Several weeks ago Mt Vernon hosted its second annual Joy Prom for the special needs community. Here’s the highlight video. Use it as a way to start your weekend on the right note!
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Vignettes of life from my life as a pastor.
One of my favorite apps on my phone is Flixster, which lets me view upcoming movies and trailers. More importantly, before I make the decision on whether to watch the movie, I look at the Rotten Tomatoes score, a percentage of how many other users liked the movie. More than the critical reviews, I know that if other users like the movie, I probably will too.
Why is this important for the church? Because 92% of people trust recommendations from friends and family above all other forms of advertising, up 18% since 2007. Online consumer reviews are the second most trusted source of brand information with a 70% trust rating, up 15% since 2008. Television ads were trusted by only 47%, down 24% since 2009 (Nielsen, April 2012).
I’ve worked at churches before I that I wouldn’t have attended if I wasn’t employed by them. How many of my friends did I invite there? None. A church can have a ton of formal advertising, but word of mouth trumps it every time. Growing a church is a lot simpler than pastors and theologians make it out to be. The number one way to grow your church in today’s society is to create a church environment that your members enjoy enough that they’ll naturally tell their circle of influence about it, and to create a culture where your members have the mindset to reach out (as opposed to simply reaching in).
We’ve seen this play out at Mt Vernon. Over the past year and a half that I’ve been pastor, 99% of our growth have been family and friends of existing members. Virtually every time our staff discusses a new guest, we discuss the close friend or family member who brought them. Why? Because people trust recommendations of family and friends above all other forms of advertising. A member loves our church enough to bring her mom, who brings her close friend, who tells everyone at work. We’ve grown roughly 20% over the past year, with no formal advertising, no mass mailers, no door-to-door campaigns. It’s simply word of mouth.
The winds of culture are changing. We can continue to fight against it, or find a way to harness the power of it to see the Kingdom advance.
QUESTION: What is your church’s Rotten Tomatoes score? (It’s more important than you think)
Think of the happiest, funnest, most memorable prom that you can remember. Multiply that by ten, and you have the Joy Prom. Last Saturday I attended the Joy Prom, an event I’ve had the privilege of being a part of for the past several years. The Joy Prom is where our high school students throw a prom for the special needs community in our area. The high school students serve as dates, we literally roll out the red carpet, and have a night we’ll always remember. (Watch last year’s recap video here.) Here’s seven reasons why I love the Joy Prom so much:
1. It’s all about the red carpet. When the Joy Prom couples walk down the red carpet with hundreds of people cheering them on, you should see their smiles. They feel like a million bucks, and you can tell. To see the smiles on the faces of the precious special needs students is absolutely priceless.
2. Blessing the caregivers. The caregivers of the special needs community are the unsung heroes of this whole thing. Their time, energy and continuous effort to serve others goes vastly under-appreciated. To bless them and validate their work by blessing those precious souls in their care, even if for one night, is worth the effort.
3. Providing the best prom for high schoolers. Over the years, the constant refrain I’ve heard from high schoolers is that the Joy Prom is the best prom they’ve ever been to. There’s no pretense, no image to upkeep, no social hierarchy. The students are able to come in, let loose, and truly be themselves.
4. Seeing Christians coming together to serve. Too often, Christians are separated by churches and denominational lines, allowing secondary things to separate them. The Joy Prom is one of the few times I’ve seen Christians from numerous churches come together. The purpose of serving the special needs community transcends religious territorialism. If only this could happen more often.
5. Breaking stereotypes and rocking the church. Yes, we have a dance at the church. And it’s rocking. You can hear the bass thumping before you walk in the doors. Every once in awhile, it’s good to shake things up a little. Christians can have fun too.
6. Experiencing pure, unadulterated joy. Attending the Joy Prom is like watching Extreme Makeover Home Edition for three hours. You’re going to love it, but you’re going to cry at some point. There’s an emotional experience when you see the pure joy radiating from the faces of the special needs students. It tugs at your emotional core, reminding you that such pure joy exists.
7. Knowing that we blessed more than just the special needs community. Jesus says, ”Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least ofthese brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). I think the Joy Prom honestly reflects the love of our Savior, who has a special place in his heart for those on the margins of society.
Thanks to everyone who helped make this year’s Joy Prom so special!
QUESTION: If you’ve been a part of a Joy Prom before, what’s you’re favorite aspect of it?
It happened to me (again) this past Sunday. That awkward moment when you introduce yourself to a new couple at church, and they tell you they met you last week. Mike and Shelly. I won’t forget their names anytime soon. Here’s how the conversation went:
ME: Hey, I don’t think I’ve met you. My name’s Josh.
MIKE and SHELLY: Yeah, we met last week when you introduced yourself to us.
(awkward silence as I try to figure out how to get out of this social snafu). Thankfully, they threw me a lifeline:
MIKE and SHELLY: I’m sure you meet a lot of new people each week and it’s tough to keep all their names straight.
ME: Yes, but I’m sorry I forgot yours.
As the conversation went on, our conversation from last week came to mind, and I was able to add enough tidbits to make sure they knew that I did in fact remember meeting them last week (although belatedly).
Some people are afraid to meet new people at church because they’re afraid they’d make a fool of themselves. Take it from me, sometimes that happens. But it can’t stop you from doing your part and making newcomers feel welcome. And if you do embarrass yourself, don’t worry. I’ve done much worse.
QUESTION: Have you ever had a similar experience at church?
Yesterday at Mt Vernon Church I met a nice young family with a precious daughter. Not too out of character for a Sunday at church. They were a different nationality, and they ran a small business in town. Standard stuff. Then I learned a little bit more of their back story, and my heart broke a little bit.
They moved to our city six years ago. They own a small retail business, one that sees at least a hundred people a day walk through the doors. Yet this was the first time they’d been to church in Columbus. Why? Because it took six years for someone to invite them to church! Mississippi still considers itself to be the buckle of the Bible Belt, meaning there were tons of good-natured Christians that did business with this nice young family. If half of their normal customers that came in went to church, then that would equal 78,000 encounters with church going folks without an invite to church. Ashamed yet?
Wait, it gets better. The lady from our church who invited them isn’t from here. She’s been in town less than two years herself. This young couple is still waiting for someone who considers this city their home to invite them to church.
What’s the moral of the story? Never assume that someone else will invite that person you see every week to church. Don’t assume that every person you see goes to church somewhere. Invite them. Invite them to come to church with you. Hopefully they won’t have to wait six years for an invitation to church.
I literally just got back from speaking at a high school chapel at a Christian school in town. Pulling from my years of student ministry, I shared the contents of the blog post I wrote earlier, “7 Things I Wish I Could Tell Every High Schooler.” The response from the students, even at 8 in the morning, was extremely positive. The students were leaning in, staying with me, and giving me positive non-verbal feedback throughout the talk.
Why? Because I talked about something that they wanted to hear about. Alcohol, sex, and adulthood, all pretty safe topics for interest when it comes to high schoolers. But it reminded me of why I preach the way I do. There are many different schools of thought about how to preach and differing opinions on what preachers should talk about. Lots of highly polished men, with lots of highly polished diplomas, speak eloquently for their points of view, many of them conflicting with each other.
Some think that the only way to preach is to walk through the Bible, verse-by-verse. “Just preach the Word,” they would say. For them, nothing excites them more than a two-year sermon series walking through the book of Romans. That may be fine, it’s just not my style. My style gets the verse-by-verse folks up in arms. They see it as a degradation of Scripture. I see it as biblical preaching.
Here’s the example I base my preaching style off of: Jesus. Look in the gospels. How many times do we see Jesus taking his disciples through a verse-by-verse study of the book of Leviticus? Never. How did Jesus preach? He used every day examples to talk about deeper truths pertinent to his hearers. He talked about farmers and lost sheep. He used contemporary culture as a bridge to deeper spiritual truths.
That’s why I talk to high schoolers about alcohol and sex and adulthood, issues they care about, and use them as a bridge to the deeper truths found in Scripture. One nice by-product of preaching about issues people actually care about: people listen. And they bring their friends to listen too. That’s why I preach the way I do.
It’s got to be the way I’m wired, because I know that many people just aren’t this way. But this is how God made me, so I embrace it. What never ever ever gets old for me is meeting new people at church. Mt Vernon is a thriving, growing congregation of several hundred people. In the fourteen months since I’ve been here, I’ve met hundreds of families, many of whom are good friends now.
Every single week, without fail, God brings new families to Mt Vernon. And I love to meet them all! It never gets old. I love to hear about their stories, their spiritual journeys, and how God is working in their lives. It continually blows me away to watch God working in so many different lives, bringing them together at one place.
In the past few Sundays I’ve met:
- a family who hugged the back row like it was going out of style. The mom told me later that they had attended Mt Vernon before but haven’t been in a few years. She was getting her hair cut by someone on the other side of town and her hair stylist kept going on and on about Mt Vernon. They’ve been the past two weeks and have told me they’re coming back for good.
- a young lady and her new husband. She was a friend of one of my former youth at a previous church. She’s attending a local college in town for the next year and a half and came to check us out. She found out that we work with the Dominican Republic (she’s been there four times), and now she’s in love.
- an Air Force couple who have attended for a few months, completed our membership class, and are ready to get plugged in and serve.
- a mom who’s been several times before. This past Sunday she brought her three teenagers, who haven’t been to church in years. She said they really enjoyed it but were anxious to get out of there before they actually had to talk to anyone. I promised her we wouldn’t bite and I look forward to meeting them next time.
These are literally the first four families that come to mind. All different walks of life. All on a journey with God. All at Mt Vernon. I absolutely love what I do!
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It’s always a bit disconcerting at first. Especially if they don’t give off the I-just-out-of-prison look (i.e. orange jumpsuit). A few weeks ago, after I met a nice looking young family, I found out that one of the parents has been out of prison less than six months. Many people’s reaction might be a mixture of fascination (what did they do?), repulsiveness (hide the kids!), and condemnation (how dare they show up in God’s house!). Especially if your church isn’t the type of “church” that welcomes ex-convicts. I’ve been to those types of churches. I grew up in a few of those churches. It’s the kind of churches that Pharisees would absolutely love.
For the record, I’m glad that ex-convicts find Mt Vernon Church a safe and welcoming place to explore their relationship with God. To my knowledge, we’ve got three ex-cons at Mt Vernon, and many more with a troubled past. I know one ex-con who continually invites other acquaintances with similar backgrounds to our church so that they can hear the gospel. One of the people at Mt Vernon that has invited more people (and clients) than anyone else is a bail bondsman.
End result? Mt Vernon is full of misfits, and I love that. When Jesus declared his Messianic identity at the beginning of his ministry, he used an ancient quote from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
It’s tough to proclaim freedom for the prisoners if you don’t know any. That’s why I love that my church seems to attract the broken and hurting. They know they will be loved and accepted here. More importantly, they know that they kind find the hope of Jesus Christ here.
QUESTION: Does your church embrace the messes?
image courtesy of http://www.freedigitalphotos.net
It’s the eyes. Do you want to know the secret of spotting the new family the first time they come to your church? Watch the eyes. New eyes are always timid, unsure, hesitant. Their steps don’t have the purposed gait of someone who knows where they’re going. If you spot a nervous, deer-in-the-headlights look, then you’ve probably got a first-time guest.
To those who seek to make a good first impression, to those who are practiced and intentional about welcoming first-timers, knowing this can make all the difference. A few Sundays ago I was walking outside of our building about ten minutes before our first service started. Out in the parking lot I saw a family I didn’t recognize, pouring out of their van with mom, dad, and four kids in tow. They had ‘the look.’ They were unsure of where to go, taking hesitant steps. They began to make their way to the first building door they saw, our Commons Area.
I intercepted them about fifteen seconds after they got out of the car, before they made out of the parking lot. I simply asked if they knew where they were going and if I could help them find anything. They (surprise surprise) told me that this was their first time to our church. So I walked them in and helped them get their kids checked into our children’s environment.
In the days that followed, we received multiple emails from them, thanking us for our hospitality and helpfulness in getting them where they needed to be. They said that they’ve found their church home and that they’ll be coming every week.
Look for a new family this week. Be intentional about it. Make sure you’ve got some type of Welcome Team in the parking lot, looking for the new family. Make a great first impression. And watch them fall in love with your church!
image courtesy of http://www.freedigitalphotos.net
At a recent church function, a new church family came up and gave me a nice compliment. They were impressed that I knew their names and their children’s names. They know that Mt Vernon isn’t a small church. There were several hundred that called Mt Vernon home when I got here, and in 2012, several hundred more have visited. This couple had visited and gotten plugged in within the last few months. They haven’t gotten plugged into a Life Group yet, so they don’t know a lot of people. Yet I know them and their family. They said, “You must have a gift when it comes to names and faces.”
Here’s the secret: I work really, really hard at getting to know names and faces. That’s why I’m an unashamed Facebook stalker. If you’re on Facebook, game over. Our church database (F1) has the ability to add pics next to names in our directory. I’ve personally spent hours and hours adding over 300 new pictures from Facebook to recently attended guests. Why? Because once you know someone’s name, they’re no longer a stranger. They’re family.
Regular attenders expect you to know them, guests don’t. Here’s the easiest way to help a guest become a regular attender. Learn their name. Call them by name the next time they come to church. Once you know their name, they’ll no longer feel like a stranger. They’ll feel like they belong. Game over.
The truth is I’m not a natural with names. If I meet someone face-to-face and learn their name, nine times out of ten I’ll forget it. So I have to work at it. Constantly. My “Mt Vernon Faces” album on iPhoto currently has 513 pictures in it. I’ve got about 85% of those faces locked in. That’s 436 men, women and children I can call by name when they show up at Mt Vernon. That’s a lot of work, but it’s well worth it. Every name you know is another soul you can impact for eternity. Work hard at names and faces. It will always pay off.
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