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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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

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Recent Comments
comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
— winston
comment_post_ID); ?> In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
— Russ Wright
comment_post_ID); ?> "While I understand the intent behind this phrase" Expound please. What do you understand to be the intent behind that phrase?
— Ken

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