Mike Burnette: A Place to Envision What’s Possible—Part 1

Bounced from his childhood church, saved in hell on Halloween, riding a full scholarship to become an opera singer, Mike Burnette seemed an unlikely candidate to pastor the nation’s fastest-growing church—LifePoint Church in Clarksville, Tennessee.

Burnette sees the irony.

At the same time, he believes God has grown the church because of a commitment to reach the lost.

“The pulpit is not a place to bully, control or manipulate people,” he says. “It’s a place to envision what’s possible. It’s a place to share the heart of God for the people of God to reach the missing from God.”

What was your early relationship to the church?

My parents were married in and part of a charismatic church in New Orleans. I was dedicated as a baby. When I was about 18 months old, my parents separated, then divorced. A few years later, we started attending a holiness United Pentecostal church. One Sunday when I was eight, the pastor stopped his message, looked at my mom and asked us to leave. They kicked us out because my mom wouldn’t grow her hair long enough and wouldn’t stop wearing makeup. We always sat on the second row next to the pastor’s family and this old lady who was my mom’s spiritual mom. It was a long walk of shame out of the church.

It was a bitter pill for anyone, but here’s a single mom trying to bring her boys to church, raise them right, and we got kicked out. My mom was emotional and angry. We were all hurt. Even though I didn’t fully understand at the time, I knew it was very painful. No one followed up with us. We were abandoned. There’s no hurt like church hurt.

Did you carry a grudge against the church?

I didn’t fault the church that kicked us out. Man-made rules that deceive well-intended Christians into thinking that their brand is the best brand represent the Devil’s best work. Even as I describe the scene of our family’s exile and shame, I still feel it. It motivates me as a pastor. When I was in seminary, I asked, Lord, if you let me pastor a church, I want to pastor a church that my family would come to, a place where broken, lost people find Jesus and he changes their lives.

Your mom must have made a lot of sacrifices to raise you.

My mom went back to school after the divorce and finished undergrad and a master’s degree in like four years. She was determined to raise her boys so she did everything for us. She was an incredible worker, probably a workaholic. She didn’t take a handout and didn’t like to spend money. She worked as a social worker, which is not a very high-paying job.

What was your relationship to your dad?

After the divorce, my dad rejoined the Air Force. He was gone, traveling, and we never lived in the same zip code when I was growing up. I wouldn’t see him for long periods of time. When I would see him, it was great. I missed him.

Did you ever return to the church as a child?

We attended on and off, more off than on. We never stayed at any church very long. I didn’t commit my life to Jesus until I was 17. I was saved on Halloween at a Judgment House event hosted by Antioch Baptist Church in Johnson City, Tennessee. A cute girl asked me to go. It was real simple. I didn’t want to stay at home alone on Halloween and I knew some of her friends from church. I said, “If you’re going, I’m going.” That night, I was asked, “If you die tonight, where will you go?” I always joke, “It scared the hell right out of me.” Truly, I had a moment with God, and it woke me up.

What exactly was Judgment House?

It’s a narrated story of two buddies, who are best friends, who die in a bus crash. They both go to the judgment seat of God—one of them saved, the other not. In the church sanctuary an angel reads one of the kid’s name from the book and gives God the thumbs up. From offstage, the voice of God says: “Welcome into eternal life.” Then the angel looks but doesn’t see the name of the other kid. The angel shakes his head, and God says: “Depart from me, I never knew you.” The guy starts begging God, wailing for another chance, promising he’ll read the Bible and be better. Throughout the rooms of the church, he witnesses various punishments in hell.

I know that some people object to that kind of ministry because it’s a fear tactic. At the same time, I recognized myself in the guy who went to hell. I read the Bible; I’d been baptized three times, in fact. I had a faith in God without a devotion to God. In that group of 30 or so kids I was with, I was the only one that raised my hand and gave my life to Jesus.

Given your family’s experience, was it difficult returning to the church?

I was hungry. I wasn’t hungry for church, but I was hungry for Jesus. From that time on, I was all in. I went from being a guy with no devotion to Jesus—partying, drinking, etc.—to a committed follower of Jesus, attending church regularly. I had to learn church and its culture. I was going to this independent charismatic church where they danced and fell on the floor in the Spirit. I wasn’t familiar with that. I didn’t get it, but I didn’t leave it. I figured, If this is what they do, I’m in.

Talk about a whiplash of lifestyles.

To say the least. Both my brothers were fraternity presidents, so I could always go to their parties. We had freedom to do whatever we wanted. I wasn’t a lush or a crackhead, but I had smoked since I was 10, drank since I was 13 or 14, and experimented with pot in high school. I was a nice guy and funny, the class clown, but had zero direction or hope. I needed something deeper.

Who are some of the people who shaped you as a pastor and a leader?

Greg Harper, my youth pastor at Cornerstone Church in Johnson City— what an influential dude. He became my spiritual father. He just took me in and discipled me. After Judgment House, I was trying to figure out where I could or could not cuss and swear, so I asked him for the church’s rulebook. He smiled and told me he didn’t know what I was talking about. Then he said something that changed my life: “Read your Bible and do what it says.”

When did you become aware of your calling to pastor?

I went to the University of Tennessee not planning to be a pastor. I wanted to be an opera singer. I got a full ride in classical music. I fell in love with the stage and performing and the costumes. My plan was to graduate and go to grad school for music. I was looking at schools like Julliard or University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. But my girlfriend—now wife—and I were attending church together at Knoxville Christian Center. In less than a year, I was serving part-time as choir director and six months after that, Pastor Barry Culberson asked me to become his youth pastor.

He discipled you. What was that like?

Barry was the first pastor I ever worked for. When he asked me to be the youth pastor, I told him I didn’t know anything about ministry. He said he would teach me. Over time, he spoke prophecy over me: “I see the hand of God on you. I think you’ll pastor one of the greatest churches in the country one day.” I laughed at him. I was going to be an opera singer and travel. I didn’t know what he was talking about.

How did the church begin to reshape you during the four years you were there?

They gave me a shot. I was 21 when they hired me. They took a risk on me. Pastor Barry was very committed to prayer, usually praying three hours a day. Somewhere along the way, God had a conversation with him about me. He took a risk on me and saw things. God gave him a prophetic word that changed my life.

So what led up to your calling to LifePoint?

After serving in two churches, I contacted leadership in the Tennessee Assemblies of God and was told that a senior pastor position had opened for a church in Clarksville. They had just lost the founding pastor about 6 months prior, were meeting in a new building with 20 to 40 people and owed $2.5 million in loans. After the first call with someone from that church, I got off the phone and told my wife, “Baby, I think we’ll be moving to Clarksville.”

That sounds crazy.

I would say dense and naïve. For me, it wasn’t so much about the where but the who. My heart was to grow God’s people and reach lost people wherever I go, but I had no idea how bad the situation was. I was 30, had two kids, married for eight years, and it only took me a short time to have a mild panic attack.

As soon as I got here, the bank put my name in the spot of the CEO and said, “The church has a cash reserve for about four to five months and then we will start the process of foreclosure.”

Wow, tough gig. What did you do?

I loved talking about missing people. My first sermon painted a vision for a church that reached unchurched people, a place for the missing, not only the found, and if you are found, help me find the missing. I was just very mission focused right away. I said we’re going to have a culture of mission. That became our new language. After two years, we were up to 350 people. At that time, I attended a Grow conference with some of our staff. The first night, Chris Hodges, pastor of Church of the Highlands, gave a new picture of what the church could be: “We want to help people know God, find freedom, discover their purpose and make a difference.” I went to seminary, but I didn’t learn those things. In the summer of 2012, we woodshedded the Grow process, and 15 months later, we hit 1,000.

In Part 2 of this interview, Mike Burnette talks about exegeting our communities, how Clarksville shapes LifePoint’s DNA, and building a service-oriented culture at the church.