Mentor Series: Stop Dating the Church

Christian authors Joshua Harris and Carolyn McCulley speak of the centrality of being involved with a church.

It was a beautiful fall day, and the two of us — Motte and I (Ted) — were driving on I-270 away from Washington, D.C., toward Gaithersburg. Our destination: Covenant Life Church, where we’d be spending some time with Christian authors Joshua Harris and Carolyn McCulley.

It was our last interview of the weekend, a time spent talking with such mentors as Michael Lawrence, Scott Croft, Charlie Jarvis, Danielle Crittenden and Leon R. Kass.

We arrived a bit ahead of schedule and had a chance to set up our equipment in their parent ministry‘s music studio. As I connected a lavaliere to the XLR input on my DIGI002r, I thought back to the other times I’d been in this room, recording keyboard parts with Steve Cook or watching my friend Nikki Ritterspach sing a part for the church’s latest worship album.

When Joshua and Carolyn arrived, it was as though we were getting together with old friends. In my case, they were old friends, as I’ve known both for years. As Joshua shared photos of his kids, Carolyn offered us some water. Though they both probably had busy schedules, we felt like they were in no rush to “get this over.” We could tell it was going to be an enjoyable half hour.

We settled into our chairs, adjusted our microphones, and after catching up a bit more, we got down to business. Motte posed the first question.

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Boundless: Josh, what motivated you to write Stop Dating the Church? And what do you mean by the title?

Joshua Harris: I had the experience when I was single, after getting out of the high school youth group, which was my whole world of church at the time and all my friends there, of really feeling disconnected from the church and not quite seeing how it fit into my life and my plans. There was a season of time where I was still involved in the church, but it was not my priority. It was just one thing that I fit into my goals.

I was essentially “dating the church” — I use that phrase to describe the mindset that says, “I’m with the church, but I really treat her like a girlfriend, and sadly, often times, a neglected girlfriend.” You know — looking for something better and really not having that much passion or excitement about the relationship. I think there are a lot of singles who have that mindset about the church. And so I’m basically, in the book, just calling them to see that there’s something better than church “dating.”

It’s not just because I’m a pastor that I’m saying that, or because I think of the poor church that you’re not paying attention to. Actually, God has something really good for us that we miss out on when we live a life of church dating. And so it’s really a call to commitment and to all that God does in our lives and through our lives in the local church.

Boundless: Was this book written primarily for singles?

Joshua Harris: No. It’s written for anybody. I think that I always have singles in mind in a pronounced way, because of the focus of the books that I’ve written on relationships and so on. That said, I do think that people my age — and singles in particular — are probably the most prone to a dating mindset when it comes to the church.

But I don’t think singles are alone. I think there are a lot of much older people who have the same wrong attitude towards church. I think that in prior generations, there was more of a mindset of, well, you definitely are going to go to church. Their heart might have been miles away from the church even though they were going, but I think there was more of an expectation to be participating. Now I think that’s less true.

And I think that the way that churches have been built in the last 25 years or so has actually encouraged it. There’s been more of the model that says we need to be the kind of attractive and interesting kind of church in order to draw people. And that actually facilitates the sense that I’m a consumer, and I’m coming to check you out, and if I like you I might stay, but if not, I might go find something else.

Boundless: Would you say that men struggle with committing to church more than women?

Joshua Harris: I don’t know that there’s any difference. I’ve not seen any sort of statistic to back anything like that up. I remember being in New York City not too long ago, and a pastor I was speaking with said that people in this city go to churches like you and I go to restaurants. They go here for one thing. They drop in there because they like the worship or the teaching, whatever it might be, and there’s not an understanding — and this doesn’t have anything to do with gender — that the local church is a community, where you’re living life together. Instead, it just becomes another vendor for goods, in this case spiritual goods.

And so I think that more than an issue of male/female, I think it’s an issue of a wrong understanding of what the church is all about.

Carolyn McCulley: I would say a lot of single women would say, “Well, then where are the single men in the churches?” I just had lunch with a young woman who is interested in relocating to a particular church. And she was asking me if I should be concerned that there are no single men there? Certainly, some would say you should be concerned.

Joshua Harris: Right. So you would see more women who would be more committed to the church, and the men are missing in some cases?

Carolyn McCulley: Well, it would appear to be that way. I mean, as you talk to single women they’re saying that the odds are skewed. But this isn’t the case in all churches. At our last singles ministry meeting here at Covenant Life, for example, I was looking around and I realized there were a lot of young men there. A lot of men in their 20s. And as I looked around, I counted more men than women. That is something that encourages me greatly.

When you are really clear about the Gospel and the risks that you have for living your life in the light of the Gospel, you’ve given men something to respond to. Inherent in biblical masculinity is the idea of taking risks. And to live your life with the risk and the reward of the Gospel in mind and a strong call to that — I think young men respond to that.

Boundless: I wonder why you generally see more women than men actively involved in church beyond the Sunday morning worship service?

Joshua Harris: That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer to that except to say that I think that churches where men are expected and challenged to lead are more attractive to men. I think that sadly there are many times where the men aren’t encouraged or challenged to do that. The ladies step in to fill that void and it becomes even less appealing for men. I think all of us have either visited or seen churches where the women were really the ones taking the lead spiritually. I’m grateful for godly, spiritual women, but I think any spiritual woman would grieve over the fact that there aren’t men who are setting the pace.

It is so important to set that call out there that, men, you need to be the ones to lead the way spiritually. You need to be the ones leading the way in service in the local church. If the church is a place where that’s not really expected or called for, I think it is easy for men to find that sense of purpose and leadership outside of the church. And obviously, leading in their vocation and doing this thing is vitally important. It doesn’t have to be one or the other; it should be both.

Boundless: What are the characteristics of a church dater? What kind of church are they drawn to?

Joshua Harris: Well, I hone in on three things. First, being “me”-centered, meaning what can I get out of this church, what does it have for me, what can it do for me.

A second one would be being independent. Going to church because that’s what we do, that’s what we’ve always done, but not really looking to involve others in our lives and say, “Here’s who I am, I need help.” But instead, “It’s me and Jesus, and I come to church like a person goes to the gas station to fill up once a week or something. But this is not where I live my life. I don’t open myself up to others and become dependent on others.”

And then finally, I would add a church dater is often critical. And so there’s this mindset of “Here’s what the church is doing wrong, here’s where it can be improved, and I’m sitting in the back evaluating. But I’m not getting my hands dirty and saying how can I contribute to the solution and really help what’s really going on here.”

I would say that I’ve been guilty of all of these three things at different times in my life. And I think that every single person — whether we’re the most committed, active member of a church or not — should really check ourselves all the time for these three qualities and say, “You know, I want to turn away from that. I want to be God centered and other centered. I want to show up at church saying what can I give? I want to be dependent on these people. I want to keep in my mind the fact that I need others to live the Christian life, and I don’t want to be critical. Yes, there are always going to be problems in churches, but I want to participate in helping the church grow stronger.”

Boundless: Does the modern church enable the lack of church commitment?

Joshua Harris: Yeah. I think that it’s easy for pastors to not ask for commitment. The truth is that a lot of churches don’t really ask people to be committed. They don’t expect them to build their life around the church. So it takes going against the modern mindset for a pastor to say, “Look, I’m not saying this because I’m the pastor and because this is where I work. I’m saying this because God’s Word says the church is His plan, and that we’re to be given to what He’s doing in the church. And if that means prioritizing the church over the sport that you like to watch on Sunday, or this hobby or that, or whatever it might be, you need to rearrange your life in light of God’s Word.”

That’s hard to do.

It’s much easier to say, “Hey, we’re here, and if you want to fit us in, drop in.” That might build a larger crowd, but ultimately I think it builds a weaker church, because people start to develop the mindset that “I’m here if it works for me, and I might find a better offer somewhere else,” and they really lose sight of what the church is.

Boundless: What should someone look for when they’re searching for a church? What are the most important things?

Joshua Harris: Well, I list 10 questions for them to ask. And if you boil those down, I think the three most important things to be looking for is a church that teaches God’s Word, a church that values God’s Word, and a church that lives God’s Word.

So it’s not just what happens in the message, although that’s very important. But it’s how the truth of what Scripture says shapes what takes place there. And that speaks to everything from a heart for evangelism, to proclaiming the Gospel clearly, and helping Christians build their lives into what Christ has done for us. That’s expressed in the way we build relationships with others.

Boundless: Carolyn, you were talking about how you were thankful you go to a church that challenges young men to commit. What would you say to young women who attend churches that don’t emphasize commitment? Would you advise them to leave the church and go to a church that does challenge young men?

Carolyn McCulley: That’s such a broad stroke, that I’m not sure if I would presume to give an answer like that. But I would encourage two things. One would be to humbly take concerns like that to the leadership and just ask if there’s a way to serve, if there’s a way that you can help, if there’s a plan. I’m sure the leaders are probably already aware, but it’s always nice — and I think Josh could speak to this — that if somebody carries a concern or burden, that they come willing to offer to serve in some way to help with change.

Scripture tells women that we have a very powerful tool, and that is directing our words at our Father in Heaven and praying, and praying for change and living Godly lives. Because it’s a promise that that combination of prayer and modeling will affect those who are around us.

So in that situation, I would say first that if you are in that church, then you prayerfully approach the leadership and ask how things could be changed, and then spend a lot of time in prayer. In fact, I would pray before going to the leadership. Pastors everywhere hear critiques constantly. It’s a matter of “This doesn’t serve me, and that’s not my preference, and I feel this way strongly about something.” And so to go with the servant mindset of “I want to help, I want to serve, I want to contribute,” would make a big difference.

Boundless: Josh, you begin a chapter about church membership by quoting a statement from Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, addressing a gathering of young adults. The quote reads, “If you are not a member of a church you regularly attend, you may well be going to hell.” Can you unpack that statement for us?

Joshua Harris: Well, Mark makes that statement, obviously, to get everybody’s attention, and it usually quiets the room once he says it and raises some eyebrows that someone would say that. It really, I think, is shocking to this generation because we have embraced this idea that you don’t have to be a church member; you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian. Which is true in the sense that it’s by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ, that we are saved, and so you can be a part of a church and be unsaved, and go to meetings and yet never have saving faith in Christ. But there’s a real limit to that when you begin to read the Bible.

There’s nothing in Scripture that imagines a Christian that is not pursing community with other Christians in the local church. It’s not like an option like, “Well, you know, some of you may like to do the church thing, but others of you might have a different plan.” No. It always describes our new life in Christ, drawing us together with other Christians. And it’s in our relationships with others where the reality of what Christ has done in us, the new life that He’s given to us, is worked out and is proven in many ways.

And so it’s the way that we love others that others see Christ in us. And it’s our love for others that gives us an assurance. First John talks about our assurance of belonging to God and knowing that He’s truly changed us. Because we love people that, frankly, we would not have loved apart from being Christians.

And so that’s where in the local church — with all its bumps and its warts, and annoying people, and people that you wouldn’t want to have a relationship with — you suddenly start to see the beauty of God’s plan. That it’s in that context with fellow sinners who are saved by grace that you work out your salvation with fear and trembling, and you care for people, and you love people and you receive from them and give to them. And God glorifies Himself through that. And so church membership is vital.

You’re asking a specific question about why have membership, why not just all come together? I think that the New Testament makes clear that there is an understanding of defining who Christians are for the sake of being a faithful witness. And so at Covenant Life for example, the church that I am a part of and help to lead, we recognize that if we don’t define who the membership is — number one, as pastors, it’s very difficult to know who we’re caring for and how we’re to do that. But second, it sends a confusing message to the world around us if that there are people who claim to be Christians and yet are living a life that contradicts the message of the Bible and who Christ is. I think that’s one of major causes for a disillusionment when it comes to Christianity because it’s so easy for people to say, well, I’m a Christian, and yet contradict that. And membership in the church is a way to hold people to their convictions as Christians and to be faithful in that.

In my book I say, “Look for a church that is willing to kick you out.” I have had readers write me and say, “You know, I was just so confused by that. But the more I think about it, that’s awesome. I do want to be in a church that’s willing to say you’re not living what you say to believe. And so we’re not going to let you just be a hypocrite here. We’re going to call you to be faithful to Christ.” And that’s a great comfort and I think is needed today.

Carolyn McCulley: I think it’s also an important factor for single women as they are trying to discern the various men around them and their relationships. When you see a man who’s willing to commit to a local church in a generation that commits to nothing, that doesn’t even really want to commit to marriage, you’re seeing somebody who has said, “All right. There’s something that is greater than myself; there’s a community that is greater than myself.” And you’re also seeing a man who’s willing to submit himself to other men in terms of authority. I always counsel the women around me, when they’re considering somebody they might marry, to ask themselves if this is a man who is himself accountable. If we’re to practice the biblical commands to submit to and to honor and to respect our husbands, one of the greatest safeties that we will encounter is knowing that this man is himself submitted to other men.

A friend once told me that when she and her husband were married, her husband said to her, “I want you to know something. If you ever feel like I’m not listening you, that I’m not taking your counsel, or that my leadership is not servant leadership, but running roughshod over you, I want you to know that you not only have my blessing, but you have my urging to go right around me to our pastor. Because I want to care for you, and I want to love you like Christ, and if I’m not doing that, the other men around me need to know that.” I thought that was brilliant.

Copyright 2007 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Carolyn McCulley

Carolyn McCulley is an author, speaker and filmmaker at Citygate Films. Her most recent book is “The Measure of Success: Uncovering the Biblical Perspective on Women, Work, and the Home.” She is a member of Redeemer Church of Arlington and is the proud aunt of six nieces and nephews.


About the Author

Joshua Harris

Joshua Harris serves as senior pastor of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md. He is also the founder of the New Attitude conference for single adults and the author of several bestselling books, including Stop Dating the Church.