Archives For Food for Thought

Something challenging to get you thinking.

4.16.14For churches, Easter is the “Superbowl” of Sundays. The bushes are spruced up, the pile of old bulletins is finally cleared out. We’re getting ready for the onslaught of guests that are expected to pour onto our campus this coming Sunday. But what determines whether guests will come back again or not after Easter? Will it be the biblical soundness of the preaching, the quality of the music, or the cleanliness of the nursery? I believe all of those are important, but not the determining factor. That is something far simpler.

Yesterday I took a survey of our staff to ask what they would consider as important if they were to visit a new church. The primary response is what I’ve experienced for years as a pastor: the overwhelming thing guests look for when they visit your church for the first time is whether or not they’ll feel welcome, whether or not anyone will talk to them. All those hours spent crafting an evangelistic sermon will be for naught if your members scare all the guests away. All those hours practicing that beautiful Easter cantata will be wasted if no one talks to the guests. It’s as simple as that.

A host team is a big deal. Making sure that your members are conditioned to make newcomers feel welcome is a big deal. Lead by example. Make it your goal this Easter not to talk to anyone you know, only engaging with folks who look like they’re new. I guarantee you, you’ll make an incredible first impression on someone.

I received two notes this week from recent first-time guests who have decided to make Mt Vernon their home. The thing both of them mentioned the most was how welcome we made them feel. We learned their names. We talked to them. We called them by name the second time they came. They felt welcome. They felt like they belonged. So they’re sticking around.

Want to make Easter a success this year? Don’t just preach at them, engage with them. Make them feel like they could belong at your church. Who knows? They might just decide to stick around.

 

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????As a pastor I’ve heard the term “unchurched” thrown around for years. I look at where I grew up (California) and see it everywhere. But I don’t minister in California. I minister in the South. And in some ways, I think it’s harder. The “unchurched” are those who haven’t grown up in church. They don’t read their Bible everyday. They don’t know the words to the great hymns of old. They don’t know how to dress or how to act in church. Many churches spend all their creative energies at reaching the unchurched.

Here’s the problem for me: In the South, there’s simply not that many “unchurched.” Sure there are a few, but they’re a minuscule percentage of the population. Here’s the overwhelming demographic I encounter, the one Mt Vernon is aimed at reaching: the “dechurched.” These are people who have had experiences with the church but got burned and have walked away. It’s hard not to go to church in the South at some point in your childhood. Either your parents took you or your grandmother took you. If nothing else you got shoved in a VBS so your parents could get a few hours of peace.

The majority of people in the South have exposure to the church, it’s just not good exposure. I can’t tell you the times I’ve encountered people who grew up in church but walked away. Either the church was boring or overly rigid, the people were judgmental or they just wanted to live in the world. Either way, most folks that I encounter who are new to church aren’t new to church, they just haven’t been in years.

In some ways that makes our job harder. We don’t have a blank slate to work with. Instead we’re trying to overcome the negative stereotypes and negative experiences that other churches seared into them growing up. Our primary aim at Mt Vernon isn’t to reach the “unchurched,” it’s the reach the “dechurched.”

QUESTION: Have you encountered more “unchurched” or ‘dechurched” people in the South?

4.10.14It’s the difference between attending a party and hosting a party. When you attend a party, what’s your goal and mindset? To have a good time, to make memories. Whose job is it to ensure you have a good time? Your host’s. When you host a party, everything is reversed. Your job is to ensure your guests have a good experience. Your sense of satisfaction derives from their enjoyment of the party. Make sense so far?

Now, let’s transpose this onto the church. What do most church people do? They “attend” church. Take my church for example. On a normal Sunday we’ll have over 400 on campus. That’s 400 “attenders.” Who’s the host? I am. You could also count the five other staff we have working Sundays, so 6 hosts for 400 people. That’s a lot of people to entertain! And if we’re solely focused on ensuring that our 400 attenders have a good experience, what’s the likelihood that we’ll get to the few dozen guests we’ll have each month? Slim to none. That’s why many guests come in and go out and never get noticed.

But what if? What if our church “attenders” could begin to see themselves as “hosts”? So, instead of 6 hosts trying to entertain the 400 attenders plus few dozen guests, we had 400 hosts ensuring that the few dozen guests that come each month would feel welcome? Here’s what would happen. In a year or two, we wouldn’t have 400 on campus, we’d have 800-900.

When the average church attender makes the shift from being a consumer to becoming a contributor, that’s when your church will be revolutionized.

Fall Books PreviewThe Bully Pulpit is a riveting tale of two men and a magazine that changed the world. Telling the tale of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and McClure’s Magazine, The Bully Pulpit transports the reader into a surprisingly pivotal time in American history, the dawn of the 20th century.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a pervasive culture of laissez faire had allowed corporations to run amuck and concentrate incredible wealth at the expense of the common man. Political parties were beholden to powerful corporations. Corporate trusts cornered the market on pivotal goods such as steel and beef and transportation such as railroads. A handful of men, the country’s first millionaires, held absolute sway.

The American economic and political systems were designed to help the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Many wanted reform, but they could not muster the courage to battle the headwinds needed to see the revolution of change begin. Enter Theodore Roosevelt. A hurricane of a man and a person almost unique in American history, Roosevelt took on the role of reformer and by sheer force of will helped America turn a critical corner in her storied journey.

The bulk of this book focuses on the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt and his chosen successor William Howard Taft and their transformation of the American way of life. Along the way the author traces a critical voice that helped crystallize the support of the American public at critical junctures: McClure’s magazine. Called “the golden age of journalism,” the author does a tremendous job recounting an easily forgotten aspect in the battle for modern America. McClure’s magazine galvanized public sentiment and gave Roosevelt and Taft the ammunition they needed to goad an unwilling legislature to pass much needed reform. It’s an amazing tale of the stars aligning for a few short years and meaningful reforms being passed in our country.

At 750 pages, this book is not for the faint of heart, yet it’s a solid read and wonderful reminiscence of the greatness that America can aspire to if she so chooses.

LESSONS LEARNED

1. The power of one person and a vision. I’ve read numerous books about Theodore Roosevelt and continue to be fascinated with him as a man. His drive, his force of will, his determination and buoyancy allowed him to shape the country to his will in a way rarely seen before or since. Can one person make a difference? Absolutely. History has proved this time and time again.

2. All good plans can go astray. Roosevelt had picked William Howard Taft (a close personal friend) as his chosen successor in the 1908 presidential election. Riding Roosevelt’s legacy, Taft easily sailed to victory but strayed from Roosevelt’s vision enough that Roosevelt himself challenged his good friend and successor for the 1912 Republican nomination.

3. Little moments make a big difference. The night of Roosevelt’s presidential victory in 1904, Roosevelt made a declaration that would come to haunt him for years. Fresh off his victory, he publicly vowed to not seek a third term (at that time still allowed). Roosevelt would later say that he would willingly chop off his arm if he could take back that pledge. The secret power behind Taft’s success in his career was his loving, supportive, and incredibly smart and savvy wife, Nellie Taft. She was his rock, his anchor. A few weeks into Taft’s presidency, Nellie Taft suffered a debilitating stroke and never fully recovered. Taft’s presidency was never the same.

4. There can be too much a good thing. This book beautifully captures the arc of Roosevelt’s rise and fall, from eager reformer to overzealous power hog one step away from crazy town. During his final presidential run as a third party candidate, Roosevelt delved deep into demagoguery, proposing to do away with the Supreme Court and putting all national issues up for a vote. In his mind that would work well, because he knew how to galvanize popular opinion like no one else, but it would have been a chaotic step for our country. As much as I admire Roosevelt, I’m glad he was defeated in his final presidential run. Too much power for too long had warped his sense of perspective, with serious possible harm for the country.

5. Roosevelt’s movement was ultimately successful. The progressive movement embodied by Roosevelt led to some incredible leaps forward that we take for granted today, including the 17th and 19th amendment to the Constitution: the direct election of senators and giving women the right to vote. Both more widely distributed power to the people and enabled the general public to have their say in their country’s future.

6. The progressive movement was the golden age of journalism. Never before had journalists been so able to capture and form the conscious of the country than during the years of Roosevelt’s presidency. They were men and women of high moral aptitude with an inner drive to educate the public, not just drive up sales. As others joined the bandwagon this type of journalism denigrated into the muckraking so decried by the President. But for a short span, journalism was a healthy conversation, not driven by deadlines or circulation figures, but driven by a common goal to better the country. Oh even for a hint of that in today’s media wars.

4.8.14In John 5 there’s a verse that puzzled me for years. One of the times Jesus entered Jerusalem, he encountered a man who had been an invalid for 38 years. What he asks this man almost seems insulting at first:  “When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, ‘Do you want to get well?’” (John 5:6). Was this a rhetorical question? Was Jesus mocking him? Why would this man not want to get better? Shouldn’t it be obvious?

But as I got older and I began to interact with more people in ministry, I realized the penetrating nature of this question. Sometimes people who are sick don’t want to get better. Sometimes people who need to make a change are unwilling to do so. You’ve lived through this. You have a family member. You have a close friend. You know they need to change. You’ve had an intervention where you’ve pleaded with them to get help for something. In a moment of clarity they’ve even admitted that they need to change. And yet they haven’t. They’re not ready to get well. They’re comfortable in their brokenness. It’s painful, but it’s what they know. They’re not ready to make a change.

Before you rehash old arguments and get angry at your family all over again, stop for a moment and ask yourself this same question: do you want to get well? What area in your life do you know you need to change? What habit or addiction has your family pleaded with you time and time again to change? In what area have you been unwilling to fully surrender to God and make a change?

Like the man who had lived with a debilitating condition for 38 years, Jesus still asks you, “Do you want to get well?”

Well, do you?

IMG_0324Seven years ago, the narrative of Robin and I’s marriage was that we were the young couple that couldn’t have kids. Then our oldest son Zeke was born (seven years ago today). Two and a half months later we would meet him for the first time and take him home to adopt him. And then we met Shepherd two years later. Another two years went by and then God blew our minds and we had our first natural born son, Lincoln.

Today we’re meeting our little girl Elle who will complete our family. Her full name is Emmanuelle, and she is a living testimony that God continues to be with us. With kid number four, I think we’ll have to give up that narrative as the couple who couldn’t have kids. I think God’s proved his point. He can make the miraculous happen. He has blessed time and time again, and we look forward with breathless anticipation to see what He does over the next seven years.

May you be able to see and appreciate the miracles God has worked in your lives!

3.29.14The movie Noah has been a lightning rod in the Christian community. To see it or not to see it? But I heard it contradicted Scripture! But I heard it was made by an atheist! But I heard Noah is portrayed as an eco-terrorist! But I heard the ark doesn’t even look how it did in my Sunday School quarterly growing up!

While I’ve already posted about why you should see the movie Noah, what’s been surprising to me has been the outright hostility and condemnation of a movie before it was even seen. “Frozen” has some anti-biblical elements and yet we sing its praises. “Noah” has many more biblical elements than “Frozen” yet we vilify it. If we’re going to vilify movies, let’s at least be consistent. The larger question for me becomes: how do we respond to a culture that is becoming more and more anti-biblical? Do we embrace it? Do we condemn it? Or do we engage it and try to redeem what we can?

Paul had to wrestle with this same dilemma when he encountered a deeply anti-biblical society in ancient Athens:

16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. Acts 17:16-18

When invited to speak to some of the leaders of the city, how did he respond? Did he embrace their gods? Did he vilify and condemn them, wishing them safe travels on their journey to hell? Or did he attempt to engage and redeem what he could?

22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you. Acts 17:22-23

If the apostle Paul were alive today I wouldn’t put it past him to watch the movie Noah and use it as an opportunity to preach the gospel. I’m not saying that’s why the movie was made. I’m not saying movie Noah is completely accurate biblically.

I’m saying that the level of condemnation and vilification for a movie not yet seen has been disheartening. Noah was a good movie with many redeeming elements. Noah was easily the #1 movie in America this past weekend. Millions of people saw it. But if all the Christians sat home, then who will engage non-believers today about the movie and use it as an opportunity to explore the biblical concepts brought out by Noah? Millions of people are talking today about sin, judgment, and the Creator. By removing ourselves so early from the conversation, we’ve missed an opportunity to engage others in some of the deepest problems affecting mankind.

QUESTION: If the Apostle Paul were alive today, what do you think his response would be to the movie Noah?

P.S. I heard Christian Bale is playing Moses in a movie coming out in December. Anyone want to be the first to condemn that?

 

3.29.14WARNING: Noah (the movie) is a radical interpretation of an ancient story that directly contradicts our sanitized-VBS-idyllic notions of how we think the Noah story went. Now mind you, I didn’t say that Noah (the movie) directly contradicts Scripture. It just gives an interpretation different than we grew up with in Sunday School. It’s not a fairy-tale depiction of a doting grandfather with a flowing beard whose biggest dilemma is finding out where to put all the cute cuddly animals that made it onto the ark. It’s a movie about the end of the world. That’s what has the bloggers and talk radio hosts and Facebook prophets up in arms.

Here’s what I appreciated about Darren Aronofsky’s version of Noah and why I think you should see it (don’t worry, no spoilers ahead. If you want the spoilers, read Genesis 6-9):

  • He brought to life a vision of what the pre-Flood world could have looked like, something that’s always intrigued me. Aronofsky is if nothing else an incredible storyteller and filmmaker.
  • He told the true point of the story: the apocalypse. When we tell a sanitized version of the story to kindergartners, we keep it about all the cute and fluffy animals that got to ride on a big boat. He kept the focus on the tragic destruction of humanity. We may not be comfortable with that truth, but judgement was the central point of the story.
  • God was very much a central figure in the film. Now some are up in arms because they referred to him as “the Creator” rather than “God.” He has several names in Scripture, take your pick. They portrayed him in a way that we might not be comfortable with but falls (I believe) within the bounds of a biblical viewpoint. (I’ll admit, it’s right on the edge, but it’s just inside the edge).
  • Noah doesn’t whitewash the reason for judgment: the wickedness of mankind. I’d heard rumors that Noah would be portrayed as some eco-terrorist who was destroying the world because we were mean to trees. Not the case at all. The reason for the apocalypse was clearly presented: the wickedness of mankind.
  • Aronofsky did a beautiful job weaving in the dichotomous virtues of justice and mercy in a way that spoke to fundamental values in the human experience.
  • The last picture we see of Noah in Scripture has always confused me: a naked passed out drunk. Why not finish with the rainbow and let everyone walk away happy? Aronofsky’s interpretation of this event is the first I’ve seen that makes perfect sense.
  • Aronofsky portrayed Noah as flawed. I loved that. Too often we mythologize our Bible characters and forget the fact that they were sinners. This Noah struggled. He seemed, well, human. That gives hope.

Here are some things that made me scratch my head (a little):

  • Noah’s interpretation of the Nephilim in Genesis 6. When you watch the movie, you’ll encounter some characters that seem completely farfetched. But it’s not as farfetched as you think. Pastors like me avoid Genesis 6:2 like the plague because we have no idea what it means. He gave an interpretation of that verse. To be completely honest, it’s about as believable as all the animals joining together to help Steve Carrell build the ark.
  • The Bible is clear that the wives of all three sons were on the ark. In this movie, that truth came as a twist towards the end. Not as straight forward as we’d expect, but that doesn’t make it unbiblical. I mean, this is the same God who promised Abraham a son and then waited until Sarah was well beyond child bearing years to do anything about it. God loves a good twist.
  • In Genesis we see God’s commands given to Noah. But how were they communicated? Verbally? In written form? Through dreams and visions? Aronofsky definitely went the unusual route, but that’s his prerogative.
  • Perhaps my biggest beef would be Noah’s role vs. God’s role in deciding the fate of humanity. His interpretation is not one I’m comfortable with, but I’m not ready to throw him to the wolves for it. It’s the same tension we see between man’s will and God’s sovereignty. They’re both there, but reconciling them properly is difficult.

All in all, I’d recommend you go see Noah for yourself. You will not see a movie that is intentionally anti-biblical. You will see a movie that stretches our imagination and challenges some of our time-honored traditions about the Flood story. I’ve thought for years that those interpretations needed to be challenged, and Aronofsky has come along and done it. And he’s made a beautiful movie along the way.

But don’t take my word for it. Go see it for yourself. Just leave your flannel graphs and stuffed animals at home. A battle axe is a better choice for this movie.

QUESTION: What did you think about the Noah movie?

3.25.14We don’t have an “invitation” at the end of our services, and there’s a very good reason why. To be honest, this is the first church I’ve been at with no invitation. Growing up, it’s just what you did as a good Baptist. You’d go to church and listen to the pastor drone on about something in the Old Testament. He’d throw in a two-minute gospel presentation at the end and you’d endure six verses of Just As I Am, secretly hoping that no one would walk down the aisle so that you could beat the Methodists to lunch.

Mt Vernon doesn’t have an invitation at the end of our services and it’s not because we’re heretical or anti-gospel. It’s not because we’re Calvinistic or we don’t consider ourselves Baptist anymore. It’s because we don’t think a traditional invitation is the most effective way to invite a response from the people.

There’s the obvious fear of walking down in front of complete strangers. That hinders many from even taking a step. Then you have the other extreme, those who love the attention and come down every other week for a prayer request or to rededicate, savoring the attention of the crowd. But perhaps the biggest knock against the invitation is the amount of time you’re allowed as a pastor to counsel for a decision. When someone walks down, you’ve got 30-45 seconds to accurately assess their spiritual state and determine the validity of their decision before you declare it to the entire congregation. Too many times I’ve rushed a counseling situation because the clock was ticking, only to find out later that they came down for something else or their decision wasn’t genuine. Some churches still do an invitation but take all of the people that come down back to a counseling room and don’t present them immediately. I think that’s a great step.

So, how do we invite response? We direct everyone at the end of each service to our Next Steps form (the backside of our Connection Card), where we ask them to fill out one of many decisions they might be considering making. They put it in the offering box on the way out, and from there a staff person contacts them one-on-one to follow up on their decision. What about people taking a public stand for Christ and not being ashamed of the gospel? That’s what baptism is for. We still baptize in front of the entire church, and we even make them video tape their testimony (that’s another blog post for another time).

Is it a perfect method? No. Has it cut down on the number of rushed or illegitimate decisions that can happen with a traditional invitation? Absolutely. Has it decreased the genuine decisions we’d get from a traditional invitation? We don’t think so. Call us anti-traditional (that label definitely fits), but don’t call us anti-biblical or anti-gospel. We’re calling for a response to the gospel at every service, and decisions are made at Mt Vernon every week. We thank God for that.

QUESTION: Does your church utilize a public invitation at the end of the service?

3.24.14Sometimes we overcomplicate things. There are tons of books out there on how to see your church grow. The truth is multi-faceted, from location and demographics to spiritual maturity and missional mindset. Some churches may not even aim to reach the unchurched, believing church is for church people.

But for those churches seeking to see the unchurched reached with the gospel, here’s a simple (not easy) place to start. A guaranteed way to get unchurched people to come to your church is to make a church service unchurched people actually want to come to. In many cases I believe it’s as simple as that. You can spend thousands of dollars on a church growth strategist and put up billboards all around town. You can make public declarations and invoke 2 Chronicles 7:14 as much as you’d like. But if you have a church service that turns away unchurched folks, then they’re not going to stick around.

This isn’t an either/or. This isn’t evangelism vs. discipleship. This isn’t deep truths vs. watered-down doctrine. This is as simple as adapting our personal preferences to reach the unchurched in our community for Christ. Here are some questions for you to consider:

  • Is your church service welcoming? I’m not just saying ‘do you have an usher by the door?’. Everyone has that. Do you have some type of ‘host team’ dedicated on Sunday mornings to making the Sunday experience incredible for all first-time guests? This starts from the time they step out of their cars to the time they interact with your church members. (For extra credit, train your church members to be like this).
  • Is your church service modern? Will your church service at all resemble the culture your unchurched live in, or will it be a time warp to a nostalgic time gone by? Everything from style of music to type of dress to how the sanctuary looks. If you’re trying to reach anyone other than homogenous religious folks who were in their prime back in the 50s, then you need to make sure that your service actually resembles today’s culture. And yes, there’s a way to do that without sacrificing the integrity of the gospel. If you still think that drumsticks are from the devil, then we’ve got bigger issues.
  • Is your church service relevant? Preachers like me love to sit in our studies all week and delve into the intricacies of the original Greek text. We love to know where the Hebrew root of a certain word comes from, or how many times one particular word appears in Scripture. It’s too easy to spew forth information on Sunday mornings and hope that somewhere in the midst of that information something practical comes out. When the unchurched come to your service, they don’t know Greek or Hebrew. They probably don’t even have a Bible. What they do know is that their marriage is falling apart or their kids are slipping away from them or that their financial world is crashing down around them. If we don’t scratch where they itch, they’ll look for answers somewhere else.
  • Is your church service truthful? This point is an important counterpoint to the ‘relevant’ argument. If the unchurched wanted to get another hyped up talk on the power of positive thinking, they would listen to Oprah. If they wanted another passionate presentation of the world’s common sense wisdom, they’d listen to Dr. Phil. They’re at your church searching for truth. They don’t want truth watered down. They hunger and search for undistilled truth, as uncomfortable as that might be. You don’t have to water down the truth to reach the unchurched.

If you can create a church service that is welcoming, modern, relevant and truthful, you’ll find something very unfamiliar showing up at your doorstep: the unchurched. That’s not the difficult part. The difficult part is getting all the good church folks to be willing to give up their preferences to reach the lost. But that’s another discussion for another day :)