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Jonathan Falwell imparts his passion

LYNCHBURG, Va. (BP)–Filling the shoes of a giant who planted one of America’s first mega-churches seems to be a natural fit for Jonathan Falwell, successor to and son of the late Jerry Falwell, who founded Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., 52 years ago.

Yet, the younger Falwell says he wasn’t called to fill his dad’s shoes, but to follow the footsteps of Jesus. “There’s no question that my absolute passion and desire is in ministry and in pastoring, and in reaching people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” Falwell told Baptist Press.

Such passion has helped thrust the church forward, baptizing nearly 1,200 people and adding 2,700 new members since May 2007, when the senior Falwell died in his office from heart failure.

“It was a beautiful spring day when I got the phone call to go to Dad’s office. I ran over there and found him on the floor,” Falwell recounted. “At that moment, I said to myself, ‘What do we do now?’ I didn’t have an answer, no answer whatsoever.”

Officials at Liberty University had an answer regarding a successor for Falwell as chancellor/president as they soon appointed Jerry Falwell Jr., the elder son, to the post.

Meanwhile, as Jonathan Falwell was beginning his tenure as Thomas Road’s pastor, he began to see “a beautiful picture of who God is, because when you come to the end of your rope, and you realize you don’t have what it takes, and you’re getting ready to embark on something that, if you went about it in your own power you know you would fail, well, I had no other option but to trust wholly in God.”

Falwell, from a confluence of passion and humility, had led the church of 20,000-plus members to “Love God, Love People,” which is the motto of recent and ongoing ministries that bring non-members into the church, and send members out into their communities.

“Thomas Road wants to be an organization in the community that has a significant influence in the lives of people whether they go to church here or not,” Falwell said.

That’s why two years ago the church began, with the senior Falwell’s wholehearted approval, a church-based Community Interest Groups, a ministry which offers free classes to anyone on a broad range of topics, from estate planning to knitting to martial arts.

Early in 2008, Falwell and other Thomas Road leaders got a vision for engaging church members in community ministry. “It’s one thing to sit down and talk about these things,” the 42-year-old pastor said, “but it’s a whole other thing to get thousands of people engaged in ministry.”

By April the vision was reality when the church launched what has become its “Inside-Out” ministry, which utilizes members’ skills and talents to meet needs in the greater Lynchburg community through home repair, landscaping, the purchase and installation of public school playground equipment and dozens more ministries that have Lynchburg’s mayor and others sending letters and e-mails of appreciation to the church.

Falwell cited such an e-mail he received from a local fireman who said he’d “never been a fan of Thomas Road Baptist Church or anything with the name Falwell attached to it.” Then the fireman reflected, “But last week, people from your church came to our fire station and brought doughnuts and coffee and gifts, and talked with us and told us how much they appreciate all that we’re doing. They brought us tickets to the ‘Fireproof’ movie, and they visited with us for a long time. I just want you to know that proved to me that you people aren’t bad. I just want to thank you.”

Hundreds of people have become Christians from such ministry, Falwell said.

Falwell noted that David Jeremiah, pastor of the San Diego-area Shadow Mountain Community Church, helped cast a vision for an outreach such as Inside-Out when Jeremiah led a “Signs of Life” campaign that motivated members to community ministry.

A first step in Inside-Out, Falwell said, is to ensure that Thomas Road members “were where they needed to be spiritually in order to serve. That’s why Matthew 22:37-39 jumped out at us early on. When Christ said to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind, and then said to love your neighbor as yourself — to me, that was a perfect progression of what we needed to call the church to do. We called the church to a passionate relationship with Christ on the inside and then, as an outgrowth from that, called them to love their neighbors as themselves.”

In his first Sunday as pastor, Falwell told Thomas Road members that if they “were leaving it up to me to reach this community, then we’ll fall flat on our faces. I can’t do it. If we’re going to march on and continue to see God bless, then it’s going to take all of us.”

Falwell said the church “had a decision to make: Are we going to move forward, or rest on the past? Our people rose to the occasion. And the fact that we’ve seen such incredible growth and seen numbers of people getting baptized — it’s because our people have decided to band together and take ministry as their own burden and responsibility.”

As an overarching ministry philosophy, Falwell said: “Everything that we do is focused around life change. We don’t try to figure out what we can do to make people feel good, or consider what people think would make them happy. No. We just focus on what we can do to help people become more passionate followers of Jesus Christ. That’s a passion I’ve had for a long time. Now it’s even more so.”

Falwell cites his father’s ministerial and spiritual sojourn as informing and influencing his own: “Dad was willing to open his eyes a little wider than some people are, and was able to see that if we’re going to reach the next generation for Christ, then we need to do some ‘next generation’ kinds of things. He decided that, in an ever-changing world, we can use ever-changing methods, without ever changing the message.”

Another reflection of Falwell’s passion is seen in the church opening its doors to the public about 12 hours a day, allowing people access to an indoor running track. Also available for public use is the church’s cavernous foyer named Main Street. Measuring some 250 feet by 40 feet, Main Street features a coffee bar, bookstore, dozens of comfy chairs situated in areas decorated as dens, and free wireless Internet access.

At the end of Main Street are two secure playgrounds, indoor and outdoor, that look like MacDonald’s play areas on steroids.

“It gets pretty crowded in here on rainy days,” said Tim Grandstaff, Thomas Road’s pastor for missions, who heads up the church’s Inside-Out ministry.

“We had one couple visit Main Street and ask sort of hesitantly: ‘We’re Catholics. Are you sure it’s OK if we come in?'” Grandstaff said.

“All in all, we want to have a positive impact on this community,” Falwell said. “We want to let the people see and know that we genuinely care for them and love this community and want to help it.”
Norm Miller is a freelance writer in Richmond, Va.

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