I Sold My Soul on eBay: What Churches Do Wrong, Part 1

Now we get to the good stuff … what churches do wrong. I mean, this is the area where we can learn the most about how to do better.

A Lack of Sensitivity to Nonreligious People

Mehta found many of the things said in church about nonreligious people offensive. He tries to live morally. He is concerned about other people. He certainly doesn’t think of himself as evil.

Some churches read passages that refer to those outside Israel or the church as the enemies of God. Comments were made about the unchurched that assumed them to be immoral. The common assumption was that those outside of Christ are bad people.

Now, some of this is inevitable. Paul says in Romans 5 that before we were saved, we were enemies of God. Many passages speak of the damnation of those outside of Christ.

The point isn’t that churches should deny fundamental Christian doctrine. We really do believe we’re saved and those outside of Christ are lost. Rather, the point is to be sensitive to how we come across to those not familiar with our teaching.

[M]any of the churches I visited depicted those who were not Christians as being “lost” or needing to be “saved.” Every time I heard this, I felt insulted. What exactly do Christians think they are saving me from?

In many growing churches, there are more seekers in attendance than members! To a Christian, the terms “saved” and “lost” are quite clear. To the unchurched, the terms only sound offensive. Some churches have adopted a different vocabulary, referring instead to the “unchurched,” “seekers,” even “pre-Christians,” or in the case of one church, “the precious.”

Now, it would be a tragedy, of course, to forget that the lost are lost. The idea, though, is not to run the visitors out of the building before you have a chance to teach the seeker what salvation is about.

The doctrine that we are all lost until we have faith in Jesus is a tough teaching, but an essential one. Nonetheless, just as I didn’t talk to my children about sex when they were four years old, I wouldn’t recommend that anyone start teaching the truly unchurched with a lesson on damnation.

Too much time devoted to singing

Well, this one surprised me! But then, those of us who grew up in the Churches of Christ love to sing. Mehta says,

Generally, I enjoy the music I hear in churches. However, I’m convinced that a lot of Christians don’t care about it. How did I reach that conclusion? Because I saw plenty of people walking in late to services.

I have the impression that churches begin their services with music to serve as a buffer so that even if churchgoers arrive late, they won’t miss the “important” part (that is, the sermon). However, I suspect that as people began to understand that there would be an extended period of music, they started to come in later so they could skip the songs.

I find this hilarious, because it’s true, even though we deny that it’s true. I mean, suggest to your elders or staff that church begin with communion or the sermon, and I guarantee they’ll refuse! Why? Because they know many members will be too late for the truly important part of the service! They’d far rather the members miss the singing than the communion or the sermon.

In my own church, people often come in late and often leave immediately after the sermon. The obvious message to visitors is that they have better things to do than sit through the closing song and prayer or sing in anticipation of the “main act.”

Of course, although few churches mean to do so, we all are guilty of communicating to our members that the sermon is the most important thing. We adopted the Frontier Revivalism model of doing church, from the early 19th Century, and aimed the whole service toward the sermon, culminating in the “invitation,” plainly making this the main thing. And we pay the preacher the highest salary because we know, as Mehta has concluded, that having a great sermon is a bigger draw than having a great song service or communion service.

My own view is that we need to intentionally get away from building the service around the invitation. Rather, following a model Randy Harris used to use while he preached in Nashville (he may still do this), we should sometimes begin the worship with the sermon, use the sermon to point people toward God, and then, being properly prepared, worship through song, prayer, communion, and gift giving. Maybe not all the time, but much of the time.

Sometimes (at least monthly, I think), we should especially focus on the communion, ending the service with the Lord’s Supper, with the sermon and singing all pointing us toward — not the communion — but what the communion points us toward.

There are other possibilities. The point is that we communicate who we are by how we do worship. And what we communicate is that that the sermon is the most important thing and that the rest may be skipped. Hence, we teach that passive receipt of instruction is more important than participatory worship.

Worse yet, our persistence in arriving late and leaving early tells visitors that we place little value on our time together — even less on our time before and after church. It’s a terrible lesson to teach that we teach very effectively.

In fact, if church is so important, then people should arrive early. It seems completely disrespectful to me (and, I would think, to the pastors) when people walk into the auditorium five or ten minutes into the service.

Amen.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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5 Responses to I Sold My Soul on eBay: What Churches Do Wrong, Part 1

  1. Gabriel says:

    It's funny the conclusions people can tend to draw, without necessarily taking the time to ask the question why. I don't doubt that in many cases people arrive late to church because they are lazy or are not interested in the singing or are not interested in the fellowship or whatever. But here's my own experience with my own congregation (which is culturally quite different to an American church because… well, we're Aussies not Americans 🙂 ):

    We start as close to 9:30am as possible, and first up is the sermon, with maybe a song preceding it if the speaker (who is different every week, quite a number of the men of our congregation of just under 100 are capable of teaching the brethren) desires it and leads it himself. The sermon typically lasts 30-35 minutes or so.

    Then we break up into male/female small prayer groups of up to a dozen people maximum. In these prayer groups we talk about what we learned in the sermon, what issues we've been facing during the week, then we take time to pray. This time is deliberately open-ended – so no group feels pressured to end by a particular time.

    Based on when the last group finishes, a "starting time" is set for the next section, about 20 minutes later or so I think. I don't usually pay much attention to how long it is. In the mean time we have time for the whole congregation to fellowship and eat morning tea together.

    So, we all sit down again after our break and sing for 15 minutes or so, then we share in the Lord's Supper together, which is what our whole assembly has been building towards. Finally we have a bit of church-wide news sharing and then one of the elders dismisses the assembly. No offering is ever taken.

    Now – having described all that – there are two things that have become quite evident in our congregation:

    1. Almost no-one disappears during the morning tea "break". Everyone comes for the sermon, and everyone stays to share in the Lord's Supper. There is no one "forcing" this to happen, it's just we all believe strongly in sharing in Word and Table together, so that's what we do. This is in contrast to other congregations where they have an "adult Sunday School" as well as the "worship service", and usually see less than half the members at the Sunday School, whether it be before the "worship service" or after. And, because of the break in between the time of prayer and the singing, we've already had quite some time of fellowship, but many people still stay quite some time after the congregation has been dismissed, even though this means that e.g. people often don't get home until 12:30pm or even later.

    2. People still arrive late for the sermon at 9:30am. And I do not believe it's because people don't think it's important, it's just that it's hard sometimes to get there on time, despite best efforts. e.g. I am a father of 4 young children, and things can and do go wrong in getting ready to go out, and so maybe one time out of 4 we turn up a few minutes late. The majority is usually there on time, however, and we ourselves are slowly learning how to maximise the chances of us getting there on time or even early in some cases.

    (oh, 3 – our budget is usually met quite adequately, although the deacons report there is a little shortfall at the moment, but I'm sure that won't last long)

    Gabriel

  2. Alan says:

    If you come up with a solution to people arriving late for church, please let me know!

  3. Tim Archer says:

    Jay,

    My observation is that, while the sermon is definitely the focus of much of what we do, most people in our brotherhood would only be annoyed if they arrived late and missed the sermon, but would be angered if they arrived late only to discover they had missed the Lord's Supper.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim

  4. Jay Guin says:

    Gabriel,

    You certainly have a different approach to church from what we have around here — and it has a lot of appeal.

    I'm the father of 4. I've been late to church many times because of my kids! Anyone with little kids gets a free pass so far as I'm concerned.

    And some arrive late because of helping stranded motorists or any number of very good reasons.

    Nonetheless, I'm confident that most of our members who arrive late do so out of bad habit. It's not the music so much as preferring a little more sleep. I know. I used to be one of them.

  5. Jay Guin says:

    Tim,

    I think that's exactly right. In practice, the sermon is the center of the service, while in theory the Lord's Supper is.

    I'd be all for starting services with communion at random intervals myself — just to help some people learn that it's rude to always be late.

    In fact, we have some who are so chronically late that if we did communion first, they'd think we'd skipped it — because they'd arrive long after communion was over!

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