Simple Faith With Rusty George

For this episode of Simple Faith, pull up a chair with Dr. James Emery White. He's the visionary behind the successful church plant, Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. His tale of starting a church without any people, money, or a building is inspiring. We get the chance to talk about two of his passions - theology and culture. Hear him break down how this blend helped shape the trajectory of his church and filled the gap between academia and church planning.

That passion gives us a glimpse into his innovative approach to church leadership. And that's clear as we look at what community looks like in the digital age, drawing parallels between Martin Luther's use of the printing press and today's digital platforms like Twitch and TikTok. This was such a great conversation you won't want to miss.

Creators & Guests

Rusty George
Follower of Jesus, husband of lorrie, father of lindsey and sidney, pastor of Crossroads Christian Church

What is Simple Faith With Rusty George?

Rusty George is the Lead Pastor at Crossroads Christian Church in Grand Prairie. Under his dedicated leadership, Crossroads Christian Church aspires to flourish as a vibrant community committed to guiding individuals in their journey to discover and follow the path of Jesus.

Beyond leading Crossroads Church, Rusty is a global speaker, leader and teacher focusing on making real life simple. Rusty has also written several books and can be heard weekly on his podcast, Leading Simple with Rusty George.

Aside from being a loyal Chiefs, Royals, and Lakers fan, Rusty is first and foremost committed to his family. Rusty has been married to his wife, Lorrie, for over twenty-five years, and they have two daughters, Lindsey and Sidney. As a family, they enjoy walking the dogs, playing board games together, and watching HGTV while Rusty watches ESPN on his iPad.

0:00:00 - Rusty George
Well, Dr. White, thank you so much for joining the podcast. It's an honor to have you on. For our listeners that aren't as familiar with you as I am, tell us a little bit about yourself.

0:00:14 - James Emery White
Oh my well, it would be most important. My wife Susan. We've been married almost 40 years. We have four children, 15 grandchildren. I've had the privilege of planting a church, a Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, and have led that now for over 30 years, and so those would probably be the main headlines. I've always had my kind of like one foot in academia, one foot in the church, and have loved both of those worlds and the interplay between them, but devoted most of my thinking to the study and the interplay of church and culture, and so that has kept me busy.

0:01:00 - Rusty George
Well, it's a fascinating journey you've been on, because you decided to plant a church. I'm assuming probably around the age of 30, is that right?

0:01:09 - James Emery White
Yeah, it was 1992, I'm 61. So yes.

0:01:15 - Rusty George
Wow. So typically people that plant a church are in their early 20s and they're just dumb enough to give it a try. And because it's such a challenging work, and I did it back in the.

0:01:25 - James Emery White
I kind of kid talking to church planners that I did it, I did it. It kind of like when older people talk about walking two miles in the snow to school, talking about, okay, I did it. I showed up in a city in a U-Haul. We had no money, no people, no building, no, nothing you know. And all you guys now show up in these big teams of eight or 10 couples like you're a sitcom of friends and you have all this money that you've got, you know, and it's like I just want to go. I didn't. Church planning, yeah, but I mean, that's just joking.

0:01:57 - Rusty George
No, but there's so much truth to that. I mean the parachute drop that that so many churches have done, and did back in the 90s, is.

0:02:05 - James Emery White
I mean the opportunity happened with bivocational by necessity.

0:02:09 - Rusty George
Right, exactly. So how did you decide to plant a church? What made you and your wife think, hey, let's do this?

0:02:15 - James Emery White
Yeah, I never wanted to be a pastor. I really did think my life was going to be academia and I. What happened was was to make a very long story short I was when I was during my PhD years. I was pastoring a church. I was extremely dysfunctional, you know. It was really not a healthy church and it just cemented for me that I never wanted to be a pastor, never wanted to put my family through anything like that kind of world, and but I would lie awake at night and dream of what church could be like.

It really had this kind of reverse effect on me and it kind of drove me to the scriptures and drove me theologically to what is the doctrine of ecclesiology and what is the role of the church. Because I was sitting there wanting nothing at all to do with it and not feeling that that was where God was even moving or even cared about. And what happened was I both kind of came to a point where I didn't knew I didn't want to pastor a church. But I also came to the conclusion that the church is what really was the hope of the world, what God intended, and it was the primary. It was in the vanguard of everything he wanted to do and it really was the heart of this great redemptive plan.

And so, but things began to continue to turn for me and turn for me, and I began to just realize that not only was the church the hope of the world, only was the church what God, you know, was the heart of Christ's plan for reaching this world.

But if the church could really ever be the way the church was meant to be, then it could bring together certainly everything that I ever dreamed of, and then anything that anyone else could ever dream of. It'd be the life of the mind, the life of the heart, the life of evangelism and ministry and worship, and all of these different things. It could all come together in this dynamic community, unlike anything else and unlike, for me, academia or, you know, anything else. And so I just I fell in love with the idea of church. I fell in love with the Axe II vision of church, and I also fell in love with how thrilling it would be to throw a life into the building of a church and throwing what few gifts I had into the mix. And so, and my wife felt the same way, and boy have we never looked back.

0:04:27 - Rusty George
Yeah, 30 years, that is a that is quite a legacy, and your church is remarkable in what it has continued to do and you continue to be experimenting with how do we do this even better? And keep reaching unchurched people. You know the thing that happens to a lot of churches when they grow then they just become keepers of the aquarium rather than fishers of men. And you guys have continued to reach out to unchurched people, which I just find extraordinary and motivating. Tell us about the early days, because the early days of church planning, that's when you had the most crazy stories and you're just life on life kind of, and we don't even know if we're going to make it. And those kind of days I mean, what were? Some of those moments like that kept you thinking boy, I don't know what we got ourselves into.

0:05:15 - James Emery White
I mean, for me it was right out of the shoe, it was. We, like I said, had no people, no money, no bill, nothing, literally. We did show up in a U-Haul and for Charlotte and this was back when Charlotte was not a top tier city Nobody was talking about Charlotte, it wasn't on anybody's top 10, 15, top 50 demographic sites, particularly the north side of Charlotte. Where we went it was just farmland and but we wanted to go where we were both sent to go by churches and invited by churches in that area to come. I'm not cared about very deeply, not just kind of as you mentioned the word parachuting in, just telling all the nearby churches hey, guess what, we're here. I really wanted to go some place where the local pastors, local churches felt there was a need and we're actually inviting a church planter in, and so anyway, that's another story. But the very first Sunday, very first weekend, it was October 4th of 1992. What little money I had scraped up from friends and family and fundraising and such, I had spent on a direct mailer to the community to say, hey, got nothing better to do, come to this church. That was starting in a Hilton hotel ballroom, no less. That was the only place we could find and I remember that it had a picture of me and Susan and our then three kids. We've had a fourth, but our then three kids a picture of in a park. You know, sunny day, you know, hey, really, you know, got nothing better to do. Come to this new church start.

And on that day, october 4th of 1992, the aftermath of Tropical Storm Earl struck the Carolinas 70 mile power, winds, power was out, heavy surf advisories it was, it was, it was rainfall. Records that it stood for decades were broken. It was just an incredible, awful time. And there I was at all I done was sit out this mailer and the service was a 10 o'clock and I remember, at five minutes before 10, not a soloed gun, not one soul, and I just had a meager band of I don't know a dozen or so people that I, you know local churches that were trying to help get this planted and others had, you know, served and volunteered and things in there. And so I just kind of rallied that small band and I said, you know, we'll just nobody's coming out on this, I mean most people going on power, and I said so we'll just treat today like a rehearsal and hope that next week maybe there's some residual value from the mailer.

And I went into one of the back little service always of the hotel and I remember I just went oh God, god, I don't get you, I don't get this, I don't get it. You know, you're supposed to be in charge of the wind and the rain and the weather. You called me here and all this stuff. And then this I said I don't get it. I mean I love you and I trust you, but I just don't get it. And I was devastated because I literally did not know where my next meal was coming from. I literally did not. I mean, you talk about burning your ships at the shore. I mean, I was. It was devastating as a, as a father and as a husband and everything just devastated. So I went out and and I'd spent five minutes exercising my enormous spiritual maturity back in that hallway came out and entered the back of the auditorium and between five minutes till 10 and 10, when I've been back there 112 people came. Wow, 112 wet, dripping, beautiful people, Wow.

I know I counted them multiple times and um, and that was how mech got started. And then, through the strength of my, my speaking abilities, we were at 56 by the third week. And even that was misleading, because in a hotel like I, you know, we would joke that if somebody just walked by the doors and pause, listen for a minute and then didn't come in, they kept walking. They counted, we counted them, but anyway 56. And so that meant that, that, um, if you had, like you know, 15 or so 20 back in children's ministry, so I was starting with a group of you know 25 people, maybe 20 sitting in seats, because you know eight or nine might have been on stage. So you know a lot of people. I always kid people, you know.

I don't think if anybody started with a smaller church than I did, yeah, um, or or more modest. And so mech started very modestly and, and it was so, the and the church planning years and the church planning months were very, very difficult, very difficult financially, um and um and just. But you know, god was so ridiculously faithful and so so many just, I mean nothing but God things. It can only be explained by the intervention of the living God, uh, both financially and every other way. And so ours, ours, was a story, and I think it's a healthier story. To be honest with you. It's not a story of oh zero to a thousand first year. I just I've never liked those stories. I mean, god bless when it happens, but I just it's not normal, it's not always healthy, and if you get that in your head as a church planner you're just setting yourself up for disappointment.

I think the, the typical church that does well, is going to grow in a very slow but steady way. You have some years better than others, but you know, I mean, I mean mech is in the thousands and thousands and thousands now. But man, we didn't start that way Right, and where we are now is because of 30 plus years and and and I think that's a, that's a, that's a healthier model. So we were, you know, maybe 200 or so by the end of our first year and then just began to grow from there, you know 200, 300 or 400 and 500 and so on, and I think in a way, that was that's for a healthy, growing church. That's, that's probably what you should expect.

0:11:15 - Rusty George
Do you remember the first series that you did or the first message that?

0:11:19 - James Emery White
you did so funny I do. I don't know any church planner that doesn't. Ours was turning houses into homes. Wow, that's good. Kind of went after this broad kind of untouched families and it was called turning houses into homes.

0:11:35 - Rusty George
Yeah, oh, that's so good. I'm fascinated by by you saying you didn't want to go anywhere. You weren't wanted because I think this is what a lot of church plants struggle with they go into an area and launch a church and they find out that the other churches aren't all excited about them being there, because sometimes they come in with a church for those who hate church mentality and the assumption is that everybody there is doing it wrong, and so they kind of already put their foot in their mouth with other churches. So how did you go to the existing churches and, for lack of a better term, ask permission? How did you know you were welcomed?

0:12:08 - James Emery White
Yeah, I think that's a great question. I think you're right. I think that there's. Let me just go ahead and say that a lot of existing churches there's a spirit is not worth it. The spirit is not warm toward church planners, not because there isn't a need for church planners, but because they're very threatened by them and because they view other churches as a competition and I think that's just sorted and has no place in the kingdom. But I also think that, on the other hand, there's a lot of church planners who just kind of pick where they want to live. They just kind of pick where they think things are growing or things are happening or where they would feel most, whatever, and they just go and then they announced everybody once they're there that they're there and oh, by the way, since while we're here, since I'm telling you this, give me some money and support and announce. And those local churches had no investment in that, no sense of praying for them, no sense of saying, hey, yeah, there's a need, but it's over. Here You're wanting to plant with there's already 15 other churches that have been planted in the last 15 months and you're not even able to find a school, movie, theater or even a vacant lot to rent. I mean, there's some things where, when you work with people who are there, it's very helpful.

And so for me, I just felt very strongly that I wanted to be sent, you know, and I wanted to be called, and I wanted I, just because I was, I was so terrified of the significance of the undertaking that I didn't want to do anything, even risk that I so I just wanted. There's one thing I wanted to be confident is that God was in it. God was in the calling. I can handle any outcome as long as I felt God was in the calling. So we were willing to go anywhere in the United States. That's how it started. We'll go anywhere, we'll go anywhere in the world, but we just assume, you know, but we just will go anywhere. So that's how we started and I think that was a healthy place to start.

0:13:59 - Rusty George
Where were you living at the time?

0:14:03 - James Emery White
Because I just felt like that was one of the biggest needs of church planning and but just doors got shut and nothing happened there. And it's ironic that I ended up being this president of a seminary that was rooted in New England, is one of the main campuses Gordon Conwell but I thought I was going to plan church here and that was shut. And then I thought, you know, all these different doors got shut and then I was writing to various directors of missions and denominational agencies and saying, you know, is there a need for church planning? You know, and you know where might there be a need? And here's the fun story I got a. I got a.

I was working in Nashville at the time and when I came into the office one morning working for denomination, and there was a note for me that a pastor in Charlotte had tried to call me, now at that particular point in time nobody knew that Susan and I were thinking about wrestling with planning a church and putting out feelers and we're trying to determine whether that was God's hand in her life. And so I called this guy up in Charlotte and Charlotte had, you know, was one of the places that we had kind of explored to see if there was any interest among many others, and Charlotte was one of the few that had said yes. The local director of missions had said yes, we'd love to talk to you about planning church. There's a huge need to go to the north side of Charlotte, which is where Charlotte may be going in 10, 15 years. There's nothing there now but farmland, not exactly what a church planner wants to hear. But that's okay, you know farmland. Okay, that's, that's all right.

But I got a call from this guy named Bob Willard friend, friend of this day and he called me and he said I remember, I'll never forget a phone call. He said Dr White, bob Willard, you don't know me. I went to one of your conferences, I read one of your books. He said but I meet the group of other pastors, five or six of us, here in Charlotte, and we get together and we pray for new work, new churches, church plans, and the north side of Charlotte is in desperate need of new churches and we don't even know why, but every time we pray your name comes into our mind. Wow, and so I'm calling you on a lark out of the blue. You're going to think I'm crazy to see if you've ever thought about church planning and if you've ever thought about the north side of Charlotte, our name, would be willing to consider north side of Charlotte and that's like this theme for the.

Twilight Zone in the background. Yeah, and so that was strong confirmation.

0:16:27 - Rusty George
Oh, I'd say so.

0:16:30 - James Emery White
So we did. So we pulled up everything and arrived in Charlotte about nine weeks before the start of the first service. We came down in July of 1992 and had the first service, october 4.

0:16:45 - Rusty George
You know, those are the stories that keep you going during the dark night of the soul, Don't you think, when you're having those really tough days in church? You think I do know. I was called here, I was told church planners, you got to know you're supposed to be here, Otherwise it'll be really tough you do.

0:17:02 - James Emery White
You have to know that you're called. You have to know that that's God's hand in your life. You need to have burned your ships and this wasn't just an option. This wasn't just something you did because you thought it would get you to a certain place, and if that doesn't get you to a certain place, you're just going to go somewhere else. It gets you to a certain place. I think that you need to do it because you're also completely sold out to the mission and a way of doing that and achieving that mission, and you've got a vision so firmly in your mind and your heart that if you don't do this, you're going to die, because I do this or die.

0:17:35 - Rusty George
That's so good. Okay, so I've always wanted to ask you this. I just find and I find you to be fascinating because you have what, like you said, one foot in the world of academia and the other in church planning, and usually when you meet a pastor, they're one way or the other. They're all well read. Every Sunday is a seminary class, or they've got a burning heart for unchurch people, and every Sunday is a combination of stand up and cultural references, but you've found a way to blend the two of them. Is that just kind of how you're naturally wired? How do you fan that in the flame? I mean, what are the checks and balances to keep you from drifting too far one way or the other? Tell us a little bit about just how your mind works.

0:18:25 - James Emery White
Oh, I do think it comes somewhat naturally for me because those are two passions of mine. I mean, I mean to me, I care greatly about theology, I care greatly about orthodoxy and biblical fidelity and have trained for that and taught that as a professor. So I care about that because I care about orthodoxy, I care about the message and I do feel like in many ways it's interesting what you've just said Like some people are like super into culture and like building those bridges of understanding and others just like a seminary class To me. Let me use two different nomenclatures, two different terms. Some are really oriented toward grace and some really oriented toward truth and of course Jesus came bearing both. And I think that that's the problem, that the culture people might tend a little bit more toward grace, the people who are into academia might tend a little more toward truth, and yet the most powerful is when you bring truth and grace to bear together. And Jesus came bearing grace and truth and John one. And so there was something about Jesus where he could meet the woman at the well, confront her with her serial promiscuity and at the same time her invite him to her keg party later that night to meet all of her friends. That kind of pulling that off has always to me seemed like that's the bell you want to ring. I also feel like after a while, if it's a steady diet of simply building cultural bridges and you become very little more than an Oprah and pop psychology, because and you really don't have, as Thomas Merton once said you don't have anything to offer the world that it doesn't already have. And so what you really want to do is build that bridge, which is very needed, and understand culture. But there's a reason you're building a bridge. It's not a bridge to nowhere, it's a bridge that you can meet Across and and you can confront, and you can bring to bear what the world does not have, and and and that truth with that was built on the bridge of grace. And so For me, I love the life of the mind, I love being a student of culture. To me those are natural bed partners. That mates and I, I I feel like it gives, it gives, it gives a.

Remember what Billy Graham once saying that when he had his defining moment where he believed in scripture, to settle that for his life at that retreat center in California, if you know anything about his, his life, and he had a moment where he had a friend named Chuck Templeton who was filling his head with all kinds of ideas that were going against belief in scripture, belief in the miraculous, etc. And Templeton was actually considered a better speaker than Billy at the time. And and and Billy didn't know what to do with all of those thoughts and ideas and he went out and he laid his Bible out on this tree stump or a rock and in the woods and he said God, I don't have answers for all this, but I'm gonna choose to believe. I'm gonna choose to believe. And he said from that day on is preaching at power like it never had before. And it was like every time he picked up the Bible is like wielding a sword. And, of course, nobody's ever heard of Templeton to this day. But Billy Graham I mean his story is told. He actually ended up a very sad life.

Billy Graham, obviously, grace of Angels of history. I Feel that way in a much smaller way, in the sense that when I get up to deal with something, if I feel like I'm bringing grace and truth, if I feel like I've done my homework and I'm addressing something and I felt need or culture, I built a bridge through culture, I'm speaking to cultural issues or in a way that this culture can understand. So I've got that. But then I'm also bringing truth and I'm not I'm not hiding that truth. Then there's a power, there's a confidence that I have, like I'm wielding a sword that I I, you know, I wouldn't have any other way.

0:22:40 - Rusty George
One of your Things that you offer society which is so amazing, especially churches is your blog Church and culture. I love this because you help fill in some of these gaps. For us, you connect these two things Church and and and culture. So I'm curious, because there's so many resources out there to kind of help us understand culture. Is there anything in particular that you use to kind of keep your finger on the pulse of culture, rather than spending endless hours just rolling through Buzzfeed and Google? What do you look at to kind of help you stay current?

0:23:18 - James Emery White
Well, first of all, I'm really glad that you raised that and first of all, thank you for your kind words. On the blog, I the. What I felt and I still feel this to a degree, but is that there really are? You kind of alluded to this earlier is like this, like there's two sides. You've got people who, who are in the academic world and when they study culture, it's based basically to just to despise it, to critique it, to find fault with it or to see where the church is selling out in some way. And then you have, on the church side of things, where culture is is is, like you know, they're like a kid in a candy shop. I mean, I can't get enough of culture. I can't bring culture enough to bear. I can't, I can't embrace culture enough.

I want to be identified with culture in the minds of people. It's like, you know, it's like Sally field, that they had me a ward. You like me, you like me. It's like we want people to like us, and so there's, there's this, this, and I felt like these two worlds we're just missing each other. And yet they both needed each other.

Academia needed to see that culture is our mission field and you better understand your mission field and, just like any good missionary, you better learn that language, you better learn that dress code, you better learn Everything indigenous you possibly can, because that's better translate the scriptures for that people you're trying to reach. And why did we all of a sudden Forget all of Missiology 101 when it comes to, yes, you know church and so in culture. So I felt like academia was missing that side of it and I felt like the church was almost feeling like, well, the whole thing is just making sure that it's culturally relevant or culturally identifiable. Well, no, it's really not. It's to build that bridge, but then to give them what's absolutely the most counter cultural thing on the planet, which is the message of, of Jesus and and and the values that come with the kingdom, mm-hmm and so, and that's what I have found and then you know, mech is, is, is Reaches a lot of un-churched people we have, throughout our whole history, 70% or more of our total growth has gone from people who were un-churched.

I know that's a staggeringly high number, but that's what it is. Over 70% of every body we've ever reached come from un-churched background. What I have found is that the average person it was unchurched Doesn't mind me serving up a stiff dose of truth. They want to know how I'm gonna do it and how I'm gonna say it. We're done my homework, but they can respect it and and and whether they can identify with me and and. So these are all key things.

So I Do think that it's needed to kind of play off a little bit of your question and, and what I'm trying to do With the blog and other resources that we're trying to put out, the church and culture conference that we have, and annually in books and various other things is to help people bring these two worlds together the church and Culture, the church in this mission field, mm-hmm, and and how to communicate and best reach that mission field, to bring that together into this wonderful synergistic Power that is effective.

And that's one of the reasons why I do think that every pastor, every leader, must be a student of culture, because I mean culture's Constantly changing and so if you're doing things now the way you did them, even five years ago, sometimes even five months ago, you could be dead in the water culturally, because things are constantly changing and mech has constantly changed throughout its time Because of changing culture, but we just went through Like we can talk about if you want to, but I mean we don't have to but risk went through one of the most massive changes in the whole 31 or 2 year run about 3 years ago. Complete changed everything. So you know you're constantly doing these things if you're gonna stay abreast of culture.

0:27:15 - Rusty George
And you're speaking about how you shut down your multi-site strategy and came back to one campus. Is that right?

0:27:23 - James Emery White
Well larger than that. That was part of an overarching approach to becoming a hybrid model, hybrid church, which was just released, a book on this called hybrid church, which was one of the more, I think, probably the most seminal book I've ever written, and, and, and I say that I say that With great gratitude toward the father. It was three years of research and writing longest there's ever been between any of my books, and, and, and I kind of joked with people as it was like three years in the writing and a lifetime in the making of vocational ministry. It, it, the hybrid, is to bringing together the physical and the digital, and, and how. That really is the new reality.

You know, one of the things, the thing to understand about culture right now, I think, is that there has been, for only the third time in all of church history, a revolution in our mission field and how we communicate with it. You go all the way back to the beginning of the Christian movement and you look at the mission field. It was pre-Christian. It was filled with Jews, pagans or Gentiles and Judaizing Gentiles, and the way of communicating to that field was largely oral. I mean, even when Paul would write like a letter to the Corinth Corinthians. It was read, you know, if you know it, the letters always read to the church assembled. It was an oral based culture. Fast forward to the conversion of Constantine and and the beginning of the spread of Christianity in the Roman world, throughout the Western world, and you had the beginning of the Christian world. Hmm, and that culture. So we went from pre-Christian to Christian and the way we communicated with that field was largely written, and then later mechanized writing. But it was a context decisively Christian. That was our mission field. So no surprise that when that written form of communication mechanized, like with Gutenberg's press, the first thing that rolled off of it was, of course, a Bible, and so you had that as like and I call that the first version, like Church 1.0, and then, for the Christian world and written communication, church 2.0. And for only the third time we've just now experienced in the West a change in both our mission field and the way of communicating with it, and once again it happened simultaneously. It's fascinating from a socio-historical mindset.

So we went from pre-Christian, oral, christian, written, to now post-Christian, digital, and I agree for Church 3.0, you know, and which is hybrid, the hybrid church, not all digital but a blending of the physical and the digital, and that's the changing nature of our mission field and how to reach it. And so, yes, we looked at many things like the multi-site model was largely designed to break down geographic barriers. What if the barriers aren't geographic? What if the barriers are digital? And what if the real way of reaching people has become more digital based and has been geographic based? And so this is pre-COVID. This is back in 1999, I mean 2019. We did this.

It was very conscious. Our sites were doing well, the church was doing well. It wasn't anything like that. It was very long, arduous process of rethinking strategy, reading culture.

What was happening and I remember the defining moment for me was a budget cycle where all this had been churning around in me for probably at least two years, because the digital revolution really has taken place really from 2007 on. I mean, 2007 was really the key year. I can get into that in the book with a chapter called what the Blank Happened in 2007. So, thought of it and let me get away with it, but it was a quote from Thomas Friedman. But we have seen a budget cycle and we were dealing with all these things like with every budget, I don't care what size church you are, how long you've been, I don't care. Every budget cycle is so painful because you're so much you want to do and you can't do, and you got realities and all this kind of stuff.

And so and I was just bursting all the things that I knew we needed to do in terms of the digital revolution to really reach people effectively, what we needed to do in terms of completely rebuilding our website because it wasn't really built like most websites still aren't for app integration, integration with apps and mobile technology and how the building itself wasn't physical and digital in nature in terms of making the most of that and how we just what you could do with digital marketing and Google and so many other different things.

I mean on and on and on and on and when of all the things we could do that just reach so many people. And then there was our online campus, which we had debuted and before long, before COVID, but it's like all we could do that and fully staffing it like we would any other campus and reaching that redemptive potential. And I was looking at what it would do to take that and I was looking at all the money going into these physical sites and I was looking at like, like, the thousands and thousands we could reach this way and, yes, the great numbers we were reaching through the physical sites, but, man, the cost differential and everything else was just making me just want to go throw up in a corner.

And it kind of reminded me of, you know, in the old days.

You'd have churches say, yeah, we're going to have 100 people go out door to door visitation, and then at the end of that day they would say we had three people come to Christ.

And they would say see, and I would always say, gosh, what if you took those hundred people and did something that resulted in 3300 people coming to Christ? You know, that's the way my mind works and I was thinking you know the money we are spending in these sites, which is, as anyone knows who's done the models expensive, which is fine if it's missional, but I was looking at what that same money, or even less, could do digital, and it just made me sick. And so we made. We made the shift and instantly, instantly, the Sunday following the closing of all of our sites, we had massive increase in attendance at our one remaining physical campus, as well as all across our digital platforms, and we never look back and we just just, we've never had growth like we've experienced since and it hasn't led up. And so I best decision I ever made and not just because what happened with COVID, right, you know, a few months later and everybody had to go online Best decision I ever made independent of that.

0:34:19 - Rusty George
So a lot of people would nod their head and say, oh yeah, we have an online offering, which basically means a camera in the back of the room streaming the service on YouTube or something, and then that's it. But it's so much bigger than that. Can you talk to our church leaders out there about? Here's what you should be thinking about. Here's what you could do with it. Here's where you might be missing it.

0:34:39 - James Emery White
I wrote a whole book on that. It would be hard to put it astound by that. Without sounding self-serving, I would strongly encourage and hold a hybrid church right and read that, and they would see a comprehensive what it means for community and ministry and everything else and outreach and just just that. And you're right, though, it is so much more than just streaming something online. It's an entire new way of thinking and it's almost like if you've trained yourself, which I'm sure many of your listeners have to think. How would this be for an unchurched person? How would this be for an unchurched person? How would they view this? How can we develop this in light of reaching unchurched people? If you've developed a mindset where you're constantly forcing everything through that prism? Okay, now add something to that. Add a second thing to that how does this translate digitally? How does this translate online? How does this? You know, I'm trying to reach this unchurched person who is online, trying to do church in a way, to lead the church in a digital age, and it is completely holistic and comprehensive. It is you know this is such an overused term, but in this case it is true. It is a paradigm shift. It is a fundamental rethinking of strategy and one of the most significant, probably the most significant in my lifetime.

If there was an earlier shift in strategy where churches began to be just more outreach-focused and just thought, thinking about the unchurched person and what it would mean to throw up in the front doors of the weekend, I remember back in the late 80s, you know, I wrote a little book called Opening the Front Door. You know, hey, the worship services where the average person is going to check you out, maybe make it a little friendlier, maybe a little guest services, maybe adjust the temperature so it's comfortable, no, just anything, anything, just think about that. But that whole thing set off, you know, willow Creek in 1975, starting in Saddleback in 1980. And that just began this whole movement of things and of churches that really began to think outwardly focused mag in 92, in terms of being, of thinking that way and if that was a significant shift in churches just becoming outreach-focused, really thinking that way about the unchurched and letting that have implications strategically, that is.

I would argue that the church throughout its 2000-year history has had moments where it got more outreach-oriented and had renovations and reformations that facilitated that. I would say that the Protestant Reformation was that Martin Luther, using the printing press for the 95 Theses and using bar room tunes from the Wittenberg bar circuit for tunes like A Mighty Fortress is Our God, which is a bar room tune, exactly. And using popular music for the day and translating the Bible into vernacular German. I mean some of the stuff that a lot of us maybe felt like was innovative. It was innovative for our day and age but really had pockets of it happening throughout all of church history. This is new. The digital revolution is new. This is a true transformation of strategy that the church must wake up to and it is probably second only to probably the invention of the printing press.

0:38:23 - Rusty George
I completely agree, and we were on the online campus mindset before COVID and I'm so grateful we were, because we were able to pivot rather quickly. Our people and I think what people are wondering now is okay, I believe in the digital revolution absolutely and I think your book Hybrid Church is beautiful in explaining all of this, but there's a bastion of people out there in churches saying, yeah, but you got to enter the house of the Lord. Now we can get into the semantics of that and it's a little bit different than a building, obviously. But does your online campus exist to move people into an actual physical gathering, or can someone be a part of MEK and never even gather with another group of people? How have you kind of answered that question? Neither.

0:39:14 - James Emery White
Okay, and here's what I mean by that. I would say that okay. And so let me take it sequentially. Number one we do not have as the goal of the online campus to get you into an embodied experience or to get you into an in-person physical service. That's not our goal. We're breaking. If online is where you attend, that's where you attend, that's fine, that's legit and that's affirmed. But I would say that, if you say so, but is it okay that you never gather, See, but we consider that a gathering and we treat it like a gathering and we facilitate it like a gathering and through chat rooms and experiences and things that happen the rest of the other six days of the week.

I mean, we're creating an online community and this is one of the things that I think is critical to understand is that we have a very outdated understanding of community, and so the average church leader and I don't say this in a condescending way, I just it's just observationally the average church leader has no idea how strong community is, for example, within the gaming community or the Twitch community, or the kind of community that's so deep within people under the age of, say, 30, with, you know, through TikTok and through online and to where that's almost a primary form of community, even more than face-to-face or in person. And I just think that we don't understand how community itself has morphed and evolved and changed into and so we're putting old definitions on what it means to be community and even old sensibilities like, well, if it's not face-to-face, and obviously we just can't, you can't do community that way. Well, you got a lot of people who say, well, sorry to inform you, but we do and you can, and there is a sense of there are certain things that I do think are best embodied, and that's why I argue for a hybrid model, not a digital model. But I also think there's so many things that we put our own sensibilities and tastes around when we say, well, you can't do it that way, and all that means is you don't like doing it that way. It's almost like people used to say, well, I don't like Kendall and you're anti-Kendall because you don't want to read a book that way, Okay, but a lot of people do.

So don't say that reading a book on Kendall isn't reading a book, and that's kind of the mindset with some people, and that's why I would often tell my, do tell my seminary students, my graduate students, to be very careful about building theological fences around personal taste. Don't do that. That's dangerous, that's not good thinking. And so one of the things that we're doing is that we're offering the online campus as a full campus, fully pastored, fully led, building community, and I go into that at great length in the book to try to open people's minds to what that really looks like, and we wouldn't be able to get into all of that here, but I would encourage people to look at that because there really is robust community online and it can be and should be, and if the church doesn't go there, we're going to miss, we're going to lose this generation.

0:42:15 - Rusty George
Do you pre-record your messages for the online campus or are they simply coming from your physical location? Or how are you communicating with online?

0:42:26 - James Emery White
It's a great question. We completely develop our online campus separately from our in-person, meaning we curate the content, so it is designed for consumption. Online consumption Is it the same talk? Are some of the songs the same that the creative team puts together or whatever? The elements are creatively? Yeah, but I mean it's different, it's shorter. Our in-person services are 60 to 65 minutes. Our online services are between 40, 45 minutes.

There's a reason for that, because there's just online attention spans and such. The way we film the worship or whatever that music elements might be, the worship elements, the way we film that is different and there's a lot of freedom and creativity with that. I mean, they could be on a hillside, they could be the thousand things. There's the creativity so boundless there. I film my talk specifically for the online campus, for the online campus. I mean, I do that, and so it's not something that was taken from a stage which is so clearly not designed. And when you're speaking to online, our online campus, I'm talking to one person, maybe it's maybe a couple or a family at best, but I'm talking it's a very much a more intimate setting, and so I actually film it that way and film it differently. So I actually I film for the online campus on Wednesdays, specifically for the online campus for that weekend, and then I'm delivering that talk live, if you will, in person, the following weekend.

0:43:57 - Rusty George
I have noticed, by being a part of both campuses, just the difference, in kind, of the way that you communicate with the camera and with the room, and I mean it's brilliant. I would like to ask you this and I want to honor your time. So, even though I have about a thousand other questions, I'll ask you one more. You've been doing this 30 years. You've always had this heartbeat to reach un-church people. How has teaching changed from 1992, when it began, to where you are now in 2023? Obviously, you know you wrote this great book on the rise of the nuns N-O-N-E-S and what that means, and people are growing up with, you know, not identifying with any kind of religious background, but how do you think your teaching has changed to connect with un-church people versus what it was back in the 90s?

0:44:50 - James Emery White
I think you're able to throw a rock and hit both camps now in a way that you couldn't before. What I mean both camps is meaning both Christians and non-Christians, that their questions have conflated they often share the same questions and so that I can develop a series, as flamingly you know, for non-Christians and their issues, and I've got Christians lining up saying, oh, thank you, thank you, thank you. I've always wanted to hear a series on this. This is so helpful for me, like, for example, I did a series on recently called the Bloody Bible and where I dealt with all of the Christopher, hitchens and Dawkins, richard Dawkins stuff about God being a moral monster, with things like the wiping out of the people in the Old Testament and such, and you know, isaac being offered up and just the Bloody Bible, just the parts that people go what Right, right, and it was one of those that dealt with a lot of questions that non-Christians had about stuff, because their problem was with God, their problem was with the God of the Bible, and then dealing with Christians who have gaping discipleship polls and questions they never felt were legal to ask. So I think that's one thing now you can just throw a rock and you can hit both camps, and that's wonderful. Another thing that I found. It's an intriguing question.

Another thing that I found is that early on, the typical un-church person that came to Mech, they would have assumed they were a Christian and you had to spend about six to nine months convincing them that they weren't, or putting it forth in such a raw and unfiltered way that they realized that they weren't. They had cultural Christianity, like you know. They liked baseball and they hated communism. They were Christian, and so it took about six to nine months for them to kind of realize that they weren't, and then they would be, you know, and then you could lead them to becoming one.

Now it's different. They absolutely come in clear in their mind that they're not a Christian, anything but a Christian, and then you have to spend that same six to nine months helping them understand that what they have been rejecting is Christianity isn't the real thing. So in both cases you're presenting the real thing. Is there some similarities there? In both cases they go on a journey where what they had in their mind as what they felt about Christianity either that they were one or that they absolutely weren't one you kind of you deconstruct that with them and for them, and then to the point where you can, they're ready to entertain it for their lives, the real thing for their lives. So I think those are some of the big differences.

0:47:23 - Rusty George
That's so good. Well, brother, I really appreciate your time and even more than that, I appreciate all your books, all your podcasts. I want to encourage everybody to pick up the book Hybrid Church wherever books are sold Church and Culture blog website podcast. It's in Mecklenburg Community Church. I have the app. I listen all the time. It's fantastic, thank you, thank you. Thank you for being with us today. Thank you, friend.