“But if any place refuses to welcome you or listen to you, shake its dust
from your feet as you leave...” - Mark 6:11
When we first moved to Villa Rica there was very little commercial growth. We had moved from Cobb County, one of the 5 major Atlanta metro counties. Of course, with over a million people in Cobb, anything you wanted was right around the corner. So we knew there would be fewer options when we moved to Villa Rica. My wife Sheryll said if we would just get a Publix grocery store and a Chick-Fil-A she would be satisfied. Shortly after our move construction began on the new Publix supermarket and a few years later our Chick-Fil-A opened. (Sheryll always gets what she wants. I guess I should have gotten her to request a nice steakhouse for me.)
Our town is small, about 5000 in 2004 when we started our church and about 13,000 now. Sheryll sometimes bemoaned the growth in those first few years, but I keep reminding her that is not a good attitude for church planters! In fact, since the housing market collapse in 2007 we have actually seen some negative growth, and now we both are glad to see some signs that growth is returning to West Georgia.
But there is one aspect of growth in our town that I will join Sheryll in regretting—it is getting harder to clearly see the Milky Way as more lights illuminate the surrounding area. When we first moved here you could see the milky grouping of stars on a dark night and remember, “That’s our galaxy.” When we lived closer to Atlanta there was ambient light everywhere in the metro area so seeing a lot of stars was hard, much less being able to clearly identify the Milky Way. It was almost as if you had forgotten it and seeing it so clearly reminded you of something you knew but had allowed to be pushed to the back of your mind. We would look up at night and think, “Oh yeah, that’s our galaxy and this is where we belong.”
Sometimes our lives become like the Milky Way that cannot be seen because of the over wash of other lights. We forget where we belong and just accept what surrounds us as the norm, no longer looking for the wonder or even taking what we do for granted. All the stars, and the Milky Way, were always there. We just let not seeing them become our normal. We moved to Villa Rica to start over after a devastating experience with the church we led in Cobb County. The experience had left us feeling unwanted and unsure of our calling. We had allowed an atmosphere of negativity develop where it began to feel like we, and our message, were not being received. We allowed that to become our norm and we forgot about the wonder of what we were called to do. We forgot the ‘galaxy’ that is ours, the wondrous Kingdom of God ruled by a King who calls us the apple of His eye and died to save us. Through that experience Sheryll and I have learned what Jesus taught his disciples—
Find a place where you are celebrated not tolerated.
That’s where you belong. Jesus told his disciples if they were not being received, wipe the dust of that place from your feet and go find a place that will receive you. For us, that place is Villa Rica.
When the launch team for our church first began meeting in our reclaimed primitive Baptist building, we did no advertising and had no sign. It was just our group of about 25 people meeting together to worship and plan. But every week something amazing happened. People would show up to find out what was going on in that 180-year-old building and they would stay. They were excited we were there and wanted to help. One lady in particular would visit from time to time, never really making us her church, but would tell everyone she met about us. She was a real estate agent representing the Mirror Lake development that was booming around us, so she had a lot of interaction with new residents. When we finally put up a sign and advertised our first public meeting 178 people showed up and over half of them stayed. Even among those who didn’t stay, we were greeted with kindness. Two ladies met one of our staff buying supplies for a community egg hunt and joined in purchasing the eggs. I love what they told her, “We love your church. We’ll never go there, but we love it.”
All of us need a place where we are celebrated. Remember the old show Cheers? The theme song had these lines in it: “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came.” Too often we go through life being tolerated, maybe even accepted, but not celebrated. I believe the rich and satisfying life Jesus promised us in John 10:10 requires us to create a culture where we and others are celebrated. Sheryll calls it her happy place and we set boundaries around it to protect it and keep it a happy place. We don’t let negative attitudes or destructive criticism enter that place. We protect it by celebrating others. It’s amazing what will happen when you start looking for things to celebrate in other people. All of a sudden, the differences become part of what makes each person so unique and amazing. Jesus celebrates people. He celebrates me and on my worst day he still loves me with that amazing love. He knows me better than anyone else and still celebrates me. I am his favorite! And the good news is—so are you! (John 17:23)
Leading a small town church requires us to be more ‘social than CEO’ and creating a culture where people are celebrated will do a lot toward making the church you lead a place people in your area want to call the place where they belong. Let me give you a few practical tips on creating a culture where people are celebrated:
1. Look for things to celebrate in others.
I used to think if you did something differently than I did it, you were wrong. Boy, what a dumb way to live. I have found out it’s not wrong--it’s just different. And it’s often in those differences that we find things we should be celebrating about each other.
Years ago, I was a worship leader. What’s really amazing about that is I am musically illiterate and rhythmically challenged. I can either clap or sing, but don’t ask me to do both. And clapping on beat is a real struggle. Yet, here I was the worship leader, leading a team of musicians each week in rehearsal and directing our church on Sundays.
We had two teams, one for each Sunday service. So I had two drummers, one was black and one was white. Joel, our black drummer, taught me how to clap. Just watch his left hand and clap when it came down on the drum. I noticed an interesting thing with our two drummers—they were different. Not just because one was black and the other white, but they actually drummed differently. One’s left hand came down on the 1st and 3rd beat, and the other’s left hand came down on the 2nd and 4th beat. As I was pondering this, I felt the Holy Spirit say to me, “Note that when you combine the differences you never miss a beat.”
Find things to celebrate in others. The way they smile; the sound of their voice; the quirky way they wear their hair or dress. You’ll find that when you create an environment of celebrating others, others will celebrate you. At LifeGate we use a '3 Touch' process based on 1 Thessalonians 2:11 and 1 Corinthians 14:3 to ensure every person feels celebrated. We ask our teams to "Build them up; Lift them up; Fire them up" with the goal that every person receives these three touches before they get to the sanctuary.
• Build them up is accomplished with a warm, sincere, friendly greeting. Put a smile on your face, make eye contact. Always remember we are ‘people- focused’, not ‘task-focused’.
• Lift them up starts with giving them your name then hearing their name. Sociologists tell us the most pleasant sound people can hear is their name spoken in a friendly manner. Call them by name. Assure them, compliment them, even pray with them if you sense the Holy Spirit’s direction to do so. Go beyond a wave and a smile.
• Fire them up is based on the word edify. The best definition is a word picture—connecting a dead car battery to a live one to jump it off. We are the live battery. Raise the level of expectation with this touch. “God is going to go great things for you today.” “I know you will experience the presence of God today.” “You are really going to have fun. God is going to do something amazing.”
Making sure every person who walks on your property this weekend receives these three touches goes a long way toward making sure they felt like they were celebrated, not just accepted or tolerated.
2. Be generous.
Be generous with your time, talent and resources. Be generous with a smile, a kind word, a compliment, a prayer. Look for ways to be generous. Generosity is an investment in others that will always pay a return. (Galatians 6:7).
Have you ever noticed that we become less generous as we become more familiar? When we first meet people, we are extravagant in our generosity. We go out of our way to greet them, to win them over, to make them feel like we like them. Then, as we become more familiar, we begin to back off on the generosity. We aren’t as exuberant in our greeting. Our hug or handshake becomes perfunctory. If you want a place where you are celebrated, then stay generous. Greet people like it’s the first time you saw them. Go out of your way to make eye contact, to find something to compliment, to let them know you care about them. Create a culture of generosity and you create an environment where people aren’t tolerated or accepted, it will be a place where people are celebrated.
By and large, unchurched people don't think of a local church as generous. It doesn't take a lot of budget or creativity to change that thought for those who visit your church. Something as simple as occasionally ending a service by telling them there are coolers full of old fashioned sodas and you want everyone to grab one and enjoy it or handing out ice cream sandwiches or Popsicles will help destroy that myth. And it will cause people to hang around a little longer so your teams can celebrate them even more.
3. Be a no-tolerance zone for gossip.
Gossip is one of the most destructive things humans can do to each other. God hates it and we should too. Gossip isn’t just talking--it is listening. Make gossip unacceptable. Don’t be afraid to confront it and tell everyone, “We don’t do that here.” Sometimes we assume people know what gossip is and that they shouldn’t be doing it. But you will be amazed what happens when you educate folks on what the Bible says about gossip and empower them to stop it.
Did you know the Bible defines a four-step process for church discipline when it comes to almost any sin? (Matthew 18:15-17) You go the person privately. Then you go with a few others. Then you go before the church. If there is still no repentance, then you ask them to leave. But for gossip, it is a two-step process! (Titus 3:10) You confront it, and if there is no repentance, you ask them to leave! That’s how seriously God takes gossip. It will destroy any culture of celebrating people because it makes everything dangerous. No one is safe when gossip is allowed to exist. I think churches should remind everyone they are a 'no-tolerance zone’ for gossip at least once a year. I'll be glad to share the notes from my yearly message with you. Just email me at email@example.com for that or more info on the 4 Laws of Harvest and the 3 Touches.
Be intentional about creating a culture within the church you lead that celebrates people and you will have gone a long way toward creating a place that meets the requirements of the 4th Law of the Harvest: Have a safe place to bring the harvest. When Jesus knows He can trust us with His harvest, He will fill our churches.