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Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Dr. James Emery White

Dr. James Emery White's weblog

During a trip to Peru, I experienced something new: altitude sickness.

I traveled in a short period of time from sea level in Lima to the city of Cusco, which is around 12,000 feet above sea level. Within three hours, I was as sick as I have ever been in my life – vomiting, headache and extreme fatigue set in with a vengeance – all because of a lack of oxygen.

I suffered through the night in my hotel room, and it was all I could do to get out of bed the next day by checkout time to head to my next destination.

I must have looked pretty bad because at the front desk, the first question out of the attendant’s mouth was, “Do you need some oxygen?”

Apparently, altitude sickness is common enough among travelers that within minutes I was provided with an oxygen mask and tank for a quick hit. 

After five minutes of breathing through the oxygen mask, I felt an almost instantaneous return of energy and a calming of my nausea, and the headache lessened dramatically.

It was startling to me how sensitive the human body is to a lack of oxygen in the air we breathe. I have been equally startled by how sensitive the church body is to a lack of what itneeds to breathe.

What is the oxygen for the church that, if deprived of it, would lead to sickness?

That’s easy. 


When there is relational unity within a church, there is health. When there isn’t, the very oxygen the church needs to live becomes thin. More quickly than you can imagine, the church gets very, very sick. Not just around the area where there is a relational breakdown, but systemically sick.

There is little sense of worship. Evangelism wanes and few people, if any, get reached for Christ. Ministry becomes lifeless and programmatic. Discipleship rings hollow.  

All because of the lack of authentic community.

It is true that the body can acclimate itself to high altitudes and thin air. With the body, this can be a good thing. With the church body, it never is. But sadly, many churches have “acclimated” to disunity and live with the sickness as if it is normal.

This is why there are so many dysfunctional churches with diminished impact.

No wonder that disunity was the one thing Jesus prayed against in His great High Priestly prayer before His crucifixion (John 13-17). Jesus prayed for unity and love among those who would share His name, for, He said, it would be the ultimate apologetic for His message and the message of the church.

In other words, it is the very air we need to breathe. Without it, not only will we grow ill, but we will also have nothing to offer the world’s great deprivation.

So breathe deep. Inhale and exhale the very oxygen Christ wants for our lives. And when you sense a little altitude sickness coming on, 

… do whatever it takes to put on the oxygen mask quickly.

James Emery White


Editor’s Note

This blog was originally released in 2016. The Church & Culture Team thought you would enjoy reading it again.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on TwitterFacebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.

If you ever get a chance to visit Paris, you will be tempted to spend every minute walking alongside its canals, getting lost in the Louvre, or exploring the back alleys of its many quarters (I’m personally fond of the Cour du Commerce St-Andre in St-Germain). If you take a day trip away from the famed city, you will undoubtedly be lured to nearby Versailles to see the opulent decadence of Louis XIV.  

Fair enough.  

But when you go, leave early enough to reboard the train after lunch for another stop or two, including the little village of Chartres (pronounced shar-tras) just 40 miles or so southwest of Paris.  

If you do, you will experience one of the most holy places I have ever entered, and the site of millions of pilgrims who share my feelings.

The site of the church has been considered hallowed ground for many centuries, akin to such sites as Stonehenge, though we don’t know why. You can take tours into its crypt and discover the ancient druid site the church rests over, along with a well that dates to those times.  

There is some evidence that a church existed there as early as the 4th century. A fire in 1020 destroyed the building; it was rebuilt, only to be enveloped by fire again in 1194. When it was rebuilt from those ashes, what is arguably the world’s most beautiful, and perhaps most sacred, cathedral was built.

Chartres is an ancient medieval cathedral that still retains the sense of being an ancient medieval cathedral. In fact, it is almost perfectly preserved in regard to the original design and details of its construction, which began in 1194. The current building set the standard for what came to be known as Gothic cathedrals, with a spire rising more than 300 feet and a nave that is more than 100 feet high.  

Yet if you have heard of it at all, it would probably be because of its stained glass, considered to be the most beautiful of its kind that has ever been created.  

Chartres actually holds more than 8,000 images in various mediums—a “pictorial encyclopedia encased in a stone binding” portraying “the whole drama of the Redemption, from the Creation to the Last Judgment.” 

Today we are used to sight and sound extravaganzas; as Colin Ward notes, “We can only imagine how much more miraculous the windows of Chartres must have been for the pilgrims of the Middle Ages, accustomed to daylight, candlelight or rush-light, when they first encountered this incredible light show.” The dazzling mixture of blue and ruby “seem to fulfill an active part in cathedral ritual—an incense of color.”

When you first enter Chartres, you will want to look up and around at the famed stained glass. The rose window above the main portal dates from the 13th century, and the three windows beneath it contain what is arguably the finest examples of 12th-century stained-glass artistry in the world.  

But don’t forget to look down.  

There you will see an ancient prayer labyrinth on the floor. Historians assume it was placed there as a final penance for pilgrims who, it is believed, had to traverse its length on their knees. There was once a copper plaque in the center of the maze, now lost to time. Based on a description of its contents by an 18th-century scholar, the labyrinth portrayed man’s path to God, not after death, but now, while here on earth.

I went there to see the famed windows, but this is what I have returned for time and again. I find entering any of the medieval cathedrals of Europe a moving experience, but none are more affecting than Chartres. Stone floors, vaulted ceiling, darkened interior... it transports you back in time and calls you to a sense of reverence and reflection. “To enter Chartres is to enter an ethereal, glowing ambience.” Chartres offers a fresh and enduring encounter with the sacred—not simply as a foretaste of the life to come, but as a challenge to the life at hand.

We need a sense of the sacred in our day and, from it, the holy. Even more, we need the sanctified lives it reminds us to live. When people spend time with us as Christians, they should sense something about us that is not of this world, a life that holds something they do not possess. Sadly, there are few such encounters. Yet when I am in Chartres, I encounter that otherness in ways that overwhelm my senses.  

And it affects me.  

I am driven to pray. I want to reflect, to go deep. I don’t want to leave, for there I find myself longing to be the person I seldom am. It makes me want to lead a more holy life, because I am face-to-face with such a clear sense of the holy. 

I know, it shouldn’t take a building to do this to my inner world. But God has made us sensate creatures and given us the gift of the arts – and architecture – to both create and to inspire.

Of course, the greatest creation for inspiration is creation itself. A vast ocean, a breathtaking mountain peak, a babbling brook, a bird in flight.

But no matter where we find it, or what resonates most with our soul, we should enter such places as regularly as we can.

And then they enter us.

James Emery White



Adapted from James Emery White, A Traveler’s Guide to the Kingdomget the eBook.

Roland Bainton, Christianity.

Colin Ward, Chartres.

Michael Wood, Bruce Cole and Adelheid Gealt, Art of the Western World: From Ancient Greece to Post-Modernism.

Timothy Thibodeau, “Western Christendom,” in The Oxford History of Christian Worship, ed. by Geoffrey Wainwright and Karen B. Westerfield Tucker.

The question posed in the title of this blog has, I believe, a simple answer. But before we get to that, some context.  

A fascinating study just came out of the Pew Research Center. They analyzed 12,832 messages posted on church websites during the fall of 2020. They found that the elephants in the room of our world – the pandemic, the presidential election and all things race and racism – dominated the pulpit. In other words, we took the cultural bait. Pastors tackled the issues of the day and the questions of the day.

More than 80% of all churches heard at least one message on COVID. Two-thirds of all congregations heard at least one sermon on the election. Almost half heard at least one message on race.

But was this the appropriate thing to do? Should pastors speak to current events and cultural happenings or just stick to preaching the Bible?

Okay, as promised, here is my simple answer:


This is not an either/or decision, but a both/and. As theologian Karl Barth once said, every pastor should have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

Jesus did. 

He made references to news events, tragedies, political issues, cultural and religious divides… all for the purpose of applying truth to people’s lives. The goal was the constant application of the gospel to life as it is playing out in the real world.   

Let’s go further. If you aren’t bringing the Word of God to full life application and current events, then what you are bringing the Word of God to? It isn’t meant to be mere head knowledge. We are, as James reminds us, to be doers of the Word. Particularly when the events of our day are so deeply moral and spiritual in nature.

Really – scroll through cultural issues over the last 18 months or so, and tell me what was not a moral, ethical or spiritual issue:

  • racism
  • the meaning of “love of neighbor”
  • is a nation favored by God?
  • what does it mean to be a Christian leader?

Here’s the last 5%: While there is little doubt that the church and its leaders should address all issues of life through a biblical lens, bringing Scripture to bear on whatever is needed, the nature of the resistance to that is worth noting.

If you felt the Church was being too cultural, and not being biblical enough, was that because the Bible wasn’t being brought to bear on cultural issues or because you didn’t like the Bible’s verdict on cultural issues?

This is important.

I challenge you to defend saying the church shouldn’t speak out on, say, racism. It is a terrible evil and a stench in the nostrils of God. It is also clearly, uniformly, singled out in Scripture. To speak out against racism is to BE biblical. You can’t preach the Bible without denouncing racism.

But if you don’t like what the Bible says about race and racism, then we are on different turf. Because now you are not asking the Church to turn from culture to the Bible, you are asking the Church to address culture through your non-biblical lens; or to refuse to address culture through your non-biblical lens.

That we cannot and must not do.

So again, let’s address the question:

Are we to preach the Bible or address cultural issues?

The answer is clear:


James Emery White



“Pastors Often Discussed Election, Pandemic and Racism in Fall of 2020,” Pew Research Center, July 8, 2021, read online.

Kate Shellnutt, “How Thousands of Sermons Addressed the Crises of 2020,” Christianity Today, July 8, 2021, read online.

“Should Pastors Address Current Events in Their Sermons?” Christianity TodayNovember27, 2017, read online


About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on TwitterFacebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.