It was a Thursday afternoon, and I was sitting in our sanctuary where 30,000 people would soon be coming to one of our services. I had no idea what I was going to say to them. I could feel the pressure mounting. I sat there hoping that a sermon would come to mind. I looked around at the empty seats, hoping for some inspiration; instead, there was just more perspiration.
I wiped the sweat off my brow and looked down. "This sermon needs to be good," I told myself. There are some people who only come to church on Christmas and Easter (we call them "Creasters"). I wanted to make sure they all came back. "What could I say to get their attention? How could I make my message more appealing? Is there something creative I could do that would be a big hit and get people talking?" Still nothing.
There was a Bible on the chair in front of me. I grabbed it, but I couldn't think of a Scripture to turn to. I've spent my whole life studying this book, and I couldn't think of one passage that would "wow" the Creasters. I considered using it the way I did as kid: I would ask a question, open up the Bible, point somewhere on the page, and whatever it said would answer my question. I just shook my head at that one.
Finally, a thought crossed my mind: "I wonder what Jesus taught whenever he had the big crowds." What I discovered changed me forever, not just as a preacher but as a follower of Christ. I found that when Jesus had large crowds, he would often preach a message that would be more likely to drive listeners away rather than encourage them to return for next week's message.
When Easter weekend came, I was so convicted that I stood up and began my sermon with an apology. I said to the congregation, "I'm sorry for sometimes selling Jesus cheap and watering down the gospel in hopes that more of you would fill these seats." I followed up with a sermon series entitled "Not a Fan." We went word-for-word though Luke 9:23—Jesus' invitation to follow him—and honestly asked ourselves, "Am I a fan or a follower of Jesus?" The dictionary defines fans as "enthusiastic admirers." Jesus was never interested in enthusiastic admirers; he wanted completely committed followers. He wants more from us than a hand raised or a prayer repeated at the end the service. He is looking for more than a prayer before a meal and a Jesus fish on the back of the car. He wants more than fans; he wants followers who take up a cross and die to themselves.
We soon realized that this was more than a message that we had created; God was orchestrating a movement in our church. He began to challenge our commitment to him. In that series, we were reminded that there is no believing without following, no salvation without surrender, no forgiveness without repentance, and no life without death. I said things in that message that for years I had quickly skipped over in fear that they would scare people off. But instead of pushing people away, this unedited, unfiltered presentation began a revival. That weekend set a new course for our congregation and provided a new lens through which I now preach.
At the end of the series, we had made it clear that Jesus wants his followers to be all-in, and then we offered an invitation and challenged people to repent and be baptized. I wasn't sure if anyone would respond. But for hours that weekend, our sanctuary was filled with whistles, whoops, and cheers as 221 people were baptized in less than 24 hours.
"I haven't experienced anything like it in my spiritual life," said New Member Minister Don Waddell. "I went to a worship service, and a pep rally broke out. It was a great thing for the individuals baptized, but it was also a great thing for the church."
Some were crying, holding onto a friend or relative. Others were over-the-top excited. Whole families came, as did teens, seniors, people in wheelchairs, and children.
Decision Guides brought each one to a table full of T-shirts in different colors. Each pile had a different word on the front: Free, Forgiven, or Alive. After they picked their shirts, they went into the baptistery in front of the congregation, where I waited to talk with them about the significance of baptism, the symbolism of dying to self, and being alive in Christ.
There were so many people who for years had struggled with this decision and decided in that moment to step across the line. I began asking different groups if they planned their baptism for that day. The majority had not planned on making the decision, but they had been thinking about it for a while. I told them, "This day may not have been on your calendar, but this day in your life has been circled on God's calendar since before you were born."
Each one who came had a story. One mom brought her husband and three children. "This is 20 years in the making," she told me.
Mike Janes decided a week ago to be baptized. He had no idea he'd be baptized in front of a cheering audience, however. "It was incredible," he said.
Jesse and Kim Bocock had been coming to the Southeast on and off for a few years. The couple collapsed into each other's arms when they were baptized. "I've come to this place after a hard, long string of heavy stuff," he said through tears.
Newlyweds Jose and Krystal Valentin came to be baptized together. Stationed at Fort Knox, he was dressed in Army fatigues. Once I baptized him, Jose turned and baptized Krystal.
The last one to come was a teen, bringing her family. Apparently they'd talked about baptism before, and they were all the way into the parking lot, ready to get in the car when the teen said, "I thought we were going to be baptized the next time they asked." The family turned around and made their way back into the church.
As the congregation sang worship songs, they broke into applause, cheering, clapping, and whistling as each one was baptized. It was another part of the service no one anticipated. It was meaningful to people being baptized in ways that I never would have imagined. After Saturday night, I was just amazed to see how people responded. In my car on Sunday morning as I was driving to church, I found myself praying a very simple prayer, "Do it again, God! Do it again."
I tell you all of this because I believe that the "Not a Fan" is a message that God wants his people to hear. It is much more than a message that I preached; it's a message that was preached to me as I sat in the sanctuary on that Thursday. My prayer is that this message will continue to be preached to God's people around the world, and that together we will grow to be completely committed followers.