“Sit Back, Relax and Enjoy the Service” May Be Killing Your Church

Karl  Vaters has some highly provocative and probing thoughts on our approach to “church” and getting people to attend our weekend worship gatherings. – STEVE

Sit back, relax and enjoy the service” may be one of the most dangerous sentences ever uttered in church.

It sits on the Bad Idea shelf next to “Let’s erect a building and tell people they have to come here if they want to worship Jesus.”

I expect promises of great customer service in a restaurant, on an airplane, or in a movie theater. But the idea that church is a place where we pay others to do ministry as we sit passively, consuming and passing judgment on the product being offered, may be the greatest single reason for the anemia of the modern, western church.

The church is not a customer service business. We’re a community for life transformation. We do not exist to serve passive consumers, but to equip and activate disciples.

But, like the monkey stubbornly clinging to the apple inside the cage, we’ll never free ourselves to be biblically active communities for life-transformation until church leaders let go of our  please-the-consumer mindset.

Let’s Stop the Bait-and-Switch

It’s bait-and-switch to tell church-goers that we’re here to serve them, only to teach them a few months later, when they attend the membership class that – surprise! – you’re not supposed to be a consumer after all. You’re here to do the work of ministry.

And then we wonder why they don’t step up and help out more often. It would be like going to Starbucks until you achieved Gold Card status, only to get handed, not just a Gold Card, but a green apron, too. On a volunteer basis, no less.

Bait-and-switch doesn’t create passionate, worshipful, loving disciples. It creates angry, confused and resentful religion-shoppers.

Change “Sit and Watch” To “Come and Participate”

Years ago, I realized that this was a problem for our church, so we stopped offering sit-and-watch events as our church’s main front door experience.

Simply put, we don’t waste our time and money on religious stage shows to entice non-believers to come to church any more. Instead, we invite them to spend time with us as we live life together. 

For instance, twice a year we have an event we call Share Day, in which the entire church body divides into work groups after church on Sunday to serve together on various community service projects. On most Share Days, we have participants that have never attended the church before, because we’ve invited them to help out.

When we fill up Christmas bags to bring to needy children in Mexico, we offer empty bags to our unchurched friends, neighbors and preschool families to fill up. And they do!

Even on Christmas Eve, we have a pre-service time when families can get together to make ornaments, decorate cookies and take a Christmas photo together while snacking on goodies and warming up with hot apple cider. Why? This may be the only time a lot of people – especially visiting family members – will visit a church this year, so we give them a chance to interact, not just sit and be talked to.

When community service and/or interactive fellowship is someone’s first experience with a church body, it sets an important precedent. They know right up front that this is what church is all about. It’s where we live life together in service to God and as a blessing to others.

People Want to Worship, Connect and Give

The church was never meant to be a religious stage show..

And, let’s face it, even if it was, Small Churches don’t have the resources to put on as good a show as our big church counterparts. Oh, who are we kidding? Even megachurches can’t compete with the quality of entertainment people can access 24/7 from the phone in their pocket.

But we can be great at worship, community and generosity.

When someone decides to get out of bed on Sunday morning to go to church for the first time – or for the first time in a long time – they’re not doing it because they don’t have other entertainment options. They’re doing it to meet a need they may not even fully realize yet.

They want to connect. With God and with us.

A great, interactive Small Church may be the best place on earth to do that.




Charles Blake is THE CHURCH WHISPERER.  This recent blog post provides some important commentary worthy of reflection. – STEVE



The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.  1 Timothy 1:15-16

Does it matter whether or not Paul was in fact the “foremost sinner” before coming to Christ? Or, is the more important point that he perceived himself as such? Yeh, I think so too. It is the self-perception on this issue which matters most.

I think  two of the biggest problems for most Christ-followers today is (1) having a false sense of who God is, and (2) having a false sense of who we are without him. The gospel is difficult in the American culture because there are so many in this culture who, frankly, do not feel the need for a savior.  What’s worse, the church has become less effective as those of us in the church have tended to forget for ourselves just how desperately we need a savior. Still.

Churches, you see, can have a false sense of self just as well as individuals…we can actually stop remembering who we are without God. We can get so wrapped up in “doing church” that we lose sight of what matters most. Specifically, here are five ways I have seen us have a false sense of self…here are some lies we sometimes believe about our church:

1. We’re better because our music/preaching/buildings/programming/resources are better. Truth is, we are probably not better at all. But IF we are better, it is only because of the work of the Spirit among us. All the stuff we do…is just stuff. With Jesus, the church has all it needs. Without Jesus, we can do nothing.

2. Our numbers prove that we’re successful and making a difference. Our numbers prove we are reaching people, and that’s a good thing. But our numbers do not tell us anything at all about spiritual transformation or changed lives. Without those, we are accomplishing very little.

3. We are a missional church and should be focused outside the church, not on relationships within the church. According to Jesus in John 17, missions outside the church DEPEND UPON relationships within the church.

4. We’re efficient, doing more and more ministry with fewer and fewer people. What do you think is more valuable to the kingdom…having a broader ministry reach or involving more of our people in real ministry? Think about it.

5. The current absence of any unhealthy conflict in our church proves that we have unity. Wrong. It proves we are currently between issues. And that’s it. Unity has to do with the quality and transparency of our relationships with each other, with conflict or without it.

When Paul refers to himself as the foremost among sinners, he is simply recognizing who he really is without Christ. In desperate need of a savior. It is a healthy self-awareness. Let’s help our church have that same level of reality when we look in the mirror. It will do us good.

© Blake Coffee
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on this website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Blake Coffee.  Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: © Blake Coffee. Website: churchwhisperer.com


Came across this interesting in Crosswalk by Dr. Julie Barrier. Think about it.


A scruffy homeless dude pops through the door of the church house with his motley entourage. The trendy thirty-somethings sitting near the aisle gagged at the stench of their sandals reeking of foot odor.

Honestly, is this the new pastoral candidate? And who is his crew? They weren’t invited! The parking lot attendants were already upset. The fig trees shading the front door were a little scraggly, but one word from the new guy and they curled up and withered. Instantly. This man was a wizard.

He strode confidently to the front, set the pulpit aside, and sat down. Nina Smothers spent hard-earned cash for that wooden lectern in honor of her dead, departed hubby Harold. She dashed out of the sanctuary in a huff. With great authority, this Jesus asked all of the wealthy elders to stand. These guys were the cream of the crop. They never missed a Sunday, lived exemplary lives and were model husbands and fathers. He commended them for their efforts.

Here’s the kicker! Jesus asked them to withdraw all of their savings, cash in their 401K’s, stocks and bonds. Porsches and BMW’s must be returned to the dealership and their pricey suburban homes listed immediately. Everything must go. (Sounds like a “going out of business” sale…) Finally, He challenged them to turn over their net worth to the World Vision fund to help dying widows and orphans in Bangladesh. This tight-knit group of top-shelf leaders shook their heads, grabbed their stylish children and sadly left the room.

The crowd was definitely thinning.

Finally Jesus delivered His “sugar-stick” sermon from Luke 8:5-15. The remaining congregation perked up their little ears. Francis Chan described Jesus’ words in this way: Jesus started His sermon by saying, “Gee, it’s great you all came…be sure and bring a friend next week!” Not. He told an enigmatic tale about sowers, seed, paths, rocks, thorns and good soil. “He who has ears, let Him hear.” Then He retired to the front row. Even His band of brothers scratched their heads. Peter piped up, “What a weird story! What was that all about?” Jesus’ cryptic answer still confounded His boys. “To you it’s been given to know. I speak in parables-seeing they may not see, hearing they may not understand.” The natives were getting restless. Pew-huggers in the back slinked out when Christ was not looking. Jesus whispered, “I’m not going to spend my ministry watering rocks or fertilizing thorns!”

Now here’s the conundrum. Luke 14:25 tells us great crowds accompanied Him. This place was a mega-church. Big video screens, screamin’ band, cushy seats and a coffee bar out front. Why would Christ blow this amazing opportunity?

Christ stood to offer the invitation. “If anyone comes to me and doesn’t love me more than Father, Mother, even his own life, he can’t follow me.” (Matthew 10:37-39) Jesus continued,  “Are you really sure you should be here? Hate your father, wife…leave them all for me. Count the cost. I’m telling you about the cost of following me up front. Pick up a cross and come and die.” The silence in the church was palpable. Instead of an emotional invitation with crowds streaming to the front, there was a massive exodus through the back door. One kid filmed the fuming mob’s departure on his smart phone and uploaded it to YouTube. Two million hits.

The smelly twelve were left. Jesus mumbled, with great sadness in His voice, “You’re not going to stick around either, are you?” (John 6:67)

Peter piped up, “Where else shall we go? You’ve got the truth, the living words.”

The offering was non-existent. No money was raised for the offsite campus with the video feed. In fact, if we were true to Scripture, Jesus would have whipped the ushers, turned over the offering plates and screamed that this was “God’s house of prayer.” However, the ushers and the rest of the comfortable Christians split a long time ago. The scraggly teacher never made it past His first Sunday. He was fired on the spot. An Abercrombie model with killer people skills took His place.

Francis Chan ended his sermon on this subject with this compelling statement. “Are we obeying the most obvious truths of Scripture? I want to be real salt, good soil…the real deal. Be intimate with Jesus. Love Him enough to take up your cross no matter what!”

If Jesus were the pastor of your church, would you go?

This article was inspired by Francis Chan’s compelling sermon “If Jesus Were the Pastor of Your Church, You Probably Wouldn’t Go.”  



The church gets a bad rap these days, and it is important to explore this issue.  Scot McKnight has some excellent insights based on his study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. – STEVE

Do you love the church for what it could be or what it is? If the former, I suggest you read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s magisterial little book, Life Together. It is, so I think, his best book. No need, however, to debate what is neither provable nor non-falsifiable — what one thinks is his best book another will not.

What is worth discussing is his incredible set of statements about the expectations we bring to the church and that we expect of the church and how our expectations, when they encounter the realities, are dashed to the ground.

What is worth discussing is that until we realize that the eucharist table is at the front of the church under the cross — because those who come into the fellowship and “cracked Eikons” and in need of grace and healing – we will not comprehend what the church is.

Leaving the church because it does not meet our expectations is failing to understand what a church is; we have a church because we have failed to meet God’s expectations. Failed expectations, then, are the foundation of the church and the reason for its existence.

Leaving the church because it does not meet our expectations is to create a church for ourselves. It is, if I may be so bold, idolatry.

Many enter into ministry with the ambition to make a church what they think it could be instead of what it is.

Until we understand what the church is — a fellowship of sinners at different locations in a journey — we will not understand what the church could be and can be. No two Christians are perfectly compatible — in theology or praxis — and therefore there will be tension in the church, which is precisely where we need to begin to see what the church is. Not a fellowship of those who agree or who are alike but a fellowship of those who don’t agree and who are not alike. When we demand the church be like us, or like our vision for what it is, or we leave, we create our own church — and eventually (if we have the guts) we start a church that begins the same old process of a fellowship of those agree who eventually become those who disagree and who split. Bonhoeffer still speaks.

In my classes at Northern Seminary I routinely allude to Life Together. Here are my favorite lines, lines that follow on from his important claim that Christian fellowship is “through” and “in” Jesus Christ:

This dismisses at the outset every unhappy desire for something more. Those who want more than what Christ has established between us do not want Christian community. They are looking for some extraordinary experiences of community… Such people are bringing confused and tainted desires into the Christian community. Precisely at this point Christian community is most often threatened from the very outset by the greatest danger … the danger of confusing Christian community with some wishful image of pious community, the danger of blending the devout heart’s natural desire for community with the spiritual reality of Christian community.

Now hear this:

Only that community which enters into the experience of this great disillusionment with all its unpleasant and evil appearances begins to be what it is should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.

And this:

Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.

Those who dream of this idealized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others, and by themselves.t


Thom Rainer has some potent and pointed thoughts about the church at the beginning of the 21st century. They are part of a new book being released that I would encourage people to add to their library. – Steve    Follow this link to the original post and pre-ordering information. MORE


by Thom Rainer

I was their church consultant in 2003. The church’s peak attendance was 750 in 1975. By the time I got there the attendance had fallen to an average of 83. The large sanctuary seemed to swallow the relatively small crowd on Sunday morning.

The reality was that most of the members did not want me there. They were not about to pay a consultant to tell them what was wrong with their church. Only when a benevolent member offered to foot my entire bill did the congregation grudgingly agree to retain me.

I worked with the church for three weeks. The problems were obvious; the solutions were difficult.

On my last day, the benefactor walked me to my rental car. “What do you think, Thom?” he asked. He could see the uncertainty in my expression, so he clarified. “How long can our church survive?” I paused for a moment, and then offered the bad news. “I believe the church will close its doors in five years.”

I was wrong. The church closed just a few weeks ago. Like many dying churches, it held on to life tenaciously. This church lasted ten years after my terminal diagnosis.

My friend from the church called to tell me the news. I took no pleasure in discovering that not only was my diagnosis correct, I had mostly gotten right all the signs of the impending death of the church. Together my friend and I reviewed the past ten years. I think we were able to piece together a fairly accurate autopsy. Here are eleven things I learned.

The church refused to look like the community. The community began a transition toward a lower socioeconomic class thirty years ago, but the church members had no desire to reach the new residents. The congregation thus became an island of middle-class members in a sea of lower-class residents.

The church had no community-focused ministries. This part of the autopsy may seem to be stating the obvious, but I wanted to be certain. My friend affirmed my suspicions. There was no attempt to reach the community.

Members became more focused on memorials. Do not hear my statement as a criticism of memorials. Indeed, I recently funded a memorial in memory of my late grandson. The memorials at the church were chairs, tables, rooms, and other places where a neat plaque could be placed. The point is that the memorials became an obsession at the church. More and more emphasis was placed on the past.

The percentage of the budget for members’ needs kept increasing. At the church’s death, the percentage was over 98 percent.

There were no evangelistic emphases. When a church loses its passion to reach the lost, the congregation begins to die.

The members had more and more arguments about what they wanted. As the church continued to decline toward death, the inward focus of the members turned caustic. Arguments were more frequent; business meetings became more acrimonious.

With few exceptions, pastoral tenure grew shorter and shorter. The church had seven pastors in its final ten years. The last three pastors were bi-vocational. All of the seven pastors left discouraged.The church rarely prayed together. In its last eight years, the only time of corporate prayer was a three-minute period in the Sunday worship service. Prayers were always limited to members, their friends and families, and their physical needs.

The church had no clarity as to why it existed. There was no vision, no mission, and no purpose.

The members idolized another era. All of the active members were over the age of 67 the last six years of the church. And they all remembered fondly, to the point of idolatry, was the era of the 1970s. They saw their future to be returning to the past.
The facilities continued to deteriorate. It wasn’t really a financial issue. Instead, the members failed to see the continuous deterioration of the church building. Simple stated, they no longer had “outsider eyes.”

Though this story is bleak and discouraging, we must learn from such examples. As many as 100,000 churches in America could be dying. Their time is short, perhaps less than ten years.

What do you think of the autopsy on this church? What can we do to reverse these trends?


Phil D is a blogger who publishes THE UNKNOWN.  From his archives from August 2010 comes this thoughtful post.


I’m a Christian but I don’t go to church…

This is a frequent statement from Christians who don’t want to be part of that ‘crowd’ that they see in the media. You know, the ones who picket funerals and scream out God’s condemnation on everyone. There are so many testimonies of people who have left Christianity because of the church and there are many people who call themselves Christians but don’t go to church. Though I agree, Christians can be annoying, there is quite a lot to be said for the church biblically and spiritually, as well as emotionally and socially. If you agree with the title, please read on and feel free to comment if you disagree with this post. I would love to have a discussion about it.

What is church?
Before we go into any sort of discussion, I want to define church as I see it biblically. Church is a community of Christians coming together in the presence of God (Matthew 18:20, Acts 2:42-47), focused on Christ (1 Corinthians 4, Colossians 1:15-23), worshipping (1 Corinthians 14:26), teaching (2 Timothy 4:1-2), discussing and learning, challenging (1 Corinthians 5) and allowing the Holy Spirit to work which can open the church up to spiritual gifts such as prophecy, healing and speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 12). The community of Christians (Church) should also be a place where needs are met, where the widows and orphans are cared for (1 Timothy 5:3-8), where the poor are helped with their needs and people share their belongings without question or expectation of return (Acts 2:42-47, Acts 4:32-37). Divisions within the church should also be dealt with quickly and gracefully (Matthew 18:16-18, 1 Corinthians 1:10-17). Notice there isn’t much in the bible about the building in the bible but more about the people. This gives us a lot of flexibility about how church is done, hence why there are so many different churches around. As long as you have a community of Christians meeting together and seeking, worshipping and learning about Christ then you have a church.

Often this isn’t the case with church and I have many friends who are like me and look at the bible and see a completely different type of church from the ones we often attend. I am fortunate to be part of a family of churches that seek to be biblical in their teaching and in their structure. They don’t always get it right but that is part of being human. Before all else, we need to remember that the church is managed by humans who are seeking Christ, this means there tends to be mistakes. There is no such thing as a perfect church, BUT, the church leadership should be led by Christ (by the Holy Spirit, by prayer and by the bible) and by this, as long as mistakes are learnt from, we can encourage our leaders rather than pull them down. Many churches struggle with an imbalance, many focus too heavily on the miraculous or the blessings (see my post on the prosperity gospel), many focus too much on the social action and others focus just on themselves rather than looking outward. The parts of church you struggle with are probably parts that you are called to help out in, just turn that frustration into a passion to see something change for good.

Why should we be part of a church?

Biblically: As you can see in the previous section there is a lot in the bible about the church. I want to challenge you to read around the links above and find how important the church is to Christ.

Pastorally: Children who grow up on their own without love or care from others tend to grow up angry, distrustful and with other various issues that take years to resolve if they get resolved at all. So it is with young Christians. If a young Christian’s faith does not grow up in a community of varying ages and experiences then it is bound to take on various ideas and issues unchallenged. A lone Christian not only finds it hard to stand up against persecution but also finds it easy to justify anything they want to do because they are their own leader. If you align yourself with a church (remember the definition of church) you are more likely to learn more about who Christ is and more likely to stand firm in your faith without taking on strange ideas unquestioned.

Spiritually: Spending time with other Christians is one of the best ways for your faith to grow. If you are struggling with something in the bible, you have people to ask and find answers. If you are struggling with something personally, you have people to go and seek advice from. If you need prayer, there are people there to lift you up. If you are slacking off on spending time with God, you have people to challenge you. Self-motivation is all well and good, but it is better to be able to share your burdens and your blessings with others.

Socially: In a church you will meet people you never would have met anywhere else, let alone talk to. Immediately you have something in common with people in church and it should be the most welcoming place on earth. Churches are all about the people.

Have you been hurt by the church?
Unfortunately many Christians and non-Christians can look back and find a time where the church has not treated them fairly. Church splits happen and again it is an unfortunate part of having humans involved. It is important, no matter what the church has done, to remember that Christ died for all and because of that forgiveness must be given even if it is not asked for. I am not saying go back to the community that hurt you, but don’t give up on a) all churches and b) Christ.

I don’t like what the church stands for?
Many Christians like to back away from the Christians they see in the media. They like to stay quiet and not align themselves with a church in case they are seen as weird and in case they are insulted by friends. As a Christian you have made a choice that the world sees as foolish (1 Corinthians 3:18-23). You are called as a Christian to live differently from the world and so you must make a stand and it is easier to do so with a good church community around you. Obviously if the church you attend is not handling sensitive subjects with the grace of God then you need to ask questions and seek change in the church, don’t just give up on it.

In conclusion:
Church is an awesome community to be part of. It is an amazing place of friendship and love, a place to seek and learn more about Jesus. Sometimes it goes wrong, but hopefully forgiveness and patience rule out from those mistakes. We don’t need to be legalistic about going to church, but if you truly seek Christ as your saviour and you want to become more of an adult in your faith, church is the place to go. Learn from the Christians that have already been through what you are going through. Meet with other Christians regularly, it doesn’t have to be every Sunday, but make sure you are sharing in worshipping, learning and seeking Christ and seeing how an awesome God can affect the community around you


by Steve Dunn

Maybe I am naive, but I take seriously the words of Paul to the Corinthians.

“12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by[c] one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many …  25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” ( I Corinthians 12:12-14, 25-26)

I believe that individual congregations are part of that Body called the church. That means each church has a part in the kingdom plan of our Heavenly Father. We are not programmatic competitors nor doctrinal adversaries. We are partners in the work of Kingdom, but more than that, we are interdependent parts who really need one another.  And we need to exhibit far more concern for the health and well-being of one another.

When congregations flounder in problems or are weakened by conflicts, what is our response? Do we pray for them or do we sit back and watch and then scoop up their losses to swell our numbers and increase our statistics (or staff our Sunday School since we have already burned out the teachers we had)?

Do we offer to help our sister congregations regain their unity and health?

Or do we simply continue to “grow” by rearranging the current kingdom population instead of focusing together on the lost and the unchurched?


From the always insightful and thought-provoking blog She Worships comes a compelling question. We re-post it today for your response.  Steve will had his own reflection in a couple of days.

What is Our Generation’s Stumbling Block?

This week I was researching a topic for work when I discovered an interesting tidbit of church history. Apparently, birthdays used to be a big deal for Christians, and not in a good way. Early in the church’s history, birthday celebrations–particularly those of emperors or kings–were associated with pagan culture and were consequently condemned.

For instance, early church theologian Origen (ca. 185-254 ca.) wrote rather scathingly,

Indeed one of our predecessors has observed that the birthday of Pharaoh is recorded in Genesis and recounts that it is the wicked man who, being in love with the affairs of birth and becoming, celebrates his birthday. But we, taking our cure from that interpreter, discover that nowhere in the scriptures is a birthday celebrated by a righteous person.

At that time, Roman society was big on birthdays. You might even remember that John the Baptist was beheaded in celebration of Herod’s birthday (Matt. 14). The early Christians therefore rejected this practice as a sign of distinction from the surrounding pagan culture. As a result, Christians did not formally observe Christmas for the first 300 years of the church’s existence.

Today, the rejection of birthday celebrations sounds rather silly. Few of us have a lot of theological stock invested in this practice. However, this type of historical eccentricity is not uncommon. Throughout the history of the church, each generation has grappled with issues that were pressing at the time, but became less central or even marginal by subsequent generations.

For another example, consider Christian music today. There are more Christian recording artists than I can count, and worship pastors frequently lead with songs they have written themselves. The present-day church is producing new music every day.

But it has not always been so. Isaac Watts, who famously wrote “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “Joy to the World” created quite the scandal with his hymn writing. Born in 1674, Watts lived at a time when the only acceptable hymns came directly from Biblical poetry. Watts bucked this tradition by writing “original music,” a decision that invited tremendous criticism and character attacks. His music was described as “flights of fancy” and “Watts’ whims.” He was accused of arrogance, and his introduction of this new hymn tradition resulted in church debate and division. Today, we take this practice for granted.

For a final example, consider re-baptism. I have heard countless evangelical pastors encourage church members to get baptized on the grounds that the first one wasn’t “meaningful” or “you didn’t really know what you believed at the time” or “you did it for the wrong reasons.” Plenty of modern day Christians would be shocked by this language (in fact, I myself profoundly disagree with the theology behind those statements) but our disagreement is nothing compared to the horror such words would have elicited in the Protestant Reformers.

In his work “Concerning Rebaptism,” Martin Luther decried the above reasons for re-baptism as “godless and hypocritical” because they place greater emphasis on personal faith than on the free grace of God. On the grounds that re-baptism was the equivalent of re-crucifying Christ, many Anabaptists (which means “baptize again”) were executed for their beliefs.

Although baptism, as a central component of the Christian faith, is of far greater importance than birthdays or hymns, I think we can all agree that the Reformers’ response to re-baptism was, in the most extreme cases, wrong. No matter how much I may disagree with another Christian about their views on baptism, I am not prepared to kill them over it.

As you can see, it is easy for a generation to lose perspective. Whether the issue is small or large, our circumstances can magnify a problem in such a way that we cannot grasp its true perspective. Learning this lesson from church history, we do well to remember that spiritual stumbling blocks come in all shapes and sizes. They are not limited to sinful temptations. A theological truth can just as easily become a stumbling block as money or sex.

The church’s track record should humble us. It should also press us to wonder about our own generation’s theological stumbling blocks. What current debate will cause later Christians to snicker or grieve? What are our greatest theological or missional blind spots?

While I have my own suspicions, I also wonder how I can ever be sure. Either way, I think the very asking of these questions is bound to shape us in edifying ways.


by  Stephen L. Dunn

I had my first ministry assignment in 1971 when I was hired as the part-time Youth Pastor of the Newville (PA) Church of God.  That was forty years ago. It was a time when, particularly in small towns, churches were the centers of the community, church people were viewed as solid citizens, and pastors were positions of honor and respect.

Forty years have pretty much changed that. The ecclesiastical landscape is not a pretty sight.  During those 40 years our society has seen a seismic shift in its values and perceptions.  Churches are now considered by many postmoderns as entities that squelch true spirituality.  Church people are often viewed as political enemies of reasonable, “normal” people.  Clergy types are viewed with suspicion.

Scholars, social commentators, and religious historians speak of a shift from being a churched culture to a … you fill in the blank.  Whatever the case, churches and Christianity no longer hold home field advantage.

In the churched culture, people thought being good folk was synonymous with being good Christians.  In a culture that tracked with the church (Robert Bellah said this was because the culture had a civil religion that resemble Christianity), people thought of their churches as organizations that recruited members, provided benefits to those members (including status in the world and eternal life in the next). But because church and culture were basically on a parallel course, few churches concerned themselves with making disciples.  They just were recruiting and indoctrinating members with shared values).

Evangelism was replaced with church marketing.  Good people became the goal (good people who knew how to navigate a prayer book/hymnal) rather than transformed people.  But even choosing to become a Christian was relatively costless because the culture would affirm you anyway.  Most of the emphasis was on the outward appearance of faith and the willingness to do our “Christian duty.” Many, many mainline denominations continue to operate from this premise.  Many, many evangelical ones have chosen to be cultural curmudgeons.

Somewhere the idea of being Christ’s disciples was replaced with being a Presbyterian, Southern Baptist, and members of the Republican Party (if you were a social conservative) or the Democratic Party (if you were a social liberal).  The church and our culture have suffered immensely by this loss of true identity – of biblical identity.

When Jesus walked on planet Earth and lived in our neighborhood, he spoke of people becoming his disciples.  Of being people who proclaimed the Good News of the Kingdom by following Him.  FOLLOWING HIM.

In fact, that’s how Christians came to be called Christians.  They were recognized as followers/disciples of Jesus Christ.

Isn’t it time to stop being members of a church, or advocates of a particular doctrinal distinctive, or members of a political force in the nation’s culture wars – TO ONCE AGAIN BEING CHRIST’S DISCIPLES?

(c) 2011 by Stephen L Dunn

Step out of the boat

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One of the unfortunate developments of the church in the 19th and 20th century is that it became settled. By that I mean it allowed itself to be identified as a place. The church (read, church facility) became a geographical center for religious activity.  We grew up going to church.

In so doing, the church also became a place where the world was not.  The world came to the church to become Christians.  In fact, many churches worried that if the world did not become converted but kept coming to the church, it might corrupt the church.  The church became more and more a “temple” with distinct boundaries and specific behaviors.

Am I talking about the church building now or the church as the body of Christians called the church? Actually, it is pretty fuzzy. Think about being an outsider and trying to make sense of this. Is the church a place or is it a people?

A church building is a beth ‘el, a house of God. But the bethel, the physical entity that functions as a temple is not the church – not scripturally speaking.

In this development, many American churches lost their identity as the laos, the people of God.  The church is not a building. The church is a people.  To quote a popular slogan of today, “Don’t go to church, be the church.”

If we can let go of our confusing identification of the church as a building, we might really begin to grasp and to practice what Jesus understand the church to be. The church is the people of God on a mission for God.  Hence, the Great Commission:

“Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in[the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” – Matthew 25:18-20 (NIV)

Jesus had prepared the ground for this when he earlier taught his disciples, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” (John 20:21)

Ed Stetzer has written that many churches don’t “act like they’ve sent. They act like they’ve arrived.”

Isn’t it time for the church to once again understand it is being sent – and then go?