Coffee, Theology, and Jesus

working out our messy faith over coffee

Expanding Our View Of What Church Is.

Growing up in the body of Christ was quite an experience for me.  I was at the church building pretty much whenever the doors were open.  Potluck dinners, Sunday morning services, special events, Sunday evening service, Wednesday night.  Yet the more and more I study the Scriptures, and the more intimate I become with Jesus, the more I’m realizing that I didn’t really grow up in an active body of local Christ followers.  I grew up in a set of religious things that I was told are completely Biblical.  It was ingrained in to me as a child that to miss “church” on Sunday morning is wrong and Christians who don’t attend the service regularly aren’t really committed Christians.  I was taught that the church is a place we go to and do the same thing every Sunday morning.  I was taught that dressing up in a suit and tie is what good Christian boys wear.  I was taught that church is once a week on a Sunday morning where I sit, stand, sit, stand, then listen to someone speak.  Yes, this is what church was for me.  This is what I was taught church was.  i heard regularly that people don’t wear certain clothes, or say certain things in the “house of God”.  This was my experience of church growing up.

Let me stop here and mention something.  This is not me ranting and blaming my parents for some terrible upbringing.  I was extremely fortunate to have parents who were committed Christians not only on Sunday mornings but throughout their entire life.  I can say with confidence that my parents hearts were pure in the way they raised me as a whole and without them I would not have the solid foundation I have today.  So don’t misunderstand, (especially if my mother is reading this), this is not an attack of any kind on the wonderful parents I was blessed to have.

Back to my point(s)

I grew up with many people who were well intentioned on their idea of church.  But let me be honest, I’m having a very hard time finding many things that I grew up with in the Bible. Because this is a blog and my space is limited I’m only going to hit on two things that I see are clearly no where in Scripture.  Yet, we for some reason, we automatically assume that these two things are actually what the church is.  Also let me mention here that just because something isn’t in the Bible doesn’t mean that it is inherently wrong, however I do not think it is wise to simply swallow tradition for tradition’s sake.  We must be willing to look at what exactly this thing called church is, and what it is not.  The goal here is to give us a more accurate picture of what the church actually is, contrary to what many of us have been told it is.

1. The Building

If there is one major thing that we assume church is, it’s the building.  This is ironic because if there is one thing that is completely clear in Scripture regarding the Church, it is that the Church is a body of Christ followers NOT a building.  Yet I hear the question “where do you go to Church” all the time.  I hear pastors say things like “this is the house of God” (referring to the building) all the time.  Yet in Scripture we are taught that our bodies are TEMPLES of God, that God dwells inside of us.  This at the time was a major shift in thinking because before Christ came, the spirit of God dwelled in physical temples.  In Exodus we see that God’s presence dwelt in the Holy of Holies.  When Christ came, He destroyed the idea of God’s spirit dwelling in a physical structure such as a temple.  Instead now we are taught that God’s presence dwell’s in us because of the Holy Spirit.  The building has nothing, absolutely NOTHING to do with church.  Yet, in our culture it is ingrained in to our heads that “church” is a place we go, not something we are.  Out of the 114 times the word Church is used in the New Testament it is never onc used as referring to a specific location or a building or any kind of structure.  It is ALWAYS in reference to followers of Jesus.  Think of it like this.  1 Christ follower we call a Christian. A group of Christ followers together doing anything is the Church.  It’s not a building, it’s not a location, and as we are about to see, it is not a specific meeting time.

2.  The Sunday Morning Service

Let me say something right off the bat.  I’m not attacking any particular local church body. I’m not saying that if you are part of a local church body that meets once a week in a traditional format that you are in sin or wrong or anything of the sort.  I am simply attempting to point out that we are not bound to these traditions that we grew up in.  Let me explain.

The format of most Protestant churches is nothing new.  It might be repackaged, it might look flashier in some churches, it might look more conservative in others.  But every Sunday morning most church bodies come together on a Sunday morning and do something like the following

1. Greeting

2. A musical worship time

3. Announcements and welcome

4. A sermon

5. Offertory

6. A blessing or prayer to close.

Most church bodies mix and match those key elements in to their Sunday morning service.  Usually about 5-10 people are involved while the rest of the congregation watches the procedure.  Yes it’s true that the congregation is invited to partake in the musical worship and to greet each other for a few minutes, but that majority of the time the congregation is silent.

The ironic thing here as well is that if we search the New Testament we see no such format.  Nowhere do we see Paul say “ok local church, here is how your Sunday morning meeting must go, make sure you have a lot of music, make sure someone preaches, and make sure that in your format most people spectate the whole thing, never change your service up, it must be static”.  You just don’t see that in Scripture.

Now one again let me clarify, I’m not saying that church bodies who stick to a static format are wrong, or that God doesn’t work.  I’m simply asking the question what would happen if we took the Sunday morning meeting away?  Or what if we changed it?  I’m not even saying that we have to.  But it seems like (to me at least) that many church bodies treat the Sunday morning format as untouchable, unchanging, and if we question any elements of what we do on Sunday morning we are somehow crazy.  Yet I make the argument that our Sunday morning meetings do not encourage every follower of Jesus to be active in their local bodies.  In fact most people who attend a Church service are completely in spectator mode with their faith.  They have been taught that a good Christian attends Sunday morning and that’s it.  While more and more Church leaders are speaking against this mindset and are encouraging every believer to own their faith and to actually follow the teachings of Jesus instead of just being a spectator of the Sunday morning.  It seems like they teach one thing in word and another thing in actions because no matter how you slice it, the Sunday morning service does not encourage every Christian to be involved.  It instead allows many Christians to show up to something, sit, stand, sit, stand then go home all while thinking that they are a good Christian because they went through some religious motions.
What’s my bottom line?  It’s simple really.  We must not be afraid to question the traditional elements of our faith respectfully.  Sunday school, youth group, small groups, these things are nowhere in Scripture and yet we do them.  And that’s not a bad thing! The bad thing is when we do them for the sake of doing them.  The bad thing is when we believe that the church service can’t be changed, that it must maintain the core elements of the tradition we grew up in because that”s just the way it’s always been done.

I might sound like a broken record to some of you. That’s fine.  But to me, this is of the utmost importance.  I think we all can agree that we want to see the Church explode with passionate, authentic relationship with Jesus, lead by the Holy Spirit, all participating in the Kingdom of God.  Not spectators who are really big fans of Jesus and do nothing about it.  The Gospel is radical, it wrecks people, it brings us to our knees then raises us up to be co-heirs with Jesus.  It’s time to start waking the Church up to the this reality, that we are not spectators, we are not congregations, we are sons and daughters of the living God.


Also here is a link referring to the number of Christians that are spectators more than participants in the Church body.


  1. Paul Gutacker

    June 26, 2012 at 8:18 pm

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, bro. I appreciate the main thrust of what you’re driving at, especially the call for an understanding of church as the body of Christ and for what it means to be the church extending beyond Sunday morning. That said, I struggle with the idea that because we don’t see a Sunday morning service given in scripture we should feel free to revise it, and in fact ought to disparage it since it does “not encourage every follower of Jesus to be active in their local bodies.” I have three thoughts:

    One, to what extent is a Sunday morning service lacking in the NT simply because the new church was worshipping as Jews in the synagogues?

    Two, how much weight ought we to give to the fact that the service format you describe is seen as early as one generation after the apostles (early 2nd c.) and has existed in a similar format ever since? In other words, do we really think that almost 2,000 years of the people of God were missing the point and we finally have it right?

    And three, how important are liturgies and rituals to the formation of identity (I’m thinking along Jamie Smith, Desiring the Kingdom lines here)? In other words, I think that communal habits, such as songs, prayer, the ministry of the word, the Eucharist, etc., are incredibly formative in shaping corporate and individual identity and mission. This isn’t to say that those things are then sacrosanct and untouchable, but that a) weekly ritual *does* matter and *should* happen, and b) change should be very slow and careful and give due respect to the tradition before it. In other words, rituals matter. Habits matter. Structure matters. It provides meaning, solidity, continuity.

    Von Balthasar writes of scripture that it is we who are used up, tired, and dry, and scripture that is fresh. Especially when it seems like the opposite. I wonder if something might be said for the liturgy of Sunday morning church. It is we who are used up, and the ancient practices that are fresh.

  2. Paul, you bring up great points and I’ve been wrestling with many of these things. The point of my post was not to say “we are all wrong and it’s time to throw everything out”. I was trying to communicate the point that we have a certain freedom to be ok with no doing many of the things we routinely do in what we call Church. This doesn’t mean that every local body should stop their Sunday morning service, it simply means that people, the church, is free to worship Jesus in many different ways then just the way that has been traditional.

    Let me respond to your paragraphs

    1. In regards to your the Jews worshipping in the synagogue. This is an excellent point, one that I didn’t think of. I think it just goes back to the idea that it’s not wrong at all to worship in these places. But when we assume that’s the ONLY place we can go and worship, well then we have a problem.

    2. I think we ought to give the service format a good amount of weight. There is no doubt it has been a very long practice. But what I’m saying here is that we should not fear the ability to reexamine the service format. Doing a traditional thing for traditions sake, without knowledge of where we got it from, why we do it, and why we won’t change it, I believe is a very dangerous path to go down but instead of building of people who are living their faith, understanding it, and ultimately growing more intimate with Jesus, you have a brainwashed (I know this is a strong word) congregation who just follows along because “that’s the way it’s always been”. I think that is a terrible reason to do something.

    3. I agree with a lot of what you say regarding liturgy and the like. But once again I will say that at this point, many, many people just recite the liturgy and other habits out of duty, or out of routine. Liturgy, the routine, all have come from a desire to know God more, but if we aren’t constantly reexamining, and checking heart motives for why we do these things, they can so quickly turn in to a religious thing that is set in stone that we can’t change because that’s just the way it’s always been done.

    I agree that you can’t go in like a bull in a China shop, and I’m not suggesting anyone does. But what am I trying at a minimum is to get people to at least think about these things. Even if they completely disagree with me, that is completely fine, as long as they are strengthened in their knowledge of knowing why they do what they do and that it’s out of a heart of wanting to know Jesus, not religious obligation.

  3. Paul Gutacker

    June 27, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    Yeah, I hear you. I know you don’t want to throw everything out.

    I think part of the issue here is a terminological one: in some of your frustration you are conflating “church” with “liturgy”. That’s understandable, because as you rightly point out, we often call the Sunday morning service “going to church.” And, as again you point out, it’s more correct to refer to the Body of Christ as the church than to use that term to describe what happens on Sunday morning. To this point I absolutely agree. But to me it seems counterproductive to then argue that the forms of liturgy, and the way in which they stay (for the most part) the same, keep people from a view of the Body that impacts their whole week and all of their relationships. (When you ask questions like “I’m simply asking the question what would happen if we took the Sunday morning meeting away? Or what if we changed it?” you’re asking a question of the liturgy, not of the definition of what “church” is.) But I think that good liturgy does in fact the opposite. It reinforces identity, mission, community, fellowship. I think you’d agree with me here. But if you do agree with me, I think your question shouldn’t be a) “What if we got rid of it?” but b) “How can the liturgy cultivate the lives of people beyond the service?”–which in fact, is the exact question any thoughtful pastor or church is in fact always wanting to ask. Maybe the nuance between those two questions is slight, but I think it moves from question a) being a radical, and perhaps overly deconstructive, undermining of tradition to b) a still quite powerful question that gets to issues of values, mission, formation, etc.

    I’m convinced that this difference is vital. I’ll try to expand why very briefly…You say we shouldn’t fear change, and that doing a traditional thing for traditions sake is dangerous, and “that’s the way it’s always been” is a terrible reason to do something. I agree to an extent. Anytime you have structure of any kind you can foster complacency and thoughtlessness. However, I think it’s a tragic development of modernism that assumes that doing something for traditions sake is a bad thing. What if tradition is better than change? What if something that’s been honed literally for millennia is more reliable than what one generation values? What if the reason something has been that way for so long is that it’s good, and perhaps good in a way that doesn’t appear so at first or even second glance? I’m increasingly convinced that our culture idolizes that which is new, that which is “authentic” (code for that which a person does simply because they as an individual wants to), that which is progressive (in the sense that we finally figured it out), and that which is more obviously efficient. (Please note that I’m not saying you value these things, but that our society as a whole does) Maybe the most radically counter-cultural thing we can do, then, is to honor tradition! Maybe we can show radical humility and say that since we don’t know best, so for now, we should do it “the way it’s always been done.” And most importantly of all, maybe the way we can love our brothers in sisters in Christ who have been dead for years (after all, we are called to love the whole Church, and they are part of it!) is to study and learn from their teaching and practices with a charitable ear.

    Again, I agree with you that we want to be thoughtful, intentional, etc. We absolutely have to ask questions of our communal worship. But I feel strongly that the difference between question a) and question b) is the difference between an overly enculturated penchant for questioning anything that appeals to tradition and a helpful, honest, and loving concern.

    [Side note: Don’t have time right now to flesh this out, but I would argue that liturgy being a “religious thing” is both true and also actually good. Christianity is a religion. We were created to be religious. We ought to be religious. And further, doing something out of a sense of duty might actually be good. I have a duty to love my brothers and sisters whether I want to or now. I have a duty to be faithful to my wife. I have a duty to care for the orphan and widow. Somethings those things are hard and I don’t want to do them and the “authentic” thing for me to do would be to not do them. But if I do them out of duty, because I recognize God’s authority over my life as my Creator and Redeemer, then according to James I am religious and I please God.]

  4. I’ll respond to the parts that I tend to disagree with, to minimize the size of my post.

    Here is my absolute bottom line. The tradition (which again is not necessarily wrong), is doing more harm than good. What do I mean? Take a look around at the church here in the states (I say states because I’m not familiar with other cultures). The majority of people still assume that church is a once a week service. Many, many Christians do not even understand the most basic tenants of their own faith. I’m not going to post links to the research, but by and large most of the research done points out that most church goers are in inactive spectators instead of active participants in the body of Christ. I’m not just referring to the meeting that happens on Sunday morning as far as participating is concerned. Most Christians (again not ALL) are not active in their faith. There is no denying this.

    Now, is the tradition solely to blame? Of course not, but that in my opinion is one of the key ingredients to this situation we find ourselves in. I’m not saying toss it out, I’m saying to reexamine these things that we do before we just blindly swallow them.

    Also might I add that many things we do (mainly the sermon style, alter call, and sinners prayer) are all relatively new idea that have spawned out of the 19th and 20th centuries. These things have been spawned to create an emotional pull for the person to feel the need to pray the prayer to receive Jesus. This (in my opinion) is extremely dangerous and is one of the things that I absolutely think we should do away with.

    Finally, I agree with you about your post-modern comments. I most definitely do not believe that I have it all figured out, and In a very real sense I don’t want to move forward in my thinking, I want to move backwards to the Bible. So I completely agree with you that to do away with traditions because “we finally have it figured out” and “this is the new way to do church” are terrible reasons.

  5. Last reply (probably?):

    First, yes. Some things we do are new. Sermon style…hmmm. Maybe. Sermons used to be way longer (half a day, sometimes), so perhaps we should expand our 20 minute ones. Alter call, sinners prayer, yes, they are recent…I haven’t been in a service where either was done in many many years. But yes, I agree, problematic in some ways.

    I dislike the phrase “The tradition” there…too vague, means too many things. I assume you mean Sunday morning liturgy, broadly defined as you did in the post? And if that’s the case I think it’s very difficult to prove that it’s one of the key ingredients to Christians disengaging–if for no other reason then that the argument begs the question, “Well if it’s the liturgies fault, why did it work so well up until now?” In other words, if the Sunday AM service is a significant part of the problem, why wasn’t it earlier?

    Further, how do you explain churches that have greater lay participation, but still have a normal looking church service? What are other factors that are more strongly correlated? For instance, what if evangelical churches actually have greater participation from their members than mainline denom churches do?

    Going even deeper into the argument, what do we mean by participation? How do we measure it? Also, how do you measure the good that liturgy does (as in more harm than good)? If we are going to associate the major flaws in the church today with liturgy, should we not also credit it with its successes, which are many (i.e. the fairly untold story of how Christianity is thriving worldwide perhaps more than ever before in its history)?

    Now I totally agree that there are problems. Particularly, as you say, when it comes to worldview (the prevalent one is “moralistic therapeutic deism” so says Christian Smith), understanding of orthodox faith, vibrant Christian life outside of Sunday morning. But I remain totally unconvinced that these are a) problems that are worse today, b) because of something, the liturgy, that has always been part of the church. It just doesn’t add up.

  6. Oh, P.S., I’m not trying to be an ass and expect you to answer all of those questions…I’m just saying those are questions that come to mind upon reading your argument that make me wonder if it’s just not quite that simple. I’m trying to argue for complexity; and if it is complex, then patience and nuance and appreciate for tradition are all the more called for. I know we’re in agreement here. Just wanted to clarify why all the question marks.

  7. All good points, all I will say is that for sake of space I’ve been using broader words here (such as “The tradition”), I do realize that I have to be much more specific .

    Also you say the A word (@$$) therefore, we can’t be friends because all of my friends don’t say such offensive words. 😛

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