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Rainer: People need to be reaching lost for Jesus

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–Ninety-two percent of the unchurched will attend services sometime in a two-year period, but even when surrounded by believers, it still takes nearly 85 people to reach one person for Jesus Christ, according to a study by Thom S. Rainer, dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

While Southern Baptists fare twice as well, with a 39 to one ratio, the numbers are still alarming, Rainer said.

“People need to be reaching lost people for Jesus,” Rainer told participants at a church growth conference at Fleming Island Baptist Church in Orange Park, Fla. “There are 160 million lost people going to hell without Jesus Christ, and I ask you this night to say a prayer to God from your heart — ‘Lord, according to your will, allow me to come into contact with someone that I might share Jesus Christ.'”

Citing information from his latest study, Rainer, the author of “Surprising Insights of the Formerly Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them,” listed 10 criteria by which churches may understand how to reach people for the Lord Jesus Christ.

Rainer said churches must have a clear understanding of what they believe if the unchurched are to be reached, and they must practice what they preach if they want to draw people.

“The churches that are reaching the unchurched are clear about what they believe and they have conviction — clarity and conviction,” Rainer said. “The unchurched are looking for churches that will state clearly, ‘This is what we believe,’ and have the backbone about it too.”

Sharing from personal experience, Rainer illustrated the need for churches to respond to personal crisis, the single largest factor that causes most people to try church for the first time.

“We need to become intentional and strategic about reaching the unchurched in crisis,” said Rainer. One struggling California church, he said, budgeted $40,000 to buy gift baskets for new mothers; a ministry developed in coordination with a local hospital. That year they saw 25 baptisms.

Another aspect of evangelism easily overlooked might be the “relationship factor,” said Rainer.

By counting siblings, friends and co-workers among those who are intentionally included in outreach, Rainer said the chance to reach the unchurched multiplies rapidly.

Statistics show 93 percent of people polled would go to church if asked, but only 16 percent report being invited.

“What are we doing in the context of those relationships to share the gospel or simply invite someone to church?” Rainer prodded. “They are terrified of showing up by themselves.”

Rainer called the family the “most precious” relationship in connecting people to Christ.

Wives reaching husbands is the number one family relationship connection in reaching the lost for Christ, Rainer said. Children reaching parents is second, while in-laws are also a great influence on the unchurched.

An overview of four generations show the “Bridgers,” those born between 1977-1994, make up the numerically largest group of unchurched individuals — with only 4 percent claiming a relationship with Christ.

“The church needs to say to the Bridgers, ‘Young people, we know that you don’t pay your way in the church, but we are more concerned about your life and your eternity than whether or not you contribute to the cause of our church,'” Rainer said.

While there are about 160 million people in America who were not in church yesterday, according to Rainer, he said at least nine million, perhaps more, are waiting for someone to tell them about Jesus.

If they hear, they will accept Christ immediately, he said. Being blunt and asking a question that might seem rhetorical might lead a person to ask you to share your testimony.

“When was the last time you told someone how Jesus Christ forgave you of your sin?” Rainer asked.

He said that while the beliefs of the church are the most important factor in drawing a person to a church, the pastor and his preaching are also vital in keeping people in a church.

Churches where the pastors follow the biblical mandate of Acts 6:4 and spend a fair amount of time in prayer and sermon preparation show greater growth than those churches where the pastors skimp on this responsibility.

“You only get one opportunity to make a first impression on an unchurched person,” Rainer said. Looking at factors ranging from the more serious to the sublime, he told the story of a desperate young woman’s visit to a Baptist church.

Newly divorced, the woman parked in the closest space, nearly a block away from a rural church. Clutching her four-year-old, who she was convinced needed to be in church, the woman braved a slick parking lot to try every outside door of the church.

Entering on the lower level, the woman could hear singing but didn’t know which way to go. Turning a corner she encountered a crowded room full of unruly children with only one worker. After deciding not to leave her child there, she received instructions to follow the voices through a maze of hallways to the sanctuary.

After adjusting her child on her hip to open a door, the now bewildered woman fled in horror after finding herself the object of attention at the front of the church. Retracing the route back to her car, she wondered what possessed her to visit in the first place.

We need to look at the church through the eyes of outsiders to see if we make a good first impression, Rainer said.

A way to impact a person’s first impression can begin with a “greeter ministry” that extends both inside and outside, according to Rainer. Greeters should not limit themselves to the church sanctuary or main doors but should also travel around inside the building and outside into the parking lot in order to be effective.

People who are excited about Jesus make the best greeters, Rainer said. They include new Christians who haven’t gotten over Jesus yet.

Churches need to have an attitude of expectancy and outward focus to maintain an effective outreach to the unchurched, Rainer said. There must be a sense that God is up to something in the church and the people are aware of it.

Finally, Rainer said, churches that are reaching and keeping the formerly unchurched demonstrate a willingness to change. “We don’t get comfortable until we have our ultimate rest,” he said.

What God requires of his people can become misunderstood in the day-to-day busyness of life, Rainer said, recounting a personal story.

While burning a candle at both ends in order to minister in a church and study for seminary classes, Rainer was brought back to reality late one night when his five-year-old son told him: “Dad, I forgive you and Jesus does too.”

“I was doing a lot of good things, but I wasn’t doing God’s best.”
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness.

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  • Joni B. Hannigan