The East Texas Church

What are people looking for in a church?  This question drives pastors to burnout, difficult decisions, stress, confusion, and sometimes, growth.  Despite the difficult emotions this question might uncover, it’s still a question worth asking.  Why would Jesus feel it was so important to establish a body of believers and then leave them under the supervision of the Holy Spirit?  What’s the point?  We’ve asked this question several times in our Department Head Meetings.  I’d love to tell you we always have a good answer, but on occasion, we just stare at each other with confusion.  Why do people come?  Why should they want to come?  How can I explain to an unbeliever why it’s so important to be a part of a Church?  While I’ve been on vacation, I’ve been “researching” other churches to see if they have a clear vision of their role in the lives of believers.  Last week my wife and I attended a church in Las Vegas (see the previous post).  This week we visited a Church in the oldest town in Texas, Nacogdoches. If you’ve ever heard me talk about East Texas Churches before, you know that I usually leave them with a bad taste in my mouth.  This is mostly because the churches I’ve visited in the past were behind culture by at least 50 years.  The East Texas churches I’ve visited were dying because they were fighting to preserve the way the church has always done things and are disgusted by what they see outside their four walls.  Most have forgotten the mission Christ put them there for, to be obedient and reach people for Him and to train them as His disciples.  Today, however, I was pleasantly surprised.
Today we visited Grace Bible Church.  I selected their church to visit for two reasons.  1) They came first in the “largest church in Nacogdoches” Google search and 2) Their website was simple but well maintained.  I know these are fickle, vain reasons to visit a church, but I tried to approach a church the way an unbeliever who was interested in church might.  This church wasn’t perfect, but it had a lot of good things going for it.  Just like last week, I’m going to give the pros and cons of our time and what we experienced at this church service.  This time, however, I’m going to start with the negative and end on a positive note.

The Negative Experiences

1) We got lost.  The location Google sent us to wasn’t where the church was so we were late.  This was no fault to the church.  Their website gave the correct address.  When I asked Siri to take me there, we went straight there.  Google, however, made us late.
2) We couldn’t find anywhere to park.  This is a trivial concern.  In fact, I was happy to see no parking, even though I was a little frustrated.  No parking means people show up.  People showing up generally means they have a reason to.
3) They made mistakes.  The words on the screen weren’t transitioned quickly enough so we, the congregation, didn’t know what we were singing until halfway through the verse unless we’d heard the song before.  There were a few mishaps on instruments.  Once, the song leader went to the wrong verse and quickly changed what he was singing to match what was on the screen.  The speaker got mixed up on how to say “drank” instead of “drinked” and just made a big joke of it and everybody laughed.  Especially when he said he knew he wasn’t supposed to get “drunk” in church.
These negative experiences were flaws in this church.  But the truth is, I saw their flaws and didn’t care at all.  It just made the whole time there feel more real to me.  People aren’t perfect, we are flawed, Grace is what we need, not a flawless show.

The Positive Experiences

1) I saw God working there.  Just like Las Vegas, we visited on Baptism Sunday.  But instead of explaining their full discourse on Baptism, they simply let those being baptized do all the talking.  We listened as they each confessed having their lives changed by a person that was committed to that church.  Roommates, friends who were happy even outside the party scene, leaders in their circle of friends, each of them discovered the love of Christ because of another believer who invested their lives into them.  God worked on me while I was there.  But that’s a different post entirely.
2) They acknowledged us.  As soon as we walked in the door, a lady in a staff shirt directed us where we should go.  When we walked into the sanctuary, a man asked us how many people we had and then showed us to our seats.  Sure it was a little gesture, but the room was packed and he took the frustration and embarrassment from us of having to look for a seat in front of a bunch of people who saw us walk in late.  Erin took our son Pete to the nursery and reported that the nursery workers went out of their way to make them both feel comfortable.
3) They emphasized teamwork.  They didn’t have a single music leader and his or her band.  They had multiple people lead worship for songs.  It seemed like it felt very natural for them to step back and let someone else lead.  They don’t have a senior pastor, they have a team of pastors.  The Pastors and  Elders are each committed to discipleship and ministry and regularly meet with individuals.  I know this because I talked with one of the pastors after the service and bombarded him with questions (so many questions I probably came off as creepy and awkward).
4) They made themselves available.  In their bulletin it has their mission and where to go if they have questions.  It says there will always be a pastor or elder at the front if anyone wants to ask questions.  This is what I experienced so they weren’t bluffing.
5) People were hanging around and talking afterwards.  Not only did Erin and I both feel the presence of joy in these people’s lives, they also wanted to be around each other.  Friends talked about what they were doing later that day.  In the bathroom I heard two men (one older, one younger)  talking about how much fun a previous ministry was and how much they are looking forward to the next event.  They enjoyed genuine community.  It was fun to see people enjoying each other.
6) They proved a lot of misconceptions wrong.  I once heard a person talk about how churches shouldn’t have pews anymore because they were old fashioned and will deter the younger generation.  I saw nearly 400 college students sit in pews today and worship.  I’ve also heard that the bulletin should be colorful and attractive.  Theirs isn’t.  Nobody seemed to notice or care.  Worship supposedly needs moving lights and moving backgrounds on the screen.  The lights didn’t move or change colors once, the background was black the whole time during worship.  The worship was awesome because nobody appeared to be out for personal glory or worried about performance.  They simply played and we sang.
7) There was a next step.  Before leaving they gave an invitation to begin the process of discipleship, joining in membership, interest in baptism, etc.  They even had an event for students pop up on the screen when the pastor talked about it.  Sometimes people want to move, they just don’t know where to go.  They took this problem away from us.
If I wasn’t a pastor somewhere else, I would definitely attend this church on a regular basis.  It’s not because they are perfect — no church is.  It’s not because they can appeal to my generation and had a lot to offer my family.  The main reason I would attend this church is because my family and I felt welcome and my wife and I engaged with the Holy Spirit while there.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid, for I have overcome the world.” – John 14:27 (NIV)

Our Mega Church “Experience”

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Recently my wife and I went on vacation in Las Vegas and attended a Mega Church in town.  I have visited a Mega Church before this when I was 16, but not only was this before I knew Jesus, it was before I had any interest in how the church was impacting the world.  Now that I’m a small church pastor, I am very interested in how other churches operate and what kind of impact we make on the world.  So, we took advantage of the opportunity to visit another church (an opportunity that rarely presents itself).  This particular church followed what’s called the “multi-campus” model.  In other words, they have multiple locations with one speaker that speaks to all of them via video.  These sites also have a campus pastor who handles the “in-person” responsibilities such as personal decisions, individual campus directions, and explaining the mission of the church.  In the article below, I’m going to give my personal review of what we “experienced” and even why I keep using quotations for the word “experience”.
I’m going to start with the positive “experiences” for two reasons; 1) I think we can learn more from our negative interactions so I’m going to save those for the end and 2) there were a lot more good “experiences” than bad ones.

Positive “Experiences”

1)  Their facility was huge with clear signage going up to the front door.

They literally had everything a church could need or want.  From covered parking, to solar panel power, to state of the art stage equipment and lighting, to a gym, to a Christian School, to a water slide area for pool parties after church (yes you read it right).  Small church pastors like myself only dream about facilities like these (and drool).

2)  Their worship was wonderful.

They had very talented musicians who were very professional.  There was no dead time between events or songs.  One event ran right into the other with very smooth transitions.  I didn’t see a single error with words on the screen.  I didn’t hear a single error in the way the music was played.  They were very, very practiced and ready for worship when the time came.  At our church we could clearly learn a LOT from how they presented worship.  All the staff was wearing staff shirts, from sound technicians to children’s church staff, to the pastor.  It wasn’t at all hard to make out who was on staff and who wasn’t.

3)  I loved how they presented Baptism.

I was a little uncertain how a non-denominational church might present baptism.  Because we came on baptism decision day, we got to hear their whole pitch and doctrine for baptism.  In fact, that’s what the message was about.  On three separate occasions, I was impressed with what they said about Baptism.  First, they said that if a person was baptized as a baby that they weren’t trying to “undo” what their parents did but wanted to honor that decision instead.  Because Baptism is a lot like an altar where you can look back and remember the moment when God worked in your life, it’s better to have a memory of baptism.  Second, they mentioned that if a person wanted to be “re-baptized” they weren’t going to stand in their way.  However, the water didn’t forgive us.  If a person needed to be baptized every time they sinned, you should never get out of the water.  Third, they presented baptism like a wedding ring.  Wearing the ring at the time of commitment doesn’t make you a better spouse.  Instead, the ring reminds you of the commitment you made.

4)  They had their bases covered.

Because this was Baptism Sunday, they were prepared for baptisms.  They had the baptistry pool filled for people who wanted to do that immediately.  They tore down every excuse a person could have as to why they couldn’t get baptized right then and there.  “We have t-shirts if your clothing is see through…We brought towels for you…We have trash bags so you can ride home in your car wet…The water is warm…Jesus died for you, you can get wet for him…” etc.

5)  They had an encouraging atmosphere for decisions.

When people surrendered to the Lord in Baptism, they received a standing ovation from everyone in the auditorium.  That was really, really cool.  It took me some time to discern how I felt about the way they presented baptism as a decision, but in hindsight, I believe it was on target.  From what I read in the New Testament, I’ve never seen a time when a person didn’t get baptized immediately after the decision to follow Jesus.  The two should never be separated.  So although they weren’t doing an “altar call” for decisions to follow Christ, the decision to be Baptized was the decision to follow Christ.  I have to say, I was impressed with how they presented it.

6)  They respected our time.

They got us out on time (which is something I’m sure everyone in my congregation would love for me to master).

7)  They really wanted people to come as they were.

Nothing is more irritating to me than the idea that a person has to get cleaned up before they come to the Lord.  I have had this conversation on multiple occasions with multiple people.  A suit and a tie isn’t what the Lord asks for, nor is it how you show him respect.  He wants your heart, he wants your life, not your fashion.  If you really want to know why a person dresses their best on Sunday Morning, you really ought to study about Constantine in 313 A.D.  That’s when church “services” moved from the home to the big beautiful buildings.

8)  The message was extremely practical.

One of the things we often do in church is present the gospel in “Christianese”.  We use terms that people don’t understand and almost never attempt to explain them.  This church, however, assumed that everyone was new, instead of experienced, and had never heard of things like “Baptism” or “Salvation”.

9)  Avoided False Doctrine.

As a small church pastor, it would be easy to assume that Mega Churches are large because they teach false doctrine. Why then are they so successful and we aren’t?  However, this was not the case in this church.  They put things plainly and used scripture as a reference.
Before we go into the negative, let me just say that I don’t have an axe to grind.  Not only am I content where God has me, I am not looking to tear down my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.  I post these experiences in hopes that other churches can learn from them and be open to the Holy Spirit’s direction as to how a church should operate, including ours.

Negative “Experiences”

1)  They were too focused on the “Experience”.

I hate to sound as if I was biased before I walked into the front door but this is exactly what I expected when visiting a church in Las Vegas.  Las Vegas has a lot of shows.  From children’s shows, to teenager shows, to adult shows, to adult raunchy shows, they have something for everyone.  And in case you forget about the shows, just drive down the street and they have billboards and lights everywhere to remind you.  I don’t want to be unfair, but this church seemed to buy into that kind of mentality.  They even referred to the service as an “experience”.  But, from what I read in scripture, Church is NOT just an experience.  Sure, you experience things, but is that all there is?  While it’s fine to approach people as an individuals, our responsibility as spokespeople for God is to show them that their life is not all about them.  Sure they have a life, but it’s only because God gave it to them.  This is a needed message everywhere, but I would assume it’s especially true in Las Vegas.  This is the place where people are extremely desensitized to their senses because of what they “experience” 24/7.  Las Vegas has a lot of shows, they don’t need another one.

2)  No one talked to us.

It wouldn’t be fair to say that no one said anything to us.  The speaker talked to the audience from the stage.  I locked eyes with another polite person who said “hi” as they passed me on their way to the bathroom.  But other than that, no one personally spoke with us.  The signage into the building was great.  But once we got inside, we were so lost.  We didn’t know where to take our kids, we didn’t know where the sanctuary was, we didn’t even know where the bathroom was.  There weren’t signs anywhere to help either.  And to make matters worse, we walked past several people with staff shirts on who were busy conversing with each other.  Two women in particular temporarily paused their conversation with each other as we walked closer to them, looked as us, then continued the conversation.  I couldn’t imagine what we must have looked like, but I knew we were lost and if a person was paying attention to us, they could have seen that and helped us out.  We couldn’t find where to take our kids, so we just brought them into the sanctuary with us after we found it and sat down.  It was exactly what you would experience at a movie theater, the only difference is that at least the ticket person tears your ticket up and tells you which way to go.  I thought to myself, “Well, maybe someone will stop us outside the door on the way out.”  Silly me.  It was easy in, and easy out.

3)  The message wasn’t deep and had room for misapplication.

I’ve had a relationship with the Lord for a long time and know where to find spiritual nourishment outside of a church service.  I don’t need a speaker to feed me spiritually, but I’m also in the minority in churches.  Deeper application is needed for people who hadn’t been in church for a while.  As I said earlier the speaker made some great points about Baptism, however, he didn’t emphasize one of the most powerful points of all.  Baptism is more than a public profession of faith saying you’re a believer, it’s a moment when you declare your life is over and your life in Christ has begun.  As a follower of Christ after Baptism, you are submitting to others holding you accountable as a follower of the Lord.
The Baptism ceremony is your funeral. 
You are dead and no longer live for yourself.  Now you live for Christ.  Once, when I was India, I was asked to perform a baptism for a woman who had decided to follow Jesus in obedience through baptism.  I asked her several questions before I did it and the translator told me she asked that I please pray for her because when she got home her husband was going to beat her for making this decision.  In India, if a person believed in Jesus, they could live with no repercussions until they were baptized.  They just add Jesus to one of their many gods.  Once they were baptized, however, their lives were over.  Many women and children are abandoned, some are put in jail, some are killed.  This makes our excuses for why we can’t be baptized trivial by comparison.  Baptism isn’t a decision you can make for others, it’s a decision every person must make for themselves.  Probably one of the most heart wrenching things about this point was the 10-12 year old in front of us at the end of the message.  The speaker talked about how everyone should have that “altar” to look back on.  Apparently the woman in front of us agreed wholeheartedly.  Even to the point that she literally grabbed her son by the arm and drug him down the steps to have that very same “altar” for himself.  We watched as he tried to move out of her way if she wanted to make that decision for herself but she shook her head and took him by the arm talking to him the whole way down.  He was quite apprehensive, but she was bigger than him, what could he do?  I understand that these things can, have, and will happen again in the future.  I’ve even had people come to me and tell me that they wanted me to baptize all of their children at once.  It just broke my heart that the church went through with it after his mom drug him down the aisle.

4)  There was no commitment to each other.

This was the most disconcerting issue I had.  Romans 12:10-13 says,
“Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.  Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.  Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.   Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.” (NIV)
The whole time I was there, I never heard a call to be devoted to the church.  Being devoted to the Lord, sure, but not to the Church.  And truthfully, there shouldn’t be a difference between the two.  There wasn’t a call to join in service, there wasn’t a call to be dedicated to a prayer ministry.  This church had a discipleship plan but it wasn’t talked about nor was it emphasized why a person should be a part of it.  I only know about their plan because I saw it on a screen walking out.  And on the screen it was presented as Christianity 2.0, not Christianity 101.

I’m trying to be fair in this critique.  I suppose it’s going to be unfair regardless since it wasn’t asked for.  However, I hope and pray that God might use it to show people how we need to be focused on making an impact in people’s lives, not putting on a good show.  Mega churches and small churches are both in the body of Christ.  I suppose the frustration I have is when small churches are great at fulfilling the negative part of my list and feel inept because they are terrible at fulfilling the positive parts.  Our “experience” at a the mega church taught me something important.  Small churches and mega churches have much to learn from each other.  But most of all, we’ll never find a perfect church to attend, and if we do, we shouldn’t join it because we’ll mess it up.

Don’t Be Greedy

“Stick ’em up!  Put all the money in the bag!”
Does this define your experience in church?  Everybody always wants more.  Right?  I confess, I’m always pushing the congregants to give more.  While I don’t hold them at gun point, I do lay it on pretty thick at times from the pulpit.  “Give God all you’ve got!  If you’re not giving everything, you’re not giving God all He wants!”
While I would never pressure someone to give money, in the back of my mind, I know that money is a part of “everything”.  I’m not after a raise.  I’m not after a new office chair (which by the way, mine is getting pretty sad…Bad timing?).  I’m not even after a bigger church budget.  Honestly, I just want others to have what I have; a meaningful relationship with God.  The more you give God, the more fulfillment you find in Him.  Sure, I’d like more material wealth, but I’m learning to be content with what I have.
As I write this, I know how hypocritical this message can sound,  “Don’t be Greedy!”  Which, I confess, I am good at being hypocritical.  I hope I never lose sight of that truth.  But also, I hope I never lose my hearing.  God is teaching me to listen to the world around me; to genuinely listen to the complaints that unbelievers and the “De-churched” have against those who attend Christian Churches.  I may push the envelope at times (no pun intended), but I consider it a win when people can walk away from one of our services saying, “Wow, that’s not how I remember church being…”
I want people everywhere to understand how relevant the Resurrection of Jesus is to their lives; how relevant church can be to them.  Every Christian has heard complaints about the church; they might even be the ones complaining.
“The church is full of hypocrites…”
“All they want is my money…”
“I’m tired of feeling judged…”
Once a person is convinced of these statements, it takes a lifetime to convince them otherwise.  Often people never recant and carry these beliefs with them to the grave.  This is why it’s especially important for followers of Jesus everywhere to use wisdom and discernment regarding the messages we’re sending.  Are we making attempts to change people’s minds?  Or are we sending messages we don’t intend to; messages Jesus wouldn’t be on board with?
I would argue that on many occasions, we fall in to the later category.  Recently, I was in a Christian bookstore and was looking at a Bible I was considering purchasing.  A man walked up beside me and began looking at the Bibles too.  I’ve tried to practice living in “code yellow” to determine whether people around me are a threat, especially while I’m in a city.  So, I confess, I sized this man up.  He was an older gentlemen; well kept and looked as if he could have afforded to purchase several of the most expensive Bible’s in the store.
He called over an attendant and asked for a specific brand of study Bible and she helped him find what he was looking for.  He asked as she was looking, “Are they on sale?”
She responded, “I don’t think so.”
“Of course they aren’t…” he replied.  “Can I have my name imprinted on it?”
“Yes sir,” she said.  “It takes a day to do since we do them all at the end of the evening.”
“Is it free?” he asked.
“No sir,” she answered.  “It costs $5.”
“Why do you charge money when other stores will do it for free?”  He retorted.
“Do other stores do it for free?”  She asked gracefully.
“Yes they do.  But I don’t suppose you will since you’ve already told me it’s going to be $5,” he jabbed.
She responded by shaking her head solemnly and said, “Yes sir.  I’m sorry.  It’s an additional $5…”
I managed to keep my mouth shut and stay out of it.  But, as I stood a few feet away hearing the exchange, my blood pressure started rising. Who does this guy think he is?  I thought.  I began responding to him in my mind.  A Bible isn’t an expense,  it’s a sound investment.  I would invest in a good Bible even if it cost double that amount because it’s worth it!  Think about what kind of message you are sending when you complain about how much something costs when, it is not only reasonably priced but, many people in other parts of the world would commit crime to get their hands on one!
When I was on a mission trip in India, I sat across the Table from two Indian men with my Missionary Guide.  We were negotiating prices for a huge supply of prescription medication they were selling so we could hold a medical camp and get people help who needed it.  We did this in the middle of a restaurant in broad daylight.  The same scenario in America would have been highly illegal.  The next morning they dropped off the supply of prescription medication in front of our hotel with people walking in and out from several directions.  Later that evening we met with another man in a back room at night asking how many Bibles we could purchase for a women’s conference we wanted to hold.  He kept his voice down and asked us to do the same.  Two days later we scheduled a pick up of the “contraband” as he had organized a “secure location”.  I felt like a criminal.  In India, I was.
Because of how sensitive the material was, there was no negotiating.  This man was risking his life to bring us these Bibles written in Telugu.  We paid him whatever he demanded to do the job.  The next day we handed out the Bibles.  We could only get 100.  There were over 200 women there.  They called the women out by name one at a time.  Spirits and hopes were high at the beginning of the distribution.  But as we got down to the last 5 or 10 Bibles, many of the women began to realize most of them weren’t going to get a Bible.  You could see the insecurity wash over their faces as they began to ask to themselves, “Am I going home empty handed?”
When the last name was called the woman jumped up with exhilaration,  joy, and adrenaline.  She almost ran to the front where she picked up her Bible.  Simultaneously, however, other women in the room began to weep.  One woman in particular ran out the back with her hands covering her face.  I remember that feeling well; tremendous disappointment and shame.  It’s the feeling I felt when I was cut from the 8th grade Basketball team.  Except, there was always next year for me.  Some women came forward and offered everything they had, an entire month’s wages, just to leave with a Bible in hand.  Unfortunately, however, there were no more Bibles to give away, much less charge for.  I don’t know how we selected the women we did.  I do know how extremely guilty I felt about all the Bibles I had at home and didn’t even read.
What do you think these women would say to  someone who, not only had the means and opportunity to buy a Bible whenever they wanted but, complained about how much it cost and probably seldomly ever read it?  We’re always after that “Christian Discount”, aren’t we?   I heard a guy say one time, “If you see a Christian Fish on a business card, It means you’re about to get cheated…”
“I love Jesus and try to serve him, so how about cutting me a special deal since I’m trying to make the world a better place?”  (Substitute “we” for “I” and now we’re talking about organizations).
Considering the message we consistently send about money, is it really a good idea to ask for a discount?  Shouldn’t we as believers be willing to pay MORE than everyone else to send the message that money is temporary but the condition of a person’s soul is eternal?  Sound a bit extreme and foolish?  Think about it this way.  How much more progress could we make in the world if we weren’t asking for a discount because we know Jesus; especially in a world where people constantly accuse us of being greedy?  Who knows, maybe they are right…
What if we could sacrifice a little extra money to change someone’s mind about God, the Bible, and the Church?  A hundred verses come to mind, but I’m going to settle on this one:
“I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ…” – Philippians 3:8 (NIV)