In 1991, Rick Rusaw became Senior Minister of LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, Colorado — a church that was about to celebrate its 100th anniversary. Since then the worship attendance has grown from 700 to more than 3,000 weekly, and the commitment to church ministry teams and community involvement has seen the ranks of volunteers grow from 150 to more than 1600. Rick is the co-author of The Externally Focused Church and 60 Simple Things Every Pastor Should Know, and his newest book is Living a Life on Loan. He was recently interviewed by Preaching editor Michael Duduit.
Preaching: You have written a new book called Living A Life On Loan. Tell me about the background of this book and what you were really trying to accomplish.
Rusaw: It came out of the book we did on externally focused churches, how a church really reaches out to its community, speaks into the fabric of the community, how is it we can serve. That book was based on the premise: good deeds create good will and you get the chance to share good news. Life On Loan is the personal version of that. So this is written with the sense of every one must have a journey. God’s writing His story, and He intends to write His story through you, so what’s your story?
Preaching: In the book you have an acronym for LIFE. Tell me about this idea of LIFE.
Rusaw: Sure. We would say that life is first your Love, the things you care about, things you’re passionate about, things that you have a natural bent toward, or giftedness toward.
I is the Intersections. In Ephesians 2:8-9, it says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves it’s a gift of God.” And verse 10 says, “We were created in God’s workmanship to do good works which He created in advance for us to do.” It’s the idea that our works don’t get us in a relationship with God; it’s His grace. Yet once we have discovered that grace, how are we living gracefully — how is that showing up?
I believe God’s provided some good things. I think He is writing His story and there are some good things He planned for you to do. I wonder how many times I’ve been blazing through intersections without paying much attention to the good things. So intersections is really about: here are all these opportunities. There are people, there are places, there are opportunities that come your way. And if you’re paying attention, maybe God has something He already had planned for you to do at that intersection.
And then F is Fortunes — just simply our resources, our time, our money, so it’s intriguing to me that I think sometimes the first thing I do, often, is give money because that’s a little easier than getting my hands dirty but, what do I do with my resources, with my time, with my ability, with my opportunities? And how is that having the E, the Eternity impact? How’s that making a difference in something that’s going to be forever?
Preaching: Did this book grow out of a sermon series?
Rusaw: Yeah, I would say it did. We used it as a sermon series to help our own folks here at LifeBridge move along down this path of being externally focused. Yes, the sermon series was a big part of it for us.
Preaching: Let’s talk about the whole concept of an externally-focused church. What do you mean by that and what are the implications of that in a local church?
Rusaw: A lot of churches talk about serving in their community. There are two things that Jesus said He would come to do: to save the lost and serve the least. We talk about those things a lot and yet I find that when we look at a lot of our programming, a lot of what we do, it ends up being about other things. Things that take care of us, things that need to happen — and some of those can be good things, they’re not necessarily bad things. I mean, you know, there are the opportunities that come with that; having Jogging for Jesus, Bowling for Blessings, and Crocheting for Christ!
It’s an amazing thing. The Christian community, over the last 20 to 40 years, has pulled out of the community. We didn’t like what was going on in the schools, so we started our own schools. We didn’t like what was happening in the business community, so we started our own business organizations. We have a Christian version of everything. We have Christian books, Christian music and Christian TV and we have Christian underwear. We’ve got all of it and in ways, I don’t think we intended or planned on, we have pulled ourselves out of the community.
Even churches who are vibrant and healthy and reaching out — I think LifeBridge might have been in that boat where we were growing and we were reaching people but we caught ourselves still saying, “Hey, if you need us, here we are. Our doors are open. We will have as many open doors as we can. We want to speak the truth in love.” But now we’ve been really shifting and saying: OK, how is it that we show up and create a voice, have an opportunity to speak into the fabric of our community?
Dave Stone and I are good friends and just this past weekend I was there and spoke for him. You know, if Dave says to me, “Hey, sometimes what you do or say yada yada comes off, you sound stupid with that.” I may not like that. It might make me mad. I might disagree with Dave. but the truth is he has earned the right to speak into my life that way. We have been friends for a long time and he has laughed with me, cried with me and journeyed with me and so I have to listen to him.
And I catch the church kind of standing on the bank shouting at the water and they can’t hear us anymore. Researchers say that in the ‘80’s if you lived in a metro area, you received about a 1,000 marketing messages a day: billboards, newspaper ads, bus signs. Today, in that same metro area, it’s over 10,000 marketing messages a day. So we are great at filtering stuff out. My line is: how does a church get, as Christians how do we get close enough so they can hear us? How can we be close enough so that they can hear us whisper? And I think you have to get in the stream to do that .
The analogy you hear all the time is: we didn’t like the water going by the front door, so we created our own stream out back. Of course, statistically, Barna and everybody else says we look the same. We divorce at the same rate. We get addicted at the same rate. All those things happen, but at least the water is a little cleaner out behind the building. I’m just suggesting that we get in the water as it goes by the front door and I think service is the best opportunity to do that.
We take two approaches to it. A lot of times the church will say, “Hey, there are homeless in our community. Let’s start a homeless ministry.” At LifeBridge, we simply say: who’s already doing that and how do we come alongside and help them? So we partner rather than create. The second thing is always hard for me and it’s hard for the church — I’m wired so that we grow and people notice what we are doing — but we don’t care who gets the credit. We don’t wear our LifeBridge shirts or our hats or t-shirts. We just try to show up and be helpful and what I’m discovering is there is power in those relationships, and from the relationship we get the opportunity to talk about grace.
Preaching: If a church is seeking to be externally focused, it seems there are some clear implications there for preaching. How is preaching involved in the task of becoming externally focused? Is it that maybe after you become, after you reach that stage, what role does preaching play?
Rusaw: I think preaching is still is an absolutely critical issue. There’s a lot of talk about what it should look like today, and how it should be done. We have a responsibility to take the Gospel into the world. Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. He is the way to a relationship to God. We have a responsibility to take that message that never changes, to a world that isn’t ever going to be the same.
I do some corporate consulting and every industry I know over the last decade has been wrestling with, not so much products — although that as important — but delivery. Everybody’s delivery system is changing. They are looking for faster, more niche-oriented delivery. They are looking for a quicker way to get the product from point A to point B. The mass distribution center is not necessarily the way that is being done anymore and I think the church has the same issues.
How do we deliver that message in a culture that does not speak our language; where 66% of the people, according to a Gallup poll, say they see the Church as not useful or meaningful in helping them to discover purpose or meaning in their life. And so somehow there’s this huge disconnect between the Church being a vibrant part of the community and speaking into the fabric of our community and how people perceive us.
So for us in preaching, we really preach; we’re always straight forward with the message. We’re not trying to water it down or make it easy but rather to communicate it in a way that people can hear. So as we view our whole worship time on a weekend service, the message is important but that message might get communicated in four or five different ways, whether it be through music or a testimony reading or how I present the message. This last weekend, the message was in three different parts and one other person helped me deliver that message. I think that’s where we have to think in terms of: how do we preach this truth?
Good deeds by themselves is just being a social worker, and truth just by itself is in a sense being a prophet. I believe God has called us to speak truth and love and do the show-and-tell thing. And so if you are showing good works in your current relationship, then you better have something to back that up with — the message that made the difference in your life, that caused you to do these good works in the first place. So preaching to me is critical.
And from a leadership standpoint, how are we communicating this to the believers who are part of LifeBridge? How are we helping them see their lives on loan so that God can use them, that He is writing His story through them? We’ve used preaching as a key component to encourage people along that path.
Preaching: As you talk about preaching in a culture where a large percentage of people either don’t connect or don’t understand why we are what we are, how do you find yourself adapting your own preaching style to try to communicate with that kind of culture?
Rusaw: I think it’s not major shift for me. It’s been more subtle stuff. I know I drive some of our people here at LifeBridge crazy because I’ll say things like “Today, I want to invite you to turn to John the 15th chapter” and then I’ll say, “Now, John’s found early in the New Testament about three-quarters of the way through your Bible.” Our folks, who have been here a long time, are saying to me, “Come on, we know where it is,” but it gives permission to the person coming through the door the first time — or maybe that unchurched, dechurched folk — it just says, “Hey, it’s okay that you don’t know.”
You know, I think sometimes we make the mistake of being simplistic — and there’s a place for simplicity — but then sometimes we have been real complex and I think there is a place for complexity. I think the key in preaching is simplicity on the other side of complexity. Meaning that for me as a communicator, I have to do all of the hard work of understanding the passage, making it relevant and practical and speaking that truth, knowing the audiences that are sitting out there and then making it understandable. I’ve been guilty of being simple. Haven’t usually been accused of being overly complex! I think the genius in communication is the simplicity on the other side of complexity, and that’s a hard-work process.
Preaching: I understand there are times you do some creative things in your worship or communication to try and drive your point home. In his book Refining Your Style (Group), Dave Stone gave the example of using the wooden crosses in the service, and having people nail their sins to those crosses. Is that a common thing for you? How do you approach the whole idea of creative communication techniques?
Rusaw: I think one of the keys is don’t get gimmicky. I’m sure there have been times where it comes off as a gimmick. We just try to provide some practical ways to reframe something for somebody. This weekend, we’re finishing a series on the Church. We’re doing a message about the living stones and Jesus said, “I’ll build my church” and He’s the foundation we are building on. It’s His church, not ours. He’s building off of Peter’s confession to Him right there. And then it’s Peter years and years later in his life who describes the church as living stones.
We are going to have a big pile of stones up there on the stage this weekend. They’ll be there through the whole service — the message is near the end of the service this week. At the end, I will invite people to come and pick up a stone and take it home with them and say, “Use this as a reminder that God can use you. Use it as a reminder that you are a part of something bigger than yourself. Use this as a challenge for how God can write His story through you. And when you see this stone, put it on your desk or in your bathroom and pray and be challenged by the fact that God is building His Church with people like you and me.”
I find when we do that kind of thing, it just gives people another way to remember and reframe the message. We’ll take common items and do it that way. In this series, we have been doing a thing where one of our staff members is doing a thing called Myth Busters — we’re playing off of the TV series — but we’re taking some of the common myths about Christianity. While you can’t do an experiment to explode these, let’s talk about what they mean. Last week, it was a myth about how only hypocrites go to church. We did this whole thing about hypocrisy and what people really think about that and we give them a lot of practical head stuff like stats and other things. All it does is recast it in a way that people can grab it.
Jesus did that all the time. He took average, ordinary common things and put them in a way that people could get their arms around it. I think in preaching, it’s just being open to those. We will use some balance. I catch myself saying it’s not that creative, because I just know a lot of people who are doing kinds those things. But the challenge in preaching is — if my goal is for me to get my message out, I might preach one way. But if my goal is for people to connect with that message, to do something with that message, for God to be at work in the middle of that message, I would probably present it in a little bit different way. I know that my preaching is much more of a “come alongside” than a “top-down.” It’s, “Hey I’m on a journey too. Let’s throw a little light on the path here.”
Preaching: How often do you use that kind of creative approach, such as with the stones?
Rusaw: I would say it’s between frequent and occasional. We don’t use it all the time because we think it would get stale. This will be the first time in nine weeks we’ve done something where we are inviting them to take something home or do something.
We passed out 4,000 jigsaw puzzle pieces one morning. They held the piece the whole service, they had no idea what they were doing with it. I talked about how every one of us has the opportunity to make a difference, and I told a story about how my mom loves doing jigsaw puzzles and my sister and I use to steal pieces from her. We would drive her nuts. The whole picture would be done but missing one piece. But for her, even though she knew what the picture was, it was not complete without that piece. And God’s picture, His story, is not complete without your part of the puzzle.
I did that maybe a year ago and I have people even now, saying they still have the puzzle piece in their pocket or they wrote a scripture on the back of it or it sits on their desk and “it reminds me that I could be doing something.” So it’s those little things.
We did a series on guilt and grace and at the end of that series, we had a number of crosses set up around the room. We had passed out cards and we invited people to write on their card some issue that they didn’t feel they could be forgiven of, or some issue they were hanging onto, or some burden they were keeping, and just take that to the cross. We invited them to nail it onto the cross. That morning, the power of the sound of the hammers nailing . . . I’m always amazed by something that seems so simple to us, yet by the amount of emotion and repentance and things that go on in people’s lives that they were touched. A lot of people carry that stuff and really don’t know how to get rid of it, so the act of doing something, I think, also helps drive the message.
We try to do the stuff that’s actually simpler, not so “techie” and not so far out there that’s it’s out of reach, because if it’s that way, then even people in the church kind of go, “That’s kind of cool but, you know…..”
I think there is power when people can respond to the message. Historically our only response is to come forward to be a member or come forward to rededicate or maybe have prayer — and there’s a place for that — but I think people want to do something a lot of times. Sometimes we invite them to go do something this week and then come back and tell us about it next week. We’ll try to make it a little bit more engaging that way.
Preaching: Tell me a little about LifeBridge Church where you serve.
Rusaw: I arrived in 1991 and five weeks after I got here, we celebrated our 100th anniversary.
Preaching: Was this more of a traditional church?
Rusaw: Pretty traditional, a good church. It had a great reputation in the community. It had been going through some rough spots. Minister had been here a long time, a great guy. They went through some staff difficulties and then he ended up resigning and they were relocating and going through financial issues. They had started a new church a year and a half before and were losing a lot of their young people to that church. My wife said while we sat in the interview — because I had not planned on doing this and coming here, I wasn’t even really sure I was going to do ministry — and she said the more they described how tough things were, the more she knew I was going to want to come here. I’m just wired like that.
They were a great congregation just looking for a little leadership and we started reshifting our focus around those two things: how can we reach out and be leading people to Christ and how can we be serving? We started creating how we focused about ministry around those things. And so we have grown a fair amount. God has been kind to us about that. We are in a fairly small community. Our community is about 80,000 and doing the multi-site thing now too, so we have our second one launching this weekend. We have between 3300 and 3400 attending each weekend. We have five services — two on Saturday, three on Sunday, and then we have one multi-site that’s been going a year. It’s about 20 minutes away from us, and the second one is 30 minutes away and it launches Sunday.
Preaching: For the preaching element of your multi-site locations, are you doing a live feed or tape delay?
Rusaw: We do a DVD from the night before.
Preaching: If someone was to come here and you preached over a series of Sundays, what would we experience in terms of style and approach?
Rusaw: Hopefully what you would hear is a message that, regardless of where you were in the journey, there was a place for you to connect. That there was some stuff that if you have been a believer a long time, it would be meaningful to you, and that if you were coming for the first time, you would had been able to understand what was going on. In addition, I would say we tend to be about the practical application side. So what’s to take away from this? How can I use this in my life right now? When I go home today, when I get in the car, what is it that I am able to use in my life at this moment? And I would think that the “come alongside” thing would be, whether you would describe it that way initially, or intentionally, I do believe that’s the piece that you would feel like happened.
Preaching: Do you preach typically in series?
Rusaw: Yes, we’re almost, always in a series. We try to rotate our series among kind of 101 and 201 stuff — and I don’t mean the baseball diamond fan. We try to do stuff that would be very practical or need oriented. We’re launching an eight-week series about faith: Why Faith Is Hard. We invited the congregation — a month and a half ago — to write down what’s the issue where you think faith is hard for you or why you think it’s hard for people to come to Faith. If faith were easier, a lot more people would be living with it. So, why is it tough? We ended up with 1,100 responses, we categorized those into fifteen things, and broke those down into an eight-week series, which will be really fun because they helped create the series. I’m looking forward to the response that we get from that.
Then we’re going through the book of James the first nine weeks of the year. So we try not to be one of those churches that just bounces around — where we are just picking up a passage that we need for the week. In fact, we try to route a lot of our series in a book or maybe the parables, Matthew 5 & 6 — we try to tie those two things together. The power is in God’s Word and not our word, so we are trying not to do that “jump-around thing” all the time. It does happen some though.
Preaching: Have you found that your preaching has perhaps changed during the 15 years that you have been at LifeBridge? Have you learned some things about preaching and communication that you didn’t know when went there?
Rusaw: A couple of things really. One of those is that I hope that I’m not in as much of a hurry for people to have to grab it immediately. I’ve gotten a little more patient. This is the long haul deal. It’s been true for a while, but you can get away with saying a lot of the hard stuff because you’ve journeyed with these people for a long time.
Two, I started hosting a program that airs overnight on the PAX Network, Worship. It’s kind of boring actually, but they get a lot of people watching it and that was one thing that really helped. Here we are in front of a camera and they would tell us we are talking to a couple of million people, one at a time. I really try to think in terms of my message on the weekend in that way. How am I having a conversation with somebody?
They recently did this little 15th anniversary thing for me — it was just an in-house thing, mainly staff and elders. And one of them said, “You know, you have a way of making me feel like you’re having a conversation with me when you are speaking.” I think there some power in that. So you talk to one person — a lot of people, one at a time.
Preaching: How long do you typically spend in preparing a message?
Rusaw: Probably somewhere between 10 and 15 hours a week.
Preaching: How many different times do you have to speak typically during a week?
Rusaw: I have a men’s thing I do on Tuesday mornings. I’m usually speaking at something in the community once a week and as much as I hate to admit it, I travel and speak on average once a week. Then it’s the weekend and we have five services.
The other part of speaking is a little easier because I’m not necessarily writing new stuff.
Preaching: What’s the most challenging thing about preaching for you?
Rusaw: I think it is having something to say that you feel like is going to honor God and be true to his Word and relevant to the people who need to hear that. I always have a sense of heavy responsibility, these folks are wanting to hear something from God and you’re in the spot this morning to communicate that and don’t blow that. So my prayer as I walk to the front is: “God help me do what I know I can’t do.”
I think one of the challenges for us in preaching is not to get in the way too much and not to assume that somehow it happens through us. I think we have to do our very best in preparing in being as good as communicators as we can, growing in our communication abilities, but not assuming that it’s about us.
Preaching: What’s the most fun thing for you about preaching?
Rusaw: The actual getting to preach because on Friday I pretty much think I should quit and let somebody do this that knows what they are doing. So the actual getting to preach, I enjoy. Some guys love the prep stuff and all the work that goes into it. I hate all of that!