The missing message in today’s churches

The hub of Christianity is not “do something for Jesus.” The hub of Christianity is “Jesus has done everything for you.” And my fear is that too many people, both inside and outside the church, have heard our “do more, try harder” sermons and pleas for intensified devotion and concluded that the focus of the Christian faith is the work that we do instead of the work God has done for us in the person of Jesus.

America’s churches came back into the media limelight a few weeks ago after a well-publicized Pew study showed a meteoric rise of Americans claiming no religious affiliation, shooting up from seven percent in 1990 to 16 percent in 2010. The percentage more than doubled for those under the age of 30, reaching almost 35 percent. The group is now being referred to as “the religious nones.”

There has been no lack of theorizing to account for the numbers. Some chalk it up to a more visibly secularized society, others to doctrinal confusion, and others to the social media-fueled culture of distraction among today’s youth. Some dismiss the charge as alarmist, claiming that young people have always had a distaste for organized religion. The list goes on.

Many inside the church have responded to the decline in attendance by attempting to “remarket” Christianity by updating worship services and unwittingly playing into consumerist biases, presenting themselves as one more product in the spiritual marketplace. By and large, these tactics have backfired. There may be noble intentions at work, but the collective impression is that these Christians are trying too hard to be “cool.” No wonder “authenticity” has become such a buzzword. Young people are not finding it at church.

In a recent column for CNN, Rachel Held Evans opined that, “what millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.” Speaking as someone who has spent the past forty plus years in the bosom of American Evangelicalism, she is certainly onto something. The “what” is the issue, not the “how.”

You don’t have to be a sociologist to know that we live in a culture of asphyxiating “performancism.” Performancism is the mindset that equates our identity and value directly with our performance. It casts achievements not as something we do or don’t do but as something we are (or aren’t). The money we earn, the car we drive, the schools we attend, aren’t merely reflective of our occupation or ability; they are reflective of us. They are constitutive rather than descriptive. In this schema, success equals life, and failure is tantamount to death.

Performancism leads us to spend our lives frantically propping up our image or reputation, trying to have it all, do it all, and do it all well, often at a cost to ourselves and those we love. Life becomes a hamster wheel of endless earning and proving and maintenance and management, where all we can see is our own feet. Before long we are living in a constant state of anxiety, fear, and resentment. A few years ago, Dr. Richard Leahy, an anxiety specialist, was quoted as saying, “The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s.”

Sadly, the church has not proven immune to performancism. An institution theoretically devoted to providing comfort to those in need is in trouble because it has embraced the same pressure-cooker we find everywhere else.In recent years, a handful of popular books have been published urging a more robust and radical expression of the Christian faith. I heartily amen the desire to take one’s faith seriously and demonstrate before the watching world a willingness to be more than just Sunday churchgoers. The unintended consequence of this push, however, is that we can give people the impression that Christianity is first and foremost about the sacrifices we make rather than the sacrifice Jesus made for us — our performance rather than his performance for us. The hub of Christianity is not “do something for Jesus.” The hub of Christianity is “Jesus has done everything for you.” And my fear is that too many people, both inside and outside the church, have heard our “do more, try harder” sermons and pleas for intensified devotion and concluded that the focus of the Christian faith is the work that we do instead of the work God has done for us in the person of Jesus.

Furthermore, too many churches perpetuate the impression that Christianity is primarily concerned with morality. As my colleague David Zahl has written, “Christianity is not about good people getting better. It is about real people coping with their failure to be good.” The heart of the Christian faith is Good News not good behavior.When Sunday mornings become one more venue for performance evaluation, can you blame a person for wanting to stay at home?

As someone who loves the church, I am saddened by the perception of Christianity as a vehicle of moral control and good behavior, rather than a haven for the discouraged and dying. It is high time for the church to remind our broken and burned out world that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a one-way declaration that because Jesus was strong for you, you’re free to be weak; because Jesus won for you, you’re free to lose; because Jesus succeeded for you, you’re free to fail.

Grace and rest and absolution with no new strings or anxieties attached now that would be a change in substance.

  • JDale_123

    Yet another attempt to come up with a way of dragging people back into religion which totally misses the point, yet again, of why they left it in the first place. In the overwhelming majority of cases it has nothing to do with dogma, gay rights, womens rights or (lack of) charity – although of course the typical religious stance on these sort of things certainly don’t help.

    People are simply better educated and have better access to information than ever before. Trying to sell them some ludicrous story about gods and miracles and prayers and resurrections and all sorts of other supernatural guff, is a battle that’s only going to get harder and harder. Unless you can brainwash them from infancy, you haven’t got a hope.

  • Jacob Goff

    In regards to totally missing the point, did you happen to read this article? Nobody is being dragged back anywhere. What has happened is that someone with a keen awareness of the level of anxiety that the typical human being is under has stumbled across a proclamation that takes the pressure off.
    Even if you don’t agree with the ‘supernatural’ elements because of your dogmatic love affair with the scientific method, you must see the merit of unconditional acceptance – which is a “dogma” that is preached only imperfectly outside of the “Good News” that Jesus talked about, that Mr. Tchividjian seems to unfold here.
    I would take a love affair with the “unconditional acceptance” or “grace” of Jesus long before your anxiety-inducing demonizing of the unobservable. Tell somebody you love them no matter what they do (accept them unconditionally), and observe what happens. It’s a shocking and scandalous proclamation, and it is precisely the proclamation that Mr. Tchividjian claims God in Christ has made to you and to me.

  • allinthistogether

    And, true “unconditional acceptance” is perfectly feasible with or without religious preconceptions or beliefs. Does it require conviction, commitment and practice? Yes. But the conviction and commitment can be the products of conscientious attention to the world and universe we inhabit, and to all of the forms of being and life there-in. Mindfulness, loving kindess and compassion are choices equally available to all of us, whether or not we believe in a god. Effective practice and skill building is also independent of religious belief, though having a community of those similarly devoted to unconditional acceptance is very helpful. I would submit that Jesus emphasized that this practice was of greater value than is belief in a particular god story.

  • JDale_123

    Talk about me missing the point !
    You can’t be loved unconditionally by a figment of the imagination – well you can imagine that you are of course, but it doesn’t make it real.

  • Shawn Ritenour

    He (JDale_123) says without a shred of evidence.

  • Blake Viall

    Tullian’s new book, One Way Love, is superb. Anyone who has had their interests peaked by this article should definitely check it out.

  • mapson51

    Never try to take away a man’s hope, it may be all he has.

  • nkri401


    Why do I need to present evidence that there is no God when there is no evidence that there is God.

    BTW, Bible does not qualify as evidence of God; as Odyssey is not an evidence of the Cyclops.

  • nkri401

    Nice photo/graphic; would have been more interesting if this was on a burnt toast, though.

  • john832

    The blind faith of the atheist is something to behold, no denying that. Let’s see, the earth just happens to be the perfect distance from the sun, tilted at just the right angle. The coded information in DNA just happens to scream for intelligence….We just happen to have an innate sense of right and wrong…

    The Bible was written by 40 authors from eight countries over 1,500 years in three languages. And yet it just happens to reveal a consistent and unique message of a God of love who ransomed us from our sins…

    The tomb just happened to be empty and no authority ever produced Jesus’ body, when it would have been the most obvious way to solve a big growing problem for many and squash Christianity in its tracks….His band of once cowardly disciples just happened to be willing to be killed for what they knew full well was an absolute lie, when all they had to do was fess up to be spared. And on. And on. And on.

    Look first to the overwhelming evidence of the reality of the Resurrection. It’s there. And it’s completely rational.

    Oh, and the idea that Jesus was a “fine moral teacher” but not who he said he was makes no sense. You can’t be a fine moral teacher if you know that the primary thing you’re teaching is a bald-faced lie, as C.S. Lewis and so many have said. Yet we still hear that all the time.

  • nkri401

    “the earth just happens to be the perfect distance from the sun, tilted at just the right angle….”

    If it were not, we would not be here talking about it, would we?

  • AGuyCommenting

    It takes chutzpah to comment on a subject, in this case, atheism, when you obviously know nothing about it. Atheism is simply a non-belief in God. That’s it. It has nothing to do with faith or the earth’s distance to the sun or our DNA.

    Not my primary point: as an aside, I am personally surprised the bible was edited with such inherent inconsistencies. You needn’t go beyond the two conflicting creation tales and Adam and Eve’s story to see them.

    My last two cents: your line about the 40 authors and eight countries and 1,500 years… I’ve seen theists mentioning this so many times, it is obvious you are repeating what you’ve heard rather than actually thinking for your self. I know that sounds harsh, so sorry, but I hope if you think it through you’ll see that line truly has no merit.

    Go ahead and ask if you want.

  • john832

    Nope, we wouldn’t be, nkri. And I believe that didn’t happen by chance.

    AGC, well no, I didn’t keep a tally of authors and countries and centuries as I read through the Bible. Guilty as charged on learning that from somewhere else. Certainly wouldn’t call it a “line” though, I’d just call it another another piece of evidence – although faith journeys are never just intellectual exercises.

    Does it prove that God exists? Of course not, I can’t do that, just as you can’t prove God does not exist. But we certainly both have faith.

    Look, I bet if we met in person we’d get on just fine. One of the problems with online comments of course is that it does bring out the snarky in us all – and I can see that reading back through mine. Not my intent….I’d highly recommend “The Reason for God” by Tim Keller or C.S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity.” They lay out the case in a much more learned and humble manner than I have. If interested.

    Have a great evening.

  • warking7

    Your first sentence was written for you, also. In this case, Christianity. Once you reject the first sentence of the Bible, every lie becomes your fatal mind set.

  • john832

    Nope, we wouldn’t be, nikri. And I believe that didn’t happen by chance.

    AGC, you’re right, I did not tally the authors, countries and centuries as I read though the Bible. I did learn that from somewhere else, but I wouldn’t call it a “line,” but rather another solid piece of evidence – although faith journeys are never purely intellectual exercises.

    But as I read back through my comments, I do seem to be coming across as snarky, not my intent. I’m sure if we met, we’d get on just fine. There are authors out there who present the case in a much more humble and learned manner than I have. Tried to present a couple a minute ago, but I think the Post objected to the plug perhaps.

    I’ll just say one of the best of those authors has a big congregration in New York City, where he welcomes skeptics and atheists – and believers – to doubt their doubts and explore the idea of faith in an age of skepticism. Easy to find if you’re interested.

    Have a great evening.

  • nkri401

    Thanks for your kind response.

    If your faith makes your life better for you and for people around you, I am very happy for you. All I ask for is the same be glad for me regardless of my faith as long as I’m not pushing it on anyone.

    On technical note, “And I believe that didn’t happen by chance. ” This begs then why are there other planets devoid of any life. Why does God favor this particular planet? Why does God create such vast universe and favor only one planet?

    BTW, Most atheists will accept the existence of God or Higgs particle if sufficient evidence is provided. Further, most atheist can accept a possibility of the existence of God.

    Theist, however, would not accept even just the possibility of God not existing.

    I’m not trying to win my argument. I wanted to just express my thoughts.

    Likewise, good evening to you and peace.

  • Danny Daley

    I’m honestly blown away by the idea that this is the “missing” message in churches. Despite rolling in the same “tribes”, Tullian and I obviously have very different experiences. Moralism in the church was a huge problem 7-10 years ago, but I honestly feel that the pendulum has swung in the other extreme full force, to a fault on the other side. All I ever hear in evangelical preaching anymore is “It’s not about performance and rules, it’s not about being good, it’s about what Jesus has done for you.” This message is so dominant now that ethics and obedience in many churches have become bad words. You start talking about obeying and people get uncomfortable and assume you misunderstand grace. If anything ethics is now the missing element, showing that the grace of God through Jesus CHANGES us on the inside AND the out. Moralism was bad for the church, but presumption upon grace is no better. With most things we are in a pendulum conundrum and need to find a more biblical balance, but I would say that the church is doing just fine echoing what Tullian presents here.

  • WmarkW

    I didn’t realize Billy Graham’s empire had taken over James Kennedy’s church.

    “The heart of the Christian faith is Good News not good behavior…
    I am saddened by the perception of Christianity as a vehicle of moral control and good behavior.”

    The churches that do emphasize this message, are exactly the ones that have declined. The growing churches are the ones with detailed moral codes. Possibly because, you don’t need a church to tell you that we’re all sinners who need forgiveness for our transgressions, so we have to forgive others theirs.

  • CCNL

    The missing message now made public:

    (only for the new members of this blog)-

    Recognizing the flaws, follies and frauds in the foundations of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, the “bowers”, kneelers” and “pew peasants” are converging these religions into some simple rules of life.(e.g. “Do No Harm”). No koran, bible, clerics, nuns, monks, imams, evangelicals, ayatollahs, rabbis, professors of religion or priests needed or desired.

    Ditto for houses of “worthless worship” aka mosques, churches, basilicas, cathedrals, temples and synagogues.

  • mapson51

    Quoting Douglas Adams… Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, “This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!”

  • nkri401

    “Does God exist? This is one of the most important questions a person can consider. ”

    This may be true to a theist but most important question for an atheist is how to survive the theistic society that want to have a theocratic rule.

  • nkri401

    This was a reply to RyanCB below.

  • AGuyCommenting

    john832, thank you for the respect.

    Are you by any chance Jehovah’s Witness?

    And nkri401 says some good stuff.

  • rbcwrites

    oh how i love the things you bring to light.
    i was working on a new series for kids and was hitting a brick wall.
    had a conversation with a lutheran friend and he said something that rocked my world.

    he said that at his church the teaching template looks something like this:
    show the law. show how we can never meet the law. then grace. grace just is.

    talked about it with another friend, he said:
    what if “it is finished” really meant… “it is finished”. and not “it is finished if…”

    praise Jesus that grace and forgiveness have nothing to do with my personal goodness.
    thanks for constantly sharing this message of grace.

    grace is … not grace if…

    we decided to teach this and used the acronym: Grace Rocks And Changes Everything.
    because grace is…

    but you already know that. now, if only we can help people trust that and share the freedom of it with others.
    we just did a Grace study with the kids in my church.

  • rbcwrites

    forgot to add this: my lutheran friend also said that at many churches he leaves with the feeling that he needs to be a better christian.. but at the lutheran church he attended growing up, he always left feeling relieved.

    what kind of church are we? one of hope or one of condemnation?

  • Rongoklunk

    Thank you religious people for your compassion, tolerance and love. We atheists are deeply grateful that the Church doesn’t torture heretics anymore, or burn them alive at the stake. I get teary-eyed with gratitude. It’s so sweet of you guys to have changed the way you treat us. Maybe there is a God. And maybe his name is Allah and he hates Christians. Or maybe his name is Brahma and only cares for Hindus and hates Christians and Muslims more than anything. Or he could be the Sikh god or maybe Zeus is still God (we’d never know).
    And then again, maybe there’s nobody up there at all, and its all a scam. And the pope lives in a palace.


    A number of people have sought me out lately and they cite the same reason. Wanting to know the truth or as one young guy said, ”I want to know more about the Word”. They’d been to churches, but left with the same spiritual hunger as they’d taken in.

  • jdpetric

    So what do you say the “truth” is ?

  • scienceteacher3

    This is spot-on. Thank you for posting this.

  • jdpetric

    Mr. Tchividjian writes, ” … I am saddened by the perception of Christianity as a vehicle of moral control and good behavior, rather than a haven for the discouraged and dying.”

    Actually true Christianity as taught from the Bible teaches both, Christ message, included a moral vehicle for approved conduct for salvation,(love of fellow man), with comfort through the “good news” of God’s Kingdom Government of the heavens for the discourage and disillusioned masses because of human governess, and hope of no more death in a new world and in the resurrected for the dead and those dying until that times comes.

    How sad that this cleric fails in that message.

  • Pablo del Real

    Regarding this line, “The heart of the Christian faith is Good News not good behavior,” are we supposed to forget about the Sermon on the Mount, a teaching all about behavior? That would be a mistake.

    Believing the Good News is the just the first step, and yet even belief is a kind of behavior. To demonstrate faith in a belief requires still more behavior. In fact, belief in the moral law of the universe requires good behavior. “To believe in something and not to live it is dishonest.” ~ Gandhi

    Belief without behavior has no substance. That is the message missing from this column.

  • haveaheart

    “There may be noble intentions at work, but the collective impression is that these Christians are trying too hard to be ‘cool.’ ”

    This isn’t a new phenomenon. I remember back in the ’70s, when I was a teenager, many of my acquaintances in high school were “into” Young Life” and other youth fellowships in their churches, which usually involved guitars, folkie-style Christian music, and activities like roller-skating parties. The young, “hip” leaders of the groups — usually with radically “long” hair brushing their shirt collars — were always trying desperately to cast themselves as “cool” and “with it” when they were actually tedious and confused.

    Not so much has changed.

  • DogPerson

    I’m sorry you feel like other, outside, mistreated by religious people. People still being tortured even today, and atrocities are still being perpetrated by human beings… all over the world… including here in my own country. All kinds of agents are at work in these injustices and horrors, and the same agents infect churches and other institutions. The problem is in people not in faith. There are Buddhists rampaging around like all the rest. That may not surprise you but would it surprise you if atheists did that as well? I think it wouldn’t because I think you know deep down that it’s people not faith doing these things. People just look for excuses to justify their prejudices, their actions, and even their hate. I think what the author is calling for us to do is to stop judging everyone and acting like we’re in an exclusive club. My reading of his article reminds me that the Church is one body. I don’t know how to instill moral fiber in people but it couldn’t possibly be to hate them.

  • Caroline Greene

    Yes. Yes. Yes. Where we might disagree gets washed away by this truth, ” It is high time for the church to remind our broken and burned out world that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a one-way declaration that because Jesus was strong for you, you’re free to be weak; because Jesus won for you, you’re free to lose; because Jesus succeeded for you, you’re free to fail.” Thank you for your voice.

  • David Gray

    It is worth bearing in mind that Christ is not a haven except for those who are repentant.

    • David Shedlock

      My friend, I am afraid you have it exactly backwards. It sounds as if you are saying to the world: “Repent and then come to Jesus” No. come to the gracious Jesus and after you truly meet Him, he will grant repentance.

      Romans 2:4:
      Or despisest thou the riches of His goodness and forbearance and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?

      Acts 11:18
      When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then has God also to the Gentiles granted repentance to life.