Wake Up Church! We Have a Problem!

Modern polling has confirmed what Christians have suspected for a long time: Christianity is losing ground in America. USA Today this morning came out with an article titled “Christians drop, ‘nones’ soar in new religious portrait,” describing the shift many Americans are making by changing their religious identity from “Christian” to “none.”

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Pulling from the Pew Research Center’s interviews of 35,000 people in 2014, the numbers speak for themselves. All brands of Christianity are down (Catholic, Protestant, and Evangelicals to a smaller degree). The only brand maintaining their market share is historically black churches. Over the past seven years, when the survey was conducted before, those who self-identified as atheists, agnostics, or nothing in particular jumped by 6.7% (the largest increase in religious affiliation) to a whopping 22.9% of the country (or 73 million people). Non-Christian faiths also increased. The only major religion to decline in America was Christianity.

In the first few centuries of the Christian faith, Christianity had nothing: no buildings, no seminaries, no conferences, no worship CDs, no Christian radio, and yet they flourished, exploding in growth and taking their world by storm. Today we have everything we could want: trained professionals, music, movies and an entire sub-culture that cater to us, and yet we’re losing ground. We own more property, have more buildings, and spend more cash on Christian missions than any other generation, and yet we’re losing ground.

Whatever the early church had, we’ve lost. In other parts of the world Christianity is still gaining ground, but in America it’s losing ground. Why? What have we gotten away from? What are we missing? Where have we gone off track? What caused 22 million people to walk away from the Christian faith in the past seven years?

To be fair, the bulk of the departures have come from the mainline protestant denominations. For evangelicals the bleeding has been less severe (we lost 0.9% in market share), but it’s still a problem. We’re not growing.

Why does the most powerful message in the world (the gospel) have no power in America? Is sin too entrenched here? Has money and comfort and leisure corrupted the hearts of too many? Or has the church gotten off track? Have we diluted the power of the gospel in search of other things (like money, influence, comfort, basically everything the world goes after, just with Christian titles written in)?

I honestly don’t know what the answers are, but we need to find them and fast. 22 million people walked away from the Christian faith in the past seven years (the combined populations of Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee). What’s the answer?

QUESTION: Why are people walking away from Christianity?

5 Practices That Have Helped Me Succeed in Ministry

I would hope that sometime during the last 16 years of full-time ministry I’ve picked up a thing or two on what it means be successful in ministry. Recently, I spent some time to look back and collect my thoughts/experiences into 5 things that have helped me succeed in ministry. I’ve shared those five things with the incredible staff I get to work with everyday. Now I’d like to share them with you:

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 1. Lead From the Trenches – are you leading from the front or from behind?

A successful leader in ministry is not a general, remotely issuing orders from the safety of his office. He’s more like a lieutenant or colonel, the first one leading his troops when they charge the enemy trenches. I’ve worked extremely hard at learning names and faces (of members and guests), tearing down ministerial barriers that separate clergy and laity, and doing the small things that many wouldn’t expect a pastor to do. I want to lead from the front, not from behind.

 

2. Treasure Your Team how are you adding value to your team?

A pastor is only as successful as the team he leads (paid or volunteer) for the simple fact that successful ministry is much bigger than one person can handle. For a pastor to be successful, his team has to be successful. That means simple things like always putting people before programs, playing with your team and constantly making them better. If I’m not adding value to my team, I’m not treasuring them.

 

3. Cast a Compelling Vision is your vision bigger than you are?

Everyone wants to be a part of something bigger than themselves. It’s my job as a pastor to help people get swept up in the greater vision and purpose of God. To do that, I have to be able to tell great stories, because stories communicate vision. I have to always make the vision bigger than the people I lead. And I have to help people connect the dots on how they specifically are a part of the greater story. One of the biggest things that has helped me succeed in ministry is my ability to grab hold of and cast a vision that is much bigger than I am.

 

4. Grow Every Daywhat are you doing today that will benefit you a year from now?

This is the grind. This is the work. This is the hours spent in study, improving my sermons. This is the willingness to invite meaningful feedback from others to critique and constructively criticize my messages. Excellence has to be a constant pursuit. I can always get better. And I have to be willing to collaborate and experiment, to try and fail and try again. I need to plant seeds of growth today that will benefit me a year from now.

 

5. Live From the Overflow are you running on fumes or living from the overflow?

Jesus says it clearly in John 15:5, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” If I don’t abide in the vine, my ministry will be ultimately fruitless. That means putting family first before my ministry. That means making my body a temple and ensuring that I am in the best possible health not only spiritually, but physically, mentally, and emotionally.

That’s an overview of what I shared with my team. I have specific ways to live out the 5 things that I’ll share in future posts as time allows.

The BIGGEST Reason There Are So Many Hypocrites in the Church

Too many people have been scarred by hypocrisy in the church. Why are there so many hypocrites in the church? There are a myriad of reasons, but here’s the biggest reason from my perspective: The reason there are so many hypocrites in the church is because there are so many unsaved people in the church. Look at what Jesus says:

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ Matthew 7:21-23

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These were the leaders in the synagogues, the religious rulers, the ones in charge of the religious system of Israel, the ones who claimed to be the most religious. They even did great things in the name of God, like prophesy and perform miracles. And yet Jesus will say, “I never knew you,” and send them to Hell.

Let’s just stop and understand the gravity of what Jesus is saying here. He’s not referring to the lost pagan world out there. He’s referring to people who claim that Jesus is their Lord. People that go around and tell everyone they’re a Christian. People who fill up our churches every week.

He doesn’t say that they’re simply misguided or immature believers. He says they’re not believers at all. If you’ve grown up in the church, if like me you consider yourself a church person, these verses should absolutely rock you to your core. They should rattle you in your soul. The reason there are so many hypocrites in the church is because there are so many unsaved people in the church.

What Jesus taught, what the New Testament authors taught, what happens still in churches today is that there are a bunch of people walking around today claiming that they’re Christians but acting like non-Christians. In reality, the reason so many church people can act like unsaved people is because they are unsaved people. What makes it so destructive and what drives so many people away is that they’re convinced that they’re saved and they tell everyone around them that they’re saved when they’re really not.

John, one of Jesus’ disciples, was there the day Jesus taught this and probably felt as uncomfortable as everyone else. And yet it was the truth. Years later when John would write to the early Christians, he would flesh out this idea. Here’s what he writes in 1 John:

6 If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. 1 John 1:6

John says we can claim one thing but still live out something else. He’s describing hypocrites who claim to walk in the light but are still walking in darkness.

8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 1 John 1:8

If we claim that we’ve arrived, that we’re without sin, that we’re somehow superior to others, we deceive ourselves. It’s very possible for church people to deceive themselves into thinking their saved when they’re really not.

9 Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. 1 John 2:9

This verse gets real specific. If you claim to be in the light, if you claim you’re saved, but hate those around you, you’re not in the light. What does that imply for all the mean, spiteful, hateful people in the church today? Nothing good, I’ll tell you that.

6 Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did. 1 John 2:6

That’s John’s main argument. If you claim you’re a Christian, act like Jesus. If you act more like the Pharisees Jesus condemned than Jesus himself, you can tell yourself you’re saved all you want. But on the day of judgment Jesus very well may say, “Away from me, you evildoer, for I never knew you.” The reason there are so many hypocrites in the church is because there are so many unsaved people in the church (who think they’re saved).

QUESTION: What do you think? Is there a bigger reason out there to explain hypocrisy today?

Story of Hope: Jennifer

by Kaylan Preuss

Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.

—Isaiah 43:18-19

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Jennifer grew up in nearby Sturgis—in a middle class, safe, whole family unit, complete with a dad, mom, and younger sister. So how was it that in 2012, as a young 30-something, she was facing her third divorce? She couldn’t believe or understand it.

Family life wasn’t exactly ideal during childhood. Jennifer’s mom took her and her sister on-and-off to a nearby Catholic church—mainly for the important things like confirmation and her first communion. But at home, her dad was a functioning alcoholic.

“He wasn’t abusive at all and he was present, but I don’t have many sober memories of my dad,” she said. “He did his thing and we did ours. He was there, but he wasn’t really there.”

As for her Catholic church, she didn’t like it or understand it. So she started attending a local community church with some friends and got involved. Because it was a small group, she never found the leadership or guidance she now says she probably needed during that time.

“I remember going to church camp at 13 or 14 and being ‘saved’ there, but I didn’t even really know what that meant. I didn’t do it for the right reasons. It’s what everybody was doing and it felt right,” she said. “Looking back now, I realized I wanted God’s blessings, but I didn’t want that way of life, so my salvation didn’t stick.”

Jennifer spent a lot of her teenage and young adult years making what she calls “less than desirable decisions.” She hung out with all the wrong people and battled her own addictions—drugs, alcohol, and promiscuity.

In 1996, she found a way out. She met a guy in the Air Force, originally from New Jersey, who was stationed in Columbus. At that point, all she wanted was to get out of Mississippi and he wanted a wife before he got out of the military, so it seemed they both had a solution in marrying each other.

“We got married and I got pregnant. When we had our son, I decided I wanted to live in Mississippi to be close to my family and he wanted to go back to New Jersey. He’s a great guy and we still co-parent today, but the bottom line is this: we should’ve never gotten married. I know now it didn’t work because God wasn’t involved in that relationship,” she said.

After their divorce and a short time had passed, Jennifer met someone else. She was a single mom raising her son and he was raising his twin girls on his own. This seemed to be the perfect Brady-Brunch-blended scenario.

They married in August 1998 when Jennifer was 23 years old. By November, the whole family was active in a local church where she was baptized and started to turn things around, focusing on “living right” and reading the Bible.

Jennifer said, “Life was good for us. We were very involved in church and tried to do the right things. We even attended Mt. Vernon for a while. He was growing as a believer and so was I, so it was a shock when I found out he’d had an affair.”

In 2008, after 11 years together, the couple split and Jennifer tried to move on again with her 12-year-old son. But just one year later, carrying her own bag of self-loathing and emotional pain, another man entered Jennifer’s life, trying to buy her affections and mend the broken pieces.

“He said and did all the right things. He seemed to be the answer to everything. He’d been a Marine. He was financially stable. He had a college degree,” she said. “There was a lot of pressure from him to marry again, so I did—for a third time. I didn’t believe in anything anymore, so I fell for everything.”

Two things happened after they wed—Jennifer soon got pregnant with her second son and red flags started popping up all over the place.

She began to find out the ugly truth behind his lies: he couldn’t produce a driver’s license; he didn’t actually have a degree; he was $12,000 in child support debt; he’d begun dating someone else a month after they were married. And the biggest lie of all? Jennifer wasn’t wife #2 like he said—she was #5.

“I felt stuck. The lies were overwhelming. I had no clue whom I’d married. He turned out to be a con artist and I’d fallen for it,” she said. “For three years, I tried to make it work. But at the end of it all, he left me with $21,000 worth of debt.”

The biggest blessing out of it came in the form of her second son, Reed—plus a life change she couldn’t have predicted. In 2011, she and her boys began attending Mt. Vernon again. And this time, things were different.

“I remember sending a message to a staff member saying, ‘I’m scared to death of being judged at church.’ Church is a hard place to be when you’re divorced. I felt like I was walking in with a neon sign over my head that said, ‘Single Mom, Divorced x 3.’ I felt like it defined who I was. But when I walked through those doors, I never once felt judged or condemned. It felt like family.”

About the same time, Jennifer began working full-time from home, giving her time to reflect on her past. What she realized was her issues began as a child, more than 20 years ago, when she began searching for love and a man to fill the gap her dad never could. She didn’t realize the impact her father’s alcoholism had on her life (who is now battling the end stages of his addiction).

She’d wanted the fairytale, but it had failed every time she tried to create it on her own.

“You don’t think you’ll ever get through the pain,” she said. “I prayed so much for the ability to forgive myself and let go of the shame that was binding me. It was when I opened the Bible and met the person of Jesus that I found my fairytale and the Father I needed all along. I’d tried to fill the gap in my heart with worldly relationships, but only Jesus could do that all along. He’s the only Love I need.”

Just when she realized how much Jesus loves her, everything else also melted away—the resentment, anger, brokenness, and shame. Though she still battles the enemy for freedom, she says she now understands that Christ’s power is made perfect in her weakness.

Today, Jennifer regularly attends a life group—a place where she feels safe to share, encourage, and be encouraged. She also serves each week on the host team and with the Children’s Ministry. And to top it all off, her sons are both actively involved at Mt. Vernon.

She said, “Now, I get it—this relationship with Jesus. There’s trust there. Grace is real. Yes, my story is messy and ugly. I created that. But Jesus stepped in and made me new, healing the wounds and filling in the holes. Sometimes the best fairytales come from the rubble.”

The #1 Thing That Drives People Away From Church

If you listened to seminaries, you might think the answer was the biblical faithfulness of the preaching. If you listened to the ones who complain the most in the church, you might think the answer was the style of music or the overall decadence of society.

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Several weeks ago I asked a question on Facebook: If you ever left church for a significant portion of time, what was it that drove you away? Here were the answers I got:

  • [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.

Notice what wasn’t mentioned: preaching, style of music, stuff we obsess over. Notice what was central in each of the four comments: other church members. That’s the #1 thing that drives people away from church: church people. 

Why are there so many negative, gossiping, slandering, manipulative people in the church today? Why are there so many hypocrites in the church today? Share your thoughts below, and come this Sunday to Mt Vernon Church as we discuss this question, “why are there so many hypocrites in the church?”

The Profoundly Simple Way To Blow a Church Guest’s Mind (In a Good Way)

Sunday I was able to blow a church guest’s mind. I love doing that! I don’t do it as often as I’d like. I’ve had a few memorable swings and misses. But when I connect and blow someone’s mind, it validates the time and energy I put into the whole endeavor.

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What’s the profoundly simple way to blow a church guest’s mind? Call them by name the second time you see them. People expect to be ignored when they go to a church for the first time.  They’re new. No one knows them. No one should talk to them. They’re pleasantly surprised when you go and introduce themselves. They give you a first name, talk pleasantries for a minute, and then you move on to the next guest.

But if you pay attention, if you write their name down, email yourself, check them out on social media to get to know them, do whatever it takes to remember their name the next time they come back, you’ll blow their mind. Easter I met a couple with two kids. Nice family, talked pleasantries for a few moments and then moved onto the next guests. It was a little easier to remember this family because they had a connection with a family who already comes regularly.

That week I went on Facebook and found them, worked on names and faces, and waited. Three weeks later the couple showed up for the second time. It honestly took a few seconds to register who they were, but by the time they walked past me (they weren’t planning on talking to me because they assumed I didn’t know them) I was able to call out to the husband by name. (Full disclosure: I forgot the wife’s name and had to ask her again).

I could tell the husband was visibly stunned that I knew his name and said something to that effect. In that moment he didn’t feel like a stranger or an anonymous face in the crowd. He felt like a person worthwhile enough for the pastor to learn his name. It was the first step in them beginning to feel like family at Mt Vernon. They’re planning on coming back again, and hopefully they’ll become a part of our family.

I miss more guests than I get, but I learn all the names that I can. It’s a profoundly simple way to blow their minds.

 

5 Ways the Church Should Be Like T-Ball Practice

This season I’m coaching my 5-year-old’s t-ball team. We’re still practicing and haven’t started slugging it out of the park in games yet. Trying to get eleven 5-year-olds to all pay attention to one thing is about as fun as it sounds. Along the way I’ve learned five things that I think apply to church as well:

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1. You have to have fun. I always tell the boys that’s the only rule we have. If you’re not having fun, why play the game? In the same way, church should be a celebration. Christ is risen! You’re free from your sins! Your destiny in heaven is secure! If you can’t have celebrate at church, why show up?

2. I can’t just give instructions, I have to show. I can’t simply tell the boys where to put their feet and hold their hands when they bat. For each one I’ve had to physically place their feet and move their hands to show them. In the same way, it’s not enough to simply preach to people at church. We need to practically show them what a Christian life looks like.

3. They learn best one-on-one. The kids move from hearing to understanding to learning when I work with them one at a time. Hearing it in a group isn’t as effective. In the same way, churches should always be helping people move from large group (worship) to small groups, where they can practice and apply what they’re learning.

4. They need lots of encouragement. They haven’t done this before. They’re scared. They miss the ball more times than they hit it. I spend most of my time encouraging kids to try again and not give up. In the same way, churches should be constantly encouraging their people. That’s called grace. People struggle, people mess up. The church should be a place where they receive forgiveness and encouragement.

5. My job is to get them to fall in love with the game. At the t-ball level, I’m not working on advanced batting techniques or fielding disciplines. I’m simply trying to get the kids to fall in love with the game. If I do that, I’ve succeeded. In the same way, at church our overall goal is to help people fall in love with Jesus. Programs, budgets, buildings should all help and support that one goal. If we can do that, then we’ve been successful as a church.

QUESTION: What else would you add to this list?

Celebrate for Molly!

Can somebody give me a ‘slow clap’ for Molly? You don’t know Molly, but God is doing something huge in her life. If you can get excited about life change, then you can celebrate for Molly. Molly is an addict. She came to Mt Vernon Church recently through Recovery House (a local residential treatment facility for drug and alcohol addictions). It was a big deal for Molly to even show up to church.

Enjoying the sun

Molly grew up with some bad religious scars from her childhood and vowed never to go back. When she found out that her rehab facility went to church, she almost dropped out of Recovery House simply to avoid going to church. She was skeptical, bitter, and distant.

But then, as only God can, love began to break down barriers in Molly’s life. People began to show her the love of Jesus in tangible ways. Our people welcomed her and embraced her in spite of her addictions. Ladies in our church became mentors to her. She liked the music and engaged with the message. Church took on new life for her. She began to read her Bible and ask questions. Mt Vernon created a safe space for her to explore her faith, and before long the cold embers of belief began to glow warm again.

Easter Weekend Molly requested (and got) special permission to go off campus and volunteer all Saturday morning at our Easter Egg Hunt. Molly doesn’t have any kids. She just wants to be at church now as much as possible. Yesterday I received an email from the staff at Recovery House to let us know the difference God has made in Molly’s life through Mt Vernon. Her time in rehab is coming to a close, but instead of going back home she wants to move to Columbus permanently. Why? In her words, “I do not want to leave Columbus because I absolutely love, love Mt Vernon Church. I can’t believe I am saying this but it’s true.

You don’t know Molly, but trust me when I say that the Molly I met two months ago would never say that. God is  radically transforming her life. God is doing something big. That’s a reason to celebrate! (or at least give a ‘slow clap’)

P.S. While you’re celebrating for Molly, please pray for Karen. Karen is new at Recovery House. She’s where Molly was when she arrived. Easter Sunday was her first Sunday at church in decades. She did not want to be there. Pray that God transforms Karen’s life like He has transformed Molly’s!

A Simple Way to Tell If Your Church is Alive

It has nothing to do with music. How many show up at Easter doesn’t matter. Your doctrine can be flawless, your worship can be ‘spirit-filled,’ and you could still miss the mark. Longevity isn’t the mark of life nor is the grandeur of the buildings. Some of the most alive churches on the planet are ones that may have no buildings, no elaborate worship team, no menu of programs for all ages.

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If you want a simple way to tell if your church is alive, look for one thing: changed lives. That’s it. That’s a simple eye test to know whether a church is breathing on its own or is propped up through artificial means (i.e. building, tradition, etc.). Look at the early church. Look at the members we know: Matthew, a former tax collector and traitor to his people that went on to become a disciple of Jesus and pen the first book in our New Testament. Look at Peter, an impetuous blowhard that transformed into a rock of boldness and truth to lead the early church. Look at Paul, a persecutor of the church turned into the most prolific missionary this world has ever known. When Jesus’ presence is in a church, lives change.

Are lives being changed at your church? Are people being saved? Are people (including adults) being baptized? Are marriages being restored? Are people finding freedom from addictions? Are unchurched and dechurched people finding a home at your church? Are your people sharing the gospel with their friends and bringing them to church? Can you point to lives that have changed within the past year?

If yes, praise God! He is moving, He is transforming, He is alive in your church! If not, as difficult as it might be to grapple with, your church might have some deeper questions to ask. The mark of an alive church isn’t the buildings, the music, the programs or the doctrine. The mark is changed lives. Is your church alive?

QUESTION: Do you agree? Is there a better way to tell if a church is alive?