A new study from LifeWay Christian Resources notes that the percentage of younger adults attending the Southern Baptist Convention‘s annual meeting has declined significantly for the past 27 years, with an even steeper drop since 2004.
The study found that messengers in the 18-39 age group comprised 33.6 percent of the messengers in 1980, but made up only 13.1 percent in 2007.
The numbers were reversed for the oldest age group: the percentage of messengers aged 60 and above increased from 12.9 to 35.4 percent during the same period.
Little change was seen in the middle group: messengers aged 40-59 made up 49.9 percent in 1980, compared to 51.6 percent in 2007.
LifeWay’s research director Ed Stetzer observed: “Simply put, the proportion of those under 40 attending the SBC is declining precipitously –- down by more than 50 percent since the beginning of the Conservative Resurgence.”
Note that Ed made the “Conservative Resurgence” connection, not me. He went on to note that some folks have debated whether the decline in participation by younger people is real. With evidence in hand, he concluded, “My hope is that now, finally, we will stop debating and instead ask the hard question: ‘What is causing so many young leaders to stay away?'”
I can’t speak for others, but I can recall why I attended the SBC when I was younger. I fit into the 18-39 age group from 1970 to 1991. I drove to my first convention (Miami) in 1975, and missed only a couple during the remainder of my “young pastor” years, even though finances were tight. In 1981, the Tabbs Creek church in Oxford took a special offering to help me get to Los Angeles, where I ate mostly crackers. In 1984, Jan and I slept in our car to avoid spending money on a hotel while driving to Kansas City. It was a struggle, but I thought it was important to attend.
In the earliest years, at least, I made the effort to attend because:
1. I loved the SBC, wanted to support it, and believed it was relevant.
2. I admired the statesmen who led the SBC executive committee and its agencies, and wanted to learn from them.
3. I thought it mattered.
To the extent that the above statements remain true for younger Baptists, I believe they’ll come to the meetings. If not, they’ll put their time, energy, and travel money into something they believe is more relevant.
With their 61 percent drop in attendance, it appears to me that younger Baptists are sending a clear message. Whether anyone beyond LifeWay will pay attention to it remains an open question.