Here is the first sermon in our series started on Easter Sunday: Step Into the Light.
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:
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?
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.
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!
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.
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?
I could charge you $19.95 to give you a secret to church growth, or I could just tell you now for free. It’s not a complicated secret. I never heard about it in seminary. In all my courses of study, in all the conferences I attended, in all the books I read, no one ever touted this secret. But it works. I’ve experienced it time and time again. The reason no one touts it is because it’s simple and obvious. The reason it’s a secret is because people rarely do it. The not-so-complicated secret to getting guests to plug into your church is to learn their names (boom, drop the mic and walk off the stage).
I know it sounds obvious, but we usually approach it from the wrong way. If guests keep coming and decide to plug in, we’ll learn their names. I’ve experienced the opposite: if I learn someone’s name from the beginning, they have a much better chance at plugging in. That means doing the hard work of learning names and faces. And that means learning names as early as possible, after the first time they show up on your radar screen or fill out a visitor card (being an unashamed Facebook stalker helps tremendously with learning names). If you can call a guest by their name the second or third time they show up, you just showed them that you care enough about them to learn their name and you give them an incredible motivation to get plugged into your church.
Don’t believe me? Here are four recent examples:
- When I came to Mt Vernon three years ago, I started getting to know as many names as possible. It included a couple that sat on the back row during our early service. Nice couple, came almost every week. I started calling them by name and greeting them every time I saw them. They soon joined the church and are now serving. Why is this important? Because they had sat on the back row faithfully for ten years without joining. They joined after I learned their names and got to know them.
- A median age couple came one time and filled out a guest card. I learned their names and greeted them the next time they came. They commented on how surprised they were that I would know their names. They’re signed up for our next membership class and are planning on joining the church.
- A new couple came to town from out of state, attended a few times but didn’t show an indication of wanting to plug in. Because I knew their names and because our kids had some sports together, I would see them in town and greet them. Last month, the husband pulled me aside and told me, “I need to bend your ear about something. My wife and I want to join a LifeGroup. We’re not doing a good job planting roots here and we know we need to branch out and join a small group.” He wouldn’t have felt comfortable talking to me if I didn’t know his name.
- I remember one guest in particular that came a few times and then left. I saw on Facebook that she was trying out another church as well. Since I’d already learned her name, I saw her in town a few times and always greeted her by name. Just recently she’s come back, bringing her husband and son, and deciding that Mt Vernon was going to be her church home. I’m not sure all of the reasons why, but I know that knowing her name definitely helped.
Learn names and faces of your guests. Early. It’s a huge opportunity to help them plug into your church.
QUESTION: Have you ever had a positive experience visiting a church where a pastor or leader knew your name? Comment and share your story!
A week ago I wrote a blog post titled 10 Things the Church Puts Ahead of Reaching People. I had absolutely no idea what kind of deep reservoir I had tapped into when I wrote those thoughts. The blog quickly went viral with over 175,000 views in the first week. More than that, many of you engaged, leaving comments with your experiences and other things that you would add to that list. In honor of your great interaction and some incredible comments, I want to share 10 (More) Things the Church Puts Ahead of Reaching People, based exclusively off your comments from the original post.
1. Money. Hannah wrote, “I think money needs to be on this list. I can’t tell you how many churches I have attended that had thousands of dollars saved up but were unwilling to spend any of it to reach out to the community. They would rather watch the church die than spend the money.”
Bill echoed Hannah’s thought with his own, “I believe Money should be number one on your list. Todays’ modern church spends more time trying to raise money than they do evangelizing. They take up ‘special offerings’, they have pledge programs, they have fund raisers and some even sell bonds to raise more money.” The Bible itself says “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6:10).” If not controlled and safeguarded against, the love of money can destroy even a church.
2. Selective Judgement. Cory wrote, “Being right. Before loving. For lack of a better title. The church elevates specific sins as worse than others. They alienate that sinner and embrace another that seems less horrible. Then stand on select verses to prove their RIGHT.” We know Bible speaks against judging others (Matthew 7:1, Romans 2:1), but too often the church chooses to selectively judge others, usually condemning sins that it conveniently doesn’t struggle with. Jesus modeled grace and truth (John 1:17). Churches should aspire to the same standard.
3. Fear of man. Karen wrote, “I think we fear what people will think of us more than we fear the accountability before God. Talking about spiritual things in an age of politcal correctness leaves us in a dilemma. We hope our actions or our example will be enough but the Bible clearly calls us to word and deed.” This can be the polar opposite of selective judgment. For fear of falling into the quick sand of judgment, some churches refuse to take any stands at all, building their houses upon the ever-shifting sands of culture rather than the rock of Jesus’ teaching. Once again, Jesus modeled how to embrace both grace and truth (John 1:17). As churches, we need to follow in his footsteps.
4. Dress/Appearances. George wrote, “Clothes – Some people put a ton of emphasis on how people dress at church.” Agreed. I’ve experienced this too many times in my own life. I think previous generations were taught to dress up to church as a sign of respect (a good thing), but over time the emphasis became less on the respect and more about the appearances.
William shared his own heartbreaking example, “My company moved me around a lot and we attended several different churches. We had been going to one in Southern California, I noticed that most but not all wore suits or a sport coat. I wasn’t used to the Summer heat and wore a nice polo shirt and slacks. After about a month my wife and I were met at the door by three deacons. I was told that in their church we “dressed up to come to church” I had been in the process of downsizing a department in my company and had a bad week. My wife didn’t say anything and looked at me. I looked the fellow in the eyes for about fifteen seconds and without saying anything reached down and dusted my shoes off and my wife and I left. The church is the people, not a suit or building.”
Anne shared the answer to this issue, “Transparency (If we would take off our masks of everything is perfect in our lives and get real about the troubled times we have gone through & let them know without Christ we would possibly not survived, I bet more and more people would come to know Him. I know I’ve been there.)”
5. Lack of Excellence. As Tim wrote, “Lousy preaching / bad worship experience due to inattentiveness and incompetence.” No church would ever admit this, but some churches put laziness ahead of reaching people. It’s amazing how many churches can take a life-changing message and awe-inspiring worship and bore people to tears with it.
6. Preaching over Relationships. This is a counterpoint to Tim’s previous comment. Peter wrote, “I’d say preaching and teaching over loving and leading by example. I’ve met and come across seminary graduates who taut their degrees but are unwilling to hit the streets to witness. Preaching is great but I’m learning that many suffer because some preachers want to speak to the masses and miss the one on one opportunities to minister.” Church leaders must be pastors as well as preachers. As difficult as it can be to manage, we need balance excellence in preaching and worship with a depth of authentic relationships with the people we get to serve.
7. Leadership Issues. Lydia made a great point, “I think one thing that was left off the list is the preacher. If he decides to do things his way then he starts gathering a group that like him and they start making changes. I have grown up with more church fights and splits than I care to remember and the majority had to do with the preacher and him wanting to do everything and be in control of every thing including the money. In my opinion it is not the music that should be on the list but the preacher.” Power issues and a lack of servant leadership will kill a church almost quicker than anything else. As John Maxwell famously says, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.”
8. Imitating Others. Chris wrote, “I would add to this list “Trying to ‘do church’ like another church”. Maybe we want to be like them and grow like them, i.e. Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church. It reminds me of Israel crying for a king because having judges wasn’t like everyone elses kingdom. Problem being, It’s Jesus kingdom, his kingly command, the great comission. Got to get outside the walls. Love people outside the walls for a birth so they will come indoors to grow.” I grew up in Southern California in the shadow of Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, so I know firsthand the temptation to imitate another church. I would caveat that it isn’t just a problem for contemporary churches. Many traditional churches imitate a mythical ideal of a church that existed for Andy Griffith in Mayberry. Every church needs to find its own identity in the community, not simply trying to transplant someone else’s approach.
9. Church Politics. LaDon suggested a great catch-all when he wrote, “No. 1 – Definitely should have been church politics!” It’s sad to admit that politics can enter a community of faith, but we all know it can. Many of the stories you shared in your comments can be boiled down to church politics.
10. Self. Kyle was right on when he wrote, “I think the #1 thing most “Christians” place before reaching people is THEMSELVES. Most Christians don’t care about the waitresses soul…especially if she’s not giving us good service. We don’t care about the soul of our neighbor…especially if they have a barking dog or screaming kids that bother us. We don’t care have a burden for the soul of the co-worker who gets on OUR nerves. Can music, buildings, traditions…etc get in the way of reaching people? Of course. But until ‘Christians’ get over themselves and start having a burden for people, we will not reach people for Christ.” Well said!
QUESTION: What else would you add to this list?
On Monday I wrote a (surprisingly viral) blog post about 10 Things the Church Puts Ahead of Reaching People. I had no idea the chord I would strike with this post as it’s been shared over 6,000 times on Facebook and viewed over 37,000 times in the first four days. That post was a written version of what I shared verbally with my church in my most recent sermon. Here’s the video version of Monday’s viral post (I had edited it down to 7 Things for time constraints).
Today I want to tell you the story of the church I have the privilege of serving at: Mt Vernon. It’s a long and arduous story of a church that dared to dream differently and the painful steps it had to take to get to its very happy ending. It’s a story of a church that broke through the 10 Things to reach people.
A decade ago Mt Vernon under the leadership of the former pastor created a task force called the Catalyst Team to ask the age old question: how do we reach more young families? The vast majority of churches ask this question, because the vast majority of churches do not have an abundance of young families in it. The answers they came up with were similar to most churches’ solutions: new facilities, modernized programming, family-friendly environments, contemporary music to attract and keep young families. What makes Mt Vernon unique is that it had the audacity and courage to actually follow through, to change.
Now, it would be misleading to gloss over these changes as quick or harmless. They were neither. The changes Mt Vernon instituted to better reach young families took years to implement and changed the very DNA of the church. And not everybody liked it. Many members left (although now on the other side Mt Vernon is bigger than its ever been, and yes, overflowing with young families).
Mt Vernon changed just about everything you could think of (besides moving physical locations). We replaced the pews with removable chairs. We ditched the chandeliers. We replaced the choir with a praise band. We removed the pulpit and started preaching from a round table. Those are just a few of the aesthetic changes. Mt Vernon transitioned from Sunday School to LifeGroups (which met at various times throughout the week) to free up more people to serve on Sunday mornings. We cancelled Sunday night services to allow LifeGroups to flourish. We started a Host Team (which now consists of over 50 people weekly) who are out in the parking lots, doors and coffee stations each Sunday morning to create a welcoming environment (none of whom could serve if they were stuck in Sunday School). And we built a new building in the center of our campus, a Welcome Center/Preschool Area for our young families.
The cost to reach people was steep. Not everyone liked the changes. Not everyone stuck around for the ride. I came along seven or eight years into this process as the new pastor. The leadership had seen the vision come to fruition and wanted to continue down the same path. For the past three and a half years, I’ve helped steward the vision of Mt Vernon to reach people, especially the next generation for Christ.
As other pastors have commented on Mt Vernon’s growth and success, here’s my candid advice to them: getting to this place will cost more than most churches are willing to pay. Go back to that post 10 Things. Any one of them could have thrown a wrench in Mt Vernon’s revitalization. But for those churches willing to pay the price and embrace change, the other side is beyond worth it. Our church is overflowing with young families. Lives are being changed on a weekly basis. We’re in the midst of a movement of God. It took years to get here, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.
I honestly didn’t know Monday’s post would strike such a chord with people (1000 Facebook shares and 6000 page views in two days). It was a written form of something I preached last Sunday. Apparently it resonated. According to my wife, it gave voice to something people have been feeling for years.
So now that I’ve opened up this pandora’s box of emotion, let me see if I can help chart a way forward. Here was the Next Step for Sunday’s sermon, the way we could put the truths we learned into action. Hopefully it can help you as well. It’s a simple (but not easy) way to reach people for your church: pursue people more than your preferences. Preferences are just that: preferences. Style of music, architecture, programs: all preferences. People, on the other hand, are eternal. Now, number 9 on the list (status quo) will hinder many churches from doing what’s necessary to change and reach people, but let me give you a glimpse of what it looks like when we pursue people more than preferences:
- I shared yesterday about a young lady who came to Mt Vernon a few weeks ago. She grew up in the church, loved the church, and the church loved her, until she got a divorce. To her church, that was the unforgivable sin. She still wanted to be a part of her church, but they made her feel so unwelcome and judged that she left. And in her words, she stayed away from church for ‘far too long’ because she was so hurt, and only recently has she worked up the courage to venture back out into the church world. The reason she came to Mt Vernon? Someone pursued her. A friend, who knew her past, knew her present, and invited her anyways.
- A wife who had stayed out of church for more than a decade following the death of her husband. In her words, she searched and searched but could never find a church home. She’s found a home now at Mt Vernon. How? Someone pursued her, her sister-in-law.
- A young lady I met last week grew up as an Air Force brat. She moved around a lot and her family eventually settled out West. They couldn’t find a church they felt at home in so they just stopped going. Eventually she stopped believing in Jesus altogether because it seemed too unrealistic. Years go by, this young lady joins the Air Force like her father before her. She’s stationed here in Columbus, and someone pursued her. A friend from work who’d been going here for awhile invited her to come with her. This young lady came last Sunday, and when I met her she said this was the second time she had been in church in 11 years. All because someone pursued her and invited her.
That’s one part of the equation. We’ve got to be willing to pursue people more than our preferences. But as important as it is for church members to do that, churches as a whole have to do that as well. Too many of you have invited someone to church only for them to have a bad experience. So how can churches pursue people more than their preferences? If there was an easy or simple solution to that, I would sell it as a book and retire as a millionaire. There is no easy solution. But there is a solution. The best I can do is try and show you what it looks like.
In tomorrow’s blog I’ll share the steps we’ve taken at our church to try and create a culture of people that pursues people more than our preferences.
There’s an ugly secret about the church: the church has hurt a lot of people. If you’ve been in the church long enough, you probably have a scar or two to show for it. As a pastor’s kid, I was mostly immune to it, but I felt it for my friends. I remember in high school when a buddy of mine came into the church building with a hat on. A deacon came up and hit him upside the head, ripping his hat off and demeaning him for having the audacity (as an unchurched kid) to wear a hat.
I remember as a youth pastor seeing an older couple yell at two visiting youth because they were sitting in their pew. I remember being on stage, unable to do anything because the service had already started, watching the shame and embarrassment come over these visitors who had no idea they had taken somebody’s seat and had to get up and move somewhere else.
I remember a minister friend who was fired by his church because black kids wanted to come to his white church and he welcomed them with open arms. The leadership ran off those kids and my friend with them.
I remember two weeks ago talking to a young lady who grew up in church, loved the church, and the church loved her . . . until she got a divorce. That was the unforgivable sin, and although she tried to stay involved with her church for community and support, they let it be known that she was no longer welcome. So she left, staying away from church for far too long (her words) until she regained the courage to venture back out into church world.
Church scars. If you’ve been in church long enough, you probably have some. It shouldn’t be like this, but it is. I asked a question recently on Facebook that asked people to share their church scars. Here were some of their responses:
- [My husband] and I both were very involved in youth groups and both got a bad taste in our mouth so to speak for church due to things that happened with our youth pastors.
- As a very young Christian I think it was feeling like I couldn’t measure up. The church was very condemning and I was a babe in Christ so didn’t understand the grace of my Savior.
- After we moved back to Columbus, we joined a church and attended for 8 years. I never felt “at home” the whole time we attended. Then a situation arose that caused quite a few members to leave, including us.
- I grew up in church and was there for every event and activity as a child and through youth. But, after some stuff went down, my feelings were hurt and I resented the church.
We can defend, explain and try to resolve, but let’s start by admitting that the church has hurt a lot of people.
QUESTION: What are your church scars? (Comment below and share yours)