Opportunity, authenticity draw people, panels say
During a 20-minute segment on the Cooperative Program stage in the exhibits area at the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting, IMB President David Platt and executive vice president Sebastian Traeger provided information on the IMB's "cities strategy." A pilot program still in the development stages, the effort will initially target five cities.
Jon Akin, pastor of Fairview Baptist Church in Lebanon, Tenn., facilitated the conversation with Platt, Traeger and Vance Pitman, pastor of Hope Baptist Church in Las Vegas.
"We remain laser-focused on reaching unreached people groups with the Gospel," Platt said during the June 16 panel discussion. He emphasized the pilot program is not a means of fundamentally altering missions but maximizing the effort to reach the lost by integrating the skills of laypeople with IMB personnel in the field.
New urban believers will, in turn, take the Gospel to points beyond the city, Platt said.
"God is bringing people groups to those cities … and they can spread the Gospel from those cities," he said. "And there are unique opportunities for multiple people to go to cities."
According to the United Nations estimates, 54 percent of the world's population lives in large urban areas, and that number will grow to about 66 percent by 2050, Platt said.
Pitman said, "If we don't pay attention to the cities then we are ignoring what's happening in the world; we're not paying attention to the shift that is taking place."
Pitman has urged his church to use their job skills and passions to engage the city where they live. That ethic readily translates into the same kind of work and volunteerism overseas.
Platt said, "If they are not doing it here they won't do it over there."
Traeger said business owners or employees don't have to "leave their jobs, but leverage their jobs." The program isn't about putting hammers in the hands of accountants like a short-term mission trip. It's about putting accountants in accounting firms and in the sphere of influence of established church planters, he explained.
And with an estimated 6 million expatriates working overseas, Pitman noted the IMB has access to a substantial untapped resource.
But are millennials leaving the church in droves as a recent poll indicates?
That question was addressed in a 20-minute CP panel session later that afternoon.
The panel acknowledged the answer is a little more nuanced than a simple "yes" or "no." Shedding light on the subject and advising how churches can attract and keep young adult members, Dean Inserra, pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Fla., and Matt Carter, pastor of the Austin Stone Community Church in Austin, Texas, fielded questions from Pastor Akin.
"The average age of [people at] our church is 27 years old," said Carter whose church in Austin serves the University of Texas and thousands of students attending other local universities and community colleges. "So we're reaching them but, largely, what the evidence is showing is that they are leaving the church as a generation."
The pastors agreed there are a host of reasons why millennials are not coming or staying in church.
"One of the stumbling blocks is the exclusivity of the Gospel," Inserra said. "But that's always going to be an issue. It has been an issue for 2,000 years."
Sexuality is another issue. Biblically-faithful churches are committed to complementarianism and aren't afraid to talk about it, Inserra said. That will turn away some millennials but draw others seeking answers.
But attracting millennials is not complicated, the pastors said.
Millennials are desperate to get into the fight for the mission of God but are often not engaged that way at church, so they leave, Carter said.
Many decide to be a part of missions and social justice apart from the church, Inserra said. So one way to reach millennials is to draw them in, making them part of the mission of Christ through the church.
"The currency of the millennial generation is authenticity," Carter said.
"They don't want to be 'wowed.' They don't want to know how creative you are. They want to know if you are real."
Carter and Inserra said churches that invest in their communities and create a sense of community within the church are a big draw for the young adults eager to make a difference in their world.