Recently, Trevin Wax wrote a great piece entitled 5 Observations About Younger Southern Baptists. I agreed with all that he said and identified with it. I am 39, so I am leaving the “younger” designation and firmly entering the “older” realm. As someone who has been a “younger” Southern Baptist for some time and is moving on, I wanted to share some observations for those coming behind me from someone who has walked in their shoes but chose not to wear skinny jeans:
- You can change things. You can speak truth to power. When you look at how things are in any situation, though, it is easy to get frustrated when the reality does not meet your expectations. But, if you take the time to build relationships and trust, people will listen to you. And, even if they don’t admit that they listen, they still listen. But, they listen best when they know that you care about them. Frustration is misspent energy for the young. You won’t get what you want and everything won’t look the way you want it to, which is probably good. If every church and the whole SBC looked just like you, how would that be? But, through patience, perseverance, and love, things change. Stick with it. Speak truth to power. Don’t be afraid. Just don’t give up, either.
- “They” are actually “We.” When I was a younger Southern Baptist, it was easy to rage against the machine when things did not go the way that I wanted them to. But, then I realized that I was part of the machine. Why blame others when I will not get involved to make things better? See #1.
- Relationships are everything. Take the time to build relationships with others. Love people. Spend time listening. Spend time serving. I look back on how I was 10 years ago and I thought I knew everything. Not on purpose. I thought that I was humble. But, I was quick to tell others what was wrong and slow to actually build a relationship with the people that I disagreed with. So, I would go to meetings and talk about problems and forget that many of the people that I was talking to had worked pretty hard over the years trying to make things better. In my prophetic zeal, I spent a lot of time tearing down their life work. I didn’t listen and I did not know what they had been through or tried to do. Even if I was right in what I said, I was wrong in not taking the time to get to know people. I regret that now.
- You might want to go it on your own or build smaller networks, but the fact that there are institutions that existed before you and that will likely exist after you are gone should not be ignored. Yes, you can get more done faster if you work by yourself, but the chances that it will last are much smaller. The older that I get the more that I look for fruit that will last. What will go deep? What will make the biggest impact? Start your own networks. But, work with others too. We can complain about Southern Baptist institutions and the Cooperative Program, but it does good work in a wide array of endeavors and it existed before us and will exist after us. There is something to be said about that and we need to take a fresh look at the value of institutions in an impermenant world.
- This is not a fun topic, but as a young Southern Baptist, you need to know it. Southern Baptists were founded in Racism and sectional and political conflict and we have been recovering ever since, often poorly. That is not to say that we are currently trafficking in racism on purpose. But, it does answer a lot of questions. History matters. The way that we started affected our theology and praxis. Knowing this and having humility about it can help us be more sensitive to ethnic minorities, can help us examine our own built in presuppositions, and can alert us to ways that we continue to promote our own “way of life” over and above others to the detriment of discipleship and mission. I talk about this in my book, When Heaven and Earth Collide. The way that we started and the things that we promoted for well over 100 years continues to affect us to this day in the ways and means that we approach problems in our culture. Before you get frustrated and give up, think about the past. Think about historic divisions. And then consider that in Christ, all things are made new and if you stick around and are faithful to God’s calling in the gospel, you can be a part of reflecting that New Creation and growing unity of the Body of Christ across historic divisions. But, that kind of witness only comes with perseverance. Stay with it.
- Older Southern Baptists don’t really know what they are doing. I say that with the utmost respect because younger Southern Baptists don’t either. What I mean is that the “expert” is just someone who listens and learns. Things are changing so quickly that no one knows where the future is headed. Not really. We need each other. We need to humbly learn and share together. We need the wisdom of older Southern Baptists because of the roads that they have traveled and because of what they can see from the benefit of perspective. But, we should not think that their words are something that are set in stone. Many of them are grasping for answers just like younger Baptists are. We can lay down the pretense of being “experts” and pick up the privilege of being “learners” together.
- Building on #6, there are more than 7-8 Southern Baptists who have valuable things to share. I love to hear from Danny Akin, Al Mohler, David Platt, Matt Chandler, Ed Stetzer, Paige Patterson, and Thom Rainer as much as anyone does. But, there is so much more to the SBC than what a few leaders say. Unfortunately, our conferences and meetings feature mostly the same names over and over again. They do that so that you will recognize them and pay money to come. Also, they have good things to say. But, there are a lot of others who have good things to say too. Ask questions. Listen. Learn. Go find a pastor who has been laboring in obscurity for a while and ask him questions. Talk to your DOM. Take your state executive director out to lunch. He really will meet with you! There are so many wise people at so many levels of Southern Baptist life. We all need to be learning from one another.
- We need to work TOGETHER. We are not perfect. We have crazy uncles and those who make us cringe. We have others who will not cooperate. But, we need each other. And, that kind of cooperation must go both ways. One problem that I see is the large entities like NAMB, the IMB, State Conventions, and the seminaries constantly wanting support for what they are doing instead of recognizing where local churches are leading and coming alongside to support them. That is changing and I am glad. But, whether you are older or younger, if you are working for denominational structures, you are tempted to try and get everyone supporting your efforts. Cooperation goes both ways. Younger Southern Baptists should recognize that they are more valuable than just the amount of money that they send in to the CP. Their energy, initiative, and passion are incredibly valuable to and I hope that you keep offering it to the larger structures. I also hope that the larger structures continue to cooperate with you in the work that you are initiating where you are.
- Learn to Persevere in Obscurity. I have hit on this before, but it is easy to hit the escape button when things don’t go your way or when you are frustrated or when your ministry does not seem to be as effective as you want it to be. I have hit it several times, but thankfully, it didn’t work. The only way that things change is when we stay and offer ourselves to the process of serving others in humility, even when others do not see it or reward you. Also, it is really important to realize that we do not know everything and sometimes, the very process of sticking something out is the exact change that we need in our hearts to refine us and help us to be more like Jesus. But, we only experience that kind of life-change when we persevere with hope in Christ and are willing to do so even if no one notices.
- Love sacrificially. Always focus on Jesus. You have heard it before, but your ministry is really not about you. It is not about your vision or your calling. It isn’t about your ideas or your passion. It isn’t even about what you think needs to be done. Your ministry is about Jesus and His church. Jesus did not die to give His church to you. He died to present His Bride to Himself. You are called to serve that process of sanctification. But, it means that you will be tried by fire yourself and that you will be changed. What God wants from us is not results or performance to change the culture. God wants us to love Him and love other people. It is pretty hard to love God and others when you are always cursing His Bride and are upset with people because they won’t do what you want. So, staying in a place for a time and learning to love even when you are not loved back and when there is nothing to gain for yourself is probably exactly what you need to be conformed to the image of Christ, which is the whole point anyway.
So, those are my thoughts right now. If I could tell the younger me anything it would be to focus on relationships, love others, not think that I knew everything, and be willing to have patience with others while also challenging them and fully living out what God has called me to do. There is a balance. We do not need to lay down our passion or understanding of God’s ways, but we should live them out in community with those who have gone before us.