You’ve heard of the “seven last words of the church” before, haven’t you?
If not, here they are, tongue firmly in cheek: “We’ve never done it that way before.”
There’s a lot of truth in that. When a church gives way to an attitude that says things must be done the way they have been done, and anything new is to be met with skepticism and even rejection, its days are numbered.
It got me thinking to some other lines that are killers, yet sound so good on the surface. But if you’ve been around a while, and know the real translation, you know how deadly they can be.
So instead of the seven last words of the church, let’s call them the seven last phrases of the church:
“I need to be fed.”
Translation: I am a spiritual infant and need to be spoon-fed because I’m not mature enough to open up the Bible and dig into it for myself. Nor do I want to be. And since the church exists for me and my needs, this is my rightful expectation. And if you want the last 5%, I’m mad about something that didn’t go my way, or you asked me to die to myself for the cause, so I have to find a spiritual-sounding excuse that makes it seem like the church is beneath my level of advanced maturity as I make my way out the door. So it’s not just “I need to be fed,” but now, “I need to go where I can be fed.”
“I didn’t get anything out of it.”
Translation: The worship service is all about me, which means I am the object of worship. Forget that this is idolatry at its worst; I mustn’t be worried about such things. It also doesn’t enter my mind that the important thing isn’t what I get out of it, but what God gets out of it. I am a consumer, and my needs drive me and should drive the church. And I’ll keep church hopping and shopping – and evaluating – until I find what does meet my personal tastes and current desires.
“The music is too loud.”
Translation: I don’t like the style of music. It’s too “rock.” Too contemporary. I came here liking a certain kind of music, and now you’re changing it in the name of reaching the young and disaffected. So now I am going to be disaffected until you change it back. And don’t offer me any of those blasted ear-plugs; I shouldn’t have to wear earplugs in church! I should just like what is being played and how it’s being played. When you talked about dying to ourselves in order to reach the unchurched, you never mentioned music. I don’t die to myself there.
“You talk about money too much.”
Translation: I don’t give, don’t plan on giving, and certainly don’t want to be challenged to give. And if you mention it even once a year I’m going to cry foul and pull this self-righteous phrase out as a way of making you the bad guy. My money is my god, it’s not for God, which is why I’m hyper-sensitive about it. I have to find a spiritual-sounding reason for exiting out from the challenge so that it’s about you and the evils of organized religion, and not me and my consumptive lifestyle.
“Who’s holding you accountable?”
Translation: I’m into control and want to find a way to have it. But talking about “accountability” sounds more spiritual. What I’m really after is finding out about boards and committees, councils and business meetings, and then how to get on them. Let church leaders lead? Let pastors pastor? Are you crazy? You don’t send someone to seminary to learn how to lead the church; you send them to seminary to come back and be led by those of us who like to talk about accountability as a euphemism for control. They are our chaplains, to care for us and do our bidding, not decision-makers or leaders. I, of course, can be trusted and don’t need any vocational training whatsoever to lead, much less any…accountability.
“I don’t know everybody anymore.”
Translation: The church is growing, and I don’t want it to grow. At least, not so fast it outgrows me. I don’t find fast growth exhilarating, I find it threatening. My sense of security is tied to feeling like I know everything that’s going on. I’m not even sure I know all the staff anymore! I even have to make an appointment to talk to the pastor, and even then, it might not be the senior pastor who sees me. That’s where all this talk about reaching lost people and growing the church really leads to. I want it to be “us four and no more,” but they want to reach the whole world! Do you know what that would mean? Why, I would have to become less so it can become more! Where do ideas like that even come from?
“Let’s disciple the ones we have.”
Translation: A church can be about evangelism, or it can be about discipleship. Not both. We’re obviously misinterpreting Jesus when He said that it could be. But more to the point, I’m a bit on the spiritually prideful side of things, which means I like to talk about discipleship to remind everyone how discipled I am compared to the rest of the Christian minions. You know, I’m on the meaty, mature, believer-oriented, expositional, go-deep, doctrinally sound side of things. Not the trendy, culturally-hip, Christianity 101, contemporary, church for the unchurched, evangelistic side of things. And don’t bother me with the idea that there is all of eternity to grow in faith and knowledge and worship, and only here and now to evangelize. Or that the first church started with 3,000 converts and no discipleship program except 11 overwhelmed followers of Jesus who had only moments before abandoned and even betrayed Him. That’s Acts, and we all know Acts was written before anybody was, well, discipled.
So there you have it; the seven last phrases of the church.
Or at least seven you might hear very close to its last gasping breath.
James Emery White
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About Dr. James Emery White
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.
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