Are highly dedicated churches biblical? Are high standards for churches antithetical to a grace-based community? We think not. In fact, the grace of God does not contradict high dedication, but actually complements it for a number of reasons.
It doesn’t make sense to put Jesus in second place
Even a quick and cursory reading of the gospels will reveal the radical claims of Christ on our lives. Jesus believed that it made complete sense to dedicate our lives to him as a first priority. He said,
(Lk. 9:23) “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.”
(Lk. 9:25) “What is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself?”
(Mt. 22:37) You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.
In Romans 12, Paul taught that commitment to Christ is not based on self-effort or will power. It is based on “the mercies of God.” After understanding the grace of God for us, Paul writes that the only logical action is to dedicate our lives to the cause of Christ (Rom. 12:1-2).
The first-century world placed a high value on the family unit. People lived with their families, and in their thinking, the family came first above all else. Yet Jesus said, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Mt. 10:37; cf. Lk. 14:26-27). Of course, the Bible teaches that we are supposed to honor our father and mother, and our families should be high priorities for all of us (Ex. 20:12; Eph. 6:2). But Jesus calls us to put him as his first priority—above all else. Since God is the greatest conceivable Good, created things (even good things like friends or family) cannot come before God. Elsewhere, he said that God’s kingdom and righteousness should come “first” before all else (Mt. 6:33).
If we place good things above God, we ironically ruin them. We shouldn’t place gifts from God above the Giver himself. Without God at the center of our lives, we won’t be able to love our friends and families as we should. It’s only as we place God at the center that we find the ability to become the parents and spouses that we need to be.
The “one another” passages
The Bible contains many imperatives often referred to as the “one another” passages. These passages are given in the context of spiritual community. These would include the command to “stimulate one another to love and good deeds” (Heb. 10:24), “confess your sins to one another” (Jas. 5:16), “be kind to one another” (Eph. 4:32), and “love one another from the heart” (1 Pet. 1:22). A number of observations can be made about these passages:
First, the one another passages are a BIBLICAL EMPHASIS—not just a BIBLICAL TEACHING. The Bible teaches that we should not use foul language (Eph. 4:29; 5:4), but this is not a biblical emphasis. However, there are fifty four one another passages in all.
Second, the one another passages are not only for the first-century culture. Just like the other imperatives of the NT, these are for believers in all cultures.
Third, the one another passages are not directed to the context of the FAMILY—but the CHURCH. The Bible has directions for families (Eph. 6:1-4; Col. 3:18-21). Yet the one another passages refer to members within the Body of Christ—not the family unit. If we interpret the one another passages to refer to the family unit, does this mean we can interpret the passages to the family unit to refer to the church (i.e. Wives submitting to all men; children obeying all people)?
Fourth, these passages cannot be authentically expressed in going to church once a week. While these passages do not tell us how often we must be involved in the Body of Christ, we can surely assume that it is more than once a week for one hour. How could you confess your sin to a relative stranger in a church pew? How could we love one another “fervently from the heart” for two hours a week at a church service? Such a thing doesn’t seem possible. This is why the early Christians met “daily” with one another in home churches (Acts 2:46 NIV).
For example, in Colossians 3:16, we are told to “admonish one another.” Yet how could you admonish someone if you didn’t know their problems? Even if you did know about someone’s problems, could you ever really admonish them without first investing in their lives personally and building their trust? How easy is it to take the admonishment of those with whom you don’t have a close relationship?
Our autonomous culture is strange—not the biblical view of community
People in our culture often think it strange for believers to spend so much time together. Isn’t this strange?
Not at all. Humans were meant to be in community and relationship with one another. God himself is a community of persons—the Trinity. He is one being, but three separate and distinct forms of consciousness. He has always existed in relationship and community (Jn. 17:5, 24). This is all to say that living in spiritual community with others isn’t strange; it’s what God intended for us as personal beings (Gen. 2:18).
Western culture moves increasingly alienated. We spend days without relating to another human being. Modern people often have no commitments to relationships—even our own families. Our relationships are casual, superficial, and estranged. In our culture, punching incomplete sentences and smiley faces into a pale, white screen is considered “being friends.” But this is certainly an odd view of friendships and relationships.
In their 2006 journal article in American Sociological Review, Miller McPherson (et al.) found, “The number of people saying there is no one with whom they discuss important matters nearly tripled.” In 1985, the number of close confidants in whom one could discuss “important matters” was three people (2.94). In 2004, it dropped to only two (2.08). They found, “Almost half of the population (43.6 percent) now [report] that they discuss important matters with either no one or with only one other person.” Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam writes,
In the mid-to late 1970s …the average American entertained friends at home about fourteen to fifteen times a year. By the late 1990s that figure had fallen to eight times per year.
Between 1974 and 1998 the frequency with which Americans ‘spend a social evening with someone who lives in your neighborhood’ fell by about one-third.’
Death comes sooner (social isolation is as big a risk factor for premature death as smoking). Well-connected people live longer, happier lives, even if they have to forgo a new Lexus to spend time with friends.
Justin Worland of Time magazine wrote a recent article titled “Why Loneliness May Be the Next Big Public-Health Issue.”
Social isolation—or lacking social connection—and living alone were found to be even more devastating to a person’s health than feeling lonely, respectively increasing mortality risk by 29% and 32%.
Many social scientists say technology and housing trends are increasing the risk of loneliness. More Americans are living alone than ever before, and technology like texting and social media has made it easier to avoid forming substantive relationships in the flesh and blood.
In their 2015 article in Perspectives on Psychological Science, Julianne Holt-Lunstad (et al.) write,
Current evidence indicates that heightened risk for mortality from a lack of social relationships is greater than that from obesity… with the risk from social isolation and loneliness (controlling for multiple other factors) being equivalent to the risk associated with Grades 2 and 3 obesity. Affluent nations have the highest rates of individuals living alone since census data collection began and also likely have the highest rates in human history, with those rates projected to increase.
We consider isolation and autonomy to be normal. We think it’s strange to spend our free time with people, but find nothing strange about sitting slack-jawed for hours in front of a video game or television for six hours straight. Surely, we are the strange ones—not the Bible’s view of community.
Christian culture in the Western world is failing
Most churches in the West are perfectly content with low dedication to Christ. In fact, they don’t even encourage their members to do meaningful ministry at all. A former seminary professor of ours recently lamented that his church had nowhere for him to serve besides being a greeter or a money collector on Sunday morning. Here was a man who was an excellent and engaging teacher with a PhD in Hebrew linguistics and theology, and the only ministry opportunity for him was to be the Christian equivalent to a Walmart greeter!
The Western Church’s rejection of the biblical picture of radical dedication to Christ isn’t reaching our culture either. According to the American Religious Identification Survey, Christianity declined by 10% between 1990 and 2008. In his book The American Church in Crisis, David Olson states that the church in America his declined from 9.2% of the population to 9.1% from 1990 to 2005. In her book The Fall of the Evangelical Nation, author Christine Wicker writes,
Evangelical Christianity in America is dying… Look at it any way you like: Conversions. Baptisms. Membership. Retention. Participation. Giving. Attendance. Religious literacy. Effect on culture. All are down and dropping… Nonbelievers are the fastest-growing faith group in America in numbers and percentage. From 1990 to 2001, which was the last good count, they more than doubled, from 14 million to 29 million. Their proportion of the population grew from 8 percent to more than 14 percent.
In his book Radically Unchurched, Alvin Reid writes,
41% of Americans are hard-core unchurched (have no clear understanding of the gospel, and have had little or no contact with a Bible teaching church), larger than the number of nominal Christians (30%) or active, participating Christians (29%)… Over the past decade, membership in Protestant churches dropped 9.5 percent, while the U.S. population grew 11 percent.
In his book The Last Christian Generation, Josh McDowell writes,
It has been estimated that between 69 and 94 percent of churched youth are leaving the traditional church after high school, and very few are returning. Furthermore, only 33 percent of churched youth have said that the church will play a part in their lives when they leave home.
LifeWay Research states that 70% of Christians leave the church between the ages of 18 to 22 for at least a year—many of whom never come back. And yet, while churches in the Western world are declining rapidly, Christianity is spreading fiercely throughout the rest of the world. According to authority David Barrett, Christianity is thriving in the non-Western world. He writes,
In 1900 over 80% of all Christians were White. Most were from Europe and North America. Today that percentage has fallen to 45%. The demographic center of Christianity is now found in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Over the next 25 years the White portion of global Christianity is expected to continue to decline dramatically… The country with the fastest Christian expansion ever is China, now at 10,000 new converts every day… From only 3 million in 1500 A.D., evangelicals have grown to 648 million worldwide, 54% being Non-Whites.
When we look at church culture in the West, we see that we are the strange ones—not the dedicated believers in the rest of the world (or the first-century church). It makes sense to adopt the biblical model of dedication, rather than the cultural Christianity that we may be accustomed to.
“Consumer Christianity” should be rejected
Christians from local churches are being pulled like a magnet from one group to another, depending on the glamour of the worship service that particular week. For instance, Greg Laurie notes,
The past two decades have witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of large churches, including “megachurches” (congregations of 1,000 or more), around the country… during the very time megachurches have sprouted across the landscape, the proportion of Americans who claim to be “born again” has remained a constant 32 percent. According to Dunlap, growth isn’t coming from conversions but from transfers—up to 80 percent of all growth taking place today.
Megachurches will often boast that they have had explosive growth in just a few years. However, when checked closely, most of this growth is transfer growth. That is, Christians from neighboring churches will switch churches, when a megachurch opens. Like small mom-and-pop businesses around a chain like Wal-Mart, these smaller churches don’t survive, when a megachurch comes to town. Laurie continues:
Some church growth experts are telling pastors their “customers” no longer attend to commune with God, but to “consume” a personal or family service. In a recent survey of 1,000 church attenders, respondents were asked, “Why does the church exist?” According to 89 percent, the church’s purpose was “to take care of my family’s and my spiritual needs.” Only 11 percent said the purpose of the church is “to win the world for Jesus Christ.
Growth expert George Barna writes, “Since 1980, there has been ‘no growth’ in the proportion of the adult population that can be classified as ‘born again’ Christian. The proportion of born again Christians has remained constant at 32%.” Author Ken Sidey writes, “Perhaps church growth’s greatest challenge in North America comes from research that shows that more than 80 percent of all the growth taking place in growing churches comes through transfer, not conversion.” David Dunlap (a teacher at Land O’ Lakes ministry in Florida) writes,
In 1988 a denominational newspaper for the Southern Baptist Convention revealed the evangelistic results for all churches of that denomination and the results were shocking. This denomination, which is the largest protestant group in the United States, reported in 1987 that within its 37,000 churches, there were on the average only 2 converts baptized for every church. The newspaper further reported that 50,000 were baptized who had transferred from other churches.
To summarize these findings, our Christian culture in the West is failing at reaching our world for Christ (Mt. 28:18-20). Instead, we are merely reshuffling Christians from one church to another—based on the drama, music, or entertainment of the week. This would be similar to my wife giving me ten dollars as I leave the house for lunch. As she gives me the money, can I really convince myself that I made an extra ten bucks? Of course not. But, what is the difference between this illustration and getting neighboring Christians to come to our church, instead of theirs? It’s really like moving ten bucks from one pocket into the other, or wiring money from my savings account to my checking: what’s the point?
Of course, as followers of Christ, we should have no interest in stealing Christians from other churches into our own—simply for the sake of pride. Instead, we should be primarily intent on germinating the culture with the gospel and reaching those who don’t even know Christ yet. While it is certainly good to take in wandering or lost sheep (who aren’t in a fellowship), why would we ever want to steal Christians that are already involved in fellowship somewhere else?
Won’t people in our world criticize our dedication to Christ?
When you think about it, a Christian’s dedication to Christ is always going to be criticized by people in our world. If we have low commitment to Christ, people in the world will say, “These Christians must not really believe that this stuff is true… otherwise, it would be having a bigger impact in their lives.” However, if we have high commitment, they will say, “These Christians are fanatics!” It seems like a case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
Keys to leading a highly dedicated ethos in our church
Biblical leaders do not lead through coercion. Instead, they lead through persuasion. Therefore, in order to make our case for a highly dedicated ethos, we should consider a number of important steps to take:
Argue that dedicating our lives to Christ makes sense. People dedicate their lives to winning a gold medal or building a Fortune 500 company. Our culture applauds people like this. But living for Christ is the only cause for living for, because it is eternal in its ramifications and rewards (see “The Eternal Perspective”). Consequently, we need to learn to preach on the idols that people give their lives to in God’s place, including materialism, career, stimulation, hedonism, and comfort.
Ascertain your own beliefs about high dedication to Christ. Pray that God would reveal your own unbelief about his call for dedication to Christ. If you are in a state of unbelief, you won’t be persuasive to others. In order to lead a highly dedicated ethos, we need strongly held convictions. If we apologize all the time, we will not make for very good leaders in leading change in this area.
Use discipleship as the means through which you change your church. Jesus worked through twelve men to reach millions. Before we are ready to speak before many people, we need to learn how to speak to people one-on-one. When we have shown that we can reach people on an individual level, this shows that we will have better results on speaking to groups. Moreover, when we finally speak to the group, many people in the audience will become our advocates and allies in lifting the morale of our church.
Prepare for militant advocates of low dedication to Christ. Not everyone wants to be a part of a highly dedicated Christian community. For their sake, we wish that they would, but experience tells us that not everyone will. Don’t allow these people to hold the rest of your church hostage in a low dedication ethos! Most of the members of the Body of Christ are showing up to fellowship every week, because Christ has powerfully invaded their lives. They’ve experienced his incredible love and joy, and they yearn for more. Don’t allow the few antagonists to spoil what God could do in your church through your efforts. Instead of trying to silence such people (which, of course, is impossible!), we should argue with them—publicly if necessary. Persuasion and debate is the key to changing the ethos of our group.
Show that this vision for the church is realistic with God’s power. Often, we just need to show how this has worked in the past, demonstrating how this vision for the church is possible and practical. We like to appeal to other groups in the same field of ministry that have seen good results. Then, we are on more solid ground for making the case that the same could happen in our church. Argue against pragmatism (“We should only do what works—not what God commands”), cynicism (“High dedication is a pipe dream!”), and worldliness (“Living for Christ isn’t important or necessary”).
Argue that standards and goals are not antithetical to grace. God is goal oriented (Jn. 5:17; Eph. 1:10), and Jesus had personal goals for his ministry (Lk. 13:32; Jn. 17:4). God also wants us to have goals, because he made us in this way. Before the Fall, God had Adam doing meaningful work (Gen. 2:15ff), and we will continue to do this in heaven (Lk. 19:17). Likewise, Paul argues that he runs toward his goals “in such a way, as not without aim” (1 Cor. 9:26). He wrote, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14). He viewed his ministry as something that he should “fulfill” (2 Tim. 4:7-8). It is impossible to fulfill something which has no standards or goals involved. Furthermore, Paul tells all believers, “Run in such a way that you may win” (1 Cor. 9:24). Part of the role of biblical leaders is to “stimulate one another to love and good deeds” (Heb. 10:25).
Ironically, low-commitment groups most often feel more burdened, than those in high committed ones. When we expend our energy for Christ, we experience the happiness and energy that he promises (Jn. 13:17; Acts 20:32). Moreover, Jesus promised that if we want to gain our lives, we need to lose them for others. In fact, this was his most popular teaching throughout his public ministry (Mt. 10:39; 16:25; Mk. 8:35; Lk. 9:24; 17:33; Jn. 12:25). To put this another way, we only will get out of our church what we put into it. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt. 6:21). This, of course, refers to financial giving, but the principle applies to our lives as well. When we invest our lives in the cause of Christ, it feels good and fulfilling. And this builds our faith to give even more.
It’s hard to believe that we will get to heaven to find Jesus frowning and saying, “You spent too much time on dedicating your life to me… You really should have spent more time on yourself!” If anything, we suspect that we’ll be feeling just the opposite.
High dedication ethos
McCallum, Dennis. Members of One Another: How to Build a Biblical Ethos into Your Church. S.l.: New Paradigm, 2010.
McCallum’s book offers a nearly complete philosophy of high commitment ministry from one of the most insightful practitioners in the church today.
Platt, David. Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream. Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah, 2010.
Platt’s book had many strengths, making it worth reading: (1) We liked his emphasis on missions and the lost. (2) His understanding of financial giving and simple living was strong. (3) His stories of radical Christian living from overseas were really motivating, and his critique of the American church was superb. (4) We consider Platt’s vision for radical living thought-provoking, and he gets you thinking differently.
We felt that Platt’s book had a few weaknesses: (1) He didn’t share the bad stories of holding a high commitment church. We pay a price when we call for radical living. Of course, this price is worth it, but we felt that this should be included. All of his stories were positive stories, and he didn’t share the negative ones. (2) We do not agree with his “Lordship theology,” which was very strong—especially toward the beginning of the book. He was using guilt or threats to motivate Christians. Instead, we should use identity and grace as a motivator. His imperatives were good, but his indicatives were bad. (3) Platt is a poor qualifier, making extreme statements that seem over the top. For the typical American Christian, this is probably good, because they are so slothful and apathetic that his language is rousing. But, for believers actually trying to follow Christ, these statements might seem overstated (e.g. missions, giving, etc.). We liked the radical call, but wanted a practical vision and steps. (4) We don’t agree with his view on exclusivity (see our article “What About Those Who Have Never Heard?”). We do believe it’s possible (though unlikely) that people come to saving faith in the true God through general revelation. He was staunch on people needing to hear the name of Christ.
We hope that our critique of this book does not stop believers from reading it; this was an inspirational, challenging, and motivational read! We hope believers will read it—albeit with this caveats in mind.
Case against Materialism
Rochford, “Does Money Make Us Happy?”
Rochford, “The Eternal Perspective”
Rochford, “Bibliography on Materialism”
Leading change in your church
Kolenda, Christopher D., Barry R. McCaffrey, and Walter F. Ulmer. Leadership: The Warrior’s Art. Carlisle, PA: Army War College Foundation, 2001.
This is a secular book. As with all secular thinking on leadership, Christians should be discerning, because Jesus had a unique definition of leadership. However, chapter five (“Discipline: Creating the Foundation for an Initiative-Based Organization”) is excellent on how to build a strong ethos.
Powers, Bruce P. Christian Leadership. Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1979.
Read chapters 1-3 for Powers’ material on the steps and ways to lead change.
 McPherson, Miller (Arizona & Duke). Lynn Smith-Lovin (Duke University). Matthew Brashears (University of Arizona). “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades.” American Sociological Review. Volume 71. June, 2006. 353.
 McPherson, Miller (Arizona & Duke). Lynn Smith-Lovin (Duke University). Matthew Brashears (University of Arizona). “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades.” American Sociological Review. Volume 71. June, 2006. 358.
 McPherson, Miller (Arizona & Duke). Lynn Smith-Lovin (Duke University). Matthew Brashears (University of Arizona). “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades.” American Sociological Review. Volume 71. June, 2006. 358.
 Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. 98.
 Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. 105.
 Worland, Justin. “Why Loneliness May Be the Next Big Public-Health Issue.” Time Magazine. March 18, 2015.
 Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith, Mark Baker, Tyler Harris, and David Stephenson (Department of Psychology and Department of Counseling Psychology, Brigham Young University). “Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review.” Perspectives on Psychological Science. Vol. 10(2). 2015. 236.
 Olson, David T. The American Church in Crisis: Groundbreaking Research Based on a National Database of over 200,000 Churches. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008. 36.
 Wicker, Christine. The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis Inside the Church. New York. Harper One. 2008. ix, 53.
 Reid, Alvin. Radically Unchurched: Who they are and how to reach them. Grand Rapids. Kregel Academic. 2002. 21, 24.
 McDowell, Josh, and David H. Bellis. The Last Christian Generation. Holiday, FL: Green Key, 2006.
 Scott McConnell. “LifeWay Research Finds Reasons 18- to 22-Year-Olds Drop Out of Church.” August 7, 2007.
 Barrett, David B., Todd M. Johnson, Christopher R. Guidry, and Peter F. Crossing. World Christian Trends, AD 30-AD 2200: Interpreting the Annual Christian Megacensus. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2001. 3.
 Barna, George. Marketing the Church. Navpress, Colorado Springs, CO, 1990.
 Sidey, Ken. “Church Growth Fine Tunes its Formulas” Christianity Today, (June 24, 1991) 46.
 Dunlap, David. “The Myth of ‘Growth’ in the Church Growth Movement.”