A former detective-turned-pastor shows the importance of reaching individuals with the gospel—one by one.
In my former life, there were times if someone did not step up to lead, people could get hurt or die.
The same is true for you—and for all of us—as Christians. Someone you have not met yet is counting on you to step up and lead—to lead them to Christ so they will live. Your church doesn’t have to grow by a thousand. It can grow one by one.
As a pastor, I wouldn’t work the way I work today without the experiences and lessons God taught in the five years that I worked at a funeral home. I learned firsthand how important it was to remember someone’s name, how important genuine kindness and care were for people who were at a difficult time in their lives, and how important integrity and a good reputation were if you wanted families to come back.
Those lessons only began to prepare me for what the Lord had in store during my career at a sheriff’s department. I started as a deputy in the jail and was later transferred to work as a detective in the narcotics unit. From the beginning I was immersed in undercover work. I worked 24/7. One New Year’s Eve that I had promised to take my wife out for dinner, my beeper went off. I told my wife I needed to take care of something and would be right back.
While I was on my way to meet the bad guy, a 19-year-old lost his brakes coming off the freeway and hit my car head on. He hit me so hard that it lifted my Monte Carlo into the air and spun it 180 degrees. When I landed, I got hit head-on by a pickup truck.
I was in bad shape. My partners came to the car and said, “Hang on, Bud, we’re going to get your wife.” I tried to whisper, “Tell her I love her, and I’m sorry.”
And then I prayed, with the clearest mind I have ever had in my life. “Dear Lord, I am so sorry, for everything.” I didn’t see any bright lights. I didn’t hear any voices. But I had a peace that no words can describe.
After I recovered I went back to the hard and fast of the unit. A couple of years later I got hurt again, had surgeries, got some new parts, and went back to the unit. A few years after that, I was in the hospital for over three weeks; that one almost did me in. I started to wonder, Lord, what do you have in mind? Should I be doing something different?
Starting the second half
After seven years in the unit I was promoted to Det. Sgt. in the detective bureau. At the same time, our church needed help with leading the Sunday school program. I led a little service with a devotion, and the Lord blessed our attendance. Some parents suggested that I go be a pastor. I said, “No, not for me. Maybe when I retire.” My pastors asked if I’d consider the ministry. I said, “No, not me. Maybe after I retire.” That went on for about three or four years. I prayed every day, “Lord, what is your will?”
My wife and I decided to visit Martin Luther College. After our visit I was convinced it was not for me, but I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. I got a copy of the Augsburg Confession and looked for reasons that I had the wrong church all along so that my struggle would be over. But as I read, it had the opposite effect. God had brought me through so much. Would I make it through whatever happened next?
I began to wonder: What happens if I call this the first half of my life and call it good? What do I have to lose—if you’ll have me, Lord—if I spend the rest of my life serving you? Because I knew that the peace I had known that night so many years ago was not just to be at peace with dying. It was peace to know that I was forgiven. I’ve been in church my whole life. But if I didn’t realize what that peace truly was, then there must be others who don’t either. And maybe I could tell them.
I resigned and moved my family to Minnesota to study to be a pastor. One night, my former Chief Deputy called me. He told me he was waiting for a helicopter to take him to Chicago for a heart transplant. “But I don’t think I’m going to make it,” he said. “I wanted to call you and say thank you for the morning in the duck blind. I love you.” I told him I loved him too.
The Chief was referring to a day many years ago when I had taken him duck hunting with me. As we talked about work, I told him that the only thing I had that was different was church; the Lord was important to me. “What about you, Chief?” I asked. He said, “Nah, it’s not for me.” It felt so incredibly hard to say more, but I said, “What’s important for guys like us is to know that Jesus is our Savior.”
When I hung up the phone, I told my wife I might do something stupid. I bought a plane ticket and caught an early morning flight to Chicago. I didn’t even know if Chief was still alive. When I walked into his room in the ICU, he looked at me and said, “I just talked to you. You were in Minnesota. Is this real? Why would you do this for me?”
I said, “Last night, you said I love you. And I said I love you too. I got to thinking if I really did, I would do whatever it takes to tell you how far Jesus traveled to say I love you. You can tell me to leave and I’ll get right back on the plane, but can I please tell you about Jesus?”
He said, “I think it’s probably a good time for that.” I showed him Jesus on the cross for him. And the Lord grabbed one more.
Watching the Word work
I was assigned to a vacancy in a mission church for my vicar year. It had struggled for seven years. I don’t think there were 20 people in the first service. I told them I could work a homicide that day, but I had no idea how to do evangelism. “But I have courage,” I said, “and God said he works through his Word. Let’s use the Word of God for the next 364 days and see what happens.”
My simple plan started with closing my eyes, pointing to a map, and then parking at the end of that street to knock on doors. I was terrified. Are you kidding me, I thought to myself. You did things that would give people nightmares and you went back for more. Get out there and knock on a door!
Sharing Jesus has to be all in. We don’t have a long time to do this.
I watched a new kind of joy among the members when the Lord brought visitors I had invited—and brought them back! I took the box with hundreds of prospect cards and pretended I was working a homicide. I didn’t stop until I called every one of them or knocked on their door.
We also tried advertising. We did Christmas for kids and offered free babysitting, but no one came to church because of it. They came when someone personally invited them. And we watched God work, one by one.
We all learned that year that building a church was not about the building. Building a church was first and foremost what God does in human hearts, one by one.
Growing his church one by one
When I graduated from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in 2009, I was assigned to serve St. Mark, Leesburg, Fla. The average age of my congregation was 72. The council had set aside money for whatever stewardship or evangelism program I wanted to buy. But the budget was in the red, and I knew I couldn’t afford to have anyone think that the right program or the right pastor fixed anything. It had to be the Word of God that would grow his church—one by one, in every heart, starting with those who were already there.
A couple months later the council asked if I had picked out an evangelism program. I told them I had decided to use the Word of God. But I told them I did want to spend money and I didn’t want to go cheap. I wanted to buy an umbrella.
“What in the world does that have to do with evangelism?” they asked.
I said, “The first time it rains, and I walk someone in, I’ll show you. And if you want to buy two, you can help me.”
When I meet people during the week, I tell them I’ll wait outside for them and remember their name. So much good happens because of it. I get to set the tone for how people will enter the house of God, and they know they will have an opportunity to talk with me personally every Sunday. When my members ask their friends and neighbors to come to church, they tell them that Pastor will greet them outside and remember their names.
And they really do ask their friends and neighbors to come. Once a cashier asked a member how he was as he went through her line after church. He said, “Better now after hearing a reminder of how much God loves us.” The cashier asked him to pray for her husband who has cancer. He got his name and the hospital he was in and stopped in and asked, “Would you like my pastor to visit you?” The next day I was sitting with that man in his room, having an amazing conversation while they were hooking him up for his first chemo treatment.
Sharing Jesus has to be all in. We don’t have a long time to do this. God has placed each of you where he wants you for this day. He has given you unique gifts and abilities. He has given you a unique life and experiences to shape and guide you for who you are and how you are going to work.
There are so many miracles. I call them Monday . . . Tuesday . . . Wednesday . . . because I’m convinced it’s going to happen each day. God’s like that. One by one.
Whom can you tell how much Jesus loves them and invite them to come learn more about him today?
This article was adapted from a presentation by Rosenau at the 2020 Lutheran Leadership conference. Watch the full presentation at lutheranleadership.com/resources. Congregational Services has produced a four-part Bible study on personal evangelism based on this presentation. The study, complete with videos and study guides, will be available in February.
Author: David Rosenau
Volume 108, Number 2
Issue: February 2021