New statistics show young leaders have sharply declined in Southern Baptist churches while those over 60 years of age have increased dramatically.
Baptists ages 18-39 only comprised 13.1 percent of the some 8,000 messengers – or delegates in the Southern Baptist Convention – who attended the latest annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas, in June 2007. In 1980, the young cohort represented 33.6 percent.
Meanwhile, messengers aged 60 and above accounted for 35.4 percent – a jump from 12.9 percent in 1980 – of the total crowd at the 2007 meeting.
The 40-59 age group has stayed fairly constant, accounting for around half the attendance at annual meetings.
"This sample represents all messengers, and historically 40 percent of the messengers have been senior pastors," said Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research, in the latest report. "The percentage of senior pastors attending the annual meeting has remained relatively constant, but the age of attendees has risen dramatically."
"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," Stetzer highlighted.
Overall, the 18-39 age group represents 17 percent of Southern Baptist senior pastors and the 60-plus age groups represents 24 percent.
The aging crowd of Baptist leaders has been apparent for years with the highest young leader attendance recorded in 1985 when 18- to 39-year-old leaders made up 35.9 percent of those at the annual meeting. A steady decline began thereafter and in 2005, the statistic plummeted to 16.1 percent.
Sam S. Rainer III, a young Baptist pastor who heads Rainer Research, says it's no surprise that many churches are getting older and church leaders, grayer. Rather, the alarming part of the trend is that another generation is not rising up behind the older crowd, he pointed out in his weblog on Thursday.
Both generations need to step up, Rainer indicated.
"The baton needs to be passed," he said. "Passing a baton requires both parties (older and younger generations) to be running in sync, and the church is not there yet."
LifeWay Research examined survey results dating back to 1980 after hearing many comments from Baptist messengers that attendees at the Southern Baptist convention are getting older. The research found a clear decline in younger attendees despite several factors, such as the location of the annual meeting which can attract more or less young people.
"For example, the 1991 and 1995 meetings both were held in Atlanta, which tends to be one of the better locations for young adults because of its convenience in the Southeast," Scott McConnell, associate director of LifeWay Research, noted. "The 18-39 age group accounted for 30.6 percent of the messengers in 1991 but only 24.8 percent in 1995. While Dallas attracted 35.9 percent of young adult messengers in 1985, this dropped to 24.6 percent in 1997."
"This is a clear decline over time," McConnell said. "The other two age groups are both increasing, and 60-plus is increasing more markedly. The general trend is the aging of attendees at the Southern Baptist Convention."
LifeWay's director, Stetzer, hopes the statistics will convince Southern Baptists to start assessing the concern.
"Oddly enough, in some quarters there has actually been a debate about whether the SBC attendance is aging and losing its young leaders," Stetzer said. "Of course, facts don't convince everyone. 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?'"
Although a continual trend, Southern Baptists are not far enough "down the mountain" that they've missed the opportunity to overturn the declining trend, according to Rainer.
"We still have a chance to pass the baton without faulting and disqualifying the finish," he said. "Existing leaders in the church must begin to prepare for this handoff. New leaders must be prepared to take the baton and run with it."