A Sermon (more or less): “Keeping the Christ in Us”

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This is, more or less, a sermon I preached on December 26th at my churches. This sermon is my ordination sermon, meaning this is the one I’m submitting to my annual conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry as part of my application to be ordained as an Elder. I wanted to share it here for any feedback anyone might want to share, but also because I want to share this message with as many people as possible. I hope you find inspiration and blessing in this attempt at articulating the gospel. – Jonathan

The text: Colossians 3:12-17 (NLT)

For many years, I have been hearing, reading, and otherwise seeing encouragement from various people and groups to “keep Christ in Christmas.” There are parts of this notion that I believe are valid, as the Christmas celebration has become more and more secular even among professing Christians, with many people choosing observances of the holiday that have little or nothing to do with the reason Christmas exists in the first place (spoiler alert: It’s when we celebrate Jesus’ birthday). Even Christians seem to have forgotten what Christmas is all about.

A heads up for next year: Next year, Christmas will fall on a Sunday, and I have no plans of calling off worship. I remember the last time Christmas was on Sunday, there were churches cancelling services because it was Christmas! Think of this for a moment: The very idea sounds obscene and silly, but it was happening. I was even berated in a Facebook group for pastors when I expressed that the pastors who cancelled their worship services because Christmas fell on a Sunday were misguided and missing the mark of what the day even means. I remember one of the members of the group referred to me as an “old fashioned and uncaring” person, followed by a… well, it was a name I won’t repeat here because he said I wasn’t being sensitive to the needs of families. But, you get the idea. To say that I was shocked would be an understatement.

The world we live in has, indeed, become more secular. I see a lot of hand wringing among people who worry that we are losing sight of God and that we’re “trying to take God out of everything.” First, know that none of us are that powerful. Trying to take God out of anything is like trying to command the oxygen out of this room right now. We simply can’t do it. Not to mention, God is where God wants to be and there’s nothing we can do about that. What’s more: The reason God often seems absent from our celebrations and our world is because we seem to forget about God. God hasn’t left, we simply fail to acknowledge him. We want others to “Keep Christ in Christmas” but what have we done to bring that about in our own right? As disciples of Jesus, keeping Christ in anything ought to start with us.

Here’s the thing: We can’t give the impression that we’re keeping Christ in Christmas unless we keep the teachings of Jesus and the ways of Jesus close to our hearts and act upon those teachings. If people can’t see Jesus in us, why should they be concerned with the true meaning of a holiday we care deeply about? If we want to truly keep Christ in Christmas, we must also keep Christ in ourselves, every single day. Keeping Christ in Christmas – and beyond – starts with us keeping the ways of Jesus on full display in our lives.

Christmas is vital to the Christian faith because the birth of Jesus brought about what I daresay is the most important aspect of the entire story, but one that we often overlook: It’s the incarnation. Dr. Ken Collins was one of my professors at Asbury and he spent a lot of time – at least two full class days – lecturing on the importance of God becoming flesh for us. Let me save you a lot time and expensive of going to seminary and boil down what Dr. Collins told us: Had the birth of Jesus not happened – that is, if God had not been born fully divine and fully human – then anyone who claimed that Jesus truly was the Messiah would have been wrong. That would have included the angels who appeared to the shepherds and proclaimed explicitly that the Messiah had been born and told the shepherds where they could find him. This much trouble would not have been brought forth for a lie so we know that Messiah came that night.

As Jesus was alive in the barn that night, and is still alive at the right hand of the Father today, so should Christ be alive in us today. Paul is writing his disciples in Colossae and saying just that. If you want to summarize his message, he’s telling the Colossian Christians that if they’re really saved by Jesus and have the Holy Spirit within them, this is how they act like it. I don’t believe that Paul is telling them – and us – to simply play nicely together, rather he’s saying that every single day we must choose to put Jesus fully on display in every aspect of our lives, from how we treat one another, how we talk, even how we think. We choose to show mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, and to make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you.

If Jesus is alive in you, then this is what it will look like to other people. This is how people will know that you have Jesus. Paul is listing these attributes and asking, “How well are you keeping the Christ in you?”

Paul’s metaphor of putting on clothing as a way of displaying one’s devotion to Jesus is a frequent instruction and here’s one reason why I believe he states this: What we wear is a choice. It was your choice to wear what you have on today, just as it was my choice to have this robe on while I preach this morning. You or I could have chosen differently but this is the choice we made.  Our faith is the same way: Every single day, we choose to put on Christ by daily accepting His grace and mercy and choosing to live out that faith by taking the teachings of Jesus seriously enough to live them out. The way we treat each other and people in general is a choice that we make every single day. Everyday, we can choose to treat each other the way the world expects – with distrust, thinking the worst about the other, and general disdain – or we can choose to live “love your neighbor as yourself.” Being a disciple is more than saying we go to church or having a fish symbol somewhere on our car; being a disciple is an intentional way of life. It’s an ethical and moral responsibility.

Conflict is going to arise, even within the church. I believe Paul is telling us to be on guard for that. In spite of any decision that we make to put on Jesus every morning, we are still going to have problems come up. Paul teaches us here that putting on Christ involves knowing that not all of us are on the same level and we are going to get plenty of things wrong. Lord knows I have my faults. Sometimes I can really put my foot in my mouth when I allow my fingers or my mouth to move faster than my brain and heart. We all have those times. We have a choice, however: When we are on the receiving end of offense, we can choose to hold that against the other person or we can choose to love, forgive, and understand that we all have faults. Paul tells us to choose love.

I like verse 17 the best of all in this passage: “And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus.” Every day, we are a representative of Jesus. People know us and know that we profess Jesus as our savior. The choice is ours as to how good of a representative we are of him. When we send representatives to Jackson or to Washington, we want them to remember where they come from and who they represent, not only to vote the way they believe is in our best interest, but also to represent us in the best way possible. As Christ’s representatives, we have somewhat of the same responsibility: Everyday we vote to uphold the gospel and follow it. Everyday, we represent Jesus and it’s up to us to give a good picture of Jesus to all people we meet. It may sound hyperbolic but one’s impression of Jesus could be based on you. What kind of impression do you want to make? Paul is letting us know that we have a responsibility to remember who we are, where we come from, and who we belong to. We belong to Jesus. Let’s represent him well.

The choice is ours: We can take on this moral code that Paul is teaching about here or we can do our own thing and say it’s of Jesus when it really isn’t. There has been much damage done to the church throughout the ages by people – well-meaning for the most part – who have made majorly bad decisions in God’s name. From judgment on who’s worthy to come to the table, rants about coffee cups and “happy holidays” to the more heinous examples of genocide, these people do not represent Jesus well at all. I saw something recently that said, “People say they want to keep Christ in Christmas but I’d settle for keeping Christ in Christians,” Ouch. How well have we represented Jesus lately? Have we put on Jesus of the Bible of an idol of our own making and own moral judgments? Would Jesus approve of how we treat our neighbors?

Let’s keep Christ in Christmas by putting on full display the Christ that’s within us. What’s more, let’s do it every single day. Let’s keep Christ all year ‘round.

Rescue the Lost Sheep

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A few years ago, I attended a ministry conference where the featured speaker made a statement that I often recall: “God is in the rescue business.” One of the occasions where I found myself thinking of this statement was in a conversation this morning with one of my friends, who said, “I don’t like churches because of my issues and hang ups and what happened to me growing up there. I’d absolutely feel safe in your church. And that’s what’s important. Taking in the lost sheep and helping them feel like they have a sturdy shelter again.” Honestly, a statement like this is something every Christian ought to long to hear, that someone has even an ounce of faith because of their witness. Especially as a pastor, I like knowing that someone has rekindled their faith because I allowed them the space to explore and safely ask questions and express doubts. As a shepherd, my job is to seek the lost sheep and bring them safely into the care of Jesus, the great shepherd.

Unfortunately, especially in the western world, Christians seem to have lost sight of the mission and of who God really is. Jesus didn’t come for the righteous, but for the sinner (Luke 5:32). Yet, this doesn’t stop many Christians from judging who is and is not worthy to attend their church. The idea often seems to be that people must all be alike and think alike in order to join a particular church. Here’s the thing, though: That’s entirely a modern construct. From its earliest days, the church – as in, the collection of people – was meant to be diverse in its make up and perspective. If you look at Acts 2 and other parts of the new testament that reveal the look of the early church, you’ll see that they were people from all sorts of places, walks of life, and outlooks. Some were totally convinced of Jesus being the Messiah while others had their doubts. Some were certain of how to express their faith from their Jewish background while others had never been Jewish and had no idea what was going on. Now, we want homogony in every facet and if a “sheep” wants to come to a particular pen who doesn’t fit with the other sheep, then that sheep is often ignored and sent back out into the world even more hurt and scarred than they were when they walked in.

In such churches, any sheep who does not look and think the same as the current sheep aren’t welcome.

The Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:1-7) is a perfect example of what evangelism is supposed to be. The Pharisees aren’t happy that Jesus has been associating with “tax collectors and other notorious sinners” because, as the Pharisees saw it, they were not worthy of being loved by God. They had decided that these “sinners” were not welcome. Jesus uses the example of a shepherd who tends a flock of 100 sheep leaving 99 to find the one who wandered away and brings the lost sheep back. There, the sheep who wandered off and was malnourished, dehydrated, and injured can be cared for and healed. Jesus closes out this lesson by saying, “In the same way, there is more joy in heaven over one lost sinner who repents and returns to God than over ninety-nine others who are righteous and haven’t strayed away!” (Luke 15:7 NLT)

This is the job that Jesus wants His people to carry out: Find the lost sheep and bring them home, even if the sheep don’t quite “fit.” Bishop James Swanson once said in a sermon, “Being together does not mean being and thinking alike.”

Our job is to go out, find the lost sheep, and bring them to Jesus to be made whole and healed. It doesn’t matter what we believe is “wrong” with them or how different they are, it’s still our job to show them to the rescuer. We don’t get to pick and choose who comes to the table because it’s not ours; the table belongs to Jesus.

Rescue the perishing,
Care for the dying,
Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave;
Weep o’er the erring one,
Lift up the fallen,
Tell them of Jesus the mighty to save.

Rescue the perishing,
Care for the dying;
Jesus is merciful,
Jesus will save.

“Rescue the Perishing,” a hymn by Fanny Crosby

The New Worship Wars

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I remember several years ago that one of the big churchy buzzwords (or maybe “buzz term” would be more appropriate) was worship wars. Basically, this was a term used to describe the struggles many congregations faced about traditional versus contemporary music in their worship services. Many churches opted to have separate traditional and contemporary services and, often, the result was turf wars over which service was better or which service’s attenders mattered more. Some opted to have blended styles of worship with contemporary and traditional music, liturgy, and other elements mixed together. The result of the blended approach has often been the fans of contemporary and traditional approaches arguing amongst themselves over which style was proper and appropriate. Still other churches have opted for either traditional or contemporary only styles of worship which has often resulted in people opting not to attend a particular church due to their worship style. I want to note that, in my experiences, the arguments for or or against contemporary or traditional worship have been rooted in personal preference and not in anything related to biblical teaching or to church tradition (remember: There was a time when even the organ was considered “contemporary”) and the resulting strife was anything but glorifying to God.

The church has always been involved in such debates since there has been a church. Ever since this thing called “the church” has been in existence, we have been arguing about everything from the proper way to baptize to the color of the carpet in the sanctuary. While many of these arguments don’t become major in the sense that it can impact the entire church, we see a new front in worship wars emerging: In-person versus digital/online and hybrid forms of worship. Almost daily, I’m seeing posts on social media decrying one continuing to engage with their church virtually. Such posts essentially have the same message: “You have to come back to church,” as in physically and in-person. The strong suggestion is also made that virtual forms of worship are fake and that one who engages digitally is not actually worshipping.

Baloney.

Now, I know not everyone will agree. People will quote scriptures like Hebrews 10:25 as proof that not going to a worship in a physical space is invalid. Participating in the life of the church is vital but there are many more ways to do this than simply occupying a seat on Sunday morning (and if that’s al one does, they’re not really engaged). We have many ways by which we can participate in the life of the church and engage in worship – attending in-person services and activities are just one of the ways we can connect with one another.

First, let me present some anecdotal evidence: I and many of my brothers and sisters in ministry have been able to reach far more people by live streaming our services and using tools such as Zoom and Google Classroom than we have ever been able to reach from our pulpits and our buildings. While people are obsessed with things like views on Facebook, there are ways to estimate who’s truly engaged online and who simply spends a few seconds watching and scrolls away. On average, my two churches have an addition 10-30 people engaged online every Sunday morning, people who would not be with us in any way otherwise. These are people who may not be regularly connected to a church and, somehow, found the Facebook page. One of my churches has even seen someone with no apparent connection to the congregation begin giving occasionally through our online giving platform. For all we know, this would have never happened otherwise. Colleagues of mine have told of similar events within their contexts.

I recently attended the Leadership Institute at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas (as in, Adam Hamilton’s church) and found some great insights about digital and hybrid worship. Barna Group has done extensive research on preferences of digital, physical and hybrid worship and discipleship activities. What was revealed to those who attended a break out about digital and hybrid worship was:

  • While 52% of all churched adults surveyed preferred primarily physical gatherings, 35% preferred a mix of both (hybrid).
  • 41% of Gen Z prefers physical while 37% prefer hybrid (only 13% wanted digital onl).
  • 42% of Millennials prefer physical while 40% want hybrid (again, 13% preferred digital).
  • For Gen X, 47% prefer physical while 39% want hybrid (wow!).
  • Baby boomers: 71% prefer physical gatherings, but 24% want a mixture.
  • The biggest take away: A total of 87% of churched digital discipleship participants feel that digital forums for discipleship provide a safe space to speak openly,
  • Source

Here’s the bottom line: Most people still prefer to gather physically (yes, even younger people) but significant portions of each generation group want a hybrid approach. One reason is being able to still interact with worship even if they can not be present at the time of worship. There’s also more: People also feel more free in asking questions and having more open dialogue online rather than in person. As an introvert, I completely understand as sometimes asking the tough questions in physical groups can be very intimidating. Reality is, some physical spaces within the church are not safe for tough discussions. With the modern tools at our disposal, we have opportunities to be more real with one another. The people have spoken: The winner of this latest incarnation of the worship wars is “both,” not just physical or just digital.

Sunday morning is never going to go away (nor should it) but the church will evolve into a mix of digital and physical, and not just on Sunday morning, but throughout the week.

In these discussions, one must also be careful not to discount those for whom digital is really their only option. We are still in a pandemic. Some people are simply not comfortable gathering in public spaces right now (this is a choice we ought to honor, not mock or try to persuade otherwise) and still others who have weakened immune systems who would surely die if they contracted Covid-19 or some other sickness. When we make statements that say “it’s time to come back to church,” we are not being sensitive to these groups (made up of people made in God’s image).

We must be sensitive to the needs of our neighbors and respect their choices for their own health, regardless of our own preferences.

The church has an opportunity: Resist the changes taking place and fight against it (which history should teach us does not work). Or, we can meet people where they are. Social media has a lot of bad stuff happening on it but, like anything else, it comes down to how we choose to use it. We can choose to use social media and other online platforms to meet people where they are, which is largely on social media. For a prime example of someone who excelled at meeting people where they are and communicating with them in ways that were accessible, see Jesus.

Let’s put down our weapons of worship warfare and pick up our ability to love. As long as one is engaged with God – regardless of whether that takes places in a pew or on the couch – they are bringing him glory. Let’s do the same.

Expending My Ministry

TL, DR: I’m offering myself as a consultant – at no cost – specifically to smaller congregations that want an online presence and (1) don’t know where to start and (2) can’t afford a paid consultant. I’m also offering a webinar on the basics of live streaming this week. More information on this can be found here.

Ever since I answered God’s calling to pastoral ministry, I have been seeking ways to incorporate my past experience. Especially in the midst of a pandemic, I have noticed that my previous experience in video and audio production have been very beneficial as I have had to make streaming my primary means of preaching and teaching. Rewind a bit: Even before the pandemic, I have seen the need for churches to embrace streaming, social media, and other technologies such as podcasting to reach new people for Jesus. Research shows that people will check out a church online before visiting in-person. Experience has reinforced this, as almost every person who has visited a church that I’ve been the pastor of first found us online and checked out a sermon before attending a worship service.

The reality is this: Congregations and pastors that do not embrace technology are not reaching people other than those who are already sitting in their pews. Online ministry is essential in the 21st Century. Yet, the task of beginning any sort of online ministry can be daunting. There are consultants who try to sell their services, convince congregations that they must have Hollywood-quality equipment and have marketing companies to manage their social media. Smaller congregations especially do not have the means to use consultants in the first place and, the ones that do decide to use one, often become intimidated and overwhelmed. My issue with consultants is that they often have a one-size-fits-all approach and assume that what works in the megachurch will work in the rural congregation. These consultants are out of touch with the reality of the church, which is that the majority of which have an average weekly attendance of 50 or fewer and do not have a ton of money to spend.

Enter Strangely Warmed Media Group.

Strangely Warmed Media Group has been a vision of mine for a few years now but was not something that I pursued. This changed with the COVID-19 pandemic. Especially now, I am seeing that the need for consultants with a heart for the small and rural congregations are essential so this is why I have decided to launch this new aspect of my ministry. God has shown me that using my previous experience in broadcasting in service to the church is part of my call to ministry.

I want to help congregations and pastors who want to do online ministry well but do not believe they are capable and I believe I can help because I have been there and have had to overcome many of the challenges they face.

Just to be clear of a few things: I’m not charging for any of this. This is a ministry that I want to offer to the wider church. This is not going to be a full time venture for me. I see Strangely Warmed Media Group being a resource. I will do occasional webinars and teachings (more on those in a moment) as well as some short-term coaching. I envision this ministry pointing people in the right direction for things such as equipment and giving advice on running social media as opposed to being in active management of assets.

In short, I want to take my experience and pass it along.

I have launched a website which can be found at swmediagroup.net. On there, you will find that I am offering two webinars over the next couple of weeks: One on the basics of streaming and another on effective social media. There is no cost for either and you can register right on the website. If you can not join live, a video will be uploaded to YouTube (channel coming soon).

Again, I see this as an expansion of my current ministry. I don’t want to use this as an extra source of income (hence why I’m not charging money for this) nor will I be changing careers. Rather, this is another component of my ministry that I want to offer to the wider church. Just as Wesley’s heart was strangely warmed on Aldersgate Street and just as he proclaimed that the world was his parish, so too is the world our parish. God wants to use us to warm as many hearts as possible. Often, the tool to do this is social media and streaming.

I’m no expert by any means but I’ve learned a thing or two along the way. Simply, I recognize that online ministry is essential in 2020 and I want to help others do it well.

“We Don’t Need to Stream:” Lies Churches Believe

I want to tell you a story about a guy named Vlad. First, you need to know that Vlad is not this man’s real name, it’s an alternate identity he crafted for himself as part of his hard rock lifestyle. Vlad is a guy from Kentucky who found the Facebook page for the church I was serving while I was in seminary. At some point, I noticed that this guy named Vlad was liking the streams of the sermons from our services. Soon after that, he reached out to chat about faith and I came to realize that he had experienced a lot of judgment and hurt at the hands of the church due to his hard living. Finally, one of my final Sundays in Kentucky, he showed up to meet me in person and to experience a service in-person. We lost touch a while back but I continue to pray for him and give thanks for his being receptive to God’s grace.

All of this happened because of streaming.

Even in the midst of the pandemic, I’ve had some conversations with pastors who simply do not see the value in streaming. The excuses run the gamut from a lack of equipment to “my people don’t use Facebook.” I get that there are true challenges for some churches and people to be able to stream but the vast majority can be overcome with a little creativity. We don’t need fancy productions and equipment. As for people within the congregation not using Facebook or being receptive to streaming, my experience has been that that is not entirely true. In fact, when I first started to really look, I was surprised at the people within a congregation that do use social media more than I was at who does not. I can promise you, if you believe streaming is of no value because your people aren’t using social media, you might be surprised.

Also remember that we don’t stream only for the people who are currently in the church. Consider the Vlads of the world who might discover your stream and decide to check out your worship service or even Jesus for the first time.

There has been much discussion on how the church will come out of the pandemic and whether or not we will cling to the lessons we have learned during this time. I pray that we do. I pray that we continue to embrace new ways of doing worship and discipleship. Your website and social media are the virtual front doors of your congregation. Continue to welcome people and to invite them to your physical doors but know that virtual you is the first taste most people will get of you and your congregation.

“We don’t need to stream” is a lie straight from the enemy to keep you from reaching more people than you ever could only from your pulpit.

May we not forget these lessons and may we continue to embrace them. Only by continuing to embrace these new opportunities will the church come out of the pandemic stronger than when we entered. The Vlads in your midst are not going to come to you, you must go to them. From the largest congregations to the smallest, it’s time for us to embrace new opportunities at reaching new people for Jesus.

An Open Letter to Pastors Still Having In-Person Worship Services

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Dear Brothers and Sisters:

First, you need to know that this comes from a place of deep love in Jesus Christ. My intention is not to start a fight or to bash you. However, I need to have some real talk for a minute. If you’re continuing to have worship services with your congregation in your building, you’re not making good decisions. These choices are anything but faithful or loving. You’re putting your people in danger and for what? To show how devoted to God you are? If that’s your idea of faithfulness, you’re doing it wrong.

I’m a Methodist and, like any good Methodist, I believe there is credibility in John Wesley’s General Rules for the early Methodist Societies. Wesley came up with these rules as a summary of the teachings of Jesus Christ. The rules are:

  • Do no Harm
  • Do Good
  • Attend to the Ordinances of God (or: “Stay in Love with God”)

How can we justify placing our people in harm’s way? How are we doing good when we expose our parishioners to a disease that could kill them? How are we attending to God’s ordinances by taking such a big risk? The short answer to all of these is, “We aren’t.” Thinking that we are somehow immune to a disease like COVID-19 is arrogant and prideful. As I saw on social media post just this morning:

“The blood of Jesus is a vaccine against sin, not against viruses.”

COVID-19 does not care how strong your faith is. COVID-19 does not care big, small, or loud your church is. There has been a direct link to churches and the spread of COVID-19. Again I ask: Why are we being so reckless?

Pastors, we have got to love our people enough to shut this down. We have got to love God enough to not put our people in harm’s way. Doing so does not please God. Frankly, you can throw all the scripture (and I’m sure a lot of it way would be used way out of its context) you want at me but we do not please God when we mistreat our flocks in such ways. Are we not shepherds, whose jobs it is to care for the flocks that we have been entrusted with? Sometimes being a shepherd means doing what’s best for our people even if they don’t like it. Sometimes it means saying no. In this season, being a good shepherd means telling our people to stay home.

If you’re having drive up services and think this will keep the virus from spreading, well, I don’t believe you’ve thought this through. I considered doing this at Easter and then I researched it further. Upon studying, I decided that even a drive up service was not a good idea. Mississippi’s United Methodist Bishop, James Swanson, sent a note to pastors strongly discouraging such gatherings. First, depending on who you ask, these gatherings may violate shelter-in-place orders and bans on gatherings over ten people. Second, let me give you a hypothetical situation to consider:

Let’s say there are people in cars next to each other and have their windows down (reality is not everyone is going to leave their cars cranked even if there is low power FM). One of them coughs and the droplets go into the next car. Say someone walks through the droplet field when they go to the bathroom. And say any of them have severe underlying conditions. You’ve not only infected people but probably killed someone all in an attempt to be faithful.

Even if you give instructions to remain in vehicles or to keep windows up, there’s no guarantee that people will do this. And, really, what can we do to compel people to follow these instructions? Not much, and really nothing concrete.

Is this blood really what we want to have on our souls and on our hands?

I love being together as much as anyone else and I miss this terribly, but I love my people more. I want them to be as safe and healthy as possible, which is why I have indefinitely called off all in-person activities at my churches. My love for my people is why I’m taking advantage of modern technologies like Facebook Live, which I count as a gift from God, to facilitate worship and discipleship. Keeping my people away is the best way I can love them right now. This does not mean that I like making such decisions but these decisions are ones I know needed to be made.

I know you love your people too. I know you want what’s best for them. But please consider suspending in-person activities as an act of love. Perhaps you’re afraid of resentment, being undermined, or losing your job. I get it. But, as I stated above, sometimes being a shepherd means doing what’s best for our people whether they like it or not. If you decide to start using Facebook Live and I can help in any way, please reach out. You can also read some thoughts I’ve already posted about streaming here.

Do no harm. Love your people enough to tell them to stay home.

Hello, Americus Parish (Pleasant Hill UMC and Salem UMC in George County)!

Me and my wife Jessica

Greetings, Saints of Pleasant Hill UMC and Salem UMC!

I’m Jonathan Tullos and I’m thrilled that I’ve been appointed to serve the Americus Parish beginning in June. My wife, Jessica, and I are eager to meet you all and to start getting to know you. Currently, I serve the Druid Hills-Lost Gap Charge in Meridian. Lost Gap is located in rural Lauderdale County and Druid Hills is in a residential area of Meridian.

My spiritual journey is not unlike many others in that the road has had many twists and turns. I was not always the best disciple. There was a time in my life where one could describe me as a “hot mess.” But Jesus truly saved me from some very deep sin. My spiritual awakening began when I was working at a radio station in Fort Wayne, Indiana when I was lying in bed, unable to sleep, and thinking of the bad choices I had been making lately. A voice called out to me and said, “You can’t keep doing this.” I knew it was God letting me know that I was on a path to my own destruction and I asked His forgiveness. Many bumps on the road came about after that but God always revealed His love to me. Along the way I received my call to ministry but fought it as hard as I could. Obviously, in the end, God won the wrestling match.

I was commissioned as a Provisional Elder in the Mississippi Annual Conference in 2018. As for my education, I’m a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary where I earned a Master of Divinity degree. Prior to that, I earned degrees from Liberty University (B.S. – Religion), East Central Community College (A.A.S. – Paramedic Science), and Meridian Community College (A.A.S. – Broadcast Communications). My previous careers include a time as a radio DJ and music programmer. I was also a paramedic for several years. I grew up in Philadelphia, Mississippi where most of my family still lives. Jessica and I have been married for nearly 12 years. She is a high school science teacher and holds degrees from Southern Miss and Mississippi State. We have a daughter, Hannah, who was born in 2014 but died soon after she was born. Jessica and I are also licensed foster parents.

My ministry experience has mostly been in rural contexts. My first appointment was to Oak Grove UMC just outside of Meridian, a small congregation in the Clarkdale community. While studying at Asbury, I served Shiloh UMC in Stanton, Kentucky. Stanton is a small town in Eastern Kentucky in the Appalachian Mountains, an area devastated by job loss and poverty resulting from the reduction of coal mining. I’m excited to be back in “the country!”

We’ll get to know each other better soon. As we prepare to make the transition, my prayers are with you all and with Brother David as he prepares to retire. We’re looking forward to being with you all soon. Meanwhile, please feel free to reach out on social media. I’m always glad to have more Facebook friends!

We’ll see you soon!

In Christ,
Brother Jonathan & Jessica Tullos

To Pastors and Churches Having Online Worship Today

“O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!” Psalm 95:6 (NLT)

Dear Pastors Leading Worship Online Today:

I see you. More importantly, God sees you. I’m in this boat with you so I’m experiencing this “new normal” with you. And, like you, I will get the experience of leading prayer, proclaiming scripture, and preaching a sermon in an empty worship space (minus two musicians and our worship leader) to only my cell phone and whomever watches on Facebook Live and our website. Like you, I’m having to fumble my way through and figure things out. Like you, I’m nervous, yet excited at what God is going to do through our efforts today.

It’s going to be weird. It’s going to be different. It’s also going to be OK.

God sees you as you have had to make difficult decisions, often while receiving flack from your congregation and other clergy. Claims of your “lack of faith” sting but hopefully ring hollow. God knows better. He knows that your first concern is for the safety of your flock, the flock that He entrusted you with when you were called or appointed. Calling off in-person worship today and for however long is necessary does not make you a poor pastor, nor does it mean you lack faith. Making these tough decisions means that you are being a good shepherd. Not exposing your people to a disease that could kill them means you love them. You’re not reckless with your flock. Instead, this is how you love them. If some in your congregation don’t realize this now, they will. And they will be grateful.

While online worship is not a replacement for in-person community, it will have to do for now. Thanks be to God for modern technology that He can use to keep people connected to Him and to lead them in worship. My prayer for you – for all of us – is that we remember that God can be glorified anywhere and in so many more ways other than sitting in a pew or on a chair. Like you, I long for the day when we can return to our worship spaces but for now I will lead in the best way that I can. My encouragement to you is to seek to do the same. God is with you. God is with your people. And God will be worshipped and glorified today and for however long this is our “normal.”

Press on. Be bold for the Kingdom. Preach the word just as strongly as you would in front of a congregation. The truth is, you still are preaching to a congregation, only for now they are disbursed. Try to ignore the criticism and outright shaming. God is proud of you for pressing on in spite of what the world is enduring right now. God is using you.

Most of all, God loves you.

Offered to you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit by a fellow preacher in the trenches…

Got a Smartphone? You Can Stream Your Service

If you have a smartphone, you have everything you need to stream your service.

With COVID-19 causing many congregations to shut their doors to the public, there has been a lot of discussion of streaming worship. There have been articles about everything it takes in order to stream, several of which includes a laundry list of expensive equipment to buy. I’ve been streaming my sermons since 2015 and when it comes to needing an expensive set up in order to stream effectively, I only have this to say: Bullbutter.

If you have a smartphone, you have everything you need in order to stream your worship service.

Typically, I go with a very basic set up using my phone. Here, I will lay out what I typically use and give some tips. I will also talk briefly about copyright issues.

A note: I’m not a “guru” or some other expert. I’m just a pastor who has been doing this for a bit and can offer some tips. I will also list the equipment that I employ and provide links for you to look at these for yourself but know that this is only for information – I receive no compensation at all so feel free to buy or not buy what you wish.

“Why Should I Stream?”

Some believe that streaming the service will keep people from attending in person but the opposite is actually true. Streaming the service is a way in which new people can find us in order to connect in community. Online worship is not a replacement for physical community. Unless someone has a reason that they simply can not attend worship physically – such as frequent travel or health issues – most people will use a streamed service as a “first look” at a congregation they are interesting in visiting. Putting a stream online can reach new people and act as an invitation to join the community in person (after the pandemic is over, of course).

Equipment

Again I emphasize that you do not need a fancy set up to stream. As I stated above: If you have a smartphone, then you have everything you need in order to stream. Seriously. Typically, I use my Apple iPhone X on a small tripod made for smartphones placed on the pulpit (here is one similar to the one I use). This works since all I have been typically streaming is the sermon. You will want something adjustable so that you can make sure your shot is level and steady. If you plan to stream more than just the sermon, I would recommend a bigger tripod such as this one so that you can make sure to include shots of worship leaders and the choir.

Another important thing on using your phone: Turn your orientation lock off and turn your phone to landscape (sideways). Doing this will provide a wide shot which will make the video look better on many kinds of screens. You want your video to give the best possible presentation for you and your congregation. Taking this step will go a long way in improving your quality.

When it comes to sound, if you’re only streaming the sermon you can likely use your phone’s built-in microphone and be just fine. However, if you want better sound quality or if you plan to stream more than just the sermon, you will want to invest in a better microphone. The one I use and have found to be of amazing quality is the Shure Mv88 iOS Stereo Microphone. This microphone plugs directly into your lightning port and provides excellent sound quality. If you choose to use audio recording for podcasting – something else you can do straight from your phone – you can use the Shure app to adjust the settings on the microphone and to capture audio. For Android phones, there are several options that will plug into your USB port. I can’t speak to these so I encourage you to consult an audio professional for guidance. My personal recommendation would be either a local music supply store or the amazing folks at Sweetwater.

EDIT: I’ve since exchanged emails with a sales engineer at Sweetwater who has educated me on feeding sound directly from a mixer/soundboard to your device. The audio interface he recommended is the PreSonus AudioBox iTwo and even included a tutorial on how this works. I am going to look into this and will provide a follow up should I work this out.

Internet?

With most cell phone plans having unlimited data, this should not be a major hurdle. I use my carrier’s LTE signal and this works just fine for streaming. If your church has any kind of wifi that reaches your worship space, you should also have enough bandwidth. The more bandwidth you have available – that is, the faster the connection – the better quality of video you can stream. If you have no cellular signal or wifi available at your church, don’t let this stop you from putting your worship service online. You can use your smartphone’s video recording feature to record the service and then upload it afterward.

Which Streaming Platform?

If you search Google for streaming services, you will be overwhelmed with the sheer number of services out there that cater to churches. Many have their advantages and disadvantages and if you hope to grow your streaming later on these services may be worth investigating. But if you’re only wanting to get through the pandemic or do something very basic, you need not worry about this. If you didn’t know, you don’t have to pay for a streaming provider because you can access Facebook Live or YouTube for free. If your church has a Facebook page, I would highly recommend streaming via Facebook Live from the church page. YouTube may be nice if you want to reach a different audience but Facebook is where I would start. All you need is the Facebook mobile app and you can go live on your church page from your smartphone.

Edit: I have since found out about a service offered by Outreach.com that allows churches streaming their services on Facebook Live or YouTube to provide a stream to their church website. The best part: It’s free! Click here to check it out.

Staying Legal

If you’re only streaming the sermon along with other spoken parts, you will be fine and won’t have to purchase any sort of license. However, if you plan to stream any music, you will probably need to purchase a streaming license in order to be covered. Copyright is a tricky thing and I won’t discuss all of the ins and outs of the laws here. Unless all of the music you use in your church is in the public domain – and I can almost guarantee must of it is not – then you will need to ensure that copyright is protected and you make sure that royalties are paid.

There are several options to be in compliance and, thankfully, this is not overly complicated. If your church already has a CCLI license, you can add on a streaming license for a small additional fee based on your average worship attendance. One License is another organization that you can also utilize in order to be compliant. One License is also offering a free month of stream licensing in the wake of COVID-19. The license is good until April 15, 2020. Click here for more information.

“Wrap, Wrap, Wrap”

To wrap up, I hope you see that streaming your worship service is not as scary as you may think it is. In all likelihood, you already have most if not all of the things you need to stream well. If you have other questions, fee free to reach out in a comment or by my social media and I will gladly give any help I can. Engaging with the world through social media is vital to ministry in the 21st century. Streaming our services is an important way to connect.

One More Time: “Why Should My Church Stream?”

“The world is my parish.” – John Wesley

Pastoring in a Pandemic

This has got to the most challenging time for ministry so far, at least in my short career. When I began candidacy and seminary, I never imagined that I would find myself ministering in the midst of a global pandemic. There were no classes offered on how to manage a congregation in the midst of a true global crisis. And yet, like so many other clergy, here I am learning as I go. Trial by fire has been a constant in my life so why not now? I’m here, do the best I can, making mistakes, but trying to learn from them. It helps to know that I’m not alone.

And as a reminder: Neither are you. You are not alone.

So, at least for this season, this is our new normal. I’m having to get use to doing nearly all of my pastoral care by phone since I can not go visit any of my parishioners right now. I’m having to navigate coordinating an online worship service and making sure we do things like stay in compliance with copyright and have the best sound possible on a shoestring (thankfully, I believe we’ve figured this out). I’m resigning myself to the fact that, for the first time in my career, Sunday I will be preaching to only the musicians and to my phone while people watch on our Facebook page. It’s absolutely different but it’s also the best we can offer to our folks, all things considered.

I’ve come across some people who have said that online worship streaming is invalid. To them I say: Save it. Streaming is not meant to be a permanent replacement for a community of faith but also it’s simply not safe to gather as a body at this time. In the early church, the body was disbursed and had to meet in small groups in houses. They used what they had available to them to continue worshipping in the face of persecution. In this situation, we must do the same but, thanks be to God, we now have modern technology whereby God can work in ways we never imagined. The awesome part about that is, he is using everyday people to do this. I have long been a proponent of using streaming technology for worship and we are now at a place where this can truly become mainstream.

I have no sage advice to offer from a ministry standpoint. Like everyone else, I’m fumbling my way through this and learning how to do ministry in the face of a pandemic. But I will say this: I am a former healthcare worker and, while I was no doctor (I was a paramedic), I learned a few things in school and educated myself on many topics that school did not cover. I’m no epidemiologist by any means but I can say this: COVID-19, and diseases like it, is no joke. This is highly contagious. The numbers are honestly frightening. Reuters did a great graphic that illustrates how COVID-19 spread in South Korea. One person attending worship ended up infecting over 1,000 people. You can see the data for yourself here. If this happened in your congregation, how many would that impact? How many outside of your congregation could it impact? How many people could die as a result?

Shut it down.

Please, take the warnings seriously. Do your part to flatten the curve. Swap to online worship and discipleship with the knowledge that this is not permanent. Reach out to your parishioners and make sure they’re cared for. Do visits by phone and FaceTime. Is all of this different? Absolutely. But it’s also necessary.

“And the best of all is, God is with us.” – John Wesley