Christian Living

7 Things Church Is Not

We Must Correct Some Wrong Perspectives about Our Religious Practices

We’ve looked at how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament to provide a new way for us and our churches to function, replacing the temple, paid clergy, and tithes. Then we explored ten New Testament practices and five New Testament examples to inform our church behavior.

Yet today’s church has characteristics that come from our culture and have no scriptural basis. We need to identify these unbiblical practices and remove them from our perspectives—and our churches. We need to pursue what Jesus wants.

1. Church Is Not About Membership

Membership in a business promotion or club implies privilege. There are qualification requirements to meet. Often there is a fee. Because not everyone can meet these barriers to entry, membership becomes a status symbol.

It separates those who are in from those who are out.

Church does the same thing when it touts membership. To become a church member, there are hoops to jump through: attend classes, agree to certain teachings, follow specific rules, or commit to give money, possibly even at a certain annual level.

Once we become a member, the church accepts us as one of its own. They fully embrace us, and we become one of them. We are elite, and, even if we won’t admit it, we swell with pride over our special status. Now the church and her paid staff will care for us.

To everyone else, they offer tolerance but withhold full acceptance. After all, church membership has its privileges.

There’s one problem.

Church membership is not biblical. We made it up.

Having members separates church attendees between those on the inside and everyone else. It pushes away spiritual seekers. Membership splits the church of Jesus, separating people into two groups, offering privileges to one and holding the other at a distance.

It is a most modern concept, consumerism at its finest. (More on this in the next section.)

Although perhaps well intended, membership divides the church that Jesus wants to function as one (John 17:21). Jesus accepts and loves everyone, not just those who follow him or give money.

Paul never gives instructions about church membership, Peter never commands we join a church, and John never holds a new membership class.

2. Church Is Not for Consumers

When we join a church by becoming a member, we expect something in return. In addition to acceptance, we seek benefits. That’s why we go church shopping, striving to find the church that offers us the most.

We look for the best preaching, the most exciting worship, and the widest array of programs to meet our needs.

This is consumerism—and it doesn’t belong in the church.

When people feel free to leave a church, often over the smallest of slights, they view themselves as a customer shopping for the church that offers the most value. This is a consumer mindset, not a godly perspective.

We shouldn’t shop for a church that provides the services we want. Instead we should look for a faith community we can help.

When people go church shopping, the church becomes a service provider. Which church offers the best services? Then the focus shifts to programs, service styles, and preaching power.

Instead of asking, “What can the church do for me?” the better question becomes “What can I do for the church?” Don’t seek to be served but to serve. (See Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45.)

This idea of receiving services influences our church selection process. Seldom do people look for a church that gives them the opportunity to serve. Instead they seek a church for the benefits it provides: the music, the message, and the ministries.

They’re church shoppers, pursuing church selection with a consumer mindset.

The result is a retail religion. These people shop for a church the same way they buy a car or look for a gym. They make a list—either literally or figuratively—of the things their new car, gym, or church must have.

Then they draft their wish list of what they hope their new car, gym, or church could have. And then they create a final list of deal breakers, detailing the things their new car, gym, or church can’t have.

Then they go shopping.

They tick off items on their list. With intention they test drive cars, check out gyms, or visit churches. In each case, they immediately reject some and consider others as possibilities.

Eventually they grow tired of shopping and make their selection from the top contenders, seeking a solution that provides them with the most value.

A better, and more God-honoring approach, is to seek a church community that provides opportunities for us to serve. We need to stop thinking of church for the things it will provide for us and instead consider the things we can do for it, that is, for the people who go there and the community surrounding it.

We should look for a church that provides opportunities for us to serve, according to how God has wired us, ways that make us come alive. This includes service within the church and to those people outside the church.

Service is not an isolated activity. As we serve, we do so as a group. Church service and community matter more than church programs and benefits.

3. Church Is Not about Division

We’ve talked about how church membership divides people. Some carry the special status of members, while others are relegated to second-class status as attendees. Membership segregates people into two groups. This divides Jesus’s church, the body of Christ.

Sadly, there are nuances within membership too.

There are those who serve on boards and committees and those who don’t function in a leadership capacity. There are those who teach classes and those who don’t. There are those who volunteer and those who don’t.

Each distinguishing characteristic elevates some and devalues others.

We also divide by race, ethnicity, and social economic status. More God-dishonoring segregation. Shame on us.

4. Church is Not About Theology

Another way we promote division is through our theology. Yes, theology divides us.

At its most basic level, theology is the study of God. But the modern idea of finding the right theology piles layers on top of this basic understanding, and the subject gets murky.

The result is too many multi-syllable words that few people can pronounce and even fewer can comprehend.

Turning God into an academic pursuit of the right theology pushes him away and keeps us from truly knowing him.

As people pursue theology, they amass information. Much of this forms a theoretical construct, turning God into an abstract spiritual entity. They gather knowledge at the risk of pushing the Almighty away.

This knowledge of who God is generates pride. It puffs up. Instead of knowledge, we should pursue love, which builds up (1 Corinthians 8:1).

The pursuit of theological learning is a noble task, but it’s not the goal. Chasing after a theology of God isn’t the end. It’s the means to the end: to know who God is in an intimate, personal way.

Instead we take our theologies and divide Jesus’s church. We cite certain beliefs as immutable. We fellowship with those who agree with us and disassociate from those who disagree. We dishonor Jesus in the process and serve as a poor witness as a result.

5. Church Is Not for Networking

Some people become part of a church to make marketing contacts or achieve status as a member of a high-profile congregation. Their goal in attending isn’t spiritual. It’s business. It’s closing sales.

Once they’ve sold all they can to those who attend that church, they move on to another one. For them attending church is a business strategy, and God takes a backseat.

6. Church Is Not a Business

A church is not a business, and we shouldn’t run it like one either. Many churches today, however, think like a business and operate like one. A church should not have a profit motive, that is, maximizing donations.

Nor should a church adapt current business world concepts such as having a CEO, a board, marketing strategies, customer experience, and incentive programs.

Yes, a church should be fiscally responsible and manage its money—God’s money— with the highest integrity. And a church needs some degree of leadership, but remember Jesus modeled the idea of servant leadership (Matthew 20:28 and Mark 10:45). So should today’s church leaders.

And we shouldn’t track the achievements of our church the same way a business would.

Today’s church measures success by attendance, offerings, and facility size. This is because the world values increased scope: the number of people, amount of money, and square footage of a building.

We’re more like the world than we care to admit. More people showing up for church each week is good. A larger campus impresses. Bigger offerings allow for more of the same. Churches with a sizeable attendance or grand edifice garner attention.

They receive media coverage. Books celebrate them and elevate their leaders to lofty pedestals. This is how the Western world defines success.

The church buys into it without hesitation. These measures of success become the focus. But this focus is off, even looking in the wrong direction.

The triple aim of most churches—attendance, offerings, and facility—doesn’t matter as much as most people think.

Said more bluntly, most church leaders today focus on the three B’s: butts (in the chair), bucks (in the offering), and buildings.

I doubt God cares about the size of our audience, offerings, or facility. Instead of an unhealthy, unbiblical focus on the three B’s, what if we and our churches looked to the three C’s of changed lives, community, and commitment?

Changed Lives: First, Jesus wants changed lives. He yearns for us to repent (Luke 13:3) and follow him (Luke 9:23). Then we can reorder our priorities. In fact, most all he says is about changing the way we live.

Community: Next, Jesus wants to build a community—to be one—just as he and Papa are one (John 17:21). He wants us to be part of the kingdom of God (John 3:3). Instead we have become a church.

Commitment: Last, Jesus expects our commitment. He desires people who will go all in. He wants us to follow him, to serve him, and to be with him (John 12:26).

We need to maintain our focus on Jesus and not look back to what we left behind (Luke 9:62). That’s commitment, and that’s what Jesus wants.

If Jesus focuses on changed lives, community, and commitment, so should we. Let’s push aside butts, bucks, and buildings, because these things get in the way of what Jesus wants for his followers.

7. Church Is Not an Institution

Most churches—and especially denominations—become institutions over time. As institutions they seek to perpetuate themselves regardless of the circumstances. In their struggle for survival, they lose sight of why they existed in the first place.

Instead of seeking to serve their community and share salvation through Jesus, their focus grows inward. Their priority is on self-preservation at all costs.

People expect a church—their church—will last forever. They forget that a church, which comprises people, is a living, breathing, and changing entity. It’s organic. That means a church is born, grows, thrives, and dies—just like the people who are in it.

The only way to avoid this is for a church to become an institution, but once it does it loses its original purpose. It’s no longer alive. It’s dead and can do little to advance the kingdom of God.

Church shouldn’t be a business, institution, or club. We must rescind membership, stop thinking like consumers, and start pursuing unity over segregation.

Finally, we need to stop dividing ourselves by our theology. Jesus has one church. We must start acting like it.

Read more about this in Peter’s thought-provoking book, Jesus’s Broken Church, available in e-book, audiobook, paperback, and hardcover.

Peter DeHaan writes about biblical Christianity to confront status quo religion and live a life that matters. He seeks a fresh approach to following Jesus through the lens of Scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices.

Read more in his books, blog, and weekly email updates.