Here is the fourth installment of our sermon series The Jesus You Never Knew:
On Monday I wrote a (surprisingly viral) blog post about 10 Things the Church Puts Ahead of Reaching People. I had no idea the chord I would strike with this post as it’s been shared over 6,000 times on Facebook and viewed over 37,000 times in the first four days. That post was a written version of what I shared verbally with my church in my most recent sermon. Here’s the video version of Monday’s viral post (I had edited it down to 7 Things for time constraints).
Today I want to tell you the story of the church I have the privilege of serving at: Mt Vernon. It’s a long and arduous story of a church that dared to dream differently and the painful steps it had to take to get to its very happy ending. It’s a story of a church that broke through the 10 Things to reach people.
A decade ago Mt Vernon under the leadership of the former pastor created a task force called the Catalyst Team to ask the age old question: how do we reach more young families? The vast majority of churches ask this question, because the vast majority of churches do not have an abundance of young families in it. The answers they came up with were similar to most churches’ solutions: new facilities, modernized programming, family-friendly environments, contemporary music to attract and keep young families. What makes Mt Vernon unique is that it had the audacity and courage to actually follow through, to change.
Now, it would be misleading to gloss over these changes as quick or harmless. They were neither. The changes Mt Vernon instituted to better reach young families took years to implement and changed the very DNA of the church. And not everybody liked it. Many members left (although now on the other side Mt Vernon is bigger than its ever been, and yes, overflowing with young families).
Mt Vernon changed just about everything you could think of (besides moving physical locations). We replaced the pews with removable chairs. We ditched the chandeliers. We replaced the choir with a praise band. We removed the pulpit and started preaching from a round table. Those are just a few of the aesthetic changes. Mt Vernon transitioned from Sunday School to LifeGroups (which met at various times throughout the week) to free up more people to serve on Sunday mornings. We cancelled Sunday night services to allow LifeGroups to flourish. We started a Host Team (which now consists of over 50 people weekly) who are out in the parking lots, doors and coffee stations each Sunday morning to create a welcoming environment (none of whom could serve if they were stuck in Sunday School). And we built a new building in the center of our campus, a Welcome Center/Preschool Area for our young families.
The cost to reach people was steep. Not everyone liked the changes. Not everyone stuck around for the ride. I came along seven or eight years into this process as the new pastor. The leadership had seen the vision come to fruition and wanted to continue down the same path. For the past three and a half years, I’ve helped steward the vision of Mt Vernon to reach people, especially the next generation for Christ.
As other pastors have commented on Mt Vernon’s growth and success, here’s my candid advice to them: getting to this place will cost more than most churches are willing to pay. Go back to that post 10 Things. Any one of them could have thrown a wrench in Mt Vernon’s revitalization. But for those churches willing to pay the price and embrace change, the other side is beyond worth it. Our church is overflowing with young families. Lives are being changed on a weekly basis. We’re in the midst of a movement of God. It took years to get here, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.
I honestly didn’t know Monday’s post would strike such a chord with people (1000 Facebook shares and 6000 page views in two days). It was a written form of something I preached last Sunday. Apparently it resonated. According to my wife, it gave voice to something people have been feeling for years.
So now that I’ve opened up this pandora’s box of emotion, let me see if I can help chart a way forward. Here was the Next Step for Sunday’s sermon, the way we could put the truths we learned into action. Hopefully it can help you as well. It’s a simple (but not easy) way to reach people for your church: pursue people more than your preferences. Preferences are just that: preferences. Style of music, architecture, programs: all preferences. People, on the other hand, are eternal. Now, number 9 on the list (status quo) will hinder many churches from doing what’s necessary to change and reach people, but let me give you a glimpse of what it looks like when we pursue people more than preferences:
- I shared yesterday about a young lady who came to Mt Vernon a few weeks ago. She grew up in the church, loved the church, and the church loved her, until she got a divorce. To her church, that was the unforgivable sin. She still wanted to be a part of her church, but they made her feel so unwelcome and judged that she left. And in her words, she stayed away from church for ‘far too long’ because she was so hurt, and only recently has she worked up the courage to venture back out into the church world. The reason she came to Mt Vernon? Someone pursued her. A friend, who knew her past, knew her present, and invited her anyways.
- A wife who had stayed out of church for more than a decade following the death of her husband. In her words, she searched and searched but could never find a church home. She’s found a home now at Mt Vernon. How? Someone pursued her, her sister-in-law.
- A young lady I met last week grew up as an Air Force brat. She moved around a lot and her family eventually settled out West. They couldn’t find a church they felt at home in so they just stopped going. Eventually she stopped believing in Jesus altogether because it seemed too unrealistic. Years go by, this young lady joins the Air Force like her father before her. She’s stationed here in Columbus, and someone pursued her. A friend from work who’d been going here for awhile invited her to come with her. This young lady came last Sunday, and when I met her she said this was the second time she had been in church in 11 years. All because someone pursued her and invited her.
That’s one part of the equation. We’ve got to be willing to pursue people more than our preferences. But as important as it is for church members to do that, churches as a whole have to do that as well. Too many of you have invited someone to church only for them to have a bad experience. So how can churches pursue people more than their preferences? If there was an easy or simple solution to that, I would sell it as a book and retire as a millionaire. There is no easy solution. But there is a solution. The best I can do is try and show you what it looks like.
In tomorrow’s blog I’ll share the steps we’ve taken at our church to try and create a culture of people that pursues people more than our preferences.
There’s an ugly secret about the church: the church has hurt a lot of people. If you’ve been in the church long enough, you probably have a scar or two to show for it. As a pastor’s kid, I was mostly immune to it, but I felt it for my friends. I remember in high school when a buddy of mine came into the church building with a hat on. A deacon came up and hit him upside the head, ripping his hat off and demeaning him for having the audacity (as an unchurched kid) to wear a hat.
I remember as a youth pastor seeing an older couple yell at two visiting youth because they were sitting in their pew. I remember being on stage, unable to do anything because the service had already started, watching the shame and embarrassment come over these visitors who had no idea they had taken somebody’s seat and had to get up and move somewhere else.
I remember a minister friend who was fired by his church because black kids wanted to come to his white church and he welcomed them with open arms. The leadership ran off those kids and my friend with them.
I remember two weeks ago talking to a young lady who grew up in church, loved the church, and the church loved her . . . until she got a divorce. That was the unforgivable sin, and although she tried to stay involved with her church for community and support, they let it be known that she was no longer welcome. So she left, staying away from church for far too long (her words) until she regained the courage to venture back out into church world.
Church scars. If you’ve been in church long enough, you probably have some. It shouldn’t be like this, but it is. I asked a question recently on Facebook that asked people to share their church scars. Here were some of their responses:
- [My husband] and I both were very involved in youth groups and both got a bad taste in our mouth so to speak for church due to things that happened with our youth pastors.
- As a very young Christian I think it was feeling like I couldn’t measure up. The church was very condemning and I was a babe in Christ so didn’t understand the grace of my Savior.
- After we moved back to Columbus, we joined a church and attended for 8 years. I never felt “at home” the whole time we attended. Then a situation arose that caused quite a few members to leave, including us.
- I grew up in church and was there for every event and activity as a child and through youth. But, after some stuff went down, my feelings were hurt and I resented the church.
We can defend, explain and try to resolve, but let’s start by admitting that the church has hurt a lot of people.
QUESTION: What are your church scars? (Comment below and share yours)
You would think the Great Commission is clear enough: Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations. Unfortunately, too many churches put other things ahead of reaching people. Here are 10 of the biggest:
- Location – Some people are tied to an address. Church is an address, a location. I’ve seen churches die because their people moved away and they weren’t willing to reach the new folks in their neighborhood.
- Buildings/Architecture – For some, the bricks and mortar are what make the church sacred, not the people. At my first church when our youth group exploded in growth we had to move into the sanctuary because it was the only room big enough for us. We had some ladies that were so concerned that every Thursday morning they would come into the sanctuary after our Wednesday nights and look up and down the pews for knicks or scratches. They were more concerned with the architecture then the people that architecture was designed to meet.
- Tradition – You knew this one would get in here. Tradition has killed many a church. When churches pursue the past more than they pursue people, that church will die. Many times preachers will preach on the last seven words of Jesus, the seven phrases Jesus said while on the cross. I’ll never forget what a Bible college professor told me once. He said, “Do you know what the last seven words of a church are? We’ve never done it that way before.”
- Music preferences – This one splits up more churches than perhaps anything else. We’re fine reaching the next generation for Jesus, as long as they like our music our way. That’s putting music preferences above people. And I’m not saying the contemporary music is the final answer. It’s not a particular style of music but the heart behind that’s willing to give up musical preferences to reach the next generation for Jesus. I’ve said this before, but when I’m older and I’ve got great-grandkids running around, I’m not sure what kind of church music they’ll like, but I guarantee you I probably won’t like it. The question is will I be willing to put reaching others ahead of my musical preferences?
- Programs – The early church reached their world for Christ and became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire without Sunday School, without VBS, without youth groups or children’s choirs. Church programs are designed to reach people, but we can never let them become more important than people.
- Control - Some churches are stifled because there’s a few families in control, and they simply don’t want to give up control. They put control ahead of reaching people.
- Social Status – The Bible says that in Christ there are no slaves or free or Greeks or Barbarians but we are all one in Christ. However, too many churches aren’t willing to reach people outside of their racial, economic, or social status.
- Cleanliness – Some churches aren’t willing to do the heavy lifting required, they’re not willing to roll up their sleeves and embrace the messes of the world. If we’re not willing to get a little dirty, we’ll never reach the world.
- Status Quo – Some churches simply don’t want to change. They’re good. The light bill is paid, the buildings are paid off, there’s enough of a crowd to give the illusion that something is happening. Some churches aren’t willing to embrace the change necessary to reach people.
- Religion – Put it all together, some churches put religion above people. They put their rituals, their observances, their routines, their beliefs, their ministry structures ahead of people. They feel like they’re loving God, but they don’t realize that you can’t truly love God if you don’t love people.
QUESTION: What other things would you add to this list?
As part of our series The Jesus You Never Knew, we took a Sunday to highlight and pray for the persecuted church. Here is the entirety of the service:
Want a story of hope to remind you that God is still moving today? Watch Melissa’s story as a great reminder of the power of God to change a life.
It’s a conspiracy theory a thousand years in the making. When you think of a ‘church,’ you probably think of an address, a building, a worship service. But that was never Jesus’ intention. If you’re familiar with the Bible, then you know the climactic story when Jesus launched the ‘church.’ He was with his disciples and asked them who they thought he was. Here was Peter’s incredible response:
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. Matthew 16:16-18
There it is. Black and white (or red letters if you’ve got that kind of Bible). Jesus inaugurated the ‘church.’ The only problem is, the word ‘church’ shouldn’t be in the Bible. The original Greek word is ekklesia, which literally means “assembly” or “gathering.” It was an abrupt departure from the Old Testament model where religion was centered on a place (the temple). Jesus said that his assembly, his gathering, would be centered not on a place of worship, but on a person.
So why don’t our English Bibles have the word “assembly” or “gathering”? Where does the word “church” come from? “Church” derives not from a biblical Greek word, but from the medieval German word “kirche,” which literally means “house of the Lord.” What’s the significance? Jesus came to abolish the old temple model where religion was centered around a place. But by the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church had reintroduced the temple model with religion centering around holy places and towering cathedrals. ‘Church’ was literally a place you went to.
When William Tyndale (who was the first to translate the Bible into the English language in 1526) came to this Greek word ekklesia, he had the audacity to translate it “congregation,” honoring the truth that Jesus came to institute something centered not around a location, but around a group of people called to a specific purpose. For this audacity, William Tyndale was burned at the stake but the ‘Church’.
Unfortunately, the concept of ‘church’ had already been ingrained in popular culture and further translations (most notably the King James Version created by a king who controlled the houses of worship in England) reverted to the word ‘church’. And hence came the popular idea that the church is a location, a place you go to. But simply put, that was never the intent. Jesus did not come to institute a religion centered around a location. He came to institute a movement, an assembly, a gathering of people centered around Him. Buildings, cathedrals, steeples, sanctuaries, church buildings, are all inconsequential.
The church has never been the building. It’s always been the people. Don’t fall for the conspiracy.
Churches are always competing with society. We’re in a battle for the hearts and minds of the families around us. In many things, society will always have an edge:
- The church can sing. But can it ever fully compete with American Idol and the Billboard Top 40? As good as the quality of church singing is, society will always be better.
- The church can preach. Preachers like me fill a pulpit every week. As hard as we train, it’s hard to compete with the incredible storytellers of Hollywood that fill the airwaves every week.
- The church can do children’s ministry. As fun and as exciting as we try and make children’s ministry, it can be a tough sell compared to a Wiggles concert or something as experiential as Chuck E. Cheese.
- The church can worship corporately. We beg and cajole people to show up an hour a week, free of charge, to experience something together. We know we’re losing when people miss our free services to pay hundreds of dollars to enjoy the corporate experience of a NASCAR race, college football game, or music concert.
I’m not saying the church shouldn’t do these things. All these things are good. I’m saying that in all these areas the church has stiff competition from society. But there’s one area where the church can do infinitely better than society: community. Sure, society will try to replicate online community through social media or telecommuting. But as hard as it tries, society will never be able to fully satisfy our innate need for belonging, for human interaction, for community.
That’s the modern church’s secret weapon, the one thing we offer that society can never fully replicate: community. A loving, welcoming family where you have a deep sense of belonging. That’s why small groups are so vital to a church’s long-term health. If people are connected to community in a church, the church has given them something that society can never fully reproduce. As a church, learn how to lean into building authentic and lasting community. That’s your ace in the hole.