Categories
Visiting Churches

The Closest Church

Warm Inside

Despite my encouragement, Candy has provided little input on the churches we visit. Though she recommended The Church with the Fundamental Vibe and The Nonconventional Church, I compiled the rest of the list. Today we’ll visit the closest church.

Originally containing thirty-five names, I’ve now cut my list in half. While it might be interesting to spend nine months visiting area churches, I lack the patience.

Shopping for Church: Searching for Christian Community, a Memoir

As we move forward, I wonder if we’ll add other congregations to our lists of contenders or if visiting more churches will merely delay her selection. I promised that she could pick our next church. I wonder if she already has and is keeping it from me.

The Importance of Christian Community

Not being part of a specific Christian community gnaws at my soul. Though I maintain my personal spiritual practices of Bible reading and study, prayer, fasting, and writing, my faith flounders.

I need, desperately so, to be part of a faith community to provide support and encouragement. I need to receive it, and I long to give it. Without this vital element of spiritual camaraderie, I’m less of a follower of Jesus.

“No man is an island,” said John Donne. Now I understand. This realization, however, takes too long for me to recognize, but when I finally do, the need is imperative.

While I don’t expect church to fill this void, I expect it to stop my downward slide into religious dejection.

Having at last moved into our house, we decide to visit nearby churches. First up is a church a scant six tenths of a mile away.

For years I’ve longed to attend a church in my community where we can gather with our neighbors. Though this church is the closest to us, ideally meeting my first desire, I’m not aware of any neighbors who go there.

Cold Outside

Today is unseasonably cold, the coldest day of the winter so far, at -6 °F (-21 °C). The biting wind makes it feel even worse. Though some churches canceled because of the cold, this one did not.

It’s the closest church to our home. In the two minutes it takes to drive there, I forget to pray. Feeling guilty, I mumble a quick petition after I park the car.

The parking lot is vast. With every inch plowed, massive snowbanks line its perimeter. With 90 percent of the lot empty, I chuckle at the futility of clearing the entire space when they need only a small section.

Of course, with today’s cold weather, some folks will surely stay home. This will make attendance even more sparse.

With the frigid temperature and a much lower wind chill of up to -30 °F (-34 °C), we walk briskly and take shallow breaths so we don’t freeze our lungs. The cloudless sky treats us to a bright sunshine, trying to trick us into thinking the day is more pleasant than it is.

A Warm Welcome

Two men greet us just inside the door. Though I don’t think they’re greeters per se, I do think they’re intentional about meeting new people. “Are you new to the area or visiting?”

“We are new to the area, and we are visiting,” I say.

They welcome us to the neighborhood and to their church. I don’t offer my name because I’m waiting to see if they offer theirs. They don’t. We make small talk. It’s an affable conversation, but they share no information about their church.

Pleasant but superficial best describes our encounter. When the conversation wanes, I excuse myself and move further inside the building.

I scan the large narthex. Most everyone appears younger than us, with many thirtysomething couples and their kids. I’m encouraged.

People mill about but no one else seems interested in talking to us. A few folks, however, do smile and give us a welcoming nod. With nothing else to do, we head toward the sanctuary.

At the auditorium entrance, a man hands us a bulletin and an information brochure. I thank him with a smile and a downward tip of my head.

With few people sitting, we have our choice of seats. I walk halfway down the center aisle, turn left, and slide midway down the padded pew in the first section.

The area is essentially cube-shaped, with white walls. It reminds us of some of the United Methodist churches we’ve visited in the past. Here, offsetting the plain white walls, is too much stained wood trim and some gold-colored embellishments, which strike me as pretentious.

Windows abound, letting in much natural light and taking full advantage of today’s glorious sunshine. The high cathedral ceiling accentuates the open feel.

A few of the windows in the upper front are stained glass, not of the traditional variety, but a more subtle contemporary design. However, a large screen, ready to display elements of the service, blocks our full view of them.

The floor slopes toward the front, with the pews arranged in four sections, allowing room for several hundred people. At about 25 percent full, I wonder how much the weather affected attendance.

Overall, this is a cautiously modern setting, with traditional elements mixed in. I’m not sure how to react to this dichotomy, which is exacerbated by the nontraditional musical instruments on stage.

Worship Time and More

With a nod to the winter weather, the worship leader welcomes us to start the service. The worship team plays three or four numbers in the opening set. As they move from song to song, the worship leader alternates between guitar and piano.

When he moves, the pianist switches over to a keyboard. There’s also a drummer and a backup guitarist, who plays various stringed instruments. A trio of background vocalists round out their light pop sound as we sing contemporary songs and choruses.

Next is the children’s message. I’m surprised at the number of kids who flood forward, perhaps twenty-five or thirty.

In a church service, the kids are never easy to spot when scanning the crowd, but when they get up for a children’s message or to leave for their own activities, their numbers become apparent, often surprising me. Today is such a day.

The minister addresses the kids at their level, while also providing value to the rest of the congregation. He verbally interacts with them, physically involves them, and provides a demonstration for us all.

This is not a brief, obligatory activity to check off and move on. It’s packed with intention. By the time he dismisses them, we already know the theme of his message and his main point.

The Message

The minister has a slight accent, Dutch I assume. At first, I need to focus to catch what he says, but after a few minutes, I no longer notice. This is because of the easy flow of his words, his engaging nature, and the value in what he shares. I immediately like him.

Following the children’s message, he promotes a new sermon series for Lent, which he’ll start next week, after wrapping up his abbreviated five-week series on the Apostles’ Creed today.

Next Sunday will feature Holy Communion. He reads a preparatory text to focus our thoughts on that event and the meaning behind it. Then we have a responsive reading of the Ten Commandments, followed by reciting the Apostles’ Creed in unison.

From his brief introduction, I assume on week one of the series he summarized the creed, followed by a week for each part of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

For a denomination that has historically glossed over the work of the Holy Spirit, I’m pleasantly surprised at his inclusion today, being mentioned from the pulpit and in our singing. I wonder if this is normal for them. I hope it is.

Today’s message addresses a line in the creed that is often misunderstood and a cause of concern for many: “I believe in the holy catholic Church.”

This is not a specific nod to the Roman Catholic Church, but instead an acknowledgment to the universal Christian church (which includes Roman Catholicism, along with all of Protestantism).

The key to this delineation is big C Catholic versus small c catholic. The distinction is huge, but it requires explanation for most all who hear this statement of belief from the creed for the first time.

Church, he says, is not a building, a congregation, or a denomination. From the Greek word Ekklesia, which is translated church, we comprehend it to mean “an assembly of people called out of the world to become part of God’s family.”

Key Points

There are two keys to this understanding.

First, we must be united (Matthew 16:18). Second, we must be holy (1 Peter 2:9), The minister defines holy as “set apart” and “associated with God”. I appreciate this definition of holy, as it helps me perceive it as something I can grasp as opposed to something unattainable.

To realize being a universal church, we must be united; we must be one. He hearkens back to his key text for today, Ephesians 4:1–6, which highlights this with the use of one seven times.

His message is brilliant and resonates with me, yet, out of necessity, he stops too soon. If we are to truly be a universal church, to be united, to be one, then there is no room for the division caused by our thousands of denominations.

Yet he and this church are part of a denomination. The ultimate conclusion in a push for unity is removing denominational distinctions. He doesn’t make that statement.

In fact, he even attempts to justify denominations. But I don’t grasp his explanation. Despite this, he gave a powerful message that I appreciate.

He concludes the service with a short congregational prayer and a lengthy list of announcements. Then he excuses the children for Sunday school. The service ends by taking the offering.

Connection Time

Afterward, coffee and cookies wait for the adults and in fifteen minutes there will be a discussion about the sermon. The opportunity for discussion beckons, but I decide not to.

I fear I might blurt out something inappropriate, such as “denominations are the antithesis of church unity.” I am their guest, and it’s best to keep that thought to myself.

Though the greeting time during the service was one of obligatory routine, afterward people welcome us and talk. They share their names, and we reciprocate. They ask about us and tell us about their church.

I’m pleasantly surprised to spot a neighbor and we talk at length. For years they attended another church, one quite different from this one, but have been coming here for the past few months. He also points out another one of our neighbors I haven’t yet met.

As we continue to talk, he makes a vague reference to a likely future change for this church, assuming that is why we are here today. When I shake my head, he explains.

The gist is them joining with another large area church to form something new at this location. The result will be hundreds more people and multiple services, two things that turn me off.

“Why?” I ask.

He shrugs.

Our time together is great, really great. His wife comes up, and we talk as well. Though I want our interaction to continue, their kids grow antsy. I suspect Mom and Dad are ready to leave. I thank them for our conversation and wish them a great rest of the day.

We talk to a few more folks as we head to our car. My expectations for this church were low, but I’m pleased with what I see.

For years I’ve longed to attend church in my neighborhood with my neighbors, to share Christian community in my community. This church, our closest church, offers that. Coupled with a great sermon, I add this congregation to my list of contenders.

My wife, however, isn’t as enamored. I don’t think she’s willing to consider them further.

I wonder why she agrees to visit the churches I suggest if she’s not interested. Why did we go here today?

I fear she’s just patiently waiting for me to work through our list of churches, so that once it’s completed she can announce the church she’s already picked. Am I merely delaying her decision?

Midweek, the pastor emails us, offering to talk or meet if we have questions or would like to learn more. I want to take him up on his offer but don’t. Though I’d enjoy getting together, I fear it would raise false expectations on his part.

Takeaway

Seek ways to reach out to visitors: talk with them, form connections, even invite them to meet. And this doesn’t just apply to paid staff. It applies to everyone.

[Read about the next church, or start at the beginning of Shopping for Church.]


Read the full story in Peter DeHaan’s new book Shopping for Church.

Travel along with Peter and his wife as they search for a new Christian community in his latest book, Shopping for Church, part of the Visiting Churches Series.

This book picks up the mantle from 52 Churches, their year-long sabbatical of visiting churches.

Here’s what happens:

My wife and I move. Now we need to find a new church. It’s not as easy as it sounds. She wants two things; I seek three others.

But this time the stakes are higher. I’ll write about the churches we visit, and my wife will pick which one we’ll call home. It sounds simple. What could possibly go wrong?

Categories
Christian Living

As Jesus’s Followers We Are to Live in Perfect Unity

We Glorify God and Serve as the Most Effective Witness When We Get Along

I write a lot about the importance of Christian unity. This is because Jesus prayed that we would be one, and I embrace his request and vision as imperative. If we profess to following Jesus, we need to all get along. We must live in unity, perfect unity.

I’m not just talking about unity within your congregation, though that’s important. I’m not alluding to unity within your denomination, though that’s important too. And I’m not even referring to unity with those churches that agree with yours.

True unity addresses the entire church of Jesus, that’s all who follow him. He wants us all to get along. Every one of us. This includes other Christians we disagree with—especially those we disagree with.

Jesus Prayed for Our Unity

In Jesus’s lengthy prayer before he died for us, he wrapped up by praying for all his future followers that we would get along and be one, just as he and his Father are one (John 17:23). Their example is one of perfect unity, and we must pursue it with all diligence.

Jesus Died for Our Unity

Jesus died as the ultimate sin sacrifice to redeem us—to make us right with Father God—and bring about unity to all things in heaven and on earth through him. All things include us—it especially includes us (Ephesians 1:7-10).

We Are to Live in Unity

Furthermore, Paul urges the Ephesians—and by extension us—to live a life worthy of our calling, to be humble, gentle, patient, and loving, to make every effort to live in unity. This is because we are one body, through one Spirit, called to one hope, through one Lord, one faith, and one baptism, from one God (Ephesians 4:1-6). We are to be one. This is what it means to live in perfect unity and why we should do so.

True Love Results in Unity

Paul also writes as God’s chosen people—as followers of Jesus—we are to live with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. We are to bear with one another and forgive one another, just as Jesus forgave us. These all fall under the umbrella of love, working together to produce perfect unity (Colossians 3:12-14).

Live in Perfect Unity

As followers of Jesus, we must get along. We must live in unity with one another. This is an answer to his prayer for us, glorifies Father God, and serves as our most effective witness to a watching world who needs Jesus to save them.

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.

Bogged Down Reading the Bible?

10 Essential Bible Reading Tips, from Peter DeHaan

Get the Bible Reading Tip Sheet: “10 Tips to Turn Bible Reading from Drudgery to Delight.”

​Enter your info and receive the free Bible Reading Tip Sheet and be added to Peter’s email list.

Categories
Christian Living

Jesus’s Other Sheep

Our Good Shepherd Has More Sheep Than Just Those in Our Pen

Jesus talks about a sheep pen with a gate (John 10:1-21). The shepherd goes into the pen through the entrance. He calls his sheep, and they follow him into the pastures. Only a thief would sneak into the pen another way. Yet the sheep don’t know the robber’s voice and won’t follow him.

Jesus is the Gate and the Good Shephard

Jesus is the gate of the pen. He protects his sheep and keeps them safe. He won’t let someone with ill intent enter the sheep pen.

But Jesus isn’t only the gate. He’s also the good shepherd.

Jesus, as our good shepherd, is caring, protective, patient, brave, wise, and sacrificial. He knows our names. He cares for us, watches over us, and rescues us when we get into trouble, which we too often do.

As our good shepherd, Jesus is willing to die for his sheep. In fact, he does. He dies to make us right with Father God.

Yet there’s more. It’s easy to overlook, but it’s significant.

Jesus Has Other Sheep

Jesus doesn’t only have sheep in this one pen. He has other sheep too. They also listen to his voice and follow him where he takes them. He’ll get them and bring all his sheep together so there will be one flock, with one shepherd (John 10:16).

But where are these other sheep? We don’t know for sure, but here are some considerations:

Other People Groups

Jesus’s other sheep may mean other groups of people. The Jews during Jesus’s day, however, placed people into two groups. There were the Jews. And there was everyone else—the Gentiles.

Since his audience when he shared the story about the Good Shepherd, the sheep pen, and the sheep, were Jews, his other sheep might have been a forward-looking reference to the Gentiles who would later follow him.

This is a call for Jewish followers of Jesus and Gentile followers of Jesus to get along. It’s a reminder that through Jesus there is no difference between Jew and Gentile (Romans 3:22).

Other Cities

Since this teaching is a forward-looking allusion, Jesus’s other sheep could refer to other cities in the area where his followers will go and establish local churches. Paul will travel to many of these cities and even write letters of instruction to several of them.

It could even be cities throughout the world. This aligns with Jesus’s commands to be his witness in Jerusalem, the surrounding area, and throughout the whole earth (Acts 1:8 ).

Other Denominations

Yet it wouldn’t be wrong to extend this teaching to us today. Jesus’s other sheep could refer to the different streams of Christianity and to the multitude of Protestant denominations.

Though many of these groups have an inward focus and act as though they’re sheep pen is the only one, Jesus wants to bring us together to be one flock, with one shepherd—him. In short, he wants us to get along and to exist in unity with each other.

Other Planets

Space is vast, with a mind-numbing number of solar systems and planets. Surely some of them are inhabited by Jesus’s creation. It would be arrogant to think that our planet is the only one with life.

Therefore, Jesus’s other sheep could exist on other planets. Though they could be people like us, they could also take on a different form. Regardless, we are all Jesus’s sheep. We all follow him.

We Are One Flock with One Shephard

When we follow Jesus as our Good Shepherd, we must take care to get along with all the other sheep in his flock. This includes both those sheep from our own pen and Jesus’s other sheep that are in other pens.

Through Jesus there is one flock and one shepherd. We are united in Christ. May we never lose sight of this. May we always strive to embrace all of Jesus’s sheep, regardless of where they’re from or who they are.

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.

Bogged Down Reading the Bible?

10 Essential Bible Reading Tips, from Peter DeHaan

Get the Bible Reading Tip Sheet: “10 Tips to Turn Bible Reading from Drudgery to Delight.”

​Enter your info and receive the free Bible Reading Tip Sheet and be added to Peter’s email list.

Categories
Christian Living

Love God and Love Others: A Call to Christian Unity

Shun Division, Disunity, and Denominations in the Name of Jesus

Just as church member status divides the church body into two groups, so does our doctrine. Instead of obeying Jesus’s instruction to love God and love others, we make a lengthy list of what we should do and shouldn’t do.

We judge others according to our opinions of what’s proper and what’s not. This legalistic approach follows what the Old Testament set in motion with its 613 instructions in the Law of Moses, of things to do and not do.

Compounding the problem, God’s children in the Old Testament added tens of thousands of manmade rules, which evolved over the centuries, to help interpret the original 613 expectations he gave to Moses.

Jesus Says to Love God and Love Others

Jesus says that his yoke is easy in his burden is light. This means his doctrine is simple to follow and effortless to bear (Matthew 11:30).

To confirm this, Jesus simplifies all these Old Testament commands and man-made traditions when he says we are to love God and love others (Luke 10:27).

Yes, Jesus’s essential expectation is love.

To accomplish these two instructions to love God and love others, we can best do so through Jesus. We should follow him (Matthew 4:19 and Luke 14:27), believe in him (John 6:35), and be his disciple (John 8:31 and John 15:8).

These are all ways of saying we need to go all in for Jesus. That’s it.

That’s our essential doctrine. Everything else is secondary. Beyond Jesus and love, we shouldn’t argue about the rest. We are to be one church, just as Jesus prayed we would (John 17:20–21).

Denominational Division

Yet in the last 500 years we’ve argued about doctrine, we’ve judged others by our religious perspectives, and we’ve killed people for their beliefs. We deemed that our view was right and everyone else was wrong. We used this to divide ourselves.

We formed groups of like-minded thinkers, which became denominations.

Today we have 42,000 Protestant denominations, dividing Jesus’s church so much that we’ve lost our witness to the world. Jesus wanted his followers to live in unity.

Yet we persist in division. Our denominations that we made are the antithesis of God’s unity that Jesus wants (Ephesians 4:3–6).

Yes, division occurred in the prior 1,500 years—the first millennia and a half of Jesus’s church—but that was nothing like what’s happened in the last five centuries during the modern era.

Paul says that we are to unite ourselves under Jesus, to be like-minded, of one Spirit and one mind. In our relationships we should have Jesus’s mindset (Philippians 2:1–5).

To Titus, Paul writes to warn a divisive person one time, and give a second notice if they disregard the first. Then the only recourse is to ignore them (Titus 3:10–11).

Jude also warns against division. Instead of taking sides, he tells us to rise above it by focusing on growing our faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, and abiding in God’s love (Jude 1:18–23).

As followers of Jesus, we must pursue unity in him and oppose every instance of division—regardless of the source.

Read the next post in this series about things we must change is a discussion about making disciples.

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.

Categories
Christian Living

The Fallacy of Church Membership

Segregating Attendees into Members and Nonmembers Divides Jesus’s Church

In our look at things the church must change, we’ve already considered our buildings and facility, our paid clergy and staff, and our tithes and offerings, that is our charitable giving. Now we’ll turn our attention to some secondary issues, starting with church membership.

Membership is something that most everyone in church accepts without question. But we should question it.

Church membership is not biblical. Nowhere does Jesus tell us to go out and find members, make members, or sign up members. Increasing membership is simply not a biblical mandate. Jesus doesn’t command this, and biblical writers don’t order it.

In fact, the word membership doesn’t even occur in the Bible. It’s something well-meaning religious leaders made up. It may seem like a wise idea, but it’s not.

Membership establishes two levels within Jesus’s church. We must repent of making this distinction. Membership causes division among Jesus’s followers, segregating attendees into two classes of people, the insiders who are members from those on the periphery, the nonmembers.

Alternatives to Church Membership?

Some churches, attempting to correct the fallacy of membership, have come up with new labels. I’ve heard them use the term missionaries, and I’ve also heard of partners. I’m sure there are more.

But these perspectives, though well intended, are merely different names for the same membership problem. The result is that church membership still creates two classes of people in Jesus’s church: insiders and outsiders.

At some churches, baptism makes this membership distinction, as in a baptized member. Once a person undergoes the rite, or sacrament, of baptism—often by emersion—they automatically become a member. Though if they are underage at the time, they might not become a voting member until they reach adulthood.

This makes a third class of attendees, a third division in Jesus’s church: nonvoting members.

Instead, Jesus welcomes all (Romans 15:7, Galatians 3:28, and James 2:1–4). We should do the same, ditching membership as an ill-conceived, manmade tradition that has no scriptural basis.

We must resist the human tendency toward membership, which segregates people, and instead embrace God’s perspective of inclusion. Instead of encouraging church membership, we should promote Christian unity.

Check out the next post in this series addressing the Kingdom of God.

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.

Categories
Christian Living

Realign our Church Practices of Music and Message

We Must Rethink What Happens at Our Church Services

A friend once said in his Sunday morning message that some people go to church for the music and put up with the sermon. Others go for the sermon and put up with the music.

The minister’s statement suggests that people feel a church service has two primary elements. One is the worship music, and the other is the sermon: music and message.

I get this. At one point in my life I endured the singing as I waited for the teaching. Then my perspective flopped as I pursued worship and endured the sermon. Now neither matters too much to me.

In recent years I’ve not gone to church for the music nor the message. I show up for the chance of experiencing meaningful community before or after the service.

Put Music or Message in Its Place

Though the New Testament talks about both music and message, neither seems central to their meetings, especially not the way we pursue these two items today.

Music: Though music is a part of Jesus’s church, it emerges more as a secondary pursuit. Paul doesn’t ascribe music to a worship leader but to each person gathered. The purpose of this is to build up Jesus’s church (1 Corinthians 14:26).

Music is part of the one another commands as a way of ministering to each other (Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:18–19).

An interesting side note is that the New Testament never mentions using musical instruments in their worship of God, as happened throughout the Old Testament. This doesn’t imply that our church singing today should be a cappella, but this is something we might want to contemplate.

Sometimes New Testament singing to God happens apart from a church gathering, such as when Paul and Silas are sitting in jail (Acts 16:25). Let’s consider how we can apply their example to our reality today.

Sometimes the music set at one of today’s church services is worshipful, drawing us into closer fellowship with God. But too often it’s more of a performance for attendees then a tribute to our creator.

This makes the music portion at some churches more akin to a concert, even to the point of including a light show, smoke machines, and accompanying video projection behind the performers.

And if you claim our church worship time isn’t a performance, then why are the singers and musicians positioned in front of everyone and elevated on a stage? If the music is truly a tribute to God and not a performance for us, then why not station the musicians behind the congregation or out of sight so their presence won’t distract us from God?

Message: Another friend calls the church sermon a lecture. I’m not sure if he’s joking or serious, but I get his point. I’ve heard sermons that so sidestepped the Bible, faith, and the good news of Jesus that the resulting words were no different than a lecture from a secular speaker.

There are, however, three instances where New Testament writers describe activity that we might equate to a sermon. These are in specific situations.

The first is educating people about their faith (Acts 2:42). This implicitly is for new believers, giving them spiritual milk as we would feed a baby (1 Corinthians 3:1–3). This basic training grows them in their salvation (1 Peter 2:1–3).

It prepares them to teach others (Hebrews 5:11–14). It’s not something to persist in Sunday after Sunday. Instead it’s a temporary situation we should grow out of.

The second is missionaries who tell those outside the church about Jesus. This can’t happen at a church meeting because those who need to hear the good news of Jesus aren’t there.

Spreading the gospel message requires going out to encounter people where they are, not expecting them to come to us and our church services (Acts 8:4, Acts 8:40, Romans 10:14–15, and 2 Corinthians 10:16).

And the third is traveling missionaries who give updates at the local churches (Acts 14:27, Acts 15:4, and Acts 20:7).

Everyone Participates: Regarding these two elements of music and message—that we place so much emphasis on in our churches today—Paul gives instructions to the church in Corinth. It’s not the job of a worship leader to lead us in song.

Nor is it the role of a minister to preach a sermon. We—the people in attendance—are to do these things, and more, for each other. It’s an egalitarian gathering where we all take part for our common good to build up Jesus’s church (1 Corinthians 14:26).

Remember, through Jesus, we are all priests. It’s time we start acting like it.

Community

What does show up as a reoccurring theme throughout the New Testament is community. But this goes way beyond the time of personal interaction that I seek before or after a Sunday service.

The church, as a group of people, should major in community, on getting along and experiencing life together. Community should happen before, during, and after all our gatherings—both those on Sunday, as well as throughout the week. In all that we do, community must be our focus.

We should enjoy spending time with each other, just hanging out.

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. Yes, community can get messy.

But we have Jesus’s example, the Holy Spirit’s insight, and the Bible’s wisdom to guide us in navigating the challenges that erupt when people spend time with each other in intentional interaction.

Here are some of the aspects of community that we see in the early church, and that we can follow in today’s church.

Share Meals: A lot of eating takes place in Jesus’s church. We must feed our bodies to sustain us physically, so why not do it in the company of other like-minded people?

In community, sharing food becomes a celebration of life and of faith. (Read more about breaking bread in “10 More New Testament Practices, Part 2”.)

Fast: Although Jesus’s followers do a lot of eating together, they also fast (Matthew 6:16–17 and Acts 14:23). Fasting is an intentional act of devotion that helps connect us with God and align our perspectives with his.

Remember that although Jesus’s disciples didn’t fast, once he left, it was time for his followers to resume fasting (Luke 5:33–35).

Prayer: Another reoccurring New Testament theme is prayer. This isn’t a minister-led oration on Sunday morning. This is more akin to a mid-week prayer meeting, with everyone gathered in community to seek God in prayer together (Acts 1:14 and Acts 12:5).

Listen to the Holy Spirit: As the people pray, sometimes associated with fasting, they listen to the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28). Then they obey what the Holy Spirit calls them to do (Acts 13:2–3).

Minister to One Another: In their community they follow the Bible’s one another commands, which teach us how to get along in a God-honoring way. (See treat one another.”)

Serve Others: We serve one another in our faith community (Galatians 5:13). We should also serve those outside our church, just as Jesus served others. And we shouldn’t serve with any motive other than with the pure intent to show them the love of Jesus.

Loving others through our actions may be the most powerful witness we can offer. We need to let our light shine so that the world can see (Matthew 5:14–16 and James 2:14–17). All of humanity is watching. May they see Jesus in what we do (1 Peter 2:12).

Tell Others about Jesus: The New Testament gives examples of people telling others about Jesus in their local community (Acts 3:11–26 and Acts 7:1–53). It also mentions sending people out into the world as missionaries (Acts 8:4–5 and Acts 13:2).

Witnessing, both local and abroad, springs from the foundation of community.

Unity

In our community we should pursue harmony. Jesus prayed that we would be one (John 17:20–21). The early church modeled unity (Acts 4:32). We also covered unity in the “The Acts 4 Example.”

When issues arise among Jesus’s followers that threaten their single-mindedness, they work through it to avoid division (Acts 11:1–18). This unity includes the agreement of their theology (Acts 15:1–21).

Conclusion

We need to rethink what happens at our church, deemphasizing the significance of music and message while elevating the importance of community, one that functions in unity for Jesus.

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.

Categories
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.

Categories
Christian Living

Don’t Let Our Labels Divide Us

May We Be One in Jesus and Ignore What Could Separate Us

We live in a divisive time, with one group opposing another, often in the most zealous of ways, sometimes even with violent outcomes. As a society, we’re quick to put people in a box and label them according to some aspect of their life.

Though these labels are sometimes convenient, and at times even appropriate, more often they divide us and cause unnecessary conflict and needless opposition.

These divisions, however, don’t just appear in secular spaces. They also appear in the religious realm. We put labels on people of faith and use these identifiers to decide who we align with and who we oppose. And to our discredit, we do this in the name of God.

Here are some ways that we let labels divide us as people of faith and followers of Jesus:

Divided by Denomination

First, we divide ourselves by denomination, in both a generic and a specific sense. First, we segregate Christianity into three primary streams: Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant.

Each group knows little about the other, often denigrating them over wrong assumptions and misunderstandings. Yet we all have Jesus in common. This should be enough to unite us and be one in him.

Within Protestantism, we see many more divisions with 42,000 Protestant denominations who distrust each other, criticize one another, and resort to name-calling for no good reason other than to make us feel smugly superior.

This is to our discredit. These manmade divisions take us far from the unity that Jesus prayed for and marginalize our witness for Jesus.

Divided by Theology

Next, we use the labels of our theology to separate us. We elevate our point of view—which we think is correct—and diminish our fellow brothers and sisters—who we perceive as being in error.

With academic vigor, we pursue a right theology. In the process, we overlook the importance of having a right relationship with God. Our connection with the Almighty, through Jesus, is what matters most.

Our theological labels don’t matter. In most cases, our theology wrongly judges one another and causes needless division. It generates suspicion and breeds mistrust. Instead of formulating tenuous theological constructs, we should focus on placing our trust in Jesus.

Divided by Politics

We also let our political views, which carry their own set of labels, influence our theology.

In the United States—and perhaps in the rest of the world too—we see well-meaning followers of Jesus who align with one political party, vilifying their brothers and sisters in Christ who belong to the opposite party.

I’ve heard each side lambaste the other, saying how can someone be a (enter party affiliation) and be a Christian?

Divided by Church Practice

Making an even a finer distinction on our theology, we place labels on our church practices, too, often with fervent passion. Some churches are known as being high churches, which implies the rest are low churches.

There are liturgical churches and non-liturgical churches. Some church gatherings place their focus on the practice of Holy Communion and others emphasizethe sermon.

Then there are musical styles, ranging from traditional to contemporary. We also debate pews versus chairs, women in ministry, and the “proper” way too be saved through Jesus.

Divided by Membership

Beyond that, we divide ourselves by membership status. For some churches—perhaps most—this is an essential consideration. Members are in, and nonmembers are out, be it effectively or legalistically.

But membership in a denomination or local church isn’t biblical. It opposes the Scriptural teaching that as followers of Jesus we are members united in one body, which is the universal church.

The Solution to Labels

It’s time we end our categorization of each other and stop our needless squabbles over secondary issues and disputes that don’t matter to God. Instead it’s time we embrace one another and love one another, just as Jesus told us to do.

We need to live in unity.

Then we can come closer to being united as one, just as Jesus and the Father are one.

It’s time we embrace one another and love one another, just as Jesus told us to do.

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.

Categories
Visiting Churches

Generalizations from 52 Churches

Stating generalities is risky, but it is a way of processing information. 

The 52 Churches Workbook, by Peter DeHaan

Here are two areas to discuss:

1. In our experiences, churches with older congregations and traditional services tended to be friendlier than contemporary services with younger people. 

Does your church match this observation or break from it? What must change?

2. I’m dismayed that we witnessed dogmatic, closed-minded, and exclusive attitudes at some churches

If your church produces division, what can you do to promote unity?

Seek ways to be friendly and promote unity at your church.

[See the prior set of questions or start at the beginning.]

Get your copy of 52 Churches and The 52 Churches Workbook today, available in e-book, 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.

Categories
Christian Living

In Jesus We Are the Same

It’s Time We Start Embracing One Another

Paul writes that when we follow Jesus there’s no real difference between being Jewish or Greek, slave or free, male or female, circumcised, uncircumcised, barbarian, or uncivilized (Colossians 3:11). He’s advocating Christian unity.

Stop to think about this, to really contemplate the ramifications. He tells us to break down all divisions over ethnicity, social status, gender, and religious practices.

Paul wants us to function as one and live in unity. In the same way Jesus wants us to live as one, just as he and his Father exist as one (John 17:21).

Today we need to apply this vision for unity to the church Jesus started. We need to add that when we follow Jesus there’s no real difference between being Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant; Mainline, Evangelical, or Charismatic.

Division

But to our shame we divide Jesus’s church. We live in disharmony. We fight with each other over our traditions and our practices and how we comprehend God.

We spar over worship style, song selection, and a myriad of other things that relate to church practices and right living. Or to avoid these errors we simply ignore one another, and that’s almost as bad.

But the world is watching, and they judge Jesus through our actions. They test what we say by the things we do. And we fail their test.

With our words we talk about how Jesus loves everyone and with our deeds we diminish our brothers and sisters in Jesus with a holier-than-thou discord. If we can’t love those in the church, how can we love those outside the church?

Disunity

It’s no wonder the world no longer respects the church of Jesus and is quick to dismiss his followers. We bring it upon ourselves with our church splits and 42,000 Protestant denominations, with our petty arguments over practices and theology and everything in between.

But with a couple billion Christians, mostly living life contrary to God’s will by not getting along with each other, what can you and I do to truly make a difference?

Be the Change

We can change this one person at a time. Find another Christian who goes to a church radically different than yours (or who has dropped out of church) and embrace them as one in Christ.

If you are a mainline Christian, find a charismatic follower of Jesus and get to know him or her. If all your friends are evangelicals, go to Mass and make some new friends.

If all the Christians you know look just like you, find some who look differently. Diversify your Christian relationships to expand your understanding of what following Jesus truly looks like.

Unity in Jesus

It’s time we embrace one another. The whole world is watching.

How can we live out Paul’s command to break down our divisions? What is the biggest obstacle to us living in the unity Jesus prayed for?

Read more in Peter’s book, Love is Patient (book 7 in the Dear Theophilus series).

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.