January 26, 2021

Another Look: Is This a Church?


An excerpt from a post by Chaplain Mike, February 2011

My take on what has happened over the course of the last forty years is as follows. In evangelicalism in particular, we have raised a whole generation of Christians who were discipled not so much by traditional local churches as by parachurch ministries and churches that have become dominated by the parachurch ethos. That ethos is not “Church” but “Mission.” And so what we see today is the fruit of that.

We have many communities of faith that would be better described as “missions” rather than “churches.”

Campus Crusade for Christ, Navigators, InterVarsity, Youth for Christ, and a thousand other parachurch ministries have been the true engines of growth in evangelicalism over the course of my Christian life. Their emphasis on “evangelism and discipleship” influenced those who developed the church growth movement, the Willow Creek movement, the church-planting “community church” type movements, and the more contemporary examples we see today. Traditional Protestantism defined the church as a community where the Word of God was truly preached and the sacraments truly administered. Today, “church” is defined by many as a community that practices evangelism and discipleship.

I don’t totally disagree, and the emphasis on mission in today’s congregations is likely a reaction to a lack of that emphasis in more traditional congregations.

However, this leads to some problems. What, for example, would Paul say about a “church” that consists wholly of those age 25 and under? Or any “church” that exists primarily to reach a particular demographic? Or a “church” that, for the purpose of outreach, shapes its preaching and “worship” (i.e. music) after a particular culture rather than shaping it around the Gospel? (That is not the same as saying our worship and religious styles will reflect our cultural context.)

I think, frankly, that the Apostle would have problems with this approach. Certainly, in a broad sense, Paul saw himself as an “apostle to the Gentiles,” while others were “apostles to the Jews.” And he did say, in 1Corinthians 9, that he was willing to adapt his approach to reach as many as possible. That was his mission in the world.

However, that was not what he said “church” is about. When Paul gathered people from the various backgrounds he had reached into the church, he brought them together, and insisted that the ethos of the church was learning to accommodate to one another, accept one another, and become a cross-cultural community in Christ. Almost every epistle he wrote is designed in part to reinforce this ecclesiological perspective.

For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:27-28)

[you] have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him — a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all. (Col 3:10-11)

Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus, so that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God. (Rom 14:5-7)

But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. AND HE CAME AND PREACHED PEACE TO YOU WHO WERE FAR AWAY, AND PEACE TO THOSE WHO WERE NEAR; for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit. (Eph 3:13-22)

diversity IIThis is an entirely different vision of the church than we see in many congregations, whether traditional or “cutting-edge.” There is a breadth to the church as well as a height, a horizontal element as well as the vertical dimension. It is not just about bringing people into relationship with God through Jesus and providing a place where they may feel “comfortable” because we have accommodated to their cultural expectations. It is about bringing people into a community that requires that we learn how to relate to all different kinds of people and teaches us to love one another.

It is entirely reasonable to assume that the reason people think we need so many “innovative” mission-oriented “churches” today is because the traditional churches failed to be “the church” in this regard. We isolated ourselves from the world rather than go out in mission with Paul’s gracious, accommodating spirit.

  • We did not welcome the outsider.
  • We did not show concern for the ones who are unlike us.
  • We did not love our neighbors when we disapproved of their clothing, the music they liked, or the culture, ethnicity, or socio-economic group they represented.
  • We ignored and even demonized our straying youth.
  • We lost our sense of mission, at least when it came to our near neighbors.
  • We did not go out into the world, as Paul did, willing to adapt our lifestyles and approaches to reach people from various cultures, befriending sinners and sharing God’s love with them in ways they could grasp.
  • We separated from them instead. We tried to create islands of godliness in a sea of sinful culture. And then we tried to attract outsiders to come in to behold something “different.”

Yes, in many ways the traditional churches failed to be the church, participating in God’s mission in the world. But the ultimate answer is not to create “missions” to particular groups of those who have been left out and then call these missions “churches.” We must distinguish between “church” and “mission.” What happens when we “scatter” into the world differs from what we do when we “gather” together as God’s family.

The “mission” that calls itself a “church” may be a necessary transitional step because of where we’ve been, but ultimately God’s people need to grow up and become adults and listen to what the New Testament says.

  • We are called to create genuine churches of “Jew and Gentile, slave and free, etc.” united in Christ alone.
  • A church is not only a place where the Word is truly proclaimed and the sacraments faithfully served. It is also a place, according to the consistent and pervasive teaching of the NT, that intentionally strives for inclusion and diversity as a testimony to God’s love for the whole world.
  • A true church is a place where everyone is welcome, and where one of the chief matters of spiritual formation is learning to love those who are different from me.

God is creating a community — a cross-cultural community — that is, a people which consists of folks who may be very different from one another, but who share a “common unity” in Jesus Christ. That is the NT vision of church. Our unity does not consist in the fact that we all have tattoos or like grunge music or meet in a pub. Nor does it consist in the fact that we are mostly conservative middle-class suburbanites who share a common family-oriented lifestyle. Nor does it consist in our whiteness or blackness or the specific ethnic culture in which we live. Nor is it about organs, hymns, robes, and pews, or praise bands, screens, and “casual” worship.

Our only true oneness is in Christ. We accommodate to “where people are” to reach them in the world for Christ, making them disciples. The place we accommodate is in our daily life, relationships, and interactions. But then, when we “baptize people and teach them to observe all that Christ commanded us,” we call them into the practice of cross-cultural love within the new family God is creating. What the world needs to see is faith communities made up of people vastly different from one another who have laid hold of that.

That’s church.


  1. I think I am genuinely confused. How does this mesh with the March 10 post of “I am a Christian and I practice my faith in the XX tradition”? I get the difference between mission and church, but this sounds like a call to all-inclusiveness above all else.

    • My takeaway is that the Gospel is all inclusive, and it is the Word that in Christ we are rescued from sin, death and the power of the devil that is to be shared with everyone; that the greatest commandment to love as we are loved is all inclusive. The distinctives of how we live that out are at best secondary to the commission, and it is the Gospel that we are to be faithful to rather than the buildings, dogmas and organizations we build to assist us in that living. That’s not to say that these worldly things are unnecessary or flawed beyond use. But whether I am a Lutheran, Prebyterian, Orhodox or anabaptist in practice, I am a follower of the living Lord first. Unity in Christ does not necessarily demand conformity of practice in all things. At least that is where I think this post is going.

  2. Matt Purdum says

    Well… I certainly agree with the sentiments, but instead of “that’s church,” I think rather “that’s what church ought to be.” Every church I’ve been in — and that’s dozens — ends up being tribal. Calvary Chapel pastors excel at getting insinuating little digs in against the Catholics. Baptists think Presbyterians are heretics for baptizing infants. Presbyterians reject Pentecostals as enthusiastic. And everybody knows how those (Choose one: black, women, megachurch, liberal, or right-wing) preachers are…..

    So I’ve never seen much of this cross-cultural love we’re supposed to have. Even my Emergent friends are tribal and proud of their label. I know that Christ is still building His Church, and I have a lot of hope for the future as I talk to young people, but at the moment, we look like a lot of loud and pompous little warring tribes.

  3. If worshiping together does not bring us shoulder to shoulder with people very different from ourselves, then something is wrong. And something is definitely wrong, because that lack of diversity is so prevalent in mainstream and evangelical churches alike.

    • Robert,

      I agree with you completely. But part of the issue may be geographic.

      I reconciled to Catholicism when in Southern California, and all shades of people are very common. When I moved to the Midwest, I was shocked by the monotone coloration of my fellow Catholics, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, because we were the nearest parish to an Air Force base. Moved again, and had the same problems.

      I’m sure that some of my fellow worshippers would tell me in no uncertain terms that Puerto Rican and Italian are as different as night and day, but this outsider just sees not that much difference.

      • The issue is definitely geographic where I live, although to be honest, an influx of other might be a little disconcerting at first. Like most change, even if it’s good.

        • “The other” doesn’t need to be someone of different ethnicity or culture. Do we welcome those who are poorer than we? Welfare families? Families from the local “slums” or trailer parks? Those with emotional problems? Developmental disabilities? etc.

    • Christiane says

      Chaplain Mike,
      I am Roman Catholic. My grandmother was Southern Baptist, and in trying to learn about her faith tradition, I have gone to several blogs to ask questions and try to understand their thinking, notably SBCvoices of late.

      My heart breaks for the way that they preach ‘exclusivity’. It seems very deep in their psyche to feel ‘exclusive’ from the ‘others’, so much so, that this mode of feeling has been internalized into their own denomination between certain factions, notably ‘traditionalists’ (their term) and ‘Calvinists’. The enmity is at times extreme. I suppose we can chalk ‘exclusivity’ up to a lot of ‘human nature’, but it is difficult to see a full-blown embracing of such a creed in a denomination that has so much to offer the world in the way of missions to present Christ to the world.

      what kinds of ‘exclusivity’ make sense in the Body of Christ and
      what kinds of ‘exclusivity’ are the results of pride, self-righteousness, judgmentalism, and the failure of a fallen human nature to understand the dignity of the ‘other’?

      I do not remember my Grandmother as being someone who was ‘exclusive’ in the faith, but I was very young when she lived and I spent time with her. She was to me a shining Christian person, very positive, very caring.
      Did something ‘happen’ in the last forty years to change her denomination profoundly? Or was she an aberration within a denomination that had always been ‘exclusive’ in the way it seems to be now?

      • Christiane, When I attend Catholic mass I am not allowed to take communion. When you come visit my Baptist church you are welcome to partake as a believer. (not all Baptists do this but all Catholic churches i know of, exclude)

        So not sure what you mean by inclusive/exclusive.

    • You want diversity? Come visit us. We got diversity coming out our ears. On any given Sunday, our small parish has up to 20 ethnicities represented, and don’t get me started on political views or religious background. And the irony of it all is that our pastor can’t stay politically correct in his sermon for 5 minutes to save his life. Believe it or not, Lutherans are almost a minority in our congregation!

  4. Great post, through and through. Will it ever happen? It would take a miralcle . . . but then again, I believe that Jesus rose from the dead.

  5. Back in college, we were required to go to church regularly, though our Campus Life office rarely enforced the rule, and as a result a lot of us ignored it. (Myself included, one semester.)

    The usual argument was, “We go to church. We have daily chapel services.” (Those were likewise mandatory, and enforced.) “That counts as church.” ‘Cause we had worship, we had a sermon, and from time to time we even had sacraments.

    My objection: “Okay, say you go into town, meet someone, and lead them to Jesus. Can you invite them to your ‘church’? Can you get them discipled in your ‘church’? Does our dean of students” (who, at the time, doubled up as campus pastor) “have time to pastor them? For that matter, are you getting all the resources out of chapel that you would at a church?”

    Rarely did my objections get answered, ’cause nobody wanted to hear it. They were perfectly happy with their reasoning, ’cause it was the most convenient path for them to take. And much as I like this post, sad to say a lot of Christians will see it the same way: If they’re perfectly happy with the way their parachurch ministries fulfill their expectations of “church,” they’re not gonna give a rip about how their ministries are deficient.

  6. Everyone is welcome in our church. Everyone. All colors. All sexualities. All genders. All political ideologies. All religions. We even have a Russian atheist who pops in once in a while.

    But we don’t affirm sin. And we don’t affirm other gods.

    I do believe there are a lot of churches like us.

  7. To my mind part of the trouble here comes from using the word “church” which took a different route when home gatherings got big enough to buy their own building. It is almost impossible to escape the baggage that has accrued to the word.

    Birds of a feather have always flocked together but that doesn’t stop my Red-winged Blackbird who hangs out with the Starlings and occasional Grackle in my back yard. There’s a big difference between making someone who is obviously different comfortable if they drop in, and trying to recruit different people for the purpose of being “diverse” like including token blacks and asians in a white dominated commercial.

    I would see the solution as gathering as many small gatherings as wanted into a larger ecumenical gathering once a month or so. Probably a sports arena would work better than anything else. A dedicated huge building staying empty 29 days would be silly and expensive. Renting a sports arena would be expensive enough. Paul rented lecture halls.

  8. If I could back up a little, I think there may another reason why para-church groups have had so much influence in the last century in America. I think a lot of it has to with the fact that it’s becoming more and more rare for people to stay in the same geographic area their entire life. It used to be that when you went to a local church, the same families would be there for generations. That does still happen, and, honestly, I think that’s one reason why traditional churches can have problems attracting new members. Being a visitor in a church like this can feel a bit like meeting your girlfriend’s family for the first time.

    It’s interesting that all the para-church groups specifically mentioned in the article are college ministries (Young Life isn’t primarily a campus ministry, though). College students are perhaps the most transient population in the country. In campus ministry, you’re literally dealing with a whole new group of students every four or five years, so stability is something that’s very hard to establish in that type of ministry. Ideally, it would be great if college students could be involved in a local established church. This does happen sometimes, but I find it’s not all that common.

    I guess all I’m saying is that I think there are real demographic issues at play in this issue that the church needs to address in some way. I do believe that like politics, all spirituality is local, but I think how that plays out is going to be different in coming years.

  9. Marcus Johnson says

    I have been part of church communities that were very diverse in ethnicity, political affiliations, socioeconomic status, national origin, artistic tastes, and educational background, but were not very inclusive. I know there were folks in some congregations who would vote for Democratic candidates, yet cringe in silence as a preacher/pastor would denounce Democrats, or liberals, from the pulpit. Other folks liked rap music, or classical music, but would hear worship leaders deride their aesthetic tastes as “too boring” or “too secular.”

    Sure, we need to encourage diversity, but perhaps we need to move away from thinking that “diversity” and “inclusion” are interchangeable.

  10. Chaplin Mike, you said,
    “However, this leads to some problems. What, for example, would Paul say about a “church” that consists wholly of those age 25 and under? Or any “church” that exists primarily to reach a particular demographic?”

    Most American churches today are already doing all that.

    I am in my early 40s and never married. I never had children. I went to church a lot as a kid, then hardly at all in my 20s, and did not resume until my mid 30s. (Then I stopped going by my late 30s.)

    When I hit my mid 30s and walked into a new church, I felt the difference. I immediately felt out of place and could not wait to leave, but I forced myself to attend one such church fairly regular for about two years, and I felt out of place the whole time.

    And nobody there really made any effort to get to know me. I was ignored when I showed up for church picnic- type events, etc. I was still painfully shy at that point and could not approach other people and introduce myself. I kept waiting for other people there to make the first move, but they never did.

    At that church I went to, and subsequent ones I attended, and based on reading other (older and single) people’s experiences online attest, most churches are heavily geared towards the 1950s nuclear family unit of married mom and dad, who have one or more children.

    If you do not fit into that paradigm, as I do not, the church has no place for you. It will not feel welcoming.

    If you read books about why so many women are leaving churches, it’s because the “gender complementarianism” views at many of them do not permit them to use their gifts, so they gravitate towards para-church groups where they can use their gifts, talents.

    But anyway, most American churches are utterly obsessed with marriage, parenting, and in attracting teens and 20-somethings. If you are over 30 years old and have never married or had a kid, you are “persona non grata” at most Baptist or conservative churches (unless they want to put you to work moving folding chairs, baby sitting the married people’s kids, or cleaning up the church kitchen, but you as a person in your own right are not wanted or noticed).

  11. Hmmm…I dunno. My church is riding the missional wave, but while it all sounds good, and they are promoting love and Gospel where you live, work, and play…there’s still quite a mess to be ironed out. First of all, the pastor has basically said that it’s not his job to shepherd the flock. He says his job is to equip the flock to shepherd one another. Personally, I think it’s both. My vote is that if you’re a preacher and teacher of the Gospel by vocation then you should be less CEO and more shepherd. I should know you, and you should be going out of your way to know me. If having 2,000 people behind your shepherd’s crook is more than you can get to know…then change your job or change your title.

    I am also just about ready to hurl if I meet up with another intentionally (contrived???) ironic, edgy pastor who complains about and/or pokes fun at people who don’t understand theology and doctrine beyond the basics. I was copied on an email from one pastor who had a freakin’ COW because a disabled guy from church had him on an email distribution list that often included messages with some hinky doctrine. Instead of talking to the guy on the side and saying, “Hey man. I read your email. Can we sit down so I can share some things about it with you?” the pastor replied to the group yelling and carrying on about being on the list, not wanting the messages, and that people should go and get a certain book and read it…in lieu, apparently, of being personally discipled by someone with the title “teaching pastor.” Nice. Yet pastor dude tells me their church is missional. (Says me to myself, “Really???”)

    Then there is the issue of the underground misogyny, stereotyping, etc. My local missional church is talking about doing life together, bringing the Gospel with us everywhere, welcoming people, loving people, etc, etc, etc…but if someone is “messy” and maybe going through a divorce, or having a problem with substance abuse, or having a problem with another church me member…suddenly things are all “traditional” again…only it all goes down in secret so as not to scare off the people whose lives are neat and tidy at the moment. Apparently this is the cure for the sins of the traditional church that publicly humiliated its sinners. Wouldn’t you guess it? Divorced men are treated with more compassion and respect than divorced women. Shock and surprise. Not! Right under the nose of our lovely welcoming, love everybody missional church. Gimme a break.

    Don’t get me started on the hired from out of town musicians for the big holidays when we want to compete with the other churches around town. Yes. That’s fine stewardship of my tithe in the name of being missional. #ItMakesMeThrowUpInMyMouthALittle. Yes, and please also spend my title on smoke machines, lighting, and set design. I wouldn’t want a stranger to walk into my church and not feel as though she got tickets to a broadway show.

    P.S. – Dear missional church…the goal ought not to be to see how many of your family members can be put on staff and receive a paycheck. #BadMission!

  12. I attended college a long time ago, back when pink was a color and not a pop singer or a Victoria’s Secret clothing line. I was part of a college ministry whose supporting church was actively engaged in it. (Granted, this ministry was the minority by far because my campus was dominated by Campus Crusade and all the other parachurches. And as a matter of fact, this ministry is now part of InterVarsity.) This ministry was a very diverse and inclusive environment where students of all ages and even outsiders from the community were welcomed. Some of the most pivotal relationships from that season of life, relationships which still remain important even to this day, were with older students whom I met through this ministry. In a traditional college ministry which is limited to those 25 or under, such relationships would never have been possible and my life would have been that much poorer.

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