Church – For People Who *Do* Like Church

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The following are examples of some slogans that are currently in use by churches in America (as reported on www.poetpatriot.com):

“Real church…Real People”
“The Church of Tomorrow…Today!”
“Equipping People for Life”
“The Small Church with a Big Dream”
“The Fortified City”
“A Church Where Miracles Happen”

However, there is one slogan in particular that has gained broad usage in recent years: “A Church for People Who Don’t Like Church”

Although I understand what is meant and why it is used, something about this slogan just doesn’t seem quite right.

Several important issues come to mind:

*  Christ said that he was going to build his church (Matthew 16:18)
*  Believers as a group make up the church as the body of Christ (Ephesians 5:23)
*  Believers as individuals make up local churches (cf. the greetings and references throughout Paul’s letters)
*  Believers are instructed to consistently gather together for mutual encouragement (Hebrews 10:25) – which seems to be a reference to church meetings
*  Most of the New Testament letters were written to functioning, organized local churches
*  The instructions in Revelation 1-3 were specifically to churches in preparation for the revelation of Christ to the world and the coming judgment
*  Everything related to the spiritual life of believers in the New Testament is in the context of the local church
*  In the New Testament, it is assumed that believers need and desire to be together; to function as a loving community gathered together in the name of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the body – which is the church
*  Unbelievers receive virtually no mention in the letters to the churches except when they pose problems for individual believers or disrupt the normal life of the church through things like false teaching or improper behavior
*  The structure, function and responsibilities of the local church is always defined in relation to believers, and in this regard unbelievers are inconsequential to the life of the church (it’s not that they are unimportant for they most certainly are extremely important – to God and to believers, they are just not part of the church).

From these, we learn very important truths about the way a healthy, biblical church should function. We learn prescriptively (through commands) and descriptively (through examples) what churches should be like – what is important, what should be emphasized, how and why things should be done.

First, we learn that church is not something to be disparaged, nor minimized in any sense. It is central to the life of the believer as it facilitates one’s relationship with Christ and with other believers. But this slogan feels a bit like a “bait and switch” – which does disparage church (at least as it has traditionally been understood) – but then offers church in its place. It is an unfortunate word play.

Second, we find that church is for believers, rather than unbelievers or even a mixed group. In fact, more than being just for believers, church is comprised of believers exclusively. Without believers, although there can be a gathering of people – even for religious reasons, it does not constitute a biblical church. Church is by and for believers alone. There is nothing in the New Testament that remotely indicates that the meetings of believers, i.e., local churches, are to be formed or function for the sake of unbelievers or to make them relevant to unbelievers. In fact, a biblical local church, by definition, will not be relevant to unbelievers, because deep spiritual truth is beyond the grasp of someone who has not been born again (1 Corinthians 2:14).

Conversely, to whatever degree a meeting is inherently attractive, understandable, relevant, etc. to unbelievers, to that degree it will cease to be a church meeting. This doesn’t mean that we look for ways to be unattractive, incomprehensible and irrelevant. But it is the work of the Spirit of God in the heart of an unbeliever that makes spiritual truth seem relevant to him or her. No amount of repackaging can accomplish this. And because of this, the contents of the package are usually what is changed. (This doesn’t mean that there can’t be meetings, conferences, seminars, etc. for the sake of reaching out to unbelievers – but that is a different function).

To be fair, the slogan in question reflects a legitimate and well-intentioned attempt to address various problems which include things such as stagnating or decreasing church attendance, ministering to believers who are immersed in a culture that is quickly moving away from Christian principles as the foundation for society, reaching the lost for Christ in the face of a deepening disinterest in all things Christian and a disdain for anything that smacks of promoting moral absolutes.

However, in the process of dealing with these things, the focus and purpose of the church has largely shifted away from being a place of encouragement and ongoing spiritual growth for believers. Instead, the mission of the church is shifting toward to creating a place and an atmosphere that is appealing and non-threatening to primarily the “unchurched” (the lost) and the “dechurched” (the disgruntled). In other words, the new “church” that is emerging is being specifically crafted to be a place for people who don’t like church. This necessarily means that over time worldly philosophies and methodologies will ultimately overwhelm biblical ways of thinking and doing things.

But if believers are called to be separate, to come out from the world, to not be conformed to the world, to be in the world but not of the world, to avoid sinful or even questionable practices – then sooner or later, believers will be driven away from these “church” meetings as churches emerge and evolve into these new forms. Unbelievers may be seeking something, but no matter how it may appear they are not seeking God nor his righteousness (Romans 3:10-11). I fear that many have been deceived into making wholesale changes for the sake of unbelievers, while at the same time driving out untold scores of genuine believers who would dare to resist some of the more radical changes.

Consequently, the new “church” is no longer for people who do like church. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t always be seeking ways to be culturally relevant. But being culturally relevant does not mean to constantly chase the latest trends and philosophies and bring them into the church so people can comfortably relate. To be culturally relevant is to be wise and insightful concerning how to apply biblical principles in such a way to affect change in the lives of believers when they are tempted to conform to ungodly cultural norms.

Unfortunately, biblical exposition tends to be one of the first things that begins changing in the remaking of church so that it is more attractive to those who don’t like church. Expositional messages based on sound exegesis tend to give way to superficially-biblical topical messages dealing with the “felt-needs” of a primary target audience that is either unchurched or dechurched. On the one hand, this group cannot grasp spiritually deep truths and on the other, they are generally easily offended by terms like “sin,” “wrath,” “judgment,” “hell,” etc. Of course, unbelievers are welcome to come into a believers’ meeting, but they will never become a part of the fellowship unless they clearly hear the gospel and the Word of God taught authoritatively and unapologetically.

When the centrality of the Word of God is diminished or even eliminated, then church is no longer for those who do like church. And believers should like church. This isn’t about those who are simply against any kind of change for any reason. This isn’t about self-centeredness. This isn’t about fear of stepping outside of one’s comfort zone. This isn’t about a total lack of concern for a lost world.

However, the sad fact is that often those believers (who are often among the most mature) who do resist this emergence into a new kind of church and new kind of Christianity are regularly criticized and vilified – and many are even told that it would probably be better if they found another church.

Rather, it is about keeping church for born-again believers, because the church is born-again believers – and only born-again believers. It is about making sure that the church is always for people who do like church.

There are innumerable legitimate and creative ways for believers to be salt and light in the world – and reach the lost with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Believers can and should go out into the world, not isolate themselves from it in some kind of monasticism. But we don’t reach the lost by transforming church meetings to model worldly thought and behavior. If we do, then there is nothing left to where believers can go for fellowship and to gain the strength, encouragement, knowledge and wisdom they need to be a wise as serpents, but as harmless as doves in a dangerous world of which our mortal enemy is its prince.

The biblical picture is of shepherding in such a way that none of the flock (who love being near the shepherd) are lost in the process of adding to the size of the flock. Unfortunately, much of what passes for modern church-growth methods amounts to little more than sending large parts of the flock over a cliff, just so they can be replaced by a new larger flock – that really doesn’t know any better.

May we never be part of remaking the church in such a way that those who used to like church, no longer do.

Dave James
Ministry Coordinator

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11 Comments
  1. Great post, Dave – thanks! I’ve been enjoying a new book by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck (authors of “Why We’re Not Emergent”) entitlted “Why We Love The Church – In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion.” They write with wit, humor and to-the-point insight stated in plain language anyone can understand. Being “anti-church” or “neo-church” used to be a fad running upstream against the status quo. Now one is stepping outside of the status quo and doing something “new and unique” when they are no longer chasing the current fads. We are fickle people, aren’t we? It is simply amazing grace that has anything to do with us at all.

  2. Dear Dave,
    Thanks for your post and insight. i trust and pray that The church- His Body, in the process of inviting unbelievers we don’t loose track of the needs of the family of God. God bless you.

  3. Dave,
    Thank you for clarifying the fact that “church” is designed for born-again Christians. Too many churches have turned the church into a worldly outreach where their programs are primarily intended to reach the lost. We as Christians are to be the “salt of the earth” and carry the Gospel to non-believers. Once we have reached those non-believers with the Gospel of Christ and they become believers are they then a part of the “church”- the body of Christ. Sometimes our focus gets out of kilter! Thanks for presenting the truth in such a straight forward way!

    • A church’s mission and philosophy of ministry drives everything the church does. It sets the goals, defines the programs, guides the preaching and teaching, and establishes the overall atmosphere. With few exceptions, if church becomes driven by the goal of meeting the needs of the lost, the needs of believers (which is the biblical purpose) is often totally lost. When that happens the church becomes like a ship without a rudder, which in the case of a church, the rudder is doctrine.

  4. Jesus said, “I have come to seek and to save the lost”. He was always on the move. Read the Gospels. When His disciples wanted to stay in one place, He said, no, I need to preach the Good News in another place.

    When they wanted to build a monument to commemorate the appearance of Elijah and Moses, Jesus had no part with that idea. The little thing that we do on Sunday morning (or whenever) is not “the church.” The church is the bride, waiting for the bridegroom to return. But waiting in ways that will help us to be ready when He does. We are not the “wife” of Jesus. We are the bride in the sense of the bethrothed, waiting for the bridegroom who has gone to prepare a place for us and is expecting us to be getting ready for His return. Waiting expectantly. But not waiting idly.

    If we are following Jesus, we won’t be satisfied to gather together in a “Holy huddle” and sing “Kum Baya.”

    The idea of being “a church for people who don’t like church” is nothing against those who are not that kind of church. We just want to actually follow Jesus. We want to accept people as they are and help them to come one step closer to God. We want them to “come and see” as Jesus said (recorded in John more than once). We want to be inclusive so that lost people can come and investigate the claims of Jesus without being made to feel dirty or less than human. Outsiders.

    Actually, Jesus never stayed in one place long enough to become what we think of as a “church” today.

    Unfortunately, Barna also records the statistics about new believers. Within a pathetically short time after their “regeneration,” they have no non-Christian friends anymore. Their idea of salt and light is more a question of rubbing salt in the wounds of the non-Christians and shining the spotlight into the eyes of the hurting.

    Our Sunday church is comprised of 75% non-believers and 25% believers who are loving the lost and praying for them. We do everything possible to make them feel loved, while holding forth the Gospel as an uncompromising message of God’s holiness and their need to repent, accept Jesus as Lord and Savior and to join us in the mission of establishing the kingdom of God in our lives.

    We are passionately committed to living as Jesus lived. Following His example and His teaching.

  5. Tom,

    Thanks for your comments.

    I wanted to take a moment to respond to a few of your comments and observations.

    “Jesus came to save the lost”:
    I think most of us would understand that Jesus came to save the lost (although this is being challenged in some quarters). I was saved when I was 26 and I am thankful that he is still in the business of changing lives.

    “Jesus was always on the move”
    This is true, but the churches in the New Testament were established local assemblies that met regularly for fellowship, mutual encouragement and ministry, learning the Word of God, breaking bread, and worship. However, Jesus’ ministry was prior to the birth of the church, and his pattern of ministry was both itinerant and under the Law. Therefore, although immeasurably important, it was not intended to be a pattern for the specific function and ministry of the local church.

    “Jesus never stayed in one place long enough…”
    Again, true, but this doesn’t have any direct bearing on what the church should be like. Once the tabernacle was in the land, it was in one location. The temple was obviously in one location. The synagogues were in a specific location in each town. And most of the New Testament letters were written to fellowships of believers – local churches – all in fixed specific locations. Paul’s ministry was largely itinerant, too – but his ministry was not the pattern for local church ministry. Rather he established local churches – and returned to them whenever he was back in town.

    “If we are following Jesus, we won’t be satisfied to gather together in a “Holy huddle” and sing “Kum Baya.”
    I have never encountered anyone who thought that this is what the Christian life should be. I don’t think I implied something along this line – at least I didn’t intend to. And as an international missionary for 16 years, a significant part of my adult life was devoted taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. On the other hand, we do read (specifically in the context of a discussion on the local church) that we should be ” speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19).

    “We want to be inclusive so that lost people can come and investigate the claims of Jesus without being made to feel dirty or less than human.”
    Ministry to the lost never includes stating things in such a way so as to make anyone “feel dirty.” In the 25+ years that I have been a believer I have never heard a message that was designed to do this – nor have I ever met anyone (at least with any spiritual maturity) in any church who sought to make this happen – or even someone who didn’t go out of their way to make sure this didn’t happen.

    “Our Sunday church is comprised of 75% non-believers”
    It is great to hear that the believers in your area are consistently ministering to the lost by showing the love of Christ through kindness, hospitality and clearly presenting the gospel. However, the main point of my post was to focus on the primary purpose of believers meeting together as the church – fellowship, edification and worship – none of which non-believers can truly participate in in a biblical way – and this will almost certainly make them feel uncomfortable to some degree. And if we design meetings specifically to help the lost feel comfortable – or to keep them from feeling uncomfortable – then to that degree we will probably have to diminish the very things we, as believers, are supposed to be doing when we gather together as the church. Of course we can have meetings targeted toward the lost – but that’s not really church – and when we confuse the two we give up a crucial aspect of life as part of the Body of Christ.

    In His Care,
    Dave

  6. Interesting conversation. Dave, you seem to have a real penchant for religious words and maintaining their meanings. What’s difficult in a culture that is moving more towards postmodernism and post-Christendom is that old words don’t have the same old meanings.

    This may just be true of language in general. Consider the word gay for example (or a handful of others that I can’t recall right now). Over time, words change meaning and connotation as the context in which they are used changes.

    I think that this would include words like “church.” Does it matter if you call something a “church” as much as your gathering ACTS like a biblical church? I think that how the Body of Christ in the West responds to this question will determine the fate of organized Christianity.

    • I’m not so interested in maintaining the meaning of religious words per se, but rather with maintaining the biblical meaning of whatever word we choose to associate with bibilical words and concepts. Let the words change as they may – but let their meanings be biblically-based. What is happening today is that the concept of church is now being used independently from the biblical meaning.

  7. Hi – great site you have here. I love reading sites about religion – they are so informative. Thank you for having this one. The internet can be a real blessing, even though some people don’t realize that and use it improperly. I am always interested in reading online about spiritual thoughts and beliefs and this site is very engaging. I don’t have time to read everything right now, I found this site when looking for something else on beliefnet.com, but I’ve bookmarked your homepage and will check back soon to see the latest articles. What is your preferred translation of the Bible? I think they are all good, don’t really have a preferred one myself. I have a blog with daily Bible readings on it. Please visit it – it as at http://www.GotTB.com. I just redesigned the site with a new look and feel, please let me know what you think of the new layout. Have a fun week. God’s Peace!

    • Thanks for the encouragement, Jenny.

      Translations? I think there are several good ones and several not so good – and some poor ones – and some that are paraphrases rather than translations, which I don’t think is a great idea when dealing with the Word of God. I have used several over the years. Right now I am using the New King James Version and this is what we are using on the website. It is a good translation, is generally understandable for any age group and is fairly close to the wording of the King James Version which is still the most familiar to those believers over the age of 50 or so.

      I will be glad to look at your site.

      Thanks, again.

  8. Like your site here!!! I found you via one of those “emergents” that is always complaining. YOu have a very good point here: there is a line that can be crossed. Now, I have been in churches that are terrified of someone possibly having “fun” in church in case that’s too “worldly” and I really fear for the kids brought up in those places, because I am willing to bet that they’ll beat a quick path out of there the second that they are able. HOWEVER, I am seeing the same trend you are on the opposite end of the spectrum: pandering to people who don’t want to be inconvenienced in the least.
    With, many of these whiners that make up the emergent church, it is very obvious that they never really knew God to begin with and instead had embraced a moralistic “religion” When that crashed and burned, they looked outwards instead of inwards for someone or something to blame. Yes, it IS the fault of a church that more often preaches morality than it does a living, breathing savior. You don’t fix it though, by replacing conservative religion with neo-liberal religion.


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