Is the Church for Sinners or Saints?

January 28, 2015

I lie in church. Regularly.

Sunday mornings are a zoo in my house, as I try to get my 3-year old daughter and 4-year old son dressed up, bundled up, out the door and into church (my wife is already at church teaching Sunday school, so she doesn’t have to witness the carnage). Now I know that doesn’t seem like such a lot to do, but somehow every Sunday morning seems to involve me yelling at (at least one) kid, dishing out some kind of guilt trip, and manipulating and/or manhandling someone to get them to church on time. It’s not nearly as pretty as I’m making it sound.

But once we get to church, we’re all smiles and nice clothes, good looking kids and their put-together, on-top-of-things dad joining up with their already-been-serving-the-church mom to sit together as a nice, Christian family. Perfect.

And that’s the lie. We aren’t perfect, I’m rarely nice (at least to my family), I’m certainly not on-top-of-things (especially in the parenting department), and the clothes we’re all wearing won’t last five minutes past our getting home from church (unless someone from church is coming over for lunch).

My very presence in church is a lie, because I spend the morning turning myself into someone I’m not for the rest of the week (and trying to force my kids to do the same). We call it ‘getting ready’ for church, but what are we ‘getting ready’ for? Why do we have to do something different, something special, to go to church? Can’t we come to God’s house just as we are?

Maybe it’s time to stop ‘getting ready’ for church, and remember that church is not just for people who are squeaky clean and looking good. Church is not a meeting place for saints—it’s a safe haven for sinners. We’re in church because we need God, and we need God because we aren’t perfect and we can’t make ourselves better. Grace is not for the “saved”—it is for those who need a Savior.

This is why a major part of many church traditions is the inclusion of a time of confession in the worship service. In traditional reformed church practice, this time of confession comes shortly after the Call to Worship. It is God who invites us into church, and we respond by admitting all the ways in which we are too broken, too full of ‘issues’ and problems to be worthy of entering God’s presence. And God responds with the assurance of pardon that lets us know that God already knows of our problems—and wants us anyway. God forgives us our shortcomings—and promises to help work with us on what’s broken in our lives. This is often referred to as “God’s will for our lives” in traditional reformed worship, and it is there, not as a reminder of how far we have fallen, nor as a demand for us to try harder to be better—but to remind us that God wants better for us than the pain caused by sin.

If Christian worship, at its heart, is a reminder that God doesn’t demand perfection, or purity, or suits and ties, dresses and smiles, then why do I feel the need to make my kids ‘look good’ before we go to church? Why do we spend so much time and energy ‘getting ready’?

God promises help to those who will take it, grace for those who need it—and love and acceptance for all. Does the church offer the same? Do we welcome and embrace those whose lives are too messed-up to be able to be “put-together” for Sunday morning service? Are we a place and people of the truth—or do we require people to live a lie in order to be welcomed and accepted? Are we comfortable when people share real problems with their brothers and sisters in Christ—marriages falling apart, addictions to drugs, work, or pornography, the feeling that God is nowhere to be found in my life right now—or do we look at our feet, silently hoping that this awkwardness will stop soon? Do people have to look a certain way—certain kind of clothes, certain kind of family—to be welcome in our churches? To be a member? To be an elder or deacon?

Fundamentally, this is about what—and who—church is really for. Is church for people whose lives are already put-together, looking good and on the right path? Or is church a place for people with problems and struggles, constantly struggling to live up to an ideal that they can never seem to reach, and feeling crushed by their failure to be ‘better’ than they are? Is church for saints—or for sinners like me?

It is this ‘me-as-sinner’ that gets my kids ‘ready’ Sunday morning—but somehow he doesn’t make it to church. He gets lost somewhere between my house and my church. Maybe I’m too embarrassed of ‘me-as-sinner’ to let him into my church. Maybe I’m hoping that if I look and act better that I’ll somehow become better.

But I’m a sinner. My life is broken in all kinds of ways. And if I pretend to be something else, then whoever shows up at church is not me. Not really. So where am I? I’m out there somewhere, with all the other sinners, lost, searching for love and acceptance. I know that God loves and welcomes us sinners; I’m wondering if the church does the same.

About the Author
  • Neal DeRoo is founding editor of in All things and Associate Professor of Philosophy at The King’s University in Edmonton.

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  1. Neal, thanks so much for this honest, real look at church and what (who?) it’s for. And I’m right there with you, brother, in the typical Sunday morning fight…ugh.

    I think this is as much for church leaders as it is for parishioners in the pews (or folding chairs, or what have you.) How do we make sure that all are welcome, that all are free to come as they are–as they really are–to join in corporate worship?

    1. Thanks Dave.

      I’m not sure if it’s any more up to church leaders than it is up to parishioners. The leaders can set a tone, I suppose, and set up liturgy and other things to be more or less inviting, certainly–but parishioners have to be arms of welcome.

  2. Ease up on yourself man. It’s no sin to get a little hot herding kids in the morning. I think lots of people doing that think they are being hypocrites because they’re stressed, upset, maybe angry. Who said the goal is to get to church early enough to get a good seat and look like a calm, collected, happy family? If there’s any sin to detect at work in this scene it is fear of the superficial judgments of others, the actual judgments of others, and the inability of congregations to talk about it.

    There are lots of ways to do church, and historically most of the ways it’s been done have tolerated a lot of messiness, chaos, and movement compared to what we’re used to. St. Augustine preached in a way that expected people to talk back, kind of like American pentecostal ad charismatic traditions. A lot of Orthodox churches still don’t have pews or seats of any kind — as C. S. Lewis observed “Some stood, some knelt, some sat, some walked. . . . And the beauty of it was that nobody took the slightest notice of what anyone else was doing.” In Jewish worship, the people may go at their own pace through set prayers, and those who arrive late — not really a terrible thing — start at the beginning on their own. You could call this a cacophony of individualism, but it is every individual focused on God, as individuals together. I’ve seen big, boisterous Catholic parishes do mass with people coming and going all throughout. Some say the traditional liturgies intended to be an image of heaven with constant activity. The rituals of worship — like the law and legal proceedings — operate with or without us, whether we are competent or not, whether the kids are bad or not. So why not relax a little? 🙂

  3. Thanks Arne. I’ll try to chill 🙂

    The churches you describe sound very interesting. I think I’d love to attend one and be part of that. I’m guessing I’d find it somewhat chaotic–but that might be liberating, also. What sounds great to me about what you describe, though, is that everyone is welcome and no one gets looked at with a sideways glance. That’s so rare in churches nowadays, it seems to me. How do we get some of that back? How can we recover some of that “everyone is welcome, come as you are” mentality?

  4. I resonate with what Arne says about our perception of others’ judging glares. I know there are times, particularly when I sit near the front of church, when I feel like there are eyes on me and what I do, even though I know that’s probably not true. I know my wife stresses about that from time to time when she plays piano, assuming she’s being judged for every little flub and mistake when, in reality, even those of us who know the music well enough to notice often don’t. Often our perceived judgment can be a reflection of our own self-judgment.

    I also resonate with the notion that it’s about more than the tone set by the church leadership. The spirit of the congregation has a huge impact on how things are perceived. We can all be in suits and ties with perfectly behaved children, but how do those folks respond when a kid does cry or if someone shows up in jeans and a t-shirt?

    I don’t think it’s that we pretend not to be sinners if we put on our Sunday best and try to dutifully behave through the service, although I suppose that’s possible for some. In my case, I think the philosophy is that we’re being invited to a great wedding feast, as the preached Word is counted true food for our souls, and how many of us wouldn’t put on our best clothes and try to behave at an earthly wedding? The wonderful truth is not that we pretend not to be sinners, but that, through the mystery of Christ, we are not counted as such, so when our neighbors have crying kids or their attempts to put their best foot forward slip a little and expose how little they have it together, we can graciously smile and move on. After all, that may well be us next week.

  5. This is exactly what makes mainstream participation impossible – for the saints! The church welcomes all the worst hypocrites and closet cases and murderers and liars and cheats and often lets them set the agenda. But how does it treat its saints? In my experience, church is no place for saints, who are easily marginalized by the confederacy of sinners looking to point the finger at anybody but themselves.

    1. Well the true saints don’t really need the church. The church is a hospital for sinners that might ideally be run by saints, but that’s a rarity. It’s good if the sinners know who they are and cooperate with a program of treatment, but you seem to describe a situation where the inmates have taken over the asylum. It fails the other way too — even beloved pastors who are true spiritual elites get pulled into the web of dependence. Those who chronically need saving corrupt others into believing it is their task to save them and no one else can. People like being sinners; they dignify it and normalize it if they can. Everyone gets pulled down in the mud. If you want to avoid germs, stay away from doctors and hospitals.

  6. First of all a church is not a building but the children of God, a church building contains the lost and saved , the saints are encouraged and grow by the word preached, for the lost the word is an invitation to confess and turn to Christ and be of the congregation of the righteous in Christ this becoming a saint in Christ. Therefore you will find the lost and saved in the church building for two different reasons.