#EasteratVC Recap

It’s Wednesday afternoon, and I just finished some sermon preparation for this coming weekend. We’re starting a new series, Field of Dreams, and it’s going to be awesome. However, if I’m completely honest, I’ve been a little distracted. I’m still buzzing from what happened at Vertical Church on Easter Sunday. It was our biggest Easter EVER! Not only in attendance, but we also saw a record number of salvations, and let’s face it, that’s far and away the most important number for the day.

I’ve been trying to figure out what was different, and I think I’ve discovered it. Want to know?

Nothing.

Nada.

Zilch.

We did nothing for Easter Sunday that we couldn’t repeat each and every week. Now that doesn’t mean we did nothing. I actually think we could look back and see four things we did intentionally that really positioned us for an awesome Easter. Obviously, all credit goes to God for everything that happened. We simply operated in His power… but we still operated. As I’ve heard Perry Noble ask before, if God’s will is for every church to grow, why aren’t all churches growing? That’s why I want to share these 4 decisions we made that made all the difference.

  1. We sought God. Starting back in March, we began a 21-day period of focused prayer and scripture reading. I’ve rarely been as encouraged as a pastor as I was when I saw people sharing photos of our prayer card as they took the step to own our Easter through prayer. Just like all of life begins and ends with God, so our Easter experience began and ended with God. I just think it began way before Easter.
  2. We showed up. As a pastor, I’ve come to the realization that on any given Sunday only about 60% – 75% of the people who consider our church home actually attend. I’m not trying to be overly negative or fuss… there are a variety of reasons for this. Many people work on Sundays. That’s just a fact of life. Living close to the beach and a pretty good amusement park doesn’t help either, especially when the weather warms up. But on those days when attendance climbs to something more 90% – 95%, it really makes a difference.
  3. We stepped out. So many people sacrificed their time to serve and make the day happen. We had people in rolls that we’d been dreaming and talking about for a while, and they shined. It made a difference too. Guests weren’t just greeted at the door, but they were greeted in the hallways, in the auditorium, walking their kids to different theaters. They were smiled at, welcomed, shown a seat. From our production team to kids, we had people stepping up all over the place.
  4. We shared a lot. Did you know that nearly every first-time guest (not all, but a whole lot) was personally invited? It makes a huge difference when each of us takes ownership of the growth of the church. Sure we did a little bit of advertising online, but far and away the number one reason people gave for attending was personal invitation. And I know we did the fun “Egg Your Neighbor” boxes, but that was just to encourage more personal invitations.

That’s it, really. Even when it came to the adult and kids’ worship experiences, we didn’t really do anything out-of-the-box. We didn’t fly in helicopters, sky dive from airplanes, or fill the Regal parking lot with exotic animals (no criticism if you or your church did any or all of those things). In fact, we opened the adult experience with the Gaither song, “Because He Lives.” How’s that for innovative? We did what we do every Sunday. We sang worship songs, preached the gospel, and gave people an opportunity to respond. And they did!

So here’s what I’m thinking, especially if you’re reading this and you call Vertical Church home.

Let’s do it again!

Let’s not stop seeking God, showing up, stepping out, and sharing a lot. We don’t need it to be Easter to do those. They don’t cost a dime. Let’s build on the miracles God performed this past Sunday, and let’s step fully into the purpose He has for our church. I’m not trying to compare or compete with any other church, but you need to know – what happened Sunday IS NOT NORMAL! I know of plenty of churches that had 2 or 3 times as many people attend, but didn’t see a tenth of the number of salvations or recommitments we saw. That’s not to say anything negative about them but to simply underscore the unique opportunity God is presenting to us.

If God is pouring out His Spirit…

If revival is rising…

If salvation is springing forth…

Then let’s take hold of that for which Christ Jesus has taken hold of us. For we do not belong to those who shrink back and are destroyed, but to those who have faith and are saved.

Let’s do it again!

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What I learned about Easter from a wild goose.

Lately, one of my favorite evening activities has been to walk the fairway behind my house and look for lost golf balls. If you haven’t been to my house, we live on a golf course. We don’t get free golf, sadly. However, I usually find about 10 golf balls each time I go out, so that’s something!

As I was walking yesterday, I came upon a mother goose watching over her eggs. I must have crossed her “don’t come near my babies” line because she raised up and let out a hiss that can only be described as terrifying. If you happened to be just at the right spot on Greenbrier Blvd., you were treated to the hilarious sight of a grown man in a full sprint in fear from a goose that never moved.

I’m not proud about that, but it did give me a particular thought. What if we were as passionate about inviting people to church as that goose was about protecting her unhatched babies? What if we understood our mission to be as vital and necessary as that mother goose’s? It certainly is.

I haven’t spent a ton of time reading 2 Timothy, but I did come across a passage that has just lodged in my heart lately. From the International Children’s Bible (don’t judge me…) 2 Timothy 1:10 says this, “Jesus destroyed death. And through the Good News, he showed us the way to have life that cannot be destroyed.”

Life that cannot be destroyed. Wow.

When you share the story of Jesus with someone, you’re inviting them to discover a life that cannot be destroyed.

Not by depression.

Not by sickness.

Not by fear.

Not by addiction.

Not by brokenness.

Not by pain.

Life that cannot be destroyed. Period.

Why? Because Jesus destroyed death… and when he destroyed death, he destroyed every weapon that death wielded. They were all stripped of their power. Again, Paul puts it this way in Colossians 2:15, “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

So let’s release our inner wild goose… full of passion, energy, and purpose. Let’s invite our neighbors, co-workers, friends, and family members to church this Easter. We have a powerful story to share, and we need not shrink back from it. And when they see the way to have life that cannot be destroyed, let’s make earth look more like heaven, joining the celebration taking place among the angels.

In Which Leaving Seems the Only Solution

To those brothers and sisters in the Church of God who are frustrated, fed up and ready to leave –

From a son who has already walked part of that journey… just a few words I’d like to share with you.

I see you. I hear you. I get your frustration. I can’t fully understand it as a male who’s never had a lid placed on my leadership because of my gender, but I try to listen and seek to understand. Admittedly, I am a bit surprised by your shock and disbelief at the results of the vote for Item 8 on your General Assembly Agenda. In the words of Dennis Green, “They are who we thought they were.” (If you’re not familiar with that, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SWmQbk5h86w – There are some bleeped out words, so be mindful.) I know you were hopeful for change, but “they are who we thought they were” seems to be an apt description. You were seeking a two-thirds majority, and you found it, just not in the way hoped. And now you’re talking of leaving. That’s where I want to share some words of experience.

See, I was born Church of God (only 2nd generation though, not sure if that counts), on a Sunday morning, and I’m convinced my mom stopped to have her Sunday School class pray for her on the way to the hospital. I was saved, sanctified, and baptized in the Holy Ghost before I was 10 years old. I was called to preach at a Church of God Youth Camp and preached my very first message in a Church of God at 17. I went to Lee University and the Church of God Theological Seminary. I helped plant a Church of God in North Carolina, served as a Youth Pastor at a Church of God in east Tennessee, and accepted a staff position at a large Church of God in Virginia that was rapidly dying after a pastoral affair and shady money practices. It closed. We started something new, something non-Church of God.

I never actually set out to leave. Leaving kinda just happened. I found myself part of a community that had been deeply hurt by Church of God leadership and didn’t trust them anymore. It’s a long story, but I decided to walk with them because, honestly, that’s just what I felt the Lord wanted us to do. I have no real animosity toward the Church of God nor any of its leaders. I still have friends (hopefully) in the denomination, so I don’t say this accusatorially, but this is something you need to know… no one called. No one. In the previous 6 years, I don’t know that any Church of God leader or friend has initiated a conversation with me. It’s not that I expected them to. I understand who I am and who I am not. And perhaps it is partly my own fault (I struggle maintaining relationships). And I don’t say this to garner any kind of sympathy or words of encouragement or to have someone call now. I say this only because I don’t want you to be surprised when they don’t call you. Maybe your experience will be different. Maybe the culture has changed. Maybe it’s more about me and my personality. Maybe it’s not. I just don’t want you to be surprised by the feeling of being forgotten. It happens, and it can be difficult to realize.

On that note, being forgotten isn’t all that bad either! Like Gandalf said (nerd alert!), “Home is now behind you, the world is ahead!” There is a certain freedom you’ll experience. Freedom to step fully into who God is creating you to be. Freedom to explore, to think differently, to befriend people you wouldn’t before. Be careful that you don’t let your new found freedom take you off course though. I’ve seen that happen too. People lose that layer of accountability and go buck wild. Cultivate friendships with people who love Jesus more than they love you, and you’ll be fine.

It can get lonely too. A denomination gives you a certain level of connectedness. If you want to join another organization, I get that. Find a new home. There are plenty of networks and denominations that can give you what you’re looking for, and I’m sure they’d be thrilled to welcome you. Don’t throw up on them too quickly though. That’s not the first impression you want to give.

I’ll let you know, if you choose not to go that route, finding community with other local church leaders can be tedious at times. People are skeptical, especially pastors. But you’ll want to push through that. I’m still working on it, so if you discover something new, let me know!

All of that to say, this isn’t the end. There’s life after this. If the framework that has ordered and made sense of your life is shifting, be encouraged! This is an incredibly creative time for you. You are reimagining life, restructuring your frame, dreaming and hoping again. There’s a lot of power and creativity there. And know that there are others of us out here with you. We left, some by choice, some by circumstances beyond us. You are not alone.

God bless.

Why I Choose to Trust People

Being a cynic is for the weak. It takes strength and courage to live at the intersection of hope and trust.

As a pastor, I have been privy to all sorts of conversations.  And as often is the case, we end up talking about people.  Not in the gossipy, “bible study prayer request for a friend in need” sense, where we divulge all of the rumors and insider knowledge that we have acquired about a person – who may really be in need, but probably doesn’t want all of their dirty laundry aired.  I’m sure you know what I mean there.  We end up talking about how people hurt others… betray, lie, insult.  More often than not, the pain experienced is both legitimate and completely understandable.  I’ve seen terrible wounds inflicted upon the hearts and souls of men and women – some times physical, other times emotional, always painful.

It’s easy to experience the damage that we can inflict upon each other and become cynical… believing that everyone is just motivated by their own self-interests, leaving us full of distrust of human sincerity or integrity.  It makes perfect sense.  How do you protect yourself from future hurt at the hands of those you trust?  Simply stop trusting people.  If you don’t place your trust in people, then those people can never betray that trust and bring you harm.  This attitude is so prevalent in church circles that we’ve even given it a spiritual twist, a “Christianese” way of saying it all.  We’ll talk about how you can’t place your trust in people, only God.  That if you place your trust in people, they will let you down because they are immoral, ignorant, insecure, immature, etc.  We’ll quote scripture to support our growing cynicism:

“Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save.” – Psalm 146.3.

“This is what the LORD says: “Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from the LORD.” – Jeremiah 17:5.

I get the main idea, and I agree that people are often untrustworthy, full of insecurity and immorality.  But I don’t think that means we don’t trust them.  I don’t think it gives credence to being a cynic.

Simply put – we trust people because Jesus trusted people.  Jesus surrounded himself with people, friends that He lived life with.  It wasn’t by accident.  Nothing Jesus did was by accident.  He trusted people, and people crucified him.  When He rose from the grave, fresh off of the betrayal, He still trusted people.  Jesus refused to give up on the trustworthiness of humanity.  Jesus invited us (people) into His Father’s mission (see Matthew 28:18-20) knowing all too well what lies in the human heart.  Even today, He’s still trusting people.  He’s still entrusting us with His message, with His Spirit.

Being a cynic is for the weak.  It doesn’t take large doses of creativity and insight to discover the evil that lurks within.  It’s not particularly courageous to live your life separated from friends because you fear they may turn on you.  It doesn’t take strength to live in that kind of fear.

It does, however, take strength and courage to live at the intersection of hope and trust.  To live, as Christ lived, with the reality that the same people you are trusting today may, in fact, be the mob that cries out for your crucifixion tomorrow.  It takes audacity to stare fear in the face, and choose to trust anyway.  It isn’t ignorant or naive to choose trust.  It may be one of the most daring choices we can ever make.

What preachers can learn from American Idol

Quick!  Name 5 American Idol winners who’ve achieved true success worthy of being called an “American Idol.”  I’ll help – Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood… and so far, that’s about it.  Not great, but I guess 2 out of 11 isn’t bad.  However, to be the show discovering America’s next pop sensation, batting just under .200 isn’t great.

Now to be honest, I’m a fan of the show.  My wife and I faithfully watch it ever year, including this year.  We have our favorite contestants, cheer when they make it through and bemoan the state of this generation’s musical tastes when they are eliminated.  I check votefortheworst.com weekly to see who the haters are pushing and complain that the site even exists.  I genuinely like the show, but when it’s over, I ‘unfollow’ my favorites on twitter and pretty much forget about that crop of could-be’s.

Why?  How can I be so invested in a person for several months, but then check out on them just as quick when the season wraps up?

I think it has something to do with singing cover songs.  A cover song is a new performance of a previously recorded/released song, usually by someone other than the original artist.  Often times, the original recording is seen as the definitive or “authentic” version, and all other attempts are merely lesser competitors or tributes.  There are occasions, albeit rare, when the cover becomes more popular and well known than the original, i.e. Jimi Hendrix’s version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”

Here’s what I think happens.  As the audience, we get used to hearing our favorites wail away on previously recorded songs.  They may make changes to the melody, instrumentation, style… but we identify with them through these songs.  We form opinions about them – who they are and what kind of artist they’ll be – all through songs with which we have already connected.  For example, I really like Candace, in part because I really like Mary J. Blige.  When Candace sings, she often reminds me of Mary J. and that makes my fond of her.

The problems arise when our favorite idols are no longer singing songs we already recognize.  We can’t say, “Wow, Candace really put a Mary J. twist on that old standard,” when she’s singing an original song.  We struggle to be as excited as we once were, when we had the familiarity of the cover song to bridge the gap.  In other words, we got to know and like you as a cover artist, not an original artist (no matter how “original” the arrangements may have been).

This is especially true and applicable in the arena I find myself most often – church and teaching/preaching.  See, my generation of preachers and teachers have a massive amount of “coverable” material at our disposal.  There are plenty of sermon sites out there with downloadable, ready-to-preach sermon series available.  To be honest, this is incredibly helpful.  In my situation, having graphic and video resources available, often times for free, make the presentation of the message that much better.  Not to mention how reading through other sermons have helped me become a better sermon-writer.  It’s a great tool.

Yet, there’s a dark side to this too.  If we (as preachers and teachers) aren’t careful, we can morph into little more than cover preachers, putting a little spin or tweak on this Groeschel message or that Furtick sermon.  We preach it and the applause comes.  “What a great message!”  “How do you come up with that?”  “God really spoke through you today.”  These comments, which should bolster our confidence actually do the opposite.  They push us deeper and deeper into cover preaching.  We lose our confidence in our own words and grow to rely on the tweaked words from this podcast or that Open resource.

I know what that feels like.  I get the pressure of feeling like you have to have something great every week, something profound, something funny.  But you didn’t get into this thing to be a cover artist.  There’s something inside you that God wants to get out and into others.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  Use the resources you have available – books, podcasts, downloads, graphics, etc.  No one cares if you get help from these places, ideas and points.  But please, don’t loose your voice.  We need to hear from you, the one God called into this fray.  He wants to use your unique perspective, your unique thoughts, your unique voice to speak into the lives of those around you.  You are not an echo.  You are a voice!

Original is Overrated

July 11, 2012.  That’s the last time I blogged.  292 days ago.  7,008 hours.  420,48 minutes.  25,228,800 seconds.  In other words, it’s been a while.

I’m a preacher, which means I get the privilege to stand in front of people and tell them what God says – a task that sounds both exciting and ludicrous at the same time.  To do it justice, I think you have to be both incredibly plugged into the world, and yet somewhat detached at the same time.  You’re basically a walking oxymoron (which some have called me after sitting through a sermon, save the “oxy” part).

And I love listening to preachers.  I keep my podcast playlist filled with a steady diet of all sorts of preachers – Pentecostal, Baptist, Methodist, mainstream and no stream, it’s an iTunes Baskin-Robbins preacher edition.  From what I’ve noticed, each preacher has his or her “thing.”  They have a unique approach, style, rhythm… something that makes them special.  Andy Stanley can spend 45 minutes packing all sorts of meaning and application into one solitary point, one takeaway, one tweetable sentence.  And nobody can tell a story quiet like T.D. Jakes.  I still remember a sermon he preached on “the woman with an issue of blood” where you would have thought he was there when she approached Jesus.  I admire preachers like that.  Dare I say, I envy preachers like that.

Now, before you go all judgmental on me because I admitted that I struggle with envy, hear me out.  I know pastors and preachers are supposed to be perfect and blameless, God’s-man-of-faith-and-power and all.  But when I listen to my playlist of podcasts, too often I find myself intimidated, scared, wondering why I’m even in this field.  See, I don’t know what my “preacher thing” is.  I’m not really that funny.  I struggle with creating a memorable one-liner that will stick all week long.  My stories have a 50/50 shot of being memorable.  I make up words, often on the spot when I can’t think of the right word quickly enough or when I just do a spontaneous mash-up.  This could be my “thing” but it’s not that glamorous.  If I had to pick my niche as a preacher, I’d probably say I’m a good editor.

I don’t feel that I’m really that original enough to claim any of the content that I share in a sermon as my own.  Probably 90% of what I say comes from somewhere else: books, commentaries, articles, podcasts.  I fill my Evernote with phrases, sentences and references that I discover that I can use in upcoming sermons or a sermon series.  An insight from this commentary, a funny thought from some random article, an illustration from the latest episode of American Idol, and a story thrown in from my personal life… just to “keep it real”.  My unique contribution seems to be editing these random pieces together.  It almost feels like I cheated on a test when someone commends me for something I said.  I’m often thinking, “Yeah, I didn’t come up with that.  That’s not original.  I’m not smart/cool/funny/original enough to come up with that.”  This is when the envy sets it, followed close behind by the why and who questions: Why am I doing this?  Who do I think I am?

John the Baptist is an interesting character, don’t you think?  (I sometimes struggle with ADD.)  Did you know that Jesus is quoted by Matthew as saying about JtB, “Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist;”?  That’s a pretty remarkable distinction!  And sure, John was an eccentric character.  We’re talking about a guy who wore camel camo 24/7 and ate bugs.  Think of a cross between Duck Dynasty and Man vs. Wild.  So, he may have looked strange, but his message wasn’t actually that original.  In fact, Matthew quotes Isaiah 40 when describing John’s message: “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'”  This was written hundred of years before John.  John wasn’t original.  John was just re-editing what had been said for generations before him – “get ready, God’s about to do something awesome.”  Isaiah prophesied it.  Jeremiah cried about it.  Ezekiel envisioned it.  John’s just reminding God’s people what God has been saying for a long time.  And the word used to describe John, this editor of past generations’ prophecy – a voice.

And really, that’s all God is looking for… a voice.  It’s what prepared the way for Jesus then, and it’s what prepares the way for Jesus now – a voice.  And the voice isn’t saying anything that original.  The voice is just reminding God’s created people what God has been saying and doing for a long time.  I’m okay with being an editor.  And I’m proud to stand in a long line of editors.  After all, that’s all any of us are.  We’re not the original voice, but we are invited to be a voice.

So who cares that maybe you’re not all that original.  Maybe you’re not funny, or outgoing, or smart, or whatever you think you need to be in order for God to use you to speak life into someone else.  You are a voice, and that’s all He needs.  That’s all he’s looking for.