Archives For What I’m Living

4.17.14I recently talked to a lady whose husband hasn’t been to church in fifteen years. The last time he came was on an Easter Sunday, and that Sunday the preacher decided to ridicule those who only showed up for Christmas and Easter. It reinforced his negative stereotypes of church, and he hasn’t been back since.

This Sunday is going to be a big Sunday. Friends and family are going to come. Folks that only attend once a year are going to attend. Even the guy that’s not supposed to show up at church will show up at church this Sunday. It’s just the thing to do on Easter Sunday.

Your pastor is going to love this Sunday. He’s going to look at the crowds and soar on the inside. All of his dreams and visions are going to dance in his head as he takes the pulpit. Everyone will look nice and be cordial. But here’s the danger of Easter Sunday: that church will reinforce all the negative stereotypes that have driven the unchurched (or dechurched) away. All the guests, all the outsiders, are going to feel just like that: outsiders. Your church has one shot to overcome the reasons why they got burned by church in the first place. If your host team goes out of their way to welcome them (even in the parking lot), if your childcare facilities are professional and clean, if your services are excellent yet engaging, you’ll have a shot at winning over your guests.

But if the members keep to themselves, choosing to compare Easter outfits rather than engaging the newcomers, if the only time people shake their hands is when they’re forced to during the “turn and greet,” if the songs sung don’t resonate with the outsider as well as the insider, and if the pastor’s sermon is chocked full of religious lingo and insider language, then it will simply reinforce to your guests why they haven’t been to church in the past year.

This Sunday, your church has one shot to overcome the negative stereotypes and experiences that have kept your guests away for so long. If not, the week after Easter your church will be back to “normal,” your pastor’s hopes and dreams will be dashed, and you’ll have to wait another year to see so many guests at one time. Make the most of Easter Sunday!

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.

 

Maybe it’s Tuesday and your week has already started to go sideways on you. Maybe you just need to smile. Recently the high school students at Mt Vernon Church hosted a prom for the special needs community. Watch this recap video and be reminded that there still is good in the world.

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????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?

4.8.14In 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?

4.7.14As you drag into Monday, I know you’re tired, but is it a good kind of tired? Was your weekend energy spent on partying, video games, too much tv and too much alcohol? That’s not a good kind of tired. That’s a weekend of wasted opportunities mixed in with a dash of regret. Here’s a good kind of tired: spending your weekend doing something beneficial for someone else.

This past weekend we wore our church out, but it was a good kind of tired. We hosted our third annual Joy Prom, where our high school students throw a prom for the special needs community in our area. People drove in from three states to be here this year. It was an all week event getting ready, and many were up late Saturday night putting everything back together after the last dance ended.

There were countless hours and dollars devoted to this one event, to give a night of joy to an often overlooked group in our community. But here’s what’s amazing: our people loved it. They served with a smile on their face. They sacrificed their time and energy willingly. Sure, we were dragging a little Sunday morning. But we were a good kind of tired.

Growing up, a good weekend consisted of hanging out with my friends and finding ways to entertain myself. Looking back on this last weekend, I didn’t get to do much for me. We brought our baby girl home from the hospital on Saturday morning, I took my older two to an airshow in town, came back and got dressed for Joy Prom, and stayed up late Saturday helping clean the church.

Today I’ll be honest. I’m tired. But it’s a good kind of tired. It’s a weekend I’d do again in a heartbeat. Are you a good kind of tired today?

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?

 

3.25.14We 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 :)