How to Stay Grounded When Heading Off to College

Last week I received a message from a former student with a great question about college. Here’s what she asked:

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Hey! I’m now 18 and about to head off to college and I was wondering if you could give me any advice. I have looked up to you from the time I was in 6th grade and I’m very nervous about college in general. Thank you! Have a nice day!

Here’s what I wrote her. This advice I would give to anyone heading off to college:

You’re making me feel really old because all I can imagine is this awkward 6th grader, not a big time high school grad! So glad God’s continuing to do big things in your life. The one piece of advice I would give you is find a good church as soon as you can and start volunteering somewhere. Don’t just attend. It will be too easy to fall through the cracks and stop going. Go, sign up to serve somewhere (kids, youth), and get to know people. Put down roots in a good local church, and you’ll stay grounded your whole time there. God bless!

Find a good local church. Don’t settle for periodically attending. Plant roots. Find community. Volunteer somewhere. It will help you stay grounded throughout your college years.

7 Ways the Church Can Redeem the Supreme Court Decision Legalizing Gay Marriage

Gay marriage is here. Rather than long for the past or fear the future, how can the church redeem the present? How can we turn this tragedy into an opportunity to advance the gospel? Here are 7 steps forward.

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1. Rejoice. Wait what? Absolutely! Rejoice. What does the Bible say in Philippians 4:4? Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! How can we rejoice? What can we rejoice in? God is still on his throne, Jesus still died for our sins, the tomb is still empty, heaven still awaits us. We need to be characterized by joy, not defeat. This caught us by surprise, but this didn’t catch God by surprise. Our mission hasn’t changed. We don’t need to be moping, defeated, angry, bitter, complaining Christians. We serve the Almighty God of the universe. He’s got this. Choose to rejoice.

2. Wake up from our slumber. Romans 13:11 says, And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. Maybe this is the wake up call that we needed. Maybe we need to be reminded that we’re in a war, not with the government, not with the Supreme Court, and not with the LGBT community. We’re in a war with the principalities and powers in the spiritual realms. As fun as ball games and television shows and cell phones are, we’ve got bigger issues. Let’s wake up from our slumber and and realize we’ve got a part to play in this world, and it’s not to be distracted by all the cheap entertainment out there. Our salvation is nearer then when we first believed. Some people say this is a sign of the end times. What if it is? Are we ready? Are we paying attention or are we distracted by all the first world problems we deal with in America?

3. Make your marriage the most winsome one out there. We can condemn homosexual marriages all we want. Where we need to be aiming our attention is at all the heterosexual couples that are making a mockery of God’s institution of marriage. Let’s get our own house in order on the heterosexual side of things before we start condemning the other side. The gay community sees us proclaiming the only way as one man and one woman for life, and they see our sky high divorce rates, and they see hypocrisy, and they’re right. One of the greatest witnessing tools you’ll ever have is your own marriage. Don’t just witness with words, witness with deeds. Make your marriage the most winsome out there. Make it the most attractive. Make it the strongest. If this is your first, second, third or fourth marriage, make it so strong and so appealing to the outside world that they come to you, asking you what your secret is. Then you can point them to Jesus. Jesus himself tells us this in Matthew 5:18, In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. If this whole debate is about marriage, let’s not just say what we’re for, let’s show what we’re for by our own marriages.

4. Choose the way of grace and truthChurches are picking sides today. There is going to be a strong gravitational pull to choose either the compromise camp or the condemnation camp. Even the gay community itself will say, “You’re either for us or against us.” Let’s choose the way of grace and truth. Let’s choose the way of Jesus, Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (John 1:17). But if we don’t come out and condemn homosexuality, doesn’t that mean that we’re condoning it? Not at all. Look at Jesus in John 8, in the passage we read earlier. When Jesus encountered a woman caught in the act of adultery, he didn’t compromise his belief in Scripture. Adultery is still wrong. But neither did he condemn her. He held onto truth but showed her grace. If we can figure out how to live out grace and truth when it comes to this issue, first we’ll find a way to truly redeem this opportunity and shine the light of Christ’s love in a dark place. Warning we’ll probably be as misunderstood as Jesus was and receive friendly fire from the right and from the left.

5. Love first. Peter tells us, Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). Befriend homosexuals like you would anyone else. Some of you have family members that are gay, and you’re already trying to figure out how to love them without condoning their lifestyle. It’s not easy, but it is possible. Someone asked me, should I allow a gay couple into my home? I would. I’ve got no problem with it. Because I’m comfortable with it? No. But because Jesus did it. Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. He showed grace where people needed it the most. The religious people didn’t understand it. Don’t stigmatize someone for their homosexuality anymore than you stigmatize someone for their obesity, marital status or economic status.

6. Prepare for refugees from the sexual revolution. The Bible is clear that homosexual acts are a sin. That shouldn’t cause us to rejoice with righteous indignation as much as it should cause us to grieve at all the pain people are subjecting themselves to. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error (Romans 1:27). Since we believe that God’s plan for sexuality is within marriage, we will deal with a lot of hurt people who found out the hard way that sex outside of marriage is not God’s way. In the same way, there is an entire community out there who is convinced that all of their problems just got solved by the Supreme Court’s decision. What we believe is that sooner or later, they’re going to realize that the homosexual lifestyle is not the answer they were searching for. There are going to be a lot of hurting people out there, and we need to be ready for them. That’s why it’s so important to love first. If we’ve burned all the bridges between us and them, there’s no way for them to come back when they search for God.

7. Pray for a Saul of Tarsus from the LGBT community. If we think this is a dark time, go back to Acts 8, when Saul of Tarsus started destroying the church in its infancy. That was a truly dark time, until Jesus met Saul on the road to Damascus and changed the course of Christianity. Let’s pray that a Saul of Tarsus, someone right in the middle of the LGBT community, a leader of that community, finds Jesus in a revolutionary way. A person like that could change his or her world. Let’s pray that God would raise up a Saul of Tarsus from the LGBT community.

QUESTION: How else can we redeem the Supreme Court’s decision and turn this tragedy into an opportunity?

5 Ways to Recover the Boldness of the Early Church

Even a light read through the book of Acts reveals a church that’s markedly different from many churches today. They were united, passionate, and they changed their world. And above all, they were bold. You see that word time and time again when you read their story. So how can we as the church today begin to recover the boldness of the early church? Here are five steps:

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1. Put the resurrection in the forefront – The more we dwell and celebrate and meditate on the resurrection, the bolder we’ll become. Think about it. The greatest thing that most people fear is death. Jesus conquered death. Jesus has conquered our greatest fears, and his Spirit is now inside of us. What do we have to be afraid of? Seriously? What do we have to be afraid of?

2. Focus on God’s power, not our problems – When the disciples prayed for boldness in Acts 4, they didn’t start by complaining about their problems. They focused on God’s power. They reminded themselves just who was on the throne of the universe. They were threatened by men, but they served the Sovereign Lord who made the heavens and the earth and the sea. They had the trump card. When you pray, don’t focus so much on your problems as you focus on God’s power.

3. Embrace the Holy Spirit. As uncomfortable as it might be with your religious upbringing, everything we see happen in the book of Acts happened because the Holy Spirit fueled it. He’s the power behind the church. Behind every mention of boldness in the book of Acts you see the Holy Spirit. Until we’re ready to put up our sails and adjust our sails to the moving wind of the Holy Spirit, we’re not going to go anywhere.

4. Pray big prayers. The early church not only prayed, they prayed big prayers. We never see the early church praying, “God, please bless the food, keep us safe, help me get that promotion, help my kids be good kids.” They prayed big prayers. Prayers much bigger than them. When we start praying prayers bigger then us, we’ll start seeing God doing bigger things than us.

5. Give sacrificially. All of the descriptions of the early church included how they gave sacrificially to others as they had need. You know and I know that anyone can talk a big game, but what’s the saying? “Put your money where your mouth is?” If someone is bold enough to trust God with their money, they’re bold enough to start changing their world.

4 Great Things That Happen When a Church Plays Together Outside of Its Four Walls

Last night Mt Vernon finished MTV on Location, a four week break from our normal Wednesday schedule. For MTV on Location, we took church outside of our four walls to different local parks in the community. No worship services. We just ate and played together. Reflecting on the month, here are four great things that happened:

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1. Change of pace. It’s summer. People are ready for a change of pace during the summer. Many are traveling. Numbers are going to fluctuate naturally. Changing the schedule to something new matches the expectations of the people and flows beautifully into the natural rhythm of a church year.

2. The church gets to know its pastors. For many church members, their only interaction with pastors is on Sunday morning, behind the safety glass of a pulpit and a scripted service. Church members need opportunities to see pastors in real life. Want to build a different connection with your congregation? Play volleyball with them.

3. You get to know your community. Every single week I got to meet a new family I had never met before. Some of them had never been to Mt Vernon at all, and some I might have missed in the hustle and bustle of Sunday morning. Having leisurely time to get to know new families was invaluable.

4. The family that plays together stays together. Fun is important. Fun builds fellowship. Fellowship is biblical. Playing together builds communal experiences and bonds that brings any church family closer together. Don’t think of a play night as a filler night. Be intentional about it!

That Awkward Moment When Someone Cusses in Front of the Preacher . . . at Church

Curse words are common place in the world today, but there are a few mutually agreed upon places where curse words are frowned upon, including: kids’ birthdays, weddings, and most definitely church services.

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Well, Shannon* broke one of those rules Sunday. Shannon only recently started coming to church in the past few months. Before that, nothing. No church experience whatsoever. All of this is new to her. I’m not sure if she even considers herself a believer yet. But she’s been coming to Mt Vernon and enjoying it.

At the end of the service I walked up to her to say ‘hey’ and ‘thanks for coming.’ We were in the middle of the post-service scrum to get out of the Worship Center so I touched her on the elbow to get her attention. Apparently I move like a ninja, or she was zoned out or something. Because I scared the bejesus out of her and her unfiltered, immediate response was, “holy sh@!”

I could see on her face that she realized she had just cussed in the church house. Then she looked over and saw me, and the look on her face when it dawned on her that she had just cursed in the church house in front of the preacher was priceless! Her face turned a shade of red not normally seen on a human face. She couldn’t apologize, she couldn’t say anything. Maybe I should have been offended, but in reality it cracked me up. I thrive on awkward moments, and Shannon offered the best one in months.

Rather than admonish Shannon or chastise her, I went out of my way to let her know that she was fine and that we were fine. It was a momentary indiscretion, not intentional. (I did tell her friend there, “I can’t bring this up again because I’m too nice because I’m the preacher, but please never let her live down the fact that she just cussed in front of the preacher!)

Strangely enough, here’s why I walked away encouraged from that moment. I’m glad people like Shannon feel comfortable enough to come to Mt Vernon to explore their relationship with God. She’s not a church person. She doesn’t know the rules. She apparently doesn’t know what you can and can’t say in the church house. These are the very people we need to be reaching! If folks like Shannon feel welcomed enough to come to a church like Mt Vernon, we must be doing something right, even if it means we have to endure a few slips of the tongue along the way.

 

*No way am I going to sell Shannon out and give you her real name.

Trying to Make Sense of the Senselessness of the South Carolina Church Shooting

Unless you lived under a rock the past 48 hours, your news world has been saturated with tragedy coming out of Charleston, South Carolina. Now that the initial shock and horror is beginning to wear off, how can we begin to make sense of this senseless act of violence? Here are four things to remember:

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  • No explanation can ever be sufficient when the loss is personal. Acts of violence that you see on a news report are just unfortunate statistics. But the loss becomes so overwhelming when there’s a personal connection that no simple explanation, not even a Bible verse, can adequately quantify the senselessness of violence like this.
  • The effects of sin and evil in the world are devastatingly real. Sin is like a bomb that went off in the world, leaving a trail of collateral damage in its wake. Sin is so deceiving and so destructive that it can even twist a human heart into thinking that killing innocent people is the answer, when it never, never is. Once again, we know this from a theoretical standpoint, but it becomes all too real when it affects us in a way that we can’t control. The church being targeted wasn’t some form of divine punishment. It’s just the consequences of a sin-infested world. Like a tornado ripping through a community, it will destroy one house while leaving the next house intact.
  • Evil is big, but God is bigger. Deep down we know we can’t fully understand this act of violence this side of heaven. I don’t think we need answers as much as we need to know that God is here. God is with us. Evil is big, but God is bigger.
  • Put your hope in heaven. The victims in this attack are in a better place. You can grieve for those left behind, but don’t grieve for those who’ve died. They’re with Jesus, with no more pain, sickness, sorrow or death. That hope carried them through life and death. That hope is available to all.

7 Marks of a Spirit-Filled Church

What does it look like when the Holy Spirit shows up in power in a church? ‘Spirit-filled’ is a buzz word that energizes some denominations while sending others into a tizzy. Rather than rehash modern interpretations, I want to look at a beautiful description of the Spirit-filled church in Acts 2 and highlight seven identifying marks.

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42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. Acts 2:42-47

1. Unwavering devotion (v 42). They were all-in. This wasn’t something they did half-heartedly or on the weekends they were free. They were absolutely devoted.

2. Overwhelming awe (v 43). Their worship wasn’t lip service. It was real, it was genuine, it was overflowing. They knew they were a part of a divine movement and that reality overwhelmed them.

3. Undeniable proof of God’s power (v 43). That’s my terminology for signs and wonders. Whether it’s physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual healing, there was undeniable proof that things were happening and lives were being transformed in a way that could only be explained by the presence of God.

4. Complete unity (v 44). The believers were together and had everything in common. At this point there were no hidden agendas, no arguments, no denominations, no church splits. The only thing Jesus prayed for future believers in the New Testament (John 17) is that they would be united. That’s why if you read Acts 5 the first thing Satan attacks is their unity. A Spirit-filled church is a church united.

5. Sacrificial giving (v 45). They gave to anyone as they had need. They completely realized that everything they had was a gift from God, and they were simply stewards. If God wanted them to give their possessions to someone else, that was His call. They trusted God enough to give sacrificially.

6. Intentional community (v 46). They worshipped together. They ate together. They did life together. They didn’t just do life sitting in rows. They did life in circles. They did life together.

7. God-sized growth (v 47). When God shows up in power, it’s unmistakable. God grew the church. The apostles adjusted their sails to prepare for the wind of the Holy Spirit, but it was the Spirit himself that fueled the church then, just as He’s the only one that fuels the church today.

Repost: 10 Things the Church Puts Ahead of Reaching People

Yesterday this blog post just passed 250,000 page views, making it the most viewed blog post on my site by far (by roughly around 243,000 page views!) In honor of that milestone (and because I wanted a day off), here’s the post once again. Originally posted March 23, 2015. 

You would think the Great Commission is clear enough: Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations. Unfortunately, too many churches put other things ahead of reaching people. Here are 10 of the biggest:

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  1. Location – Some people are tied to an address. Church is an address, a location. I’ve seen churches die because their people moved away and they weren’t willing to reach the new folks in their neighborhood.
  2. Buildings/Architecture – For some, the bricks and mortar are what make the church sacred, not the people. At my first church when our youth group exploded in growth we had to move into the sanctuary because it was the only room big enough for us. We had some ladies that were so concerned that every Thursday morning they would come into the sanctuary after our Wednesday nights and look up and down the pews for knicks or scratches. They were more concerned with the architecture then the people that architecture was designed to meet.
  3. Tradition – You knew this one would get in here. Tradition has killed many a church. When churches pursue the past more than they pursue people, that church will die. Many times preachers will preach on the last seven words of Jesus, the seven phrases Jesus said while on the cross. I’ll never forget what a Bible college professor told me once. He said, “Do you know what the last seven words of a church are? We’ve never done it that way before.”
  4. Music preferences – This one splits up more churches than perhaps anything else. We’re fine reaching the next generation for Jesus, as long as they like our music our way. That’s putting music preferences above people. And I’m not saying the contemporary music is the final answer. It’s not a particular style of music but the heart behind that’s willing to give up musical preferences to reach the next generation for Jesus. I’ve said this before, but when I’m older and I’ve got great-grandkids running around, I’m not sure what kind of church music they’ll like, but I guarantee you I probably won’t like it. The question is will I be willing to put reaching others ahead of my musical preferences?
  5. Programs – The early church reached their world for Christ and became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire without Sunday School, without VBS, without youth groups or children’s choirs. Church programs are designed to reach people, but we can never let them become more important than people.
  6. Control – Some churches are stifled because there’s a few families in control, and they simply don’t want to give up control. They put control ahead of reaching people.
  7. Social Status – The Bible says that in Christ there are no slaves or free or Greeks or Barbarians but we are all one in Christ. However, too many churches aren’t willing to reach people outside of their racial, economic, or social status.
  8. Cleanliness – Some churches aren’t willing to do the heavy lifting required, they’re not willing to roll up their sleeves and embrace the messes of the world. If we’re not willing to get a little dirty, we’ll never reach the world.
  9. Status Quo – Some churches simply don’t want to change. They’re good. The light bill is paid, the buildings are paid off, there’s enough of a crowd to give the illusion that something is happening. Some churches aren’t willing to embrace the change necessary to reach people.
  10. Religion – Put it all together, some churches put religion above people. They put their rituals, their observances, their routines, their beliefs, their ministry structures ahead of people. They feel like they’re loving God, but they don’t realize that you can’t truly love God if you don’t love people.

QUESTION: What other things would you add to this list?

In response to the popularity of this post, I’ve written several follow-up blogs tied to this one. Please check out:

10 (More) Things the Church Puts Ahead of Reaching People – a follow up post based off of your comments on this post.

7 Things the Church Puts Ahead of Reaching People – the video clip of the first time I ever shared the information from this post.

The Way Forward Past the 10 Things – how to begin to move past the problems toward the solution.

How One Church Changed to Reach People – a real life story of how one church changed to better reach people.