Why Are Denominations Dangerous?

Jesus wants us to live in unity but instead our manmade denominations divide us

Denominations divide us. Jesus unites us.I recently attended a friend’s ordination ceremony who had graduated from seminary and became a minister. It’s not the first such occasion I attended, and it won’t likely be the last. It was, however, the first time I really listened to what took place.

Integrated into the liturgy of the proceedings were a series of questions posed to the new minister. Early on one of the queries caught my attention. I’ll purposely not quote the question to hide the identity of the guilty denomination, but I will paraphrase it.

In essence the denomination asked the young minister to pledge his loyalty to it and do his best to promote its mission locally and around the world.

My friend’s expected response affirmed his willingness to do so.

I don’t think I would have agreed to such a condition. Shouldn’t we pledge our loyalty to God and do our best to promote his mission locally and around the world?

With 43,000 Protestant denominations, why does each one work so hard to preserve and promote its own brand of Christianity, often at the expense of others? Why not ditch the denomination and instead work hard to promote Christ?

With this still bouncing around in my brain, a second item caught my attention as the ceremony wound down. In this part of the proceedings, my friend promised to take various actions. One such action has him pursuing unity within the church. My friend promised to do so.

Assuming that by church those words refer to the universal church of Jesus, as opposed to the denomination, I see a contradiction of intent, that my friend promised to pursue two mutually exclusive goals.

Our Protestant denominations divide us, whereas Jesus wants us to be one, to get along with each other, and to live in unity (John 17:21, 23). When we consider this carefully, our manmade denominations are the antithesis of the unity Jesus prays for.

If my friend would indeed pursue unity as he promised, he should seek to dismantle the denomination, because its very existence opposes unity.

[This is from the April issue of Peter DeHaan‘s newsletter, “Spiritually Speaking.”  Receive the complete newsletter each month.]

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What is Church?

The church of Jesus needs to focus on three things and master them all

We are the church: Working God, Get along, and Help OthersIn our normal usage, church is a building, a place we go to—often on Sunday mornings. I’ll be there later today. Other definitions for church include a religious service, organized religion, and professional clergy.

Yet a more correct understanding is that we are church, both individually and collectively. We, the church, are an organic body, not an institution, religious service, or profession. If we are the church, we can’t go there; we take church with us everywhere we go—or at least we should.

As the people who comprise the church of Jesus—his followers—I see three things we ought to be about, three things that warrant our focus:

Worship: Life isn’t about us; it’s all about him. Or at least it should be. As individuals and as a group we should worship him, our reason for being. Though God doesn’t need our praise and adoration, we should need to give it to him. We worship God by thanking him for who he is and what he does. We worship him by praising him for his omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent greatness. This can happen in word, in attitude, in action—and in song.

Singing to God about him is a common form of worship. Yet at too many church services this musical expression of faith has turned into a concert. While this is not necessarily bad if the concert connects us with God, it is bad if all it seeks to do is entertain us. By the way, when we say we don’t like the music at church, we’ve just turned the focus away from God and back to us, to our desire for entertainment over worship.

Beyond this we can also worship God in silence and through solitude, two pursuits that most people in our culture fail to comprehend. In fact, in our always on, always connected existence, even a few seconds of silence makes most people squirm, whereas solitude drives them crazy. Yet we can worship God in both.

In addition we also worship God by getting along with other believers and serving those outside our group.

Community: The church as a group of people should major on community, on getting along and experiencing life together. Community should happen during our Sunday gatherings, as well as before and after, just hanging out. Community is following all of the Bible’s one another commands, which teach us how to get along in a God-honoring way.

At some church services people scurry in at the exact starting time (or a few minutes late) and flee with intention at the final “amen.” They miss the community part of church; they miss a key reason for going. Remember, it’s not about us.

If we don’t like spending time with the people we see for an hour each Sunday morning, then something’s wrong: not with them, but with us. So, before we point fingers at others, we need to realize that the problem of why we shun spiritual community lies within.

Helping Others: Worship is about God, and community is about our fellow believers. What about others? If we only focus on God and our local faith gathering, we stop too soon and fail to function as the church Jesus intended. Jesus served others, so should we. And we shouldn’t serve with any motives other than the pure intent to show them the love of Jesus. Loving others through our actions may be the most powerful witness we can offer. And history is full of examples where this indeed happened, when the world saw Jesus through the tangible love of his followers.

A church body that looks only to God and at each other is selfish. A church that only gazes heavenward or internally is a church that is dying. We need to let our light shine so that the world can see (Matthew 5:14-16 and Luke 11:33). The world watches us; they hope we’ll come through; they want to see Jesus in us.

That’s what church is. We worship and we build community so we can love others in his name.

[This is from the March issue of Peter DeHaan‘s newsletter, “Spiritually Speaking.”  Receive the complete newsletter each month.]

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3 Ways to Worship God

Worship means different things to different people, but what’s important is that we do it

3 Ways to Worship GodSome churches call their Sunday meeting a worship service. This has always troubled me. Yes, I knew that singing to God was a form of worship, or at least it should be. And I understood the part about “worshiping God with our tithes and offerings,” even though I didn’t see God getting too much of what we dropped into the offering plate. But the sermon?

How could listening to a lecture, often a boring one, be a form of worshiping God? In truth, aside from a few songs and the collection, the bulk of most church services are either education or entertainment. Is that worship? I don’t think so. I hope not.

Here are three ways we can worship God. (And like a good three-point sermon, they all begin with the same letter.)

Singing: As I said, singing to God is a way to worship him. More broadly, music is a path to worship. That means we can sing or listen to music. Music can also involve movement, rather it be clapping our hands, raising our arms in praise, or dance (from rhythmic swaying to getting down like David, 2 Samuel 6:14).

Yes, singing can have a physical component. It can also involve senses. Sight: seeing others sing and dance (or watching a light show). Hearing: listening to those around us sing and hearing the instruments. Smell: incense or a smoke machine. Touch: holding hands with fellow worshipers as we sing. Taste: singing while we take communion. (For the record, I’ve experienced each of these sensory elements in worship at various church services, though not often.)

Unfortunately, I’m musically and rhythmically challenged, so I struggle to worship God through music and movement. But give me a strong beat with catchy lyrics behind it, and I can engage in song as a means of worship.

Serving: Helping others, both with our time and through our money, is a tangible form of worship. I enjoy the action of doing something for others, offering it as an act of service to them and as a form of worship to God.

Similarly I like being able to give money to causes I’m passionate about or to people in need as the Holy Spirit directs me. Both are ways to serve and both offer a path for worship. I relish the opportunity to worship God through these forms of service.

Silence: In our multitasking, always-on society, the hush of stillness is an anachronism to most, one that causes many people to squirm. Few people can tolerate silence for more than a few seconds.

Yet in our silence—along with its partner, solitude—we can quiet our racing minds and still our thumping hearts in order to connect with God. Psalm 46:10 says to “be still and know that I am God.” Yet, setting time aside to be still presents challenges. For most of us, meeting with God in silence doesn’t just happen; we must be intentional.

In my times of silence I connect more fully with God in worship, get deeper glimpses into his heart, and am best able to hear his gentle words of encouragement, correction, and mostly love. So good!

Just as I make it my practice to attend church, I have a parallel practice of giving to my community each week. I also (usually) block out one day out of seven to fast, and part of that time includes worshiping God through silence. All three are forms of worship, though for me, helping others is more practical and resting in God’s presence is more meaningful.

God has uniquely made us and gives us different ways to worship him. When it comes to worship, one size does not fit all. Find the one that fits you.

[This is from the February issue of Peter DeHaan‘s newsletter, “Spiritually Speaking.”  Receive the complete newsletter each month.]

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Can You Love God and Hate Theology?

Debates over theology cause needless distractions and actually keep us from God

Can You Love God and Hate Theology?My theology is an enigma to most people. It’s an enigma to me, too, but I’m okay with that because I don’t much care about theology, at least not how most folks pursue it today.

People often want to engage me in theological discussions, but I’m only good for about ten seconds. Though I can talk about God, faith, and the Bible all day, don’t turn the conversation into an intangible abstraction. God is real, the Bible is alive, and faith is active. So let’s not bog down our discussions in theoretical constructs.

The reason people try to figure out my theological stance is understandable; it’s human nature to want to categorize people. They want to place me in a theological box. Once I’m in a box I’m easier to comprehend, and then they can choose to accept me or shun me. But I don’t fit into their neat packages, the ones that carry convenient labels.

As they ask probing questions, I can see their heads about explode because my answers transcend the various theological perspectives they seek to insert me into. They can’t figure me out or how to catalog my beliefs. Do I align with their views? Or am I one of those other people? You see, I don’t fit nicely into any theological camp; I bounce around a lot.

Consider some of their common questions and my impertinent but seriously sincere answers:

Q: What’s your view on baptism?
A: We should probably do it.

Q: Are you pre-trib or post-trib?
A: It doesn’t matter. What happens will happen.

Q: How do you understand the creation account in the Bible?
A: God made us. The details aren’t relevant to the fact that I’m here.

Q: Do we have free will or are we predestined?
A: Yes.

Q: Are you Reformed, Arminian, Calvinist, Baptist…?
A: Isn’t Jesus the point?

Q: Well, are you Mainline, Evangelical, or Charismatic?
A: I’m a little bit of each.

Q: What’s the best translation of the Bible?
A: The one that we actually read.

Q: What are the essential elements of your faith, the non-negotiables?
A: Just one: follow Jesus.

Q: But what about _______ ?
A: It doesn’t matter.

I don’t study theologians. I study God, which is the most basic definition of theology anyway. But I don’t study God to stuff my brain with facts and theories. I seek God so that I can better know him, more fully follow him, and live in community with him. Perhaps that’s my theology.

[This is from the January issue of Peter DeHaan‘s newsletter, “Spiritually Speaking.”  Receive the complete newsletter each month.]

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Put Jesus First This Christmas

If we say “Jesus is #1,” our actions should confirm that, not prove us to be a liar

Put Jesus First This ChristmasThe person’s Twitter profile was very telling. In fact, I almost missed what should have been her main point. Her key claim was tacked at the end of her 160-character bio, buried in the last eleven characters. Almost as an afterthought she added: “Jesus is #1.”

Am I the only one who finds this ironic?

If Jesus is truly number one, shouldn’t he be listed first and not tucked at the very end? (Wait, let me go check my Twitter profile…whew! It’s all good. I open with “I follow #Jesus.” Not just Jesus mind you, but #Jesus. Not only do I list him first, but I accord him hashtag status for better discoverability.)

Most Christians would say that they put Jesus first. It’s a great concept, but what does it really mean? How do we go about putting Jesus first in actual practicality?

Here are some ideas to consider:

Do What He Would Do: As a starting point we put Jesus first by following his example, by doing what he would do. That’s what it means to follow Jesus. I’ll talk about this in greater detail in two weeks, so be sure to come back for that.

Spend Time With Him: In theory we spend time with the people who are important to us. (Though that’s another thought deserving serious contemplation.) If Jesus is truly number one, truly important to us, we need to spend time with him. But how? Prayer is one way. Reading the Bible is another. How about engaging in other spiritual disciplines such as fasting, observing the Sabbath, service, community, solitude, stewardship, worship…? You get it.

Have Him Walk With Us Through Life: Yes, Jesus is always with us, and therefore goes wherever we go. But let’s move this from spiritual abstraction to effective experience. What if we imagined a physical Jesus at our side as we walked through life? He would actually go with us where we go, literally watch what we do, and really hear what we say—in everything and everyway. What aspects of where we go, what we do, and the things we say would glare as an embarrassment? If Jesus is truly first, the answer should be nothing. But I suspect we all have some work to do in this area.

Be His Ambassador: As Jesus’s followers, we represent him to the world. We serve the role of ambassadors. Therefore our actions do not reflect us, but ultimately him. We need to carry ourselves in a manner worthy of this high calling that he has given us. The world is watching. They’re watching us, but they’re judging him.

Make a Difference: The four biographies of Jesus—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—show us a Jesus who made a difference everywhere he went. No effort was wasted. Every action had purpose. He left a wake of changed lives. We should do the same.

If Jesus is to be number one in our lives, we have some work to do. We must move this from sentimentality to actuality. Let’s start today: Make Jesus number one in tangible ways.

As we celebrate Jesus this Christmas, let our first gift be to him: a gift of making him number one.

Merry Christmas!

[This is from the December issue of Peter DeHaan‘s newsletter, “Spiritually Speaking.”  Receive the complete newsletter each month.]

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Is Spiritual Truth More Important Than Christian Unity?

Arguing over what is true has divided Jesus’s church for centuries

Is Spiritual Truth More Important Than Christian Unity?I’m a huge advocate of Christian unity, that as Jesus’s followers we should all get along and live in harmony. Denominations and theological perspectives don’t matter; Jesus does. In the book of John Jesus prays that his future followers will play nice with each other, that we will be as one. This is so others will get to know him. In praying this Jesus realizes that discord among his people will serve as the biggest deterrent to growing his church (John 17:20-26).

Paul likewise writes that we need to strive to live in unity. He commands it (Ephesians 4:3-6). He says there is only one body; there is only one church, not 43,000 variations that we call denominations. This disunity is the downside of the Protestant Reformation.

When I tweeted about the importance of unity, one person messaged me with the stipulation that the basis for unity must be truth. The problem with using truth as a litmus test is agreeing on what is true. In effect this person was justifying disunity. Specifying a requirement of truth provides an excuse to avoid being one church. Christians have used this pretext for five centuries and divided the church of Jesus into religious factions as they argued about what is true.

The Age of Enlightenment, part of the modern era, brought with it the assumption that over time, through ongoing iterations, human thought would eventually converge on a singular comprehension of truth. This didn’t happen. The opposite occurred. Truth became multifaceted, the product of each person’s individual logic and bias.

Christians have fallen victim to this thinking over the past few centuries, with otherwise well-meaning people assuming their comprehension of spiritual truth was correct. Ergo everyone else was wrong. As a result we have separated ourselves into denominational schisms, subverting the intended unity of God’s church in the process. How this must grieve him. It certainly grieves me.

Spiritual truth is important, but we must hold it loosely. After all, our comprehension of what is true just might be wrong, mine included.

[This is from the November issue of Peter DeHaan‘s newsletter, “Spiritually Speaking.”  Receive the complete newsletter each month.]

Is Being a Christian a Present Reality or a Future Hope?

Our perspective on what it means to follow Jesus shapes how we think and act

Is Being a Christian a Present Reality or a Future Hope?I’ve met people so fixated on heaven that they squander their time here on earth. Not only do they miss the opportunities before them, but they also offer a negative example to the world of what it means to be a Christian. They treat life as a burden and react to every disappointment as a stoic martyr. With long faces they measure their time on earth as an ordeal to endure, one that prevents them from obtaining heavenly bliss.

Yes, our future hope in heaven is significant, but if that’s the only reason to be a Christian, we’re missing what God wants from us and has to give us – now.

Life is a gift, an amazing gift to enjoy and to use and to share. We need to make each minute count for Jesus today, not sit in a corner and count each minute until it’s time to leave.

Years ago I largely missed the delight of my senior year in high school because I was so fixated on what was to come next. High school loomed as a time to tolerate, a hurdle to jump over, before I could move on with life. I even let relationships languish because I didn’t see them as part of my post high school reality. I lost that time and can’t reclaim it.

Yes, I can’t wait to get to heaven and enjoy eternal ecstasy, but I also can’t wait for the opportunities of each new day. In some small way I want to be the hands, the face, and the love of Jesus to those I meet. I want to encourage those who are discouraged, to help those in need, and to point those who are searching to a better way.

When Jesus told us to pray for our daily bread (Matthew 6:11), it was a reminder to take each day as it comes, one day at a time, and not rush to the next one. We need to make the most of today, whether it is our last one or we have thousands more.

God has given me my time on earth for a reason. If I don’t make the best of it, I may not be ready to fully embrace my future with him in heaven.

As the saying goes, “Today is the first day of the rest of our lives.” We need to live it to the full for Jesus.

[This is from the October issue of Peter DeHaan‘s newsletter, “Spiritually Speaking.”  Receive the complete newsletter each month.]

What Do You Expect From Your Pastor?

Ministers toil under a load of heavy demands that shouldn’t be there, and we need to change that

What Do You Expect From Your Pastor?I have read two stats about ministers that chafe at my soul.

The first is that most pastors have no real friends. When you remove the relationships they have with their congregation and denomination, where they must always guard what they say and act in expected ways as a spiritual leader, they have no friends. They have no relationships where they can be themselves. They have no place to relax with those who will accept them for who they are. They have no confidant to share worries and struggles with who will not judge them. Despite all their social interaction, being a minister must be a lonely job.

The second is that of seminary graduates entering the ministry today, only one in forty will retire from it. The other thirty-nine will switch careers. That’s 97.5 percent who will leave the job God called them to do. First, this doesn’t say much about the success rate of seminaries in preparing people for ministry. Second, this hints that a job as minister carries near impossible expectations, which is to our shame as laity, because:

We Expect Our Pastors to Spiritually Feed Us: How many times have you heard someone leave a church because “I’m just not being spiritually fed?” Have you ever said that? I have, and I was wrong to do so. My minister isn’t supposed to give me a week’s worth of spiritual nourishment on Sunday morning. I’m supposed to be mature enough to feed myself throughout the week, eating solid foods and not relying on milk as a baby. Expecting our pastors to do this for us is unfair and unbiblical.

We Expect Our Pastors to Always Be Available: Most congregants assume their pastor is there to meet their needs at any time. This puts ministers on call, 24/7. As someone who was continuously on call for years, I know how draining it is. (My on call was primarily for technical issues; people issues could usually wait until business hours.) I would cringe when the phone rang and eventually drafted my wife to screen calls. It took me years to recover. It’s not healthy to require ministers to be available at all hours, to jump when we call.

We Expect Our Pastors to Align With Our Interests: If we are passionate about a cause, we presume our ministers will share our fervor. But if they did this with everyone in the congregation, they would need to align with every movement and care about every good initiative. We have unique, God-given interests and should allow our pastors to do the same.

We Expect Our Pastors to Solve Our Problems: We assume ministers will provide counseling when we need it, meet with us whenever we want, and answer the phone every time we call. We expect a one-stop solution to whatever ails us, with our pastor as the answer. But there are not enough hours in the day for one person to meet everyone’s needs to their complete satisfaction.

These expectations don’t come from God. They come from society, church culture, and past practices. But instead of expecting our ministers to serve us, we need to serve one another, to become priests to each other (consider the “priesthood of believers”). We start by consulting the Bible and looking at all the verses of how we are to treat one-another: to love, accept, instruct, submit, forgive, teach, admonish, encourage, agree, give, and so on.

If we do this, when we do this, we will place fewer expectations on our clergy. They will have less stress, and we will more fully align with what the Bible says we are supposed to do.

[This is from Peter DeHaan‘s September newsletter, “Spiritually Speaking.”  Receive the complete newsletter each month.]

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Don’t Be a Baby Christian

Learn how to eat spiritual food and feed yourself

Don’t Be a Baby ChristianThe author of Hebrews (who I suspect was Paul) warns the young church, the followers of Jesus, that they need to grow up. Though many of them should be mature enough to teach others, they still haven’t grasped the basics themselves. They persist in drinking spiritual milk when they should have graduated to solid food.

When most people hear about this passage, they assume the baby Christians, those subsisting on milk, are other people. They reason that this verse couldn’t be a reflection on their own spiritual status – or lack thereof. The truth is that I fear the church of Jesus is comprised of too many spiritual infants.

If you don’t believe me, let’s unpack this analogy. In the physical sense, babies drink milk and are wholly dependent on others to feed them. As babies grow they graduate to solid food and begin to feed themselves, first with help and then alone. This is how things function with our physical bodies and how things should function with our spiritual selves.

So when people go to church on Sunday to hear a sermon, they expect their pastor to feed them. They subsist on spiritual milk. Instead they should feed themselves and don’t need to hear a sermon every week in order to obtain their spiritual sustenance.

When pastors feed their congregation each Sunday, they keep their people in an immature state (albeit with more head knowledge) and help justify their continued employment. Instead pastors should teach their church attendees how to feed themselves, to not need a pastor to teach them. If ministers do this, they could work themselves out of a job. But that’s okay, because there are plenty of other churches in need of this same teaching.

Some might infer this means that the mature Christians, those who can feed themselves, don’t need to go to church. This is only half correct. Mature Christians can feed themselves and don’t need a sermon every Sunday, but they do need to meet together and be in community with other believers.

[Read through the Bible with us this year. Today’s reading is Hebrews 5-7, and today’s post is on Hebrews 5:12-14.]

[This is from Peter DeHaan‘s August newsletter, “Spiritually Speaking.”  Receive the complete newsletter each month.]

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Church Is For Girls

The modern church is geared toward women and men don’t fit

Church Is For GirlsI have known the title for this post for a long time. In my heart I knew it was true, but I struggled to articulate why. Now I can.

I read David Murrow’s book Why Men Hate Going to Church hoping to understand why I struggle so with church attendance. Though it’s no one’s fault (and yet we are all complicit), the Christian church is a place where women thrive and men die. In most all that it does – from décor, to language, to programs, to music, to sermons – today’s church provides what women crave, while offering little that appeals to men. Guys: check your testosterone at the door.

This explains why women make up the majority of church attendees. In going to more than one hundred churches, I’ve never been to one with more males than females. That’s because church is for girls. It really is. If you don’t believe me read Why Men Hate Going to Church. (The book also explains how to fix it.)

Clearly, the church repels the Wild at Heart guys. Yet, I’m not a wild at heart kind of guy, at least not in a conventional sense. I assert my masculinity in non-stereotypical ways. I see myself as a spiritually militant misfit:

  • I am an advocate who pushes the envelope for change, yet the church is adverse to change. There is no place for my voice.
  • I am a thought leader who pursues innovation, yet the church wants lay leaders it can control. It doesn’t want me.
  • I am a person who challenges the status quo, yet the church institution exists to maintain the status quo and suppress dissension. It fears what I represent.
  • I am a spiritual seeker who probes issues that most don’t consider, yet the church hates questions that lack pat answers. It shuns me because I am spiritually impertinent.
  • I am a follower of Jesus who yearns to take spiritual risks, yet the church wants to be a safe place that doesn’t confront anyone’s unexamined theology. My risk-taking perspective isn’t wanted.

I once actually found a church that encouraged me in these things. It was a church plant. We made change normal, pursued innovation, constantly challenged the status quo, encouraged questions, and embraced risk. In many ways we followed The Barbarian Way, and I thrived.

Incidentally, David Murrow says the one instance where men find a place is in church plants. I get that. I was alive at this new church.

Yet over time, decision by decision, the church became civilized. It instituted structure and limited me. It became more and more like the thing it sought to break free from. I no longer fit. I slowly withered. I didn’t want to go to church there anymore.

“The church has emasculated me,” I told my wife. (That hurt me to say.)

“But you let it,” she answered. (That hurt me to hear.)

“It’s only because I so badly wanted to fit in and be accepted.” (That hurt me to admit.)

But in the end, I don’t so much like this person I’ve become, and the church still doesn’t want me.

After all, church is geared for girls and I’m a guy.

[This is from Peter DeHaan‘s July newsletter, “Spiritually Speaking.”  Receive the complete newsletter each month.]

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