroes of the Conservative Resurgence, from their successes and faithfulness as well as their missteps and mistakes. I hope they will learn to honor them, nonetheless. I hope they will learn about SBC efforts towards racial reconciliation and making up for an ugly past. I hope they will learn to carry the banner of Christ from those who went before.
I could go on, but I think that’s more than enough. Thanks to Trevin for his thoughtfulness on young Southern Baptists. I consider Trevin a friend, and I hope that we can all work together towards a more cooperative, successful Southern Baptist Convention.