By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
BRENTWOOD — There will be a “tidal wave of unchurchness” in the next 10 years, says a Tennessee Baptist Convention evangelism specialist.
That news is not pleasant to hear especially when current statistics indicate that 57 percent (3.65 million) of the state’s more than 6 million people is either lost or already does not go to church, says David Evans, former pastor of Epiphany Baptist Church in Springfield who joined the TBC staff in May.
There are 15 counties in Tennessee with a lost/unchurched population of 50,000 or more, Evans said. Shelby County has the largest number of lost/unchurched people with 534,323 people, based on 57 percent of their population.
The number could grow even larger as the Millennial generation (16-34) ages, said Evans, whose ministry is funded by Tennessee Baptists’ gifts through the Cooperative Program.
“In order to reach 50,000 Tennesseans annually, our (TBC) objective is to help encourage and equip churches to get beyond their own facility walls and into their communities and win to Christ, baptize and disciple their neighbors,” observed Randy C. Davis, TBC executive director/treasurer.
“The statistics that David (Evans) draws our attention to should absolutely break our hearts. These are the children and grandchildren of the average church attendee sitting on the pew today. Brokenness is the first step to spiritual awakening,” Davis acknowledged.
According to census information the Millennials now comprise the largest generation in most of our Tennessee counties with more than 78 million in the United States alone, Evans said.
One of the characteristics of the Millennial generation is that it is basically the first generation to not be raised in church, Evans observed.
Steven Johnston, Baptist Campus Ministries director at Lee University and Cleveland State Community College in Cleveland, agreed and went even further.
The parents of the Millennials (Generation X) were the first generation who stepped away and did not raise their kids in church,” Johnston observed.
If they were never raised to go to church then church may not be what they go back to,” Evans said.
He noted that past generations who were taken to church by their parents had something to “fall back on” if they drifted away. The Millennial generation does not have that luxury, he stressed.
As a result, churches must begin now to prepare for a large number of adults who basically have no traditional view of God or church, Evans stressed.
“The tidal wave is going to hit us. We will have an entire generation that is unchurched,” he said.
Evans observed, however, that not going to church does not mean the generation is anti-God.
“There are a great many Millennials who love Jesus and are following Him the best they can. They just are having a hard time figuring out where the church plugs in,” he said.
“They are trying to discover the relevance of the church in their life and why they should go and why they should support the church with their money,” he continued.
Johnston agreed. “Millennials see the church as less and less relevant,” he observed.
He sees a lot of students who become involved in BCM at his two campuses who are not connected with any local church. And, the number continues to grow each year, Johnston added.
Regardless of how one views the statistics one thing is certain, Evans said. “Tennessee is a mission field.”
The question churches must answer is how to reach those in the state who are either lost or unchurched, Evans continued.
In order to reach Millennials or any generation for that matter, churches must be intentional, Evans stressed.
“Churches that are reaching people know who they want to reach and they have a plan,” he said.
Evans also noted that while a plan is needed to reach a particular group, churches must realize that evangelism is organic. It is both “natural” and “irregular,” he said.
Churches can be intentional in reaching people but it can’t always be planned. Church members involved in outreach need to be ready to share their faith whenever an opportunity presents itself, Evans said.
Intentionality is imperative because Millennials don’t make quick decisions about joining church.
Millennials are “slow to join and slow to leave,” observed Thom Rainer, president of LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville.
In a blog post on Aug. 13, Rainer noted: “Church leaders are often frustrated that a Millennial takes so long to commit to a local congregation. But they are intentional and thorough. Once they commit to a church, they are less likely to leave, especially over petty issues,” Rainer wrote.
Evangelism must also be natural, Evans observed. Noting the abundance of evangelism “methods,” Evans stressed that not every method fits every church.
“God has wired us in specific ways and He expects us to use our gifts and talents to glorify Him,” he said.
Evans, along with TBC evangelism director Steve Pearson, and other TBC staff members are prepared to assist churches in finding and identifying people within their church field who are either lost or unchurched.
“Our role is to move alongside the church and help them identify people to reach and find the unique evangelistic outreach model best suited for that congregation,” Evans said.
He noted that such an effort must start with the pastor. “We help him identify the lost in his area,” Evans said.
The church then must decide the best way to establish and build relationships.
“How a church engages the lost and unchurched in their community is basically up to the church,” Evans observed. “We know one size does not fit all.”
Living out a life of love
Evans disputed the theory that an older church cannot reach the Millennial generation.
While the senior adult members may not be physically able to go out into the community to meet their younger neighbors, most senior adults can do handwritten letters, he suggested.
“It’s love on paper,” Evans said.
“Handwritten letters are huge and mean a lot to the people who receive them,” he added.
Showing the Millennials that you care about them and the community is important, Evans said.
Rainer made a similar observation in his Aug. 13 blog. “They (Millennials) love churches that love their communities. One of the first questions a Millennial will ask is, “What is the church doing to influence, impact, and minister to the community”
Living love is key to reaching the Millennial families, Evans said.
“Young families without a church foundation will come to a church when they see a community of love willing to serve” he said.
“Millennials want to commit to a place that will help them serve outside the walls of the church. They want something that makes them go beyond themselves. Jesus does that,” Evans stressed.
Johnston observed that Millennials are very interested in being part of something “bigger than themselves. They want to make a difference.”
He also noted that Millennials want to tangibly meet needs.
“They want to see the church on Sunday taking care of the homeless on Monday,” Johnston added.
Ranier made a similar observation. Millennials “want to be involved,” he wrote. “If a church does not have an intentional plan to get Millennials involved in ministry quickly they will not reach Millennials,” he concluded.
Evans is convinced that the upcoming tidal wave can be stemmed if churches will “live love” and will show that love to the communities surrounding the church.
“Young people will respond,” he predicted.