by Patti Townley Covert
As I approached the front door, Lisa Wolfe opened it and embraced me like an old friend even though we'd met only briefly on two other occasions. Hearing our voices, her husband Paul walked to the entryway; he too offered a hug.
With cups of tea in hand, the three of us moved into Paul's book-lined office. Lisa directed me to a comfortable armchair, then pulled up a large ottoman and sat down facing me in front of Paul's desk. Rather than allow his desk to create a barrier between us, Paul settled next to Lisa on the stool. Both leaned toward me and began asking me questions. After a few minutes we wound our way into the topic on which they've become experts, that of relationship-building events. My first experience of such an occasion in their home left a distinct impression.
The rich aroma of coffee greeted visitors that night as they entered the house and walked into the open kitchen and family room area. The sunset’s glow heightened the warmth of Paul and Lisa's smiles as they shook hands with new people being introduced by friends. A sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean beckoned guests onward to the windows or to the pool and patio area.
My colleagues at Reasons To Believe had told me the event would be extraordinary, and they were not exaggerating. It was delightful in every way. Now I was anxious to find out the history and hidden details behind Paul and Lisa Wolfes’ success.
FfF: Lisa, I understand that while most teenaged girls were thinking about boys, fashion, and parties, you became concerned about your friends discovering the living God. How did that happen?
Lisa: I became a Christian when I was about 9, and by the time I got into high school, I just loved Jesus so much that I wanted everyone I knew to know Him too.
FfF: So you started organizing outreach events?
With obvious pride, Paul insisted here that Lisa was the motivator, but she persisted with a slightly different explanation.
Lisa: A core group of us (two girlfriends and I) decided to invite our classmates and other friends to come to a weekly Bible study. Initially, about 10 kids came. We had no adult sponsor, but a youth pastor I met named Rick Bundschuh came once in awhile. He must have been concerned that we receive good teaching; he introduced us to Hugh and Kathy Ross. They often drove 45 miles each way to answer the questions of a bunch of high school kids. Eventually all kinds of people became curious and began coming. Sometimes parents came. Our school’s religion teacher and science teacher both came. By our senior year, 68 teenagers were participating. That year we rented our own bus and went to Forest Home Christian Conference Center for a retreat.
FfF: Were you raised in a Christian home?
Lisa: My parents considered themselves Christians, but they didn't attend church. Instead, they gave me a quarter and dropped me off at church every Sunday.
FfF: And yet you developed a passion for others to know Christ.
Lisa: I can’t explain it. I do know that was an awesome time for me as a Christian, so much was happening! Now is awesome too but back then, maybe because my friends and I didn't know how difficult outreach was “supposed to be,” we weren't afraid to try new ideas to see how they'd work.
Paul: There was probably more of a single-mindedness—fewer distractions, and no preconceived ideas. I’d say the innocence of youth paved the way for God to work.
FfF: Did you and Lisa meet during those high school years?
Paul: No, we met at Loyola Marymount University. Lisa continued her Bible study groups with high school students through Campus Life and then Young Life while attending college.
Lisa: We needed a guitar player and put an ad for one in the school newspaper. Paul's roommate saw it and responded by volunteering Paul to play guitar.
Paul: Laughing Having just given up plans to go into the priesthood, I was an angry student recovering from involvement in what had become, for me, dead ritualism. Lisa's group let me come and play funky old songs and some worship music, but they wouldn't let me speak. I just listened to what was being said and kept coming because by then Lisa and I had become friends, and I kind of liked being around her.
She kept asking me what I believed, and then she’d ask, "Why do you believe that?" She encouraged me to examine my beliefs until finally I couldn't ignore the truth and accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior. We got married around that time.
FfF: Did you both finish school?
Lisa: I completed my master's in family therapy and Paul got his master's in business.
FfF: After you finished school did you continue with the Bible studies?
Lisa: Yes, we kept having them. We invited neighbors—all kinds of people—and our little house would be packed.
FfF: Your home now is large. I hear you have an unusual perspective on your home—can you tell me about that?
Paul: We were given the land as a gift, then had to decide what to do with it. To honor our parents we built the kind of home they wanted for us, but we also intentionally designed the house for outreach. The entryway, dining, and living rooms fit together to provide plenty of meeting space.
FfF: The night I came to hear Hugh Ross speak, there were even people above the living room––on a sort of balcony! What is the largest outreach you've had, and do you think larger or smaller is better?
Lisa: When Hugh Ross comes we even have to rent chairs. There's barely enough room!
Paul: About 110 people were the most we've ever had. For outreach purposes, a large group works well. People with questions like the anonymity. And some questions generate more questions. This makes for good interaction. If people don't want to listen, they can go out on the patio to talk. Sometimes the best discussions take place out there.
FfF: Are there problems connected with having such a large group?
Paul: We haven’t had many problems, probably because those who come are in relationships with people who can help them find answers. The relationships go beyond one night. We did have a problem one time when someone announced our event on the radio. People who didn't know anyone here came, and that was not a good thing for several reasons.
FfF: That sounds potentially dangerous.
Paul: The biggest concern was that those individuals weren't in ongoing relationships where the discussion could continue after the event.
Lisa: But we've never had any problem like theft or damage to our home. Only things like people sometimes parking in our neighbors’ driveways.
FfF: Has that caused problems?
Paul: Not really. Our neighbors know we try to keep this from happening. We do whatever we can to show them that we respect them and their property.
FfF: Do you ever invite them to come to your events?
Paul: Yes, but it's hard for them to come. Money can be a blessing or a curse. When people have as much as these folks do, it is sometimes hard for them to sense the need for something of deeper significance.
FfF: You used the word intentional when you talked about designing your home. Are there other intentional things that you do for the sake of outreach?
Paul: We mainly want to help people come up with answers for themselves. Respect for others and their freedom to believe is important and can create a good tension. Answering only the questions people ask encourages them to think for themselves. We try to be gracious in how we answer and not impose our beliefs on others.
Lisa: I've learned some things from watching Kathy Ross. She looks for individuals who might need someone to talk to. And she listens, really hearing what a person has to say. If someone goes out by the pool while Hugh is talking, Kathy will often go outside too and try to find out what’s on that person’s mind.
Paul: We intentionally don't pray aloud at these events. That can make people unfamiliar with prayer uncomfortable, and we don't want anyone to feel pressured. We just want people to examine their beliefs and understand why they believe what they do.
FfF: Would you say prayer does play a role?
Paul: It is key. Nothing happens apart from prayer.
Lisa: There are many people praying before and during the events. We don't do this outreach by ourselves.
FfF: Who helps you?
Lisa: Different people, but especially my sister and brother-in-law—we couldn't do it without them. They help make coffee, set up chairs, and do the dishes afterwards. And, some friends from our small group Bible study help in all kinds of ways—giving us input and praying for the different people who come.
FfF: How do so many people get invited?
Lisa: Friends bring friends. This is what makes the large group setting work so well. Even though we don't know most of the people, generally a friend has brought each individual. Through this ongoing relationship, discussion takes place and a person can receive answers to questions of a spiritual nature.
FfF: I noticed some pretty impressive names in the list of those who have come to speak and answer questions: Talbot's professor of philosophy Dr. J. P. Moreland, Ray and Ann Ortlund, Dr. Scott Rae, Stand to Reason's Greg Koukl, and Old Testament scholar Dr. Jeff Geoghan, in addition to Dr. Hugh Ross all kinds of people. How do you get these speakers?
Lisa: Mostly Paul invites his professors from Talbot seminary, where he’s taking classes toward an M.A. in philosophy.
Paul: But, Lisa is the persevering one. She's been trying to get Dr. Dallas Willard to come speak for about three years.
FfF: How do you schedule your events?
Paul: Each year we do our schedule a little differently. One year we'll hold an event each month from February to November, another year from March to October, it can be different depending on what's going on. Some events are for Christians to discuss different topics such as September 11 , and how a loving God could allow such a thing to happen. Other events, especially in the summer, are geared more for skeptics and nonbelievers, where Christians can bring friends and acquaintances to ask questions.
FfF: So you don't actually do something year-round?
Lisa: No. We take a break every few months. The ego constantly needs to be dealt with and certain questions asked: "Why am I doing this? What's my motivation? Am I doing it for the Lord, or because I need the pat on the back?" Sometimes, being a stay-at-home mom, I find it's easy to do things because they bring affirmation. We all need to be careful to check the reasons why we want to reach out to people. Also, much time is involved apart from the events themselves, getting together with people to build solid relationships, planning, making phone calls, and so forth.
Our children and our family must remain top priority. They are the most important. Paul and I have a regular date night, and we like to take vacations with our kids.
FfF: What activities are your children involved in?
Lisa: They’re taking lessons in Armenian, piano, and sewing right now. Being Armenian, I want them to be able to speak the language. I also want them to develop skills they’re interested in.
FfF: Do they ever get involved with the outreach?
Lisa: Once a year we invite inner city boys and girls to come over and swim in our pool. Our children get to talk to them. One time a little boy asked me, "What's it like to live in such a big house?" I told him, "There are sad people as well as happy people in big houses, just like there are in small houses. It's not where you live that matters, but what's inside of you."
FfF: How does your involvement with apologetics affect your children?
Lisa: Jessica, our ten-year-old is starting to have discussions with Paul that are over my head! She's analytical and is interested in understanding what is true.
Paul: I'm trying to be careful to cultivate a tender apologetic heart and mind in my daughter. It’s a balance between guiding her beliefs and trying to help her gain the tools to discern truth.
FfF: And if she gets on the wrong track?
Lisa: Hopefully we'll just ask her, "Well . . . why do you believe that?"