Prominent Southern Baptist theologian R. Albert Mohler, Jr., implored young seminary students to save the denomination.
"It is very important that your generation redeem what has been lost, strengthen the things that remain," he said Friday at the close of a four-day conference on "Southern Baptists, Evangelicals, and the Future of Denominationalism."
His address at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., comes as the Southern Baptist Convention – the largest Protestant denomination in the country – has been experiencing decline in baptisms and membership in recent years and as cultural Christianity is quickly dying.
They're not currently on a path toward "denominational disaster" but they are headed towards a crisis, Mohler said. He pleaded with the students not as much concerned about the numbers and statistics as he was about the heart of the denomination and the clarity of its vision.
"Even as you are a generation that has said in every way you can possibly that you're basically disinterested in institutions, I just want to tell you they're going to be yours. You're going to decide what to do with them," said Mohler, who serves as president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
He hit the younger generation with the reality that in the next decade or two they will be determining the future of the denomination and the local church as the current leadership passes the baton.
For many Christians in the 21st century, the idea of denominations has a negative connotation.
In 1990, only about 200,000 people in the United States labeled themselves as non-denominational. In 2009, 8 million assume that identity, according to Dr. David S. Dockery, president of Union University.
D. Michael Lindsay, who has worked for the Gallup Institute, also noted at the conference that 59 percent of evangelicals have changed denominational identities at least once in their life and overall, Americans increasingly dislike institutions.
In the midst of such anti-denominationalism sentiment, the younger generation was asked to give their life to the SBC only if they see that the denomination can be used to spread the Good News.
For those who feel the SBC is not the place where they can effectively reach the world with the Gospel, Mohler urged them to find a place or context that is right for them.
"Do not give your life to the Southern Baptist Convention because your grandmother was a Southern Baptist," he said.
But for those who do feel at home, the Baptist leader challenged them not to simply receive what has been handed to them in terms of structures and continue it because of brand loyalty.
"The vision before us is not the perpetuation of the Southern Baptist Convention but the call of the nations to exalt in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ," he affirmed.
"Make the Southern Baptist Convention what it must be in order to serve the cause of Christ ... [and] to be the kind of denomination that is known not for its name and its brand but rather for the glory of God," he added. "Do not give yourself to the Southern Baptist Convention but give yourself to Christ."
Speakers throughout the Oct. 6-9 conference reiterated that there is a continuing need for denominations. Although there is no biblical mandate for establishing them, denominations offer accountability, coherence, structure and organization from which Christ followers can carry out the Great Commission.
The conference was held in recognition of the 400th anniversary of the Baptist movement.