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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.

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