Gut Check #2


This one's not a convicting question, but I believe it's one that bothers many Christians nonetheless. It used to be the question I asked in the purpose statement for Cerulean Sanctum. Now I open it up for you all:

Do you ever sit in church on Sunday and wonder,

Is this the best it will ever be?  


Empty Church

Some people would say that it's wrong to think such a thing, but I surmise a lot of people have a nagging sensation that they're missing something in their walk with Christ. They look around and wonder if anyone else feels the same way, and when they stop wondering whether other people are struggling like they are, they chalk it up to their own deficiencies.

This side of heaven, it won't be the best it will ever be. However, I believe it can be more than it is. What I haven't exactly come to understand is whether that question is a good or a bad signal. Is it wrong to feel like something's missing and to desire that something, or is it a sign of spiritual immaturity—or even a complete lack of faith?

Whatever the answer is, I wonder how many people get back in their cars after their church meeting and grapple with the fact that the last hour or so they spent in the company of other believers was lacking in a way they can't put their finger on. 

Or is it selfish to even entertain that thought?

Other posts in this series:

32 thoughts on “Gut Check #2

  1. Dan,
    To be dis-satified due to selfishness is one thing but to be dis-satified because one has faith for the Kingdom of God to be present in the church and a BURDEN for the church to be beautiful is central to love for God. I believe that the key element of the prophetic life is to have sincere loving burden. I would encourage people with a dis-satified sense to discern whether this is unbelief and grumbling or faith for the Kingdom and burden for the gory of God in the church.

    • Brad,

      Good points.

      BTW, I like that idea of a “prophetic life.” What do you think are the key indicators that one is living such a life? I might write on this in the future.

  2. This question is so tied in to the way most humans go thru life – as quite selfish, which you touched on. There was certainly a time, early on, when I felt that we needed “more” in our worship services – in the early days my desires were for more “stuff” going on IN the service – like the programming elements. But that all shifted for me and then I became someone desiring “more” from those who GATHER at the church service – meaning, the congregation. In still recent days, I think I have gone thru another shift – and today, while I still wait very unpatiently for the congregation to get it in their heads WHY they are gathering in the first place, I simply do not wish for “more” to take place… instead, I BRING AND GIVE MORE to my God, to the gathering and to the overall anticipation of the Holy Spirit moving in our midst in that gathering. I have turned the drive for more, in other words, onto myself. No longer do I WISH FOR MORE with the music, or the prayers, or the sermon, etc. Instead, I CHOOSE TO BRING MORE to the gathering – regardless of the music, prayers and sermon. There is no room for selfish (man-driven) worship in God’s Kingdom.

    • Dan,

      Good thoughts. I agree. Be the change agent yourself.

      But can’t you ever challenge the status quo? Isn’t this what the prophets did, confronting the complacent?

  3. Heather

    I think what the above commentors have said in this regard is true but I would take it a step further. I remember the selfish side in my own early walk. I couldn’t stand the music in my new husband’s church and it ate away at me so much that it drove my focus away from the rest of the service. Once I got past it the Lord began to really work on me in this regards. I have also recognized the wanting “more” from those around me then finally realizing that “more” needs to start within myself. May I suggest that this paticular aspect comes with sanctification and is a natural progression in Christian maturity. It may also lead to a call for revival within the church.

    I would also point out that this is different from the “off” feeling people have when there is some undisclosed sin lurking within a church, one that is constantly keeping it from being at it’s best. I recall a feeling of disatisfaction with the first church we attended, aside from the music. It was more a “something is wrong here” sort of feeling. I still have it when I visit that church (which I only do for family purposes). There is something very wrong within the church and the Lord is definitely letting them go their own way because of it. In this particular circumstance I am not the only one who has noticed it.

    The selfishness growing into a burden for the church is one thing, the recognition of something “wrong” within the church is another. I do think this has confused many and has kept some churches from changing because they think the problem is with the people who have left. I think the flip side is also true, that some folks go from church to church never realizing that the problem is them.

    • Heather,

      You mentioned the topic of people leaving while those who remain consider that something is wrong with those leaving. I considered making this into a gut check question even before you mentioned it. We’ll see.

  4. Anonymous

    I think people often struggle with the “churchiness” of church – it sometimes seems so full of activity (programs, groups, meetings, etc.) and so devoid of a genuine move of the Spirit. I have felt that way. I have also marveled at the lack of spine in a lot of what is popularly referred to as preaching. Everything feels local and fraught with imperfection. However, I agree with Dan (2nd comment); if everyone attended church with the attitude of a servant’s heart, determined to give, and to be a blessing to God and others, then we may see more of what we feel is missing. The church is not a building on the corner of this street and that; if I may loosely quote C.S. Lewis, it is spread out through all time and space, rooted in eternity, “as terrible as an army with banners.”

    I do believe, however, that some of what we see in terms of the backlash movements of Emergent, etc. is due to dissatisfaction with “church as usual.” We long for an encounter with the God of the universe and so often have to settle for church – a pale second. I have felt that as well, sitting in my pew, aware of the activity around me, looking at the enraptured faces of my fellow congregants and wondering if what they are experiencing is the Spirit of God or simply another excursion into the flesh. There are times when I want so badly to just worship God – lose myself in who He is and how much I love Him, but rarely does the service head in that direction.

    There is much discussion and many opinions on what a local community of believers should look like, and how they should behave, and what their priorities should be – and depending on who you talk to, you’ll get a a wide range of reponses to these questions.

    I think a lot of people, though, long for the church to be what is was in the years after the death and resurrection of Christ. We ‘re just not sure how to go about it.

    I’m rambling a bit this morning. My apologies. Coffee time.

    • Anonymous,

      Emergent is a backlash. Sadly, the traditional church is too busy critiquing Emergent to think serious about the very lacks in itself that Emergent is so wisely skewering. I believe Emergent is doomed because it’s doctrinally suspect and too unwilling to hew to the natural exclusivity of Christianity, but we need to learn something from this schism. Some churches are getting it, but others just want to pick fights and do nothing about their own mistaken notions and practices.

      I think a lot of churches are close to spiritual death, especially those who have given over to modernism unquestionably. As much as many people have dissed postmodernism, I believe that the liberalism that has wrecked mainline churches is not because of postmodernism, but modernism run amok.

      You’re also right in that many churches long to be a 1st century church, but don’t know how. I think the two or three generations before us truly let us down in this regard because they did not adequately pass on the torch. Most churches have no idea what revival looks like.

      • Anonymous

        I know I yearn for what I can only refer to as the more “tribal” aspects of truly living as part of a faith community within the Kingdom.

        I really can’t express what is, for me, an almost visceral (for lack of a better word) desire, but I suspect you probably know what I mean.

  5. Ah…it’s on the good days that I wonder if this is the best that it can be – and I wonder how it could get better on this side of the grave.

    On those days, just lifting my voice in worship brings tears of joy.

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  7. Thats a good question.

    No. I’d show up because it’s implictly or covertly socially required.
    I never expect to ‘get’ anything out a church service, it’s a hour of my life I sacrifice, especially when I worked such unusual hours..

    Occasionally I would receive something – worship in the music perhaps. Or maybe conviction or comfort from scripture. If I could I’d trot off to a church that served communion reverently, not this grape- juice-soda-cracker-shove-people-through as quickly as possible routine.

    But I don’t understand why I would expect to get something.
    Sunday morning wasn’t church in any way I understand it to be – it is a trapping of it. I’d hit the road, if I got to a Presbyterian church when I could, great, a few months later it might be Anglican across a few provinces, or a Catholic funeral, or an evning mass, or I’d get a few months in a United choir.

    I did join at CM&A church in my early 20’s. I wish I hadn’t, but live and learn. It wasn’t a total loss but in hindsight I wouldn’t do it again.

    Is this the best it can be?
    Personally, being a Christian has very little do with Sunday morning..
    So no, it’s not even close to the best.

  8. Dan:

    Your question would hopely and immediately lead to two following and equally important questions: Is there some problem in my life? Is there some problem in the life of this church?

    The Old Testament, I think, demonstrates that the answer can be either or both. At times God was content with the leadership and fed up with the congregation (think of Moses intervening for the people of Israel). At other times, God was very angry with the shepherds who were supposed to take care of the flock (Ezek 34, Hos 4). Sometimes everyone was guilty (you’ll have to think of your own passage: I can’t come up with a specific one off the top of my head).

    The first place to start, at least for me, is to examine myself. This includes asking those close to me for the truth about me – which is not always a pleasant experience if you have real friends that will faithfully wound you (Pr 27.6). Then it’s praying and doing something about it.

    Regardless of what the outcome of that examination is, it is still necessary to look at the body of believers of which you are a part – not “of which you are apart,” which many of us fall into. Churches can be as healthy or unhealthy as any individual person (except for the Head, if it is truly Christ). A yearly, extensive exam is good advice for people and churches.

    Personally, I find it difficult to go to church: too often I listen to the message or consider the entire service and my heart aches for those hundreds or thousands of people present who are hypnotically lulled into thinking that this is the best Christianity has to offer. It hurts to the point that I often take long breaks from the worship services, finding my worship and fellowship in several of the small groups to which I belong. It’s not a great solution, I know, but the leadership is to open to suggestions or even feedback.

    In summary, I suppose the answer to my question – “Is the problem me or is it this church?” – which I believe is derivative from your own question, is:


    • Addendum:

      Haddon Robinson used to tell students in his homiletics classes at Dallas Seminary as well as students in chapel at Denver Seminary that

      “It is a great sin to bore people with the word of God.”

      I think that’s true for preachers, but also for Sunday school teachers, Bible study leaders, and anyone else who takes it upon themselves to represent God and His word to others.

    • Mike,

      I like the yearly evaluation idea. That’s a church-wide gut check isn’t it? If we’re asked to examine ourselves to see if we are in Christ, shouldn’t we consider that to be a church-wide activity, not just one for this believer or that?

      Some people worship better in small groups. I know what you mean.

      Love the Robinson quote, BTW.

    • In my first comment, in the last sentence of the fifth paragraph, it should read: “the leadership is not open to suggestions or even feedback.”

      I need a better copy editor.

  9. We have a fellow at our church who is always trying to improve worship. Turn down the lights, more praise songs, more meditation time. Then the other day he cornered a visiting paster as to why Christians thought that homosexuality was wrong. The paster replied that the Bible said it was a sin, and the argument went on from there in familiar channels.

    What impressed me about the conversation was that it arose from someone who was bored with “church” the way it was done. That this person also had some fundemental problems with scripture and his walk with Christ pointed out to me that looking around church and wondering if it could be better might arise from different causes. The primary one, and probably the area that keeps so many church services statically rooted in tradition, is simple spiritual immaturity. As I understand the nature of “fellowship with the saints,” I can’t imagine being bored in that fellowship. We will dwell in that fellowship for all eternity, and Christ gives us a great opportunity to have a taste here on earth if we avail ourselves of the offer.

    On the other hand, spiritual maturity can point out to us areas where a church service could improve. The Holy Spirit that resides within us will tap us on the shoulder and point things out to us. If there is fellowship, I would imagine that the same Holy Spirit would be tapping on other shoulders, too. When we feel that gentle nudge, we should not keep silent, but speak in love and with humility, our words tested by the Bible. I would be excited to see the Spirit move in such a way in my fellowship with other believers. Would you?

    • David,

      I’m not sure I would use this example as an archetype for the dissatisfied. I think there are many very devout folks who are doctrinally right who long for more in their churches.

      I can imagine being bored with the fellowship, actually. Our fellowship in the US is terrible, even in the best churches, because we no longer live in real community. Most people in a church only interact on Sunday, and possibly a Wednesday night or small group, but they’re not truly connected to each others’ lives.

  10. I sometimes wonder how long it was before the Jews (after Jesus’ death and the tearing of the temple curtain) realized that the presence of God had fled the temple. I tend to believe they never did.

    If they missed it, how likely is it that we can make do without a real presence of the Spirit of God in some of our churches?

  11. Ekval


    This is one of those moments where you feel a bit scared because it is as thoguh someone else is reading your thoughts. I have had that feeling to such a degree lately that my wife and I actually had a fight about my poor attitude in church the past month or so. In my case I know that there are some definite personal issues that cause a lot of it. My own sin has destroyed much of my life, so that is a big chunk of it.

    Part of me also thinks that there are some definite areas where the “church” has let me down. What it has brought up for me is how churches deal with the real issues that people have. I don’t mean addictions and such, though those are deadly as well, but that as you put it, nagging feeling that this isn’t really it…

    True, it’s not, and one day it will all be better and make sense, but what does a person who feels like this do in the interim. I’ve tried many of the things that people have mentioned here, trying to bring more to God, etc. So far, it hasn’t worked and it only gets worse. I’m not talking about a feeling of, “wow, I could have been playing golf instead of going to church”. I love God, had devoted the last 6 years of my life to his service full time, have a pretty active prayer life, all of that. And yet going to church is onerous in the extreme for me.

    I realize that so much of it is my own fault and my own sins, my selfishness as you put it. But still, there is no recognition anywhere in our church that there are a lot of us who just aren’t shiny and happy or glad to be broken all the time.

    I may be a heretic I suppose, but sometimes, I’m just not happy to be as broken and shattered as I am. (And yes, I know it isn’t about me being happy).

    Anyway, that was a long ramble when all I meant to say really was, wow, you are reading my mind to some degree.

    • Hi Dan:

      I enjoy your blog very much because you deal with topics I often think about myself. Your latest post particularly, is on a topic I’ve given thought to.

      I’m a blogger myself (Jordan’s View), but have been on “sabbatical” for several months now— both from writing and reading blogs. I think that what led me to take a break from the blogosphere was feeling that my own Christian life wasn’t being very vibrant and dynamic– and I felt that blogging was often becoming a diversion from getting back “into the groove” with God.

      I mean, we all have limited time, and it is so easy to get caught up in meaningless blogosphere discussions that are kind of like the Greeks in Acts who just liked to sit around discussing all the latest ideas. Talk, talk, talk but no change.

      But I’m at an age and juncture in my life where that won’t do–I want the real thing– a walk with God that motivates and empowers and makes me into the kind of person whose light really shines out for Christ. I think that’s a bit of what it means to live a “prophetic life”, as someone mentioned earlier.

      I know that when I was a young believer and all was new and fresh and real in my walk with Christ, I could go to practically any church and have a powerful encounter with God. I still believe it is mostly our personal spiritual state, rather than the state of the church, that affects our capacity to encounter His presence. Still, I agree that various denominations today are really missing that excitement that comes from a spontaneous encounter with the Spirit of God– sometimes because they’re too busy trying to manufacture something in the flesh– sometimes because they have intellectualized faith too much–sometimes maybe because we just don’t know what it really looks like.

      As you point out, the Emergent Church has arisen at least in part as a response to this lack– but we need a church and an experience of God that is doctrinally sound while at the same time, so REAL that we can live it in the face of death, life, sex, and everything else that really matters, with conviction and deep joy. People want Truth and Reality and Jesus offers it, but we have to learn to connect with Him, and not just our ideas of Him. Amen, brother? Maybe too we’re after some new, deeper “experiences but we’re not obeying Him in what we already know. Obedience to God’s commands, after all, is how we know we love God and others. And doesn’t it say that even our Lord Jesus

      Maybe too we’re after some new, deeper “experience but we’re not obeying Him in what we already know. Obedience to God’s commands, after all, is how we know we love God and others. Maybe too it is the simple way to that deeper reality with God that it what the soul of man craves.

      Thanks for your many challenges to the church. May we indeed find freshness in our walk with the Lord.

      • Anonymous

        it is so easy to get caught up in meaningless blogosphere discussions that are kind of like the Greeks in Acts who just liked to sit around discussing all the latest ideas. Talk, talk, talk but no change.

        This reminds me of someone who said that peope often look for information rather than transformation…

      • Alex,

        I’m thinking of taking the whole month of August off. Blogging can really set you back at times and I’m behind on a number of things.

        I agree on the issue of not being obedient in what we already know, so why push for more. This is one of my pet peeves. People complain if they push a kid into the next highest grade even if he hasn’t met the requirements from the grade he was just in. Yet we do that all the time in the faith, especially in this country.

    • Ekval,

      Sometimes there’s a dark night of the soul when it comes to attending church. Usually it’s because of a conjuncture of something missing in our church that we also find missing in us. We want things to get better, but our very source of community can’t see it because they struggle, too.

      Thanks for sharing. I prayed for you just now.

  12. Oops…. just noticed that I didn’t edit very well at the end of my comments above. Just ignore the few sentences immediately after “Amen, Brother?”, and skip to the next paragraph.



  13. Gina R Johnson

    brother dan,

    I could hardly read this w/o getting choked up. You have “read” me so well, it’s scary. I’m struggling with being depressed about this very issue. I linked to this at my own blog (as if I’ll ever develop a readership). I’ve been a believer over 30 years, coming to faith in Christ as a teen. I’ve been in ministry since 1989, and our current community is seven years old. Your post so resonated with me because in the midst of all I’m involved in, it’s not enough. We as the people of God were meant for so much more, and I’m literally aching for whatever that is. This week alone has been one of the roughest I’ve ever had. I’ve been struggling with the thought of being stuck in something that has no impact, no significance and not being able to do anything about it. When I read Acts (the entire book, mind you)I see a group of people with something so dynamic, so powerful happening in them, it affects everything and everyone around them.
    How did it turn into what we have today?! This stuff is driving me nuts!

    • Hi Gina,

      First – I hear your heart and I feel your pain – truly. What I am about to say will only ressonate with a few – and that’s okay… but from my perspective, I see two basic groups of believers… off the bat, let me clearly state that BOTH groups of believers know and love Jesus Christ and are destined for an eternity with their Lord. I don’t believe for a moment that what I am about to say has anything to do with salvation – if you know Jesus, you ARE saved.

      That said – there are believers who simply have their “fire insurance” (they are not going to hell, in other words) and for them, this is enough. They TEND to simply “go thru the motions” and usually walk the road of this selfish “me-centered” worship we have talked about here. I happen to think that most churches are filled with this sort of believer today.

      The other group is made up of people who are so passionate in their desire to encounter the Lord with unashamed abandonment that they are bursting at the seams with delight and joy! I do not see many of this type of believer in most churches today.

      Why is that? I have a lot of theories – but the main one is that we really don’t understand what worship is about – not really – not yet. Many believers still actually think that worship is FOR US. But it’s not. We are the worshipERS… God is the WorshipEE. (Yeah, those are not real words, but I hope they make sense.)

      The ones who choose to remain more like Easter Island statues than exhuberant worshipers of God are still loved by God and, as I said, are destined for glory. They just have a sour time on earth and miss out (by choice) on ALL He has for them.

      Hope this speaks to you –
      Dan McGowan (not the Dan who runs this blog)

      SIDE NOTE: I think from now on I will sign my posts as “DANNY” in an attempt to distinguish the two Dans…

  14. Gina,

    I haven’t read any one person, but just sort of got in touch with the zeitgeist of those I’ve watched in church. Until recently, I was one of those people, having gone through about four years of meetings that left me cold.

    You’re exactly right about Acts, too. That’s why this blog exists.

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