George Ross is in his 13th year as senior pastor of Northside Christian Church in New Albany, Indiana. The church has grown from 1,200 to 5,000 during his ministry. His previous ministries have been directed to children, youth, small groups, music, and preaching. We spoke with him about reaching sinners, watching repentance, and creating a culture of redemption.
We would like to hear you reflect on how you minister in the face of cultural challenges.
I’ve watched your ministry. In both Las Vegas and metropolitan Louisville, you have focused on leading non-Christians to be growing disciples. That involves both attitude and behavior transformation. Tell us about the challenges.
We are committed to holistic, relational ministry. We try to be unassuming and approach people right where they are.
Can we move quickly to a difficult area? How do you work with people who are into lifestyles that are overtly sinful?
Interesting question. It is the same problem in Vegas and the Midwest. But people are a bit more subtle about the sin patterns where we are now. We don’t find many people here who advertise, “I’m shacking up, on dope, living the homosexual lifestyle.” But we assume that everybody has sin problems. That’s why they need Jesus.
So give us a description of that early discipleship process.
We try to equip our people with the love of Christ, a faithful community, and discipleship resources so they can reach their friends. When people who are far away from God have friendships with Christians, they begin to warm up to the gospel, and may begin to feel safe enough to talk about their life patterns. We don’t really pry into every life detail.
To see this more clearly, tell how you might respond if you find that a person who is committed to a homosexual lifestyle, has been baptized, and declares complete trust in Jesus.
That could happen. We do not do strict interviewing and screening. Our relationally based evangelism first emphasizes coming to grips with Jesus as the Messiah. He is the Savior. Our goodness is never good enough. We try to discuss what sin is without using a checklist for interrogation: “Do you gossip? Do you slander?” I may ask, “What are some of your sin patterns?” There is always a great possibility that people hide some of their sins.
Perhaps they are hiding sins, or not even understanding sins, especially if they think the sin pattern is “the way they were made”?
I think if we are fulfilling Christ’s order to be “fishers of men,” then we are to catch them and he will clean them. We tell the whole gospel out front—trust Jesus, repent from sin, but the Holy Spirit is a big part of the change process. In fact, I am not sure sin can be defeated without the Holy Spirit. Every Christian is, or should be, in ongoing spiritual formation.
But some sins have a powerful grip.
Yes, and Jesus has a long reach. We want to reach as far as he does to sinners . . . not to accept their sin, but to get them into relationship so that they can hear him say, “Stop sinning.” The same thing should be done with everyone, whether their sins are sexual, social, or personal. The call to follow Christ includes the call to leave things behind.
Can you apply that principle to a couple who is living together without marriage, and plans to be married in six months when they can afford a wedding, but wants to be baptized right now?
That’s a good challenge. The first step is to help them see clearly what choosing discipleship means. But this case really calls for two major actions, baptism and marriage. If they want to be Christ followers I would want them to be baptized, but if they are defiling marriage, that stands in the way of faithfulness. They can take care of that quickly by having a private wedding and having a celebration in six months. That would be a good action of repentance, doing the right thing on several levels.
Why not just ask them to separate for six months?
That sounds great, but many of these people already have children together. Separation won’t happen—or they lie about it to make the preacher happy. I see Scripture calling to bring such a relationship into covenant. And if a person really believes in the lordship of Jesus, that covenant should be sealed in baptism. Both covenants should be honored.
So you don’t really do a lot of screening?
No. Try to imagine Pentecost. Do you think the apostles were interrogating, “Tell me about your sin patterns, every one of them”? Peter was clear on their need to repent and be baptized. The early church preaching and teaching was very clear on sin issues. We would try to be a support in transforming grace, not in winking at sin.
Where, then, would you draw a line on baptizing?
If a person declares faith in Christ, but says he is struggling with sin, I think he should be baptized. But if he has an attitude that announces, “I don’t care what the Word of God says!” I don’t believe baptism is appropriate. You cannot truly accept Jesus while denying his Word.
Why would someone with that attitude want to be baptized?
Fire insurance! They want Jesus as Savior, but not as Lord. They are missing the wholeness of the gospel.
I am impressed with your compassion as you sort through these issues.
Implementing the truth in love really tests the Pharisaic spirit in us. I grew up in the church, but I am still a recovering Pharisee. I am still trying to find the truth and love blend that Jesus demonstrated. When he saved the adulterous woman from stoning, he faced down the self-righteous mob, but he did not minimize her sin. He did not tell her to try to cut back on sinning. He refused to condemn her, but he told her to put the sin out of her life.
I’m not very good at this, but when a church committed to the truth of the Word practices the love of Christ, I see horribly messed-up people become thoroughly redeemed. I want the church to be a culture of redemption.
Paul Boatman is chaplain of Safe Haven Hospice in Lincoln, Illinois.