Do You Have These Misconceptions about Church?

Many people carry misconceptions about the purpose of church, and we need to set aside that thinking

Christians Need to Gather Together..Last Sunday in “What is Church,” I suggested we are the church. Church isn’t a place we go—not really. It’s who we are. As the church we should be about worship, community, and helping others.

There’s a lot I didn’t mention. That was intentional. Contrary to the actions and attitudes of many, here is what a church is not:

Church is Not an Obligation: We must never think of church as an obligation. Though most people, at one time or another, make a conscious decision to attend a Sunday morning gathering when they don’t feel like it, that falls under the category of being self-disciplined. But if the only reason we ever go is out of a sense of obligation, then our motivation is wrong. God is not impressed.

Yes, the Bible commands us to persist in meeting together (Hebrews 10:24-25), but that doesn’t necessarily mean a Sunday church service. I think it means hanging out with other believers. That should be fun, not an obligation to fulfill.

Church is Not a Means to Appease Guilt: Some people only attend a religious service on Sunday morning because they’d feel guilty if they stayed home. They were trained from an early age that church is what you did. If the church doors where open, they were there: Sunday morning, Sunday evening, Wednesday night prayer meeting, Thursday visitation . . .

Guilt is a powerful motivator. The avoidance of guilt can propel us to positive action, but it needs to have a benefit greater than appeasing a shame-filled conscience.

Church is Not a Routine: Many Sunday services proceed with a rote precision that attendees follow mindlessly. They come, they go through the motions, and they head home. For them the entire time holds no significance. While their body acts, their mind drifts, and their spirit remains untouched. Routine is the enemy of meaningful worship and true community.

An almost parallel aspect of routine exists, called ritual. Though the word ritual carries negative connotations, a positive aspect of ritual is one seeped in deep spiritual mystery. Some people are drawn to this type of almost-mystical ritual, a sacred practice that supernaturally connects them with the Almighty.

Church is Not a Social Club: Some people pursue church meetings as nothing more than a social gathering, void of spiritual significance. They miss the true meaning of us meeting together. They dishonor God and marginalize his community of followers.

Though one of the characteristics of us as church is community, there’s a distinction between meaningful community and a social get together. Yes, community contains a significant social aspect, but more importantly it involves intentionality in how we treat one another. The New Testament gives us over thirty “one another” commands, which starts with the expectation that we love one another.

Church is Not a Business Promotion Vehicle: Some people become members of a local church as a means for commerce. They join so they can sell, not serve. They go through the motions of worship, and their engagement with community consists only of networking for business.

When my bride and I were first married, another couple from our local congregation invited us to their house. We were ecstatic. Then my mother-in-law shared that this couple had recently signed onto a large multi-level marketing company. When I asked them directly of their intention, they confirmed my fears that we would experience a sales pitch. We didn’t go, and they never talked to us again. That’s not church. That’s not even good business.

Church is Not a Place to Amass Knowledge: For much of my life I reasoned that the real purpose of a Sunday service was to learn about God. I dismissed the worship part because it bored me. I didn’t see community because it was all social. And, as an inward looking body, we didn’t do any service. That left the sermon.

But what happens when the sermon doesn’t provide any new information? Does that mean I wasted an hour, or more? But recall the verse that says, “Knowledge puffs up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). Amassing knowledge is not the reason we should go to church. That takes me back to worship, community, and serving others.

We are the church. We gather to worship God, live in community, and serve others.

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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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When is the Best Time to do Good?

Helping others is one of many ways to worship God

When is the Best Time to do Good?I like the stories about Jesus helping people in need, such as by feeding them and especially by healing them. Even more I like it when Jesus confronts the religious practices of the day. We have so much to learn from his example.

It’s a bonus for me when in one action Jesus does both: helps someone and challenges religious conventions. Such is the case in today’s reading when Jesus heals a woman on the Sabbath, the Jew’s holy day of rest.

A religious authority, intent on preserving his devout heritage of keeping the Law of Moses, is quick to criticize Jesus for his miraculous act of compassion. Though Jesus does the right thing for the right reason, the Jewish synagogue leader can only see Jesus as breaking one of their long-held rules and deviating from their all-important tradition.

The church today has many rules and expectations for us to follow. Some are well intended and others are unexamined, but I suspect there are exceptions to each one, such as by helping a person in dire need.

What about skipping church to come to someone’s aid? Some people would never consider such an act, while others would never question it. What is important to remember is that we can worship God in church by singing to him and we can worship God in our community by helping someone in trouble.

Which should we choose? Perhaps the one that benefits others. And what better day than Sunday?

[Read through the New Testament of the Bible with us this year. Today’s reading is Luke 13, and today’s post is on Luke 13:10-14.]

Why Do You Fast?

Some things are more important than religious practices, and we need to focus on what matters most

Why Do You Fast?I plan to fast one day a week. While I’m not as consistent as I would like, I follow through more often than I miss. Fasting is a spiritual act of worship for me. It better connects me with God and sharpens my prayers. I (mostly) anticipate my fasts.

Fasting provides me with spiritual focus – providing I fast for the right reasons. As such, I must fight against fasting for lessor, secondary benefits: saving time in meal preparation and eating, increased productivity throughout the day, and a means to keep my weight in check. Those may be good, but they miss the main point of fasting.

Sometimes I fast with the right perspective, and other times I don’t do so well. It seems Zechariah has my struggle in mind when he cites God asking, “Was it really for me that you fasted?” Yes, we can fast for God or we can fast for ourselves. The first brings glory to God and the second, detracts from God. If we’re going to fast – or engage in any spiritual discipline, for that matter – we need to do so for the right reasons. If we fast, may we do so appropriately.

Yet a few verses later Zechariah seems to offer a better alternative to fasting. Again quoting God, he says to “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.”

When done right fasting honors God. However acting with justice, mercy, and compassion honors God and benefits others. While the first is good, I suspect the second is better.

[Read through the Bible with us this year. Today’s reading is Zechariah 5-7, and today’s post is on Zechariah 7:5-9.]

Should We Be Busy For God?

Being active at church may seem a wise use of time, but it’s often misplaced action

Should We Be Busy For God?

One Sunday at church I passed our associate pastor as I scurried from one assignment to the next. “How are you?” he asked.

Instead of lying with a socially acceptable response, I told him the truth. “Busy.” I sighed.

As I scampered away he gave an approving nod with a knowing smile. “As long as you’re busy about the right things.” He even raised his eyebrows for emphasis.

Even though I returned his nod and his smile, I knew he was wrong. I was too busy.

This happened as a young twentysomething. A decade or so later, I hadn’t learned my lesson. Being between pastors, my church (a different one) needed me. In addition to volunteering for things that interested me, I also said “yes” to whatever it asked. I thought that being busy for God was my duty, a way to show him my love and devotion.

At the height of my folly I served in ten roles. I was in several leadership positions, served on committees, and had a prime teaching assignment. These kept me busy on Sunday mornings and several evenings each week. I was the guy who made things happen. There wasn’t much that occurred there I didn’t know about.

I wore my busyness as a badge of honor, and I shortchanged my family in the process. I was busy, too busy.

Wisely I phased out of my responsibilities. I began to say “no” to new ones. At first I declined with a heap of guilt, but eventually “no” empowered me. I began to feel free. I spent more time with family – and with God.

Now I have established some guidelines to keep me from overcommitment, three simple rules: Be involved in only one role at church. Volunteer for only one activity in my community. And no more than one evening away from home per week.

Though I’m yet to find a place where I fit at my present church, I do enjoy a weekly volunteer opportunity to give to others. And these things seldom take me away from family in the evenings. It’s a good balance, and I’m glad to not be so busy.

I can’t find a single place in the Bible where God commands us to be busy for him. What he does want is for us to worship him, be in relationship with him, and put him first. But putting church first is not the same has making God first. God doesn’t reward us for our many church activities. Though the cause may be noble, the activity is misplaced.

We honor God best when we put him first, not by being busy for him.

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The Bible Tells the Church to Meet Together, Worship, and Witness

How can we go and be witnesses for Jesus when we sequester ourselves on Sunday mornings?

The Bible Tells the Church to Meet Together, Worship, and WitnessJust before Jesus leaves this world to return to heaven, he instructs his followers to go into the world and make disciples (Matthew 28:19). In an expanded version of this incident, Jesus tells his followers to wait for Holy Spirit power and then be his witnesses, both near and far (Acts 1:4-9).

The church of Jesus doesn’t do a good job of being witnesses and making disciples. To do so requires an outward perspective, yet most all churches have an inward focus: they care for their own to the peril of outsiders, with many churches excelling in doing so.

Yes, God values community and wants us to meet together (Hebrews 10:25). And the Bible is packed with commands and examples of worshipping God, with Jesus noting that “true worshipers” will worship God in the Spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24).

Most churches do the meeting together part reasonably well, albeit with varying degrees of success. Many of those churches have a time of worship as they meet together, though perhaps not always “in the Spirit” or even “in truth.”

Yet few churches look outside their walls in order to go into their community to witness and make disciples. Though Jesus said to wait for the Holy Spirit, he didn’t say to wait for people to come to us, to come to our churches so we could witness and disciple them. No, we are supposed to leave our church buildings to take this work to them. We can’t do that at church on Sunday morning, safely snug behind closed doors.

Yes there is a time to come together and a time to worship, but there is also a time to go. And we need to give more attention to the going part.

I know of two churches that have sent their congregations out into their community on Sunday mornings, foregoing the church service in order to be a church that serves. One church did it a few times and stopped after they saw little results and received much grumbling. The other church regularly plans this a few times each year and garners a positive influence on their community.

Shouldn’t every church make a positive impact on their community? Yet so few do. They are too busy meeting together and worshiping.

In terms of witnessing and making disciples, what would Jesus think of your church’s activities? What should you do to go into your community?

Do We Need to Include the Lament in Our Sunday Worship Services?

Expressions of grief and sorrow abound in the Psalms but the church has forgotten how to lament

Do We Need to Include the Lament in Our Sunday Worship Services?In the churches I have attended throughout my life and visited in the past few years (nearly one hundred) I don’t remember singing songs of lament. We laud God the Father, we express love to Jesus and give thanks for his gift of life, and we invite the Holy Spirit to guide us. In fact we call our modern choruses, praise choruses. How about a lament chorus? I suspect it wouldn’t fit our expectations, at least not in middleclass churches in the United States.

Yet laments occur in the Bible, especially the Psalms. These raw, honest, almost accusatory complaints, resonate with many as the Psalms become their go to section of the Bible during times of need.

Psalm 83 is one example. It opens with three heart-ripping pleas: God I beg you to speak to me, to hear me, and to come close (Psalm 83:1). We’ve all been there, when God seems distant. Some people call these seasons their desert place, their wilderness. They go to the Psalms to give voice to the angst their heart cannot find words to express.

Yet today’s church music and Christian radio largely ignores this reality in their onslaught of feel-good, optimistic, lift-up-your-hands praise choruses. Instead our songwriters and worship leaders go forward one chapter and write about Psalm 84:1-2 to produce a foot-stomping, heart-pounding anthem. And that’s what we sing at church – even when our heart is in a different place.

We will do well to embrace the lament, not to replace our praise, but to balance it.

What is your favorite Psalm of lament? Can you think of a song of lament? (I’m sure there are some, but I can’t recall any.)

[Read through the Bible with us this year. Today’s reading is Psalm 81-85, and today’s post is on Psalm 83:1 and Psalm 84:1-2.]

The Art of Giving to God

By giving to God we demonstrate our love to him

The Art of Giving to GodJesus says to give “to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” Luke 20:25, NIV. While the context of this relates to paying taxes, the ramifications go beyond money. The Roman government, in general, and its ruler (Caesar), specifically, have an array of expectations that go beyond tax revenue. Caesar proclaims himself as god, and we see the far-reaching implications. Caesar wants for himself what the Jewish people reserve for God.

Many critics of today’s church claim “the church is only after your money,” and in doing so they imply God only values us for our bank account. While this is sadly true at too many church institutions, it’s not what Jesus intends for us and is far from God’s heart.

Yes, God wants us to give ourselves to him. As we seek to put this into practice, however, giving to God becomes more art than rule. Here are some considerations:

  • Money: When most people think of giving to God, they only think of money. Yet, we can’t actually write a check and hand it to God – and what would he do with it anyway? We give our money to God by using it to bless others and support causes that align with God’s heart, according to his Holy Spirit direction in our hearts. This may or may not be the local church. It could be a parachurch organization, to address a pressing social issue, or to help our neighbor in need. Regardless, when we give cheerfully as God directs us, we in effect give to God.
  • Time: We spend time with people we value: family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and so forth. The people we ignore must not be important to us. The same applies with God. Again, this may or may not happen at church. We spend time with God when we fast, pray, study the Bible, and practice silence and solitude. We also spend time with him when we sing to him and talk with others about him. And when we invite him to join in our gatherings, we spend time with him, because he is there.
  • Worship: In singing songs at church about God and to God, we give to him. We can worship him in other ways, too, such as prayers of praise, sharing with others our stories of his goodness, and enjoying his creation. I often worship him when I write.
  • Love: Perhaps the most misused, most misunderstood word in English is love: I love my wife, and I love to watch movies. I love nature, and I love the color blue. I love spring, and I love to write. And I love God. If our love of God means anything, we show it by how we use the money he blesses us with, how we invest our time, and how we worship him. Our love for him is a fitting response to his love for us (see 1 John 4:19).
  • Devotion: The act of devotion encompasses the first four items, but our zeal for God also goes beyond them. We set aside other pursuits to focus on God; we put him first, not in word but by our deeds. Devotion involves sacrifice and focused attention, as though nothing else matters, because nothing else truly does.

Giving to God is a lifelong, fulltime pursuit. As our maker, liberator, and friend, he deserves nothing less.

How do you give to God? What other ways are there?

Do You Hear From God?

Under Holy Spirit inspiration Simeon and Anna affirm Jesus when he is a baby

Shortly after Jesus is born his parents take him to the temple in Jerusalem to present him to God and go through the purification rites as prescribed by Moses. As they do so, they receive two startling surprises from what others say about Jesus.

Do You Hear From God?First is Simeon, a godly man full of the Holy Spirit. He lives in expectation of the promised savior. God assures Simeon he will live long enough to witness the coming Messiah. Prompted by the Holy Spirit Simeon goes to the temple, takes Jesus in his arms, and praises God for what Jesus will do.

Next is Anna, an elderly woman and prophetess. A devote widow, she spends her time worshiping God. She walks up and thanks God for Jesus, confirming he is the fulfillment of prophecy.

Note that neither Simeon nor Anna are part of the religious elite. They lack the pedigree and the man-made credentials to do what they did. But they do have Holy Spirit wisdom, and that’s all that God needs in order to use them – and us – to accomplish his purposes: no special training or insider connections, just people who put God first and focus on him.

When has God prompted you to go somewhere like he did with Simeon? When has God given you supernatural words of the future to share with others? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

[Read through the Bible with us this year. Today’s reading is Luke 1-3, and today’s post is on Luke 2:22-40.]