An interview with Jonathan Akin, Part II: How generations can build something together

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Communication between generations is crucial to successful leadership in the Southern Baptist Convention, says Jonathan Akin, and more importantly, to the SBC’s role in fulfilling The Great Commission. GETTY/Special

In the first part of an interview by Index Editor J. Gerald Harris with Jonathan Akin posted yesterday, NAMB’s newest leader talked about things that can cause communication issues but also something that brings different groups of Southern Baptists together – evangelism. Today’s section of that interview explores the differences in generations and how investing in each other brings us together for The Great Commission.

 The Christian Index: I am nearing the finish line in my life and ministry, but I have sensed a serious generation gap in our Convention. Have you felt the same gap from your perspective? What do you think caused that and how can we bridge that gap? 

Jonathan Akin: The beauty, and the danger, of the SBC is our unity in a core theology and mission while being diverse in a number of ways. That’s beautiful because I believe it reflects NT principles that earthly dividing walls are broken down by the gospel (Eph. 2:14-15). That’s dangerous because our differences can always threaten to distract us from our shared theology and mission.  

So, I think there are several fault lines that, at times, can threaten to divide or distract us from cooperative mission. Those fault lines can be things like secondary theological differences, political differences, methodological differences, racial differences, and yes, generational differences, though I think some of the generational differences can be blurred by these other distinctions as well.  

Some of the generational gap is natural. Parents have trouble letting their kids grow wings and leave the nest, and kids have trouble wanting to leave the nest before they are ready. In the same way as a Convention, it’s always difficult for young people to humbly wait and put in the hard work necessary to be ready for leadership and influence. And, it is always difficult for an older generation to hand leadership and influence to a younger generation.  

How do we bridge the generational gap as well as other gaps that threaten to distract us? Let me state clearly that I’m not the one with all the answers, and there are people godlier and wiser than I that need to better answer the question. But I will humbly offer three things I think could help in that direction. 

First, we need to have a shared theology, and the good news is we do (The Baptist Faith and Message 2000)! It’s okay for us to have theological discussions and disagreements over some things, but even the theological discussions we’re having in SBC life are a sign of our health because we aren’t debating leaving biblical authority behind! 

Yet, despite our discussions on some theological issues, we agree on so much: the awful reality of Hell, the lostness of every person outside of Christ, the exclusivity of the gospel, the necessity of sharing the gospel with every person on the planet, and that all and only those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved. Our agreement on these essentials can bridge our gaps! 

Second, we need to be focused on a shared mission. The mission of the SBC has always been clear, and I think it is what unites us above all else. Whether we use old terminology like “propagate the gospel” or newer terminology like “penetrate lostness,” one thing is clear: Southern Baptists want to reach the world for Christ! If we keep the main thing the main thing that can bridge our gaps! 

Third, we need multi-generational relationships, and specifically, we need mentoring relationships in the SBC. There was no generation gap between Paul and Timothy, despite their age difference. There was intentional investment from an older brother to a younger brother, and a humble compliance from a younger brother to an older brother. That kind of mutual respect in a life-on-life relationship can bridge our gaps.  

These relationships will require intentional investment from older Southern Baptists, and they will require respectful humility from younger Southern Baptists to place themselves under the tutelage of another.  

The good news is that there are places I look in SBC life and see no generation gaps. I don’t see a generation gap between Dr. Johnny Hunt and the young men that he mentors. There’s mutual respect and admiration. I don’t see a generation gap between Dr. Bryant Wright and the pastors that he invests in. There are many, many other pastors I could name here! Also, I don’t see a generation gap between seminary students and seminary professors.  

Are these older and younger Southern Baptists in lock step agreement on everything? No. Is there a mutual respect and admiration that recognizes we have the same heart even if our ministries take on slightly different forms? Yes!  

Building relationships will be key. Back to your first question, having relationships changes everything! It will take the intentional efforts of older brothers and sisters. And it will take humility for younger brothers and sisters to recognize they don’t know everything and seek out counsel from the older generation. May the older generation reach out and see their legacy in the next generation. May the younger generation not listen merely to their peers with whom they grew up (cf. 1 Kings 12:8). 

The Christian Index: You wrote a letter about our executive director, J. Robert White, which was spiritually profound and powerful. The letter explains a lot about your spirit and desire for healing in our denomination. Could you go into more detail about what God is doing in your life that would produce such a beautiful epistle? 

Jonathan Akin: You certainly have my permission to publish that piece. I had a profoundly humbling encounter with Dr. White recently that made me reflect on some ways that I want to grow and become more like Jesus, and humility is chief among them. Dr. White did something for me that he didn’t have to do, especially given the fact that I had not afforded him the same respect, and it reminded me of the constant need to war against my youthful arrogance.  

Despite the fact that I spent years researching my doctoral dissertation on Proverbs and despite the fact that one key wisdom principle in Proverbs is that a fool always thinks he’s right in his own mind, I am struck by how often I am unwilling to listen to the counsel of my elders and by how often I forge ahead thinking I’m always right. The key to wisdom is humility (Prov. 15:33), and Dr. White’s gracious actions challenged me to grow in that once more.  

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