The new senior pastor of the 4,300-member Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama, recently turned 28, so maybe the jokes about him being so young will stop.
Or maybe not. Even the clerk at Wal-Mart didn't believe he was buying props for his sermon; she thought he must be the youth pastor. People sometimes ask him what he does, then say, "No, seriously, what do you really do?"
When the Church at Brook Hills hired David Platt as senior pastor this summer, he became one of the youngest megachurch pastors in the country. "He may be the youngest ever to be senior pastor of a megachurch," said John Vaughn, founder of the Megachurch Research Center in Bolivar, Mo.
Vaughn, who helped coin the term megachurch to define churches with 2,000 or more weekly attendance, said that in 26 years of researching megachurches he has not seen such a young minister named senior pastor of such a large church.
Platt, who had never been a senior pastor before, agrees it's an unusual opportunity.
"This is a very intimidating position to be in," Platt said. "There are a lot of factors that only God can get credit for. It doesn't make sense outside of that."
Platt has five college degrees, including a doctorate and two master's degrees from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and two bachelor's degrees from the University of Georgia. He was hired by the seminary as assistant professor of preaching and apologetics and dean of the chapel after he finished his doctorate.
He was also working at Edgewater Baptist Church in New Orleans and living in a parsonage when Hurricane Katrina hit last year, flooding the parsonage. That sent him and his wife, Heather, packing back to the Atlanta area, where they both grew up.
Brook Hills was looking for fill-in preachers after the retirement of founding Senior Pastor Rick Ousley, who helped grow the church from 30 members in 1990 to worship attendance of 4,000.
The church's executive pastor, Larry Herndon, got recommendations on Platt from officials at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Herndon said he questioned whether a preacher at 27 could hold the attention of the congregation.
"They said, 'Just listen to him once.'"
Herndon invited Platt to preach in January. He was invited back several times, then began a six-week sermon series in March. The search for a new pastor soon focused on him.
The church, which has an annual budget of $6 million, voted in June to choose him as senior pastor. Sunday worship attendance had dropped off to 2,300 after Ousley left; with Platt preaching, it's back up to 3,000.
With a Matt Damon smile, short-sleeve button-up shirts no tie and an aw-shucks demeanor, Platt seems to put an audience at ease, then stuns them with his apparent near-memorization of the New Testament.
"He has such a command of the Word of God and love for it," Herndon said. "You forget how old he is; he's not speaking from experience, he's speaking from the Word of God. He disarms the audience with his youthful presence and casual manner, sets people at ease, then he starts teaching, and you get engaged. When he speaks, he's confident of what he's saying."
Platt can recite long Scripture passages from memory and moves from one precise biblical reference to another to back up his points, which focus heavily on evangelism and world missions.
"I want my preaching to be saturated with the Word of God," Platt said. "We have to know Christ, know him well and know his word."
In sermons, Platt draws on his travels to Indonesia, where he has led pastors' conferences, taught seminary courses and visited earthquake survivors. He's also visited Sudan, China and India. He and his wife plan to go to Kazakhstan to adopt a child this year.
"The Christian life is not to be lived in seclusion from the rest of the world, it's to be lived in the middle of the world," Platt said. "My mission is to make disciples of all nations and mobilize other people to do the same."
Herndon, 55, said older ministers on the staff have embraced Platt's leadership, which often takes off in unexpected directions.
In concluding a recent sermon, Platt made what seemed to be a spontaneous call for donations to build houses for earthquake victims in Indonesia. He asked those who would give over their usual offerings to step forward at the two morning services in the 2,100-seat sanctuary.
The congregation gave $110,000 to build bamboo huts with tin roofs for Indonesian villagers ravaged by a massive earthquake.
"We did not expect this kind of response," Herndon said. "We can almost build a village now."
Platt hopes to send teams from the church to help oversee construction.
Trained at a Southern Baptist seminary, Platt said he mainly views denominational affiliation as a useful tool for mission work. The Church at Brook Hills, while avoiding the word "Baptist" in its name, has continued to be affiliated with the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention.
"Denominations can be helpful, particularly in organizing for overseas work," Platt said. "I don't think loyalty to a denomination is a biblical priority for the church, but if it helps the church better accomplish missions goals, it's a good thing."
The church will continue to support denominational missions while also Platt said he believes the Brook Hills congregation will take on his challenges to engage in worldwide missions.
"The possibilities are endless," he said. "That's one of the reasons I'm here."
Greg Garrison writes for The Birmingham News.
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Platt's Why Not Ministries has information on his ministry before he became senior pastor at the Church at Brook Hills.
Edgewater Baptist Church has Platt sermons online as well.