The selectiveness and pragmatism displayed by Generation Xers and Millennials, as well as labels of generation-wide anti-institutional bias, has led numerous Baptist commentators to blame a lack of SBC loyalty for the decline in denominational participation (Dockery, 2011; Draper Jr., 2004; Harrington, 2011). Draper (2004) associates the decline in denominational affinity to the failure of SBC leadership in answering ecclesiological questions to the satisfaction of younger ministers. “We have failed the younger generation by not creating a dynamic atmosphere and showing them the relevancy of being Southern Baptist. We’ve not taught people in our churches how the SBC and its entities work and relate to one another” (Draper Jr., 2004, para. 10).
A question remains, “If Millennials better understood the Baptist system, is it fair to assume they would like what they understand?” Millennials surely need a better understanding of the Baptist community, particularly the relevance of the vast Baptist system to accomplishing the stated goals of the system. However, as Draper admits, the system itself lacks strong connections between SBC leadership and younger leaders.
Throughout the history of the SBC, not unlike other denominations, older generations have criticized younger leaders, particularly in matters of practice. Stetzer (2011) is careful to note that the most recent SBC confessional consensus, the Baptist Faith and Message (2000), has intentionally broad methodological parameters allowing for a wide variety of methodologies.
“For years, young leaders have heard comments like “contemporary music is not godly,” “real Baptists have it in their name,” “casual dress trivializes worship” and “Sunday School is the only Baptist way.” If this is what it means to be a Southern Baptist, we will see fewer and fewer young leaders in partnership with us.” (Stetzer, Baptist Press, 2004, para. 3).
As long as methodological criticism remains an issue, Millennials—with their generational preference for all things customizable (Tapscott, 2009)—will likely not engage in the discussion long enough to argue their perspective.
Rather than treating loyalty as a static commodity, it would help the SBC to think of loyalty as a dynamic concept (Curran, Varki, & Rosen, 2010). Leading theories in marketing research demonstrate that customers go through stages of loyalty and there is an operational difference between attitudinal loyalty and behavioral loyalty (Dick & Basu, 1994; Oliver, 1999). Furthermore, distinct differences separate brand loyalty, product loyalty, and service provider loyalty (Salegna & Fazel, 2011).
Dockery (2011) blames the likelihood of a person to change denominations during their lifetimes—rising from 33% in 1985 to 60% in 2009 (p. 22)—on two familiar victims: decline in denominational loyalty and affinity to special interest groups or parachurch organizations. Dockery, as well as Lempke (2005), seems to long for the days of static and brand loyalty. Others take a more technical approach by looking for collaborative partners within the convention that display markers of loyalty such as curriculum, Bible translation, style of worship, and associational/state convention involvement. Secular marketers might label the markers approach as a search for product loyalty. Wax (2011) takes issue with this approach:
“Those who emphasize markers of loyalty rather than our common confession adopt a posture of being Southern Baptist over against other evangelicals. ‘This is who we are. Those outside our denomination are not like us. Therefore, Southern Baptists who network with others are suspect. Their Baptist credentials are called into question.’” (Wax, 2011).
Loyalty is a subjective concept, and systems dependent on loyalty as the basis for engagement are doomed. Furthermore, if loyalty is treated like a continuum of behaviors and attitudes, it is difficult to measure. Can a church affiliated with Acts 29 that also gives to the CP but never attends an association or convention meeting be labeled disloyal, as opposed to a self-labeled “loyal” church that leads a charge for a new state convention, directs their CP giving to only a particular school, and attends every local association and national convention meeting? Spandler-Davidson’s (2012) blog about an association’s revitalization effort led by a group of young pastors illustrates both the subjective nature of loyalty and a common Millennial approach to institutions. The conclusion of the blog reads as follows:
The local Baptist association is not dead. In terms of making a local impact for the gospel, it has been a vital tool for us here. Do not be too quick to give up on it. It can be a powerful gospel partnership in your local context.” (Spandler-Davidson, 2012, para. 24)
On the surface, this statement seems to typify the very best hopes for combining associational revitalization and Millennial engagement. However, in the midst of writing about how the young leaders revitalized their association, the author also recommends starting a new association if the old cannot be saved. “You might look at your own association and conclude there is no way you can move things in a better direction, and that might be true” (Spandler-Davidson, 2012, para. 22). The new association the author suggests does not appear to be a formal organization complete with charter, bylaws, and constitution. Rather, the author seems to suggest an informal arrangement of a few churches for the benefit of church planting, missions, and leadership training. From all appearances, the arrangement would be a cause-driven, ad hoc gathering of like-minded leaders for an explicit and possibly temporary purpose. This should serve as a perfect warning to dysfunctional associations, in particular those run by older generations. What the author wrote was not a statement of disloyalty, but of practicality. Due to its subjective nature, loyalty is not a reliable driver for the future of associations.