Hope Story: Convicts and Lesbians

Last Thursday was a great reminder for me of what the gospel is supposed to be about. It’s not just for the well-manicured families we typically think of when we think of church. It’s for everyone (at least it’s supposed to be). It’s for the high and mighty and the down and out. Last Thursday I was reminded of that.

The day started with a text from one of our church members saying she recently had a conversation with a member of another church about a new co-worker who happens to be lesbian. Our church member said she was planning on inviting her to church, to which the member of the other church replied, “Yeah, she would probably be comfortable there.” I took that conversation as a compliment, meaning we’ve created a welcoming environment where our members feel comfortable inviting those with lifestyles that you typically wouldn’t see inside a church in the South.

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Later on that morning I wrote a letter to a convict who had written me the previous week. He grew up in our community and has a reputation for wild living. He attended church as a kid but it never stuck. His second trip to the pen got his attention and he gave his life to Christ a few months ago. He’s 2-3 months from being released and is looking for a church home once he gets home. He heard that Mt Vernon might be a place where he would be accepted. I wrote him back and assured him that he has a family waiting here for him, with some great guys ready to mentor him and disciple him.

That was my Thursday. Convicts and lesbians. I was reminded of the truth from Scripture, “God is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) I guess ‘everyone’ means everyone, not just the ones we’re comfortable with.

Or as Jesus famously recounted in his parable: we’re to go to the highways and hedges to invite people to the Great Banquet.

21 ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’

22 “‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’

23 “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. Luke 14:21-23

I think convicts and lesbians count as ‘highways and hedges.’ I’m so glad they have a place here at Mt Vernon!

The Only Time I’ve Apologized to Someone After Baptizing Them

This past Sunday I had a pretty good idea of what it would feel like to baptize in a river during winter. The water heater for our baptistry didn’t work properly, which I discovered fifteen seconds before I baptized Nikki. It was cold. And I mean cold. My legs started feeling okay after a minute, but that was simply because they had gone numb and I had lost all feeling.

And I was staying above water! I felt horrible for Nikki, who was about to get a baptism she would never ever forget. Here’s my reaction to the temperature. Thankfully Nikki was a great sport and didn’t let the cold ruin her incredible experience (I’ll show her baptism video Friday as our Hope Story). After she’s out of the water, you hear me mumbling something to her. That’s the only time I’ve ever apologized to someone immediately after baptizing her.

Hope Story: Andy & Mia

Andy doesn’t strive for the spotlight. He doesn’t like to get on stage, never one to list his accomplishments. He’d most likely classify himself as an introvert. You might lose him in a crowd because he’s not one to bring attention to himself. But I’d like to give some love and attention to Andy today because he did something great last week.

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Last Friday I get a quick text from Andy (who’s in my church) saying that he met a young lady working at a local auto parts store and invited her to church. Wanted me to be on the lookout for Mia in case she came. Here’s the thing: he didn’t have to invite Mia. He didn’t have to even have a conversation with Mia. He could have simply walked in, conducted his business, and walked out, like so many other Christians do. But Andy decided to start a conversation. And he took the brave leap to invite her to church.

And guess what happened? Mia came to church Sunday! Andy walked her up and introduced me and I got to know a little about her story. She’s actually born in a different country, been here for a few years but doesn’t have many ties here. She’s a single mom trying to work hard and provide for her family. Church seemed to be semi-familiar to her but not a part of her normal life.

Mia told Andy afterwards that she had a good experience and wanted to come back with her daughter and mother next time. And who knows, Mia may never show back up. But what if? What if Mia comes back and gets plugged in? What if her little girl loves our children’s ministry and grows up in the church? What if Mia’s mother finds a community of faith to do life with?

Think of three lives, potentially forever changed, all because Andy decided to start a conversation and invite a stranger to church. Hats off to you Andy!

Who can you invite to church today?

Tim Tebow Stole* My Idea

Okay, so he didn’t really steal from me. He probably stole the idea from the same people I stole from. Back in 2006 I was sitting in a room with other youth pastors brainstorming when one stood up and shared how his church hosted a special needs prom every year. They called it Joy Prom. In that instant, about a dozen other youth pastors (including me) vowed to start one in our own city. As I continued to minister over the years I helped start Joy Proms in Jackson MS, Shreveport LA, and now Columbus MS. It’s always one of the highlights of the year as our high school students throw a prom for the special needs community.

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So I was surprised, then shocked, then ecstatic to hear in the news recently that Tim Tebow’s foundation is coordinating 45 simultaneous proms in different cities this weekend for the special needs community. Tim was inspired by seeing a special needs prom at a local church last year. Who knows? It could have been one of the dozen whose genesis started in that room back in 2006.

Either way, I applaud Tebow for leveraging the platform given to him to shine a spotlight on others and bring honor and dignity to a very special group of people. I also look forward to Mt Vernon’s annual Joy Prom taking place April 25. If you don’t have something like the Joy Prom in your community, consider starting one. It’s a ton of work, but more than worth it!

Here’s a typical letter we get in response to the Joy Prom. Here are the lives we get to touch:

I just wanted to thank you all for the work you did on the Joy Prom. My stepson Phillip was a participant Saturday night. His mother and I were with him and were amazed at all the work, effort, love and sacrifice you made for Phillip and the other special adults to whom you ministered through this special event. A very special thanks to Lauren, Phillip’s date, and the other amazing young people who chose to be compassionate rather than “cool” and took an awesome “image risk” Thank you for all you do and God bless you.

A Really Awkward Way to Introduce Yourself to the New Couple at Church

I had it all planned out. John and Jennifer* were a new couple who had come to our church for a few weeks but I hadn’t gotten a chance to meet them. So I found them on Facebook, got my creep on and memorized their names and faces. The following Sunday I was all ready to greet them by name. The only minor detail I forgot was getting the right couple.

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So last Sunday I saw a new couple that had just walked past me on their way to worship. I was about 95% sure it was John and Jennifer so I called to them as they walked past me. They hesitated slightly but kept moving. Convinced they hadn’t heard me, I called out to them again by name, this time more confidently. They slowly stopped and turned around with a strange look on their faces. I asked, “Are you John and Jennifer?” They responded, “No, we’re Mike and Amber.* It’s our first time here.”

At that moment I was doing everything to make time go backwards. I looked for Doc’s flux capacitor. I tried the “timeout” thing from Zack Morris of Saved By the Bell. None of it worked. I had just introduced myself to the new couple by confidently calling them by the wrong name.

Now hopefully this story has a happy ending. We laughed about the whole thing, I welcomed them to church, vowed to remember their real names from now on, and Amber even sent me a message later saying they enjoyed the services and planned on coming back.

But yikes, that was awkward!

P.S. I did find John and Jennifer later that morning as well!

* These are not their real names. I do know their real names, believe me.

Why We Boarded Up the Baptistry in Our Church

Does your church still baptize people?” That was a well meaning question that came from someone in our community. This might seem like an odd question, but the truth of the matter is we boarded up our baptistry three years ago. Walled it up and replaced it with a gigantic screen. And we’ve been baptizing people ever since.

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We made the decision to board up our baptistry and go with a portable baptistry for several reasons:

1). We want to bring baptism to the people. Our traditional baptistry was located high and too far removed from the congregation, tucked away into a wall for convenience. Our portable baptistry (when set up) is right at the foot of the stage. In fact we refer to the first three rows as the “splash zone.” Just the difference in location changes the entire atmosphere. Baptism now takes place in the midst of the congregation, creating a much more communal feel.

2). We can now baptize during five services at two locations. On Sundays and Wednesdays we have multiple services that meet in our Worship Center and Fellowship Center. With a portable baptistry we can set up and tear down depending on where the person prefers to be baptized. We make baptism videos that we show in all services so that everyone can celebrate together, but the flexibility has been huge for us.

3). We can better utilize technology to reach the next generation. We boarded up our old baptistry and replaced it with a gigantic screen that is the centerpoint for our visual worship strategy. Much like stained glass windows hundreds of years ago, utilizing technology better helps us capture the attention of those that come through our doors. The screen is a big step in helping people worship with all five senses.

So yes, we boarded up the baptistry in our church, and we’ve been baptizing people ever since.

The Comparison Trap

We’ve all experienced it. We’re feeling good about ourselves, our looks, our lot in life. But then we make the mistake of looking to the left and to the right. And we see someone who is richer, prettier, stronger, happier, more successful. And suddenly we don’t feel as good about ourselves. How can we escape the comparison trap?

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If you’re in Columbus this weekend, join us at Mt Vernon Church tomorrow at 9 am and 10:30 am for the Comparison Trap. You can also catch us online at www.mtvchurch.tv.

See you tomorrow!

Is Your Church the Pro Bowl or the Super Bowl?

Last night was the NFL Pro Bowl, not that you watched it. I didn’t. I’m a rabid football fan, and the thought never even crossed my mind. Couldn’t remember where it was on tv. I looked at ESPN’s website, the (theoretically) go-to site for all things sports. There wasn’t even a link on the main page. NBA, NCAA basketball and the Australian Open were apparently more important events to cover.

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What makes the Pro Bowl so forgettable and the Super Bowl so memorable? They’re both football games. They’re a week a part. They’re both in the same venue. Cities pay tens of millions of dollars for the privilege of hosting the Super Bowl. The Pro Bowl was on the brink of cancellation a few years ago. That’s how few people care about the Pro Bowl. So what makes the Pro Bowl so forgettable and the Super Bowl so memorable? And what’s the application for the church today?

1. The Pro Bowl doesn’t count for anything. The Super Bowl counts for everything. The Pro Bowl is a way to highlight the best individual players at each position, but the game itself doesn’t count for anything. Everyone knows that. The Super Bowl, however, counts for everything. It’s the one prize that 32 teams are vying for each season. For the church: What’s at stake when your church meets each Sunday? Do people get the sense that eternity hangs in the balance, or is it just another Sunday routine?

2. The players aren’t playing for real at the Pro Bowl. The players are playing for keeps at the Super Bowl. The number one concern of the players during the Pro Bowl is ‘don’t get hurt.’ They play it safe, not wanting to put their salary in jeopardy for a meaningless game. The fans see that instantly. The Super Bowl is the polar opposite. You can’t keep the players off the field. They’ll play through pain, through sprains, through broken bones if need be. They’re playing for keeps. For the church: Is there a fire at your church? Is your church playing offense, taking new territory for the Kingdom, pushing back the darkness and actively spreading the hope of the gospel? Or is your church playing defense, keeping things the same, keeping the big givers happy, not rocking the boat?

3. Pro Bowl teams are nothing more than a collection of individuals. The Super Bowl contestants are teams that have been through the fire together. The Pro Bowl players are all-stars, but they’re not a team. They play like a group of players wanting to make the highlight reel and display their individual talents rather than win together. The teams that make the Super Bowl have been refined by the fire of the regular and post-season and play as one unit. Their teamwork, in fact, is what got them to this point. For the church: Does the church staff play as a team? Do they put the greater good ahead of their individual ministries? Are they more concerned with sacrificing for the good of the team or building their individual resume for the church down the road?

If you’re part of a church that meets weekly, be sure that it looks more like the Super Bowl than the Pro Bowl.