Don’t miss Part 1 of our interview, where Rick and Randy Bezet talk about their respective — and unlikely — calls into ministry following a dismal church upbringing in Louisiana.
So eventually, you both yielded to a ministry calling. Since you were first to do so, Rick, tell me about starting your church in Conway, Arkansas.
Rick: We wanted to reach people with the message our grandmother taught us: Jesus loves you. When I invited her to our first service, she was dying of cancer. She cried and apologized when she told me, “I won’t be able to come; I’m too sick.” I assured her it was OK and said she could pray from home.
On the day of our first service, February 4, 2001, at 10 o’clock in the morning, I heard a knock on the door of my study. It was my frail, 90-pound grandmother, who was about to die. From seven hours away, she came to put her arms around me and pray for my church. She would have done the same thing for Randy, but she didn’t live another year.
Randy, tell me about your church start.
Randy: On September 8, 2008, we started Bayside Community Church. We had 220 people show up and no intention of getting big. The name was purposeful; it signified what we wanted to build—a place to belong in an authentic community. It’s like going to a Cajun house, where you know you are always welcome. But we envisioned that community extending beyond the walls of the church. It’s not just how you live on Sunday that counts.
Both of your churches grew rapidly. Did you intend that?
Rick: It started growing so fast, so unexpectedly, that it was hard to keep up. And so our antidote was multisite. We never started another campus because we wanted to look or grow powerful. There were so many people attending one campus, so we just corralled people to another place. And then they were both smaller. And then we just kept doing it over and over, many times over, until I find myself here talking to you. Neither Randy nor I wanted to get big. We’ve never been big fans of big. It’s been a crazy ride for both of us.
Randy: Do you mean you like my church?
Rick: I do when I’m preaching there. [Both brothers laugh.]
How important was outreach in terms of starting your churches?
Rick: We’ve given away millions of dollars to reach the poor, people in foster care, widows and the homeless; those who can hardly scrape together a few cents to pay their bills. We have many ways for people to serve. It’s easy to get caught up in your own little sphere. And that’s just not the life of Christ. Jesus said, “Lift up your eyes and see them now.” When you practice those words, you understand it’s not how big your church grows; it’s the number of people you have been able to help.
Randy: Our church’s first two checks—for world missions and local outreach—were written even before we held our first service. By immediately tying together local outreach and global missions, we made a commitment to help the hurting wherever they were found. Service is at the heart of our community. I think that’s critical. We have found the best way to do outreach is to look for someone who is already doing a good job of meeting needs, and work with them. Because it wastes time to reinvent the wheel, we look for great partnerships, whether it be with other churches or community organizations.
Fast-forward a couple of decades. As a pastor, how difficult has it been to navigate the pandemic?
Rick: This is nothing less than a new reality for the church.
Randy: It’s been difficult for the whole world to pivot into this new reality, but when you are a church, you gather together as a people. When you no longer can do that, you have to reinvent yourself. I think the church did a great job of coming up with solutions, particularly creating digital meetings. Rick and I both started talking to staff members who suddenly didn’t really have anything to do. We got on the phone and called through our entire database. “What do you need?” We started going to grocery stores and pharmacies, and delivering whatever was needed. That was a huge pivot for us.
Rick: It was a very, very difficult time to pastor. It’s been a time of such division and tension. The church started getting angry at the world, and the world angry at the church, and then the church at the church. This new reality happened at a time when we couldn’t get together with our people and preach and pray. It was exhausting.
We learned that a lot of Christians had a very cavalier relationship with the church. Even though the pandemic revealed we were a good family and we loved each other, it also made clear we weren’t ready for a real battle during a tough time. We lost a lot of people, and the ones who remain, we are still trying to catch up with. Anybody who looks at you and says they know exactly what to do now is not telling the truth. For us, it’s almost one day at a time, one week at a time. We still have a big vision, but our attention is tightly focused on how we love people who are hurting right now.
Randy: The church needs to understand that it has never been about growing large—it’s about growing deep. We have to figure out how to grow people into spiritual depth. In this country, fewer and fewer people treat the Word of God as inerrant. They see it as viewpoint, which means we have to do a better job of teaching the Word of God as truth. Otherwise, the church is in trouble.
Rick: The truth needs to have unshakeable convictions and shocking love. That’s so hard to do. A lot of people just say, “Let’s love everyone.” For me, that’s a little bit of sloppy agape. Jesus forgave people but still called sin a sin. Truth is not true without grace. And grace is not grace without truth. Grace and truth together is love.
The pandemic came at a time of great division in our nation, and the church often seemed to lead the way. Why do you think that was?
Randy: In Romans 14:1, Paul writes, “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.” To me, social media gives a place to do what Scripture tells us not to do. Such public quarreling has driven a deep wedge in our nation. Even if you say something online that’s perfectly balanced in truth, well-crafted and respectful, the people who comment on both sides end up having a war under your name. Is that really an effective witness?
Rick: I think a lot of people in the pulpit waving Bibles in their hands, and most everyone else, know what they hate. Facebook teaches us that. Romans 12:9 says, “Love must be sincere.” How do we stand firm to the Word without compromise and, at the same time, love like Jesus? It starts with honesty. I have to ask myself, Do I really love people?
How much has the church’s obsession with politics furthered the division?
Randy: It’s a very complicated thing. I’m an American. I love this country, and the values it was founded on. I really believe it is the greatest nation on Earth. But I also believe Jesus made it very clear: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and render unto the Lord what is the Lord’s.” And so I am worried about the church, first and foremost, and I’m going to do everything I can to pastor the church with love, truth, mercy and a sincere heart. To grow the kingdom of God, and not put any other kingdom above it.
Rick: I guarantee you, if I thought politics was a way to bring healing to our nation, then I would lean more into it, but the hope of the world is not government. The church could end up spending a lot of energy fighting a war that, even if we win, we lose. The hope of the world is Jesus and the kingdom he seeded. I think the church is going to lose a lot of believers, and we are going to start winning the lost. Half of the people at our church are people who didn’t go to our church before the pandemic.
How do you reach the lost in a post-pandemic reality?
Rick: I’ve started filling my calendar with people who hate the church, and I understand why. The church doesn’t look anything like Christ, from their view. I meet them in coffee houses and 20 minutes into the conversation, everything changes. When you look a person in the eyes to find out what is going on and the best way to help, it’s just a light-bulb moment. It resets perspective.
Randy: Proximity creates passion. If all you do is judge people from a distance, you’re not going to understand their stories, the things going on in their lives. You’re not going to know them. That’s one of the things that makes social media so dangerous: You communicate from a distance, which lacks any kind of physical presence. Proximity is critical to healing division. When you are with each other, sharing stories, you realize you are not a whole lot different. All of a sudden, you develop a passion for their lives and sincerely love them.
Rick: There are a lot of pastors and Christians out there who have been betrayed. I understand—it’s the worst kind of pain. But I would encourage those same people to ask another question: Do I want to become a person who is bitter and paranoid? And then follow up with a better question: Do I want to be like Jesus, a person who forgives quickly?
Randy: The battleground for this nation is in the hearts of pastors and leaders. And when you are betrayed and you are hurt, it’s easy to allow that pain to stay inside your heart and grow into a root of bitterness. In Proverbs we are told, “Guard your heart because out of it flows every issue of life.”
Rick: I believe the church must contrast the way the world looks. We must counter the two great temptations of power and unforgiveness with love and grace because that’s where truth lives. The real problem with the American church is not the sin in America, but the sin in the church. We have to get this right.
Rob Wilkins, an Outreach magazine contributing editor, is the co-founder and creative lead for Fuse Media in Asheville, North Carolina.