Q&A with Thom Rainer | Becoming a Welcoming Church

Thom Rainer is president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources and author of the new book Becoming a Welcoming Church. Matt O’Reilly of Orthodoxy for Everyone (OFE) recently asked Thom six questions about the book. And check out Matt’s video review of Becoming a Welcoming Church at the end of the interview.

  1. What prompted you to write Becoming a Welcoming Church?
    It was one of the key topics that kept being discussed at my podcast, my blog, and ChurchAnswers.com.
  2. Several times in the book you mention the relationship between evangelism and being a welcoming church. How does intentional focus on becoming a welcoming church help us lead people to Jesus?
    A welcoming church is an outwardly-focused church. An outwardly-focused church is more likely to have opportunities for gospel conversations.
  3. What are the dangers of not being a welcoming church?
    The members will become inwardly-focused and miss opportunities to share the gospel. Also, guests will not return.
  4. What’s the difference between a friendly church and a welcoming church?
    A friendly church loves to take care of its members. A welcoming churches also loves those on the outside.
  5. If a church has little or no focused attention on welcoming guests, what are the most important first steps?
    Get your church’s website to be welcoming website for guests. That’s where they come first. Then train members to become welcoming members.
  6. What is the pastor’s role in becoming a welcoming church?
    Be the example. Keep the importance of becoming a welcoming church before the members.

Buy Becoming a Welcoming Church on Amazon.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary.

For more from Matt, be sure to subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, listen to SermonCast, connect on Facebook, and follow @mporeilly.

When is a church not a church? | Mulholland on Revelation #UMC

The book of Revelation is full of practical application for today’s church. One of my favorite things about Bob Mulholland’s commentary on Revelation is the attention he gives to the formative power of the Apocalypse. One good example of this comes in his analysis of the letter to the church in Ephesus in Revelation 2:1-7. Mulholland observes that, according to Acts 19-20, when the gospel first came to Ephesus, believers responded in a way that carried significant impact in the city, economic not least. They believed the gospel and they behaved in a way that brought the implications of the gospel to bear on the city of Ephesus. But by the time Revelation is written, while the Ephesians still believe the right things (Rev 2:2), they have lost their first love (Rev 2:4). They remain orthodox, but they’re no longer evangelistic. So Mulholland says

…we see that orthodoxy and evangelism are the inseparable foci of a healthy church. Both must be kept in dynamic balance. Evangelism without orthodoxy becomes a tolerant pluralism and results in a community formed around diffuse human values and criteria. Orthodoxy without evangelism becomes a cold, harsh legalism and results in a community formed around debilitating “do’s and don’ts.” Sound orthodoxy and fervent evangelism result in a community of faith whose growing wholeness of life is a powerful witness of the cleansing, healing, liberating life in Christ to a soiled, wounded, and imprisoned world (435).

Mulholland seems to be using the language of evangelism to refer broadly to the various ways churches might engage their community in ministry, even though that language typically refers to a clear articulation of the truth of the gospel and a call to faith in Jesus. In any case, his point is made. And some may think he doesn’t go far enough, since there are segments of some denominations that are neither orthodox nor evangelistic.

Commitment to truth is important, but it’s not enough. And that commitment must translate into action. Likewise, engaging the culture must be grounded in truth. If it isn’t, there are consequences. Jesus commanded the church in Ephesus to remember and do the works they did at first (Rev 2:5). If they do not, he will remove their lampstand. That is, their status as a church. What’s the point? A church that doesn’t maintain the balance between orthodoxy and evangelism will not long be a church. And that, of course, raises another question. When is a church no longer a church?

Have you ever been in a church setting that did a good job keeping the balance between evangelism and orthodoxy ? A church that did not? What are the keys to keeping the balance? Why do churches struggle to keep that balance? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts and experience.

Get your copy of Revelation by Robert Mulholland.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary.

For more from Matt, be sure to subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, listen to SermonCast, connect on Facebook, and follow @mporeilly.

Why evangelism? It’s about worship.

Why must we do evangelism? What is the goal? A great many answers to these questions have been put forward. We do it to see people converted, to see them become disciples of Jesus increasingly conformed to his image. We evangelize out of obedience to Christ, love for the lost, and for the glory of God. All of these reasons are good and right. But there’s another word that comes to mind, one that we don’t always hear associated with evangelism. What is that word? It’s worship. Evangelism is about worship.
In the opening chapter of 1 Thessalonians, Paul celebrates the manner in which the the good news first came to the believers in that city. He says that when he first preached the gospel to them, it came “not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1:5). For Paul, the gospel is about the saving work of God through the death and resurrection of the exalted Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Rom 1:16-17; 1 Cor 1:18-25; 15:1-4). And evangelism, as the announcement of that good news, is a means of grace by which the Holy Spirit works powerfully to produce conviction in the one who hears enabling them to respond with believing obedience to the message they’ve heard. 
But that is not all that Paul celebrates. That means of grace serves a greater end. Near the end of the same chapter he commends the Thessalonians because word about them has spread to other regions. And what were people saying? They were talking about how the Thessalonians had turned “to God from idols” (1:9). Why does Paul get really excited about evangelism? Why did he give his life to evangelizing the Roman Empire? He did it because there were people out there who did not worship the God who raised Jesus from the dead (cf. 1:10). The goal of evangelism is to bring people into the worship of the one living and true God.
One pastor is well-known for saying that, “Mission exists because worship does not.” We can easily, and for the same reasons, say that evangelism exists because worship does not. There are great and untold numbers of people who have not yet come into the life-giving worship of the God made known in Jesus of Nazareth. When they do, our evangelistic imperative will come to an end. But until that day, God has granted his people the privilege of announcing the good news of “the one who loved us and gave himself for us.” This is our joyful duty until that day. 

Catching a Fresh Vision of Faith

You no longer have to go to church to hear about faith. We are constantly surrounded with talk of faith and belief. From Hollywood to popular music; professional sports to political campaigns; the language of faith is everywhere. And in each context, it seems to take on a new meaning. The problem, though, is that a word that can mean anything usually ends up meaning nothing. More importantly, when that happens to a word that comes to us from the heart of the gospel, it is of the greatest importance for the church to reclaim her language by recapturing and defining her words. So, in light of the cultural watering-down of the language of faith, I’d like to offer four reflections on the nature of faith: what it is and what it isn’t.

Read the rest of this post offering four brief reflections on faith at Seedbed.
Image: Janaka Dharmasena/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Evangelism & Love

Evangelism can sometimes come across as unloving. Various “techniques” and lack of relational depth are often perceived as manipulative and concerned more with success than people. As a result, evangelism has gotten a bad reputation in some circles. Alternatively, J. I. Packer offers wisdom on how evangelism should be done in love as an expression of love for the other. He writes:
As an apostle of Christ, (Paul) was more than a teacher of truth; he was a shepherd of souls, sent into the world, not to lecture sinners, but to love them. For he was an apostle second, and a Christian first; and, as a Christian, he was a man called to love his neighbor. This meant simply that in every situation, and by every means in his power, it was his business to seek other people’s good. From this standpoint, the significance of his apostolic commission to evangelize and found churches was simply that this was the particular way in which Christ was calling him to fulfil the law of love to his neighbour.
And all our own evangelism must be done in the same spirit. As love to our neighbour suggests and demands that we evangelize, so the command to evangelize is a specific application of the command to love others for Christ’s sake, and must be fulfilled as such.
Such was evangelism according to Paul: going out in love, as Christ’s agent in the world, to teach sinners the truth of the gospel with a view to converting them and saving them (Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, IVP, 1961, 51-53).
Perhaps if we approached evangelsim like that, it would more easily taught, practiced, and received.

Advent Evangelism

It’s Christmas time. So, I’ve been spending a fair bit of time reading the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. As I was taking a look at Luke’s account of the angelic appearance to the shepherds near Bethlehem, something occurred to me that before had not. Take a look at Luke 2:17. After the sheep herders go to see the child spoken of by the angels, Luke says that “they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.” After they heard the good news about the birth of Jesus, and after they encountered him just as they had been told, their response was to begin spreading the news. They told others what they had heard and seen. I didn’t expect to find the evangelistic imperative in the birth narratives, but the more I think about it, the more it makes a great deal of sense. Evangelism is at the heart of Advent. A couple of things in this text jump out at me.
First, the shepherds didn’t mess with the message. They are said to have made known that which was said to them. They are courriers for the message, not the authors of the message. Likewise, when we engage in the ministry of evangelism, we are courriers of the message. We are not responsible for altering the gospel; we must simply share what we have heard. Indeed, if we were to alter the good news, it would no longer be the good news; it would be some other news. Like those shepherds, we must make known what we’ve heard.
Second, Luke reports that all who heard their message were filled with wondrous awe. This reminds us that Jesus is not boring. He comes into the world as the God-man on a rescue mission. He comes with good news for the poor and the marginalized. He comes to offer new life and abundant life. He comes to make new creation. He comes to make his blessing known. And if we are to be faithful, then we should tell the story in a way that evokes amazement, wonder, and awe. If we don’t, we may not have the story straight.
The birth of Christ the Savior is good news. And we see in the shepherds that an appropriate response to receiving that news is to spread that news. We may not always think of it this way, but Advent should motivate among us a passionate evangelistic zeal that evokes a response of amazement from those who hear.

I want to share my faith, but I’m not sure how

Originally published in the Union Springs Herald on September 14, 2011.
It can be very difficult to talk to other people about our faith in Jesus. There are a variety of reasons for this. We know something happened to us when we came to believe in him, but we’re not quite sure how to describe it. We may really want to share our faith, but the thought of it scares us to death. Life is so busy. We work; we have family; we have things that must be done. And, after all, how often do we run into people that don’t have some church or religious affiliation? I can come up with excuses to avoid sharing my faith all day long, and I bet you can too. And, as a result of those excuses, there was a time in my life when I rarely had evangelistic conversations with people. Here are a few simple ideas that have helped me become increasingly faithful in sharing my faith.
The first one is this: think about what you might say ahead of time. Take some time to sit down and write out your testimony on paper. Think through it. What changed about your life after you came into a new and living relationship with Jesus Christ? Write these things down and commit them to memory. When you come to the point of your conversion, be sure to explain what it means that Christ died for your sins. This is the key element where God promises his power will show up in your story. It is also helpful to memorize a some key passages of scripture. John 3:16-18 and Romans 10:9 are clear and concise summaries of what God wants to do in the lives of every person that he has made.
Another idea is to think of a few people that may not have a church or may not know Christ, and begin to pray for them, asking God to provide an opportunity for you to talk to them about faith in Jesus. Sometimes we overlook those who are nearest to us. So take some time to simply think through some people you already know, and look for opportunities to talk to them about the gospel.
The last thing is intentionality. What do I mean by that? To borrow the slogan of a well-known athletic clothing manufacturer, just do it. This is really the big one for me. When I realize it’s been far too long since I’ve talked to someone about Jesus, then I just have to make myself get out and go talk to people. I’ve discovered that it’s really quite fun. I’ve met all sorts of interesting people and have had some great conversations about Jesus. And let me tell you, there is little in life more exciting than being there when someone meets Jesus for the first time. The Bible says that the angels rejoice when that happens; you will too.
At the end of the day, sharing the good news with people is really just a matter of following Jesus. He is the one who told his followers to teach the nations to obey everything he commanded. And helping people find faith in Christ is the first step in learning to obey him. My prayer is that these reflections will help you to become an increasingly faithful follower of Christ as you share with others what he has done for you.

Evangelizing the Church

The new issue of Preaching is out and contains my article “Evangelizing the Church”. Here’s the intro:
If you are like me, there may have been a time in your preaching ministry when you thought the gospel was really only for evangelizing unbelievers and did not need to be a part of every sermon on a weekly basis. After all, aren’t we to be moving on from the milk of elementary teachings to mature spiritual meat? If we address the basic gospel on a weekly basis, are we not hindering the growth of our people into deeper biblical truths?
This was the rationale behind my understanding of the place of the gospel in preaching. In thinking the gospel was only for evangelistic purposes, I did not necessarily incorporate it into every weekly sermon because those sermons were directed primarily to church members who already had heard the gospel and professed faith in Christ.
Then I came across Romans 1:15. Once again, Scripture overturned my preconceived and erroneous notions, this time with regard to the gospel and its function in the church. In Romans 1:15, Paul expresses his eagerness to “preach the gospel” to the Christians in Rome, whom he already has addressed as “beloved of God” and “saints” (v. 1:7).
The Greek word translated as “preach the gospel” is a form of the verb euangelidzō, which is where we get the language of evangelism. So, a legitimate and literal translation of Romans 1:15 could read, “I am eager to evangelize you also who are in Rome.” This translation clearly reveals the importance for Paul that the Christians in Rome hear the gospel again in order to grow in their Christian faith.
Having been confronted by Scripture with an understanding of the gospel that did not fit my thinking, I was forced to reconsider the function of the gospel in Christian preaching by asking: What does it mean to evangelize the church?

Ecology and the Gospel: What’s the Relationship?

Late last month, Scot McKnight raised these questions: Do you think ecology and the environment are part of the concerns of the gospel? Or, do they belong somewhere else? Does preaching the gospel involve eco-care?  The questions were raised as McKnight pointed to a new collection of essays on the subject, Keeping God’s Earth: The Global Environment in Biblical Perspective (eds. Noah J. Toly & Daniel I. Block).  It’s the first I’ve heard of the book, which means I’ve not read it.  But since McKnight raised the question, I thought I’d throw in my two cents.  That’s what blogs are for, after all, right?
The short answer is: “No!”  The gospel is not about ecology.  The gospel is about what God has done in Christ through his death and resurrection to reconcile sinful human beings to himself.  The gospel is the good news that Christ died for our sins and was raised on the third day, both in accordance with the scriptures.  The important thing to see here is that the gospel is Christocentric, not ecocentric.  The gospel is about Jesus and nothing else.  If you look to the New Testament, you do not find the apostles and the early church calling people to creation care as a part of the gospel.  Indeed, to say that the gospel requires you to do something to care for creation seems to come very close to importing some works into one’s response to the gospel.  It seems to deny that the gospel calls for faith alone in the crucified and risen Christ alone.  The gospel is about Jesus, not ecology.
However, this does not mean that creation care is not an implication, or perhaps even an effect, of the gospel.  When people hear the gospel of Christ and are converted and reconciled to God, they are also immediately to begin bearing fruit for righteousness.  They are to be in the process of becoming what God always intended them to be, namely holy and morally righteous.  When we consider that God made the earth and called it good, and that God charged the first human beings with caring for the creation to make it bear fruit, then responsible stewardship of creation is clearly to be understood as living a life that accords with the gospel.  So, as McKnight highlights by quoting Doug Moo’s essay in the book, evangelism and ecology are not an either-or.  The question is not whether we should do either the gospel or creation care.  Rather, as those who have been reconciled to God through the gospel of grace, we are responsible for being good stewards of the world which God has entrusted to us.  So, while creation care is not the gospel itself, it is an implication of the gospel for faithful Christian living.
We must remember here that it is of the utmost importance not to confuse the gospel itself with the many and various implications of the gospel.  The gospel of Christ is applied in every area of life whether social, political, ecological, ecclesiological, or other.  But these many spheres in which the gospel directs our living are not themselves the gospel.  We must continue to distinguish between the gospel and its implications, lest the gospel become so large and unmanageable that it is absolutely meaningless. 
To sum up, the gospel is not itself a message of creation care, but creation care is not mutually exclusive with the gospel.  The gospel is the message of God’s reconciling work in Christ’s substitutionary death and resurrection.  When we are reconciled to God, we begin to strive to live in such a way that God is honored.  Given that God entrusted the creation to his human creatures to be good stewards of it, creation care is an implication of the gospel and the responsibility of the Christian. 

Not Mere Dialogue: Is Exchange Compatible with Evangelism?

The recent move by Claremont School of Theology to be part of an effort to train leaders of other religions alongside Christian pastors has sparked a great deal of conversation and debate on the nature of inter-religious dialogue and theological education.  This debate was further stimulated by Claremont President, Dr. Jerry Campbell, when he was reported as saying that “Christians who feel they need to evangelize persons of other faiths have ‘an incorrect perception of what it means to follow Jesus.’”  My own contribution to the discussion has focused on the priority of the earliest church to evangelize within their own pluralistic context.  In that post I argued from Acts 17 that the Christian task was not primarily dialogue but declaration.  While I stand by that claim, I would like to offer a bit more specificity.
I do believe that Christians can enter into fruitful conversation with person of other religions.  I have engaged in such conversations and have benefited from them.  That said, I affirm that the Christian task is not to engage in mere dialogue.  Fruitful dialogue will carry with it the clear presentation of ideas.  As Christians interact charitably with persons from other religions, we ought also be aiming to clearly and persuasively communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ with the hope that our dialogue partners will believe and be granted ultimate salvation in Christ.  Some would claim that dialogue necessarily excludes Christian witness.  However, I find it difficult to see how a Christian involved in authentic dialogue can avoid the clear presentation of his faith.  If the Christian is not faithful to present his views clearly and with conviction, then he is selling his dialogue partner short and robbing them of the opportunity to better understand the Christian faith, even if they are not there converted. 
An example will help illustrate the point.  Within the first two years of my work as a pastor, I had opportunity to meet six times with a Jehovah’s Witness.  The exchange at our weekly meetings was quite fruitful.  I learned a great deal about the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and, I hope, he learned something about Christianity.  I read the material that he gave me not with the aim of being persuaded but of understanding his view.  We both attempted to present our views clearly and persuasively.  And there were no secrets.  We both declared our intention to evangelize the other.  The point is that the effort to evangelize did not conflict with our efforts to understand each other and gain mutual understanding of the other’s point of view.  Both dialogue and evangelism were happening simultaneously.  This is what I mean by saying that Christian dialogue with other religions is not to be merely dialogue.
Let me conclude by saying that if a Christian never engages in dialogue with non-Christians, then he will not be able to be fully obedient to the Great Commission.  Most Christians never get the opportunity to address crowds of unbelievers.  So if they are to evangelize, they must find people of other or no religious affiliation.  The prerequisite of discipling the nations is actually meeting and engaging the nations.  The meeting, though, is never for the sake of mere dialogue, but dialogue in which the gospel is presented clearly and persuasively.