New Wineskins Talks to Bob Russell of SE Christian Church (Mar-Apr 2004)

By Matt Dabbs

New Wineskins Staff
March – April, 2004

NW: How does your family’s story in a personal way bring you into your ministry and affect your ministry?

Bob Russell: Oh, I have so many stories from my family growing up! My Dad was seventeenth of eighteen children and his mother died when he was three. His father was an alcoholic, so he got passed around; was not a Christian; met my mother and became a Christian and sold out 100 percent. I mean he was not—there was no wavering. He was a factory worker, had six kids and was not extremely talented, but he just loved the Lord and loved the church. I talk about when I was in seventh grade—first of all, we traveled a half hour to church every Sunday morning, every Sunday evening, every Wednesday evening. We did not ask whether or not we were going but just what time we were leaving. That sense of faithfulness, regardless of emotion just left an incredible impact on me.

I remember one time—it must have snowed over 18 inches overnight and we traveled a half hour to church—when no sane father would try to take his family to church on a day like that, but my Dad piled us in the car and we took off. We got stuck about a half mile away from home and we trudged back home. My brother and I said, “Boy, this time we don’t have to go to church, we’re going to go up to the barn and shoot basketball.” But we didn’t, my Dad sat us down in the living room and he read some Scripture; my sister plunked out some chords on the piano; we sang some hymns; my mother went and got some saltine crackers and grape juice and we had communion in the house. And I say that’s the most memorable church service I’ve ever been in; because I was just taught that that comes first above everything else and that just left an unbelievable impact on me.

NW: Has that impacted how you’ve worked together with your sons at Southeast Christian?

Bob Russell: Well, I think one of the ways it has impacted me is that I’ve stayed here for thirty-seven years now. When the going gets tough I haven’t bailed out because I saw that in my father and my mother; going to work every day, you go to school every day if you got a cough, you just hang with it. The faithfulness of my parents left an indelible impression on me in the kind of ministry I have—I’m at work the same every day regardless of how I’m feeling. I think that was a special generation and a special generation of Christians. There is also a love for God’s word and a respect for God’s word that my parents had—they would read the Bible in the home and my mother would often quote our old preacher, D.P. Schaffer, who said, “Now every time you preach, always use a lot of Scripture, ‘cause that’s the one thing you know is true.” And so when our kids were growing up we tried to saturate them with God’s Word and when I preach it’s important to me that Scripture is included. So I think those family lessons that you have from childhood stay with you for life.

NW: So when the going gets tough, maybe talk about an example of—in your thirty-seven years—where there’s been a difficult situation in the church and you thought about leaving or checking out…

Bob Russell: Oh, we’ve never had a problem there! (laughs) I was here probably six or seven years and we had a youth minister who had been a friend of mine in Bible College and he had a conflict with me and the elders—and had a change of philosophy and it created a real tension between us, and the elders asked him to resign. He at first refused and wrote a letter to the whole congregation critical of me and the elders. For about three months he brought a Sunday school class into church and sat on the front two rows and scowled at me as I preached—about twenty people. And at that time the church where I’d been a youth minister in Cincinnati approached me and said would you come and be our minister, so I had a perfect opportunity to leave. I went to the elders and said I have this opportunity to leave and I know I’ve been the focus of some problems here and maybe it would be a good time for the church to begin a fresh start and the elders unanimously said, “No, Bob, we want you to stay. We are going to get through this thing.” It would have been easier at that juncture to leave, but I chose to stay because the elders were behind me but also because of this example from the past that you stayed through tough times.

NW: How has your story—such as the example you just gave—become a part of the Southeast story and also become a part of God’s story in you? Talk about that.

Bob Russell: Well one of the ways it’s become a part of Southeast Christian Church is I have used my parents and my upbringing as an example repeatedly. I think the congregation resonates with that because many of them have parents like that or wish they have parents like that. For example, I tell a story about my Mom and Dad helping to start a new congregation. They started with about thirty people and sacrificed for and it was only a few years old when the preacher skipped town, leaving a lot of unpaid bills. And my Dad, who was a factory worker and already tithing and raising six kids, went to the bank and borrowed $2,500 on his own, paid back all the preacher’s unpaid bills and then took a second job working in a saw mill to pay it back. I use that to talk about sacrifice. I think that having grown up in lower to middle class home has helped me to avoid greed; also, kept me humble at times—to remember those roots.

NW: Where did you grow up?

Bob Russell: I grew up in northwestern Pennsylvania, a little town called Conneaut Ville, a town of a thousand people.

NW: How do you intentionally bring God’s story into Southeast Christian Church and is there a method that you have for every week, meeting with a committee saying how do we bring the story?

Bob Russell: First of all, we have a preaching team here and we plan a year’s sermons and try to stay balanced in preaching to have some that are life applications, some that are expository, have some Old Testament, some New Testament and try to make sure that we are exalting Jesus Christ and not just preaching the latest stand. I think it is easier to do that if you plan a year’s preaching. That year’s preaching schedule is shared with our worship team and they get together and plan worship about two or three months out. Then on Monday of each week the preaching team and the worship team meets for an hour and we spend time evaluating the previous weekend’s services and going over what is going to be said and done in the coming week and how we can most effectively communicate the message and bring it to bear in the lives of people. For example, I just had a series on Fatal Temptations and went through fatal temptations women face, men face, singles, children, teenagers, and old people. I took different age groups and categories and on the week we were going to do fatal temptations men face—we’re talking about four temptations: greed, pride, lust, and spiritual passivity—and under the category of lust the worship team said, “We have a drama that we’re going to put here about ten minutes into the service where a man goes to work late at night to do some work and a single woman comes in, just happens to be coming back to work and she flirts with him and makes an overture and we want him to handle this in the right way.” So in the end of the drama he says, “No, I’m a married man. I’m loyal to my wife. I’m going home.”

And so we looked over the drama and we said you know what, he says in here, “You’re an attractive woman.” He probably shouldn’t say that, we need to change it. And also he says in here, “I’m an old boring married man;” he probably shouldn’t say that because that opens the door. So we start to change the drama, but in the course of the conversation, someone said, “What if we put this drama in the middle of the sermon?” And I said, “Well, I have a point here in which I’m talking about the way to overcome lust is to draw the boundary line as close to the holiness of God as we possibly can. How about if we don’t change the drama—we just put the drama on as it’s written and at that point in the sermon I say, ‘Hey, he did pretty good didn’t he? He overcame the temptation, but you know what I wouldn’t give him an ‘A.’ Let’s go back over that drama, do you remember when he said, ‘you’re an attractive woman,’ he probably shouldn’t have said that or when he said ‘I’m an old married man,’ he probably shouldn’t have said that. In fact when he came into the building and she walked in at the same time, it would have been wise of him just to turn around, grab a paper, and get out of there. Because the Bible says we ought to flee fornication.” So, the conversation that we had with the worship team made that a much more effective teaching moment about the truth of God’s word, about staying as far away from the prostitute as you can, rather than if we had not had that communication.

NW: So you meet on a regular basis and try and dialogue on how you are going to bring that story and sometimes even with some elements you would want to correct the drama for instance.

Bob Russell: Then on Thursday our preaching team meets for an hour and a half. And everybody has preliminary manuscript of the week’s message. We try to go over that with a fine tooth comb and say “Ok, how can we better communicate this.” There are two values to that to me: one is that you have the input of other people before it is presented—you hear what they have to say and it gets you out of your own mental rut. But the second value is it is just helpful to verbalize your thoughts to a live person before they are presented in the public arena, because something can look one way on paper and sound something different to the ear. And so it gives us an opportunity to verbalize those thoughts and to have feedback from people a few days prior to actually preaching it.

NW: Let’s just take the person sitting in the pew at Southeast Christian. What would you want that person who has consistently heard the preaching—the preaching team over the years—how would you want them to tell God’s story to their neighbors.

Bob Russell: Well, I would want them to tell first of all with an authentic life backing it up—not a perfect life, but a transparent life, an authentic life that is obviously genuinely trying to follow God’s will, because if they don’t have that they lack credibility anyway. And then if they’re going to speak to their neighbor about Christ I would want them to do it in a humble, non-judgmental way, rather than an arrogant, dogmatic way. Because I think we win people by the spirit of Christ as much as with the truth of Christ.

NW: How do you at Southeast Christian get people out into the world and not get so wrapped up in the church—even though that church community is a vital thing—we often, I’ve observed in churches, we get involved in a church culture. How do we spin out of that and share our lives with our neighbors—with our world—in a way that is authentic and is sharing the Word. How have you experienced that at Southeast?

Bob Russell: Let me say first that I still think the most effective evangelism on a practical basis is people inviting other people to come to church with them. If the church service and the church program are such that people are being fed, people are excited about what’s going on and they feel comfortable inviting other people—that’s the easiest way to evangelize. If they can say like the woman at the well, “come and see”—that makes it easy for people to at least plant seed or begin a discussion. One of the ways I think we are able to do that—and every body is looking for ways to improve that—when we make applications of Scripture, we try to make those applications to Monday and not to Sunday. Since preachers are dealing every day in the church culture, when we come up with a passage of Scripture and we’re trying to build a bridge to the day our first inclination is to talk about church, but we ought to talk about what’s going on in the person’s life in the world. For example, I was preaching on the passage that talked about a weak conscience. A weak conscience is one that has been programmed to feel guilty about things that are not sinful—to feel guilty when we should not feel guilty. And I first wrote, a weak conscience feels guilty when you use any other translation than the King James; or the weak conscience feels guilty clapping during a song; or a weak conscience feels guilty being in church when the saxophone is played or when drums are used and then I realized all those examples are church examples. So I said, What is a weak conscience? A weak conscience feels guilty taking a day off; a weak conscience feels guilty driving a nice car; a weak conscience feels guilty not answering the phone; a weak conscience feels guilty when the computer says, “You’ve performed an illegal operation.” But what I’m trying to do is get people to realize this Scripture applies to how I treat my mother-in-law; how I discipline my kids; whether I’m a person of integrity at the workplace, then they’re going out of there saying “man, I’ve got something I can take with me every day.” And it begins to impact their thinking during the week, rather than compartmentalizing their life and putting everything into a church setting.

NW: So compartmentalizing is a problem you have to actively work against in our spiritual life to make sure that when you are presenting the message that people are not saying OK, that applies in church but not in the world.

Bob Russell: Right. I come back to, when I listen to old sermons or other people’s sermons after a time I am amazed again and again at the power of the Scripture. If we can stay with that Scripture and make that Scripture come alive, the Holy Spirit convicts; the Holy Spirit builds the bridge. Sometimes we use the premise what are people’s needs and how can I find a passage to meet that need. If we could just start with the passage and allow the Holy Spirit to work. In the series I mentioned on Fatal Temptations, I preached one to children—the whole sermon was on children. I had a guy tell how he thought he would get nothing out of the whole sermon to children. But he said he was wrestling with something he felt like God was leading him to do. And in the sermon I talked to the kids about first-time obedience. When parents ask you to do something, obey the first time, don’t make your parents tell you over and over again. And he thought to himself that’s what he was doing with God. God has made it pretty clear what he was supposed to do and he was just asking for one sign after another; and he thought he just needed to obey the first time. It is just amazing how God works in the preaching moment to convict people in areas you are not even thinking about when you preach.

NW: Southeast has been a wonderful influence outside of your area and a lot of churches look to you for advice. What do you say to churches that want to reproduce what you are doing and let me just give you a quick scenario. I was talking to a gentleman the other day who said “We want to become a mega-church.” What would you say to that person?

Bob Russell: Well, I think every church is unique. We didn’t begin here with the goal to be a mega-church. Our goal was to exalt Christ and win as many people as we possibly could. People come in and say, “Man you must have had a real vision for this.” No, we are always trying to catch up! Things happen when you have confidence in the Word of God and sow the seed. I think it is valuable to go to other churches and get ideas and learn from examples and profit from their mistakes. But every ministry is unique and everybody needs to develop their own style and their own niche. I think we make it a whole lot more complicated than it is. If a preacher starting out would say you know I’m going open the Bible, study the Bible and try to make it as applicable as I can to the needs of people; it is amazing what happens when that seed is sown.

NW: What kind of gifts do you believe as a body both in the Christian church and as Southeast Christian church in particular do you feel like you are giving and the church is giving to the larger body of Christ, Christendom at large?

Bob Russell: Again, God uses big churches and small churches and God uses different styles of ministry within large churches. But I think we are demonstrating that you can be a balanced church and still grow, still be effective. We still hold on to some of the hymns, for example. We’re not totally seeker-driven; we try to balance between evangelism and edification. We still have Sunday school and small groups. We’re not attempting to be on the cutting edge or to be innovative all the time. When Bob George evaluated the church here he said you’re kind of a generalist church. So I think one of the contributions we’re making is there are a variety of ways to reach lost people and you don’t have to violate your culture to be relevant in the world. I think there is also a tremendous commitment to excellence in our church, and there is authenticity and joy here. And when people come in, they sense this authenticity and joy, it’s not a corporate atmosphere at all. I think another contribution we are making is to demonstrate you don’t have to compromise or dilute the gospel one bit in order to grow. We have dealt directly with difficult social issues from homosexuality to abortion to Islamic faith to co-habiting, all those things and taken a strong stand on those issues and still been able to reach people with the gospel.

NW: Good. It’s a large church. How do you handle just walking down the hall—walking in—and forgetting someone’s name?

Bob Russell: That’s been a tremendous adjustment for me over the years, because I grew up in a little church and came in with the idea of pastoring people and it’s been a real challenge. I’ve found out that people expect a lot less of me as we have grown and as I’ve got older—I can even blame my age! I do feel badly that I don’t remember peoples’ names as before. When we had a thousand people, I remembered just about everybody. But then we exploded in growth and I started losing it!New Wineskins

Bob Russell

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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