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?

Why Pastors Like to Stay Indoors

6.25.14Yesterday was ministry in a nutshell, a microcosm of what many pastors face week in and week out. The first half of the day was idyllic. I cocooned myself inside my office, spread out my Bible, commentaries, online tools and a pen and paper, and went to town. I brainstormed, researched, read, prayed, and planned. I created sermon series ideas for the next school year, dug into some of my favorite biblical texts, and imagined how successful all these upcoming sermons were sure to be. It was a carefree, clean, tidy, optimistic morning.

But then I did something I knew better than to do: I stepped out of my office. Inside my office, there are no problems. Outside my office, outside the church walls, there’s the mess. I ran into two recovering addicts who’ve come on and off to my church. They’ve been more ‘off’ than ‘on’ when it comes to church attendance. They’re clean and sober, but they’ve still got an uphill climb in life from years of mistakes. Victory in their life will never be quick or easy.

Then I found out about two marriages on the verge of divorce. One divorce will be final in the next few months. One is on its last legs. Both are couples recently in our church. One actually sat in my office for counseling (that’s the one that’s already calling it quits). Kids are involved in both marriage. No one is winning there.

Now you know why some pastors like to stay indoors. It’s safe. It’s comfortable. It’s clean and tidy. We can sit at our desks and wax eloquent about deep biblical truths that only other seminary students care about. But that’s not where we’re needed. Pastors are needed outdoors, offering hope to addicts and hopeless marriages.

Every time I get out of my comfort zone, every time I step outside, I’m reminded why I’m a pastor.

The Difference Between Homosexual Orientation and Homosexual Behavior

6.24.14Today’s guest post comes from a friend of mine, Todd Rayburn. Todd is a 2000 graduate of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary with a Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Counseling. He’s worked in psych hospitals, clinics, school systems and in private practice. He currently has a private practice in Picayune, MS.

My journey on the issue of homosexuality dates back to my high school and early college years (late ‘80’s). I found myself around an unusually high number of gays and lesbians as many family and friends began to confide in me about their problems. I noticed that as I entered into my early adulthood that gays and lesbians would seek me out and I could not understand why because I am without a doubt heterosexual.  I noticed that my “gaydar” (as the homosexual community calls it) was at least as good as any gay person I knew and I could spot a gay person a mile away. All this left me quite confused because I was, am and will always be heterosexual. So I began to pray and ask God why all this was happening. Why were all these people coming to me? Why did I have the ability to just pass some normal looking guy on the street and instantly know he was gay? God began to reveal to me that he was preparing me for the ministry of counseling and that this would be a major issue affecting families. This began my search and my eventual theological understanding of homosexuality.

I often noticed in debates about the subject that the term “homosexuality” was thrown around very loosely and inevitably one side would argue that it was sin and the other would argue the opposite. I finally realized that the term was being use synonymously for both homosexual behavior/lifestyle and homosexual orientation. I noticed that this left audiences confused – thinking the two parties were talking about the same thing when they were in fact talking about two entirely different concepts. Once I realized this, I began to talk to gays and listen to how they described themselves. I also listened to their stories of how they evolved and realized they were different. I listened to how they felt about themselves. It was eye opening to say the least. I began looking at studies on the subject and I combed through all the relevant scriptures. By the time I entered the counseling program at New Orleans Seminary in 1998, I had a pretty good handle on the theology of homosexuality. I discovered that many of my professors had a similar understanding of scripture but no one was talking about it openly. Here we are some 16 years later and now the world is dragging us kicking and screaming into the argument and we are still not educating our people on this subject. We are still more focused on the political than the spiritual. We are still allowing theological ignorance to rule over truth. So what is the truth and what do we know?

Studies tell us that many self identified heterosexuals in the prison system have engaged in homosexual behavior just for human contact and due to a lack of opposite sex partners (Eigenberg, 1992; Sagarin, 1976). These studies also showed that once these people were released, they returned to heterosexual behaviors exclusively. They had been involved in the homosexual lifestyle without having a homosexual orientation. Likewise, many closeted gays and lesbians get married to opposite sex partners and have families before coming out. They have a homosexual orientation but they spend years without engaging in the lifestyle. What is the difference?

Gays and lesbians will tell you that having a homosexual orientation means that when they think about sex or have sexual urges, these urges are directed toward the same sex. They always say that they didn’t ask for these urges. They don’t want them. They want to ignore them and make them go away but just can’t ‘will’ it to happen. The urges are invasive and overwhelming. Does that sound familiar? It should because we all have that same experience. Only for us heterosexuals, it’s for someone of the opposite sex. Their orientation is not now, nor will it ever be a matter of choice. Of all the gays and lesbians I know (and I know a lot), I have never met anyone who chose to have a homosexual orientation.

Homosexual orientation is not sin nor are gay people in sin by having a homosexual orientation. Scripture is clear on the matter that homosexual acts are sin. It is the lifestyle that is the sin. Every scripture you can find on the subject that condemns homosexuality is condemning the acts. So what does scripture say about the orientation?

James 1:14 clearly outlines the progression of sin. Sinful or evil desires (Strongs -1939, epiqumia) “drag us out” to temptation. Temptation leads to sin and sin to death. We all understand that sinful and evil desires are not sin but distortions of the good, God given desires we have. For example, the desire to eat and maintain our body become a desire to glutten ourselves. The desire to talk to one another and build community becomes backbiting and quarrels.  I could go on but you get the point. While these desires are called sinful they are in fact not sin but precursors to temptation. They are the reasons we are all tempted in our own unique ways and struggle with the same sin our entire life. God given desires can get distorted by our own sin, sin imposed on us by others or even just the general fall of man. Often times, we don’t know why we have a distorted desire problem. We just do. While I have a number of theories about homosexual orientation, no one but God really knows why it exists and what factors cause it to develop.

Romans 1:24, 26-28 give us our only real look at homosexual orientation. To summarize, God had put his hedge of protection around a people to protect them from themselves. That’s no big surprise because that is a habit of His. He develops a relationship with them (they “knew” God) but it was not a salvation knowledge of God. God offered Himself to these people and they reject Him in favor of other “gods.” The Bible then says He “gave them over” (Strongs – 3860, paradidwmi) to the sinful desires of their heart. He did not force it upon them. He gave them over to the same sinful desires described in James 1. It did not say He put those desires in their hearts because after all, James 1:13 tells us that God does not tempt. He simply took his hedge of protection from them because they made it clear they did not want Him. He gave them over to the desires that were already in their hearts. How did they get there? Again, I don’t know and quite frankly, it doesn’t really mater. What matters is what will each of us do with the gospel and if saved, will we choose to honor God regardless of how we feel and what sinful desires well up within us? Romans 1 was about homosexual orientation but it could have just as easily been about any other sin (false witness, murder, covetousness, adultery).  The bottom line is that homosexual orientation is a desire issue that leads to temptation. It is not sin. At the point of temptation, we have a choice to reject the urge or embrace it and sin. We do not have the choice of what desire problems we face. If a heterosexual man sees an attractive woman and is unwillingly confronted with a sexual thought, is that sin or temptation? It is temptation. If he rejects the thought, he does not sin. If he embraces the thought in his heart and acts on the temptation either physically or mentally, he sins.  So it is with homosexually oriented people.

So then how should we act and what should we do? Love people and be honest. Part of winning people to Christ is to give them the whole truth. Just as Paul prayed for his “thorn in the flesh” to be taken from him and it never was, so we have our own thorns in the flesh that never leave us. Most (99.9999%) homosexuals will never see their orientation change regardless of their salvation. For them to be saved means a life of constant sexual urge management and for most, celibacy. There are those that can have heterosexual urges as they seek God and grow closer to Him. But in times of stress and times of spiritual valley, the homosexual urges come back with a vengeance. They also need to know what scripture says about their orientation and behavior. The homosexual community respects this honesty. In this way, we CAN stand for what is right and moral in scripture while still fulfilling the Great Commission in the gay community. They may or may not embrace Christ but at least it opens the door to sharing the gospel rather than our rhetoric closing their hearts before we get to the gospel presentation. If we communicate the gospel and a sound theological argument regarding homosexual orientation and lifestyle, we will still have to make that decision Dr. Mohler spoke of, but we can do it with the compassion and love Josh spoke of – no compromises.

 

Additional Scriptures: Rom. 7:18-25, 8:1-17, 9:19-21; James 1:21; 1 Cor. 6:9-11, 10:13; 2 Tim. 4:2-5; 2 Pet. 1:3-9, 2:6-22; Gen. 3:6; Matt. 12:34; Mark 7:20-22; 1 John 2:17, 5:4-5; 1 Pet. 1:14; Psalm 103:5; Eph. 2:3, Jude 18-19, Jer. 17:10.

 

Eigenberg, H. (1992). Homosexuality in male prisons: Demonstrating the need for a social constructionist

approach. Criminal Justice Review, 17(2), 219-234.

 

Sagarin, E. (1976). Prison homosexuality and its effect on post-prison sexual behavior. Psychiatry,

39, 245-257.

Why Andy Stanley Was Right to Call out the SBC

6.18.14A semi-controversy erupted last week during the Southern Baptist Convention when popular megachurch pastor Andy Stanley used Twitter to “call out” the overall tone of the convention in Baltimore. (Read his full comments here).

Here are some of his tweets, written at the same time that the SBC was calling for more prayer for revival:

  • “Instead of praying for revival leaders of the SBC should go spend three weeks with @perrynoble Why pray for one when you can go watch one.”
  • “Praying for revival equates to blaming God for the condition of your local church.”
  • “Why not call the Church to pray for the things Jesus & New Testament writers prayed for? Why add Revival to the list?”
  • “Churches that need reviving most are the very churches that resist it most.”

Stanley conceded that the conversation spiraled beyond what he had intended it to be after he and others began diverging on what they meant by “revival.”

Rather than debating the merits of starting a “Twitter war,” I want to discuss the thrust of his message, one that I wholeheartedly agree with. The overall message we got from the convention was to try harder, pray more, and keep doing what we’re doing. The religious term they hijacked for it was “revival.” As I wrote last week, prayer and revival sounds great, but the way it’s being used is ultimately a cop out. It’s a crutch. If revival doesn’t happen, it’s God’s fault, because he didn’t answer our prayers.

We don’t need “revival.” We need to change. Praying for revival (as interpreted through the convention) is like the kid unwilling to study praying for an A+ on the test. We already know what we need to do. We need to change. As Ed Stetzer (respected researcher for LifeWay) put it, “If the fifties come back, a lot of Southern Baptist churches are ready to go.

You don’t need to keep praying when you know what the answer is. You just need to do it. Andy Stanley acutely called out Southern Baptists out of frustration of what he saw from a denomination that he was raised in. Last week I was sharing the same frustrations, albeit with a fraction of his Twitter followers.

But more than just a clash of ideas, this gets real practical, real quick. Why am I so passionate about this? Because this is why Mt Vernon is growing.

Mt Vernon isn’t growing because we prayed for revival. Mt Vernon is growing because we had the courage to change. I firmly believe more churches can experience the same “revival,” not by simply praying for it, but by changing what needs to be changed and seeing it come alive.

QUESTION: Was Andy Stanley right to “call out” the SBC? Do we need less calls for revival and more change?

Environments Matter at Church

6.12.14At Mt Vernon, we are ridiculously committed to creativity and excellence in all of our environments, but especially our Sunday morning worship experience. For each sermon series, we’ll change up the look of the stage: the lighting, the background, the props, etc. This was made possible by sinking some financial (and political) capital into upgrading our worship center to be able to transform from series to series. Why do we spend so much time and energy on our stage? Because we believe that environments matter at church.

An environment sets the mood. It captures the attention. If done well, it communicates to the church that the leadership is constantly striving for excellence and willing to put in the hard work to get there. The basic format of church hasn’t changed in centuries: sanctuary + pews/chairs + singing + preaching = worship service. Some say that the “gospel is enough,” that church leaders don’t need to be creative. The gospel definitely is enough, but church leaders can sometimes use this reasoning as an excuse for lethargy and laziness.

So, for the new series on Ephesians we started on Sunday, we changed up the stage. I’m biased, but I think we nailed it (I can brag because I didn’t do it!). Wanting to immerse ourselves in the book of Ephesians this summer, we took chalk and literally wrote the book of Ephesians on the walls behind the stage (picture above). Add some cool lighting, and you have an environment that immediately captured the attention of everyone walking in the door. But more than just a gimmick, this artwork literally highlights the theme verse for the series, Ephesians 4:1. (By the way, total price less than $10. We just paid for the chalk).

When we leverage our God-given creativity to draw people to Christ, it makes it all worth it. Our worship center is fifty years old. Two years ago we took a step of faith and radically redesigned and updated the interior. On Sundays like this, we can literally see why it’s all worth it.

QUESTION: What’s the most creative thing you’ve ever seen at a church?

The Weirdest Way I Ever Saved a Church Member $700

200294162-001I’ve got a guy in my church named Kenny. I wish every church had a Kenny. This guy is great! Super faithful, naturally evangelistic, always looking to bring the least and the lost to church. One of our core values at Mt Vernon is that we “embrace the messes.” Kenny is one of the guys that leads that charge. He works in “the mess.” He’s a bail bondsman.

Kenny is constantly using his platform as a bail bondsman to tell people about Jesus and Mt Vernon Church. He figures that if he’s bailing them out of jail, they’re definitely looking for something more. Almost every week Kenny has someone new with him that he introduces me to. The conversation usually goes something like this:

Kenny: Josh, I want you to meet Chris* and Brandon*.

Me: Great to meet you! Is this your first time to Mt Vernon? (The deer in the headlights look tells me this is the first time they’ve stepped into a church in years, but I give them the benefit of the doubt)

Chris and Brandon: Yes. 

(at this point I’ll make small talk, find some commonalities and make a few light-hearted jokes, usually at Kenny’s expense. But the conversation usually finishes like this):

Me: Let me guess. Did Kenny bail you out of jail?

Chris and Brandon (looking at each other like I’m a clairvoyant): As a matter of fact he did!

I love the fact that Kenny is so enthusiastic about inviting everyone to church. So here’s how I saved Kenny some money this past week. On Sunday, as usual, Kenny’s got two new guys with him. I introduce myself, make some small talk and welcome them to church. Later  on that day Kenny catches up with me and tells me this:

Kenny: You saved me some money today!

Me: How did I do that?

Kenny: Those two gentlemen who were with me today I met when I bailed them out of jail. And I made a deal with them to get them to come to church with me. I told them, “If you don’t like church on Sunday, you don’t have to pay me any of the money you owe me (their remaining bail).” 

After the service, they told me, “I wish we could lie and say we didn’t have a good experience, but we loved it! Don’t be surprised if you see us again next week!”

Kenny finished by telling me, “Thanks for helping me out today! They owe me $700!”

Welcome to a day in the life at Mt Vernon. I love it!