Richard Ellis is the pastor of Faith OPC in Elmer, NJ. He grew up the son of an OPC minister in MD. After attending Covenant College & Westminster in Philadelphia, Richard would later plant an OPC church in Frederick, MD where he served for 24 years. He was also a part-time RHM in the Mid-Atlantic, helping to plant several churches in the region. Richard and his wife of 46 years, Gayle, now live in Elmer, NJ and they have four “outstanding” adult children.
This week, we share Richard’s answers to our first 3 questions in the interview…
1. What is something that you believe and/or do in regards to outreach that has changed over your time in ministry?
I think I’ve become a bit wiser in not expecting people who are shy about talking to others to mysteriously become willing and able to witness to them about Christ. It’s easy to stand in the pulpit and remind people to reach out to their neighbors. If they simply do not easily speak of Christ even to other Christians, or if they don’t have non-Christian friends, calls to evangelize probably just pile on more guilt.
I’ve found that it’s important to provide easy first steps that just about anyone can do. Great example: we hired a service that provides a list of recent move-ins to the area around the church and sends to each a card we’ve designed with information about our church and an invitation to worship. Before Covid, on a monthly basis, we would fill paper bags with info about the area, cookies, a church brochure, and a gospel tract, then volunteers from our church would hand-deliver the bags to move-ins near where they themselves lived. The task was simple: knock on the door and with a warm demeanor identify themselves and our church, and offer them a gift bag. We may ask if there’s something we could pray for, or go with a conversation as far as the neighbor wishes. We had our members go out in the afternoon of our monthly Sunday evening prayer service. The energy was often high as people related conversations during that prayer service. Often someone would say, “It was a lot easier than I thought, even fun!” Sharing those stories reminds us that we’re not here for ourselves, but for our neighbors. It also removed some of the natural fear of evangelizing.
Another easy opportunity is inviting people to a Christmas Eve service or giving friends a winsome book on the resurrection at Easter time. We bought 50 such books from WTS Books this past year, and they were all snapped up and presumably handed out.
2. If the OPC and OPC churches want to continue to grow in our effectiveness in reaching the lost-what is the most important thing we need to work on and how or in what way(s) should we be working on it?
First, we need to become more comfortable talking personally about Jesus with other Christians. Strangely, there can be an awkwardness to speak of him, even inside the church. Talking theology is easy; it is impersonal and can bypass the heart. Talk of Jesus’ beauty or his merciful care for me in my need can get caught in the throat. We need to be more comfortable speaking to other Christians about our sins and weaknesses, and his sufficiency. We need to find joy in him so that there is Holy Spirit slosh-over out of our hearts in sharing our grace stories with others, inside and outside the church.
On a related theme, we need to develop winsomeness in speaking with people who have lost any sense of a Christian memory or vocabulary or morality. We need to learn to speak without anger, but with compassion, to those who think nothing like we do. Respectful conversation with those with whom we disagree is a lost art today. We are increasingly living in different worlds with different vocabularies so must work intentionally to bridge that gap.
One way to develop skill in talking to one another about Jesus is to provide a context in the church in which people read and apply the scriptures to their real-life problems and pray together for their personal needs. People are learning to talk about Jesus as the source of mercy and hope for their own lives. They are also praying about those with whom they wish to share this same hope.
3. What is something that has surprised you about outreach and evangelism to the lost as you have done it?
While our life circumstances may be quite varied, the reality of sin, guilt, and shame, along with a sense of alienation and longing for something better are common. The gospel story, no surprise here, addresses the human condition beautifully. The gospel fits with what God has revealed about himself in Creation, our sense of divinity, and what we ourselves know (but suppress) as image-bearers. The gospel is not weird or eccentric but readily fits the human condition, even as perceived by unbelievers.