One time I lost my voice.
Here’s how I found it again.
There was a season in the life of Good Shepherd, stretching from, say 2007 – 2010, in which I had learned the technique of a one point sermon. So that was progress. However, during that same time I had become enamored with another, larger church from a different part of the country … what I have earlier called a “church crush.” That church’s signature strategy involved harnessing the power of pop culture to communicate the Gospel, and so it developed sermon series that were trendy, relevant, and, most of all, cool.
So I tried to turn our church into a Carolinas version of that other place. As a result, I attempted desperately to have sermons and sermon series that were, you guessed it, trendy, relevant, and cool. Yet instead of a surge of growth that I expected to accompany “cool,” we instead entered into a season of stagnation and frustration. In retrospect, it is only by God’s goodness and care that we merely stagnated and did not decline.
All of this came home to me during a lunch conversation with a new couple at church whom I was trying to assimilate more deeply into our community. They asked me “what do you believe?” and “what are your values?” My answers came back: “I believe in using pop culture to communicate the Gospel.” And “I want us to be a simple church, just like so-and-so way up North!” The couple seemed both unimpressed and unconvinced. Their questions longed for passion; my answers dealt with strategy.
As I processed that conversation afterwards, I realized with a jolt: “I’ve lost my voice. They did not care how cool I am. They cared deeply how much I love Jesus. I used to talk about that stuff all the time.” So I altered the conclusion of a series that I was in during that summer of 2010, and added a message based on I John 5:13: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know you have eternal life.” Jumping from there, I crafted a message with an Inquisitive Bottom Line: Why hope when you can know? We built a service around an invitation to salvation and the Methodist distinctive of assurance. And people got saved as a result. Why hope when you can know indeed.
The lunch, that sermon, and the corresponding invitation led to a sobering yet liberating realization: cool didn’t work very well at Good Shepherd because I’m not cool. But bold does work well because emphatic comes naturally. When I sifted through the church crush, I had to ask myself some serious questions:
• Do I believe in the power of the Gospel to change both lives and destinies?
• Do I believe that telling the story of Christ crucified, risen, reigning, and returning is what people need to hear more than anything else?
• Will I sacrifice cool on the altar of bold and begin to offer people Sunday morning opportunities to repent and believe the Gospel?
• Do I believe that an old, old story, told with boldness and love is in fact simply irresistible?
The answers to those and similar question came back as a resounding YES.
I now know that in our attempts to be cool, we often overlooked the raw power of the Gospel. In our efforts to mimic someone else, we forgot how God had implanted us with a once-in-the-universe congregational DNA and we’d never live up to OUR potential if we were trying to live into someone else’s.
I repented of my own foolishness, our church got armed with a marvelous mission statement of inviting all people into a living relationship with Jesus Christ, and we recovered who we really were. And are. Which trends more towards bold than cool, more to emphatic than clever. We stopped being Church Copycat and became, in the words of Will Mancini, Church Unique.
What are the benefits of such a shift?
More people get saved. Does that sound too Baptist? Good. More Methodists should sound more Baptist when it comes to an urgent concern for the salvation of people’s souls. We realized that relatively few people are “clevered” into the Kingdom; instead, they are invited. Which we do, repeatedly.
Creativity gets loaded into the sermon. We used to believe we had to have a creative element (drama, video, or radio-friendly secular song) to augment the sermon. But once we stopped having those “how can this series be cool?” meetings, we stopped forcing elements where they didn’t belong. And, serendipitously, we create more of it organically, as a part of the sermon itself, and people respond accordingly.
We capitalize on our unique strengths. Praying in tongues and praying for healing smack more of old fashioned Pentecostalism than they do of modern mega-churches. Yet we have plenty of people who do both at Good Shepherd. And so we now highlight our desire to be “awake to the Holy Spirit” as a core part of our identity.
We’re not as vulnerable to current trends and fads. When you know who you are — we’re the full-color church who is inviting all people into a living relationship with Jesus Christ — then you’re much less likely to buy the next product, hire the newest speaker, or enter into the hottest church network. With identity comes consistency.
I do less self-editing and more Scripture proclamation. The Gospel is offensive, as to treasure Jesus’ love you must first tremble at his wrath. With that realization, I now delight in offending right into the arms of the King and the gates of the Kingdom.
The preceding is an excerpt from my recent book, Simplify The Message & Multiply The Impact published by Abingdon Press and available here.