The Greatest Compliment Someone Gave Our Church

“What a big church!”

“What great preaching!”

“What amazing worship!”

“What great buildings!”

8.28.14Those are all nice things a church can hear. But the other day I heard one of the best compliments our church could get. It came from an unchurched, unbelieving, alcoholic lesbian. I met her recently through the Recovery House, a local in-house rehabilitation facility (drug and alcohol addictions) that allows me to come and talk with the ladies there once a month. Every Sunday they make the journey to Mt Vernon church. 9:00 am, second row, every week.

As I was getting to know one of the new ladies there, she told me her story: she was born up north but raised in Mississippi. Her parents didn’t go to church and she went very sporadically growing up. Never considered herself a “believer.” She wrote church off for good eight years ago when she came out as a lesbian. Years go by and she decided to enter rehab to conquer an alcohol addiction that had grown out of control. Upon arriving to Recovery House she learned that the girls go to church every week. She freaked out a little and asked if she could get out of it. Everyone has to go to church, but she could sit in the van if she’d like.

Grudgingly, she made her way onto our campus for the first time two weeks ago. Naturally apprehensive, she told me how surprised she was that she actually liked it. It wasn’t like the other churches she visited growing up. The next Saturday night, talking to her parents on the phone, she caused their heads to turn on a swivel when she told them, “I’m actually looking forward to church tomorrow.”

Isn’t that great! She still has a long way to go. She’s not a believer (yet). She is in the beginning stages of conquering a difficult addiction. She has a lifestyle that doesn’t line up with traditional evangelical beliefs. And yet she feels comfortable enough at Mt Vernon to start exploring a relationship with God. I’ll take that kind of compliment (and those kinds of people) any day!

The Best Self-Inflicted Pain I Subject Myself to Every Monday

Every Monday at 10 am, the pain comes. As crazy as it sounds, it’s good pain. It’s the pain I asked for. It’s time for the weekly worship service evaluation. Each week Mt Vernon’s creative leadership team sits down and rips apart the previous Sunday’s worship services. We nitpick stuff that most people don’t even notice: Was the service intentional? Were the transitions smooth? Did we achieve excellence? Was hope made tangible? 8.26.14

The first part is easy: we talk about the music. Song selection, notes missed, transitions. What did we get right? What could we have done better? It’s easy for me to pick apart someone else’s job performance. It’s all done in an effort to get better at what we do. The music’s the easy part. Then they get to the sermon. I’ll be honest: it hurts. I work hard each week to craft a sermon that engages and effectively communicates truth from God’s word. I labor over illustrations, applications, and an occasional one-liner just to keep things interesting. I always get the expected “amens” and “well done preacher’s” from the crowd on the way out. So why do I subject myself to the service review? Because I want to get better. As tempting as it is to hide behind the cloak of spirituality and assume that since I’m preaching for God every sermon is going to be a home run, I know better. I went too long in one area, I failed to adequately explain the main point I was trying to get across. Laying my work bare before others is never enjoyable, but I do it because I want to get better. I walked away from yesterday’s meeting with my sermon relatively intact, but more importantly, with an incredible piece of advice that will help me get better. Even if no one notices the results, I’m glad I subject myself to this every Monday.

The Phone Call I Hope I Never Have to Make About Your Marriage

Recently I had to make a phone call that broke my heart. It’s a phone call that I hope I never have to make again. A few years ago a couple came to me for marriage counseling. They had been struggling with issues for years but hadn’t talked to anyone about them. We met several times and made a little bit of progress but no breakthroughs. They couldn’t meet in the middle. Counseling kind of petered out and they eventually moved to a different state.

telephoneAs life goes we lost track of each other until I received a letter from a lady I’ve never met. She told me she was the guardian ad litem for this couple. They’re getting a divorce. It’s getting messy. Accusations are flying back and forth. And worst of all, there are kids involved. The relationship had deteriorated to such a point that the government had to step in to help decide where the kids went.

That’s where my phone call came in. The guardian ad litem received permission from both parties to talk to me and get my take on the situation. It was a depressing phone call to say the least. I believed and still believe that it was a marriage that could have been saved. The greatest casualties are the children, pawns with no say in the matter.

I hope I never have to make a phone call like that again. If your marriage needs help, get help. Don’t stick your kids in the middle. Don’t make the government decide where they go. Talk to someone this week.

How to Spot the First-Time Guest at Your Church

Years ago I worked at a church that wanted to work on its outreach, so we brought in an outside consultant. We weren’t having a lot of first-time guests register each week, so we weren’t sure if any were actually coming. Our consultant came in for a “secret shopper” visit one Sunday (where someone comes to your church undercover to evaluate your services) and told us afterwards he had met six first-time guests. I was floored. I’d worked at the church for years and had never met anywhere close to six first-time guests on any Sunday.

8.11.14Knowing when a first-time guest is critically important for your church. You want to make sure you give an overwhelmingly good first impression. You want your pastor to go out of his way to meet them, to give them a few minutes of his time. A great first-impression can go a long way to ensuring that your first-time guests become regular attenders. But how can you tell who the first-time guests are? They don’t advertise it. They don’t wear a sign. They don’t tell anyone.

And then our consultant told us the secret. And it’s a secret that works. I’ve practiced it for years now, and if I’m intentional about it, it really helps me spot the first-time guest. He simply said, “It’s in the eyes.” If you make eye contact with those walking in your building, you’ll spot the first-time guests. They’re hesitant. They’re not sure. They have a bit of the ‘deer in the headlights’ look. They’ve never been to your church before and they don’t know where to go, but they usually don’t want to ask anyone for help. So they hesitate for a moment. That’s the giveaway.

With some practice, you can spot them. I used it to meet some first-time guests to our church yesterday. (I didn’t go out of my way to let them know I that I knew this was their first time, I just made sure to go out of my way to be friendly and cordial to them). How can you spot the first-time guest to your church? It’s in the eyes. Try it this week and see if you can spot them.

Being Surprised You’ve Been Attending a Baptist Church the Past Few Months

The church I pastor is technically Mt Vernon Baptist Church, but on all of our letterhead, signs and communications we’re just Mt Vernon Church. We drop the Baptist for a reason. We’re not ashamed of our heritage nor are we planning on leaving the Southern Baptist Convention. The main reason we do it is because of the people we’re trying to reach. Our target audience is the dechurched, those who have had some type of religious experience growing up but haven’t been back to church in years.

8.5.14There are millions of dechurched in the Deep South. Seemingly everyone was dragged to church by at least a grandmother, if for nothing more than VBS. But too many had bad experiences at church. We’ve found that the dechurched haven’t given up on God, they’ve just given up on the church. And if they saw Baptist on our sign, many would immediately associate our church with their negative experience growing up. We want people to judge our church based on what they experience inside our four walls, not on their preconceived notions of a Baptist church. So, we take the name Baptist off of everything.

One of the side benefits of this is that it leads to some pretty entertaining conversations. Whenever I teach at “Discover Mt Vernon,” our membership class, I always surprise someone when they find out they’ve been attending a Baptist church for the past few months. Sometimes I even have to settle fights.

Yesterday I was talking with two women who have attended our church for the past month or so. I was called in to settle a dispute: were we a Baptist church? One was convinced we were, one was convinced we were non-denominational. They were passionate about it. Figuring I would know as the pastor, they asked me. I broke one of the lady’s hearts when I told her we were a Baptist church. She grew up in a traditional Baptist church and walked away from it a long time ago. She thought she was living on the edge, rebelling a little by attending a non-denominational church. Nope, just a Baptist church that doesn’t act very Baptist!

What to Do When You Blow It on Stage

The mood was set perfectly as I stood up to preach Sunday. We’d just been led in worship and our hearts were ready. Bob (our worship pastor) had prayed a beautiful prayer and the bumper video set a solemn, reflective mood as we were about to dig into the book of Ephesians. And then I forgot to take my microphone off mute, leading to those few awkward seconds when no one can hear you.

Realizing that I just broke the mood with my mess up, I had three options:

1. Blame it on the tech guys. Never a good option.

2. Try to pretend it never happened. Only it did happen, and everyone knows it. Pretending like it didn’t makes things weird.

3. Own it. Get them to laugh, even at your expense, reset, and get right back up on that horse.

Here’s my mess up, in all it’s glory:

This is Why I Give Online

7.16.14I give online to my church twice a month, and I wish I could say giving online was for a more spiritual reason. Growing up in the church, I’ve always known what the Bible taught about giving a tithe (10% of your income, off the top, to the church), and there’s never been a time where I’ve really disagreed with it. It’s not my money, it’s God’s. I get that. God’s trying to break the power of greed in my life. I get that. The money I’m given is to be used to invest in the Kingdom both here and for eternity. I get that. I’m all about storing up for myself treasures in heaven.

And yet it took years for me to give faithfully, even after I became a full-time minister! Why? The power and lure of money was just too strong. There was always one more thing I wanted to buy. I obligated myself to a lifestyle beyond my means. Since giving online is a relatively new idea, for years I did it the old-fashioned way: drop a check in the offering plate when it came by. But that didn’t work for me. I never carry a checkbook with me. I’d wait till the end of the month to get all my other purchases out of the way, and would always find that I ran out of money before I ran out of month. Pretty soon I’d be six months behind on my tithe, and if I wrote a check to catch up it would bounce. All the while, I felt guilty because I knew better and wanted to be better.

And then online giving came along, and it’s been a salvation to me. This is why I give online: accountability. I need it for me. I get paid twice a month, on the 1st and 15th. I’ve got an automatic debit set up to give to my church twice a month, on the 2nd and 16th. The first thing that gets paid is my tithe. If I miss a week of church, it still comes out. It may not sound super spiritual, but I need that accountability to hold my feet to the fire and honor God the way I know I should.

And guess what? I’ve been faithfully tithing for years now, and I still have a nice house, still have cars and computers and toys, and our family still gets to go on vacation every year. I honor God with my tithe, and He’s been more than faithful to me. And online giving is how I’ve been able to do it.

Why Attending Church Can Be Hazardous To Your Health

7.15.14Maybe you did it Sunday. Woke up, got the kids looking decent, scrambled out the door a little late, snuck into the church service a few songs into it, but at least you didn’t miss the main part (the sermon). Maybe you stay for the last song, maybe you sneak out early to beat the traffic (or just to avoid another awkward conversation with “Sister Betty”). In and out. Smooth. Clean. Hazardous to your health.

I would make the argument that attending church can be hazardous to your spiritual health. You attend shows. You attend ball games. You’re not supposed to attend church. When you attend something, you sit and watch as a spectator. If you like it, you offer some applause, perhaps you pay to get in or make a donation, but that’s as far as your involvement and commitment go.

The picture we see of the early church is just the opposite. They didn’t just attend church services, they did life together. They broke bread in each others homes. They got involved in each other’s lives. They gave to those in need. They sacrificed for each other. They practiced biblical community. They were the church for each other.

There is a difference:

  • Attending church is about you. Being the church is about us.
  • Attending church is about getting. Being the church is about giving back.
  • Attending church is about meeting your needs. Being the church is about also meeting the needs of others.
  • Attending church is about being entertained. Being the church realizes that you’re not the audience, God is.
  • Attending church stays skin deep. Being the church goes deep into the lives of those around you.
  • Attending church will eventually dry up your soul. Being the church will enrich your soul and those around you.
  • Attending church is easy. Being the church takes work.
  • Attending church is optional. Being the church is not.

Don’t settle for attending church this Sunday. Be the church.

I’m Doing Something I’ve Never Done Before Today

7.10.14Much of ministry (like any profession) is filled with repetition. I preach every week, only the subject changes. I minister to people every week, just the faces change. But today I’m doing something I’ve never done before in ministry, and I’m a boiling mixture of nervousness and anticipation, excitement and fear.

Today I’m spending all day with six of my staff in one meeting with one goal: to rip apart my sermons for the upcoming year and make them better. It’s a sermon series planning meeting with the goal of taking the “B/B+” ideas I’ve already prepared for the next school year and hopefully turning them into “A” sermons, creating 52 contagious experiences that overwhelm our people with the gospel of hope. It’s something I’ve dreamed about doing for years but finally get the opportunity to do today.

To be honest, this is also the most uncomfortable thing in I’ve done in awhile. But ask me in a year (more importantly, ask my church members) if this worked. Here are some of the factors that got me to today:

Openness - Most pastors create their sermons in a vacuum. It’s just them and the Word. As spiritual as that sounds, it also is very insulating for the pastor, closing him off from any potential negative criticism. That’s why many pastors choose to prepare on their own. It takes a certain dose of openness to admit that you need help and creative input to craft the best sermons possible.

Thick Skin – Pastors in a way are artists, creating word pictures that hopefully lead to life transformation. But to make anything better, you have to be open to criticism. Some pastors have thin skin and are closed off to constructive criticism, choosing the drape themselves in the Bible and labeling any attacks on their sermon as an attack on the Word.

Preparation – Thinking a year ahead has been daunting. I’ve had to create enough margin from the immediate to allow myself breathing room to project ahead. I’ve created nine sermon series ideas that will potentially take us through the end of next school year. Developing nine different series and a year’s worth of sermon ideas has been exhausting, but I’m hopeful that the results will be worth it.

Discipline – There’s no way I could sit at a desk in one sitting and spew out a year’s worth of sermons. My trusted friend in this endeavor has been Evernote, an app that collects and organizes my ideas and syncs with all my devices. A few of the sermon series are ones I thought of the day of. Several of the best ideas are ones I had months or even a year ago. When inspiration hit, I wrote everything down in Evernote before I forgot, and I’m able to pull up my ideas when I need them most. It took discipline to faithfully write down my ideas when I had them, knowing that I might not preach those sermons for a year or longer. But today that discipline is paying off.

Team – I didn’t just pick six staff and random and ask them to tear apart my sermons. This same team is one I’ve met with every week for months, planning and dissecting all of our Sunday experiences. They have familiarity with my sermons on a weekly basis, giving them the foundation needed to project out with me for the coming year.

Self-worth – We’re not going to get too far into the day before someone (very nicely) begins to tear my sermon idea to shreds and suggests another one. What I thought would be the perfect sermon might get left on the cutting room floor. I’ve got to continually remember that they’re not attacking me, they’re attacking an idea. I am loved whether they like my ideas or not.

If you get a moment, please say a prayer for us today!

Celebrate Something Small Today

6.30.14I’ve just filled out the paperwork to start community college!”, she told me ecstatically. On the surface, those don’t look like words to throw a party over. I mean, it’s not like she got into Harvard or Yale. And she’s also 25, starting to get on the older side for college. If anything, she should be chastised for waiting so long.

But here’s why I celebrated with her, and here’s why you should to: she was a statistic, another example of someone who could not and would never be a productive member of society. She was an addict. When I met her, she had been in rehab seven times by the time she was 25. (Even addicts will tell you, seven times is a lot!) She couldn’t stay out of trouble. She couldn’t stay off of drugs. Others had given up on her a long time ago.

But this last rehab was different. She met Jesus and found a power she never had before. She got connected to a loving church where she grew in her faith. Some of our ladies came alongside her as surrogate moms and gave her the affirmation and guidance she’d been searching for. She went through the program successfully. It’s been a year and she’s still clean. She’s got a job, she’s got an apartment, and when she saw me she wanted to tell me she just filled out the paperwork to start community college. She had joy radiating from her face, and I did from mine as well.

She’s no longer a statistic. She’s a person with hope. Hope to reenter society as a normally functioning member. Hope to finally put this painful chapter of her life behind her. Hope to be a whole person again.

Community college may seem small, but to her it’s the world. What’s something small you can celebrate today? Another day still married? Another day of health? Another day to spend with your kids? Another day with food on the table? Take something small and celebrate it today. You’ll be glad you did.

QUESTION: What’s something small you can celebrate today?