Lou Holtz Can Teach Us Something about Church

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Lou Holtz knows how to build a successful football program. He knows a few things about successful organizations, period. After more than 50 years in the sports world, one striking observation he made is that only two organizations looked better on the inside than they appeared from the outside – the University of Notre Dame and Augusta Country Club. Every other entity he has been part of looked worse from the inside than it did from outside.

Churches and ministries could ponder Holtz’s observation and learn from it. Many churches struggle with building a successful evangelism and outreach ministry. Part of the problem is that inside reality doesn’t match outside appearance. Because churches depend on the insiders (attenders) to invite outsiders to come inside (unchurched people), it’s vital that the insiders believe they have something wonderful to offer.

A couple of stories will illustrate what I mean. While in seminary I served as an evangelism intern in a church. I spent five to ten hours each week teaching people how to share the gospel of Jesus Christ and leading them to do it door-to-door. It was a formative experience for me. However, one sad fact in that experience is that I believed there was another church in town that was better than ours. Their pastor was a better preacher (our pastor said he didn’t spend much time in sermon preparation). They planned a more dynamic worship service and stronger mission engagement. I had no problem telling people about Jesus Christ and what He did for them, but it was more difficult to invite them to our church because I feared they would be disappointed when they came.

The second story concerns a church I served as pastor. A fellow minister from another denomination visited with me about joining our church. It was a big step for him and his young family. I will never forget what he said: “I want to attend a church where I can bring lost friends, confident that they will hear a well-prepared message from the Bible, be welcomed and treated well, and where we don’t have to fear something will happen that will make us want to crawl under the pew.”

I’ve thought of that statement made in 1993 many times since. If the church doesn’t look good from the inside, if members and attenders lack the confidence that guests can experience God’s presence, hear a well-prepared message from God’s Word, experience the heart-felt worship of God’s people, be led to God’s throne in meaningful prayer, and experience God’s love through His people, they will hesitate to bring their friends to church.
Our SBC family nationally has experienced a significant decline in evangelistic effectiveness. Fewer people are following Christ in believer’s baptism through our churches. Church membership and attendance has declined. Many are exploring the reasons for decline, most often lamenting that we are not sharing the gospel in our communities like we must. Others complain that we are not receiving the resources and leadership at the national level that our churches need because other strategies have been prioritized.

I believe both of these are true. That’s why in the Northwest Baptist Convention we provide MY316 evangelism resources free-of-charge to our churches (our churches paid for them through their Cooperative Program mission gifts). It’s why we conduct regional evangelism training events like Story Witnessing. Dozens of churches each year host “mystery guests” to help them evaluate Sunday morning worship gatherings. Pastor-clusters always have some emphasis on evangelism and discipleship. At this year’s annual NWBC meeting (November 7-8 in Eugene, OR) every attender will be given a book, Sharing Jesus without Freaking Out, and will have the opportunity to attend a training event led by author, Alvin Reid, to learn how to teach it in their churches. Missions and evangelism is why we exist as a convention of churches. Together we can equip our leaders and extend our missions impact far better than we could if we were alone.

These things being true, at the local church level, it would be good if we asked the question, “Does our church look better from the inside than it does from the outside? Can I confidently invite people to my church, believing they will experience God through our church?” If not, what changes can be made to have that confidence?

Churches with effective outreach and evangelism ministries have attenders who enthusiastically and confidently recommend their church to others. These churches provide opportunities for attenders to learn how to share the gospel, and they provide special events that give attenders easy ways to invite friends and neighbors to church.

If you need help diagnosing the condition of your church and finding a prescription that helps your church get healthy, we have staff trained and assigned to do that. Please call upon us. That’s our job, and more importantly, it’s our joy to assist our pastors and churches as together we strive to reach the Northwest with the good news of Jesus Christ.

Welcoming Newcomers to Church

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As a college senior I had an interview trip to Dallas, TX with Arco Oil Company. I arrived on a flight from Butte, Montana on a Sunday afternoon. I became a Southern Baptist through the ministry of the Baptist Student Union at Montana Tech, and was a member of the Floral Park Baptist Church in Butte, but I had heard of FBC, Dallas and their legendary pastor, W.A. Criswell. My hotel was in downtown Dallas, and I knew the First Baptist Church was somewhere downtown, so I set out on foot to find it.

I found the church easily enough, arriving in time for the Sunday evening worship service. To my disappointment, Dr. Criswell wasn’t preaching that night. He was in attendance, sitting on the platform, but an associate pastor brought the message. As I recall it was in a good message, but what I most remember was how Dr. Criswell welcomed those who responded during the invitation. I especially remember a woman who came to join the church. Dr. Criswell said something very much like this: “I see here that you’re an English teacher. How wonderful. God bless you. Did you know that my bachelor’s degree was in English? If I was anything in all-of-the-world other than a preacher of the gospel, I would be an English teacher. God bless you dear woman. God bless you. Welcome to First Baptist Church.”

He made that woman feel like a million bucks! His words were spoken warmly and personally. He looked directly at her as he spoke to her, giving her his full attention and appreciation, before speaking with equal warmth and welcome to the others who responded that evening.

Welcoming newcomers and new members into our churches in a warm, joyful and pleasant manner is extremely important. Some churches do this well. Some do not. With that in mind, I would like to offer some things to consider when welcoming guests and new members into your church.

First, the welcome begins with the invitation. Few people attend a church for the first time unless they are invited to do so. Church attenders who love their church, and believe in what God is doing through their church, are the best “inviters,” and they are often the best witnesses for Christ. Few church members will invite others to their church if they fear their friends won’t be welcomed and have a good experience when they attend. Thus, one thing we should strive to do is give our church attenders confidence that they can bring their friends to church gatherings with the full confidence that we won’t embarrass them by being unprepared or uninterested in their friend.

Second, the welcome continues as the newcomer parks their car and walks to the front door of the church. Most churches have greeters at the front door, but I have noticed that often these greeters are inside the church and do not open the doors for people as they approach. Walking up to a closed church door can be intimidating for a newcomer, especially an unchurched newcomer. Train your greeters to open the door and welcome people “as they approach the door,” not after they enter the building.

Third, place greeters inside the worship center, with specific instructions to look for those who might be newcomers. Don’t put a “greeter badge” on these greeters. They should simply be friendly people who make sure all attending are warmly welcomed. Also, they can help the newcomer get infants into the nursery or preschool area, and in other ways make sure their needs are met and their questions answered. If they can follow up with the newcomers after the service, thanking them for attending and offering any needed assistance, that is even better. This method of greeting is more helpful than a “formal greeting time” during the worship service when everyone is invited to greet others.

Fourth, contact newcomers within 24 hours. Give them a phone call at the very least. Bringing a gift to their door, with a “thankyou” for attending, and making yourself available to answer questions, is even better. A personal note from the pastor, or another person in the church, is a good follow-up to the phone call or personal visit.

Fifth, connect newcomers and new members to as many church members as possible. Small group leaders and ministry leaders need to connect with new people and help them find their place in the fellowship of the church. As you introduce new members to the church, have the person who invited them stand with them. Also, invite their small group leader stand with them. Certainly, the person who led them to faith in Christ is vital to connecting them to others in the church.

Sixth, invite new members, or newcomers, into your home. When I was a pastor we had new member fellowships in our home. We invited them in small groups and used this time to get better acquainted, answer questions, and help them feel personally connected to our family and to the church family. We also hosted Sunday school/Bible class groups in our home, with the goal that every member of our church would be in our home. This was much easier than me, as the pastor, trying to visit the homes of all of our members, and I believe it was more effective in extending a warm, personal welcome to our church.

I did not take the job with Arco Oil Company in Dallas. Instead we moved to Ft. Worth nine months later to attend seminary. We visited FBC Dallas a couple of times and did get to hear Dr. Criswell preach. But interestingly, it was the warm manner in which he spoke to individuals that I most remember. I suspect that what people most remember about us is how we treat them individually. For this reason, it is very important to plan well how you and your church welcome newcomers.

Reviving a Dying Church

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Thirty years ago this April I began my first pastorate. It was a dying church – dead really. Today we would call it a “legacy church plant.” There were ten people who attended our first Sunday, all but one retired, with the one being a teenage boy. I’m not sure why the boy was there, except that he lived on the other side of the cemetery. The cemetery, church, and a small school building, long since closed, bordered each other. The Thurmond family gave the property for these three entities in the 1890s, each deemed important for a community in those days.

My wife and I served that church for 3 ½ formative years, formative for us and for that church and community. I soon learned that the former pastor recommended that the church disband and give the building to the local Baptist association. He had reasoned this was their best option since they hadn’t baptized anyone in four years, only had a Sunday morning worship service with few attenders, and little prospect of seeing things turn around. The few attenders, most of whom had lived there all their lives, considered his suggestion, but decided to give it “one more try,” which meant giving one more seminary student an opportunity to “learn on them.”

We moved into the parsonage, which hadn’t been lived in for a few years. They tried to get it ready for us, but they hadn’t killed the scorpions, which we killed by the dozens. Then there were the skunks under the house. I would sit up at night, with a light shining into the yard, waiting for the skunks to come out. I shot them once they got far enough from the house that they couldn’t get back before they died. The house wasn’t much, but it was rent free, and that was most of our pay, so we were grateful to have it.

We had no neighbors, except cattle and the cemetery. And we had fireflies, hundreds of them that spring! One night I caught a couple of dozen in a mason jar and released them into our bedroom. I must say, it was quite romantic having those fireflies lighting up our room. But they all died so I only did that one time.

When I think back on those days, I am grateful that we came from a church that taught us how to share the gospel, and believed you had to take the gospel to the people, not wait for them to come to you. So that’s what we did. We began to visit the homes in that rural area, and a few more people started coming. The real breakthrough came that summer when Curtis Aydelotte gave his life to Christ.

I went to Curtis’s house and visited with his wife Kandy. She said that she would be at church with her kids but her husband wouldn’t because “he doesn’t go to church.” But the next day there he was. Within a month he received Christ and became the first person baptized in that church in 4 years. Curtis was 47 years old. He later told me that when I came to his house he was sick in bed with a migraine, but he could see me out the window. When his wife told him I was a preacher, he said, “Huh, a preacher who wears blue jeans. I think I’ll try that church.” That was 30 years ago and Curtis and Kandy are still serving Christ in their senior years.

Others soon came to know Christ. Families were transformed. The church grew. We never became large, but that church is still there today. The ten there when we arrived are all dead, save the one boy, but the church remains.

A fellow seminary student asked me, “How do you get motivated to preach to so few people?” That was an odd question to me. Motivation was not a problem. For one thing, I was visiting people throughout the week, sharing Christ with them, and inviting them to church. If they came and I wasn’t prepared for them, that would be a tragedy. Moreover, every individual who came needed, and deserved, to hear a well-prepared message from God’s Word just as much as the attender of a mega-church did. A further motivation for me, I must admit, was that I was learning how to preach and how to pastor God’s people. These both required hard work. I was young and knew that I wouldn’t be at that church forever. But if I did not serve them well, why should God give me any other ministry? Besides, this was what God called me to, and I was having a lot of fun.

We saw a “little revival” in that church and community. It came as the pastor, and then the church, began to share Christ with others. It came as our little church gained confidence that God was at work, and that they could invite people to attend with the confidence that God could use us to bring eternal life to others. Within two years, God even used our church to start another church about seven miles away. We were the first church to start a church in that association in about ten years. That served to motivate other churches, much bigger churches, to do the same.

Those years at Fairview Baptist Church were good years. We learned a lot, and we saw God do a good work.

This Sunday, April 3, I’ll be preaching at Orchards Baptist Church in Lewiston, ID, beginning a four-day revival emphasis. I pray that we see God do deep work in that church, and that lost people are drawn to Jesus. But I do know this, if your church needs revival, share the Gospel on a regular basis and lead your church to do the same. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God to save a person from sin, and nothing revives a church like God’s people getting right with Him, and then sharing the gospel with others.

Several years ago I saw Curtis Aydelotte at a funeral. He told me that recently he had crashed his motorcycle and was sliding down the road, certain he would die. But he said, “It was amazing because I wasn’t afraid. I was sliding down the road and I knew I would be with God.” He said, “That’s the thought that hit my brain. I knew I’d be with God – and I wasn’t afraid.” Then he said, “I thought you’d like to know that.”

Curtis was right. I did like hearing that. It demonstrated that the Jesus he had come to know decades before, through the ministry of a little reviving church, is powerful, and His salvation is eternal.

What People Want from their Church

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There has been much written regarding what people look for in a church. The topic itself can lead to “consumer language,” focusing on personal preferences, when describing the kind of church people want. But many years ago a man seeking a church home told me something I have never forgotten. He said, “I want a church where I can bring lost friends and family with the confidence that they will be treated well, hear the gospel consistently and clearly, with love, and I won’t have to live in fear that something might happen that will make us want to crawl under a pew.”

Immediately you know what he means. He wanted a church family that strengthened his witness. A church family that gave him confidence that he wouldn’t be embarrassed or let down when he invited others to visit. He was looking for ministry partners, who, when taken together, are the body of Christ.

I don’t know if you’ve thought of it this way, but being part of healthy church strengthens your personal witness and ministry. And if you’re a pastor you want your congregation to have the confidence that they can bring a friend on any given Sunday, knowing that the church will be ready for their guest.

With this in mind, what can we do to help our church members have such confidence? Let me suggest a few things.

First, the pastor and church should prepare for and expect guests every week. You only have one chance to make a good first impression, and every week you should anticipate meeting somebody new in your church or Bible class. In my first pastorate we began with 10 people. I was in seminary and a fellow student asked me if it was hard getting motivated to preach to so few. My answer was an honest and emphatic, “No!” and this for two reasons. One, those 10 had a right to hear the best message from God’s Word I was capable of preparing and delivering. Two, I was knocking on doors and inviting folks to church, knowing that when they came I had one chance to make a good first impression. If the pastor and church family are praying for the lost people in the community, loving them, and inviting them, you will have guests. And when you have them, you want to minister to them as best you can.

Second, expect every week to have some attend that is lost, hurting, and hopeless. When a lost person comes to church it may be the result of years of a mother’s prayer. It may be because their friend or spouse “finally” got them there. In other words, those bringing guests are depending upon us, pastors and song leaders, deacons and preschool teachers, greeters and ushers, to be their teammate in ministering to their loved one. This may be your one best opportunity. Don’t let them down. The church is the body of Christ and every member has a job to do. I have seen the attitude or behavior of one person keep someone from church. It shouldn’t be this way, but lost people don’t need much reason to stay away from church. We need to continually educate the church that the way we treat people matters. The way we greet people and befriend people, matters. You don’t want a fellow church member “crawling under a pew” because you were unprepared to minister to their guest.

Third, when we bring a guest to church, we want them to experience “church.” That is, we want them to hear God’s Word read and proclaimed. We want them to hear God’s people sing with joy. We want them to see God’s people pray with conviction and faith. Joy and gratitude should flow abundantly when God’s people gather to worship Him. Don’t take for granted that unchurched people will be moved by this because they can’t experience true Christian fellowship and worship anywhere else.

That statement made to me over 20 years ago helped me greatly as a pastor. I served one more church as pastor after that, and I’ve done nine interim pastorates. I promised each congregation that I would do all I could to never embarrass them. I would work as best I could to be ready with God’s message each Sunday so that they could bring friends and family on any given week, confident that their pastor would be ready. I wanted our church to know that I would be a faithful partner in helping them reach their family and friends for Jesus Christ. But I also knew they were depending on others in our church to do their part in helping them reach their loved one for Christ.

How sad if our church members had to apologize to their guests for how their church disappointed them. Or, to say it another way, how sad if our church members encouraged their friends to attend a different church because they lacked confidence that they would experience God’s love in their own church.

“There are different activities, but the same God is active in everyone and everything. A manifestation of the Spirit is given to each person to produce what is beneficial” (1 Corinthians 12:6-7).