Earlier today, I ran across a funny story over at Baptist Press, the official mouthpiece of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). It’s about Next Gen, a fairly new sub-group they started to specifically try to recruit young adults. They have this big ole strategy that they think will totally work this time. But it won’t. The SBC begins with false assumptions about their marks. Then, this Next Gen group tackles this fictional problem with tactics that wouldn’t even work if they’d accurately identified it. There is absolutely no way this can possibly go wrong. No way at all.
Next Gen: The latest big huge solution to the SBC’s decline
The SBC itself is made up of a number of sub-conventions. Most of them are state-level conventions, but some comprise more than one state or aren’t technically states at all. And a few states have more than one convention in them. They all join up together like in Captain Planet to create one big Southern Baptist Convention.
For a couple of years now, a couple of those SBC member states have been doing something they call Next Gen. I see references to the name in the 2018 and 2019 Annual Reports. (You can get ’em all here.) However, the main SBC itself started a national-level Next Gen group in 2019. The 2020 Annual Report (which covers the previous year, for the most part) talks about it and why they started it:
While the anecdotal evidence makes it appear there is a renewed passion for evangelism in
SBC churches, NAMB must continue to push the importance of evangelism and continue to
reach pastors and leaders who are not leading their churches to be evangelistic. NAMB must
also address the steady decline in youth and young adult baptisms across North America. This
alarming reality led NAMB to hire Shane Pruitt as the National Next Gen Evangelism Director
in Fall 2019. His singular focus will be reaching Millennials and Gen Z.
Really, this entire short paragraph contains some serious burnage. Let me translate:
Whatever “anecdotal evidence” might say and whatever SBC-lings might claim to be doing, recruitment says the dead opposite. So, now the SBC’s top leaders will take a more direct hand in reviving the SBC’s dismal numbers. Yes, very direct! See? They started this Next Gen thing and appointed a guy who claims he can totally REECH DEEZ KEEDZ. He promises to focus entirely on that goal. Whew! Problem solved! We’ll be sure to REECH DEEZ KEEDZ now!
Next Gen chooses only the best people, the very best people
In that paragraph above, we also learn that Next Gen’s organizers are North American Mission Board, or NAMB. Yes, it is the worst acronym ever. NAMB organizes and administers recruitment efforts in, as you can guess, North America. The SBC has a whole other group called International Mission Board for more conventional missionary projects in other countries.
For a while now, NAMB has been getting shat on by a whole bunch of dissatisfied SBC-lings. A lot of them don’t think NAMB is using its resources wisely at all. For what it’s worth, I’d agree. One of their smaller-scale scandals involved the profligate spending and poor management of previous director Bob Reccord, who finally got his ass fired over it in 2006. The next year, someone wrote a book about it. By 2012, things don’t sound like they’d improved much, with one Southern Baptist claiming that NAMB spent very little of its donations on actual recruitment-related tasks (like starting new churches).
More recently, Randy Adams, who failed to win the SBC’s presidential election in 2021, ran mostly on a platform of dealing with NAMB’s mismanagement. His website is more or less a letter-to-the-editor cataloguing his complaints about how the SBC as a whole misuses money, but in one post at least he talks specifically about NAMB. I can’t blame him, either.
Now, let’s look at who NAMB chose to lead their national-level Next Gen group.
It’s worth noting, as well, that for at least a few years now, Shane Pruitt, the new director of National Next Gen, was the state-level director of a group by the same name in a Texas state-level convention. I was unable to locate any reports issued by his previous employer that might indicate his effectiveness. At all. In his state convention’s 2019 Book of Reports, he calls 2019 “a banner year,” but it doesn’t sound that good to me.
In short, I’m sure there’s a mighty fine reason why Pruitt’s previous employer, Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC), doesn’t make it easy to find their recruitment or retention stats.
How Next Gen fudges numbers with Christianese
Shane Pruitt began his new position with the National Next Gen group in November 2019. And he hit the ground running. According to the SBC’s 2020 Annual Report, he began preaching at live events aimed at Gen Z and Millennials. Out of the 9 events he worked at, he got an average attendance of 577 guests and captured 230 “decisions” for an average of 25 “decisions” at each event.
The word “decisions” is Christianese for virtually anything. Those using it really want you to think they mean conversions. But if they meant conversions, they’d use a more descriptive word. Indeed, they go on to add that of those 230 “decisions,” 190 were “professions of faith.” That literally just means someone said they totally believe Jesus is real and want to be Christians. It does not mean that person converted. It could easily mean they were raised Christian, even evangelical, even Southern Baptist, but now they totally really want to go all-in.
(To understand evangelicals’ weasel words, you have to ask yourself what they’re not saying. They’re not saying these were non-Christians who became TRUE CHRISTIANS™ at these events. And so that is not what they were. These 190 people were something else. Most likely, they were already Christians that got poached from other denominations, or else they were simply apathetic Southern Baptists that caught feelings at these events. Also, since we never learn that they got situated and firmly ensconced in SBC churches, we know that the SBC has no idea what became of them after the events they attended. Or, worse, the SBC knows they’re already drifting out. These 230 people are not become dues-paying, pew-warming SBC-lings for life.)
If the SBC is hoping to win lots of new young blood for their dying churches with these events and this preaching, wow, this is going to be utterly disastrous. Shane Pruitt would need to preach at thousands of these events to hope to come close to replacing all the young adults leaving his denomination every year.
But that’s not their whole plan! Really!
Next Gen has a new plan, which looks remarkably like evangelicals’ forever-old plan
Earlier today, Baptist Press ran a story about Next Gen. They talked about Next Gen’s big plan for reviving the SBC’s recruitment numbers.
In this story, we learn that Next Gen had a big panel at the SBC’s recent Annual Meeting. There, they talked about how SBC churches can totally “be a light in the darkness” for young adults. To do that, they first decided that Gen Z is just hopeless these days and young adults only perceive “bad news” everywhere they look. And none of that is evangelicals’ fault. Nope. No, see, Gen Z is totally hopeless and weary of bad news because they aren’t Jesus-ing like Southern Baptists do. That’s really why. So churches must offer them hope and good news.
But what’ll really get them packing churches full again is giving them the real-deal “Gospel.” Someone else at the panel, a youth minister named RJ McCauley, declared:
“That’s what I would say to all of us is that at times youth ministry becomes games or gimmicks, but it needs to be Gospel and we need to be bolder with that more than anything else.”
You might notice that this grand new plan looks a lot like the same grand plan that evangelicals always come up with to fix their decline.
Evangelicals and their magical thinking around “the Gospel”
When evangelicals talk about “Gospel” in this context, they mean “the Gospel.” And that means their supernatural claims along with the demands they start members off with. They have a lot of magical thinking around this package of claims and demands.
Many evangelicals, if not most, believe that proper Jesus-ing will keep Christians believers for life. They also think that churches that teach this package of claims and beliefs will grow like gangbusters, while churches that refuse to do so will soon dwindle and die away. Unless demons make them grow even faster than TRUE CHRISTIAN™ churches, of course. Cuz demons do that all the time with megachurches. They love seeing churches grow without “the Gospel.” Unless they’re TRUE CHRISTIAN™ megachurches. Demons hate those. Oh wait, no megachurches are TRUE CHRISTIAN™… oh wait.
So McCauley is virtue signaling to his audience. They’re all youth ministers there, but they totally Jesus correctly and teach “the Gospel.” They don’t use “games or gimmicks, not them! So if they offer young adults “the Gospel,” that’ll obviously make the SBC’s decline reverse itself like the sportscar’s odometer in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Right?
Next Gen misdiagnoses Gen Z
During this panel, Shane Pruitt of Next Gen offered this misdiagnosis of Gen Z:
“Generation Z has realized at a very early age that the world is broken, they are broken and they are looking for answers, Pruitt said. “We know that the answer has a name and that’s Jesus and as a church we get to come in and point this generation to Jesus.”
First of all, I don’t believe, after reading what Gen Z people have to say for themselves and about themselves, that they really think that they are “broken” or that they are “looking for answers” that they could only find in Southern Baptist churches. They may think that their world has some big problems, and maybe even that it’s broken, but they don’t use the word in the way that the SBC’s leaders do.
SBC leaders use the word “broken” in a very particular way. They use it to mean “not TRUE CHRISTIAN™.” They think that every single problem that any people ever have comes down to them rejecting TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. So, the solution is to convert them. Then, they won’t be “broken” anymore.
The problem is that SBC-lings define “broken” purely by whether or not someone’s purchased the only product they sell. They aren’t judging by functionality, happiness, or anything else. They’re purely judging by product purchase.
So yes, SBC leaders think that Gen Z is “broken.” Gen Z is the least Christian generation to come along in many centuries.
But Gen Z people are not evaluating themselves using the same metrics that SBC leaders are.
A solution in search of a problem
More troublesome by far is this: There’s never been any indication that the SBC offers a product that actually works the way they say it does. Their flavor of Jesus-ing doesn’t make people happy, make SBC-lings’ relationships work better, or help SBC-lings escape misfortune or hardship. Their church communities tend to be beyond dysfunctional, their leaders feel free to abuse their followers at will without any fear of repercussions or accountability, and their trustworthiness and credibility are at an all-time low due to how they mistreat others and their constant overreach in the public and private spheres.
Nothing in the SBC’s package of claims and beliefs, its social structure, or its relationship rules actually works. It’s all claims without evidence. And it’s all meant to suck as much time, votes, money, and volunteer effort out of members as the SBC’s leaders can manage before the money train crashes off a cliff for the last time.
Gen Z has noticed this. They know perfectly well what the SBC really is. And they want no part of it.
So when an SBC recruiter comes along to rocket out a sales pitch about how totally broken Gen Z is, and offers the SBC as the cure for that brokenness, they’re gonna get laughed offstage. As they should be.
Next Gen is hilariously off-base here
At the end of that article in Baptist Press, Shane Pruitt comes out with this pure howler of a breakdown in comprehension:
“Generation Z is always saying that they are a cause-oriented generation, and there is not a greater cause than the Great Commission,” Pruitt said. “We don’t have to overthink it as leaders, and forget the basics. The same Gospel that has worked for over 2,000 years still works today.”
Yes, a lot of Gen Z are way into their causes. But they do not agree that the “Great Commission,” which is a later addition to the Gospels to begin with, is actually the greatest cause of all. In one Barna survey in 2019, which we must take with a careful grain or two of salt because Barna Group just isn’t trustworthy research, almost half of Millennial respondents said they think that evangelism is inconsiderate. And evangelism is, indeed, inconsiderate. It’s rude and disrespectful to tell someone they must change religions.
But Gen Z, raised from birth on social media, has become exquisitely masterful at online etiquette. They might not always observe it, but they know what rudeness and presumptuousness looks like. And they’re better at setting boundaries with salespeople and recognizing overreach than the SBC would probably ever like to think about.
Also, Gen Z is probably better versed in bullshit detection than pretty much any generation that’s ever dealt with evangelicals’ sales pitches and false claims. Next Gen is just full of advice for tricking young adults into thinking that evangelicals are the real deal, but I don’t think it’s ever going to fool this newest generation of adults.
But I’m not sure that’s really their true goal anyway.
Next Gen is playing to their audience
I realized what the game was as I researched this Next Gen group. I found a bunch of resources about them and what they do, or at least how they conceptualize their sales processes. And as I read, I began to catch on to what this group’s ultimate game is.
Consider this 2020 post from Shane Pruitt, found at the website of the Montana Southern Baptist Convention. He titles it “Six common traits of Gen Z.” Interestingly, he claims that he personally went and asked Gen Z people to tell him about themselves, and this is where he gets these traits. But I’d really wonder who he asked, how many people he asked, and what the circumstances of the conversation were. His conclusions don’t sound much like the Gen Z people I read.
For instance, Pruitt declares that Gen Z people “want more out of church than potluck dinners.” In that paragraph, he drops trendy buzzwords like “relational” and reassures pastors that Gen Z totally doesn’t care about “a church’s size or budget.” The buzzword gets pastors’ attention, and the reassurance gets them to feel more comfortable with trying to recruit this oh-so-scarily-secular generation.
Reality contradicts the talking points
But Southern Baptists don’t know how to have real relationships, so that “relational” word just means they try and fail to trick marks into thinking they really care about them. That bullshit won’t fool young adults. And Gen Z doesn’t care about evangelical churches’ sizes or budgets because they don’t care about evangelical churches at all anyway.
It goes on and on like that. Pruitt reveals a lot of off-putting condescension and contempt for young adults, like calling their language “gibberish.” But he also constantly stresses that Gen Z really, totally, absolutely wants older SBC-lings to pay attention to them and recruit them.
Like cheez-whiz they do.
We see the same strange doubletalk in a February 2022 article from a Baptist site called Kentucky Today. Here, Shane Pruitt actually calls Gen Z people “a potential harvest” for SBC churches. Doesn’t everyone love to think about being a harvest for someone else? And he goes on to declare that there’s no “secret” to recruiting young adults:
“People are always asking me, ‘What is the secret of reaching Gen Z?’ I always tell them there is no secret, but there is the gospel, the Bible and the Holy Spirit, and if you have those, then you have all you need.”
Ah, that whole “the gospel” thing again.
But if that’s all Southern Baptists needed, they wouldn’t be in decline. Either they don’t really have “the gospel” they keep saying is the magic secret ingredient, or else having it is no assurance whatsoever that a church or denomination will grow.
Most of all, nobody’s gonna mention to Next Gen or NAMB or the SBC’s top leaders that this is literally their big plan every single time, and yet the SBC is still in a permanent tailspin.
Look who’s paying Next Gen
The truth of this situation is simple.
Next Gen gets paid by NAMB. NAMB gets paid by the Executive Committee, which sets budgets for all of the SBC’s denomination-wide efforts. And the Executive Committee gets paid by millions of SBC-lings.
None of this money comes from the people that Next Gen claims to want to recruit. Just as we see in apologetics, the people paying for all of this are the only people that Next Gen needs to persuade. They don’t care if these efforts work. All they care about is that they feel good about supporting it all. They won’t open their wallets if they don’t like what they hear.
If NAMB rakes in five million dollars for Next Gen and it turns into a massive failure, nobody’s going to yell at them. They’ll just waft their palms heavenward, give a sheepish grimace, and talk about all the “seeds” they “planted” for Jesus last year. Or they’ll use Christianese to weasel-word an annual writeup of their activities, like they did for that one report where they talked about getting 230 “decisions” over the past season, that makes them sound super-duper effective.
It’ll work, too. Why wouldn’t it? It’s always worked before now.
Nobody in the SBC wants to do what really works to grow a group
In reality, growing a group is simple:
- Offer potential recruits a group they’ll enjoy being part of
- Make the price of joining and sticking around something they’re willing to pay
- Don’t do anything that will put them off joining and sticking around
The SBC barely skates by on the first point, for the people who are warming their pews now. But Gen Z won’t be fooled by all this “relational” bullshit, and they definitely won’t consider dysfunctional authoritarian groups to be something they want to join.
Moving along to the 2nd point, SBC recruiters like to think that their price is counting the costs and following Jesus, but in reality it’s accepting a very dysfunctional authoritarian group’s control over one’s life, along with buying in to a whole variety of regressive social and political stances that Gen Z won’t accept.
As for the third, SBC leaders have proven themselves very unwilling to accept full and real accountability for their behavior, which makes abuse of all kinds way more likely for followers. They’re having a lot of trouble dealing with their entrenched racism and sexism. And they’re still barely standing at the first step of dealing with their sex abuse crisis, which is just acknowledging the full extent of the abuse itself. That’s not even considering their political overreach. Young adults tend to be pretty liberal. The SBC has wedded itself to the very worst of ultraconservative politics. There’s very little about the SBC that doesn’t turn off young adults.
Before the SBC throws itself into recruiting, they’d do well to fix their dealbreakers. But nobody warming the pews or leading the pew-warmers likes hearing that.
So this Next Gen thing represents good news for us, really! It means the SBC still has no clue how to fix their decline. They’re wasting money on stuff that is guaranteed not to work. Gen Z will be safe from their sales pitches.
I needed some good news today. I hope you did too!
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