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.

Five for Friday (8.8.14)



Here are a few articles to keep you learning through the weekend:


8 Ways the Enemy Attacks Church – true words of wisdom from Thom Rainer.

Learning From Young Atheists: What Turned Them Off Christianity – great perspective!

Marco Rubio: Intolerance in the Name of Tolerance is Hypocrisy – grateful for a politician to stand up and say this.

Don’t Overthink It: The Power of an Invitation – if we truly ‘got’ this truth, our churches would never be the same!

The Single Man’s Journey to Sexual Happiness – I wish all of our single men could read this!

What All My Favorite Movies Have in Common

I am a movie fanatic. If there’s a great story playing on the big screen (or at least a decent story with a lot of things blowing up), then I’m there. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Gladiator – coolest ways to die in this movie
  • Braveheart – “Freedom!”
  • Dumb and Dumber – I have way too much of this movie memorized
  • Karate Kid – I’m not talking about the 2010 Jayden Smith nonsense. I’m talking old school, 1984 Ralph Macchio.
  • Avatar – simply an overwhelming movie
  • Harry Potter – not ashamed. Loved the books, loved the movies
  • Lord of the Rings/Hobbit – such an incredible adaptation of the books
  • The Blind Side – how can you not love The Blind Side?
  • Star Wars – huge fan. I’ve already committed to watching the next 743 movies that Disney will produce off this cash cow
  • Shawshank Redemption – When I see that movie on tv, I stop and watch the rest of it, no matter what I’m supposed to be doing

Underdogs 1

There’s one theme that weaves throughout all of my favorite movies: it’s the theme of the underdog. defines underdog as “A competitor thought to have little chance of winning a fight or contest. A person who has little status in society.” What is it about underdogs that make them so compelling? Why do we root for them so much?

I think at the end of the day it comes down to hope. Hope that if they can overcome their difficult circumstances, perhaps we can overcome ours as well. We root for the underdog because we identify with them. In a sense, we’re all underdogs.

At Mt Vernon we just started a brand new sermon series called “Underdogs,” where we’re looking at some of the greatest underdog stories in the Bible and where we’re discovering incredible truths about the God who loves to use underdogs. You can catch up on the first sermon here. If you’re in town, come check us out at 9:00 and 10:30 am, or you can watch online at  Hope to see you soon!

Look Around, They’re You’re Best Shot

Here’s something scary you can do the next time you’re at church: look around. Take some time during the service and look at those sitting around you. Pretend you’re stretching your neck muscles or something. Look at the older couple sitting two rows up. You can’t remember their names but you see them every week. There’s the weird guy that seems way too happy to be at church. There’s the family with teenagers where the son has been playing games on his iPhone the whole time. Then of course there’s the young family who exercise their constitutional right not to take their kids to the nursery. Motley crew, huh?

8.6.14Here’s what’s scary: they’re you’re best shot at experiencing the fullness of God. Here’s what Paul says in Ephesians 3:

17 And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3:17-19

Paul hits the same theme a few verses later:

11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. Ephesians 4:11-13,16.

Our best shot at attaining the fullness of God is in the midst of a biblically functioning church. Christianity isn’t an individual sport like golf, it’s a team sport like football or soccer. We rise and fall together. For better or for worse, your church, the body of believers that you belong to, are your best shot at attaining the fullness of God.

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!

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.

What the Church Can Learn from Chuck E. Cheese

chuck_e_cheeseLast week my family took our semi-annual pilgrimage to the mecca of children’s experiences: Chuck E. Cheese. We didn’t just go there. We shut the place down. Three hours (and a fistful of tickets) later, we walked out of there full, victorious, and with a few cheap plastic toys that broke within an hour. But that’s beside the point.

On the drive home, I began to dwell on what elements in this restaurant would captivate the attention of my two-year-old for three hours. That’s quite a feat! (It’s also the only public restaurant we willingly take him to). The more I thought about it, I pulled out a few overarching principles that I think apply to the church:

1. It was fun. I say the words “Chuck E. Cheese” to my kids, and their eyes light up. Why? Because it’s fun. They get to run around, they get to play games, they have freedom to explore. Our kids would drag us to Chuck E. Cheese if they could. Fun isn’t a sin. Fun is fun. Is there an element of fun, of joy in our Children’s Ministries, in our churches?

2. It was interactive. Chuck E. Cheese is sensory overload for a kid. They literally impact all five senses (sight, sound, taste, touch, smell). The kids don’t just sit and watch. They get up and do. They get to take part. A church will always better capture the hearts of children and families when those families get to do more than just “sit and watch.” Churches should work hard to engage all five senses.

3. It was simple. One token, one game. All games are one token. Simple enough for a toddler to understand. Some games were worth more, but for the sake of simplicity all games are one token. Simple sells. The lack of theological understanding and biblical foundation is only increasing with this generation. To reach them, we must start simply.

4. It was rewarding. My boys were laser-focused on winning those tickets. They didn’t just want to be entertained through the games, they wanted to win something. At church, how are we rewarding people? How are we enabling our people to participate in and celebrate the rewards of the Christian life? We should want them to know that all their sacrifice and hard work they’ve given to the church is worth it.

5. It was safe. My wife’s favorite aspect of Chuck E. Cheese was the check-in system. Our whole family got a unique stamp, and it was checked again before we went out. Our kids were safe to roam. That safety enabled my wife and I to enjoy the experience without worrying about our children’s safety. In today’s society, safety is king. A church must have a secure check-in system for preschoolers and children if they want to have any type of effective ministry.

QUESTION: What else can we learn from Chuck E. Cheese’s?

Five for Friday (6.27.14)

5Have a great weekend!

A Different Kind of Millennial Problem – Wouldn’t it be great to have this problem in all our churches?

How to Speak Your Spouse’s Love Language (And What to Avoid) – Great help for any marriage!

10 Questions for a Six-Month Spiritual Checkup – Great tool! Worth the read!

A Letter to Married Couples Who Are Struggling With Infertility – Great encouragement!

Where Do Millennials Attend Church? – More good insight into this pivotal generation for the 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!