Are You a Sunday Morning Spectator or Performer?

Church services have become an event, with consumers who come to watch a show

Today’s churches contain two types of people. And each of us fits in one category or the other. We are either performers or spectators.

If this seems callous, consider that we live in an entertainment-centered society. We watch TV, go to movies, and attend performances. We go to the game, attend a concert, and watch videos online.

What do these have in common? Each example has performers to entertain us in one way or the other. The masses are spectators, mere consumers of the event. Though we may participate in a way, our involvement is limited to clapping, cheering, or fist-bumping the spectator next to us.

Church is no different. We are spectators there for entertainment, be it emotionally or intellectually, by the performers. The masses consume the church service. Yes, we may sing along with a couple songs (though many people stand mute during the singing), mumble out a heartfelt “amen” upon occasion, or shake hands with our seatmate during the compulsory greeting time. But the service structure restricts our involvement.

We’re there for the sermon, that is, the lecture, and for the worship set, that is, the concert. And when it’s over we often critique the performance.

Performers: The performers at a church service are the people who stand in front of us, often on a stage. The elevation allows the spectators a better view.

The star of the show is the minister, who gives the lecture and may also serve as the event’s MC. The opening act is the worship team, consisting of singers and musicians.

If this description offends you, consider that most churches don’t select a senior minister or teaching pastor until after they have auditioned and delivered a stirring oratory. People with spiritual insight but no speaking ability have no place in the modern church. And usually the worship team members must try out before they can sing or play. People with musical passion but not enough skill are turned away and relegated to spectator status.

Yes, we expect our performers to excel in presentation, and if they falter, they are replaced. After all, we don’t want a lack of excellence to mar the performance and drive away the spectators who have a plethora of other Sunday morning performances to select from. Remember, we live in a consumeristic society.

Spectators: The majority of people at church services are spectators. We sit and passively watch the performance. Though we can view the elevated stage to witness the event, we may best see the back of the head of the person sitting in front of us.

We come. We watch. We leave.

Maybe we leave happy over a satisfactory performance, but maybe we leave unfulfilled, as empty as when we arrived. We wanted community but got a show.

We are church service spectators, watching a performance and consuming carefully presented spiritual content. At best we experience an event that may sustain us until we repeat it next week.We are church service spectators, watching a performance and consuming spiritual content. Click To Tweet

Instead Participate: The solution is to break down the wall between performer and spectator. Church shouldn’t focus on providing a performance but on offering community by letting everyone participate equally in the service.

We should all be able to share with others during our church services. Or at least have the opportunity to share. Paul tells us how. “When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation,” (1 Corinthians 14:26, NIV).

When we start doing this in our church services, we will eliminate both the performers and the spectators, turning us all into full-fledged participants. Then we will build a true community of Jesus followers.

It will change everything.

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










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.Mature Christians can feed themselves and don’t need a sermon every Sunday. Click To Tweet

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.]




Do We Need to Listen to a Lecture Each Sunday at Church?

Can you have a church service without hearing a preacher speak? Will you try?

Do We Need to Listen to a Lecture Each Sunday at Church?My wife and I recently visited a church. Though we didn’t know it before we walked in, their service would be different that week. There was no sermon. They used the normal sermon time to talk about the missionaries their church supported. They explained each missionary’s focus and updated us on their status. They shared the joys and concerns of their missionaries. People on the mission’s committee prayed. Then the service ended. The lead pastor didn’t say a word.

Several people apologized for there being no sermon and invited us back to hear their minister speak.

I shook my head. “Don’t apologize. This was better than a sermon.”

But they didn’t get it.

From my perspective it was a profound, meaningful service. We need more like this.

As I understand it, the Reformation removed the communion table (The Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist) as the focus of the Sunday service and replaced it with the sermon. I get why they did it, but it was a mistake – a grave one.

Frankly I see more biblical support for celebrating communion every Sunday than I do for giving a lecture (that is, delivering a sermon) as part of our Sunday meetings. Though the New Testament does talk about giving messages to local congregations, I think it is always a traveling missionary who speaks on his way through town. I don’t recall an instance in the New Testament where a local pastor (an elder) gives a talk every Sunday. And I can’t remember any commands to preach a sermon to the believers during each weekly meeting.Most people expect to listen to a sermon each Sunday as they sit in their pew. They are wrong. Click To Tweet

Yet we view sermons today with the conviction that it must happen. We select ministers for their public speaking ability. And we expect to listen to a lecture each Sunday as we sit passively in our pews. Most people feel cheated if they go to church and don’t hear a sermon. (Never mind that few can remember it by the time they reach home.)

This fixation on the sermon is wrong.

Though instruction has its place, teaching doesn’t facilitate community. It doesn’t allow us to minister to one another (as we should), and it doesn’t serve the world around us (as we ought). While listening to an overly educated person detail the minutia of scripture every week may have intellectual appeal, it does little in a practical sense to deepen our community and advance our faith in action.

Let us dare to envision a church service without a sermon. Let us reimagine our weekly gatherings as a place to foster spiritual community and promote the love of Jesus to those outside the church.

It starts when we kill the sermon. Will you dare to do it?

How would you react if you went to church and there was no sermon? Can you think of a New Testament passage that talks about a local minister preaching a sermon every week? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

How to Work Out Your Salvation

How to Work Out Your SalvationLast week I talked about not being able to remember sermons, often forgetting what I heard before I got home. I intended that to be an introduction to a recent sermon lesson that has stuck with me, one I will remember. But my post veered in a different direction, so I let it go where it wanted.

Now, back to my original thought from last week: The teaching pastor at the church I attend is good at what he does. He communicates effectively, digs deep into the biblical text, and provides new information. He prepares well, and it shows.

His passage was Philippians 2:12-13 where Paul tells the church in Philippi to “work out your salvation.” It’s a challenging text.

“You’ve got to work out what God works in,” he says by way of introduction. He talks about grace, integrity, accountability, and obedience.

As he speaks, another person comes up front and begins kneading some dough to make bread. He talks; she kneads. The dough takes shape, beginning to resemble a loaf.

“Before she started, all the ingredients were there,” he says. “But she had to work with them to make it become all that it could be.” Of course he was more elegant than my simple paraphrase in my notes.

The point is that from now on, every time I read the command to “work out your salvation,” I’ll recall the visual of my friend kneading bread, working it out to produce something good. And I will remember what that verse means.

What’s a lesson you remember from a sermon? What made it memorable?


Do You Remember the Last Sermon You Heard?

I’ve heard several thousand sermons in my life. I can remember parts from about six of them. Not the whole thing, just parts. Seldom does the recollection of one message even make it to the next Sunday. More likely I’ve forgotten it by the time I make it home – or even to the parking lot. That’s bad news for preachers.

I remember someone once asking, “What has God been teaching you lately?”

“Well,” I reply, “I heard a really great sermon on Sunday.”

“Cool! What was it about?”

I’m silent for a while. “Gee, I can’t remember – but I know it was good.”

I guess that’s why preachers often review last week’s sermon before they launch into a new one.

Some sermons are long and others are short. Some are shallow and others, deep. Some contain clever sound bites and others spew dry theology. Some preachers are accomplished communicators and others have trouble stringing two coherent thoughts together.

Do You Remember the Last Sermon You Heard?Their common trait is that the words are largely forgettable. Though I can usually walk out of church with one key thought, it is fleeting. I don’t gain new knowledge, no lasting change occurs, I don’t connect with God in a deeper way.

Even though the sermon is the focus at most all Protestant churches, it falls short of significance most every week – at least for me. That’s why I don’t go to church to hear the sermon or even for the music. I go for the community. That’s why I’m going today.

Why do you go to church? What’s your favorite part? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Who Teaches You? Do Sermons Belong in Church?

We go to church to learn about God, right?

Who told you that? It was likely the minister at your local church. That’s who I’ve heard it from, and church is always the place where I heard it.

Isn’t that self-serving?

Think about it. A church hires a preacher. The church pays the preacher. The preacher tells us we need to be in church every Sunday to learn about God and that he is the one to teach us. One of the things he teaches us is to give money to the local church, often 10 percent of our income. Why does the local church need money so badly? In large part, it’s to pay the preacher. The greatest expense at almost all churches is payroll, usually over half of their total budget, sometimes much more.

So we hire someone who tells us we need him and then asks for money so he can stick around. If we didn’t revere our preachers so much and cling to our sacrosanct practices, I’d call this a racket.

As I read about the church in the New Testament, there is plenty of preaching. But the preaching is always directed at those who are not following Jesus, the folks outside the church. Yes, there is teaching inside the church, but I’ve not yet found any passage that says it happens every Sunday or is given by paid staff. In the examples I see, missionaries do the teaching when they come to visit or the congregation instructs one another as they share with each other.

John writes to the church and tells them plainly: “You do not need anyone to teach you.” Then he clarifies: “His anointing teaches you about all things.”

So it is God’s anointing, the Holy Spirit, who reveals truth to us. Therefore, we don’t need anyone to teach us, especially a paid preacher. John says so.

I suppose, then, if we go to church to learn, what the preacher should be telling us is how to listen to the Holy Spirit. Once we’ve learned that, the preacher’s job is done; we don’t need him to teach us anymore; God’s anointed one will teach us and reveal truth to us. Then we can spend Sunday mornings sharing with each other what we’ve learned through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

But that will never happen. Preachers need to be needed, and they need us to pay them. They would never say anything to work themselves out of a job. They want their paychecks too badly to tell us plainly what John said and what his words truly mean for the church of Jesus: We don’t need preachers to teach us; that’s the Holy Spirit’s job.

[1 John 2:27]

Great Teaching, But Something’s Wrong (Visiting Church #49)

With hundreds of people milling about, it’s a packed place. Just inside the door, a man approaches. “Have I met you before?” We assure him he hasn’t but he thinks he should know us anyway. He’s wearing an ear mic. I wonder if he’s the pastor, but if he is, he doesn’t say so, merely introducing himself as John. Almost all the ministers we’ve met attached their title to their name when they introduced  themselves. John possesses neither the ego nor the insecurity to do so. I immediately like him.

Later, I’m not surprised when John walks up to the podium to give the message. He doesn’t preach a sermon as much as he teaches a lesson. He’s good, really good, the best we’ve heard on our journey. Though a couple of preachers have been more dynamic, he’s the most effective communicator. This all makes sense when we learn he’s a former seminary professor with a PhD in biblical history.

At one point John tells members to look around after the service for visitors to greet. Though he modeled this when he met us, no one followed his example then or his instruction now, not even the man sitting in front of us wearing a Deacon nametag; he looks right through us.

Only one couple approaches us; they look vaguely familiar. The wife recognized Candy; we attended the same church a quarter of a century ago. Aside from them and John, six or seven hundred other people ignore us, perhaps not caring or maybe assuming someone else will take the initiative to extend a welcome.

If you want to remain anonymous at church, a big one is where it can happen. And at this church, it’s painfully easy.

[Read about Church #48 and Church #50, start at the beginning of our journey, or learn more about Church $49.]

Enthusiastic Faith (Visiting Church #30)

As people drift in, excitement mounts. Anticipation surrounds us. The church seats about 150, with perhaps seventy present, although their milling about makes it seem fuller. Most of the men wear coats and ties, with most women in dresses. All age groups are present.

A choir opens the service, singing with enthusiasm. We sing old-time hymns with piano accompaniment. They sing with vigor and draw me in. Our collective volume makes our number seem larger. These folks certainly enjoy their hymns, singing with more gusto than I can ever recall.

We stand for the scripture and read it in unison. My wife scrambles for the lone pew Bible in our row so we can follow along using their King James Version. We read Hebrews 12:12-17 about bitterness.

The minister likens the root of bitterness to the tenacity of a yucca plant, for which he has great disdain. He’s a gifted speaker, dynamic and entertaining. He shares four characteristics of bitterness and concludes with steps to rid ourselves of this destructive trait, ending with Paul’s instruction to forgive one another (Ephesians 4:31-32). He leaves us with the parting reminder that “forgiveness removes transgression, but doesn’t automatically restore fellowship.”

When the service ends, people shake our hands and invite us back. Each time, I simply respond with “thank you.” To me this means, “I hear you and appreciate the invitation” without making a promise I won’t keep. But I’m not sure what they hear when I say it.

Today we heard a powerful message, one the best in the past thirty weeks. We worshiped God with people who are passionate about singing to him and who enjoy each other’s company. They sure are enthusiastic about their faith.

[Read about Church #29 and Church #31, start at the beginning of our journey, or learn more about Church #30.]

I’m Glad I Missed the Sermon

Last Sunday I only made it halfway through the church service. I completely missed the message – and it was the best church experience I’ve had in a long, long time.

That’s not to imply I didn’t like the speaker (I do) or that his words lacked substance (my bride gave me a recap, so I know it was good), it’s just that I ended up doing something far better.

Unplanned and unexpected, I spent that time in our church’s prayer room. I sat with a stranger as she cried incoherent tears, then listening while she shared her anguish, and finally praying for her and giving her a father’s blessing – one she will not likely receive from her own dad but deeply desires to hear.

The service ended, but our time together didn’t. As most people left, we remained. Thirty minutes after the scheduled end to the official church service, we finally stood to leave, my heart breaking for her, but not nearly as much as our heavenly father’s.

I’m neither counselor or clergy; I lack the training to handle things like this. I had no idea what to do, but the Holy Spirit set all this in motion and then whispered instructions each step of the way. His directions didn’t arrive all at once, but one at a time. Listen, do, and then wait for his next prompt to arrive – at just the right time.

I wonder how often we miss the best church can offer because we’re content to receive something good. Bound by schedule and status quo, we place song and sermon above hurting people who need someone to listen and pray.

I helped someone last Sunday – and that’s what church should be.

Why is Community Important at Church?

For the past 19 weeks my bride and I have been visiting different churches to expand our understanding of how others worship and understand God. We call this initiative “52 Churches” and I blog about the experience each Monday morning.

However, friends frequently ask for more: “What are you learning,” “Is your journey changing,” or “Have you found any churches you want to revisit?” The short answers are 1) we’re learning a great deal, 2) the vision for our sojourn is unchanged, and 3) there are several churches we’d like to revisit.

A key realization at this point is that it’s not about the teaching or the music; it’s about the community.

We’ve heard messages from gifted speakers and not so gifted. We’ve been taught by the formally trained and the self-trained. We’ve been presented with deep thoughts and entertaining anecdotes. In all cases we’ve received a worthwhile word from God. I suspect as long as we’re open to hear and expectantly pray for that to happen, it will.

Similarly, we’ve sung traditional hymns, contemporary songs, and modern praise choruses. We’ve been led by accomplished vocalists and struggling crooners. There have been worship bands, pipe organs and pianos, accompaniment tracks, and even a capella. In all cases, as long as we’re willing to focus on the words, God is there.

Message and music, I’m sad to report, are not important.

The big variable is community. Community is that time of interaction with others (aside from that awkward official greeting time). This is when connections are made and God is shared. God seems more present in these informal interactions before and after the service, than in the planned and carefully prepped moments during the service.

In a few churches there is no community. People come, people sit, and people leave, with nary a word exchanged.

Fortunately, most churches have community and some excel at it. These are the churches I want to return to; these are the experiences that excite me; these are the moments when God is most powerfully present.

Community is church at its best.