No “I” in “CHURCH”–How American Evangelicalism Gets Its Pronouns Wrong


Lonely in a crowdI listened to a message recently that told me all the things I had to do so I could be godly.

For the most part, the words went sailing past me. Perhaps I’m like the hard soil and the birds are coming to eat up the message seeds.

Or maybe I’ve just reached a saturation point for being told what I need to be doing so everything will be perfect in my Christian life.

There’s a big problem with the approach so much of American Evangelicalism uses when speaking to people: It’s all I and you (singular) pronoun use. It’s as if there is no message to the collected Body of Christ. The plural you, we, and us continue to go missing. And with them goes most of the New Testament.

You hear the singular you used a lot in sermons. Someone is preaching at me what I need to do as an individual.

But if you read the New Testament, the you in it, almost all nearly 4,000 uses, refers to a group of people—a plural you. In almost all cases outside the Gospels, that you is the Church.

How is it then that so many messages directed at us aren’t to the genuine plural us, but solely to individuals sitting in one place? We somehow avoid all sense of a collected group of believers.

One problem with this is that it automatically creates legalism and moralism. Individuals are told to do this or that, but there is no greater sense of collected purpose in those admonitions. Whatever it is that I should do is relegated to me alone. It then becomes a personal performance issue. My success as a Christian is solely because of what I do; the greater Body has no influence at all in this—nor do I truly influence that greater Body.

Which is one major reason why the Church in America isn’t advancing the way it should be. We are in a state of every man for himself.

An example of how this individual focus fails…

Take the subject of giving. From an individual perspective, you (singular) and I are told biblical principles on how to give and save money. To live below our means so as to be able to give to others. To tithe. To be cheerful givers.

But when we take this up to the level of what the Church as a collected whole is supposed to do, a vast silence emerges. What is the Church’s financial responsibility?

The Scriptures make it plain in many places that the Church should ensure that no one within the Church body is in need. Goods are to be collected and dispersed to people in the local church body to ensure no state of want.

That asks something of the Church/church though. And you just don’t hear messages and sermons on what the whole Church responsibility is in a given situation.

In short, there is no you (plural), we, or us. There is no vision for anything beyond what the individual is asked to do.

The Bible says that you have died. Your life is now hidden in Christ. And His life is expressed in this world through His Body, the Church.

To the person who has died, the law says that he or she has lost the right to own. In the Church, there is no my or mine. There is ours. Jesus abolishes all personal claims. You are not even your own. All that remains is the collected Body. I, my, mine, you (singular), yours—these are remnants of what we must leave behind when we choose to follow Jesus.

What would happen if American Evangelicals, instead of devolving into what I or you (singular) should be doing as a Christian, focused instead on how the group of believers that comprise the local church and the greater Church operates as it is intended to function—as a unified whole? What if we stopped with the relentless granularity and started thinking of Christianity not as a personal belief but as one that achieves its vitality only within full community? What if we stopped preaching individual works and started focusing on collected works? What if we believed that sanctification wasn’t solely for the individual but for the group? What if we truly believed Jesus in His admonition that the herd of sheep was no longer complete in the eyes of the shepherd if even one was missing?

What if we Christians shifted all our pronouns toward you (plural), we, ours, and us, while moving away from I, me, mine, and you (singular)?

Can we at least start to think outside of the individual? Perhaps if we did, we’d actually live out the biblical plan for the Body of Christ.

UPDATE: See also the follow-up post, God of the Group.

Five Steps to Transform Your Church in Seven Months, Guaranteed


Did that title grab your attention? Good. Because I mean it.

Rather than add some pointless setup here, I’ll go right into it:

1. Stop the sermons.

Most people can’t remember one point of the three-point sermon they heard last week. Many pastors couldn’t deliver a transformational sermon if the lives of their flock depended on it (and sadly, that is probably the case). I’ll go so far as to say that the average sermon given on an average Sunday doesn’t change the average American pew-sitter one iota. While that’s a crying shame— and shouldn’t be the case—I suspect it is.

So maybe it’s time to pack away the sermons for seven months. Discipleship is a long-haul reality, and no one will have his or her spiritual life derailed for want of seven months of so-so sermonizing.

Besides, we’re going to substitute something guaranteed to change lives.

2. Find a good orator—or three.

We put our best musicians in front of the church, right? Let’s find two or three people in our church who truly grasp the English language and can breathe life into words. This is both a gift and a talent. We should encourage those who speak the language with gusto and life. (Leaders, you are making it a priority to identify, encourage, and utilize the giftings of people in your church, aren’t you? And the best speaker in the church may not be you—or any of the other leaders.)

3. Open the Bible.

Remember the Bible? In some churches it seems as if hardly anyone does, despite its being the word of God. We’re going to open it and see what it says.

4. For that Sunday, have an orator read one book of the New Testament in its entirety before the assembled church.

Okay, so a few of those longer books may need to be split into two readings, but considering the length of the average sermon in an Evangelical church, it’s doable for most of the books.

5. Repeat for all 27 books of the New Testament.

Now enjoy the positive transformation. Your church WILL be changed.

I’m not kidding.

We’ve got our heads in the sand if we think that most Christians have experienced the Scriptures this way. Fact is, the way we Americans teach and read the Bible is a piecemeal shambles. We approach it in such microscopic bits that most Christians have no idea how it fits together. We have no vision for the wholeness of the Scriptures. Bible with crossIt’s why the Bible-reading plan I advocate reinforces repetitive reading of entire books. Simply put, most Christians have never read the New Testament books as they were meant to be read.

We’re also fooling ourselves if we think that most Christians have read the entirety of the New Testament. Nearly half of all college graduates, once they step out of those ivy-covered halls, will never again read a book all the way through. This is especially true of men. For those who didn’t graduate from college, it’s certainly worse. And no, I don’t believe the Bible gets a pass on that lack. Given how little Scripture is read in the average church on Sunday, most Christians may otherwise never hear the entirety of the books that forge the backbone of all we are supposed to know and grasp.

We get all huffy about interpretation and so on, but do we trust the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures to deliver on their promise to transform lives? Faith comes by hearing the word of God, right?

How then can this plan not be an EPIC WIN for your church—or for every church in North America?

I say we start this Sunday.

Because the system we have in place for transmitting the Scriptures to people in the pews simply is not working.

And because the Word of God doesn’t need our additions to work miracles in the lives of those who hear it.

All we have to do is believe that is true.

Do you?

The Question No One Wants to Ask…


If any post ever posted on Cerulean Sanctum runs the risk of alienating more people, this is the post. I hope you will all stay with me and think hard about the issues raised here. I don’t want you to come to easy answers that maintain the status quo. I want you to think about what you see in your church and others like it. I want you to be honest with yourself before God like you’ve never been so honest before in your entire life.

I was outside walking my property, thinking about life, when it struck me—hard. And the more I thought about it, the harder it was to escape the question or dodge what it might mean for us.

The question:

Is pulpit preaching ineffective at creating disciples?

Told you it would be a stunner.

I ask that question as part of an examination of my own life. Walking around my property, I tried to remember great sermons I’d heard preached from the pulpit. I reached back over thirty years of being a born-again believer and strained to think of the thousands of sermons I’ve heard preached in my life, sermons preached by some of the most famous preachers in the United States, sermons preached by regional church leaders, and sermons preached by preachers known only to their congregation. Sermons that were expository, topical, or narrative-based. Sermons carefully crafted. Sermons that came out of nowhere. Sermons of all styles, methods, and lengths. And the more I thought about all those sermons, the more I couldn’t escape the truth that collectively they’d had little effect on my growth in Christ.

How is that possible?

Well some of you might be thinking that I’m one of those hard soils where the sowed seed of the Word wound up gobbled by birds. I can’t argue against that entirely. Soak it up, baby!I don’t think any of us can say with all certainty that we’re immune to losing some of what we hear. Let’s be honest: Can you remember three points in detail from a sermon your pastor preached three months ago? Didn’t think so. In fact, I would guess that many of you can’t even recall with absolute certainty the topic your pastor preached on just a month ago! I know that my pastor, an anointed preacher, preached on love this last Sunday, but apart from a few points about Jesus saying that loving God and loving my neighbor sums up the commandments, most of that message is a blur to me.

In fact, if I examined thirty years of fine preaching I’ve heard, both in church and in conference settings, I can only think of two or three messages that have stuck with me to any extent. And even those are hazy beyond one or two main points.

The second comeback to my assertion would state that the reason I don’t remember those sermons is because they weren’t preached by the power of the Holy Spirit by men who take preaching seriously. If that’s what you think, well, I have no other comment for you than to say you’re utterly wrong. In fact, if we excluded some of the great preachers I’ve heard whose messages I’ve now forgotten, we’d have to knock out every nationally known preacher. And yes, the preachers you swear fealty to. Even the ones with the screaming fanboys. Yep, forgotten. (Scary, isn’t it? Like I said, let’s not lie to ourselves.)

A third comeback would say that I actually do remember all those pulpit-preached sermons, but I’ve so internalized the little bits and pieces of them over the years that they’ve become indistinguishable from the sum total of my discipleship experience. That may, in fact, be true. Perhaps it’s the nature of hearing sermons preached from the pulpit or the conference hall floor to insinuate themselves into your soul and blend in with all the other good stuff that accumulates there over the years.

But I don’t believe that’s entirely the case, either, and I’ll tell you why.

In my thirty years as a Christian, I can say without hesitation that I do remember some messages with crystal clarity. And each of those lasting messages possessed characteristics not found in today’s pulpit preaching.

As a fourteen-year old in eighth grade, I remember the retreat to Lutheran Memorial Camp that ended in my salvation. Like it was yesterday. I distinctly remember Fred, the old gentleman who sat down in a circle with fifteen of us, as he looked each one of us in the eye and spoke. I can recall the flannel shirt he wore. He preached about Jesus and why He had to come, and what His coming meant to lost people. Even now, I hear the love in that man’s voice. The words he spoke still burn. I remember he cared deeply about each person there. Thirty years later, I can still feel the intimacy of the moment.

As a nineteen-year old college student, I remember The Relationship Seminar, where Charlie, the leader of the campus ministry at Shadyside Presbyterian Church, spoke about what it meant to love others as Christ loves us. I can still hear his calm voice telling of the lessons he learned about loving unconditionally as he bathed a profoundly retarded man who could not control his bowels and bladder. I remember him speaking of the woman whose husband cheated on her while overseas in the war, of the no-fault divorce he secured, of his subsequent cancer, and how (after he died) that spited Christian wife loved unconditionally and took into her home the children of his adultery and the woman who replaced her in her former husband’s life. In my head, I see the dozen people who gathered in Charlie’s modest house to eat a simple meal together before he spoke. I remember how blessed we all felt to be crammed together in his tiny family room, and the graciousness of his wife as she cooked for us. Even now, I sense the blessedness of hanging around afterward, ruminating on what we had just heard.

As a 33-year old, I remember the Bible study I led at Phil’s place. I remember how much the half-dozen of us guys wrangled over the meaning of the words of God in Hebrews. I remember seeing the lights come on as we preached the truth of Hebrews to each other. I can recall in detail our discussion over the reality of the mirror images of heaven and earth. I can still feel the passion we felt over opening up the Scriptures and finding truths that smacked us in the face. Stuff we’d read before, but only now did it make sense because we all wanted it to make sense, and we were telling each other that it made sense.

There are other times in my life like those above that the truth of God rang so true that no one could miss the pealing of its bell. In those times, the message didn’t just bounce off my hide and roll away. The preaching stuck.

When I think about the spiritual inertness that defines so much of American Christianity, when I think about all those pulpit-preached messages that will pump up the crowd today and be forgotten tomorrow, I can’t help but think that perhaps pulpit-preached messages are missing some key ingredients that make them capable of changing lives forever.

Those missing ingredients, as I see them:

1. Intimacy – I think the way we’ve structured our churches has built too much distance (real and figurative) between the speaker and the hearer. We know that he’s not really speaking to us man to man, so we automatically throw up an inner defense. But when you and I are face-to-face with the preacher, and it’s just a handful of people gathered ’round, God sets the world on fire. Why? Because we live in a disconnected age dominated by barriers between people. When those barriers come down, the Gospel gets through and among us.

2. Relationship – When we’re in that intimate environment, when we love the people around us not just with the typical “love” we say we possess, but a holy love that makes us willing to die for the person beside us, the Gospel penetrates our hearts. The reason you can’t be a Lone Ranger Christian is because God designed the Church to be a Body. And the tighter-knit that Body, the more powerful its ability to absorb what it needs to hear.

3. Holy moments – When we cultivate an environment of intimacy and relationship, we allow for holy moments that create an atmosphere where people dying to be fed will be. And that’s powerful. Holy moments sink in. They aren’t forgotten because the Holy Spirit broods over us in those precious times.

4. Discussion – The kind of preaching that sticks necessitates that we discuss what we have heard. We talk about it afterwards as friends gathered in an intimate place amid a holy moment. We wrestle with the implications of what we’ve heard and share them among the group. And those implications stick because we are struggling through them together.

These are the reasons I believe that pulpit-based preaching today may be less than effective at making disciples. What I believe has changed since the days when pulpit-preached messages made a more profound impact is that all of us are simply dying inside for those four missing ingredients. The true Church in previous times did possess those traits, enabling pulpit-preached messages to sink in. But we don’t have those four ingredients to the extent that we need them today. And that drastically limits the effectiveness of pulpit-preached messages.

I’ll add one more truth I’ve discovered about my life that makes preached messages stick in my own heart so that I grow.

One other major reasons that preaching fails to build disciples today is that we’ve forgotten that doing the Gospel is as powerful as preaching it. For the unbeliever who does not act on the truth of the Gospel, who has never even heard it before, perhaps a man preaching Christ from a pulpit has power. But for those of us who already know Christ, I would contend that doing what we already know of the Gospel is the best way for it to find a root in our lives and grow fruit.

For every sermon that I’ve forgotten, I can remember thousands of instances where I acted on what I already knew of the Gospel and saw that knowledge flourish in my life in a new way. Be doers of the word, not hearers only deceiving yourselves, right? I know it’s an enormous cliché, but the older I get the more I believe this: Preach the Good News; at times use words.

This is not to denigrate the spoken word at all, but in an age where nearly everyone in the America has easy access to the Bible, I suspect the person who best exemplifies discipleship and growth is the one who reads the Scriptures, believes them, and goes out and does them without a second thought.

Even now, disgruntled readers of this post are sharpening their two-edged swords ready to unleash a Scriptural onslaught to tell me why preaching the Gospel is the epitome of the Christian walk. But you know what? I agree that speaking the truth of God to each other is about as important as it gets. However, I am simply not convinced that pulpit-based preaching is the best means to get the message out anymore. An honest assessment of the American Church MUST lead to that conclusion. Despite thousands of sermons preached on Sunday mornings in thousands of churches across the country, we Christians here are losing ground by every measure.

There has to be a better way. We need to start adding back those missing ingredients and reconsider the methods by which we encourage and build each other through the proclamation of the Truth of Christ. Perhaps then the message will sink in and transform us into who God meant us to be.