15 Lessons from Leaders Who Reach the Lost
Thom S. Rainer
A broad picture of leadership emerged from the results of interviews with at least 101 church leaders. We saw who these leaders are and what makes them tick: a theology of lostness; passion and enthusiasm; accountability in personal evangelism; excellence in all things. In this two-part series we will look at 15 lessons shared with us by the leaders of churches that reach the unchurched.
Lesson 1: Authenticity
More than nine out of 10 of the pastors interviewed told us that their own personal integrity was a major factor in reaching the unchurched.
“The unchurched look at leaders just like anybody else does,” said Sam P., a Methodist pastor from Texas. “If they don’t see authenticity in our own lives, how can they expect the church to be real?”
Just as we heard from the formerly unchurched, the leaders of these churches realize that they must demonstrate honesty and vulnerability from the pulpit and in conversations with the unchurched. “On occasion I let the people know of my own struggles and weaknesses,” Sam said. “I don’t believe I should be confessional frequently, but it lets the unchurched know we’re humans just like they are.”
One related issue to authenticity that arose frequently was the appropriate use of humor by the pastors.
“I tell you,” one pastor told us, “you find a church that’s reaching people, and you’ll find a church that laughs together. A preacher doesn’t have to be a clown, but he sure needs a sense of humor.”
Lesson 2: The imperative of personal evangelism
As we learned earlier, 75 percent of the formerly unchurched told us that someone from the church they joined shared Christ with them. The leaders of the church confirmed this reality from their perspective.
“So you’re now doing a study on the unchurched?” said a Louisiana pastor. “You probably won’t quote me on this, then, but I think most church leaders are basically stupid about reaching the unchurched. You know what they need to do? Tell lost people about Jesus — witness to them. I mean, what kind of idiot expects to reach lost people without telling them about Jesus?”
Almost nine out of 10 church leaders affirmed what 75 percent of the formerly unchurched told us. Without an intentional, organized effort to share the gospel with non-Christians, most lasting efforts to reach the unchurched are in vain. The comments of Earl B., a formerly unchurched man from Tampa, Florida, were instructive.
“I thank God that my church sent people out to share Jesus with me,” he said. “1 thank God they were trained how to share the gospel with me. I thank God they loved me enough to be obedient to the Lord.”
Lesson 3: Relationships again
Much of what the leaders said confirmed our earlier material from the unchurched. More than eight out of 10 of the pastors we interviewed indicated their keen awareness of the impact of reaching the unchurched through relationships. The struggle articulated by many of these leaders, however, was the “how” of encouraging such relationships.
Though no one simple response was given, there seems to be agreement that church members are hesitant to invite people to church, to develop relationships with the unchurched, if they are not excited about their own church and their own walk with God. The development of relationships with the unchurched, it seems, cannot be programmed. Such relationships are the result of the “overflow” of God’s presence in a Christian’s life.
Lesson 4: An atmosphere of love and acceptance
The leaders to whom we spoke were highly motivated to lead their churches to become havens of love and acceptance for the unchurched.
“The stories of hurting people who come to our church are incredible,” a Nevada pastor told us. “We have no advertising budget, but people just keep coming. We do not compromise our beliefs whatsoever. But we do tell people over and over again that Jesus accepted them where they were, that he forgives sinners.”
A Wesleyan pastor shared the compelling story of a woman who simply showed up at their church with the unusual greeting, “Billy Graham sent me.” Upon further inquiry, the members heard an amazing story.
Gloria S. was ready to take her life. She had untold numbers of prescription drugs that she had saved for the moment. Her life was a heart-wrenching story of drug abuse, failed relationships and multiple rejections. Gloria turned on the television so that no apartment neighbors would hear her make any noises as the drugs did their deadly work.
In the sovereignty of God, the television turned on to a Billy Graham crusade. A telephone number was on the bottom of the screen for anyone needing help. Gloria called the number before she took the pills.
The counselor for the Graham organization recognized that Gloria was suicidal. She told Gloria to find a church immediately, that someone would help her. The Wesleyan church was on the list of churches the Graham organization had that were near Gloria.
Gloria decided to put off her suicide and try the church the next day; after all, the next day was Sunday. Again, in God’s perfect timing, Gloria ran into the pastor just before the worship service began. “Billy Graham sent me,” she told him.
“Billy Graham saved me from killing myself,” Gloria told us, “but my church showed me how to be saved from my sins.” What was it about the church that made Gloria want to listen to them? “The love of the people was incredible. I never knew someone as dirty as me could ever receive love again. The people accepted me just as I was.” She paused for a moment, and then continued. “I have seen Jesus. He is in the faces of all these people who love me.”
Lesson 5: The pastor must model personal evangelism
Some pastors learned the hard way, they told us. They tried the latest church-growth model, attended conferences and bought books on the church, but they still had anemic results in reaching the unchurched. More than seven out of 10 pastors we interviewed shared with us the critical importance of their modeling personal evangelism.
“I used to beat up the people pretty badly from the pulpit,” said Wesley, a nondenominational pastor from Michigan. “Then God convicted me that we would never reach the unchurched unless I myself was obedient to the Great Commission. It seems like we reach people for Christ when I’m obedient; and it seems like the church is dead when I’m disobedient.”
Lesson 6: Enthusiasm and joy are present in churches that reach the unchurched
“You’ll never go into a church that’s reaching people,” the Evangelical Free Church pastor told us, “unless there’s a lot of joy and enthusiasm present. It feeds on itself. A joyous church motivates people to invite the unchurched. And when the unchurched are reached, the joy grows. It’s a great cycle!”
The obvious question, of course, is how the cycle ever begins. Different leaders offered different insights.
“It begins when the pastor becomes personally evangelistic.”
“In our church the right atmosphere was created after we got serious about prayer.”
“When I [the pastor] spend enough time in sermon preparation, God seems to honor the worship services with his presence.”
“If you provide ways for people to grow as Christians, they will be more joyous.”
Lesson 7: Do not compromise the essentials
“Yeah, I went through a phase in ministry that I called ‘Bible-lite’ years,” a pastor from Oklahoma said. “I dumbed down my preaching and didn’t ask much of the people for fear that I’d offend them. Big mistake! Our back door opened wide,” he said.
We heard similar stories from more than 60 percent of the pastors we interviewed. Not only does an unchallenging message fail to attract the unchurched, but we learned from the formerly unchurched that such an approach actually deters them from returning. As we saw earlier, the formerly unchurched are attracted to churches with a strong belief system.
“It seems like there are two groups out there arguing how to reach lost people,” an Indiana pastor told us. “On the one hand, you’ve got the seeker-movement people who devise a bunch of methods to reach the unchurched. Then you’ve got the strong doctrinal group that says preach the Word faithfully and God will reach these people,” he said. But this pastor had come to his own conclusion.
“I’ll tell you what I do. I won’t compromise a lick of doctrine to reach the unchurched, but I’ll also do everything we can with methods, programs and ideas to reach them. As I see the Bible, it doesn’t teach either/or; it teaches both/and.”
Lesson 8: Have small-group opportunities available
While some church leaders debate the best type of small group, most of them agree that some type of small-group organization must be in place both to reach and to assimilate the unchurched. A number of church leaders viewed their small-group organization as indispensable in reaching the unchurched. And while more leaders in our study favored Sunday schools as their primary expression of small groups, most of them saw the outreach potential of numerous groups.
Greg M., a pastor from Kentucky, probably the most loquacious interviewee we encountered, insisted that all small-group leaders in his church report to a team captain every other week.
“Accountability is the key,” Greg said. “When we tell our small-group leaders that their groups are responsible for reaching out, they nod and say okay. But when we tell them they will have a report session every two weeks, they really get moving!”
Lesson 9: Reaching people in crisis
One factor is certain about the leaders of these churches that reach the unchurched: they are highly creative in their attempts to reach the unchurched. A Baptist church in West Virginia has a hospital ministry to new mothers, an attempt to reach these young families in their “positive crisis.” A West Coast Evangelical Free Church has reached more unchurched through its crisis pregnancy ministry than any another approach. And a Wesleyan church in the Midwest offers its beautiful sanctuary to prospective newlyweds at a very modest fee — but only if they agree to four sessions of premarital counseling.
The lesson is clear: the unchurched are more likely to seek a church at a point of crisis. Innovative churches have discovered ways to have a presence in these crisis moments.
Lesson 10: Reaching the unchurched through quality childcare
In my role as a church consultant, I tell church leaders that quality preschool and children’s facilities are imperative. Discerning parents today, especially unchurched parents, demand bright and safe modern rooms with new furniture, equipment and toys, along with unquestionable security features.
Well over half of the leaders we interviewed indicated their strategy to reach the unchurched through quality childcare.
“Parents today want the best for their children,” said an independent Baptist pastor from Louisiana. “It is amazing how much they care for the spiritual wellbeing of their children but neglect themselves in this area,” he said. “We decided to allocate heavy dollar resources into updating our preschool and children’s wing. Boy, has it paid off! We’re now reaching many of these young families who have no church background,” he exclaimed.
We received mixed opinions from the church leaders about the effectiveness of a “mom’s day out,” a day care or a five-day preschool as an evangelistic tool. Some leaders indicated that these ministries typically lose their evangelistic focus and cater to Christians only. Others said the ministries tend to become a tail wagging the dog. But still some said that, with highly intentional efforts, these weekday ministries can be evangelistically effective.
Lesson 11: Focus evangelistic efforts on children and youth
Our research team’s studies indicate that 81 percent of those who accept Christ do so before the age of 20. Whether this number is an indicator of receptivity to the gospel at a young age or the ineffectiveness of the church to reach adults, the case for focusing evangelistic resources on young people is compelling.
“We don’t neglect the adults,” said a nondenominational church pastor from Minnesota, “but we have seven specific ministries a year designed to reach teens and children.” More than one-half of the pastors indicated that their churches had specific strategies to reach children and youth, the largest unchurched group in America.
Lesson 12: Use a discovery class to reach the unchurched
In a previous study, our research team found that new members’ classes were highly effective tools in closing the back door. Many leaders of the effective churches told us that they use these classes for dual purposes: entry into membership and an inquiry class for prospective members including the unchurched.
Such an approach makes sense in light of the strong desire of the formerly unchurched to learn doctrine, to know more about the church, and to learn biblical issues. While some leaders of churches created two separate classes, almost all of those we interviewed indicated the ease by which one class can be used for two purposes.
Lesson 13: Find an evangelistic leader
“I have been the senior pastor of four churches in 32 years,” the Southern Baptist pastor from Texas told us. “In every church, I’ve looked for and prayed for someone who is passionate about evangelism. God has answered my prayers. And when you turn that person loose, the gates of hell begin to fall.” Four out of ten pastors we interviewed indicated that through an intentional process or by an unsought blessing, an evangelistic leader has emerged. “You wouldn’t believe the difference it makes in the church,” the pastor told us, “when you have both the pastor and a key layperson being evangelistic champions.”
Lesson 14: Marketing tools alone are ineffective
I frequently come in contact with people whose primary vocation is to sell marketing tools to churches. Their products are quality products: direct-mail pieces, visitor cards and response letters, to name a few. And every marketing person whom I have met tells prospective purchasers that such tools are to be used in conjunction with a comprehensive evangelistic strategy. Still some church leaders think neat, well-packaged marketing tools are all they need to reach the unchurched. Even some of the leaders of the effective churches confessed their own mistakes of depending on marketing tools alone.
“I went four years in ministry trying to find a quick fix,” a North Carolina pastor told us. “I’ve learned my lesson. There is no substitute for concerted prayer, godly obedience and a lot of hard work!”
Lesson 15: Patience is required
We rarely met or interviewed church leaders who said their churches’ growth was easy. Many expressed to us their seasons of dryness, growth plateau or decline, and frustration. We heard stories of how a number of these leaders felt like they could not continue in their place of ministry. Yet those who remained faithful and persistent in their places of ministry told us about breakthroughs on some occasions and slow but steady growth at other times.
Reaching the unchurched world, they said, is hard work. It requires a life of prayer and an evangelistic spirit. It also requires leadership skills. Many of the church leaders shared with us that they found themselves ill equipped to lead their churches. Leadership is vital, they said, but many were not prepared. So what did they do? The answer is the subject of our next Church Health Today article series.
About the Author:
Thom S. Rainer, Ph.D., is the President of Church Central Associates LLC and is founding dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Considered one of the leading experts on the church today, he is the author or co-author of 16 hooks on the church and has written articles or reviews for more than 30 publications. Dr. Rainer has also served as a pastor and interim pastor in 10 churches and has consulted with over 300 churches, denominational entities and other religious organizations.