I had a memorable experience several years ago speaking at a large church here in Southern California: Real Life Church in Santa Clarita. I’ve written about large churches in the past, and I will admit I have a soft spot for many here in my part of the country, even though I pastored a small church of about fifty for six years. Real Life Church was an excellent example of a large church engaging the culture as a rescue boat rather than a cruise ship. Christendom has its share of mega-church cruise ships, catering to the hedonistic desires of the culture rather than rescuing the lost and broken with the transformational, saving message of the cross. That’s the thing that makes Real Life Church special. Given their explosive growth over the past fourteen years, you might assume Real Life is yet another cruise ship. But Pastor Rusty George began his pastoral journey as a College Pastor in Kentucky. He’s seen the challenges facing young Christians and I think this has contributed to sense of purpose and mission at Real Life. Rusty’s church is on a rescue mission. I’ve never had as many people approach me between services to tell me they were brand new Christians who began their journey within the last year. Real Life is growing because it is reaching those who haven’t yet heard the Gospel while addressing the challenges raised by our culture. I came away with three important observations related to how large churches can effectively reach the lost:
They Focus on the Unchurched
This sounds like an obvious principle, but I’ve been in hundreds of churches and not all of them are comfortable places for the uninitiated. Here in Southern California (unlike many regions in the South), the population is still largely unchurched and untraditional in its approach to Christianity. This is the land of non-denominational churches designed for those who think church is irrelevant. Real Life is an excellent example of a body of believers committed to those who are new to Christian theism. Rusty reminded me early on: his congregation is filled with many new believers. With a group like this, we can’t assume they understand all the Christianese, theological terminology or Church History. We, as church leaders and teachers, are here to teach them these concepts and facts for the first time and repeat this instruction often. Real Life is a place where unchurched people can come and enter into Christendom in a way they’ll understand, with people to whom they can relate. It was the perfect place for a cop to take the stage.
They Offer Healing for the Broken
First Responders and rescue personnel don’t mind getting their hands dirty. If you want to do this kind of work, you have to be comfortable with messy. Real Life seems ready and willing to take on the challenge. I heard this repeatedly from members who had been transformed by the Spirit of God and the message of the cross; folks whose broken lives had been mended. Real Life was in the middle of a series called, “Life’s Healing Choices”. Past themes have included “Hope Rising” and “People of the Second Chance.” The popular Christ-based approach to addiction recovery, Celebrate Recovery, is a prominent ministry at Real Life. If we say we are interested in the lost, we had better be interested in the broken. That means we’re going to have to get comfortable with all kinds of different people. Things are going to be messy at times. Real Life seems determined and unafraid.
They Teach the Hard Stuff
You might think it odd a church this focused on the lost would insert a speaker in their line-up to teach Church history, textual analyses and apologetics. That’s the great thing about Real Life: they get it. They understand the importance of worshiping God with more than just our songs, and they recognize the connection between belief THAT and belief IN. Rusty inserted my case-making into a series about healing because he understood the link between knowing that something is true (evidentially) and trusting in something to save you. I pushed this group as hard and as far as I could, but I honestly wasn’t sure how they would respond. As it turned out, I had more people sign up for the free follow-up materials than I have ever had at any prior speaking event (and I’ve taught at churches of this size in the past). This group is on fire; they are interested, attentive and appreciative. They can handle the hard stuff. That really shouldn’t surprise us. When people discover the truth, they are excited to learn more. If you’re trying to reach the lost, don’t mistakenly think you have to “dumb down” your approach to truth, theology or evidence. New Christians are among the most passionate believers on the planet. They’ll do whatever is necessary to take the next step. Take the time to push them, teach them, disciple them and require more from them.
I’m an inherently cynical and critical person. I think it’s the curse of having spent so many years in a law enforcement career where suspects continually lie, scheme and disappoint. I’m admittedly skeptical of people (and organizations). So I have to be careful not to carry my skepticism (a virtue for a detective) into my career as a church leader and speaker (where this kind of cynicism is a liability). Real Life is a place of hope and encouragement for someone like me. They’re a model of how large churches can turn free-riders into first responders. When a church is focused on the unchurched, committed to offering healing to the broken and dedicated to teaching the truth, don’t be surprised to see the kind of growth experienced at Real Life Church. They’re a model for the rest of us who are interested in reaching the lost with the message of the Cross.
J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured Cold-Case Detective, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Adj. Professor of Apologetics at Biola University, author of Cold-Case Christianity, God’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith, and creator of the Case Makers Academy for kids.
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