The 46,000 churches of the Southern Baptist Convention are baptizing fewer people this year, and most of our churches are not baptizing any millennials (which means, depending on generational calculations, people between the ages of 14-34, or, teenagers through early thirties). Christianity Today reports:
In last year’s Annual Church Profile, 60 percent of the more than 46,000 churches in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) reported no youth baptisms (ages 12 to 17) in 2012, and 80 percent reported only one or zero baptisms among young adults (ages 18 to 29).
To put it in the starkest of terms, Southern Baptists have a millennial problem. These reports indicate that our churches are aging, and that we are largely ineffective in reaching teenagers and twenty-somethings.
A task force appointed to study the declining baptismal numbers recently offered five reasons for this problem. I affirm their findings and offer a few additional thoughts.
1. To reach millennials, we need to adapt our methods and ministries to new “life stages.”
A generation ago, people in their early twenties finished college, began their careers and started their families. For this reason, discipleship programs often focused on “college and career” and then “young marrieds.” Today, the gap between ”college” and “young marrieds” has grown. There is a new “life stage” in between these two landmarks, and it doesn’t fit into a traditional “singles” ministry.
I’m a millennial whose oldest son will turn 10 the day after my 33rd birthday. I am in the minority. Many friends my age aren’t married. Most of my married millennial peers are just now starting to have kids, not sending them to fifth grade.
The millennial “life stage” of delayed marriage and childbirth presents a challenge to Southern Baptists because most of our programs are geared toward families, not singles. But the challenge is not insurmountable. We’ve been here before.
Two generations ago, when the “teen” life stage developed, evangelicals sought to reach “youth for Christ.” We baptized thousands upon thousands of young people in the 1950’s and 60’s. As with every movement, there were strengths and weaknesses to our methods (and some now claim this led to the “juvenilization of American Christianity”.) But there’s no doubt the Lord used the efforts of evangelistic evangelicals who had a heart for young people and were willing to do whatever it takes to reach the next generation for Christ.
According to the Annual Church Profile, 20% of Southern Baptist churches are reaching millennials for Jesus. I’ve been to some of these churches, and it’s exciting to see God working among the group that we often consider most difficult to reach. Perhaps we should ask: What are these churches doing? What is their approach? What is their heart? Let’s learn from one another.
2. To reach millennials, we need to expect socio-economic and ethnic diversity.
The millennials who are disengaging from the church are white. To speak of reaching millennials in the 21st century, we cannot merely envision the young, white professional. The millennial generation is the most diverse in American history, and reaching millennials today will require a mental shift that leads us to expect diversity.
We also need to consider how we can reach those who are not at the socio-economic level of our congregation. To reach people who are less likely to contribute financially is always a challenge. Many churches think their financial issues will be solved if they can only attract “five more tithing families” – in other words, people who are already discipled and in the habit of giving. There are unspoken, but felt feelings of favoritism in many churches, where we tend to celebrate a new family who looks like us and give empty applause for the families or singles of lesser means.
Reaching millennials will mean that we are reaching people who are not like us.
3. Millennials need to own this problem.
There are many millennials in Southern Baptist churches, and yet it’s our generation that is missing in the baptism numbers.
Sure, we can scoff at the outdated methods of our parents and grandparents, chide denominational leaders for catering to people older than us, or act as if everything would change if only we were in leadership. That’s the easy route.
Or instead, we can admit that those of us who belong to Christ in this generation are failing at our task of evangelizing and discipling our peers. We shouldn’t expect a task force to “own this problem” for us. It’s on us. It’s on me.
Southern Baptists have a millennial problem because Southern Baptist millennials have an evangelism problem.
In every generation, the church wonders how to reach young people and adapt to changing cultures. And in every generation, the gospel gets delivered and the church presses on. I want to be part of what God is doing. So I urge fellow millennials to repent of our evangelistic apathy, step up our efforts at personal evangelism, and get our hands dirty serving people in Jesus’ name. God help us.