The Disconnect Between Principles and Practices at Your Church

One of the most glaring divides in the life of many churches is the divide between principles and practices.

A principle is an understanding about how to do things; a fundamental truth about the way things ought to be. A practice, of course, is what you actually do – and ideally, as a result of a guiding principle.

Here’s the breakdown: a leader will know a principle, espouse a principle, even believe they are following a principle, but in reality (practice) they are not.

For example, I’ll talk to a church leader who will say something like, “Our services are designed for people to invite their unchurched friends to attend.” That is a principle: weekend services should be designed to be a front-door to those who are relationally far from God.

But that has teeth. It means opening the front door to someone who is spiritually illiterate, pluralistic and self-absorbed. They are simultaneously confused and dogmatic, open and closed, seeking and complacent. They have little if any background in worship (much less liturgy), religious buzz-words, theology or the Bible.

They are lost.

So when it comes to the “practice,” you would think the service they are forming around that principle would reflect who they are trying to reach. But too often it doesn’t. There may be a few cosmetic changes, but nothing substantive. There is no real sensitivity being shown toward, or cultural bridge being built to, the unchurched.

This is just one example of a breakdown.

A church might say, “We are all about children. We want to turn kids on to church, not turn them off. We want to make church and the Bible come alive and be fun!”

But five minutes into their children’s ministry, the kid wants to go home. It wasn’t kid-friendly, or particularly kid-informed, at all.

A church might say, “We are a friendly church. We are warm and welcoming.”

But five minutes through the doors and it’s clear that they are friendly to people they know, friendly to people they like, or simply friendly to people like them. They are not friendly; they are a clique.

  • We throw around words like contemporary, relevant and practical but seem divorced from what that really means to the person needing it to be contemporary, relevant and practical.
  • We talk of reaching a post-Christian culture, but seem only aware of the Christian sub-culture in which we inhabit.
  • We speak of mission and vision, strategy and DNA, but seem unaware of what ours actually embodies.
  • We talk of conversion growth when we functionally are focused on transfer growth; being contemporary when we are models of throwback Thursday; reaching the next generation when we are slowly aging out as a body.

So why the seemingly clueless gap between principle and practice? I think there are at least four reasons:

1. We have a natural default mode that we fall into. For example, when it comes to outreach, the default for most is to speak to the already convinced. The power of a principle is that it leads us away from how we might normally act. But if we are not intentional about the principle, we’ll go with our natural flow. And our natural flow is not to those outside of our doors, but those who are already inside.

2. We’re not serious about the principle. We give lip service to principles because they sound good, make us look good, make us seem on a cutting edge, but it never translates into action (read, “change”). As a result, we are like a resounding gong or clanging cymbal (I Corinthians 13), or maybe more to the point, hearers of the word only (James 1).

3. We have a terrible blind spot fed by pride. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve heard a leader say, “I don’t need to spend time on children’s ministry. We’ve got that one down. What I need to know is, ….” But (as mentioned above) five minutes exposure to their children’s ministry, and it’s clear they desperately need to spend time on it. Everyone has blind spots but if they are based on pride, they will stay blind spots for a very long time.

4. We’ve been schooled on various principles, but not on the practices that should follow. This is key. Conferences and books are filled with principles, but you need to see working models, hear actual messages, to really “get” the practice side of things. You can talk about messages, music and atmospheres being oriented toward the “nones” all day long, but it takes seeing it, feeling it, experiencing it actually happen for a clear picture to form in your mind.

Espousing a principle without fleshing it out in practice is no different than having no principles at all.

> Read more from James here.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

James Emery White

James Emery White

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, which he also served as their fourth president. He is the founder of Serious Times and this blog was originally posted at his website www.churchandculture.org.

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Recent Comments
comment_post_ID); ?> Are there any reliable statistics about the percentage of church plants that fail after 3 years in the US?
 
— Jon Moore
 
comment_post_ID); ?> I am a senior citizen who has lived in many areas of the US, the farthest south being Virginia DC area. There are several church plants in the area--some failed, some doing well. One of the sadist failures was a plant in NW Washington near a large Presbyterian Church (I had been an elder in the church, so I knew the area) where changes in church doctrine was driving many away from the PCUSA churches. There were many mature Christians who lived in the area who were very willing to participate and give generously to the church. Its failure was a loss. The pastor and his wife lived in a VA suburb, wanted something that would appeal to their tastes, which included "praise music". There was a professional piano teacher and several people who had sung in choirs in the area. Their suggestions were completely ignored. Forget that there was joyous participation in singing hymns and silence by many for the praise music. The experienced church leaders that were attending were expected to seek the wisdom of the pastor who did not live in the area rather than have any role in leadership. There is another church plant in Northern Virginia that seems to be going the same way. My take: the pastors should get past their high-school and college days culture and get to know and appreciate the people of the community. Do not try to reproduce Intervarsity or Campus Crusade. Hymns are not a sin and "uneducated" (never graduated from college) should not be ignored as uninformed or stupid. People who have served in and/or live in the area are needed in leadership and not just to serve coffee and give. We all need to pray together and serve God in the community in which there is to be a plant. Glenna Hendricks
 
— Glenna Hendricks
 
comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
 
— winston
 

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