Posted on : Friday February 28, 2020

Peculiar People is a podcast produced by the BCM/D. Our goal is to provide relevant content to strengthen believers in MD/DE and equip the saints for fruitful ministry.

Transcript

Kevin Smith:
So, Dr. Rainer, the name of our podcast is Peculiar People and we focus on, first Peter and the exaltation that God’s people are holy, chosen, but certainly peculiar in the sense of standing out from the culture around them. You’ve been in church life, you have rich experience. How have you observed churches shifting from… In your address, you spoke about this large middle of cultural attendees and cultural Christianity.

Thom Rainer:
Right.

Kevin Smith:
Have you seen churches adjusting to an environment where I think we’re much more peculiar people? How have you observed that?

Thom Rainer:
Well, first of all, we are more peculiar in the sense that we have fewer of the cultural Christians and I think it would be good for the listeners just to get an overview of what a cultural Christian is. At least according to my definition, it might not be the best one. A cultural Christian is a person who comes to church for reasons of politic, business, or acceptance. In other words, they want to be culturally accepted. Most cultural Christians we would think would not be followers of Christ or be Christians, but they’re in church institutionally. And so, what we have seen over the years is that there’s been this mass of people who would connect with our churches, particularly post World War II, up until really about the turn of the century, going into the 21st century who would come to our churches because they wanted to be culturally accepted.

Thom Rainer:
They wanted to be accepted by the political class, they wanted to be accepted by the business class, and they just wanted to be accepted in their neighborhoods. And so, now we’re seeing cultural Christians, and that’s an oxymoron, we’re seeing cultural Christians now no longer come to the church. And your question specifically is, how our church is adapting to this? They’re adapting to it, for the most part in agony. They’re saying, “Where’s everybody gone? What’s happened?” And if many of them would do a detailed analysis of it the reality is, yes a lot of people are not attending anymore, but it’s not those who are followers of Christ. Now, does that mean we’re happy that fewer people are attending church? No, I’m not in that camp that says fewer is better, but we need to have a realization of who these people are who are either non attenders or highly infrequent attenders.

Thom Rainer:
Here’s another thing for you, Dr. Smith. The average attendance definition, let me just back up. Definitionally a person was considered, 15 years ago, active in his or her church if they attended three times a week, now the definition is three times a month. That’s an active attender. So, what we’re doing is, we’re looking at the cultural Christians and we’re saying, “Oh, that’s the way normal Christianity should be.” Instead of turning around and saying, “No, we need to have this peculiar culture where we are committed to the local body of Christ, where we are making a difference.” I know you asked one question and you got the long answer, so I’ll try to land it in just a couple of more sentences. Most churches are not responding positively, but they can respond positively. It’s a great opportunity because if these aren’t there, then who are we going to reach?

Kevin Smith:
Amen. I was a little convicted in your address to the broader convention because I spend a good amount of time trying to provoke pastors to encourage members to see the mission field and be out and engage. And I was convicted because I said, “You know what? I’m not really perusing whether these pastors themselves-

Thom Rainer:
There you go.

Kevin Smith:
… are out and engaged. Would you flesh out some of the… That was a significant weighty part of your address.

Thom Rainer:
Yeah, I tried to exposit Haggai 1 and I knew I leaped from the text quite a bit, but in Haggai 1 they’re rebuilding the house of God and the text begins in verse two of chapter one with God speaking through Haggai the prophet and he says, “These people say the time has not come to rebuild the house of God.” So, you’re partly there and you say, “Oh, it’s the fault of the people, it’s their fault.” But then you go back to verse one and then you go back to verse 15 at the end of chapter one and he’s dealing with the lent leaders. He’s saying, “Okay, Haggai. Okay, Jeshua. Okay, Zerubbabel. Okay, you guys, let’s talk for a moment about what you’re supposed to be doing. Why aren’t they rebuilding the house of God?” And so my point was, I have rarely seen a church revitalize where there wasn’t a revitalize leader. And that revitalize leader needs to be in the field.

Kevin Smith:
Amen. So, let me ask you a personality question.

Thom Rainer:
Okay.

Kevin Smith:
I take you to be an introvert and I spend some time with people like James Merritt, Steve Gaines, and they can talk to anyone anywhere. So, when we talking to a Christian about the gospel, about missions, about sharing the gospel, and they have an introverted personality, how do you encourage them to engage people with the gospel?

Thom Rainer:
I am shocked. I am shocked Dr. Smith, that you would think I’m an introvert. I don’t where you ever get, I spend time with three of my favorite people me, myself and I. Where on earth would you get the fact that I’m in… Yeah, I’m a classic introvert but let me say something, a personality disposition is no excuse for disobedience. And just because I’m an introvert does not mean I don’t have the responsibility to share the gospel. Now it does mean that I probably won’t do it in the way that James Merritt, or Steve Gaines, or any of those more gregarious outgoing guys will do. Because I’m just a stump in the water, I’m just there. But what I have done and what God has allowed me to do, is to specifically build relationships.

Thom Rainer:
I talk about getting my hair’s cut because nobody gets a haircut, they always get hairs cut. You don’t go just get one, you get several. So, when I get my hair’s cut, I usually go to really an upscale place called Great Clips and I know they’re upscale because they charge 15 bucks for a haircut and I request the same stylist every single time. And if I find out that he or she is a Christian, I tip them well and then I move on to the next one. And I’ve had, this as an example it’s not all I do, but some of the greatest joys I’ve had are leading people that I have ongoing relationships with. One happened not too long ago, a stylist just able to share the gospel with her, she ended up coming to church, she became a follower of Christ and I saw her baptized, I mean I saw my own stylist baptized. So, introversion is not my excuse, it is my opportunity to look how God wants to use me as I am instead of as Steve or anybody else may be with that extroverted personality.

Kevin Smith:
Amen. There’s a book The Gospel & Personal Evangelism, I want to say the author is Mark Dever, but he speaks of going to the same laundry mat, going to the same person at the pharmacy, going to the same… And having those regular interactions with people if you’re not gregarious as you say. So, that was very, very, very helpful.

Thom Rainer:
Absolutely, absolutely.

Kevin Smith:
Let me shift the gears from the mission field out there to the most intimate mission field. Along with some people like Hershael York, Danny Akin, I greatly admire you as a father.

Thom Rainer:
Thank you.

Kevin Smith:
So, as you begin to have sons and you were raising them, what was your mindset as a father, as regards the gospel and the spiritual life of your children?

Thom Rainer:
It’s a loaded question and just want to be clear to the listeners. I am far, far from perfection in this and you sit down with Sam, Art or Jess and they can tell you some of the things that I did not do well. They usually won’t do that but they should. They should tell you some of the things that I did not do well but I do appreciate that. The first thing that you do is you marry well and I married well with Nellie Jo, she was my high school sweetheart. Asked her out three times before she said, “Yes.” She said, “No.” Three times in a row. And I couldn’t understand it Kevin. I just couldn’t understand why, I thought I was this cool guy on campus, and by the way campus, my graduating class had 34 people so that can tell you how big it was.

Thom Rainer:
And she was in the other class, had about 35 one class below me. And so, when I finally got to go out on a date with me, I said, “Nellie Jo, I asked you four times and you said ‘no’ three times. What gives?” She said, “I didn’t know who you were.” Now how can that be? How can you be in a school that small and not know who I was? I mean, she humbled me right away. We dated five years, we’ve been married 42 years. So, it’s almost a half a century with that girl. So, part of it was just marrying a godly woman, not part of it a major portion of it. When it comes to my responsibility, there were several things that I wanted my boys to know consistently. One, was that I love them unconditionally. Second, that I was proud of them. Third, that I was glad that they were my son and forth, let’s enjoy life together.

Thom Rainer:
And so, you put those four components. The Rainer home has always been a home of fun. Now we haven’t had always fun times, but for the most part, the love language between me and my three sons is trash-talk. We just love to put each other down and to just have fun with one another. And so, the levity I think was a holy levity. And then they knew that their dad loved them unconditionally, loves them unconditionally. They knew their dad was proud of them, regardless of what they did and even when they messed up. And they knew that I was extremely proud to be their father. And so, I just articulated that on a regular basis. And I can tell you some of the other things I did but I forget this is being recorded, so I’m not going to do that. Some of those points of levity, Kevin.

Kevin Smith:
Let me ask you about consulting. You engage many churches beyond the Southern Baptist Convention, so obviously the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, we’re part of the SBC. But what insights, just when you think about church life in general, church health in general, what insights from outside of our ecosystem could you bring to maybe enlighten and serve some of our churches?

Thom Rainer:
The reality of it is those churches, though they may have some doctrinal nuances that are different than us, are actually more like us than we would think. We often think that we’re in this bubble and the world is so much different than us. And even though a Wesleyan denomination, a Methodist or Presbyterian is obviously going to have doctrinal differences and nuances differently than a Baptist church. In terms of their needs and where they are, they’re very, very similar. I could do a consultation at a First Baptist church in South Alabama and it would have similarity to a consultation I did in Spokane.

Thom Rainer:
Because the basic issues of church, being obedient to the great commission, making disciples, doing the things that make community, community within a church, they are not culturally contextual, those are the basics. Now I will say this, in many of the Southern churches we still see, and this isn’t just SBC but it’s a lot SBC, we still see the Southern context. And so, that is one thing that may be a little bit within the Southern bubble, and particularly the SBC bubble, since our churches are concentrated in the South, is an awareness that there are cultures that are different than ours. And so, if that person in La Fayette, Alabama, not Lafayette, La Fayette, Alabama, that person in La Fayette, Alabama moves to Dover, Delaware, and they’ve never been anywhere else that they will be in for a shock because they don’t know that culture. That would be one of the things but I got to tell you, churches have the same needs, heartaches, hopes and dreams no matter where you go, even though there are these doctrinal differences.

Kevin Smith:
Amen. You have been in a seminary role, you’ve been in a corporate role at LifeWay, and you’re now in the land of retirement. As you still consult and engage churches, how do you help ministers think about transition, and when I say that, I have conversations with brothers early in mid sixties and sometimes I sense that they sense that things are winding down, but they’re just really hesitant. How have you thought about transition, obviously most recently, but just even as you consult other ministers regarding transition, how have you thought about that?

Thom Rainer:
Well, you’re hitting a demographic reality. You’re talking about the baby boomers and beginning, I’m trying to remember which year, I think it was 2006. 2006 we started seeing 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day. And so, if you’re quite 65 or sometimes shortly thereafter as a retirement age, 65 to 70 we’re seeing 10,000 a day. Now translate that into vocational ministry and there are a lot of baby boomer ministers that are at this crucible, that are at this Y in the road, this fork in the road and they’re trying to decide what is next. And I, quite frankly, I have a lot of conversations with these pastors. The number one reason for hesitation is that they weren’t prepared financially for retirement. So, you get to this point and they say, “Well I need to retire, I need to move to at least another church.” Or, “It’s just time, I can tell it’s time but I can’t.” So, we can’t go backwards.

Kevin Smith:
Is that O.S. Hawkins’s fault?

Thom Rainer:
Yeah, [crosstalk 00:15:03]. You said it, I’m not going to blame it on God stone. But we’re seeing that the primary issue for the hesitancy of retirement is financial. Financial. And so, I encourage these leaders to go back and remember their call and their call was one, not of financial stability, but their call was one of taking a step of faith and seeing what God would do. And if the only reason I will tell these pastors that you’re holding on is because you don’t feel like you’re financially prepared, trust God. And that sounds trite and simplistic, but I’ve seen these guys become interims again and again. I’ve seen some of them actually do some consultation. I’ve seen some of them do some itinerant ministry and they’re amazed that the God who called them when they went into the ministry to begin with, without a financial need, without a financial sense of going into ministry, that same God will sustain them in retirement. And so I urge them, if the only reason you’re holding own is for that reason let go, trust God just like your original call, let go.

Kevin Smith:
Amen. We’ve been blessed at the BCMD staff to have some retired pastors do some part time consulting with us-

Thom Rainer:
There you go.

Kevin Smith:
… and it’s been a tremendous blessing.

Thom Rainer:
Yeah, and when a baby boomer pastor is, I’m 64 so I’m right in that area, when a baby boomer pastors 65, 70 even plus, that pastor usually has a lot of years left and they need not be years wasted. There’s a great opportunity and just move into those areas and God will begin to take care of these other things. I’ve seen it every single time. I cannot think of one pastor who has retired, and I’m sure there are, but I can’t think of one pastor who’s retired when he thought it was time to retire, that it didn’t end up saying, “God did provide, just like he always has.”

Kevin Smith:
Amen. So, you deal in research and statistics. And I feel something, but I’m wondering if a researcher finds that there’s any reality to this. As brothers are transitioning from the pastorate, obviously I teach at the seminary, so I’m always engaging young, preparing ministers. But sometimes I feel like, I don’t know if it’s just the SBC, or if it’s Christianity in America, there’s a gap of like 35 to 45 year old experienced ministers. And so, it seems like some churches are just in extended, now I know you wrote a blog about this, but it seems like some churches are in extended search processes. Is there a shortage of experienced pastoral candidates?

Thom Rainer:
There’s a shortage of match. I don’t know if there’s a shortage of people, but there’s a shortage of match. All right. Let’s back to the demographic reality. You’ve got that age gap that you identified somewhere around the forties, mid-forty something like that, you’re talking about Gen Xers. Gen Xers, smallest population in America’s history. So, after the baby boom, baby boom ended in 1964, in 1965 Gen Xers started coming to the forefront being born, but fewer of them, so few of them. Why? Three reasons, abortion was legal in most States, it certainly was by ’73, but it was legal in most States. Birth control was becoming pervasive and the entire United States at that time was in a gloom and doom time. It was a recession. It was gas lines and things like that. So, you have pessimism, you have birth control, you have abortion, you put those three together and birth rates are down, down significantly.

Thom Rainer:
So, one thing that you’re sensing in your gut is correct, and that is they’re fewer in this prime time than there used to be. So, what is happening, all the churches want a younger one, and there’s not enough of those millennials to go around. There’s plenty of boomers, but many churches as they define what they want for a pastor, many of them stop at age 50 some of them at age 55, as far as the oldest a pastor can be. Once you do that, you’ve limited the field considerably. And so, I would encourage churches not to just define this age range as who we want it, just see who God has out there for you and it’s not a missing number, it’s a missing match. Every church wants the same thing and they’re not enough of those to go around.

Kevin Smith:
Yeah. I speak to pastors who’ve, perhaps have put in 15 to 25 years at a particular congregation.

Thom Rainer:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kevin Smith:
I won’t name any names, but we’ve had some good transitions at the longterm pastorate in SBC life and we’ve had some that have been not so good and that’s even happened broader. Both of us have ministered in Louisville, so we’re familiar with kind of the transition at Southeast Christian Church. How would you encourage a brother at, say he’s not feeling like I’m retired tomorrow, but he’s been there 15 to 25 years, and he knows he should be thinking about something in the future. How do you encourage a brother to maybe try it out and just consider some things about retirement? Especially at the… I feel like if you’ve invested so much in this field of service, certainly you want to be concerned about God’s people going forward.

Thom Rainer:
And you’re talking about from a particular church at this time?

Kevin Smith:
Yes, a particular church.

Thom Rainer:
Well, you gave the classic example, Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. Not only did Bob Russell have his successor, but he had his successor. So, you went from Bob Russell, to Dave stone, to Kyle Allen. And so, you just had this line up that was there and now both Dave and Bob are retired. And so, Kyle is there and then they have the next succession. First thing I would say is, that is an anomaly, that is an outlier. You know why we use the example of Southeast Christian over and over again? Because there aren’t many of them like it.

Kevin Smith:
That’s right, yes.

Thom Rainer:
It takes a certain personality, a certain perseverance, a certain skill set and wisdom that matched who Bob Russell is and was and it’s hard to replicate that. Here’s what I used to do, I used to tell pastors to set up something for succession, get ready for it to come and you know what? It hardly ever worked because the person that they had set up for succession ended not working out, or didn’t want to come, or didn’t want to have overlap. And so, now I’m just encouraging these pastors to finish well, just absolutely finish well, trust God for your successor. I got a story about my successor and you know the story about my successor Kevin?

Kevin Smith:
No.

Thom Rainer:
My successor was supposed to be a guy by the name of Eric Geiger.

Kevin Smith:
Oh, yes.

Thom Rainer:
I groomed him, had him ready, moving up. Now obviously I could not do it unilaterally. So, I was working with my board to get him ready and when I announced my retirement, and Eric if you ever listen to this blog you know I’m still ticked, I mean this podcasts, you know that I’m still ticked at you, so I hope you can hear this. I had him all ready and the board was ready to affirm him. Not because they were going to rubber stamp me, but because they saw he was the obvious successor. Everything was going to be fine. I announced my retirement in August, a year and a half ago, and in November he left. He left. I’m just, I wanted to pull this brunette hair out mixed with gray, what are you doing? “Okay, so well God’s calling me to Mariners Church in Southern California.” Yeah, right. Everybody’s been [crosstalk 00:22:36] Southern California.

Kevin Smith:
Nashville, Southern California, Nashville.

Thom Rainer:
My point is I thought I had done the perfect job for succession management, lined it up, gotten approval from my board, everything was going well. Then God just pulls the rug out from under me and said, “I’m going to let you all depend on me.” I said, “All right.”

Kevin Smith:
And I think one, maybe a part of that anomaly, you mentioned the person of a Bob Russell and I was just observing and been really happy about Dr. Bryant Wright and the transition at Johnson Ferry. But he likewise is a certain type of humble brother and a certain type of brother who realizes there is a time of transition and my ministry won’t go on forever. So, even comes back to some character issues.

Thom Rainer:
A lot of humility to watch the person take your place.

Kevin Smith:
Yes. So, let me ask you about education.

Thom Rainer:
Okay.

Kevin Smith:
When I was a young man I would-

Thom Rainer:
How long ago was that? A long time ago?

Kevin Smith:
A few days. I would ride with our deacons to the local LifeWay store.

Thom Rainer:
Yes.

Kevin Smith:
And pick up boxes of my Sunday school materials.

Thom Rainer:
Well that’s changed a bit hadn’t it.

Kevin Smith:
That’s changed a bit. So, how will we engage churches with discipleship materials going forward? How do you envision that or what do you imagine [crosstalk 00:24:06]?

Thom Rainer:
Well, first of all, I’m not at LifeWay anymore so I cannot presume upon Ben Mandrell or anybody else and I don’t want to put a direction for them. You’re asking how can we do it now that the stores are closed? The reality of it is almost everybody had shifted digitally before the stores closed, so the people were making the choice on how they were going to receive either the physical materials or the digital materials. One of the things you look at in retail stores is a key metric called foot traffic and it’s basically how many people are in there. Then another one is how long they stay, how much they purchase, all of the metrics, just like most brick and mortar specialty retail, all of the metrics were declining.

Thom Rainer:
Here’s something that is a fascinating thing to look at. If you can buy it online with ease, all that retail industry is declining. So, what retail industry is not declining? Grooming for pets. That’s one of the fastest growing brick and mortar.

Kevin Smith:
Yes.

Thom Rainer:
Okay, why? Because you can’t get it online. If you can get it online, it is declining. Now not all of them will go out but here’s the thing about it. The customers, the constituents had already made their choices and it was 20 years in the making. It wasn’t like you just turn your head and it’s gone, it was 20 years. So, the future had already been established. They had already moved over to digital ordering of physical products or getting digital products themselves. That’s the time that we live in.

Thom Rainer:
And this is part of the irony of it all, while I was at LifeWay, we sold our property. Thinking about some of the change leadership I did and I was either really smart or really dumb and I’m beginning to think sometimes it’s more the latter than the former but we sold all of our buildings. We had the largest footprint in downtown Nashville, 10 and a half acres, and so we sold all of those buildings and we moved to a smaller, more compact site. Now they’re rebuilding on that property. They’ve raised everything except the Frost Building, the historic building, and guess who the primary occupants going to be? You know who the primary is going to be on what was LifeWay property?

Kevin Smith:
No.

Thom Rainer:
Amazon. Amazon’s going to have at least 5,000 probably 10,000 employees. I’m just thinking, Bezos? Jeff Bezos, what are you trying to do put a knife in me and turn it?

Kevin Smith:
Wow. What a turn.

Thom Rainer:
What a turn, yes. We’re going to become one of the tech hubs centers, or Nashville is, for Amazon. And so, five blocks away from us will be this double tower of Amazon.

Kevin Smith:
Well I want to encourage you, many, many, many, many churches are blessed by the gospel project and I know a lot of that expanded and developed and things happened during your leadership and I certainly want to celebrate you in that.

Thom Rainer:
Thank you.

Kevin Smith:
And certainly want to celebrate what the Billy Graham School is at Southern-

Thom Rainer:
Thank you.

Kevin Smith:
… because of your initial leadership and founding leadership and the legacy that continues there. But I’d like to close with you kind of where I started. I thank the Lord for you as a brother in Christ.

Thom Rainer:
Same here, Kevin.

Kevin Smith:
The Bible says, “Honor the Lord.” And you have sought to do that “Love your wife as Christ loved the church.” And you’ve sought to do that, “And raise your children in the fear and admonition of the Lord.” So, I am tremendously thankful for you.

Thom Rainer:
Same here, Kevin. It is mutual. And as I said to the gathering of the Maryland, Delaware Baptist not too long ago, my sons have blessed me because they’ve given me 11 grandchildren, and now I don’t even remember my son’s names, but bless them anyway.

Kevin Smith:
Amen. Well, thank you so much for your generous time.

Thom Rainer:
Thanks Kevin, good to be with you.

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