I first heard the line from a pastor friend that I like and respect very much. I thought the phrase was catchy, in your face, and made a good point so I repeated it several times. Soon I noticed others, hearing it from me, starting doing the same.

But before too long I began to question the wisdom of those words. In fact, it really only took a few minutes of sustained reflection (after using the phrase for a few months) to realize that the line, though loaded with good intent, was lopsided and biblically untenable. The line is one that pastors like to use to startle their congregations out of their holy huddles. It goes like this: “Church is not for you.”

On our best days, here’s what pastors are trying to say: “Don’t just think about yourself. Don’t get comfortable here because you have your friends and your programs. Think about the people who aren’t here yet. Think about our neighbors who need to hear the gospel. Let’s be willing to make some sacrifices for the sake of the lost. Let’s forgo some of our preferences and some of our ease so that new people can find a home here. We have salvation. We have a church family. We know Jesus Christ and have the hope of eternal life. Out there they have hell and are without God in the world. Let’s not be an ingrown church when there are so many lost people outside these walls.”

That’s what I meant to say by the line “Church is not for you.” I’m sure that’s what my friend meant as well (though some people may mean worse things). But as much as pastors may want to emphasize evangelism and outreach, telling the congregation “Church is not for you” is the wrong way to go about it.

One of God’s great gifts to the Christian is the church. It is for us, because God is for us too. The worship, though ultimately for God, is meant for our edification–for believers’ edification, not immediate resonance with nonbelievers (though we want our services to be intelligible to them too). Just as important, think of the one another commands. Church should be a place to bear each others burdens, meet physical needs, express comfort, demonstrate care, exercise hospitality, exchange greetings, offer encouragement, administer rebuke, receive forgiveness–basically faith working itself out in love. And isn’t love for each other the distinguishing mark of the Christian community?

One other thing: don’t forget that the Great Commission calls us to make disciples not make decisions. I am all in favor of decisions for Christ (rightly conceived), but the church’s aim is not simply for conversions. Jesus told the disciples (and by extension the church I believe) that their commission was to teach the nations to obey all that he had commanded. We must grow up in Christ as much as we must come to Christ. So Sunday school is not a distraction from mission. Small group Bible studies (again, done well) are not some lame expression of bubble Christianity that take us away from the real purposes of the church. Sermons, even the kind that go into disputed areas of theology or highlight doctrinal distinctives, do not have to be exercises in stuffing fat Christians full of more knowledge while the world perishes without Christ. Theology is not the enemy of conversion and wanting church life to be a blessing is not what’s wrong with the world.

Amen to evangelism. Amen to services that recognize the presence of non-Christians. Amen to poking long-time believers to serve in ways besides the reading of books. But boo-hoo to chiding church members for wanting a church that loves them, teaches them, and watches over their souls. The phrase sounds prophetic and I understand the good intentions, but there is simply no biblical warrant for saying to God’s people “church is not for you.” Better to say ala the Apostle Peter: “Church is for you, and for your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God calls to himself.”

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27 thoughts on “A Phrase to Retire”

  1. Rose says:

    I really appreciate your example in repenting from this. I hope your pastor friend and those you’ve heard repeating your slogan will follow your lead in trying to make right the harm that was done.

  2. Justin says:

    This is an excellent post. Thanks for sharing!

    I especially love this line:

    “Theology is not the enemy of conversion and wanting church life to be a blessing is not what’s wrong with the world.”

  3. Marc Cortez says:

    Would it be better to say that the church is not “about” you? That might help people keep their understanding of the church rooted in a larger story that is about God and his purposes, while still affirming that the church is a blessing for God’s people and the world.

  4. Michael says:

    Great post. I think the natural tendency for a church is to over time become almost exclusively insider focused. We love our relationships, potlucks, etc. I grew up in small churches and many of them seemed to be more of a social club that was happy to accept applications. The other extreme was an absolute focus on numbers and metrics rather than on life change (or at least that’s the way it was communicated). Having said that, I totally agree that there must be a balance. While this phrase may communicate the wrong message (and thank you for addressing it), it seems to me that most churches that maintain a focus on reaching those who do not know Jesus are in practice actually balanced churches. In other words, they are generally able to focus on both successfully. Has anyone on here been involved in a church that had swung so far to the evangelistic extreme that the growth of those in the church was neglected? Just wondering.

    Son Followers Blog

  5. Michael says:

    Marc,

    Excellent point. Ultimately we are in church both to give and to receive–both to serve and to be fed. Both are purposes of God, for God and from God. It’s all about God, not us.

    Son Followers Blog

  6. Marc Cortez says:

    @Michael – I think you’re right that many churches are unbalanced in the direction of maintaining the status quo. But, I can say from experience that it’s very easy to tip in the other direction. Many of the larger churches I’ve been a part of have had an unhealthy emphasis on evangelism to the neglect of worship, discipleship, and other key aspects of healthy church life.

  7. I agree that church is a place to learn, to grow, to help one another. It is also a way to be intentional about sharing the gospel. My question is church for everyone? If we think the answer is yes, then are we making church for everyone?

  8. Kim K. says:

    Relatedly – can we also retire “Don’t Go to Church, Be the Church”? I understand (I think) what point is being made. However, it always comes across to me as “get off your duffs and go do something that’s really important”. At least for that one day when we are supposed to be “being” the

  9. Kim K. says:

    church.

  10. Thom Bullock says:

    Michael Horton wrote clearly about this in one of his more recent things (I want to say it was Christless Christianity but I could be wrong), that the notion of ‘coming to church to serve’ is causing a lot of confusion, burnout, and self righteousness among churches. I think the family/individual who comes to church, is as hospitable as the moment requires, then sings, prays, and listens to the word preached, and then goes home, has done nothing wrong, in fact they’ve probably done the best thing for their souls.

  11. Bob says:

    As one who probably has said that line, I would like to add my two cents. I believe that thought is directed at the church people who will not make changes that would make church more relevent for the unbeliever upon there first visit. They send a message of extreme self-centeredness. Its more like “its all about me”. I think a healthy church seeks to create the tension between care for those inside and inviting for those outside. I agree that the church is about you but not all about you. Keep up the good thinking Kevin.

  12. Doyle says:

    Kevin said….The worship, though ultimately for God, is meant for our edification–for believers’ edification, not immediate resonance with nonbelievers (though we want our services to be intelligible to them too).

    I agree, and if church is about the worship of God, how can an unbeliever worship? They can attend the church, hear the words that are spoken, hopefully see the love of brothers and sisters in Christ, but can they worship God as unbelievers?

    If we make worship about evangelism, then we are tailoring worship for the unbeliever, not for the worship of God. That’s when we get statements about being relevant, and all those other church growth movement catch phrases. And that’s when we start looking for rock bands to lead the music, playing videos of popular R rated movies during a sermon, dropping the “Reformed” from our name because we don’t want it to be an impediment (really?) to someone coming to church, and all those other goofy things churches do to get butts in the pews as if the number of attendees is the ultimate goal.

    The Great Commission says GO and make disciples of all nations. If we are not as believers being taught and edified, how will we have the tools to go and make disciples of all nations? Many churches are letting the believers off the hook. Now instead of going and making believers of all nations, we have turned into ….Come to the church and if you come we will try to make disciples of you there.

  13. Rick says:

    Maybe an aspect behind the sentimentality of the phrase – “Church is not for you.” is to address the ‘Consumer mentality’. Although even that idea needs to be thought through. As the church, we should be gathering together to consume AND to give of the gifts, service and talents that God has graced us with. Both are necessary and one without the other seems to be unhealthy.

  14. Jeremy says:

    Church in not just for you.

  15. Steve says:

    I appreciate your post. There is a sense in which the church is “about us” in every way. Christian service is God’s gift to us. While it is sometimes difficult to serve (as it may even cost us our lives), we serve the Lord, by His grace, out of the joy we have in Him. It is our delight in God–our worship of God–which leads us to make the sacrifices that are part and parcel of the Christian mission.

    Yet at the same time, there is a sense in which the church is not about us. The church is not a means by which my selfish or idolatrous desires are fulfilled. We want to avoid the kind of consumer mindset which looks to the church as a means to this end.

    Quite simply, the church is “about me” in that it seeks to fulfill my God-centered desires. The church is not “about me” in that it seeks not to fulfill fleshly desires.

  16. Another phrase that should be thrown out is life change. The issue is not life change; but Christ-likeness, conformity to Christ, holiness, the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord, growing in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, practicing righteousness, the new birth, et al. Life change is a borrowed term from the PMA and 12-step therapy groups.

    Anyone can experience life change without conversion. We need to call it what it is, not what sounds attractive to the non-believer who does not want to deal with the sin that stands between him and God.

  17. Dan says:

    Morris, what is PMA? “Life change” .. never thought about that but you may have a point.

    Has anyone heard this one that sounds similar to “Church is not for you”: “The church is the only institution that exists solely for the benefit of nonmembers.” Not sure where it originated, but have seen it attributed to William Temple, Archbishop in the Church of England, and also G. K. Chesterton.

  18. Monica says:

    I really enjoyed the perspective you took on this, especially the point that we are also called to be discipled. Truely, church is meant for everyone. It’s an open place that should be a safe place to grow, learn and fellowship. It fuels us for the week to come.

  19. mark nevius says:

    Church is not for you is unbiblical. However, church services may not be for us. There is a difference between “church” and church services. We are never called to bring people to a church service but to Christ and out of this a relationship with his Church.

  20. Dan,
    The Positive Mental Attitude group.

  21. Michael says:

    Morris,

    Holiness and sanctification are life changes. The point is that there is a difference between getting rear ends in the seats (ie. focus on headcount) and actually impacting someone’s life. If the church’s implementation of “life change” is not biblical then that’s not good. But let’s not get legalistic and start outlawing generic phrases because they’re also used by some other group in a different way. It puts the focus on the wrong thing. I think the assumption is that anyone who uses the word “life change” is guilty of watering down the gospel and failing to lead people in the direction of holiness and purity. It’s simply not true.

    Rather than being judgmental about the phrases people use, maybe it makes more sense to focus on the essence of what they’re trying to communicate and have discussions about that. Those discussions seem to actually add value.

    Son Followers Blog

  22. Michael,

    It may be different with you, but among those, without exception, that I have been around that use the term life change it always means being a better person, better father..mother…etc, having a better life; and is always devoid of the gospel, which is where true life change starts. It has become a cool trendy term that has no meaning because it is not backed by any defintion of what this life change is or what it looks like; therefore everyone is left to put their own interpretation on it. But, hey, it sounds really really good. I have never seen it use with the exhortation or admonition to be holy, or to be more like Christ. It usually gets thrown out in a conversation, like somehow its meaningful, when it has no real meaning attached to it.

    It is not biblical, and has been brought into use because it is non-offensive. Why can’t Christ-likeness be used? Why can’t spiritual growth or becoming more spiritually mature be used? Our measure as Christians is not how much life change we have experienced, but how much like Christ have we become. We are a better whatever because we have become more like Him. It is into Christ and His likeness that we are being conformed, and it is the work that God has started that He will complete, and it is Him whom we shall be like when we are gathered to Him. This is the goal of the Church, to make disciples. Life change, total metamorphasis, is the result of becoming more like Christ, not the goal.

    I always get a charge out of people like you who whip out the legalistic and judgmental tags when you are clueless about the person who made the comment, especially when the comment had nothing to do with being legalistic, but have gotten their toes stepped on. I was expecting this response.

  23. Michael says:

    I actually like getting my toes stepped on. :) Especially if it’s for a good reason. I wasn’t feeling attacked at all. I’m simply saying that your beef should be with those who fail to talk about holiness and purity rather than with those who use the phrase “life change” in a sentence. Maybe I misunderstood you, but it sounded like your message was that Christians should never again say the phrase “life change” because that will make them talk more about holiness and purity. But the two have nothing to do with each other. It reminds me of people who say Christians shouldn’t play cards because people use cards to gamble. :) Isn’t that what the pharisees were doing? Creating rules to keep people from breaking other rules?

    If the phrase bugs you, I definitely support your decision to not use it. About what other Christians do with the words they say, maybe we have bigger fish to fry than “life change”. Just a thought.

    Son Followers Blog

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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