Three years ago in the midst of my church planting experience, I had the opportunity to meet, lead to Christ, and baptize a young couple who had no previous church background. These two had been coming to our church for several months, and being recent converts, they were excited about their new life in Jesus Christ, and wanted to continue to grow and serve the Kingdom of God in cooperation with our church. Subsequent to their baptism, they expressed a desire to join our church.
During the membership class they discovered that although our denominational label was not indicated on our signage, we were a church that was affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. The husband's questions were not only honest and heartfelt, but direct, and closely alligned with the predominant attitudes of his own generation: "Why can't we just be committed to the Bible and the message of Jesus? Why do we have to be affiliated with a label like 'Baptist' and be more divisive?"
Committed Baptists are such because we believe that those principles historically referred to as "Baptistic" are the closest one can find to those principles found in the New Testament. This is not a statement of hubris, but rather, of conviction. Just as we would expect conviced Presbyterians to say the same thing about their own tradition, we claim that we are what we are because our understanding of Biblical teaching leads us to call ourselves "Baptists."
But such confidence and conviction can easily degenerate into sinful pride, and recent discussions surrounding the doctrine of the church seem to suggest that committed Baptists who do not agree with exclusivist, isolationist policies that only legitimize those things that come from Baptist life and thought are promoting a weak and ecumenical ecclesiology. Still, those of us who pastor churches, start churches, and serve literally "in the trenches" believe that the heart of Baptist life is not a reclusive ecclesiology shaped more by modernity than by Scripture. Rather, we believe that if the heart of Baptist thought is made known first in the Scriptures, and second in our history, that there is an entire generation emerging that would be proud to call themselves "Baptist."
Observers both inside and outside the church have for years called attention to the waning effect of denominational labels and programs on emerging generations of young people. Richard Cimino and Don Lattin have recently published this assumption, stating along with others that in the near future "religious denominations will lose influence to local congregations and new coalitions of believers like Vineyard Christian Fellowship. Two words describe the future of religious denominations--downsized and de-centralized."
While this trend began with the "Baby Boomers," it seems to be reaching its zenith with that group affectionately known as the "Busters" or "Generation X." As George Barna well notes, the primary motivator has been the shift from "religion" to "spirituality." Quite unlike their parents and grandparents, the Busters "see faith as a framework for discovering important insights and developing lasting relationships. The institutions are irrelevant to them since their personal interest is in people, not trappings."
As is the case with previous generations, the attitude and outlook of Busters, as well as that of their millennial siblings, is largely affected by the world in which they grew up. This generation experienced the longest stage of adolescence (from 11 to 27 years of age on average). As a result, they possess an outlook on life that is very much "sit and wait" by nature. Due to cultural influences and attitudes such as these, Busters and Millenials are hesitant to commit themselves to any idea, concept, religious belief, political party, or special interest group very quickly. In fact, emerging generations are prone to multi-faceted commitments that transcend political parties, institutions, and even religious denominations. Tod Hahn and David Verhaagen accurately observe that "GenXers almost inveriably see no other option to subjective reality . . .This view of relative truth invariably translates to an emphasis on subjective, mystical experiences, or what we would call 'cut and paste' faith."
Hahn and Verhaagen go on to observe that even those in this generation "who grew up in the church and have received good teaching tend to cut and paste their faith, dismissing with ease bothersome doctrines and troubling tenets."
This "cafeteria method" of theological construction is but one facet of this generation's tendency to "pick and choose," and on a larger level translates into a worldview that is extremely non-institutional. While their Boomer parents werel largely "anti-institutional" (Vietman war protests and the reaction to Watergate are but two historical examples of this tendency among Baby Boomers), GenXers and Millenials are more "non-institutional." In other words, while they do not oppose institutions with the same voracity that their parents did, neither do they see much relevancy or usefulness in current institutions. This of course includes religious denominations, and the results have been obvious to observers of our culture. Cimino and Lattin assert that in North America "the loosening of denominational ties creates a free-market environment in which an entire Presbyterian church goes Pentecostal, or an Episcopal parish turns Eastern Orthodox."
With these cultural realities comes the responsibility of denominations to define themselves clearly and demonstrate their relevance to emerging generations. It is my contention that Southern Baptists are in the best position to do this very thing. The historical commitments and vision of Southern Baptists are, I believe, fundamentally Biblical, but they are also closely alligned with the values which are sought after by the very generational groups who see denominational commitment as irrelevant. But for such vision to be seen, the heart of Baptist life must be communicated clearly, and must overshadow the latest back-and-forth that has been taking place over issues secondary to the essence of our identity.
While questions like those coming from my church's new members may be a bit unsettling to denominational leaders, it nonetheless expresses the driving issue for this generation with respect to denominationalism: "What's the point?" Southern Baptists are not exempt from these lines of inquiry, and should welcome these types of questions as an opportunity to demonstrate the relevancy of denominational identity. But as our values are discussed, the precedent for those values must be expressly Biblical. If the proper hermaneutic is applied to each Baptist distinctive, the application of these distinctives to church culture will not only be easier, but also clearly supported by divine authority.
Distinctive #1: Local Church Autonomy. While the grandparents of the present generation were lifetime loyalists to political parties, workers unions, and denominations, GenXers and Millennials possess the capacity to switch denominations with the same degree of swiftness that many of them continue to switch programs of study while in college. This is a context in which this first Baptist distinctive will be welcomed with open arms. As the etymology of the term suggests, Baptist churches are "self-governing," meaning that no outside governing body, denominational or otherwise, has the right to impose its will on the local church.
This distinctive automatically makes null and void any attempt to impose a Presbyterian or Episcopalian hierarchy on Baptist churches. While this principle does not mean that Baptist churches must be exclusive, it does suggest that at its base, each Baptist church is an independent congregation, which exercises its independence through voluntary cooperation. For a generation that detests hierarchical power and influence, these key principles of congregational autonomy and voluntary cooperation are appealing principles that Baptists have always believed to be clearly taught in Scripture.
Distinctive #2: The Priesthood of Believers. Within Baptist life and thought, the proper understanding of this principle has been a recent source of contention. Timothy George states that the source of this debate is not whether the principle is valid, but rather "how it is to be understood, and how it is related to other, equally valid doctrinal concerns" In introducing this principle to emerging generations, Baptists must be careful not to be understood as promoting hermaneutical anarchy and the "right of private interpretation." However, the best way of displaying the merits of this principle is to emphasize the Biblical teaching of liberty in coming to Christ on one's own, without the neccesity of any human mediator. The appeal of such a doctrine to the personal exploration of faith and the participative nature of belief that is present in Busters and Millenials will be great.
Distinctive #3: Confessionalism. Historically, Baptists have been particularly skilled at striking an appropriate balance between doctrinal anarchy and doctrinal uniformity. The former happens no doctrinal parameters are set according to a consensus of belief delineated by the churches. The latter takes place when the common confessions of our churches are lifted to a level equal in authority to the Scriptures. Barna well notes that emerging generations likewise "want neither a predetermined plan nor a set of imposed facts. They want to inhabit the discovery process, so questions and dialogue are keys for them."
At the same time, Barna's observation must be balanced with what is known about the uneasiness of the Millenials concerning their own moral compass. Thom Rainer correctly states that this generation has "an inability to distinguish right from wrong. And many of the [Millenials] know that they do not know."
These juxtaposed realities can be met with confidence by Southern Baptists. As I continue to talk with those of emerging generations, I find that they do not want to be "indoctrinated" or in any way forced to believe something merely on the basis of its inclusion in a creed. They do however, desire guidance in interpreting the Scriptures, and a common confession upon which the essentials of the faith can be placed. As Baptists, our confessional approach to faith balances well accountability in interpretation of the essentials, freedom of interpretation in non-essentials, and charity in both areas.
Distinctive #4: Congregationalism. Camino and Lattin give a prognosis for the future of the church that includes "the decentralization of power away from clergy and into the hands of laypeople," and state that this shift of power "will have an impact both inside and outside congregations well into the new millenium." Much of this coming shift will be attributed to Buster and Millenial animosity toward autocratic approaches to leadership. As Barna states, emerging generations "want a life that is authentic and genuine--and they want leaders whose style and objectives reflect those same qualities."
This observation demonstrates the need for Baptists to strongly emphasize our belief in the congregational form of government. Whether a church follows a totally democratic paradigm of leadership, or employs elders of some sort, the understanding that all church leaders derive their authority ultimately from the entire congregation will certainly have appeal for emerging generations.
Distinctive #5: Cooperation in Missions. While there is no denominational hierarchy, the denominational structures that do exist, when they function properly, have one purpose: to unite Southern Baptist churches in a common effort to reach the world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Such a purpose should be coupled with the emphasis that GenXers and Millenials place upon holistic mission.
While at first glance, emerging generations appear to merely be "slackers," over time one observes that these generations of young people are wholly committed to missional causes. As a result, the relevancy of Southern Baptist missions can be clearly communicated as the synergistic approach to world evangelization that combines the collective efforts of our churches. Such a vision will be attractive to those seeking to have a maximum impact on their world for the sake of God's Kingdom.
I believe that what motivates Busters and Millenials to service in God's Kingdom are those same things which are the heart and soul of Southern Baptist identity. As such, I believe it is possible for future generations of young people to see the relevancy of our denominational structure, and consequently commit themselves to our identity and purpose.
Hahn and Verhagen correctly note that "every generation is different from the ones before it." If the church hopes to reach any particular generation, and impact them with the Gospel in such a way that they in turn impact others, they must seek to understand how that generation most efficiently responds to the message of the church. That said, I firmly believe that if our SBC roots are revisited, and things that matter are promoted as they should be, the things about which emerging generations are passionate will be seen as lying at the very heart of what it means to be a Southern Baptist.
**This post is an abridged version of an article I wrote three years ago entitled "Baptizing Generation X: Bringing Emerging Generations to Denominational Commitment."
Barna, George. 2001. Boiling Point: Monitoring Cultural Shifts in the 21st Century. Ventura, CA: Regal Books.
Cimino, Richard and Don Lattin. 1998. Shopping for Faith: American Religion in the New Millenium. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Hahn, Tod and David Verhaagen. 1998. GenXers After God: Helping a Generation Pursue Jesus. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.