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!

“He’s So Lucky He Has a Stepdad!”

It’s eye opening to experience first hand the innocence of youth. Recently a new family moved into our neighborhood. They have boys. That’s a good thing. There are currently 10 boys (now 12) in our neighborhood that play together, roaming around like Hell’s Angels on their Huffys and Schwinns. My oldest, Zeke (7), befriended one of the new boys and came home one day and told me, “[My friend] is so lucky, he has a stepdad!” Record scratch, head jerked sideways, “What you talkin’ about Willis?”

8.27.14I asked him what he meant. Apparently when Zeke was asking his new friend about his parents, he was told he lived with his mom and stepdad. Zeke had never heard of a stepdad before. What was that? It was like another dad that he lived with. So Zeke told me, “He’s lucky he has a stepdad because when one dad goes to work, the other one gets to stay home and play with him.” Wouldn’t it be great if it worked out like that?

I had what we call in the business “a teachable moment” and got to introduce my 7-year-old my the finer intricacies of divorce. Afterwards, Zeke didn’t think his new friend was so lucky. The whole episode reminded me of the simplicity of what marriage is supposed to be. One man, one woman, together for life. That’s what our kids are born expecting. We’re the ones who mess things up.

12 years strong married to Zeke’s mom (and my wife). With every power of my being, I never want Zeke to ever have to walk through a divorce first-hand. I never want him to have a stepdad.

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.

What Was Your High School Label?

If you look in your high school yearbook, you’ll discover that it’s divided by labels. All the seniors are together, then the juniors, then the sophomores. Then you have the football team, the baseball team, the band, the mathletes, the puppet club. Everyone had a label in high school. You might have been the athlete, the cheerleader, the nerd, the party animal, the class clown, the JROTC fanatic, or the miscellaneous kid. We all wore a label in high school. Some of us even got a super label, a superlative: most likely to succeed, most beautiful, most athletic, most likely to be arrested, most likely to still be living in your parent’s basement when you’re 40.

senior yearbook copyAs adults we’ve already figure out that sometimes life feels like we’ve never really left high school. We all have labels in life that attempt to define us. Maybe you’re too skinny and you wear the label ‘scrawny’ or ‘weak.’ Maybe you’re too overweight and you wear the label ‘fat.’ Maybe you grew up without a parent and you wear the label ‘unloved.’ Maybe you were abused as a child and you carry the labels of ‘shame’ or ‘worthlessness.’ Maybe you got a divorce as an adult and now you wear the label ‘single parent.’ Maybe you got in trouble with the law and now you wear the label ‘convict.’ Maybe you struggle with addiction and now you wear the label ‘addict.’

We all wear labels. It started in high school. The question is whether we allow our labels to define us and ultimately destroy us, or whether we allow God to redeem our labels. That was the conversation we started yesterday at Mt Vernon church. You can catch up on all my latest sermons by going to:

JUST FOR FUN: We asked all of our church members to get involved in the conversation by doing the following three things on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter:

1. Post an old picture of you from high school.

2. Finish sentence “In high school my label was _____.”

3. Use #mtvconversation

Get online and check out the responses. Better yet, add your own!


R.I.P. – Robin Williams

We all lost someone yesterday, a comedic genius that captured the hearts of generations. Appearing in over sixty films, all Americans feel like they knew and loved Robin Williams. For the vast majority of us, his death (apparent suicide) came as an extreme shock. Why would somebody so funny, so full of life, want to take his own life? It seems surreal, especially for someone to throw away what many of us spend our entire lives pursuing. Robin_Williams

Here are a few thoughts I’m processing through as I mourn his passing:

  • Like everyone, I immediately think about the movies. He was brilliant in Good Will Hunting, he moved me in Dead Poets Society, but strangely enough, I keep coming back to Mrs. Doubtfire. I loved that movie as a kid. He was so funny!
  • He feels like a part of the family. Even though we don’t know him personally, we brought him into our home. Most of us can go and find a DVD with his face on the cover. We thought we knew him. That’s what makes this so hard.
  • He was so funny! How could he struggle with depression? We all mask our inner struggles. We all project an image that we want others to see. Some just get paid millions of dollars to do it. We knew Robin Williams the actor, but not the private struggles of Robin Williams the man.
  • Some of the greatest artists create the most beautiful hues of color from the deepest pallet of pain. Williams drew on the deep reservoir of raw emotion to create such lovable characters. His art as an actor and his pain were intertwined.
  • Addictions are real and dangerous. Williams struggled with alcohol and drug abuse for most of his adult life. He got clean for several years, but recently the alcohol came back with a vengeance. Addictions are no laughing matter.
  • Williams struggled from depression. Mental health is a real issue that has been stigmatized for too long. Any other part of our body can be broken and we seek help, but if our brain is broken we feel like we need to hide it. If you need help, get it.

As we mourn the passing of a person who brought us so much joy and laughter, let us not forget those close to us who may be walking through similar situations. Help where you can. If you need help, please ask for it. R.I.P.

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!

12 Things I Learned On Vacation

After spending a wonderful week with my family, here are twelve takeaways that every person might need to know. You’re welcome.

8.4.141. You can never eat enough grilled shrimp at the beach.

2. A vacation with a 2-year-old is a faux-cation.

3. Vacationing with three young kids is truly a vacation when you’re used to four.

4. You feel bad about ditching your 3-month old with her grandmother until you see another family trying to ‘relax’ on the beach with a 4-month old (ain’t happening).

5. Songs from The Wiggles will haunt you in your sleep after listening to them in the van for five hours.

6. I love building sandcastles way too much.

7. When the string on the kite gets tangled, just give up. It’s not worth it.

8. The biggest fights your kids will have will be over who gets to push the elevator buttons.

9. Trying to eat (and enjoy) a nice sit down dinner at an expensive restaurant = fail. Making do with PB&J on the beach = win.

10. When your 7-year-old son gets super amped up about looking for seashells, just roll with it.

11. When you forget to lock the front door to your condo, plan on spending at least fifteen minutes frantically looking for your 2-year-old who likes to “be adventurous.”

12. There are moments when everyone is calm, no one needs anything, everything is peaceful, and you can truly relax. Enjoy those three minutes each day!

Looking forward to going back again next year!


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: