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Passion turns Thomas Road Baptist Church ‘Inside-Out’

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following two stories are part of a monthly Baptist Press series to explore and describe how individuals, churches, associations and conventions exhibit a passion for Christ and His Kingdom.

LYNCHBURG, Va. (BP)–Thomas Road Baptist Church is booming. In the last 17 months, hundreds have become Christians and hundreds more have joined the church through a variety of ministries that bring non-members into the church, and send members out into their communities.

If you ask the church’s pastor, Jonathan Falwell — successor to and son of the late Jerry Falwell, founder of Thomas Road — he’ll tell you that what’s happening has been in the works since his father first started the church more than 50 years ago.

Church membership has surged since a 2006 relocation to a former electronics factory of almost a million square feet. But since May 2006, when Jerry Falwell died and Jonathan became pastor, church ministries yielded nearly 1,200 baptisms and 2,700 new members. In September and October, the church baptized 200 people. Every week more than 18,000 people attend Thomas Road ministries, equal to about a third of those living within the city limits of Lynchburg, Va. — population 62,000.

The growth spurt began two years ago when Rod Dempsey, Thomas Road’s pastor of discipleship, presented a ministry called “Community Interest Groups” to then-pastor Jerry Falwell and Jonathan, then the church’s executive pastor.

“Dad loved the idea,” the 42-year-old Jonathan Falwell told Baptist Press. “‘This is the church being the church. This is outreach,'” he said, recalling his father’s words. “Dad totally bought into the idea and was 100 percent behind it.”

Community Interest Groups, which Jonathan characterized as “outside of the box for many traditionalists,” now attract thousands of people to the church every Wednesday night, about half of whom are members of other churches, and about one-fifth of whom are not members of any church.

The groups meet for eight-week semesters covering a range of topics, from horseback riding to home remodeling. Currently nearly 70 classes are offered, including Alzheimer’s support, martial arts, cake decorating, drawing, fly fishing, debt reduction, classic car restoration, hunting, weight loss, home-based businesses, interior design, motorcycling, hiking/camping and GED preparation. The classes are taught by qualified persons and are free to the public. And there is no expectation that participants must listen to a sermon or attend the church at any other time.

“To whom much is given, much is required,” Dempsey told Baptist Press. “We have a lot of people who can give back to the community using their talents, gifts and abilities. The idea is to get people on the property and use the bridge of common interests” to share the Gospel. “When God gives you this kind of creativity, you need to use it to reach others.”

Whereas Community Interest Groups brought outsiders into the church, the idea has since been reversed to include sending church members into the community to undertake scores of service projects that have included food distribution, school and home repair and landscaping.

“My motto is: ‘Meet a need, melt a heart, make a disciple,'” said Tim Grandstaff, Thomas Road’s pastor for missions, who heads up what has become the church’s Inside-Out ministry. The idea germinated when the younger Falwell preached a sermon in 2007, noting, “We have a dream of having 5,000 of our members, of you, involved as lay ministers, meeting the needs of our members, meeting the needs of our community, feeding the hungry, providing shelter to the homeless, helping the less fortunate, and letting the world see Christ within us.”

More than 1,250 people worked in the church’s Compassion Weekend, April 18-20, serving as gardeners, housekeepers, builders, cooks and even gas pumpers. Some teamed with local charitable organizations while others went to nursing homes, the hospital and individual homes for ministry.

“We didn’t decide for ourselves what we would do,” Grandstaff said, noting that church leaders met with Lynchburg’s mayor and city council members to about community needs and how the church could meet them.

Projects members completed included a seven-week food drive; home repairs; renovating playgrounds; gas buy-downs; supplying school bus drivers with coffee and mugs, and teachers and school administrators with doughnuts and thank you cards; and making college care packages for local students.

Other organizations may provide food and clothing to the needy, Grandstaff said. “But what makes us different is that we do it in the power of God. We are earning the right to be heard,” he said.

“For many believers, personal witnessing programs represent a big fear,” Grandstaff added. “But we go serve people, touch their lives, tear down walls so God can use us to share the Gospel. This approach is one of the greatest missing links in the body of Christ.”

What began as a weekend of community compassion has continued in ongoing ministry, and that’s exactly what leaders at the church wanted.

A women’s Bible study class, for example, adopted a local shelter for battered women as their own ministry and provides for many of the material and spiritual needs of those women.

Another class decided to buy 200 tickets to “Fireproof” so local firemen could take their spouses to the movie. Class members visited each fire hall, every shift, and delivered the tickets along with coffee, personal letters of thanks and printed prayers.

Another church member on a ministry team that helped with landscaping and refurbishing a local girls’ home decided to join the executive board of the home so he could be attuned to and involved with meeting needs at the facility.

“That’s when I know we’re really getting it,” Grandstaff said, “when people buy into it and take ownership, and are not waiting for me to provide opportunities to do ministry.”

Grandstaff has a file folder full of letters from the mayor, other city officials, local charitable organizations and individuals thanking the church for its ministry efforts.

“People have to realize that we really do care for them and that we are not just trying to get notches in our Bibles or get people to church,” said David Wheeler, a professor of evangelism at Liberty Seminary who leads a team involved with the Inside-Out project. “This whole movement has been about us going out into the community and being the church out there with them so that the church is the organism rather than just an organization.”

“You can pray all you want for a passion for souls,” Grandstaff noted. “But you’ll never get it until you go out there and do ministry in God’s name. I never would have known that if I hadn’t gotten out there and experienced it for myself.”
Norm Miller is a freelance writer in Richmond, Va.

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