Seven Habits of a Lifeless Church

Seven Habits of a Lifeless Church September 19, 2012

Let us say that a church alive is marked by Christlikeness among the people, worship of God, love and compassion and mission toward others … and other such marks. Let us also say it is marked by the church’s classic marks: one, holy, catholic and apostolic. And we must root this all in gospel and Trinity. Our culture works against a church alive and if we let culture shape us we can create a lifeless church, though any church that is lifeless is a sick contradiction. The themes of our culture, however, work against the life of God in a church.

What are they? What cultural trends challenge the church/faith? What trends intrude on missional spirituality?

In their new book, Missional Spirituality, Roger Holland and Len Hjalmarson, sketch seven cultural habits that grow in Westerners naturally and which, at the same time, counter what the gospel aims to do in our midst.

1. Disenchantment: borrowing from Charles Taylor and others, the argument is that prior to the Enlightenment (at least) it was difficult not to believe in God, while in the modern world it is difficult to believe in God. The world prior to the Reformation and especially before the Enlightenment was enchanted — alive with the presence of God and signs of his presence. The Enlightenment’s rationality and empiricism and dualism created a world in which it was easy/ier not to believe in God. Christians who buy into the Enlightenment project counter the gospel’s world of enchantment with God.

2. Excarnation. They speak here of disembodiment or the diminishment of embodied spirituality. It’s about ideas, not rituals and acts and form.

3. Abstraction. We separate ideas from objects and subjects and rationalize and theorize. The faith becomes a system of beliefs instead of a Person in whom we trust and in whom we hope.

4. Consumerism. I don’t think they get to the bottom of this one, though they touch on themes and symptoms of consumerism. Ownership is normal; obsession with ownership, status, and the dopamine rush of purchasing … these are at work in consumerism, as is a culture in which everything is comodified. Consumerist Christianity, at the ecclesial level, is about attending a church because of what you can get from it instead of worshiping God and serving our brothers and sisters. With consumerism, I think of Clement, of St Anthony, of Augustine, of St Francis, of some in the monastic tradition… of Ron Sider … of the neo-Monastics, etc..

5. Entitlement. A society marked by consumerism and self-image education feels entitled to a church meeting needs and to what it offers and to participating in decisions and authority etc..

6. Extraction. Their point is a simple one: we too often draw non-Christians out of their culture into a church culture in order to Christianize them. We plug them into a pre-set forms and roles and routines and deprive some of their natural giftedness.

7. Mutant Pietism and Programism. They will look at Pietism later, but pietism has been diminished and it has been connected to easily to church programs. Mutant pietism is inner world individualism and insufficiently missionally-shaped piety. The original pietism, esp that of Francke, was missionally minded.

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  • RJS

    Consumerist Christianity, at the ecclesial level, is about attending a church because of what you can get from it instead of worshiping God and serving our brothers and sisters.

    This is so true – we all need to think hard about why we attend a church, and how we approach being the body of Christ (a meaty metaphor of Paul).

    On the other side – leadership rather than attender …

    Consumerist Christianity at the ecclesial level is about structuring a church to feed this impulse and buying into the myth that success is measured by the number of consumers who choose to use your product.

  • Rick


    But churches often sell that to get people in the door. And it works. The churches hope that the people will then, eventually, come and mature in the faith.

    Now what really happens once people 1st enter the doors is another story.

  • Alan K

    RJS and Rick-

    I think there is a fine line between selling and gifting, and churches must know the difference. In selling there is an exchange–we give you above average social services and you give us access to your heart and mind and hopefully your attendance and checkbook. With gifting the message is in the act of gifting. There is no exchange and is therefore covenantal. Selling is contractual.

  • RJS


    There are a number of ways to think about this – and I don’t claim to have the only correct answer. But …

    I don’t think the issue is selling or gifting – I think it is the difference between “being” and consuming.

    The the church is called to be the body of Christ to each other and to the world. Certainly we will evangelize – but we can only evangelize effectively if we are the body – and if worship, discipleship, and service within the body is a top (perhaps the) focus. If we are focused on either selling or gifting we are probably off track.

  • DMH

    Can we really get beyond consumerism in this country (USA)? There are two church’s within a short walk of my house, at least five for a longer walk. If I want to drive a short distance the number jumps to around thirty-ish. I choose one based on my values (what I get from it?). Of course, once I choose one then I can give myself to worship and service.

  • Jeff Y

    These are very good. I think #4 & #6 at times stand in tension with one another (esp. when a church becomes, as RJS notes, an attempt to appeal to consumerism). Some churches choose to remain in their tradition (this is touched on in Tim Keller’s new book, Center Church, which has a lot to offer); but not contextualize the gospel to various cultures (without compromising its core) – as Paul does, in the classic example of Acts 13 & 17. The challenge is to contextualize without compromise (not just appealing to the various likes / dislikes of the church consumer). I do think that church shopping is a problem. Yet, I also empathize with many young people stuck in a dead, stale church, singing many hymns that were themselves culturally entrenched in 1923 (musically and theologically. I don’t think one needs a rock band; a church can be a cappella and have great music). Then add the extraction/excarnation features and those can drive one to have a consumerist mentality. Thus, there are tensions within this list. But, when consumerism is driven purely by the culture – this becomes a problem.

  • Jeff Y

    I should add about the young person stuck in such a situation as I described above – it is very difficult when, in addition, the leadership is unwilling to change and has come to associate their past culture with the gospel itself – such that it becomes a doctrinal heresy to change any of their extraction or excarnation features. Although, if there is a willingness to change gradually, then patience is also a virtue.

  • Alan K


    I would say that gifting is at the very heart of being (I don’t think what you and I are saying are all that different). The church needs to give away its resources to have faithful witness to the gospel. It is when the church makes an offering in hopes for a return that it falsifies what it believes. If the church exists in a manner that seeks to secure its own future survival then God is not obligated to uphold it. I think all seven points made above tap into this survival mentality in some way, shape or form.

  • lifeless = triumph of the evangelical gnostics

  • Tom F.

    the “entitlement” part is interesting…

    the way the post phrases it seems to mostly poke at lay people who feel “entitled” to have participation in decisions and authority.

    I have experienced “entitlement” by those not in leadership as a leader, but I have also experienced how disempowering it can be to be in a place where participation is blocked.

    I am sure this is more nuanced in the book, but isn’t it just as likey that leaders sometimes feel “entitled” to their authority by virtue of their position? Wouldn’t both forms of entitlement be just as “lifeless”.

  • Another problem with consumerism is that it trains people to expect a variety of options from which they can pick and choose (churches become like shopping malls). Megachurches are able to cater (for better or for worse) to the consumer mindset. Smaller churches have the challenge of trying to counter it.

    Not sure what to make of “entitlement”–it seems to me that it’s healthy for churches to invite participation.

  • Todd Jordan

    #9 I think I understand evangelical and gnostics, but evangelical gnostics is new to my limited sphere. Please help me understand.

  • RJS

    Alan K,

    We may not be saying things all that different – but I am not quite sure of your comment on the church giving away vs seeking to secure its future.

    My emphasis is really on the church as the people of God – not an institution but a family. We need to be the family and invite others to join the family.

    So “give away its resources to have a faithful witness” can be a good phrase about keeping the family open and welcoming and about being generous and a positive force in the community.

    But the phrase can also carry a meaning that involves the church as an institution always focused outwardly, on the next “convert.” Energy and resources spent on being a family, caring for each other, and discipleship becomes inwardly focused and selfish. This underlies some of the way “missional” is used by some.

    A family cares for its members – a gifting family cares about its neighbors without neglecting its members, from baby to great grandfather.

  • RJS

    Tom F,

    The entitlement part is interesting – it does seem to poke at lay people who feel entitled to have participation in decisions and authority. I wonder if the book does nuance it at all. Scot only has a one-line comment on this.

    A church is lifeless when most are spectators. When one is disempowered by blocked participation there is no choice but to view church as a consumer good … because the only “choice” is to accept what is offered or to look elsewhere.

  • MatthewS

    That entitlement item does get one’s attention. I had a prof who said that one of the biggest problems with pastors was when they developed an entitlement mindset, leading to demanding respect, expecting certain comforts, and in more extreme cases leading to moral failure.

    And, I heard with my own little ears a church member once declaring that they planned to give a certain amount to the church over their lifetime and it was only reasonable to expect that amount to purchase their influence on church decisions.

    Maybe other cultures have other issues but I suspect that in Western cultures, it is something that manifests itself across the spectrum of clergy and laity.

  • Jane

    No. 7 is Spot on…the term mutant pietism is interesting…Franke and Spener were extremely missional. There didn’t seem to be a difference between their devotion to God and heart for serving the least of these whether teaching theology, leading people to study their Bibles, building orphanages or feeding hungry kids.

    I wonder how we could recapture their missionality today??

  • Jane

    One more thing….’Angels, Worms amd Bogeys: The Christian Ethic of Pietism’ by Michele Clifton-Soderstrom explains the missional aspect of pietism well…

  • Jane

    One more thing….’Angels, Worms amd Bogeys: The Christian Ethic of Pietism’ by Michele Clifton-Soderstrom explains the missional aspect of pietism well…

  • What is the saying? “What you win them with is what you win them to.” The challenge of consumerism is huge and it does go hand-in-hand with entitlement issues. As long as one can feel entitled to anything other than loving one another as Christ has loved us, we are going to have problems with a life of cHesed — where we engage love and grace and mercy to submit, serve and initiate that which is in the best interest of our covenant partners — God and our brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ.

    The challenges before the Body are huge — but they are not beyond the power of the Spirit to solve in and through us….

  • RJS


    That saying is new to me, but one I’ll have to remember.

  • Jon

    Or what McLuhan said: the medium is the message.