re-thinking “holy”

“Holy.” It is a word you hear in church quite often. You might also happen to hear it outside of the church quite often, but it is usually followed by an expletive! Which, when you understand “holy,” makes absolutely no sense, but I digress! I decided to look up “holy” to see how the dictionary defines it. According to, it means:

  • connected to a god or a religion
  • religious and morally good
  • used in phrases that show surprise or excitement

It goes on to list several full definitions:

  • exalted or worthy of complete devotion as one perfect in goodness and righteousness
  • divine <for the Lord our God is holy–Psalm 99:9>
  • devoted entirely to the deity or the work of the deity <a holy temple> <holy prophets>
  • a: having a divine quality <holy love>
    b: venerated as or as if sacred <holy scripture> <a holy relic>
  • used as an intensive <this is a holy mess> <he was a holy terror when he drank–Thomas Wolfe>; often used in combination as a mild oath <holy smoke>

I’ve been reading and studying through the first several books of the Bible paying special attention to how God interacted with the people He chose for Himself–Israel. I decided to circle the word “holy” because it appeared so many times. I believe there is one, glaring omission in the dictionary concerning the definition of “holy.”

According to the Bible, to be “holy” is to be distinct, separate, different. Sure, it can mean “without sin,” “unblemished,” “pure,” but the most accurate definition of “holy” concerning God and also His people is distinct, separate, different. We see this in Leviticus 20:26, “You are to be holy to me because I, the LORD, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own” (emphasis mine). 1 Peter 1:16 quotes this passage, “…for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.'”

Yes, we should be pure, unblemished, righteous, etc., but what we often miss as followers of Christ is that we are to be different. We are to be set apart or separate from the value system of our culture where it comes in conflict with God’s Word.

Some, like the Amish, take separation to the extreme. The world has electricity, so in order to be separate from the world means that we can’t have electricity. The world drives cars, so in order to be separate from the world means that we will only drive a horse and buggy. But, cars and electricity are not contrary to scripture. The Amish have separated themselves so far from culture by adding to scripture that they have become irrelevant to society. Pretty much the only way people become Amish is by being born into an Amish family.

On the other hand, there are Christians who have embraced things scripture speaks against. (I could list many things here, but the point of this article is not the specific issues.) When we do that, we blend in so well with the culture that we also become irrelevant to society. Our impact and ability to be salt and light is severely diminished.

Where is the middle ground?

“Perpetual Tension” is the title of my blog and holiness is yet another aspect of the Christian life that we must hold in tension. We must adhere to scripture when it speaks against various actions, behaviors, attitudes, etc., but we must not add to scripture in areas where it is silent or unclear. Yes, there are overarching principles that must guide our lives, but if we follow the instruction of Jesus in Luke 10:27 when he was asked about the greatest commandment (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself”), I believe our behavior, attitude and actions will fall in line with scripture every time. In other words, if we are motivated by our love for God and others instead of ourselves, the gray areas will become a little more black and white.

lessons from blockbuster video

I was driving through our town today and passed the former location of Blockbuster Video. As I looked at the empty storefront, it occurred to me that I remember the days before video rental stores and now we are living in the “post video store age” so-to-speak. There might be a few video rental stores around still, but basically an entire industry came, flourished for a while and went away in a matter of a few years! Although Blockbuster, the largest of the video rental companies, tried to adapt its business model to keep up with the changing times, it didn’t survive. Streaming videos from Netflix and ultra-low overhead concepts like Redbox have taken over the big brick and mortar stores with thousands of movie titles to choose from.

I couldn’t help but make a parallel to the church. Now, before you rush to the conclusion that the Church will vanish like Blockbuster, that is not the conclusion I’m trying to draw from this illustration. I believe the church will exhist–flourish, even–until Jesus returns. The parallel I want to draw is this: I wonder if the big, brick and mortar churches are in danger of going the way of Blockbuster?

Today is the day before Easter and tomorrow many churches will be filled with people. Some big churches are even getting a jump on Easter by having services today to handle the expected crowds. One mega-church in our town is having 3 services today and 3 tomorrow. Another mega-church nearby is having 10 identical services between Friday and Easter Sunday! I’m worn out just thinking about doing that many services!

The day we live in is one of great change. Mike Breen calls it a “cultural earthquake.” Our culture is no longer being shaped by the Church or Judeo-Christian values. Fewer people approach life with a Biblical worldview. This has already happened in Europe and many of the huge cathedrals are now museums or pubs as church population there has plummeted. In 2008, church attendance in both the UK and France was estimated at 12%. The US is headed quickly in that direction. Church attendance is already quickly falling off as more and more people become de-churched.

Our “worship shows” with haze, light shows and loud music haven’t kept the crowds from leaving. Our rockstar-like pastor/communicators who get invited to all the big Christian conferences haven’t been enough to keep people in the fold. And our amazing programs for every man, woman and child just aren’t doing the trick, either. The trouble with the Church in America is that if you peel away the well-produced Sunday morning event, there’s not much of substance happening in the way of discipleship. And without discipleship, much of what we do in church just becomes entertainment. After awhile, the entertainment we peddle in church in the name of God just can’t quite hold a candle to the entertainment the world has to offer. Church becomes spiritual goods and services produced for a bunch of consumers. At least, that’s what I’ve observed more often than not.

So what’s the answer? Transcendence. People are searching for meaning–a cause greater than themselves. When we invite people to join us in making God’s Kingdom tangible to those around us by living out the ways of Jesus in community as the body of Christ, we offer them transcendence–a role to play in God’s great story that He has been writing. Discipleship and mission is the key! Discipleship is simply teaching people to live their life in the reality of the Kingdom of God–to live like Jesus did and lead others to do the same which is mission. That takes intentionality and it takes relationships that go deep. We can’t disciple people when they are sitting in rows. We can only disciple people when we invite a few people into the journey with us–when we give them access to our lives just like Jesus did.

Programs, worship events and fancy buildings are nice, but they don’t make disciples. This is not to devalue the gathering of God’s people to worship together. That is a very important and worthy thing to do, but in too many churches, that is all we do! (I wrote another blog about changing our focus called half-time speech vs. game day.) If we don’t equip God’s people to live out and share their faith where they live, work and play, church attendance will continue to fall. Inviting people to church is great, but it is not evangelism. Inviting people to a small group is great, but it is not discipleship. Getting people to serve on a ministry team is great, but it is not necessarily mission.

Until we put discipleship and mission back in the hands of ordinary people instead of just the paid professionals, the mass exodus from the American church will continue. And it won’t be long before our big, brick and mortar church buildings go the way of Blockbuster Video and the cathedrals in Europe.