As senior minister of LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, Colo., Rick Rusaw leads his congregation of 3,000 toward community relevance. Under his creative leadership, LifeBridge has developed a network of ministry teams, expanding church and community volunteer involvement from 150 to 1,600 people. Rusaw’s latest book, The Externally Focused Church (Group), explores community service as an avenue to share the Good News. In a recent interview with Outreach, Rusaw shares the importance of relevance and how service has ignited a passion for evangelism throughout his church.
Q: Rick, how do you feel the Church is doing overall in the area of outreach and evangelism?
A: George Barna’s stats continually show the church isn’t really growing. However, I think there are pockets of growth. A few churches in every community seem to have grabbed onto the idea of reaching out to the lost people around them—those who are disenfranchised, aren’t connected to a local church body or don’t have a relationship with Christ—and finding a way to extend grace.
So I actually see hope for the Church, even though we’ve heard so much bad news in the last five to 10 years about how poorly evangelism is doing. The bad news challenges Christians to think, How do we connect with this culture? It’s an opportunity to re-think how and what we’ve been doing. Right now, the Church has a chance to re-establish itself as a voice in the culture.
Q: So what have churches been doing that’s not working?
A: One of the things we’ve inadvertently done is created a Christian version of everything. We’ve got Christian schools, Christian businesses and clubs. We’ve even got Christian underwear.
And in some ways, we’ve disengaged from our communities. For example, we’ve taken the Christians—kids, parents, teachers and coaches—out of the public schools and essentially said to these schools, “You’re on your own; do your own thing.” Now, we have to find ways to get back into the system, to re-engage our culture, to be viable.
I think the churches that are re-engaging the culture are the ones using service as a vehicle. They believe, “Good deeds create goodwill, and then you get to share the Good News.”
Q: How are you using service as a vehicle for outreach at LifeBridge?
A: We started talking with the principals and teachers at our public schools and found out they needed volunteers to help out at track meets and dances. They also needed mentors and readers for kids, so we just began providing volunteers.
Many teachers have come to know grace as a result of the relationship connections we’ve made. Because our church has figured out how to connect, we’ve had the opportunity to speak grace into their lives.
Q: At your church, what has been most effective in sparking a passion for corporate evangelism and outreach?
A: Again, service has been key. We encourage people to share their faith, invite their friends to church, tell their stories and come to evangelism classes. We have a group of people who do these things—they’re kind of wired for evangelism. But for the bulk of our congregation, sharing the Gospel is not their first instinct.
So we encourage them to serve by getting involved in service projects we’ve created around the community. And we’re finding that the scenarios we talked about in our evangelism classes are unfolding naturally. Now that our members are out there serving and engaging, people are asking them, “So what about the Bible? Who is Jesus really? How do I pray?”
Because the Church has withdrawn from society, I think many Christians have lost the opportunity—even the right—to speak into the fabric of the community. But service is the vehicle that gives us a chance to reconnect.
Q: What about you, Rick? What sparks the fire to share Christ in your own life?
A: I grew up in a great family that attended church every Christmas and Easter if we weren’t doing something else. And so, during my childhood, church wasn’t very relevant for me. But I was introduced to Christ in high school. And as a result, a huge change happened in my life, and then in my family, as they came to know Christ as well.
So for me, that spark comes through realizing that there are a lot of people like me out there. People are looking for something. They may not be looking for it in conventional ways, but they want to have conversations about spiritual things, life and death issues and what their life is really about. If we just pay attention to the opportunities that come our way, we can share our faith with people.
I’m not one of those guys who’ll ask you, “If you die tonight, are you going to heaven?” I won’t beat you over the head with my big old Bible. But I do look for opportunities to share grace. God’s writing His story, and He’s chosen to write it through our story as we connect with others.
Q: Rick, if you could tell pastors across America just one thing, what would it be?
A: First, be faithful to your giftedness and calling, as well as the expression of them. I Peter 4:10 says each one of us has received a gift, and we ought to use it. So ask yourself, “How do the things I’m doing, the programs I’m leading and the ministries I’m about demonstrate grace to the community around me?”
It’s important to pinpoint your level of community involvement because 66% of Americans don’t see the Church as meaningful in helping them discover any purpose for their lives. And so, somehow, the Church is viewed as irrelevant and out of touch. My challenge for our staff, for me personally and for my friends, is to find ways to get back into the culture.
There was a time when I thought I was going to help change the world. I’m not sure about that anymore. But I can get in the “stream” that goes by. And I can disrupt it a little bit. You get muddy, you get wet and you get cold. It’s not always the nicest place to be, but that seems to be where Jesus was.
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