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Thursday, March 21, 2019

Rethinking the Sacred/Secular Divide

Shortly after I began working at Marathon Petroleum, I had a chance to go on a site visit to Charlotte, North Carolina with a coworker. As we were driving to the Dayton airport to hop on a plane, he and I got to talking about our ministry work. I told him about all the activities I was doing at my church including being a member of the leadership team, acting as the Treasurer, singing in the praise band, and being the pastor’s right hand man. When it was his turn to share, he told me about his involvement in Findlay Young Professionals (FYP) and how he saw that as his ministry.

I forget exactly how I responded, but whatever I said wasn’t very understanding. And I say that because I clearly remember the thoughts going through my head. “What do you mean that’s your ministry? FYP isn’t a church. You need to first be serving at your church. Then if you have extra time, you can serve in FYP.”

The Sacred/Secular Divide

In America, Christians often separate activities into two categories: sacred and secular. Going to church on Sunday mornings is sacred. Going to work throughout the week is secular. Attending a Bible study is sacred. Playing recreational sports is secular. Serving on the church leadership team is sacred. Being on the FYP leadership team is secular.

Do you see the common thread running through these examples? In church circles, participation in church-sponsored activities is often considered sacred whereas participation in non-church-sponsored activities is often considered secular. The perspective held by many Christians, and especially church leaders, is that sacred activities are better than secular activities. Therefore, when faced with a decision between a church-sponsored activity and a non-church-sponsored activity, both of which might be good activities, we feel like we should choose the church-sponsored activity.

This was my mindset as I entered into that conversation with my coworker seven years ago. I couldn’t understand how he thought his participation in a secular group was better than serving on a ministry team at his church. After all, given his talents and spiritual maturity, he could’ve easily led a ministry team. Think of all the great work he could’ve been doing to grow church attendance.

A Lesson from the Bible

When Jesus was on earth, he planted the biggest megachurch this world has ever seen. At age thirty, he began preparing to plant his first church. He gathered seventy-two people to serve on his ministry teams, hired twelve of them to be pastors, found a location to meet, picked a date, sent out mailers, and had the greatest first-Sunday launch ever. He taught them all to spend as much time as possible at his church doing church-sponsored activities. And his church thrived! People from all over the world would ride their camels into town to attend his church services!

Wait a minute…that’s not what happened. Actually, it’s not even close to what happened. Jesus didn’t plant a megachurch, let alone any church. He didn’t even have a home church. He didn’t serve on a ministry team. And he certainly didn’t instruct his disciples to spend as much time as possible doing church-sponsored activities. Yet, Jesus was actively engaged in ministry every day of his life and instructed his disciples to do the same.

Jesus’s ministry looked more like my coworker’s ministry than it did like my ministry. He didn’t coordinate hundreds and hundreds of church-sponsored activities and then invite everyone he knew to come to them. Instead, he went to where the people were. He spent time with them. He listened to them. He empathized with them. He wept with them. He even went into their homes to have meals with them (this was culturally taboo during his day).[1]

By all appearances, Jesus didn’t separate his activities into the categories of either sacred or secular. He recognized his ability to glorify God (worship God) in everything he did. He worshiped God while spending time with people. He worshiped God while listening to them. He worshiped God while empathizing with them. He worshiped God while weeping with them. And he worshiped God while having meals with them.

Ultimately, our purpose, the reason God created us, was to bring himself glory. And this happens when we worship him. Therefore, God is most glorified in us when we wholeheartedly worship him every minute of every day.[2]

Is worship isolated to an event which takes place in a building on Sunday mornings? Is it isolated to attendance at church-sponsored activities? Is it isolated to serving on ministry teams at our churches? If it is, then there’s absolutely no way we can worship God 24-7-365 unless we give up everything we’re doing and become monks and nuns who reside in a church building.

We know that Jesus worshiped God 24-7-365, yet we also know that he didn’t reside in a church building. Furthermore, Jesus once said that we would worship God wherever we are, and not just on a particular mountain or in a particular building (the temple).[3] God-worship is not isolated to church services, church buildings, or church-sponsored activities. Nor is the ministry to which we’ve been called isolated to those activities.

A Changed Life

Since my initial conversation with my coworker, I’ve had a complete change of heart. Although God took me through a lot of fiery trials to bring me to this realization, I’m so thankful he opened my eyes to understand this truth. And my life has completely changed since then.

Almost four years ago now, God began showing me the depth of the mission field in the Findlay Men’s Hockey League. There are a number of people in the league who associate with Christianity, and there are a number of people who will never darken the doors of a church building. In my old way of thinking, I would’ve been quick to invite them all, even the ones who have a church, to attend my church’s Sunday morning worship service. I would’ve been looking for ways to get them plugged into one of our ministry teams. At one point, I even considered giving up playing hockey in order to spend more time doing church-sponsored activities. When I’d enter the locker room, I quietly shuffled my way to an open seat and rarely talked to the people beside me. When games were over, I challenged myself to see how quickly I could get changed and make a beeline for the door.

But after God changed my perspective and my heart, my outward actions began to change too. I stopped looking at people merely as assets that could offer something to grow our church (as an aside, I also stopped looking at them as projects). I began using my locker room time to build relationships with the guys. I learned how to be their friend rather than their counselor or pastor. In the process, God has revealed the ways he’s working in their lives and has invited me to be a part of it. How awesome is that! And instead of giving up hockey to have more time for church-sponsored activities, I’ve given up a host of other good activities, some of which were church-sponsored activities, in order to participate more with God in this mission field.

I share all this not to gloat about my work or to bash church-sponsored activities, but as an encouragement to those of you who think God is calling you to a ministry outside of the four walls of the church building, yet you feel like everyone else around you is telling you you’re crazy. As I’ve been on this journey, there have been a number of people who have been a huge encouragement to me and I hope my story will be an encouragement to you.

To clarify, I’m not claiming that church-sponsored activities are bad. They’re not bad, nor does God call us to always make them secondary to non-church-sponsored activities. I’m merely encouraging you to broaden your definition of God-worship to recognize that he can be worshiped in any activity including working, eating, playing, and participating on the leadership team for FYP. The last thing I would want is for a narrow definition to hinder you from participating with God in his work.


A few years ago, I had lunch with the same coworker and during our discussion I recounted the story of our Charlotte trip. I went on to tell him about the ways I initially discredited his ministry, but had since realized the courage he had to step out against the grain to follow God to the mission field at FYP. Once the ice was broken, we spent the rest of our lunch hour mutually encouraging one another to continue worshiping God in our respective mission fields.

How could a shift from categorizing everything as either sacred or secular based on its connection to the church to categorizing it based on the God-worship you do in the midst of it change the way you live? Where’s the mission field God is calling you to be? What will it take for you to fully embrace this calling?

[1] In first-century Israel, to eat a meal with someone was communicating that you accepted their lifestyle. So, when Jesus ate with prostitutes and tax collectors, it would’ve been interpreted by outsiders that he was accepting of their lifestyles. He recognized their sinful lifestyles, yet ate with them anyway.
[2] Don’t get confused here between this statement and another statement I once quoted from John Piper which said, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” The two statements are in complete alignment with one another. Being satisfied by something causes us to worship it. Therefore, these two statements are saying exactly the same thing.
[3] See John 4:19-26.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Choosing between Better and Best

Every day, we’re bombarded with hundreds of ways we could spend our time. In the midst of all the options in front of us, how do we choose which ones will get our investment and which ones won’t?

It’s often been said that the way to make the best use of our time is to disengage from unproductive activities and engage in productive activities. This approach can give us a good start, but it fails to give us enough propulsion to reach the finish line. What happens when we’ve eliminated all the unproductive activities, yet we still don’t have time for all the productive activities set before us?

This is where I propose adding another approach into the mix which I call choosing between better and best. I strategically chose these two terms rather than the more common leadership terms good and great. Good and great are absolute terms whereas better and best are relative terms. Since we’re dealing with a competition here, where hundreds of activities are competing with one another for our time, an approach which employs absolute terms, like choosing productive over unproductive, will fail to offer us a holistic solution every time. The only way to fully address this challenge is to address it with relative terms. Therefore, my proposed approach, which I’ll be discussing more in depth throughout this article, is to choose the best activity over the better activities.

Recognizing a Good Activity

Here’s a paradox for you: I just got done explaining why I chose not to use the terms good and great, but then I chose to start my discussion using the term good. I believe it’s necessary to start here because we first need to recognize a good activity from a bad one.

So what is a good activity? It depends. What is your objective in life? The answer to this simple, yet challenging, question is going to help guide your answer to the first question. Any activity which supports your life objective is a good activity.

Here’s an example. Let’s say my objective in life is to become a millionaire. A good activity for me would be to spend lots of time working a job that pays a good salary. Another good activity would be to spend time learning how to invest my money wisely so that my investments can grow. A bad activity would be to go shopping at Easton Town Center. Another bad activity would be to go on a two week cruise in Hawaii.

All of these activities, by themselves, are neither good nor bad. They only become good or bad if they support or oppose our objectives. In this way of thinking, an activity which may be good for one person may be bad for another and vice versa.

Recognizing a Better Activity

Have you ever had a situation where you’ve done a thorough analysis of all your daily activities and found that all of them support your objective? Yet, you still don’t have enough time to do all of them. In these situations, we need to be able to choose the better activities.

How do we know which activities are better? Honestly, it’s all one huge experiment. But we can make informed hypotheses about which activities will be better than others. What I’ve found works well is to weigh the alternatives side by side and ask which one will support your life objective more. That’s the “better” activity.

In order to make an informed guess, you may need to gather more data. That’s fine. Gather as much data as you need before making a decision. But also don’t put off making the decision so long that you miss out on the opportunity.

Recognizing the Best Activity

When I was younger, I had one best friend at a time. For me, the term “best” has always implied one. There’s only one best hockey player. There’s only one best employee. I think you get the picture. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized some people think they have 20 best friends, or 20 best hockey players, or 20 best employees. Regardless of how many bests you think you can have, for the purposes of this discussion, we’re going to define “best” as one. What is the best activity?

This question cannot be answered lightly because your answer will greatly influence the direction of your life. This is why I’d encourage you to take a few steps to get there. First, I’d encourage you to list out the places and ways where God is currently and has previously invited you into his work. Second, I’d encourage you to ask God where he’s calling you to participate with him in his work in the future. Third, I’d encourage you to weigh all your options side by side and make a list of the ways in which each one will support and oppose your life objective. These steps will hopefully at least start you in the right direction towards finding the best activity in your life.

Example from My Life

It’s one thing to talk about all this stuff. But it’s another to apply it in your life and watch it work. Here’s how Amy and I have applied these steps in our lives.

First, we created a mission statement which reads: To glorify God by worshiping him through love, obedience, and discipleship. Sound a bit broad? We purposely made it broad so that it won’t limit the work God wants to do through us. At the same time, such a broad mission statement can be unhelpful. As you set your own mission statement, go for one that’s broad enough to not be too restricting, but narrow enough to still be helpful. The last thing we want to do is find ourselves throwing darts in the air hoping they land on a target.

Second, we eliminated all the activities from our lives which weren’t supporting our mission statement. One of the things I did was to cut way back on the time I was putting into our financial investments. But the biggest thing we did was make the intentional decision for me to not seek out a full-time job after I left my previous full-time job. This was a very hard decision with all the pressure we feel from our culture for me to have a full-time job, but we decided that our mission statement would be best supported in other ways. And God has continued to affirm that decision by shutting doors for full-time job opportunities that would’ve usually been open for me.

Third, we weighed our good activities side by side to determine which ones were “better.” This part of the process was very challenging because we had to make an intentional decision to stop doing some activities we enjoyed doing and supported our mission statement. However, by eliminating these activities, we reduced our stress levels and have been able to dedicate the necessary resources to the activities which are better supporting our mission statement.

Fourth, we decided which activity was our best activity. To say it another way, we made a priority list giving each activity a specific level of importance. The absolute best activity, number one on our list, is spending time with God. No matter how many other activities I have in my day, I always make it a priority to spend time with God by reading a few chapters of the Bible and communicating with him throughout the day. Since we look to God to set our priorities for the day, some of our other priorities can change on a daily basis, but if he’s not calling us to invest our time in something specific that day, we stick to the rest of our priority list. Our second-best activity is spending time with each other. Third is spending time in the mission fields in which he’s placed us such as with our friends, families, work-places, neighbors, and my recreational hockey league. That doesn’t mean we don’t allot time for eating, sleeping, reading, video games, etc. Those activities are necessary to refresh us so that we have the energy to do the better activities; we just make sure we don’t get carried away with spending too much time there.

Last, we regularly evaluate our activities to determine whether we’re still staying true to our mission statement. When certain activities don’t seem to be supporting our mission statement as much as we thought they would, or when another activity begins to support it better, we won’t hesitate to drop an activity. For example, I gave up my leadership role in Backyard Mission Trip a couple years ago because it wasn’t supporting our mission statement as much as other activities. And when my term on Habitat for Humanity’s board expires at the end of the month, I will be giving up that activity. Both of those activities are good activities, but they aren’t supporting our mission statement as much as other activities. Regularly evaluating our activities can be frustrating at times, but it’s necessary to keep us focused on our end goal.

As you chew on the contents of this article, I’d encourage you to think about how you prioritize the activities in your life. What is your life objective? Have you written it down in a simple, memorable statement? Do the activities you’re currently doing support or oppose your objective? Are there other activities which might support it more than the ones you’re currently doing?