How to Talk to A Complete Stranger about Church

man_walking_dogTwo Sundays ago, at the suggestion of preaching professor David Lose, I challenged my congregation to ask people if they go to church and if not, to ask them why.  I try never to ask my congregation to do something I’m not willing to do myself, and so, on the way home that day, I asked someone.  Here’s what happened, as reported on Facebook:

Actual conversation on my way home from church today:

“Excuse me,” I asked the stranger walking his dog on my street, “Do you go to church?”

“No,” he said. “I believe in God, but I don’t go to church.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Honestly? Because a lot of churches are too judgmental.”

I told him I was a pastor and that I was trying to help my congregation be less judgmental. He asked where and I said First Baptist. He wanted to know where it was and what time we had services. And then he said this:

“I believe in God. In fact one night I was lying there in my bed and I said, ‘God, if you’re real, show me.’ And then my bedroom door opened, not once, not twice, but three times!” (tears came to his eyes, and he got choked up).

He asked again where my church was and then said, “I might not come to church, but if you want to talk to me on the street anytime, I’d be glad to.”

So, that was two weeks ago.  Last Sunday I saw the same guy on the same corner as I was walking home from church.  This is what happened:

He: Pastor Jim!

Me: Hey, aren’t you the guy I talked to a couple of weeks ago? What’s your name?

He: Edward.

Me: Right! You told me the story about knowing God was real because of your bedroom door opening and closing three times one night.

He: Right.

Me: I shared that story on Facebook! A lot of people were really moved by it.

He: I almost came to church today, except I didn’t wake up until 10:45. I work late, you know. But I am reading the Book of Isaiah.

Me: You’re kidding! I talked about Isaiah in today’s sermon. I said I thought it was a book Jesus grew up listening to, and one that helped him understand who he was and what he was supposed to do.

He: Well, I’m on chapter 65, so…just one chapter to go.

Me: Good for you. That’s amazing! And listen, I hope you’ll come to church next week. We’re having one big worship service at 11:00 and then dinner on the grounds afterward. If you come I’ll buy your lunch!

He: Okay!

I don’t know what will happen next, but #churchjusthappened both times I talked to Edward.  Maybe you could try it yourself this week.  Somebody might be hoping for just that kind of conversation.


KOH2RVA: Day 214

dandelion_blowing_in_wind_1Yesterday I shared the prayer requests of church planters Jeremy and Monica, as they anticipated a gathering where they could talk to some “religiously curious” people about Jesus.  Jeremy’s report on that gathering, below, sounds like something right out of the Book of Acts (if Acts had been written by a hip twenty-something living in Richmond, Virginia, in 2013). Take a look:

Thank you for your prayers! Sometimes I laugh at how the Lord does things – He can be sovereignly and graciously eccentric (His ways are NOT our ways!). His love is spectacular to behold and to flesh out towards others! Here are the results of our faith talk gathering this past weekend:

It was so cool! (1) While the gathering was small, a larger number of people have now entered into deeper dialogue concerning Jesus. (2) One girl expressed that she wants to understand the Bible and find purpose in life. She is not connected to any church at the moment, and doesn’t know fully what it means to be a follower of Jesus, but the conversation is in motion and we will be following up with her! (3) One friend (who knows Jesus, and came to our gathering) expressed to us that he wanted to know more about sharing his faith with others. During this meeting he was actually a vital part of sharing Christ!!! He did an excellent job in opening up and sharing about his walk with the Lord. We were extremely blessed to have him on our team.

BUT IT GETS BETTER! After the gathering was over, one girl stopped by (she was not originally at the gathering). She opened up to us claiming that her “religious experience” was dismal. She’s been distanced from Jesus because of her lack of understanding. She claimed that no one can know anything spiritually, but yet she is searching with deep emotion. So we TOTALLY declared that Jesus is making HIS KINGDOM available to HER! It was SO COOL! The Holy Spirit moved and she was like, “dude, I TOTALLY GET IT!” We shared the gospel with her but there is still a hangup in her heart towards jumping in towards being a Jesus follower. She told us she is super interested in having more conversations like this and feels a deep need for more! PRAISE THE LORD for what He is doing in her life!!!

Then our neighbor (who also wasn’t at the gathering) invited all three of us to come up for an unexpected dinner. We went up and GOD WAS AT WORK! Other neighbors were up there and everyone started talking more about what it means to walk by faith. Another man in our building is a believer, and he was present and contributed greatly by planting many seeds of truth. One young lady (who we never met before) was up there and she opened up about serious issues in her spiritual walk and was listening to Monica share the gospel while I was sharing with another young lady about how we need Jesus to bring light and healing to our insecurities and fears. Meanwhile the other believing man was also sharing – it was as if the Holy Spirit was bouncing off the walls in that room, because there was a sweet team effort going on in sharing the glory of Christ! Hahaha, it was incredible!

What a great day! For those of you praying for us, please mark this past weekend as a turning point: there is now a growing multiplicity of Jesus conversations throughout our building, neighborhood and city! People are walking beyond the superficial relationships into realms of understanding more about JESUS! Praise the Lord!

Peace and grace to you all! Jeremy and Monica

PS – that other guy, is putting on an ice cream night for our building this weekend, so pray for more opportunities to share Jesus! It is great having another believer in our building working with us for the purpose of reaching those who are lost!

I love the way these two are letting themselves be used, and by the way they marvel every time God does something through them.  I wonder what God might do through us today if we let him have his way?  Would the Kingdom of Heaven come a little bit closer to Richmond, Virginia?


In his sermon on November 15 Phil Mitchell, our Minister of Christian Worship, said:  “We have added the response, ‘Thanks be to God’ after Scripture readings [at First Baptist Church]. Why, Baptists don’t do that, do they? Some do, and for goodness sake why not? What if as we say, ‘Thanks be to God,’ we remind ourselves that this really is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God for that!”

Since then I’ve heard a little grumbling.

Yes, we thank God for giving us his Word.  We’re grateful that we can read it in public worship and private devotions.  But when we say it like that—“The Word of God for the people of God, thanks be to God”—it sounds awfully…Episcopalian.

We’re Baptists, not Episcopalians, but when it comes to worship we might want to ask what that really means (and what it doesn’t mean):

  1. It doesn’t mean that we aren’t liturgical.  Every Baptist church, even the most informal ones, follow some kind of liturgy (by which I mean the order of worship).  The invitation, for example, goes after the sermon and before the closing hymn.  Everybody knows that!
  2. It doesn’t mean that we can’t sing hymns.  One of my seminary professors used to say, “Some theology has to be sung.”  Many of the great, old hymns of the faith strive to do that—express good theology through beautiful music—so that you leave church humming something like, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity,” or “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.”
  3. It doesn’t mean that we can’t use written prayers.  Baptists don’t want to read their prayers out of a book; they want them to come from the heart.  But the best prayers often come from the heart when we are alone with God.   A prayer written down in such moments and shared in public worship can be deeply meaningful, and may be preferable to all those “ums” and “ahs” that often plague extemporaneous prayer.
  4. It doesn’t mean that we can’t read Scripture in worship.  Episcopalians and a number of other churches read a good bit of Scripture in worship.  They follow the lectionary, a plan for reading through most of the Bible in public worship over a three year period.  It seems like a good way to get Scripture into the lives of people who may not take the time to read it on their own and as “people of the Book” we Baptists should welcome any plan that does that.
  5. It doesn’t mean that we can’t celebrate the high, holy days.  Christmas is one of them.  Easter is another.  We’ve been celebrating those for years because they were important events in the life of Jesus: his birth and his resurrection.  Adding to our calendar other significant events in the life of Christ like Good Friday, Palm Sunday, and maybe even the Baptism of Jesus can make worship more meaningful, not less.

But here’s what it does mean to be Baptist and to have a Baptist way of worship, at least in my experience:

  1. It means that we celebrate spontaneity.  We like to believe that the Spirit can move us to do and say things that aren’t printed in the order of worship, and it is part of our cherished Baptist freedom to seize such moments.
  2. It means that we take preaching seriously.  The sermon is typically the highlight of the service, and the other elements of worship—hymns, prayers, and offerings—build toward a time of reverent listening for the Word of God.
  3. It means that we enjoy spirited singing.  We love those hymns and Gospel songs that are familiar and singable, the ones that really let us sing with all our heart.  We don’t much care for the slow, plodding ones.
  4. It means that we value “warmth.”  We like to be in a place where people call each other by name, where there’s a lot of hugging and handshaking, and where both laughter and tears are accepted.
  5. It means that our worship is heartfelt.  We don’t put a lot of stock in ritual or performance.  If you’re going to say something we want it to come from your heart.  If you’re going to do something we want you to do it for the Lord. 

I’m sure that others could add to this list and I hope they will (it would be interesting to compile readers’ comments on Baptist worship).  But what I’m curious about is the combination of this list and the one above.  Is there a way to have both warmth and dignity, to draw from the best and most meaningful practices of the last two thousand years and still mix up a uniquely Baptist blend of warmhearted worship?  I don’t want us to become Episcopalian (no offense to my Episcopal friends); I want us to be Baptist.  But I’d like to think we could be Baptists whose worship is as rich, and deep, and meaningful as possible.  I’d like us to remember that even more important than the way we worship is the One we worship.

And he deserves our very best.

Not a Black Eye in the House

Hear or download this post: Not A Black Eye in the House (mp3 file – 3:01)

Some of you may be eager to hear how the second round of Holy Conversations came out.  Let me give a brief summary and then we can move on to other, less important, things (like my next trip to the DMV).

We had another overflow crowd in the Dining Hall at Richmond’s First Baptist Church last night.  I started by thanking everyone for following the ground rules I had laid out the week before, and then asked them 1) to tell me how they felt about the idea of changing our membership requirements to include Christians from other denominations who had not been immersed, and 2) to try to do it in two minutes or less.  You could almost feel the tension in the air.  It was one of those moments when everyone sensed that things could either go very well, or very very badly. 

I tried to set an example, saying that I felt we should change our membership requirements, and that I felt that way because I knew too many sincere Christians who were hurt because they were being denied full membership in the church.  The next speaker said he didn’t feel we should change our requirements because believer’s baptism by immersion was the New Testament model, and that’s what we should follow.  With minor modifications to those two essential arguments (and occasional rhetorical flourishes), the rest of the evening’s speakers followed suit. 

Someone noted that if the Greek word baptizo had been translated (“immersed”) rather than transliterated (“baptize”), we might not be having this conversation.  Someone else noted that we welcome Christians of other denominations to take communion with us, but not to be on our church rolls.  One person said that the answer to the question “I’m not Baptist, may I join your church?” should be “Yes, if you want to be Baptist.”  Another implied that we are living in a post-denominational era, and we need to get over ourselves.

The remarkable thing, to me, was that the arguments didn’t get louder and louder, no one offered to punch anyone else in the eye, and we finished the evening with a sense that we had talked about a divisive issue without being divided.  It was what I had been praying for–a truly holy conversation.

From here our feelings (which were carefully recorded on a flip chart) will go to the deacons, who will pray over this issue for a month or more, discuss it, and decide whether or not it needs to go on to the church for a final vote.  If that happens we will vote as a congregation and live with the outcome.  I will live with the outcome, even if it’s not the outcome I was hoping for.  To me that’s just part of what it means to be Baptist, and it may be an even more important part than how much water we use when we baptize.

If you’d like to weigh in on this topic, please click on the word “comments” below and tell me how you feel.  And if you are a member (or think you might want to be), I will be glad to pass your feelings on to our deacons.