Tag Archives: Thom Rainer

Book Review: Becoming a Welcoming Church

Becoming a Welcoming Church, Thom S. Rainer.  Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2018.  Hardcover, 101 pages.

Come with me for a moment to visit two Reformed churches.  Both of them are faithful churches in the sense that they have gospel-preaching, faithful administration of the sacraments, and church discipline.  But we’re going to have vastly different experiences at each one.

I’m the guest-preacher at the first church.  After the service is over, I stand for a few moments at the back of the building.  All the members gather into their holy huddles.  No one speaks to me.  After a few moments of standing there awkwardly, I get in my vehicle and just drive away.  If that’s how they treat a guest-preacher, I wonder how they would treat a complete stranger?

With my wife and children, I’m a visitor at the second church.  I’m on vacation.  No one at this church knows me from Adam.  As we arrive, someone warmly greets us and shows us in to the sanctuary.  During the service, one of our children acts up (pastors’ kids!) and afterwards we’re in no mood to stick around.  We make a bee-line for the door.  As we’re out in the parking lot sheepishly heading for our van, someone comes running out after us.  A friendly voice beckons, “Hey, please stay with us for coffee so we can get to know you!  We’d love to have you come back in.”  We apologize and explain the situation with our kids.  But it leaves an impression…a good impression that we’ve never forgotten.

If you were a complete stranger in Jerusalem, to which church would you want to return?

That’s what this book is all about.  It’s about becoming that church which puts its best foot forward before, during and after that moment when guests walk through the door.  Thom Rainer is an experienced consultant and researcher in this field.  He’s written numerous books in the same vein, explaining how churches can do better at engaging guests.

I know what some readers may be thinking.  You may be thinking that this is all about becoming “seeker-friendly” or overhauling everything in our worship services just to accommodate non-members.  Definitely not!  Rainer discusses little about what goes on in worship itself.  In fact, the only thing he really mentions is a practice that most Reformed churches don’t do anyway:  the stand up and greet your neighbour moment.  Instead, this book is first of all about addressing our attitudes and then, second, about everything that goes before and around the worship service:  the website, church signage, greeters, etc.

What I appreciated most about this slim volume is its emphasis on how being a welcoming church is related to the gospel.  The hospitality mandated by Scripture is our thankful and loving response to the gospel.  But also when we are welcoming, it serves the cause of the gospel.

Since so much of it pertains to decisions made by those in leadership, this would be a great little book for consistories to discuss.  As Rainer points out, many churches believe themselves to be more welcoming than they really are.  This book will help churches to get to the truth — it includes two resources in the back which also serve that end:  a Church Facility Audit and a Secret Guest Survey.  Once you get to the truth, you’ll also find some help here in how to improve.  It’s jut a small book, but it punches far above its weight.  Check it out.


Missional and Reformed — Five Negative Theses

One of my passions is mission and evangelism.  I suppose this makes sense since I started my ministry as a missionary in 2000.  In every church I’ve served as a pastor, I’ve emphasized how important it is for believers to be outward looking.  I’ve repeatedly shown how God’s Word teaches us to be people who have a heart for the lost around us.  At the same time, I’ve always been convinced that none of this is contrary to our Reformed identity — quite the opposite!  In fact, the burden of my doctoral dissertation (For the Cause of the Son of God) was to demonstrate that, far from discouraging an outward looking perspective, the Belgic Confession fosters it.  Being missional is integral to being Reformed.

In years gone by, there were those who saw a tension between Reformed identity and being outward looking churches.  Sadly, today that phenomenon still exists.   To address it, I want to put out a number of theses about being missional and Reformed.  I’ll divide them into negative and positive theses.  In this post, I’ll lay out the negative theses and in a following post, I’ll do the other ones.  I offer the thesis and then a little explanation/commentary (asking you to realize that far more could be said).

1.  To be missional, there is no need to give up the Reformed confessions

Our Reformed identity is grounded in what we confess from God’s Word in the Three Forms of Unity.  These confessions foster an outward looking, missional perspective.  In For the Cause of the Son of God, I pointed out how the Belgic Confession was originally written as “the church’s witness to the world” (to use the brilliant title of P.Y. DeJong’s commentary on the Confession).  In a follow-up book, To Win Our Neighbours for Christ, I argued that also the Heidelberg Catechism and Canons of Dort foster a missionary-mindedness in our churches.  Our confessional heritage is decidedly NOT a liability when it comes to being outward looking.

2.  To be missional, there is no need to give up Reformed worship

Being Reformed means worshipping in a Reformed fashion.  By that, I mean that we do not worship God “in any other manner than he has commanded in his Word” (HC QA 96).  It’s what we call the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW).  Because it is grounded in Scripture, the RPW ought to be non-negotiable for Reformed churches.  A Reformed worship service ought always to have the same basic elements — the reading and preaching of Scripture, prayer, singing, offerings, and sacraments.  The circumstantial aspects of worship are negotiable and can differ from church to church.  A missional Reformed church can and should maintain Reformed worship, but it will often be necessary to provide instruction to visitors and new believers concerning that Reformed worship.  Such instruction, offered inside and outside the worship context, will also benefit those who have been longtime members.

3.  To be missional, there is no need to give up the Reformed name

It should be obvious that your name is part of your identity.  In his book Surprising Insights from the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them, Thom Rainer insists that it is a myth that “the unchurched are turned off by denominational names in the church name” (p.38).  In research for this book, Rainer discovered that over 80% of the formerly unchurched people he surveyed said that “the church name had little or no influence upon their joining a particular church” (p.39).  Further, Rainer points out that of those who said that the church name did have an influence, nearly two-thirds said that it was a positive influence.  There is no reason to believe things would be different with Reformed churches.  Giving up your Reformed name serves no missional purpose — so why do it?  Moreover, why not be upfront and honest about what kind of church you are?

4.  To be missional, there is no need to give up on our Reformed local church community

Sometimes Reformed believers resist efforts to become more outward looking by arguing that our priority has to be the local communion of saints.  First we need to work on a stronger bond between brothers and sisters in our church family, and then once we have that, then maybe we can start thinking about (and maybe even doing!) evangelism.  This is a false dilemma.  The church exists ultimately for the glory of God, but it exists for his glory through human beings.  The church exists for God’s glory through human beings loving one another both inside and outside the church.  Scripture does not prioritize one over the other and neither should we.  We are to love our brothers and sisters in our church family, but also love all those whom God places on our path — and show that love by sharing the gospel with them when God gives the opportunity.

5. To be missional, there is no need to give up on our Reformed connections

Here we’re thinking of the broader Reformed church community, i.e. on the federational level.  Here we’re thinking of connections through things like Reformed church polity.   Reformed churches differ from one another, even in the same federation.  They each have a different history and sometimes even a different church culture.  Different is not bad, so long as these differences are within the bounds of what we confess and what we have agreed upon in our church order.  Churches that are less missionally-minded need contact with more missionally-minded churches in minor assemblies and other such contexts.  All churches, however much missionally-minded, benefit from the accountability and encouragement that comes from living together in a federation.

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Reaching the Unchurched

New Horizons August-September 2014

The latest issue of the OPC’s New Horizons has an article entitled “Every Church a Mission Field.”  You can find it included in the August-September issue online here.  The article describes a conference held before the last OPC General Assembly back in June.  The entire article is worth reading, but there was one part that is especially worth sharing:

Dale Van Dyke, the pastor of Harvest OPC in Wyoming, Michigan, presented an engaging summary of the book Surprising Insights from the Unchurched and Proven Ways to Reach Them.  The author, Thom Rainer, interviewed 353 people who had recently become active in a church after years or even a lifetime outside the church.  Rainer also visited churches that he described as effectively evangelistic.  Here are some of the conclusions from his study:

  • Hiding the denominational name or identity, watering down difficult teachings, and lowering membership requirements do not appeal to new converts.
  • The biggest factors that attract new converts are the pastor and his preaching (90%) and sound, clear doctrine (88%).
  • Other lesser, though important, factors include friendliness, having been witnessed to, and personal relationships.
  • Worship style ranked dead last as a factor (11%).
  • The unchurched appreaciate high expectations for membership.  (Even a seemingly small thing like arriving early for worship communicates value.)
  • Church members should be able to list the core purposes of the church:  worship, teaching, prayer, evangelism, and service (consider Acts 2:42-47).
  • Pastors of effective evangelistic churches have a functioning theology of ‘lostness’ and communicate that through passionate preaching, pleading with the lost, and commitment to personal evangelism.

Pastor Van Dyke finished his presentation with a challenge that could be summarized like this:  Major on the majors (concerning what the Bible teaches).  Be biblical, have conviction, and be joyful.  Give priority and passion to outreach.  Develop effective small-group ministry and Sunday school that encourages teaching, growth, and fellowship.  Pursue unchurched family members and colleagues.  Uphold high expectations for members.  Never forget the power of God!

Rainer’s book certainly sounds worthwhile.  His conclusions go against the grain of what many people apparently think should be the shape of an outward-looking church.  To me this confirms that Reformed churches do not have to hide their identity or adapt their worship in order to be missional.