The Rev. J.D. Greear persuaded his church to drop the word "Baptist" from its name, sell its historic building in Durham, N.C., and move into a local high school. The Rev. Greear preaches in an untucked collared shirt, sportcoat and jeans. He generally avoids politics but signed a statement urging action on global warming.
The Rev. Eric Hankins preaches in a suit and tie at First Baptist Church in Oxford, Miss., where hymns like "Brethren, We Have Met to Worship" are the norm. Change for the Rev. Hankins means adopting a new discipleship curriculum. He questions whether humans cause climate change.
Both men are Southern Baptist pastors in their 30s and lead growing congregations. Both are theologically conservative and engaged in their denomination enough to travel to Indianapolis last week for its annual meeting and pastors' conference. Yet their different approaches are part of an ongoing debate about the future of the 16.2 million-member Southern Baptist Convention: Is there room for the guy in the suit and the guy in the jeans? Should pastors shun politics or hand out voters' guides? Is saving the environment an issue to champion or a dangerous detour?
The nation's largest Protestant denomination is at a crossroads. After five decades of growth, membership fell last year and baptisms are dropping at an even faster clip. A growing number of Baptists see the apparent lack of relevancy and are blaming not secular America and liberals but themselves for the problem.
The convention's new president, the Rev. Johnny Hunt of Woodstock, Ga., already has pledged to bring younger leaders to the table. A member of the SBC's conservative establishment, the 55-year-old Rev. Hunt has been a mentor to the next generation through a pastors' school he founded in 1994.
"If we think the only ones leading are like us, then we're pretty narrow," the Rev. Hunt said in Indianapolis. "We've tried to push them into our mold instead of letting them use their own creativity."
The Rev. Greear was 28 in 2002 when he became senior pastor of Homestead Heights Baptist Church, a sleepy congregation with a weekly attendance of 390 in Durham, N.C. The building was too old, too small and in a bad location. So the Rev. Greear persuaded the church to sell the building, relocate to a high school and reinvent itself as The Summit Church.
"We did not shed an ounce of Baptist identity," said the Rev. Greear, whose weekly attendance is now 2,400. "The key is doing these things without compromising what you believe God's message is."
The Rev. Greear rejects the dominant evangelical church form of the last 25 years: fill-in-the-blank sermon outlines and programs designed for spiritual seekers and baby boomers. He describes his style as "humble orthodoxy." He said he wants to counter the image of the Southern Baptist preacher as the "angry guy with coiffed hair and an out-of-style suit who likes to pick at things."
That doesn't mean watering down traditional beliefs. The Rev. Greear preaches on sexual purity and believes every word in the Bible is true. But it also means going in some new directions.
The Rev. Hankins, 36, does things Southern Baptist churches have always done Sunday school, sermons that lean on the Bible. He just tries to do them a little better.
In one recent sermon about simplifying life, based on a passage in the Gospel of Matthew, the Rev. Hankins challenged his flock to take a "technological fast" no cell phones, Internet, e-mail or TV for a day.
Some of the Rev. Hankins' peers experiment with acoustic music common to coffeehouses a rejection of the slick praise bands common in suburban megachurches. But the Rev. Hankins found a hunger among younger members for old hymns like "Brethren, We Have Met to Worship," written in 1825.
"There's such an absence of a sense of human contact with my generation," said the Rev. Hankins, whose church has grown from 500 to 800 in weekly attendance since he took over the pulpit in 2005. "I do think some of the older stuff brings a sense of orientation to the past."
Nathan Finn, an assistant professor of church history at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., said a survey of 30-something Southern Baptist pastors would find more Eric Hankinses than J.D. Greears although the Greear model is growing and more common in churches started from scratch.