Archives For church

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????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.

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?

five red buttonBringing back and older post format. Here are links to five good stories I’ve read this week that I’ll pass onto you:

Read Fiction and Become a More Interesting Preacher – Here’s why I read a ton of fiction along with my non-fiction.

Twenty of the Most Influential Evangelicals in America – I’m assuming I’m #21, but numbers aren’t important.

Update From an Overweight Christian – I love Thom Rainer’s honesty as he shares his struggle to overcome obesity.

6 Things I Wish Someone Would Have Told My Church – Come on preacher preach!

Why Is Good Photography Expensive? – Explains why I pay so much of good photographs of my kids!

Project HopeThe first time I truly encountered hopelessness was in the mid-90s. To be honest, I’d had an idyllic childhood growing up: strong family, good education, great Christian college. The summer after my freshmen year in college I went on a mission trip to Russia. “Culture shock” was an extreme understatement to describe what happened when my worldview was shattered once and for all.

I remember walking through the airport in St. Petersburg, noticing the layer of grime and neglect that seemed to cover everything. But it’s the subway where I truly encountered hopelessness for the first time. Now, I’ve been on many subways in many different parts of the world. They all feel a little similar. Everyone usually keeps to themselves. But this was different. I wasn’t prepared for the hollowed out vacant stares, the absolutely expressionless faces, the catacomb-like quietness. Despair hovered over us like a suffocating blanket.

Being in Russia for a month, I saw a glimpse of the world through their eyes. Their government was corrupt, taking more than it was giving. Their economy was in shambles with no constant accept for volatility. There was little beauty to be found as millions of people lived in drab, utilitarian apartments. The worst aspect was that after decades of communistic rule, atheism was king and religion was dead. These people  had no hope for this life and no hope for the next.

Coming back to the States, I began to see hopelessness all around me, as friends would share their stories of growing up in alcoholic, abusive, or broken homes. As a youth pastor, I saw teenagers trapped in hopeless situations time and time again.

The longer I live and the more I pastor, the more I’m convinced that hope is the most valuable commodity in the world. With hope, you can endure anything. You can suffer through tragedy, you can cope with loss, you can sacrifice for the greater good. But without hope, you’re lost. We can live without many things in life, but I’m convinced that we can’t truly live without hope.

QUESTION: How has hope helped you through a difficult situation?

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 :)



It’s amazing to see the impact you can have at your church this Sunday if you simply open your eyes to needs around you. Leshay came to Mt Vernon several months ago looking for acceptance and a family to belong to. Because normal, everyday church members went out of their way to make her feel welcome, we’re blessed to now have Leshay as a part of our church family.

Watch this video and see who you God puts in your path this Sunday at church.


4.12.14This past Sunday at church I met several new families at Mt Vernon Church, but I was able to make a huge impression on two of them. How? I knew their names. The small thing a pastor can do to make a huge impression is know somebody’s name before he even meets them. How is this possible? Take my situation for example.

On the first family, they walked in the doors just as the early service was about to start. We didn’t have but a moment to speak but the dad said, “I’m Jennifer’s* brother.” I know Jennifer. Her and her family come to our second service. I texted Jennifer during the first service and asked her the names of her brother and his family. She gave me all four. About 60 seconds before the first service ended and they would walk by me in the back, I glanced down at the text, memorized the four names of the family, and called them all by name as they exited. They later told Jennifer that they were extremely impressed that I knew their names. :)

With the second couple I had help from another church member. About five minutes before the second service started, a regular member said, “I met a new Air Force couple today, they’re sitting right up there and their names are Todd* and Shannon*.” Taking that cue, I introduced myself to Todd and Shannon and called them by name the first time I saw them. They were both impressed that I already knew them by name. Just by watching their non-verbal cues, they seemed cared for and validated because the pastor already knew their names. Even though they would have to make the 30 minute drive from the base every week, they said that they really enjoyed our church and would be back.

It takes a little bit extra work, but believe me, learning names on the front end makes a huge impression.

goldencalfI had a frustrating conversation with a fellow pastor the other day. Not frustrating because of him, but because of the politics and dynamics in his church keeping progress from happening. I see it too often in Baptist churches in the South: churches want to grow and reach young families, and they say they’re willing to change, but there are a few golden calves (Exodus 32) they’re unwilling to part with.

So they bring in a new pastor, demand progress, and get angry when the church isn’t growing. Yet all the while they’re unwilling to change the two or three things absolutely necessary to reach new families. Here are six common golden calves that I’ve seen churches struggle with:

1. Sunday School – I know, my soul is in danger of condemnation for even mentioning this golden calf. Sunday School has been the hallmark of Baptist churches for decades. But when Sunday School becomes more about information than transformation, then it’s time for a change. (Here’s a longer post I wrote on Sunday School).

2. Schedule – 2 Opinions 4:16 says there must be Sunday morning church, Sunday night church, and Wednesday night church. But we can’t forget choir practice, training union, committee meetings, visitation, and church socials. When our schedule is a golden calf, then we’re dead in the water. Positive change happens when we take things off the calendar, not add more to it.

3. Legacy Programs – There are programs in our churches that just don’t work, but we’re unwilling to kill them. They have too much of a history and there’s still a small cadre of folks invested in it. Now mind you, that program hasn’t reached a new family in years, but if you feel like you can’t kill it because of who will get mad, then you’ve got yourself a golden calf.

4. Style of music – Yes, worship wars. Your style of music can be an overwhelming golden calf. If your aim in music is more about tradition and keeping certain people happy than worshipping in a style that engages the outside world, then your music is a golden calf. If you didn’t condemn me for Sunday School, then you probably have by now.

5. Facilities – Many church facilities are a living museum of how America looked back in the 1950s. If your church foyer could double as a set piece for Downton Abbey, if you’ve got donated paintings and furniture (or chandeliers and pews) that can’t be moved because of who donated them, then you’ve got a golden calf.

6. Preaching Style – I say this lovingly and with as much respect as I can muster, but much of the preaching today is out of touch and out dated. In our defense, we’re preaching how we were trained. “Preach the Bible!” (as if we would preach anything else). For preachers like me, an outdated style of preaching can be a golden calf. When preaching is merely about information transfer rather than engaging, relevant biblical truth that calls for life change, then our (sometimes outdated) seminary training becomes a golden calf.

My prayer? That more pastors and churches would be willing to stand up with the courage of Moses and live out Exodus 32:20: “And Moses took the calf the people had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder.”

QUESTION: What other golden calfs do churches struggle with?