Tag Archives: worship

Is Your “Church” a Parachurch Organization?

Question: What if we thought we attended church every Sunday morning when in fact we attended a meeting of a parachurch organization?

Many good Christian works are accomplished by parachurch organizations. My wife and I contribute financially to many of them, and she serves on the board of one such institution. Examples of parachurch organizations are: Christian schools, colleges and universities, mission and service organizations, community Bible study organizations, hospitals, different kinds of fellowships and support groups, campus ministries, apologetic organizations, and Christian homeless shelters. The list is endless. Much of the good work Christians do in the world is done through these organizations. And that is good.

So what is a parachurch organization? It is para to the church, which means it exists “alongside” the church. As an institution, it does not claim to be the church. But it sympathizes with and supports the church’s mission, and the people that constitute its membership are Christians and in some way participate in church itself. Its mission and many of its activities overlap with the mission and activities of the church. That’s what makes it related to the church in a “para” way.

What marks the difference between a parachurch institution and the church? The differences are marked by how parachurch organizations are constituted, what they add to the church’s organization and mission, and by what they cannot do in their own names. Parachurch institutions are created by Christians for ministries about which they are passionate. They are usually organized as legal entities with non-profit status, establishing thereby a relationship with the federal, state, and local governments. Their missions are usually narrowed to one type of good work, education, evangelism, apologetics, healthcare, homeless shelters, etc. But there are also some things parachurch organizations do not do in their own names. For example, you do not become a member of a parachurch institution by confessing Jesus as the risen Lord and submitting to baptism.

What is the church? The church is the people of God and the body of Christ. It is constituted on the divine side by the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ through the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the sending of the Holy Spirit. Faith is created through the preaching of the gospel and the working of the Spirit, and those who believe respond with repentance, confession, and baptism. The church’s mission is to speak, live, and embody the gospel of Jesus Christ in a covenant community. It witnesses in the present age to the reality of the coming reign of God. As a people, as the body of Christ, as a covenant community it exists in the world as a visible unity of many. And from the beginning, this necessitated meeting together to participate in the spiritual realities—one God, one Lord, one Spirit—that have the power to maintain the scattered people as one. When the church gathers, it listens to the words of Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles. It remembers the death and resurrection of Jesus by sharing in the Lord’s Supper. The community invokes God in prayer, and everyone is encouraged to live a life worthy of the gospel.

The church’s essence and mission are very simple, and accomplishing its mission requires few of the things we’ve come to associate with churches. It does not need money, land, or property. It does not need clergy or employees of any kind. Nor does it need scores of tired volunteers the “make things happen” on Sunday morning. It does not need accountants, bank accounts, or receptionists. It does not need a stage, a worship ministry, or microphones. It does not need to exist as a non-profit corporation. It need not have any legal entanglement with the state. Nothing in its constitution or mission requires any of these things.

But most of the “churches” we attend have all of these unnecessary things. Indeed we cannot imagine a “real” church without them. They have huge budgets, large staffs, and expensive properties, which force them to organize themselves like businesses. To fund this enterprise, church leaders need to spend lots of energy on financial matters, planning, accounting, and fund raising. Staff must be managed and paid. Because their meeting places are designed to accommodate over a hundred people—and some a thousand or more—many of these churches are staged-centered and focus on the few people running the show. This creates a celebrity atmosphere where importance and visibility are identified. There is little sense of the unity of the many or intimacy of community or accountability. In analogy to a concert or political rally or a lecture hall, the unity is created by focusing on the speaker or singer. The meeting includes people who are present for a variety of reasons. Many feel like strangers, and some suffer silently for years without anyone else knowing their struggles. And all these extras were added on the supposition that—even if not necessary—they would be helpful in carrying out the mission of the church. But hasn’t it turned out to be the opposite? Doesn’t this stuff get in the way? Hasn’t the means eclipsed the end?

Perhaps the churches we attend every Sunday are really parachurch organizations? They are devoted no doubt to good works and activities that overlap with the church’s mission. They are founded, funded, and for the most part populated by Christian people. They include some activities essential to the church, and the church is present somewhere in all the busyness. But they are not just the church, not simply the church. And because they are not simply the church, the essence of the church is obscured and its essential mission is neglected.

As I said at the beginning, many parachurch organizations serve the mission of the church in admirable ways. I do not reject the legitimacy of parachurch churches. So, I shall be attending a parachurch church this Sunday…but I do so with some uneasiness…because I long for the simple church, stripped of unnecessary baggage, devoted single-mindedly to the original mission.

Challenge: Make a list of the things your church is, has, and does that are not essential to the church Jesus founded and the mission he gave, things that if you removed them the church would still exist. Next ask yourself which ones of those things cause the essence of the church to shine forth and help it accomplish its mission and which ones obscure its essence and hinder its mission. After you’ve done that why not work in your church to reduce the number and significance of things that keep your parachurch church from being simply the church?

Ron Highfield

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Has Your Church Forgotten Something?

I have been deeply involved in the life of church since I was a child. The church taught me about Jesus and formed me as a Christian and as a person. I love her and I can’t imagine my life without her. Early in my life I felt a call to serve in the ministry or, as I would have articulated then, “to become a preacher.” And after some hesitancy in my teen years I decided to take that step. I studied Bible and theology in college and graduate school, receiving my Master of Theology degree. I spent approximately ten years in campus ministry, youth ministry and preaching ministry. After receiving my Ph.D. in religious studies I began teaching at the university level. That was nearly 28 years ago. For much of that time I served as an elder in a local church. Last summer, after 22 years as an elder, I ended my career in this role. I informed my beloved congregation that I could no longer do what contemporary elders are required to do and make the decisions they must make. For the first time in a long time I am a regular church member.

I want to share with you today a perspective that has gradually been crystalizing in my mind over many years. I have come to believe that many of the challenges that consume the energy of contemporary churches arise because they have redefined the nature and work of the church to include many things almost wholly unrelated to the essence and original purpose of the church. The New Testament church was a family, but we’ve transformed it into a bureaucracy. The early church’s ministers were traveling missionaries or respected local leaders, but we’ve turned them into religious experts and middle class professionals. The first churches met in homes around a table, but we met in a hall in facing a theater stage.

Think of how much energy and money churches spend and how many legal and political entanglements they bring on themselves by involving themselves in following unnecessary things: owning and managing property, hiring and managing professional clergy and staff, acquiring and servicing nonprofit tax status, organizing and funding worship bands, singers and worship ministers, and buying, maintaining and operating expensive sound and video systems. And consider how many unnecessary and inefficient programs must be staffed with overworked volunteers and paid staff. Think of how much envy, resentment and showiness having a stage with spotlights and microphones as the focal point of the service evokes.

Ask yourself why people attend church and on what basis do they choose a church. Do they attend church to be reminded of who they are in Christ, to participate in the Lord’s Supper with their brothers and sisters in Christ, to hear the Scriptures read, to encourage and be encouraged to live lives worthy of the gospel? These are the essential and original reasons. Or, do people attend a church event because of the music, the speaker or the wide array of services provided for children, teens, singles and other affinity groups?

I am not a reformer. I am not an iconoclast. I simply want to spend my energy on things that really matter.  And I wish that more churches would do the same.

A Truce in the Worship Wars?

Worship has become a controversial subject lately. Come to think of it, I suppose it has always been contentious. Is worship for us or for God? Should it be quiet and serious or loud and celebratory? Does worship address the mind or the heart? Before expressing an opinion on these questions, it might be wise to think as deeply as possible about the nature of worship.

Surely every Christian would agree that the object of worship is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We don’t worship ourselves or other gods or money or other people. We worship God. No one will object if we distinguish between worship and the teaching/learning process. And though loving God and loving your neighbor cannot be separated, we need to distinguish between worship as a religious act and moral acts such as feeding the hungry and visiting the sick. And I think everyone would agree that worship is an act, not simply a belief or a feeling. Worship, then, is an act directed to God. What kind of act?

As an act directed toward God, worship needs to do something appropriate, something that truly corresponds to God. Since our most fundamental duty to God is to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, it stands to reason that worship must be an enactment of that duty. It is an act of love toward God. But it is an odd sort of act. An act of love toward a human being would supply some good thing to that human being that enhances their life. Since God does not lack anything, acts of worship cannot supply God’s needs or add to his knowledge, or make him feel more worthy. Worship doesn’t build temples, heal anyone, or accomplish anything in the world. Indeed from a worldly perspective, worship seems like a waste of time, energy, and resources. What appropriate act do we perform when we worship?

Worship is a symbolic act, and its symbolic nature gives to those who do not understand it the impression of waste and meaninglessness.  A symbol points beyond itself to something in the real world. It must resemble the thing it symbolizes in some way. Otherwise the symbol would be ineffective in directing our attention to the real thing. A symbolic act points beyond itself to a real act. It compresses, summarizes, and perhaps, dramatizes the real act so that its essential nature can be grasped in a flash of insight. In Christian worship, the body becomes a symbol. We bow down, kneel, eat and drink, raise our hands, and close the eyes; we light candles, sit quietly, or express words of admiration, faith, gratitude, and longing in prose, poetry, and song.  What, then, is the real act that the act of worship symbolizes?

Worship is a symbolic expression of love for God. And an act of love must give something to the one it loves. As I said above, however, God does not need anything we can give. But God deserves everything we can give. Worship symbolizes our appropriate response to what God is and what God has done for us. And what is that appropriate response? It is to accept without reservation God’s love for us and to offer our entire being to God to use according to his perfect will. More than that, the real act symbolized by worship is our actual living in this way. And I believe this is what Paul is saying in Romans 12:1-2:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Perhaps it’s time for a truce in the worship wars. We might discover that the dichotomies mentioned in the first paragraph above do not really express mutually exclusive things. Worship should be directed to God, but we are the ones who need it. God is so rich in his attributes that it is appropriate on occasion to be quiet and serious in his presence and on others loud and celebratory. God is both Truth and Beauty, so worship should address both mind and heart. Whether worship is tilted toward the head or the heart, whether it is quiet or noisy, we should not mistake the symbol for the reality. The true test of worship is the quality of life it provokes us to live.

A Message For Religious Drop Outs

Many people view religion as a distraction from real life. Religious acts are useless and religious institutions are a waste of human resources. Increasingly, younger people are dropping out of church attendance and adopting a private spirituality or becoming completely secular. What can we say to this movement? What is the meaning of Christian religious practice?

First, we need to observe that the idea that religion is useless and a distraction from real life presupposes a view of the divine and divine’s relationship to human beings that supports this view of religion. In ancient religion the gods demanded sacrifice and honor from human beings. They rewarded their favorites and punished offenders. Given this belief system, religious acts and institutions could hardly be called useless and distracting from real life! Modern religious drop outs of post-Christian, post-denominational culture no longer believe in God at all or no longer believe God desires the attention of human beings or some similar thought. In any case, they cannot see a rationale for traditional, Christian religious practice.

In the previous post, I defined religion as “human action and affection directed primarily toward God.” We examined the Christian understanding of basic human affection toward God, that is, love for God. When we come to see in the self-giving of Jesus Christ how much God loves us, we cannot help but love God in return. And when we see that God is the best, most beautiful, and truest reality, we cannot help but desire to be with God and enjoy him. As we can clearly see, loving the God revealed in Jesus Christ makes perfect sense. But what about religious acts: baptism, listening to the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, prayer, and praise? What about meeting together to perform these acts? What makes these things meaningful and useful?

Christianity rejects the ancient pagan view of religion. Christian religious acts are not designed to meet God’s needs. The Old Testament prophets and Paul in Acts 17 make that clear. They are not designed earn God’s favor or ward off his wrath. What then is their purpose?

The meaning of any action is revealed in its relationship to the goal to which it is directed. Acts become meaningless when we cannot see the goal at which they aim. Everyone understands that the more important the goal, the more valuable the means that helps us achieve that goal. Christian religious acts are the means by which we can achieve the goals of the Christian faith. What are those goals and how do Christian religious acts help us attain them?

As we noted in the previous essay, Christian religious acts must express our love for God or they are worthless (1 Corinthians 12:1-3). They do nothing to achieve the goal of the Christian way. In loving God, we admire his beautiful, loving character revealed in the self-giving of Jesus and we desire to participate in his goodness, beauty, and truth. In general, we want to be like what we admire and to enjoy what we desire. In loving God, our affections are directed toward becoming like him and participating in his eternal life, in its goodness, beauty, and truth. Jesus Christ reveals the true character of God and the true goal of human life; and Christian religious acts make sense only as means to this goal.

In one-time act of baptism, we imitate physically the self-giving of Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection and publicly declare our intention to imitate and become like Jesus, whom we love. In our repeated act of sharing in the Lord’s Supper, we are reminded of Jesus’ self-giving and we reaffirm our baptismal intention to be assimilated to Jesus’ sacrifice and his life.  In listening to the Scriptures, we open ourselves to God’s word of grace, guidance, and judgment for the purpose of becoming like him.

When we praise God, we express our admiration for God’s character and our desire to enjoy his perfection. In praising God, we keep before our minds and hearts the truth that God himself is the goal of all human action. To possess and be possessed by God is the greatest of all goods. In the practice of communal and private prayer, we keep our minds focused on the reality of God’s presence and the truth of his grace.

And in meeting together to perform these acts we give and receive the strength, love, friendship, help,  and kindness that the Spirit of God gives to each and all. The meeting itself is a means by which we are helped on our way toward the goal of becoming like God and enjoying him now and forever.

If the goal of human life to have as much pleasure, to gather as much wealth, to achieve as much professional success, or to garner as much fame as possible within this life, religious acts make no sense at all. They are useless and the institutions that support them are a waste of human resources. But if the goal of human life is to become like God in character and to enjoy his goodness, beauty, and truth forever, Christian religious acts are the most meaningful things we can do.

What Would Saint Peter Say to Your Church? A Sermon on 1 Peter 2:1-6


I’ve always loved 1 Peter. In graduate school I took a semester-long course devoted to it; and I’d like to take another!  Except for the names, places and vocabulary it could have been written to this congregation yesterday. The world Peter describes is our world, and the problems he addresses are our problems. And his answers are still the right ones for our time.

In chapter 5, Peter calls himself an elder and addresses the elders among his readers. He tells them to “shepherd” the flock—which of course means to protect, teach and guide them. I was ordained an elder in the spring of 1995; so it’s been twenty years. And this experience shapes the way I read 1 Peter. When I read it I hear the voice of a shepherd. And it is with this in mind that I want to let Peter, the elder, the shepherd, speak to you today.

Before we examine chapter 2:1-6, we need to get before us the big picture of Peter’s message in this letter. So, I want to take on his voice to say what he might say if he were with us today:

What Peter Might Say

“Remember what you were before God called you into this new life! Don’t forget how you thought and lived. Like most people, you lived an empty life. You spent your energy in a futile search for happiness, grasping first here, then there, at things that have no real value. Your heart moved back and forth between happy sadness and sad happiness, never settling in one contented place. Orphans in the world, you searched for home but could not find it.

“Don’t forget that most people are still there, lost among idols and illusions. Their hearts are empty and restless. They boast, curse and lie. Envy, malice and greed drive them toward self-destructive behavior. They live for pleasure and will do anything for excitement. They compete with each other over looks and clothes and possessions and worldly accomplishments.  They envy those who have more and look down on those who have less. They measure everything by appearances. They think, judge and value only on a worldly scale. They barely believe in God and have no real awareness of him.

“But God delivered you from this empty life. You heard the message of Jesus Christ and believed it. You learned the truth about God; you were given a new start. It was like being born again! Jesus taught you God’s true character and will. Now you live in hope and joy. You have meaning, direction and energy in your life. No longer orphans and homeless, you have God for your father and Jesus Christ as your brother. You have many mothers and brothers and sisters.

“You learned a new way of living, not in greed, envy, competition and hostility but in contentment and sincere love; not in lust and drunkenness but in self-control and wisdom. God made you a new people and gave you a special mission: to be a living temple in dying world, to serve as holy priests in an unholy culture. You are a light in darkness, a warm place in a cold world, a harbor in the storm, hope in a sea of despair, clarity for a confused culture and a shelter of kindness in an uncaring world.

“Jesus Christ changed you so much that you feel like foreigners and exiles in your own land. You don’t wear different clothes, eat different food or speak a different language. You are not emigrants or displaced people. You would be foreigners and exiles in any land and among any people. You don’t think or judge or treated people like others do. You don’t live for what they chase after. Your bodies are temples to be used in God’s service and to his glory. You stand out in the eyes of the world because of the good things you do and especially because of the evil you refused to do. And in this you shame others and evoke their hostility.

“Yes, they think you’re strange when you refuse to join them in their drunken orgies, idolatrous ceremonies and shady business deals. You spend so much time together, love each other so much and are so free from the affairs of the world that your neighbors accuse you of being unpatriotic, inhuman and clannish. Don’t be surprised by this. Don’t be intimidated, and don’t retaliate. God has not abandoned you. Remember Jesus. The world rejected him for the same reason it rejects you. Know that the more you resemble him, the more the world will hate you. Remember that when he was cursed he blessed. He remained faithful despite all opposition. So, place yourselves into the hands of your faithful creator and continue to follow Jesus.”

I think that is what Peter might say to us. Notice how he draws bright, clear lines between the way of the world and the way of Jesus Christ, between God’s people and the people of world, between the way the world lives and the way Christians should live. Peter doesn’t mince words; he is not diplomatic or politically correct. For Peter, there is, there should be, and there always will be a stark difference between serious disciples of Jesus and those who follow the normal pattern of the world. And Peter’s one-word description of this difference is “holiness.”

I hope we will ask ourselves throughout this series on 1 Peter this question: “What would Peter say to us? Would he see a clear distinction between us and the world—or would he see a boundary fuzzy and broad? Would he commend us for carrying out our mission to be God’s holy people, holy priests who offer spiritual sacrifices to God? Would he see us doing our job of witnessing to the reality and true character of God?”

Peter is an elder, a shepherd. He’s not trying to please us. He is trying to protect us, to save us from spiritual danger and heartache. So, let’s take him seriously.

Now that we have before us the overall message of 1 Peter, let’s look a bit closer at the section chosen for today: 2:1-6.

1 Peter 2:1-6

“Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.

As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says:

“See, I lay a stone in Zion,     a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him     will never be put to shame.”

General Observation: Activity

Notice the activity in these words, everything is in movement: Ridding, craving, growing, tasting, moving toward, building and offering. Everything is living and moving and active. Peter sees God at work in the world and among his people, and he urges us to keep alert and active.

I used to play tennis. When you’re waiting for your opponent to serve, you get on your toes, ready to react quickly. You don’t want to get caught flatfooted or back on your heels. As an experienced shepherd, Peter knows you’ve got to be ready for whatever comes your way.

1 Peter 2:1: Things to Leave Behind

“Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.”

He begins the sentence with the word “therefore,” which means Peter is drawing a conclusion from what he said previously. When you look back at the preceding verses in 1:22-25 you see why:

1 Peter 1:22-25

22 Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. 23 For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. 24 For,

“All people are like grass,     and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, 25     but the word of the Lord endures forever.”

And this is the word that was preached to you.

We’ve been born again by the word of God. Peter doesn’t think of this word as dead letters on a page or abstract ideas; it is alive because it is God’s active presence, full of his Spirit. The word of God can change you at the center of your being. Peter is speaking here of word of the gospel, which communicates the name, character and living reality of Jesus Christ into our hearts. No wonder Peter says, “Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.” The living truth of Jesus teaches us to love each other deeply from the heart. There is no place for these things in a heart where Jesus lives.

And the more you live like this, the more you will feel like a foreigner and exile in your own land.

1 Peter 2:2-3: Growing in Salvation

Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.”

In verses 2-3 Peter builds on the metaphor of a new birth, which he used in the previous chapter. To thrive newborn babies need the right food. Being born is just the beginning. They need to grow up. The same pattern holds for the new life we have in Christ. It’s not enough just to be born again of the word of God. It’s not enough just to stay alive. We need to grow. And to grow spiritually we need the right spiritual food. As you can see in verse 3, the Lord himself is that spiritual food. And he is made real to us by the “word of God.”

Newborns crave milk. They demand it! Are we hungry for God’s word? Do we seek God and long for his presence? Do we beg God for his Spirit and yearn for fellowship with Jesus? This is the food we need to grow in the spiritual sense.

What does it mean to become spiritually mature, to grown up in salvation? The answer is obvious: it means to become like Jesus, to think with his mind and feel with his heart and serve with his hands. It means to be so changed that you pray like Jesus, love like Jesus and keep faith like Jesus. It means to rid yourself of the vices that Peter condemns and develop the virtues he praises.

And the more you do this, the more you will feel like a foreigner and exile in your own land.

1 Peter 2:4-5: Spiritual House, Holy Priesthood and Spiritual Sacrifices

The next verses continue the thought but change the metaphor from growing up to being built into a temple. Both however are processes of becoming.

As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

We are like the stones of which a temple is built, with Jesus as the cornerstone. But unlike ordinary stones, we are not passive in this process; we “come to him,” we move toward this living stone, who is Jesus Christ. We believe in him and put ourselves at his disposal. And he makes something of us. Peter really presses this metaphor.

Jesus is not only the living cornerstone but also the architect and the builder of this temple. We are living stones in this living temple and the priests who serve in this temple, offering spiritual sacrifices pleasing to God. Temples are holy places, where God lives and people come to meet him. But in this case we do not go to the holy house of God to have a priest offer our sacrifice for us; we are the holy house of God, we are the priests and we are the sacrifices.

A Spiritual House or Temple

Notice what is being built here: the whole is greater than its parts. Something new comes into being when the living stones are incorporated into the building. The building itself is alive. One organic molecule doesn’t make a cell, and one cell doesn’t make a living human being. One stone doesn’t make a temple, and one person doesn’t make a people. Nor does pile of stones make a house or crowd of individuals make a people.

The word “Christianity” can be a misleading term. It’s not found in the New Testament. A Christian is a real living being, a believer and a disciple. But Christianity sounds like a philosophy that could be adopted, adapted and more or less practiced by a lone individual; it could be mistaken for an ideology for culture or a therapy to help us through life.

No, that is not what it is. Christianity is always concretely embodied in a Christian, and a Christian cannot exist except in the city of God, in the kingdom of God, in a people. Christianity—if we have to use this abstract term—is a comprehensive way of life that cannot be lived except in the community created by the Word and Spirit of God.

The Rejected Stone

Notice the idea set off by dashes in verse 4, the rejected stone. It may look like an afterthought in this context, but it fits right into Peter’s overall theme that we are “foreigners and Exiles” in the world, just like Jesus was. Peter says to his readers, “Jesus was rejected by his contemporaries but he was chosen and precious to God. In the same way, you are rejected by your contemporaries but are loved and chosen by God. Don’t be surprised that you are disliked because you are a Christian, a serious disciple of Jesus. Be encouraged because this is a sign that you are chosen by God.”

Naturally, we want to please people. We want them to like us. And when people reject us it is natural to ask ourselves, “What am I doing wrong?” But Peter says, “People’s rejection of Jesus did not prove the there was something wrong with him; instead it revealed their corruption. In the same way, if people don’t like you because you follow Jesus don’t be discouraged; count it an opportunity to identify with Jesus and enter empathetically into his experience.

Very few of our neighbors would speak disparagingly of Jesus. They might even admire him. But for most of them “Jesus” is just a name, just a story. The true test of whether someone accepts or rejects Jesus is not whether they admire him but whether they trust their lives to him and follow him wherever he leads.

Holy Priests and Spiritual Sacrifices

Let’s look at one more idea in this text. As holy priests, we have work to do. We are to “offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” What are these spiritual sacrifices?

What is a sacrifice anyway? It’s an act in which we return to God an object of value as an act of devotion. In human relationships such an act is called a gift. In both cases, the particular object that is given up is not the main thing. It symbolizes something deeper: the relationship between giver and the recipient of the gift or worshiper and God.

What is Peter doing by qualifying our sacrifices with the term “spiritual”? In calling our sacrifices “spiritual” Peter contrasts our sacrifices with those made in physical Temples, sacrifices of blood and animal bodies and grain. By calling our gifts to God “spiritual” Peter puts the emphasis on the inner, symbolic meaning of our acts of worship rather than on their external features—the real thing as opposed to its appearance to the senses.

The Greek word translated here as “spiritual” is used in the New Testament to speak of God’s nature. To say that a life or a sacrifice or anything in the world “spiritual” is to say that it is God-like, that it participates in God’s spiritual nature. It is corresponds to the character of God.

Is Worship For God or For Us?

When we hear the term “spiritual sacrifices” we probably think of what goes on in the Sunday morning worship hour. More specifically, we may think of our songs and prayers and, perhaps, our “offering.” Have you ever wondered what worship is for? Is it for God or us? A few months ago Rich Little [our regular preaching minister] played a little video clip in which Victoria Olsteen explains to her church that worship is not for God’s benefit but ours. God is pleased, she says, when we are happy. Worship is for us, to make us feel good. She says:

Realize when we obey God we are not doing it for God.  I mean that’s one way to look at it. We’re doing it for ourselves.  Because God takes pleasure when we’re happy.  That’s the thing that gives him the greatest joy….So I want you to know…just do good for your own self.  Do good because God wants you to be happy.  When you come to church, when you worship him you are not doing it for God really.  You’re doing it for yourself….Amen?

Of course, it’s easy to smile at such a careless and narcissistic statement. But let’s don’t be too hard on her because she’s half right. She’s right that God doesn’t need anything we can give him. So, worship cannot be about making God happy or propping up his ego or making him feel loved or taken seriously. If you think of worship exclusively as doing something for God’s benefit you will end up putting the focus on the external features of things, on getting it right.

And Ms. Olsteen is right that worship is designed for our benefit, in a certain sense. But if we make worship all about us, we will focus exclusively on how worship makes us feel: did I enjoy the songs, were people friendly, was the sermon uplifting, were the prayers well-worded, did the service start on time, did it end on time, and on and on. And, if we make worship all about us, we will begin worshiping worship instead of God, that is, worshiping ourselves instead of God.

By “spiritual” Peter does not mean something moving or beautiful. Of course, he is not saying that the external features and feelings that accompany them are of no importance. But they are external, superficial and momentary. By a “spiritual” sacrifice Peter means the real act that is symbolized by the external act—the God-like act that participates in the spiritual nature of God. So, what is this real act?

Peter doesn’t explain it…and this is because he expects his readers to know what he is talking about. They know about the teaching of Jesus and the example he left us. They know that they should love God above all things and love their neighbors as themselves. They remember Jesus’ words, “Take up your cross and follow me.” They know that Jesus sacrificed his blood and returned his life in obedience to his Father. What is our “spiritual sacrifice,” our spiritual worship? It is the act of giving our lives back to God to do with as he pleases! It’s not something you do only on Sunday mornings or Thursday evenings; it is identical with our whole act of living. What we do and say ritually and symbolically on Sunday is what we should be doing practically and actually every day of the week.

Apart from this act of worship, it does not matter what words you say or what feelings the music stirs in you. So, is Ms. Olsteen wrong that worship should benefit us? No. But spiritual worship benefits us not by generating good feelings in us but by making us into good people. Week after week, year after year, a steady diet of the “spiritual milk” of the word of God, read, sung, prayed, preached, ritually enacted and practiced daily, will help us grow up in our salvation. Worship is not about our momentary happy feelings but about our participation in God’s spiritual mode of life. And this sharing in God’s life creates in us the most enduring, deepest and highest joy.

Concluding Questions

1. I leave you with a series of questions for self-examination Peter the elder might ask us:

2. Am I a serious disciple of Jesus?

3. Do I hunger and thirst for God’s word?

4. Do I feel like a foreigner and an exile in the world? Or do I feel quite at home in a pagan world?

5. Is our church a holy and living temple dedicated to making the true character of God known in the world?

6. Do we live as a community in a radically different way from the social order of the world?

7. Do we really love each other deeply?

8. Am I offering spiritual sacrifices to God or mere words and signs?

9. Do I seek momentary feelings of wellbeing or lasting spiritual transformation.

Note: I preached this sermon at the University Church of Christ, which meets on the campus of Pepperdine University, today, May 24, 2015.

Is Your Church a “Teaching” or an “Experiencing” Church? (Part 2)

The most effective natural ways of stirring people’s emotions directly are stories, images and music. (We could also add other sensuous experiences, such as smells and movements of the body like dancing. Some religions even use drugs to induce the experience.) A story paints a mental picture that doesn’t need explaining. Hearing a good story affects the emotions directly, and different stories move us in different ways. Images can also move us directly and almost instantaneously. Images can excite humor, horror, sadness, wonder and other feelings. But music is the primary way “experience churches” do this today. Perhaps more than any other means used in churches music can bypass the mind and will and affect the emotions directly. I don’t know how it works, but we all know it does.

By music I mean a system of sounds of different qualities, frequencies, durations and order that can be represented by musical notation exclusive of words. Music without words is often called “absolute” music. Music can be joined to words to make a song or it can be played without words. When music and words are combined each affects the other. Words are cognitive, directed to the understanding, so in a song words can guide the emotions stirred by the music toward a particular end, good or ill, secular or religious.

However, if in the “performance” of the song the words are overpowered by the music, the words lose their cognitive and directive power and simply become another aspect of the music; that is, they convey no more conceptual content than la, la, la. On paper or spoken in a common voice, a well-phrased series of words directs the mind to think in a certain way about something, but in a song designed and performed primarily to create a certain feeling in the participants these words can no longer do this. When this happens, a song (music and words) functionally becomes absolute music, music without words.

There is something very appealing about absolute music. Stirring or tender music without words moves our emotions but leaves our minds free to attach those emotions to whatever object or activity we wish. But words exercise a directive force that we may resent or resist. A musical composition that evokes in me memories of my beloved father may remind you of your dog or someone else of a recent romantic moment. Absolute music makes fewer demands of its listeners and allows each member of a large audience to enjoy a private experience. The unity we feel with the audience—which is undeniable—is not created by believing or thinking or willing the same thing but by feeling in general and endures only as long as the performance endures. We enjoy absolute music’s power to get us in touch with our emotions “on demand” in a way that allows us freedom to channel those emotions in any direction we choose.

Here is my concern with experience-oriented churches: if we employ means—stories, images but especially music—to move people’s emotions directly, it is very tempting, even intuitive and natural, to allow the music to dominate the words. This can be done by making the music louder or more elaborate than the words. Or it can be done by limiting the range of ideas expressed in the words. If every song the church sings expresses the greatness of God simply by saying over and over again “God is great,” it won’t take very long for us to forget who and what God is and what it means to praise God.

Unless we continually explain who God and repeat the full story of God’s work in Christ we will begin to hear “la, la, la” instead of “praise God, praise God, praise God.” Hence “experience churches” may unintentionally neglect the church’s mission to direct its members’ emotions and actions to the right ends and their minds to full truth. Such churches run the risk of making emotional experiences ends in themselves, unrelated to the truth of faith or an authentic vision of the Christian life. Unless the church teaches the whole range of the faith even in its music (music and words), each person will be left to substitute their own content—their own version of God, Christ, Spirit, moral life—into the experience of religious emotion. Such an approach to church life may also undermine genuine community. Authentic Christian community is created and held together by the “one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God…” (Eph 4:4); and these principles of unity must be taught. The church cannot be held in unity by a common feeling of transcendence or awe or celebration alone. It also requires common belief, commitment and practice.

Is your church a “teaching” or an “experiencing” church? Think about it. I hope your church will resist the current trend toward making experience the prime goal of its assemblies. Instead, I hope it will renew its teaching mission and trust the power of the Word and the working of the Holy Spirit to move people to faith, love, hope and good works…and, yes, to vibrant experience of the power and presence of the Father through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit.

Is Your Church a “Teaching” or an “Experiencing” Church? (Part 1)

Does the Christian church gather to be taught and reminded of its faith or to experience the presence and power of God? Perhaps most Christians would reject the dichotomy posed in this question. And I agree that we don’t have to choose one or the other. Most churches combine the two in some way. Nevertheless, I think it worthwhile to consider the alternatives just to clarify the concepts. Out of this exercise may arise deeper insight into the relationship between the two goals and the best means of keeping them in proper balance.

I might as well place my cards on the table. I admit that there are churches that are so focused on teaching (or doctrine) that they are cold, rigid, intolerant of deviation and exclusive of emotions other than jealousy for doctrinal conformity and righteous indignation against error and sin. I know these churches exist. But I don’t see the majority of contemporary believers rushing to adopt this extreme model. I see the dominant movement in the opposite direction, away from the “teaching church” to the “experiencing church” model. What concerns me is that I don’t see this movement headed toward a proper balance between the two but to a near exclusive focus on experience.

Here is my view of the appropriate relationship between teaching and experience: In working toward a balance between these two factors, the church should give priority to teaching and reminding itself of its faith; that is, its main goal should be to speak, live and enact the Word of faith. It should also expect the Word and the Holy Spirit to work together to drive the message home to the heart so that hearers of the message believe, feel and act consistently with the truth of faith. Christianly understood, religious experience should arise from hearing the Word and the work of the Spirit. But this means that Christian religious experience, as vital and necessary as it is, is secondary to teaching and the accompanying action of the Spirit.

Here is what I see happening among churches today: when experience becomes the primary goal of a church it becomes possible to think of religious experience as relatively independent of the knowledge of faith and the work of the Holy Spirit. The gathering of the church will be designed to evoke experience, and the means of evoking experience will include elements other than the truth of faith and the working of Spirit. Simply put, “experience churches” choose means that can provoke the desired feelings directly, completely bypassing, or spending very little time addressing, the mind and will. In effect, this model of church replaces the mysterious and free working of the Spirit and the inherent power of the Word with natural methods of moving the emotions. Continued in Part 2.

Note: I posted part 2 of this essay simultaneously with part 1. It’s ready to read.