From a “What?” Church to a “How?” Church


QuestionWas reading Jack Towe’s astute comments in his post today, “Mature Christians.” He notes that he has been a part of 16 churches in his long life, but while most of them sought to answer the what? questions of Christianity, none of them talked about the how? questions.

I know Jack from a ministry he used to run in Cincinnati. He saw that a bunch of old buildings  in decent shape sat unused. He worked to buy them, fix them up, and give them to people who had no decent housing. For a couple years, I was one of those who helped Jack prep buildings for use.

Jack always was concerned for actually living out the faith and not simply knowing about it.

The issue of churches that focus on what? instead of how? is a huge one. Questions of what? are baby-step questions. They’re the basics of the Faith: What did Jesus say? What was the purpose of His coming? What are folks supposed to do once they become Christians?

What? questions are easy. Milk.

But how? questions are harder because how? takes the what? and tries to make it applicable and functional in life. Unfortunately for most churches and the Christians in them, going from what? to how? is a little like Evel Knievel’s jump across the Snake River Canyon. It seems possible, but the execution grossly underdelivers and leaves everyone a little embarrassed.

I’ve written before that authenticity issues plague the Church in America, a problem that has led to a mass exodus of 18-35ers craving more practical sense and expression to their interactions with the world.

I know what I am to do as a Christian, but how do I do those things?

How am I supposed to feed the poor when I work an 80 hour a week job?

How do I heal the sick in Jesus’ name?

I’d like to visit prisoners in jail, but how am I supposed to do this when I have young children and I’m caring for two increasingly enfeebled parents?

How do I overcome the reality that I’m bored with the Bible? How do I even confess that without feeling like I’m an awful person?

The sermon on Sunday said that God accepts us as we are and we should not be worried about appearances, yet my company is handing out pink slips to people who look old. How do I keep my job and yet not concern myself with my appearance?

How am I supposed to be used of God when I’ve suffered from depression for years and sometimes find it hard even to get out of bed in the morning?

How do I know that moment when someone is ready to come to Christ?

I’ve had seven jobs in six cities in nine years. How do I find lasting fellowship with other believers?


The dearth of how? answers arises, in part, from a clergy that’s out of touch with real life. The professional minister doesn’t always realize what life is like for “real” people. I read a book several years ago called Making Room for Life by Randy Frazee that was both excellent and terrible. Randy proposed this idea of Hebrew Time and how we should construct our lives around it, carving out space for other people and real life. Randy’s ideas were fantastic, but they were burdened by one simple truth: while they worked excellently for a professional, salaried minister (which Randy was), they completely collapsed when applied to a second-shift laborer. Or someone who lived in the country. Or someone who was caring for an enfeebled parent. Or…

The disconnect between what paid, professional clergy think is possible in life and what “real” people experience could not be greater, yet sermon after sermon on Sundays in churches nationwide will avoid the question of how? by assuming that everyone not only knows how, but can implement the answers to what? questions with ease. Yet my experience is that most churches that easily answer what? can never provide answers to how? that go beyond the preconceptions of professional clergy, who look at themselves as perfectly representative people when they are anything but.

The other problem with how? is that the answers to it are not simple. Nor are they always one-size-fits-all. Sadly, we’ve structured our churches to reach seekers primarily, so most of our solutions to life are baby-step what? answers. In truth, we haven’t much thought about answering the how? questions of life.

But how? is where life IS and remains that place where we must abide. Sticking to pat answers simply isn’t Christian. Jesus never offered pat answers. His always came from left field and rocked people’s worlds. They were the “unanswers.” They took people down pathways they never envisioned and answered questions people didn’t know they had in ways they had never explored.

Why should the Church, which supposedly reflects the assembly of the Body of Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit, be so incapable of generating answers to how? in the way that Jesus did? If anything, that’s what we should be known for! That’s the very authenticity young people are dying to find.

But where are the great thinkers in Christianity today, especially among Evangelicals? Who out there is answering the harsh questions of everyday living with life-infused answers that not only provide real solutions, but which also shake us up while offering us peace?

How do I live out Christian faith?

More than anything, I would like to see fewer Christian leaders telling me what I should be doing and far more helping me achieve what I should be doing, despite my circumstances.

I think that many people now struggle with how they can live as practicing, worldchanging Christians in a down economy that has them scrambling for decent jobs all the time. I have yet to see a Christian leader tackle that subject, yet issues of work possibly create more how? questions than anything else in a person’s life.

Christian leaders, the questions of how? and how best to answer them are the most important questions in people’s lives. Start offering possible solutions. This means wrestling with tough issues. You’re a leader for a reason, so stop running away from the hard questions and start being that leader. Model what it means to take the answers to what? questions and make them answer how? questions in a practical way. This is what leaders do. They blaze a trail. Now blaze it.

And even if you aren’t a leader but have been around life long enough to answer how? questions, for heaven’s sake, DO NOT HIDE YOUR INSIGHTS UNDER A BUSHEL. The Church of Jesus MUST answer how? questions. If you have experience, share it. Who knows how many people might benefit? We are a body, and what one body part knows can serve a different part!

Christian maturity isn’t knowing all the answers to the what? questions of life. It’s more about the how? in the day-to-day. Successfully answering how? is the difference between just being in the race and actually finishing it.

10 thoughts on “From a “What?” Church to a “How?” Church

  1. Mr. Poet

    I’ve had a discussion with at least one friend, but could with several more, that, now that we’re in our thirties, absent divine intervention, this is what life will be like until we retire or die: long hours, less leisure, fewer friends, more boredom, etc. It is the kind of life that we dreamed to avoid from our adolescence through our twenties, but now we’re in it, and what can we do about it except pray? I say this because my friends are disabled, mentally ill, and/or personally irresponsible. We see the “successful” around us, who have what we consider rewarding careers, loving marriages, children, and solid reputations among their friends and colleagues, while we are still struggling with the motifs of what to do with our lives.

    We know, or think we know, what we are “supposed” to do. But we either don’t, won’t, can’t, or can’t seem to find a way how.

    • Poet,

      At some colleges you see this…well, “collegiality”…that makes you part of a network that never goes away. You play that college card at anytime in life and it opens doors and takes you just about anywhere you want to go.

      I don’t know know why the Church in America isn’t like this. I’ve never personally felt like anyone “had my back” or was saying, “You know the handshake; you’re in, dude.” If anything, it was almost the opposite: You had to prove yourself even more.

      Why is it that four years together in one place, often not even in the same classes, can score you more help than being in the same church for years? Isn’t the Church supposed to be the ultimate “we’re your wingman / watching your back, compadre” organization? Why then are people more likely to feel like their own church can be an enemy or that their denomination is out to squash them?

      I can’t help but think that too often there’s this mentality in our churches that says that if we help someone we’re interfering with what God wants to do in that person’s life. Frankly, I hate that mentality. It’s been used to hurt people, and I think we Christians need to be as opposite of that as is possible. So why is that such a maverick idea? I once said that Christians have an obligation to hire other Christians for jobs, and I actually had fellow Christians VEHEMENTLY oppose me on that idea! And yet if you went to Harvard and called another Harvard alum about work, chances are good you’d have job within a week.

      I just don’t get it.

      • Mr. Poet

        Well, while I agree with you to a point, one of my disabled friends doesn’t want to work for anyone, anyway. He is very paranoid about what people think about him. I can’t even get him to take advantage of the food bank a few miles from his house because he is afraid people won’t think he is disabled (since he has fibromyalgia and often looks fine) and will rat him out to the feds.

        A couple of my other friends can’t stay employed. One usually loses his job soon after he thinks he knows more than his boss, and that gets him into trouble, and he is fired. The other is a slacker and won’t do his work. He who does not work does not eat, you know?

        But then you have my friend who faithfully works to teach the Gospel to refugees, herself being an asylee. She is legally blind, and English is not her first language, so getting a steady job is tough for her. And if you haven’t noticed, most Christians don’t own businesses, so they can’t hire her. Ha, ha. But anyway, I wish her church or the mission agencies in town would give her a stipend for what she does. She seems to do just as much work as the paid ministers who work with the refugees.

        As for me? Well, ha, ha, who has use for a poet? I’ve gotten plenty of God’s will sermons mixed with lectures about the free market. Sometimes I want to tell Christians, “Haven’t you ever considered that you’re the one disobeying God by not supporting my art, than that I’m disobeying him by not getting a ‘real’ job?”

  2. Leadership doesn’t want answers to those sort of questions, because they might cause the congregation to get uppity, start listening to God for themselves, and start doing unpredictable and controversial things. The congregants, for example, might (horror of horrors!) start wondering why nobody takes seriously both verses 29 and 30 together in Acts chapter 4. In their confusion, they might start thinking that both of those verses somehow apply today. They might start asking questions.

    What is wrong with you, Dan? The church is supposed to revolve around the celebrity pastor. The congregation is supposed to orbit around his accomplishments and provide the drudges needed for carrying out his latest projects. It’s always been that way! Nowadays, the celebrity pastor has his Facebook page that everyone “likes”. Everybody gets the latest notifications about all that he is doing, even how he spends his vacations. Gosh, I remember reading a comment where the person said he broke down in tears because the pastor accepted him as a Facebook “friend”. Now that is the kind of gratitude we need more of!

    This is how it is supposed to be, Dan. It is the norm. Come on, get with the program. Everything functions as expected. Remember, what I told you: everything operates according to the Four Worldly Laws: (1) Excellency of Intellect, (2) Ingenuity of Human Governance, (3) Celebration of Reputation, and (4) Lots and Lots of Money. Those laws are your guarantee of SUCCESS! And nobody can argue with success.

    Stop being such a silly goose.

      • Me: Gosh, I remember reading a comment where the person said he broke down in tears because the pastor accepted him as a Facebook “friend”.

        Recently some pastors who use Facebook as a kind of advertising vehicle have run into a problem with imposters who create look-alike Facebook pages. The imposters then accept people as Facebook “friends”, and later initiate chats with them. It might go like this: “I’ll be sure to pray about what you told me. Oh, by the way, would you consider making a donation to this charity that runs orphanages in Africa? Here is how you can wire them some money…”. This has happened in several cases. And sadly enough, the person I mentioned who “broke down in tears” was actually a victim of this scam. He didn’t realize at the time the “pastor” was not who he thought he was.

        I think this demonstrates the inherent problem with attempting to relate to celebrities through Facebook. You cannot be entirely certain who you are dealing with.

  3. This is excellent Dan. What we truly need are a different kind of leader, or more to the point to recognize as leaders those that are leading by doing and teaching by example. We have created a class of professional “leaders” that we subcontract the work of ministry to and yet many of these leaders have very little other than theory to talk to us about. Paul took pains to work among the people so that they had an example to imitate (1 Thess 3:6-12).

    Until we get back to a Biblical model for leadership we will wander around ineffective and impotent in the face of an increasingly hostile culture.

  4. Suzanne

    Mostly what I’m hearing from churches in my area as to the how is to believe unbridled capitalism is the best thing of all and to vote Republican.

  5. I wonder if the disconnect is coming from a Greek Dualism that has invaded church theology. It separates daily life from “religious life” in a way that is unbiblical.

    Second, the sermon centered approach draws us into making a lot of statements that are hyperbolic. “We must help the poor, solve racism, take a stand against pornography, etc. Very BIG statements rather than small groups of supportive groups with practical solutions not just tilting at windmills.

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