Time spent with Russell Watts, pastor of Ranui Baptist Church in West Auckland, quickly reveals three things: his ‘can-do’ attitude, a clear game-plan and his infectious love of people. (We also noted that he ordered a decaf soy latte, but we will let that pass…)
With Russell at the helm the church has grown from having 80-100 in attendance on a Sunday to around 400, and this in an area with a highly transient population. “We gain 100 and lose around 80 people a year,” says Russell. “People come in, many of them from the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, and as a result of finding Jesus and having their lives turned around they become employable and move away.” The church is highly relational, and losing people to other places hurts – but this relationality is also a key to their success.
The whole church is focused on building relationships and having faith conversations. The leadership models it, they talk about it on Sundays and material to help lead someone to Christ is freely available to anyone coming to church.
‘When someone wants to start a new ministry in this church, I ask what they hope to achieve. If it doesn’t include getting to the gospel I tell them it’s just not good enough!’
So how many people come to faith at this church? “We baptise around 50-60 folk a year,” smiles Russell. “The baptismal pool is always full and ready to go. When someone has understood the gospel and has come to repentance, we call together whoever is in the building and we baptise them straight away!”
Last year was a bad year for the church – they only baptised 26 new believers. ‘I was grieving the loss of folk from the church that I had grown close to and I took my eyes off the ball. We stopped modelling evangelism as we should and the church followed our lead. When a member of the congregation challenged me on it I knew he was right! Thanks to him we are now back on track.’
Russell is very happy to share his game-plan, and a 40-page PDF document can be downloaded from the Ranui Baptist website here. But in brief, he trains his people to:
Not wait to introduce faith into conversations – to sow seeds early
Feed spiritual interest right away, not put it off
Share the gospel lovingly, as though those they are engaging with are already family
Challenge seekers to become disciples straight away, which begins with repentance and baptism. The church also offers a ‘foundations’ course for new believers
Model evangelism for others
The church has many portals through which the community might enter in and encounter Jesus.
Every week the church receives and supervises folk sentenced to hours of community service and many come to faith. This day as we are heading out to the coffee shop for this interview it’s raining. Russell asks if we can give a lift home to an older man who had been working at the church. He is underdressed and Russell is concerned for his health. As we listen in to their conversation on the way it is clear that these two men enjoy mutual respect and camaraderie. It is only later that we realise that the older man is working off his periodic detention sentence.
Other rich avenues for relationships that lead to conversations that lead to Jesus include their free budgeting service, the food bank, the Op Shop, community gardens and more.
Around the walls of the church are the stories and testimonies of people whose lives have been touched, changed and enriched here. Ranui may not be one of Auckland’s aspirational suburbs, but it has a church that most others can only aspire to.