Hills to Die On
Dr. James Emery White
- 2017 Jul 20
It’s an old phrase, but a telling one: Which hills are you prepared to die on? Meaning, which stands are you going to take no matter the cost? For what are you prepared to die? Your answer will determine your core values, and until they are established, your church will not have a defined DNA. And that means it will not be set apart.
If you were to compare the Christian churches in your city by doctrinal statement, there probably wouldn’t be much disparity. Most will not veer from the original Nicene Creed established by the early church. If you were to compare them by purpose, again, you won’t find too many wavering from evangelism, ministry, discipleship, community and worship. We all get cute with nomenclature, but we don’t drift far from these five core purposes.
Even comparing your church to other churches in terms of mission won’t reveal much to the average observer. The Great Commission is pretty clear; the lesson of the sheep and the goats is apparent. In one form or another, we’re going to have a mission that embraces evangelism and discipleship along with social ministry; in a phrase, “the least and the lost.”
So what separates churches?
The hills they will die on.
Let me give you Mecklenburg Community Church’s (Meck’s) 10 core values, and perhaps you’ll see what I mean.
1. The Bible Is True
We believe the Bible is true and is the catalyst for change in individuals’ lives and in the church. From day one, whenever it comes to what to believe, how to think, how to operate, or where we should land on a particular position or issue, we've had one simple value: go to the Bible and then go with the Bible.
2. Lost People Matter to God
Lost people matter to God and, therefore, they ought to matter to us. This value puts us on mission. It tells us we have a clear cause: we are to be turned outward, not inward. For Meck as a church, growth is not an option but an absolute imperative. As long as there is one lost person left in our community, we are going to try and grow.
3. Culturally Relevant
As a church we should be culturally relevant while remaining doctrinally pure. We are trying to bring the message of Jesus to our world – and not just to our world, but also to our nation, to our city, to our time. So what we say and do must make sense to the person experiencing it. The apostle Paul had a deep commitment to this, once writing that he became "all things to all men so that by all possible means" he "might save some" (I Cor. 9:22).
The message of the gospel is unchanging; the method of communicating that gospel must change according to the language, culture and background of the audience. We never want to abuse this or cross a line. The goal is to be in the world, not of it. But we are to be out there on the front lines communicating the gospel in the most compelling, culturally relevant and understandable way possible.
4. Spiritually Authentic
It is our conviction that it is normal for followers of Christ to manifest authenticity and to grow in their spiritual maturity. That simply means we want to be spiritually real: real about our sin as we strive to become more like Christ. We believe that anyone who calls themselves a Christian should be a Christ-follower. They should be authentic in their faith.
That doesn’t mean perfection. It doesn’t mean Sunday smiles and plastic halos. Authenticity means that not only is our relationship with Christ a real one, but we’re also going to be real about it. It also means it must be growing. It’s not real if you are the same today as you were two years ago, or three years ago. There should be evidence of progress, growth, development and maturation. To be authentic means to become increasingly like Jesus.
The church should operate as a unified community of servants stewarding their spiritual gifts. The Bible teaches that every member of the church is a minister based on how God has gifted them – not just the ordained clergy or paid staff of the church.
We should have administrators administrating, teachers teaching, singers singing, counselors counseling and leaders leading. People should discover their gifts, develop them, and be freed up to use them in whatever capacity God intends so that they can make a difference in the world. And they should do this with a servant’s heart, a servant’s mind and a servant’s attitude.
6. Loving Relationships
Loving relationships should permeate every aspect of church life. This value drives me to be a zealous defender of the community of this church. We do everything in our power to relate to one another lovingly, truthfully, compassionately and graciously.
When there is conflict or tension, stress or misunderstanding, we tackle it head-on within the context of love. We’re not going to let it go underground, much less let it become cancerous so that it infects the body of Christ. I know we won’t all be equally close to one another; this isn’t about every single person being your best buddy. But we can be loving in our spirits, gracious in our hearts, and fiercely loyal to each other.
7. Life Change Through Relationships
Life change happens best through relationships. We are keenly aware of what other people do for our spiritual life. They challenge us, push us, motivate us and influence us. We all need people who come alongside us and help us to keep going. We all need people who can put their arms around us and help us make it through those times we cannot stand on our own.
Excellence honors God and inspires people. This is a value for us for two reasons. First, because it’s the only way to live a life that honors God. God deserves our best. Mediocrity does not honor God, nor does it reflect His character.
And second, excellence sends a message. When somebody comes in your church and sees typos in the program, sloppy printing or mailing, messy floors or grounds, poorly performed or rehearsed music, or a talk that sounds like it was pulled together the night before, they make a value judgment: “This God you talk about must not be that big of a deal. If He was, you wouldn’t do things this way.”
So we're passionate about excellence not only because we want to honor God with our lives but also because we know that mediocrity could invalidate everything we want to try to communicate to those around us about Christ.
9. Let Leaders Lead
This value is fleshed out behind the scenes, but it’s very important and strategic to everything we’re about. We believe that churches should be led by those with leadership gifts and structured according to the nature and mission of the church. We let leaders lead and we’re structured the way the Bible intimates we should be structured – not with committees and policies and constant business meetings with talk about “who’s in control” but along the lines of what a church is.
The church is a fellowship, so we structure for unity. The church is a family, so we organize, manage and lead it like one. The church is a body, so we are made up of people with differing gifts, filling different roles. And the church is a flock, so the church is cared for and led by shepherds.
10. Full Devotion
We believe that full devotion to Christ and His cause is normal for every believer. Not wavering back and forth; not lukewarm; not limp-wristed or halfhearted; not undecided or greeting the whole thing with a yawn. Fully devoted. That’s what we believe the church demands. As Eugene Peterson paraphrased Ephesians 6:12, “This is no afternoon athletic contest that we’ll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish against the Devil and all his angels” (Message).
Now, stating core values is meaningless. Living them, upholding them, modeling them, rewarding them, protecting them – that’s what matters.
And when that’s done, your values become your DNA.
So what are your values?
James Emery White
Adapted from James Emery White, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary (Baker).
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, 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 twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.