Church Incarnated: Spirits and Song

Church Incarnated: Spirits and Song

Church Incarnated: Spirits and Song

A few days ago, I posted an article entitled Has the Internet Made Attending Church Obsolete? If you haven’t yet read it, you can do that here. In fact, I’d encourage you to do so. This article will make much more sense in light of that.

In that article, I explore the idea that in the given circumstances we find ourselves, churches are rapidly replicating the in-person experience in an online format. (Take the service you would normally have, record video of it, broadcast it through the magic of the internet.) 

This phenomenon made me wonder: if we can simply replicate the experience of going to church online, what is the point of physically attending a church service?


I find that to be a fascinating question. It’s also slightly unsettling. Moreover, it’s a perilous question to give voice to if you’re a pastor. After all, your self-worth job security is often positively and perfectly correlated to attendance. Better attendance equals more job security. (Also, better attendance equals more impunity with respect to your leadership. “It’s working, so I may do what I desire without any checks or balances.” But that’s another conversation for another day.)


It turns out, many of you find it a fascinating question, too.


And while I received comments and DMs with your answers to that question, I thought I would attempt to provide a response of my own.


But, first, let’s talk about the big problem with the typical answer we give to the topic of church attendance.



The Big Problem.

We all have our reasons for desiring (or lacking any desire) to attend church. Some are fleeting, while some are systemic. And, in many ways, those reasons are irrelevant to anyone but you. That is, they matter to you, but to someone else, that reasoning may appear absurd.


But that’s somewhat beside the point. Important. Sure. But most important to you.


Therein lies the problem. 


Most people respond with reasons why they like going to church, but they don’t move beyond that. At the end of the day, it seems that our individual preference is to attend church. And there is nothing wrong with that at all. But let’s call it what it is: a partiality.


I mean, the audio quality of my computer speakers is horrid compared to the quality of the speakers used by the church I attend. So, on that basis alone, I can prefer to attend a church service in-person. That does not mean, however, that the online experience is less beneficial, edifying, engaging, or worthwhile. It just means I need better speakers. And I would most definitely prefer that my computer had better speakers. 


But do you see the conundrum?


In answering a question like this, teasing apart the difference between our deeply held preferences and what we believe is an essential reason for attending a church service can be a difficult task.


Look no further than the number one reason people feel attending church online isn’t obsoleting attending church in-person: relationships.


Many people cited relationships were a reason to attend a church service. I don’t dispute that in any way, shape, or form. (Except as an introvert at heart.) You can develop relationships with people who attend church.




It’s not a matter of if you can do that by attending church in-person. It’s not even a matter of if you like doing that. Of course, you can. And, of course, you just might like it, too. 


The real question, though, is if it is essentially only church attendance that provides relationships. Strictly speaking, it cannot be that attending church in-person is better than attending online because it helps develop relationships. After all, you can also develop relationships at the gym, a sporting event or league, a bar or public house, or any other number of places. So that doesn’t seem to be a plausible explanation for the internet failing to replace the experience of church in-person.




Because relationships are possible everywhere. Attending church is simply another avenue to do achieve that end.


But that raises another question: is it simply that you prefer to develop relationships with other church-goers over those who do not attend church? 


That’s a fully loaded question. 


Our answer, though, may be somewhat frightening to even ourselves. But it also evades answering the original question. How? Because you can develop relationships with other church-goers outside of a church service. As such, attending church in person is not essential in developing relationships with other church-goers. (Aside from the fact that church-going is a prerequisite for being labelled a church-goer. So, for argument’s sake, let’s consider church-goer to be an equitable term for a believer.)


It’s also not a matter of whether you prefer developing relationships with other church-goers in-person. Rather, the question I posed in my initial article, made it a matter of whether or not the Church is providing something at their in-person experience that cannot be replicated in the online format. And, given the whole-hearted acceptance of using video-conferencing technologies such as Zoom to establish new (and continue old) community groups, it seems that the online format is an adequate substitute for in-person gathering.


Technology seems to have made it possible to, basically, replicate everything. And that includes relationships.


With all of that said, it’s important to ask and answer the question plainly: is there anything from the in-person experience that online church cannot replicate? 






I know, right? I was beginning to think that I really thought gathering together for weekly church services is fruitless, too!


I don’t think that’s the case at all, by the way. But, my reasoning might not make much sense when you first hear it.


So here it is.



My Answer.

Because it’s physical.


Yes, you read that right. I don’t think that attending church in-person is rendered obsolete by replicating and broadcasting services online.




Because attending church in-person is physical.


Wait. What?


I know that seems a cheap trick. Being at church in-person isn’t obsolete because…it’s in person?


That’s right.

Well, almost.

Being at church in-person isn’t obsolete because it’s physical.


I told you it wouldn’t make much sense at first. So let me flesh that out a little more.

Let’s get spiritual.

The spiritual is thin. It’s tough to grasp.


Have you ever noticed that many people offer explanations of spiritual things by speaking more airily and less concretely?


In many ways, this makes sense. After all, the spirit of God is often written about (in the Bible, even!) as though it is wind. Sometimes it’s described as something similar to breath. One minute it’s there in full force, and the next it has diffused into a low-pressure, seemingly non-existent entity.


It also blows where it will.


How do you talk about something like that without the assistance of advanced degrees in fluid mechanics and pneumatics?


In a breathy, airy, nebulous kind of way.


So, it’s no real surprise that we struggle to put words to why going to church in-person isn’t rendered a moot point in the face of technological innovation.


Perhaps the real reason we struggle is that we tend to leave our faith in the realm of the spiritual. That is, in some strange way, our faith is nothing more than an idea and words. (Love. Peace. Faith. Hope. You know the buzzwords.) However, to be blunt, those ideas and words are nothing if they are not acted upon. In fact, you and I can think and talk about our faith for an eternity, yet all of that intellectual exercise may never make a difference in how we live.


We can think and never bring those thoughts to bear in our lived lives. In fact, that is often the reality for many church-goers.


I think Father Richard Rohr says it best when he writes the following:


“We do not think ourselves into new ways of living.”


In short, our thoughts don’t usually change our behaviour. I assume he’s not suggesting that thinking never accomplishes anything substantive. However, I think it’s a fair assessment. Thought typically doesn’t precede action. Consider that some scientists estimate that up to 98% of our existence is governed by unconscious biological processes, and Fr. Richard Rohr seems to be on to something.


But that’s not where his thought ends. He goes on to complete it by writing this:


 “We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.”


I think he’s correct. 


And that’s precisely why I think we need to get physical.


Let’s get physical.

The physical is thick. It’s robust.


Have you ever noticed that people don’t really have too many difficulties describing the physical world around them? 


Sometimes the appropriate word is difficult to find, sure. In general, though, it’s not too hard to describe what we observe. For example, I can typically recall every shot I took during my last round of golf. I can describe it’s lie, what tree my ball was behind, trajectory, shape, sound, yardage, where it landed, whether it rolled out, plugged, or spun back, and even qualify it with descriptions such as perfect, good, bad, and awful. And I can do that for all 75-80 shots I took over the preceding four hours or so. I can observe, remember, and describe the physical. 


It’s relatively easy to do with the physical.

It’s hard to do with the spiritual.


But the physical is spiritual.


And that’s often a lost concept. Especially this side of the Enlightenment. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.


Look no further than the opening pages of the Scriptures. In the first two chapters, we are regaled with a poetic description of the movement of spirit and the innervation of the material world. In fact, the Scriptures go one step further and describe humankind as a complex amalgam of the two. That is, they are both spirit and material.


We were formed from the dust.

God breathed life into us.


We are spirit.

We are matter.


We are thin.

We are robust.


We are tough to grasp.

We are concrete.


The physical is the spiritual.

The spiritual is the physical.


It’s all right there for us to read.


But it’s not just the physicality of creation.

It’s important to not simply create a theology of the physical realm based on two chapters of the Bible. (Although, we’ve created other doctrines on far less.)


So, let us look at three distinct events that the entirety of Christianity hinges upon; the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection.


The incarnation.

Christmas. A baby in a manger.


Spirit clothed in flesh. In a nutshell, that’s the incarnation.


Although, that doesn’t seem to do it justice, does it? How do you explain the mystery of spirit innervating flesh? 


(In slightly more airy and ethereal terms, I suppose.)


Any way you consider it, though, the incarnation of Jesus isn’t a miracle because of the spiritual invasion of earth. Genesis 1 talks about the spirit hovering over the face of the deep. The spirit has always been there. The incarnation of Christ is a miracle because of the unification of the spiritual with the physical.


The real miracle is the physicality of the divine, not the spirituality of it.


But it’s not simply the reality that this describes the incarnation of Jesus, it’s the reality that is you. You are spirit clothed in flesh. Or is that spirit-infused flesh? (See what I mean, words are difficult when it comes to the spiritual.) Perhaps, though, our lived experience can give words to understand the incarnation of Jesus.


To be Jesus was to be human, and all that term entails.


Blood and guts.











Bodily fluids.






















Think about your own existence. What does that tell you about what it was like to be Jesus? It might not tell you everything. After all, we don’t live in first-century Palestine. Also, we aren’t Jesus. But thinking about your own existence might tell you something about his. 


The incarnation was not solely a spiritual event. 

It was also indelibly physical. 

Never forget that.


Oh, one more thing. That very physical incarnation led to another unavoidable human reality: death.


The crucifixion.

I think it’s important to note that the penultimate event of Jesus’ life was physical. 


His body was broken and beaten.

It bled.

It had thirst.

It gasped for air.

It spoke.

It forgave.

It was punctured.

It breathed its last.

It gave up its spirit.

It died.

It hung lifeless upon the cross.

It was removed, wrapped, and buried.

It was cold.


The crucifixion was not solely a spiritual event. 

It was also indelibly physical. 

Never forget that.


The resurrection.

If the penultimate event of Jesus’ life was the crucifixion, the ultimate event was the resurrection. The entirety of Christianity is based on the validity of the resurrection. (In fact, the Bible even goes so far as to suggest that if the resurrection didn’t happen, we ought to be pitied above all people.)


But it wasn’t solely a spiritual event.

It was physical.


The dead body was alive once more.

It walked from the tomb, scars and all.

It travelled.

It ate.

It digested.

It moved through walls. (Come again?)

It walked on the beach.

It cooked food.

It spoke.


It lived.


The blood it was born with, that was shed, coursed through its veins once more.


The breath that gave it life, that he gave up, was given back.


The crucifixion was not solely a spiritual event. 

It was also indelibly physical. 

Never forget that.


The events we base our faith upon are a very physical reality.


Let that sink in.


Your faith is far more than a spiritual reality. It is a physical one.


It was incarnated in the very fabric of creation.

It was made flesh in the human.

The miracle of the divine was that it was made flesh in the Son of Man.

The Son of Man tasted the physical reality of death.

The Christ rose, bodily, from the grave.


Your faith is based far more on physical realities than you may first realize.


And it is those physical realities that ought to shape our attendance of church. Attendance in the flesh.




So why has the internet not made attending church in-person obsolete?

Good question.


It took a while to get there, but there are two very physical realities that, I believe, are essential and not simply preferential when it comes to attending church in person: spirits & song.



I’m not talking about the spiritual realm, either. I’m talking about booze.


Wine, to be precise.


Have you ever noticed that our calendars come pre-loaded with dates to commemorate? Electronic or physical, all of them contain special dates.


  • In the United States, the fourth Thursday in November is, for all intents and purposes, a religious holiday; Thanksgiving.
  • In Canada, the penultimate Monday of May commemorates Queen Victoria’s birthday and is the unofficial start of summer.
  • On February 2nd, many North Americans wait for a groundhog to appear from his hole. When he appears, they read the signs to see how many weeks remain in the winter season.
  • On November 11 of this year, Sweden will mark National Chocolate Day. I will be celebrating privately.
  • November 11th marks a very different kind of day if your nation was involved in the Great War. On November 11th, 1918, armistice was declared. For over 100 years, we have commemorated that event with poppies and a moment of silence.


With few exceptions, the holidays of any consequence are instituted to commemorate a physical event of great importance. Quite often, those events are ones that altered the trajectory of human history. On July 4, 1776, the world changed forever. For better or worse, it changed. On November 11, 1918, the world changed forever. The day Queen Victoria was born, the world changed forever.


Some events changed the world forever. And on those days, we humans have a proclivity to do one thing: sample spirits.


Don’t believe me?

Google it.


Liquor sales spike in the days before New Year’s Eve, Thanksgiving, and other holidays.


But what if the physical event you are memorializing changed not only the world but the cosmos?


What then?


Commemorate it more often?

That seems right.


But what on earth are we remembering?


That’s a good question.


I said it earlier, but perhaps it’s worth repeating: holidays commemorate physical events of great importance, and they often involve spirits.


The Resurrection of Jesus is a physical reality that bears remembering. After all, we believe it altered the course of the cosmos. But it’s much more. The belief is that the physical event changed our lived reality, too. In fact, it gave us a glimpse of what is to come: another resurrection. But this time, it’s for you and me to be involved in. We won’t just witness it, we’ll live it.


It will be our physical experience.

A spiritual innervation of our dry bones.


So why celebrate that only once a year?

Why not every seven days?


That sounds like a good idea to me.


But why every seven days?


Because of the physical reality of another event: the Creation.


The rhythm of the physical reality of Creation is a cycle of seven days. Every seven days, everything refreshes. 

It begins again.

As the sun sets on one cycle of seven, another cycle of seven is given birth. 




New life.


It’s right there in the fabric of all things.


Every seven days we receive another chance to restore. 

Another opportunity to refresh. 

Another occasion to rest in the peace of God. 

Another moment to bring things to their fulfillment.


That fulfillment, in a personal sense, is your restoration. 

Your reinvigoration. 

Your resurrection.


That fulfillment, in a cosmic sense, is the restoration of all things.

Their reinvigoration.

Their setting right.


And it’s all possible because of physical events.

And the physical is spiritual.

Only it’s more concrete.


This is why we commemorate the Crucifixion and Resurrection every seven days. We incarnate the spiritual reality and cause it to manifest in our midst in a physical way. We memorialize this reality through the physical reality of Communion.



You might call this Eucharist, Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Last Supper, the Holy Sacrament, or some other name I’m not familiar with. Whatever you might call it, though, it involves two very physical elements: bread and booze.


Okay, perhaps that was a bit crass. Communion, however, does involve bread and wine. (Unless you are a good Baptist. Grape juice all the way, baby!) And these two elements are symbols of Jesus’ body and his blood. (Unless you are a good Catholic. Then they aren’t merely symbols, they are the body and blood of Jesus.)


And what do you do with food?

You eat it.


And what do you do with spirits?

You drink them.


The material concretizes the immaterial.

The physical informs the spiritual.

The behaviour precedes the belief.

The food sustains the faith.


We might not fully understand how the Resurrection of Christ transfers to us. Heck, we might not ever come to comprehend the Resurrection of Jesus, let alone how it transfers to us. 


But you can engage in an undeniably physical re-enactment of the spiritual reality.


Imagine. Every seven days. The spiritual reality that we find difficult to understand being embodied within us.


We might not understand it, and thus we might avoid living it.

But if we start living it, we just might come to the beginning of understanding.


Imagine what life would look like if we ingested, digested, understood, and incarnated the Resurrection every seven days?


There is a benefit, because of spirits, to the spirit, when we congregate together. We manifest a deeper reality in every fibre of our being. It’s a collective remembrance of an event that changed the course of cosmic history. Not simply an intellectual exercise in the confines of self-isolation. It is a collective embodiment of transcendent reality.


And you cannot do that through the wonder of the internet.


But there’s something else that can’t be done through the internet: song.



Okay, YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music, and all the other streaming services out there might fight me on that last claim.


And they would be right to.


Songs are all over the internet. Want to listen to some of your favourite symphonic pieces? No problem. The internet has you covered. All the Mozart, Beethoven, and Handel you can handle. Have a desire for some heavy metal? If that’s your thing, the internet has what you want. The internet also contains everything in between these two vastly different genres. You get the picture, though. The internet possesses all the songs you could want.


So, what do songs have to do with attending church?


Well, it’s not so much about songs as it is about song.

Now, I know, it seems like I’m doing that thing pastors love to do: taking a noun and making it a verb. I’m not. Trust me, I hate it just as much as you. But I’m sure you’re wondering what the difference is between those words other than one being the plural form of the other. I’ll tell you.


But first, let’s add a definite article. See, it’s not so much about songs as it is about the song.


There, that’s better.


But, I digress. On to my explanation of the difference between songs and the song.


For the purposes of our conversation, songs are short poems or other sets of words set to music or meant to be sung.


In contrast, the song is the deep undergirding pulse of Creation. It is the rhythm, the hum, the bass note that is foundational to the functioning of all things. It’s a cadence that you and I are invited to participate in. 


And, as funny as it may seem, songs can often help us access the song.


But first, a conversation about breath.

Breathing is vital. If you don’t breathe, you don’t live.


What I find most fascinating is that there are two components to breathing. Breathing isn’t complete until you have both inhaled and exhaled. The technical terms for those processes are inspiration and expiration.


To inspire is to breathe in life.

To expire is to unleash that life into the world around you.


I like to consider the process of breathing when I think of Creation.


In the beginning, God spoke.


Before we speak, we often breathe.


So, what if God inspired before speaking, too?


The real question is, what did he inspire?

Well, nothing less than his breath, I would assume.

And what is his breath?

The Hebrew tradition would have us understand the breath of God as the Spirit of God. After all, the terms are used synonymously.


So, God inspired himself. He gathered all of his creative energy and drew it into himself. And then he unleashed it all through speech. He expired and life came to be.


And now a conversation about the song.

If you’ve ever read the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, you’re familiar with the creation of Narnia. If you aren’t, take a few hours to read the first book in that saga, The Magician’s Nephew. It’s a wonderous few pages of literature.


In that book, you read about the Creation of Narnia. Or, perhaps more correctly, the genesis of Narnia through song.


In the creation narrative, the God-figure, Aslan, moves about the darkness humming, singing, and calling all things to generate themselves from the darkened canvas surrounding him. It’s as if the whole world dances with the song. The notes extend to the material, and matter responds to the spirit.


The song gave that which was to come order and structure. 

It gave it vitality, energy, and a purpose.



The song.



It’s no stretch to imagine the creation of all things as God writing a symphonic masterpiece. The 12th-century mystic, Hildegard of Bingen says it this way:


“All of creation is a symphony of the Holy Spirit which is joy and jubilation.”


And that song persists to this very day. The rhythm, the hum, the bass note from the beginning is still resonating to this day. In a way, it’s the foundational structure of all things. The creative, generative energy of the breath of God persists unto this very day.


And he gave that same breath to us.


So we may continue the song.


And therein lies a vocation: continue the song.


So what does attending church have to do with the song?

Herein lies the delicate interplay between songs and the song.


When we sing collectively, we communally order our breathing. We orient ourselves to the rhythms of Creation that have been uncovered throughout the centuries by the saints and poets who came before us. 


I breathe in the same metre and time as the prophets who penned those words in bygone eras. I breathe out in the timeless cadence, joining the eternal order of priests, expiring the life and vitality of God into all things around me.


And when two or three of us begin to do that, the collective force of our unified breath begins to change the very atmosphere around us.


Can you sing on your own from the comfort of your own home?

Of course.


Can the collective breath coalesce while we are all engaging the musical content from the internet?

I don’t think so.


Is a live concert the same as watching the recording afterward?




Because the collective breath changes things.


In unified singing, the world begins to change.


The immaterial will form the material.

The spiritual innervates the physical.

The belief determines the behaviour.

The breath provides life to the body.


Breathe in.

Breathe out.



Let all Creation be ordered around the flow of our collective breathing.

As spirit invades our lungs, let it be passed to those around us.

Let it invade every corner of the earth.

As we sing, let the song refresh, restore, and resurrect that which needs it.


There is a physical reality hidden deep within the very foundations of the earth. 


When we engage in the song, it’s as if we are swept up in a communal inhale and exhale. We take part in the rhythm of God. We recalibrate to the holy pulse of Creation. We refresh, restore, and resurrect Creation to it’s intended order.


How the internet can re-create that, I am not sure.



Spirits & Song: Why I believe the internet has not made attending church obsolete.

The reality is, attending church is physical just as much as it is spiritual. And therein lies what the internet cannot re-create: a physical reality.


Attending church isn’t simply physical because it is in-person, it’s physical because of what is done while we attend in-person.


It isn’t fundamentally about preference.

It ought to be about something deeper than that.


It isn’t centrally about relationships.

Those are achievable elsewhere, too.


It’s about the physical realities that are also spiritual ones.







Our faith is predicated on physical reality.

Past events that have spiritual implications, too.


By attending church, we have the distinct privilege of incarnating the deep rhythms of creation, crucifixion, and resurrection.


We do this through spirits. 

We do this through song.


Anthony VanderLaan Church Consultant Cropped


I am a blogger, researcher, and church consultant, here to inspire and empower you to become a better leader and pastor; a leader and pastor that inspires and equips your church to come alive.

I write and speak about how churches can stop wasting time with sideways energy to get back on mission.

And I will inspire you to remember your calling and be proud of it.

Has the internet made attending church obsolete?

Has the internet made attending church obsolete?

Has the internet made attending church obsolete?

Disclaimer: This article is written to be a jarring exploration of the titular question. As such, the language I use is strong, snarky, and seemingly sarcastic. That is entirely purposeful. I’m exploring a deep question that, I believe, we have typically provided trite answers to. Accordingly, my aim is to create a bit of dis-ease with our long-held assumptions about why we attend church in the first place. With that information in hand, I hope you find this article to be thought-provoking. But more than that, I hope it leads you to a deeper, contemplative place; one in which you would find a depth of peace and joy.

What an unusual week, wasn’t it? I’ll be honest, I can’t remember a week like this past one; probably because, in my lifetime, there hasn’t been one like it.

I noticed this most acutely a few days ago when I was driving around town with my wife. As we were driving, I couldn’t help but notice one thing: every single church was closed.

Now, I know, that’s not too abnormal. It was Saturday after all.

But it was the same thing Sunday morning.


Sunday. Morning.



Churches are closed.


And then I thought: so what?


Now, that’s an interesting question, isn’t it? 

Well, at the very least I think it is.


To put it another way: does it matter that every church is closed on Sunday morning?


Some of us may respond with a resounding, “Yes, it absolutely matters.”


And you may be right.


Others of us may respond with, “Well, it’s understandable that they are closed for a time. We want to love people well, and we can do that best by staying away in order to ‘flatten the curve’.”




Let’s face it, we all have our own response to the closures of churches. But that’s tangential to the question I’m trying to explore.


Consider the proliferation of applications for the internet. With the advent of live video streaming through the multitude of applications that do that, geography is no longer a barrier to attending church. We can still get our weekly dose of melodramatic music and a message, sitting next to the same people we would anyway. Plus, we don’t have to mess around with parking and panicked people.


Hallelujah! Amiright?


So, I’ll ask it again: does it matter that every church is closed on Sunday morning?


With all this new technology at our disposal, what purpose is there to attending church?


I can consume ‘churchy’ content virtually.

I can hear a message from the Bible.

I can listen to and sing ‘Christian’ music.

I can stay connected and ‘in community’ from a great distance.

I can avoid getting ready by a certain time.

I can avoid driving into a packed parking lot.

I can push pause, go to the bathroom or refill that coffee (with better coffee), and push play.

I can stay away from people I don’t like.


If the internet can admirably replicate the experience of physically gathering together at a weekend church service while removing all the unwanted parts of it, why do we need a building and time to gather?


Again: does it matter that every church is closed on Sunday morning?


Now, I know, we are going to hear a lot in the next few weeks about how the Church isn’t a building, it’s the people.


I’ve heard it a lot already.


And that’s not incorrect. The Greek we translate to mean “Church” is more correctly understood as “assembly” or “congregation”. The Church is not a supra-individual entity, it’s the individuals that create the collective. Now, I don’t disagree with this, but I’m still not sure why the Church consisting of people is important in a conversation surrounding why you go to church.


Further, going to church – according to the many churches that are scrambling to produce video content for you to still “attend church” during this time of isolation – seems to be an essential part of being the Church.


But why?


I’m not sure I have a great answer to that question.


And I don’t know that many of us do.


I mean, if someone asked you, “Why do you attend church?” what would you tell them?


Now, before you answer that, ask yourself what physically going to church allows you to do that going to church virtually doesn’t?


I guess, put another way, that question could read more like this: when you can go back to church, in person, why would you?


To be honest, I don’t think many of us in the modern, Western, evangelical tradition has much to say on the topic. I scoured the internet (because let’s face it, that’s all we have to do these days, isn’t it?), and all that came back were the same tired responses:

  1.  God says we ought to. (Where? Hebrews 10:25 was written by a human author, not verbatim from the mouth of God. And even if it were God’s direct words, does he mean that we ought to attend church as we experience it today? Why is church online an okay substitute now? Is it simply because of the circumstance?)
  2. We don’t go to church, we are the church. (How? What kind of wordplay is this? It doesn’t even answer the question of why we attend Church. All it says is that we exist as people who profess belief in Christ. “Are” isn’t a very powerful or descriptive verb.)
  3. For people that aren’t there yet. (So, let me get this straight: we attend church so that other people can come and attend a non-sensical weekend get-together? It’s not about us being there aside from our presence benefitting someone else? That may be a benevolent thought, but it’s most definitely inane reasoning.)
  4. To teach your kids to love the Church. (Why? If you don’t really like it, and it doesn’t make sense, why would you teach them to endure it? So they suffer as you have or because you think it’s good for them?)
  5. To encourage your pastor. (Is your pastor’s ego and sense of self-worth so fragile that they need you to show up?)
  6. Worshipping God together is powerful. (Sure; if the words we sang weren’t so vapid, repetitive and ego-centric. Or, maybe if we could remember that it’s not simply a time to be performed at by a band from the stage, or that it’s not a moment for you to “push away the distractions” of other people and forget they are there when you get lost in the emotional moment of a musical key change. Sure…then worshipping together might be powerful.)
  7. To serve others. (And that can’t be done anywhere else?)
  8. It will help you to be a happy person. (No. Just no. Attending church does not guarantee happiness.)
  9. It will give you something interesting to talk about on Monday at work. (Because nothing else interesting happens in our lives on the weekend. Well, except the NFL…oh, wait, nothing about the NFL or football is interesting. Maybe they’re on to something with this one. Hmm.)
  10. It’s where your real friends are. (As opposed to all of those fake friends who don’t go to church, or the same church as you.)

Listen, I’m not attempting to be snarky (although I do a good enough job of it in the above parentheses), or suggest that going to Church is ridiculous.


Far from it.


I’m simply attempting to raise a question that is being brought to my attention during the extraordinary times we find ourselves in.


We can’t gather physically. 

But everything we would gather for is being provided remotely. 

Why attend church anymore? 


And the questions have led me to look for answers.

And the answers I have found are less than meaningful.


So, I’ll ask it once more: does it matter that every church is closed on Sunday morning?


Perhaps it doesn’t.


If it doesn’t, that should greatly shock us. 

After all, we assume that it matters.

Let that shock wash over you.

Hopefully, that shock jolts us enough to ask why we’re doing what we’re doing every weekend.


Every seven days, millions (maybe even billions) of dollars are spent to make a weekend event happen. Why?


Perhaps that thought will shock us enough to evolve into something that, if it didn’t happen every seven days, the world would sit up and take notice.


What a world that would be.


Anthony VanderLaan Church Consultant Cropped


I am a blogger, researcher, and church consultant, here to inspire and empower you to become a better leader and pastor; a leader and pastor that inspires and equips your church to come alive.

I write and speak about how churches can stop wasting time with sideways energy to get back on mission.

And I will inspire you to remember your calling and be proud of it.

Certain Places

Certain Places

Certain Places

There are certain places that resonate with us. They feel transcendent. It’s as though all is right in the world. Perhaps you can think of that place immediately. Perhaps it’s close or, perhaps, it’s far away. But that certain place is where you feel at peace. It’s where you feel whole. It’s where you feel integrated. In essence, it’s where you experience transformation.

Where are your certain places?

Maybe it’s a vacation spot. Maybe it’s your home. Maybe it’s reading, watching Netflix, playing sports, eating good food, or absorbing a cup of coffee or tea.

There’s an interesting thing that happens, though. Have you ever tried to force the feelings of peace, wholeness, integration, and transformation in a place which, well, just doesn’t do it for you?

Have you ever felt so worn out that all you wanted to do was take a vacation? So you book one. You travel to your chosen spot so that you can renew and refresh but, by the end of it, you end up feeling worse than before you left.

Or maybe it’s as simple as needing five minutes to yourself. So you step out to grab a coffee. The excitement is brewing at the prospect of a cup of brown gold. And then! The first sip is so depressing. It’s burnt. Great. Now what?

Some places seem to be the place you were looking for. And yet, when we try to force it into being, it doesn’t often deliver.

We’re all looking for transformation. We’re all looking for certain places.
But how do you find them?


Transformation, Certain Places, and the Church.

If you’ve been around a church or leading in the Church for any length of time, you’ve likely heard a phrase sounding something like this:

“We believe life transformation happens in (insert setting here).”

Every church has it certain places.

Certain places are the environments that are designed to provide you with the feeling of peace, wholeness, and integration. In short, places of transformation.

Many in church leadership conceive of these certain places as a funnel. You move people from one certain place to the next in the hopes that they experience more transformation. I’ve written on that in a technical way here.

Regardless of what those locations are, every church has their certain places. Believe me.

Perhaps the place looks like a weekend gathering at a local church. It might be chairs, benches, the floor, an auditorium, a gymnasium, a home, or even a movie theatre. Life change happens at the weekend gathering when you sing some songs, pray a few prayers, and hear a preacher preach.

Maybe not.

Perhaps the place looks like a small group, bible study, or a house church. Life change happens when you gather in a group with a specific agenda to discuss what you heard at the weekend gathering or a passage from the ancient, sacred texts.

Maybe not.

Perhaps the word community is thrown around, too. That is, life change happens in a community. Believe it or not, I’ve heard that a lot of spiritual practices aren’t valid outside of a communal setting. I’ve even heard that reading the Bible is moot when you aren’t reading it in community. That was a new one. But, as you can see, life change only happens when you are around other people. That’s evident because someone declared it, right?

Maybe not.

In recent memory, I cannot recall a pastor saying that you could experience life transformation, firstly, by yourself and, secondly, there was never an indicator you could experience transformation outside of the specific settings they provide. Sure, they never said you couldn’t, but there exists a gigantic chasm between the active promotion of a handful of certain places and a refusal to mention any others.

It seems to me that the only way real transformation happens, according to many church leaders, is in the presence of at least one other person. However, a group of 10-12 would be ideal so that you approximate the size of Jesus’ posse. After all, there must be something inherently spiritual about that number. Oh, and don’t forget to show up every Sunday with a few dozen, hundred, or even thousand people to sing, hear a teaching, and drink bad or locally roasted coffee. The only thing that’s better than doing those two things is if you read your Bible to “invite Jesus into your day”.

Life transformation.
Can’t you feel it?


It Smells Like Fish To Me.

Truthfully, I think the whole conversation is a bit of a red herring. That is, the idea of certain places that allow for transformation serves as a distraction from the actual topic of transformation. We get so hung up on where life transformation can happen that we don’t even care to know if it is happening.

One of the reasons for this, I believe, is because we in the Church don’t begin from a place of transformation.

Let me repeat that.

Those of us in the Church, especially those of us who lead in it, don’t often begin with a deep, transcendent belief that either the Christ or the Bible is about transformation.

We say it.
We’d never dispute it.
But we don’t believe it.
We don’t act it out for ourselves.

In truth, we possess a transactional view of God and life. And so we start our journey toward transformation with a transactional mindset. And we pass it along to those we lead.

And transaction has never led to transformation.


The Bible As Transaction.

Believe it or not, so many of us have grown up with a transactional lens through which we view the biblical text. Accordingly, we’ve become accustomed to a transactional God. We read transaction and we assign that to God. In fact, it is so prevalent that we often cannot see it.

Here’s how many people view the Bible.

The Bible, in a way, is a cosmic ledger that details the universal credits and debits. Everything aside from Christ is a debit against us and Creation; an account owed to God the Father.

Read the Old Testament and that’s all it is, right?.

The book of Judges? Yup. A huge debt owed to God. (A debt owed many times over judging by the number of repetitions.) 1 & 2 Kings? Some of those kings were seriously bad. Debt, debt, debt. Don’t even get me started on the debacle that was the Exodus; appreciation gave way to anger pretty fast.

What about the New Testament? Well, Paul does talk a lot about how we ought to be better, doesn’t he? Even further debt owed to God. Even the Gospels don’t seem that favourable toward us. After all, Jesus had some pretty strong words about some of the people he encountered and I can be a lot like them.


But then there’s that one line where Jesus hung on the cross and said something like, “Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing.” Yeah, I like that one. And when Jesus resurrects, that’s a good thing, too! Christ, then, becomes the universal credit that applies against our accounts owed.

If not for Christ, the ledger would be marked with a lot of red.

And while this is an appropriate way of interpreting Scripture, I don’t think that’s all there is.

Far too often we default to a place in which the pages of Scripture reflect a dead, transactional balance sheet that tracks a universal account between us and the Divine. Period. But the Bible is so much more than that.

I was listening to an interview with Father Richard Rohr, and I was blown away by one of the things he said. I can’t remember the quote verbatim, so I’ll paraphrase for you. He said something along these lines:

“So much of recent church history (i.e., post-Reformation/post-Enlightenment church thinking) has been focused on the death and resurrection of Jesus as some sort of transaction. God, in the person of Jesus, made a deal with the devil at Calvary. He saved us, and now we can go to heaven because of that. As such, in light of that transaction, we are supposed to go and be transformed now, here on earth. That is, our consciousness, our mind, our actions, and our very being are to be radically changed in form, nature, and appearance because God paid the devil off.”

He goes on to conclude that it simply doesn’t work that way. Why? Because God isn’t transactional. He isn’t needy. He doesn’t need to barter.

He simply is.

And the I AM doesn’t host a universal version of Let’s Make a Deal, and that makes all the difference; a difference in who you are, how you live, and how you lead.


Let’s Make a Deal.

Every year, we contemplate and celebrate Easter. More specifically, we celebrate both Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. Without a doubt, these two events are seen as the most transformative events on the Christian calendar.

And so they should be.

But why do we so often reduce the mystery of these events to some sort of exchange? Why is it relegated to some sort of transaction? It’s either a transaction between the cosmic Christ and the evil one or, wrap your head around this one, the cosmic Christ and God the Father.

Let’s flesh that out a bit.


Christ v. the evil one.

In the first kind of transaction, it’s easy to see the Scriptures as the story of hostage taking.

It’s as though the evil one has held the entirety of Creation hostage for almost its entire existence and, shortly after the dawn of time, he sent a ransom note. “I’ve tainted it all, and that includes the image you placed in it. I’ll give it all back if you give me your Son. Let’s make the switch at the Place of the Skull around the year 30 AD. What say you?”

Then what?

Did God the Father hold the ransom note just biding his time to respond? Why didn’t he fix it all right then? For some inexplicable reason, he decided to meet the ransom demands? “Okay, you win. I’ll give in because it works out better for me. Take my Son. You get him, and I get everyone else back.” Then in a grand turn of classical comedy, Jesus raises to life and God emerges the victor, swindling the devil of his prize. What looked bleak, miserable, and hopeless ended with life and paradise.

Now go and be transformed. Amiright?
How about being confused and wonder if you even understand who and what God is, and if he’ll change his mind later and tell the devil that he can have it all back.

To be honest, I’m missing the transformation that we are supposed to experience if this is what God’s all about.

But it gets worse.

You’re likely wondering how it could get any worse. After all, what’s worse than the evil one?


Christ v. God the Father.

Maybe it’s not a transaction with the evil one that we celebrate on Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, but an even more powerful broker of death and life; God the Father.

That’s a scary thought. If we adopt a transactional understanding of the death and life of Christ, doesn’t it seem like we imply that Jesus is holding God the Father and his anger toward us and his Creation at bay?

It can often seem as if the Friday was like a tug-of-war in which the Father and Son dueled over our future. The winner gets to decide our fate. If Jesus pulls his Dad over the line, he chooses how to handle our fate. If the Father pulls his Son over the line, he may do as he pleases.

Imagine that. The existence of the universe hanging by a thread between two titans.

Sounds frightening, doesn’t it?
Well, Jesus sounds okay, but that Father guy sounds like a real piece of work.

Sounds fickle, too, if you ask me. “Well, okay, son, you bested me via a feat of strength, so I’ll change my mind about the Creation and people.” That’s a far cry from the never-changing, always loving God we hope is experienced in the transformational settings of a weekend gathering, a group, community, or even the quiet time where we “invite God into our day”.

Preach, teach, and celebrate transaction. Magically arrive at a life transformation.

Do you see that juxtaposition? Likely.
Do you feel the tension? Hopefully.
Do you feel transformed? I doubt it.

Why? Because there’s so much more to it.


There’s So Much More.

So if it’s not solely transaction that we celebrate on Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, what is it?

We celebrate that God became flesh, died, and rose again not to change his mind about us, but to help us change our minds about him.

From beginning to ‘end’, God has not changed. What was very good is still worth restoring. What bore his image is worth redeeming. What was alive is brought to life once more.

See, the problem with a transactional model of God is this: there is no need for Christ to resurrect. He could stay dead because all we needed was a balanced ledger. In fact, there would be no real need for him to live on earth, either. He could have stayed far away.

Only he didn’t.

Christ came so that we might experience love in the flesh.
Christ died so that we might know the value he bestows upon us.
Christ rose again to show us that transformation awaits us.

It’s all about transformation.
It’s all because love drew near.



The Nearness of the Divine.

There’s a famous passage in the Bible. Maybe you’re familiar with it. It goes like this:

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

It says it pretty plainly: you cannot be separated from God’s love. (Makes it pretty hard to see God as transactional, doesn’t it? If his love is always pouring forth, why do we induce anxiety by suggesting you could ever be separate from it?)

Perhaps it has not so much to do with a changing, transactional God, but a narrow view of the certain places where God transforms us.

And where might those places be?

Enter Genesis 28.

That’s right, that pesky Old Testament contains a key.

If you were to open the Bible to Genesis 28, you would read about a father and son; Isaac and Jacob. What you need to know is this: Isaac was old and his vision was poor. He also loved his oldest son, Esau. Jacob was the devious youngest child. He was also a momma’s boy.

Before we really dig in, though, I need to mention what happens prior to the events of Genesis 28. If you think you’ve experienced a big falling out over an inheritance, read Genesis 27; you’ll see it’s not just your family.

In the 27th chapter of Genesis, we read about this family of four that can’t seem to get their act together. In fact, the family is divided. On the one side, you have the dad and the oldest son, Esau. On the other side, you have mom and the youngest son, Jacob. The parents have played favourites. And mom wants to see the baby of the family get everything. Dad assumes life will continue as it always has, and the oldest son will inherit everything. Enter mom. With mom’s help, Jacob conspires to make off with his father’s entire inheritance. And so they trick poor old dad. That’s right, Jacob tricks his father, into taking all of the inheritance. How do you think dad and Esau felt about it?

Not good.
The you-know-what hit the fan.

So, Jacob did what anyone else who just robbed your family would do: he got out of town.

And that’s where our story picks up.

We’re told that Jacob is traveling along the road (read: making his getaway) and, “When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep.” (Genesis 28:11)

Pretty innocuous, right?

Pretty weird if you ask me.

And just when you thought things couldn’t get any weirder, they do. I’m talking Led Zeppelin weird. Jacob dreams about the stairway to heaven. And it’s not the kind of simple dream that you forget when you wake up. He gets the full experience. It’s as though he’s having a real, waking experience. It’s vivid. Angels are endlessly ascending and descending the stairway and God himself is there. What’s more, God speaks to Jacob. I told you it was Zeppelin weird. You can read the exact details in the Bible if you want. For now, that’s all you need to know. Jacob stopped for the night and had a dream where God showed up.

What do you think Jacob did? What would you do if God invaded your slumber?

Let’s skip ahead and see what actually happened.

Upon waking, Jacob can only think to say, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I was not aware of it.”

Not quite the reaction I expected.
“Hmm. That was something else. God must be here.”

Maybe I’m not the spiritual titan that Jacob was, but I don’t think that would be my reaction.

But there’s something even more interesting about Jacob’s response. Notice what Jacob didn’t say. He didn’t say, “Surely the Lord was in this place.” Now making a point about what someone chooses not to say isn’t usually the best idea. So let’s look at what he chooses to actually say. His exact words were, “the Lord is in this place.”

It’s as though the presence of God, in that place, didn’t end with the dream. God was there. The Divine is there. The Creator will always be there. It’s a never-ending presence.

It’s as though Jacob compels us to reconcile something that has been true the whole time: God is near.

That begs another question, though. The question I can’t shake has to do with the place itself. I mean, what place is he in? I mean, where do earth meet heaven? Oh, that’s right, the writer told us where Jacob stopped. Did you see it? Go back and read verse 11.

Jacob stopped at, get this, a certain place.

Haha! Could you be any less specific about where the stairway to heaven was?!?! This is the nexus of earth and heaven. The Jews would call this place a temple. We would call it a church. Are you serious? All you give us is that it’s a certain place? That’s it?!!

Peel back the next layer and it begins to make way more sense.

See, we’re told later that Jacob re-names the place, Bethel. (We’ll get to the re-naming in a minute.) Translating that ancient Hebrew word Bethel, we come to find that Jacob called this place the House of God.

And where is the House of God?

Oh, that’s right, it’s at a certain place.

And that’s just the point isn’t it? God isn’t confined to any one place. He’s not subject to the contrived ‘environments’ we create for life and life transformation. The transforming, redeeming, and restoring Creator of all things is with you in the certain places. And you will never be the same after the encounter. Jacob wasn’t. The place wasn’t, either.

He won’t make a deal.
He will transform you.
By giving you himself, exactly at the place you are in.

That’s exactly how the dream ends, too, by the way. God gave Jacob himself. He gave him abundance. He gave him blessing. He gave him assurance. At the end of the dream, God makes a promise to Jacob.

He did that for a devious, lying, cheating, momma’s boy.
And he does that for you, too.

It could be on a mountaintop, in a movie theatre, or in a Starbucks queue. It might be where you are mowing the lawn, making dinner, or paying the bills. Maybe that certain place is when the car breaks down, the bank account moves from black to red, or in the hospital room. It just might be in the loss of employment, the gainful employment, or the in-between. Get this, it could even be at a Sunday morning gathering, in a small group, or while you read the Bible to ‘invite God into your day’.

It’s a certain place.
It’s where earth meets heaven.
It’s every place.
It’s right where you are.
It’s Beth-el.

God is always near.

It’s not about a specific place, it’s about a certain place.

That certain place is exactly where you are.
Bring yourself, because that’s all you have.
It’s all Jacob had. He didn’t have anyone with him. He didn’t have his family. He didn’t have his small group. Shoot, he didn’t even have his inheritance right then. So he brought all that he had: himself.

And God met him in that certain place. That every place. Right where he always is.


A New Name. A New You.

Now, I promised to get back to something a few paragraphs ago. It had to do with receiving a new name.

We’re told at the beginning of the story that Jacob stopped at a certain place. At the end of the story, we’re told that Bethel had a prior name. It was called Luz.

Hebrew legend has it that Luz was a special place on earth. Luz was a place of refuge from the woes of the world. Luz, get this, kept the Angel of Death at bay. He couldn’t enter. He couldn’t go to work. He was made feeble by that place.

Luz kept you safe from death.
But it couldn’t really bring you life. It could only keep you from dying.

The lore of Luz also said something about your fate if you left the city. If you left the safety of the city, you would rapidly age and death would catch up with you. Luz was a special place. It kept you from dying. It didn’t help you live, though. It kept you stagnant. It didn’t transform you.

So what happened to Jacob when he left?

Jacob leaves, and his life continues. In fact, his life is going to be blessed. It would be blessed beyond measure. He stopped at a certain place where death couldn’t touch him. And instead of death following him upon his exit, he was sent with life; a life of blessing and the constant companionship of God.

And the city was given a new name.
Luz became Bethel.
It was a special place. It became a certain place.
And the certain places are where God is.

And where God is, there is life.

And where is God?

He is always near.



And That Leaves You Precisely Where?

It leaves you in search of the right place, doesn’t it?

Not really.

You don’t have to force a thing.
God is near.
God is life.
He is transformation.

If there is one thing that I have come to understand, it’s that God will meet you in certain places and those places are every place. The House of God is not relegated to a geographical coordinate. They are right where you are.


Peace, wholeness, and integration are waiting to be enjoyed. Will you force yourself to find the place or awaken to the nearness of God in the certain place?

Anthony VanderLaan Church Consultant Cropped


I am a blogger, researcher, and church consultant, here to inspire and empower you to become a better leader and pastor; a leader and pastor that inspires and equips your church to come alive.

I write and speak about how churches can stop wasting time with sideways energy to get back on mission.

And I will inspire you to remember your calling and be proud of it.

Why Leadership Matters: Plato, Pie, and the Central Nervous System

Why Leadership Matters: Plato, Pie, and the Central Nervous System

Why Leadership Matters: Plato, Pie, and the Central Nervous System

“Christian makes a bad adjective.”

– Rob Bell

He may have been pushed to the fringes of many Christian circles, but he’s right.

Christian makes a bad adjective.

It’s why I hate the term Christian leadership.

(Is hate too strong a word?


But I’ll run with it.)

I know you didn’t ask for an explanation, but I’ll give you one nevertheless. Really, the reason is simple.

I don’t think anyone’s really doing it.

That’s right, I don’t think the authors, speakers, and practitioners of a supposed Christian leadership are really doing it.

To borrow from Jerry Seinfeld, it’s like the dry-cleaners claim to be cleaning things dry. In his own words, “There must be some kind of liquid back there.”

If there’s a liquid, how can it be dry?

He doesn’t believe they’re really doing it.

Much like Seinfeld’s inability to believe in the claims of the dry cleaner, I don’t readily believe in the claims of possessing a Christian version of leadership. Embedded within that one overarching reason, are two sub-reasons…if that’s a term.

Let me explain.

Reason #1: Degradation & Dualism

In the first place, the term Christian leadership degrades both the Divine and leadership.

With a philosophical flourish, here’s why.

The word Christian is, ultimately, an adjective to describe someone’s personal faith position. That’s all the word denotes. It’s not a word that suggests anything else, really. Oh, sure, we may impart a special meaning to it; but, ultimately, it doesn’t do anything but suggest that the individual who is describing leadership theory and practice is a person of Christian faith.

That’s all that the term Christian Leadership denotes.

The same thing is true of Christian counsellors, Christian artists, Christian music, and Christian summer camps. It simply speaks to a personal faith position.

It’s interesting, though. I often find that once the faith position has been asserted, it’s proven to us by referencing various passages from Scripture. My personal favourite is when the line “Jesus was the greatest leader the world has ever seen,” or some variant of it gets dropped, and they reference some obscure interaction Jesus had with someone. It’s as if the case is closed.

Jesus is the best.

Didn’t you read it there, just like I did? This passage says it so clearly. Now go. Lead as Jesus did. The perfect example of everything.

But the Bible isn’t a leadership manual. That’s too reductionist. Jesus didn’t come to show us how to lead. He’s so much more than that: the Divine Creator-Messiah for starters.

This is why I find Christian Leadership to be a damaging leadership paradigm. It provides an air of leadership superiority based on a morality that is cherry-picked from biblical snippets. The result? Christians present that they possess a leadership monopoly because the Divine – you know, the greatest leader that ever lived – is one of us. So you better listen up.

What it amounts to is a theology of leadership that finds its foundation in asserting a personal faith position.

It’s a bit triumphalistic if you ask me.

I think it’s damaging to the body of Christ.

I think it’s damaging to leadership.

There’s something else at play, though; and it’s even more subtle than claiming a faith position and passing it as an entire theology of leadership.

It’s the resultant duality.

When someone lays claim to Christian leadership, the implicit suggestion is that leadership can be partitioned into the sacred and the secular. It’s as though we can slip in and out of the “God version” of leadership and into a version of leadership that is separate from God.

But it doesn’t work that way.

There truly is no division between the sacred and the secular.

There is one God and one Creation.

All of Creation has been born out of Divine speech.

It finds its genesis in the very breath of God.

Because of that reality, I don’t believe it can have a secular resonance.

If we claim that secular and sacred versions of leadership exist, we find ourselves arriving at a Platonic dualism that we, as Orthodox Christians, would wholly protest and readily live. (But that’s a paradox for another time.)

For those unfamiliar with Plato and his dualistic ideology, let me provide a brief summary.

At its most surface level, Plato proposed that there is a distinction between the spiritual and the material. They are wholly separate, wholly different, and wholly hierarchical. (That last one is critical.) You see, because of Plato’s teachings, there was a belief that emerged that said the spiritual is vastly superior to the material. Accordingly, it is our duty to escape the material bondage we find ourselves in and strive for the greater, better, and sacred spiritual. Conversely, we must forsake the material.

But you and I both know, deep down, that it can’t work that way. Why? Because it degrades the goodness of both the spiritual and the material. In fact, on the penultimate day of Creation, God declared all of it to be very good. Everything poured forth at the word of God. His breath infused life into all of it.

Because of that, we know the material matters. We know the material is very good. We also know that the material and the spiritual live, work, and play together.

In truth, there is no idea that is formed, no theory that is generated, no love that is given, no forgiveness that is extended, no matter that is determined, no word that is spoken, no shred of truth exposed, and no leadership paradigm set forth that does not find its source in the Divine.

You and I are living proof.

We are image-bearers of that Divine God.

You and I have the fingerprints, the marks, the imprint of God all about us.

We are material. We are spiritual.

And that cannot find its origins in the so-called secular.

Spiritual Pie.

Think about it this way. What if I asked you to represent yourself as a pie chart. You know, the kind of chart that is a circle that is formed by different sized wedges. Perhaps a little colour, a few percentages, maybe even a little separation between the pieces to emphasize different statistics.

Those pieces form a whole. They form a circle that is 100% filled.

What would your whole look like?

What would you say creates that pie chart that represents you?

Would it contain work related things? Education? Familial? Religion? Leadership? Creativity? Music? Athletics and sports? Travel? Character traits?

Think about it for a minute, and write those things down that form the whole of who you are.






Now, let me ask you to do something. Take out one of those slices and continue to be you.






Take the “spiritual” slice, whatever you called it, out of the pie.

Can any of those remaining pieces truly exist without the spiritual?






Can you fathom being who you are without knowing that second language?

Can you continue to be you if you don’t love to create culinary delights?

Can you sustain your you-ness without engaging in your family?

Can you survive without your craft?






Can you exist as only a portion of that pie?

Could you still be considered you if you lose any one of those slices?

Can you be you without the spirit?

Can you be you without the material?






I don’t think you can.

In fact, think about how all those pieces of the pie are interrelated, too. Without one of them, the others cease to quite be themselves.

To paraphrase John Philip Newell, wholeness cannot be found in isolation. Wholeness is found when the whole is whole.

Every piece of your spiritual-material pie is necessary to make you exactly who you are.

Sure, you will change over time. That slow process of change that we call life will inevitably shift who you are as you experience new things, gain new ideas, and meet new people. But you can’t know, right now, who you will be at some undetermined time in the future. It doesn’t work that way.

All we have, right now, is right now.

And right now, you would cease to be you if you lost any of those slices.

It would fragment you.

You would lose your integrity.

Your wholeness.

Your essence.






And that is why we cease to have a conversation about leadership when we are reductionistic enough to label it as Christian.

It loses its integrity. It loses its wholeness. It loses its essence.

By labelling it Christian, you suggest that God could be removed from the equation.

The result? Dualism.

It fragments.

It pulls apart.

It degrades.

When we come to understand that at the very word of God all things came into being, we cease the meaningless conversation surrounding what is deemed sacred and secular in origin.

As it pertains to leadership, when we refrain from labelling it as Christian, we cease to search for a leadership ethos that meets or surpasses the religious standard of the age, and we move into a place that allows us to explore, to engage, and to enjoy the very gift that God has given each of us.

Honestly, it’s the first reason that I dislike the idea of Christian leadership; it makes distinctions it has no business making, and it degrades the Divine and results in dualism.

But it’s not the only reason.

Reason #2: What, Precisely, is The Point?

Okay, so I took a while to explain my first reason for objection to the term Christian leadership. Perhaps, the second will be a little quicker.

My first reason for loathing the Christian adjective that can be slapped on the term leadership is more philosophical in nature. My second is entirely practical. I don’t think Christian leadership ever stops to honestly ask, or answer, a much-needed question: what’s the point?

Still sound a bit philosophical? Hear me out.

Have you ever attended a leadership conference and marvelled at the people who are presenting? One after the other, leadership gurus, pastors of mega-churches, titans of industry and innovation, authors, thinkers, successful millionaires, and perhaps a comedian or two, are paraded across a stage, and as they stand on the platform, they tell you what they think.

And that’s just it.

They tell you what they think.

There’s nothing wrong with that. But I don’t think it can quite be called leadership theory. It’s more like Uncle Bob’s best practices. And believe me, some of their best practices are dynamite.

But do they ever tell you why those practices are best? Not why they worked so well, that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about at their deepest, most basic, why they are best.

Have you ever sat in a back room, or an auditorium with several thousand seats, and heard anyone tell you what the precise point of leadership is?

I can’t recall hearing it either.

Oh, I can remember countless generic statements about influencing people, getting people to achieve collective goals, mobilizing efforts for the greater good, progress toward some nebulous and ethereal better state…but I’ve never heard a single speaker pinpoint why.

And that should throw up some red flags.

If we can’t pinpoint why leadership matters, does it matter that we talk about it so much?

I’m not sure it does.

Many of you are probably familiar with Simon Sinek’s famous Ted Talk, How Great Leaders Inspire Action. Perhaps you are more familiar with his book, Start With Why.

It’s a basic message, but it’s also a powerful one.

Sometimes that which is basic is essential.

In sum, he says the following: Don’t start with best practices, start with the reason for doing what you’re doing. Don’t start with what or how. Start with why.

Simple enough?


So why do we insist upon sharing best practices instead of uncovering the why?

From my observations, the result is a lot of people running around, believing they are leading because of their behavioural patterns, that haven’t a clue as to why they are running around doing what they are doing.

A thousand best practices, for precisely…I’m not sure.

In other words, chaos.

To borrow the Hebrew found in Genesis 1, tohu vevohu (תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ). (In Genesis 1, we are told that the state of things, before Creation, was chaos…it was formless and void. The Hebrew words for chaos are tohu vevohu.)

And while the beginning of all things was described as tohu vevohu, it quickly gave way to order. It gave way to very good. It gave way at the breath of God.

And I think our leadership should be doing precisely the same thing. It should bring order out of chaos. (More on that in a minute.)

It’s the second reason I don’t like the term Christan leadership. I don’t think it every seeks to understand what the point is. It simply assumes there is one because it is Christian. And without understanding what, precisely, the point is, we become busy-bodies that drag ourselves and others back to a state of tohu vevohu.

There’s no map. There’s no plan. There’s no guiding light.

Only chaos.

So is That All There Is Then?


Unequivocally, no.

I simply think there’s a better way forward.

Toward A Theology of Leadership.

I know it’s a bit of a heady title, but I think it’s of the utmost importance. There needs to be a rigorous theology that informs our leadership.

If you’re concerned that it’s about to get heady, don’t worry, I’ll break it down.

Theology is derived from two Greek words: theos (θεός) and logos (λόγος). Quite literally, these words are translated as ‘God’ and ‘word.’ Therefore, we can conclude that theology is, quite simply, words about God.

So, basically, we’re going to talk about God and try to understand how it applies to leadership.

Easy as pie.

You do this all the time. You just don’t think about it.

So stop and think about it for a second.

Remember the conversation about the material and spiritual existing in harmony? If that’s true, then whenever you speak you are having a spiritual moment. You’re theologizing. When you engage the Creation you are experiencing the creativity of the Divine. It’s a lived and experienced theology. When you speak words of encouragement, you are joining the Divine within the space between you and another person. When you prepare a meal, you are experiencing and living theology.

Theology isn’t always heady. Theology is also practical. And that’s very good. Theology is an everyday experience for you…if you remember it to be so.

So let’s theologize a little bit more right here.

For Real Now…Toward a Theology of Leadership.

Most people look at leadership within the context of an organizational chart.

Anthony Vander Laan - Organizational Chart

What follows is this simple assumption: the best leaders are above everyone.

Why? Because of how we draw the organizational chart. The further up the ladder you go, the more people you leave behind, the more down on the ground they are, the more superior and above you are. Then, from that position of above-ness, you lead them.

When people have interpreted Scripture, they’ve drawn the very same conclusions. Leaders are above other people. They lead out of a position of above-ness.

Here are a few examples from the Scriptures.

“But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.” (Exodus 18:21, NIV)

“And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” (Ephesians 1:22-23, NIV)

“But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:3, NIV)

Did you catch it?

I hope you did. I emphasized the words just for you.

It’s easy to read these passages, home in on those few keywords of the head, over, and under, and create a theology that teaches hierarchy and subordination.

But can that really work?

I mean, read the passage from 1 Corinthians 11 once more.

“But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. ” (1 Corinthians 11:3, NIV)

Did you catch the hierarchy?

God —> Jesus —> Man —> Woman

Did you catch the piece that didn’t make sense?

Aside from all of it, it makes total sense.

Let me explain.

There is no hierarchy amongst the Trinity.

Jesus cannot be subordinate to the Father. (I won’t dwell on the reasons here, but the Scriptures are insanely clear on this one. John 17:20-26 anyone?)  It just doesn’t work.

There is no hierarchy amongst humankind.

Women cannot be subordinate to man. (I won’t dwell on the reasons here, but the Scriptures are crystal clear on this one, too. Galatians 3:28?) It just doesn’t work.

Am I blowing your mind yet?

I know mine was totally blown the first time I recognized the oxymoronic tension that the Scriptures were presenting.

Whenever you see that in the Bible…you know, the thing that doesn’t make sense…you need to stop to ask a question of the text. Any question will do. It will help you start thinking rather than a simple, listless, passive reaction.

So let’s ask the question. If there’s no hierarchy, what is this passage, and the others I referenced, really trying to tell us?

I think they’re trying to tell us about the reality of a relationship.

There is a relationship within the Divine.

A relationship between the Father and Son.

There is a relationship within humanity.

A relationship between men and women.

There is a relationship between the Divine and the human.

A relationship made possible by Jesus. Jesus; a confluence of spirit and matter.

(It’s funny, as I type this, my editor doesn’t know what to do with the word “within.” It keeps coming back as an error. Sometimes language can’t adequately contain the deep mysteries.)

We use the word “head” and “over” in our Scripture translations to denote the quality of the relationship between things.

But it’s not a hierarchical quality.

Yes, it makes sense to translate the Greek and Hebrew words to “head” and “over” since that’s the direct translation. But the reality is, it doesn’t convey the message adequately.


Because those are loaded words in the English language.

Anytime you hear the words “the head over/of” and “over” you instantly think of hierarchy. It’s just how our language works.

But what if we were to do our best to reclaim those words? Humour me for a moment.

A Lesson in Anatomy: Why Head and Over Aren’t What They Seem.

When you think of the word “head”, what do you think of?

Likely the 10-pound ball on top of your neck!

And where is your head located?

Over/on top of your body. (Duh, Anthony…)

Put it together and what have you got?

The most superior part of your body that is over and above everything else. It’s the most important part of you. That’s why it’s so unsettling when someone “loses their head” for a moment. It’s the most important part of you. You can’t lose that. It only results in chaos. (Remember the tohu vevohu…good.)

But what if it wasn’t important because it was on top? What if superior was simply a term to denote an upward direction? (Hint: it is just that.) What if the reason the head was important was for an entirely different reason?

Let me explain.

You head contains a critical part of your being. Your brain. Your brain is roughly 3-pounds in weight, and it is part of a system known as the Central Nervous System. The most critical electrical signals that pass through your body are integrated within your Central Nervous System. Those electrical signals help you feel pain, temperature, friction, wind, touch, and countless other things. They help your muscles move and stabilize. They make you taste food. The list could go on, and on, and on. Suffice it to say, those electrical impulses are of the utmost importance.

Your brain is vital because it interprets, integrates, and acts upon all the information that it receives, through those signals, from various parts of the body.

It’s not more important than the neurons that receive and send the signals. It’s not more important than the feet you are walking on.

It’s not more important than the heart that pumps blood for every minute you’ve been alive.

It’s not more important than the tooth that grinds, crushes, and begins digesting your food.

It’s not more important than your lungs that inhale vitality and exhale waste.

It’s simply central to them all.

It’s over them because, well, your head happens to be on top.

It’s a better design that way.

This is what it means for the head to be over and superior. It’s over because of its location. It’s central because of its function.

It’s not a hierarchy. It’s a relationship. It’s an interconnectedness within and between things.

It’s like leadership.

Back to the Theology Bit.

See, when the Scriptures refer to something or someone being “the head of” or “over” it’s more about centrality rather than superiority.

It’s a question of relationship.


There’s a passage in Ephesians that is often misrepresented. (Who am I kidding, there are lots of passages in Ephesians that are misrepresented.) I’m thinking of the one that says, “Wives, submit to your husbands…” (Ephesians 5:22a onward, NIV)

The problem?

They forget to mention Ephesians 5:21; the passage that says, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

It’s a question of relationship.


It’s about submission and reverence.

See, in relationship, there is always a one-anothering.

There’s a give and take.

An ebb and flow.

The brain doesn’t think for itself. It receives electrical signals, impulses, that tell it what to think.

It receives.


It then responds and tells the organs, muscles, and other tissues what to do in light of the original impulses.

It gives.


A person doesn’t exist in a vacuum. They obtain signals and impulses from other people. They receive. They then respond to the people around them. They give.

The crucial piece to one-anothering is to do so in a fashion that embodies a reverence for Christ. A Philippians 2:3-4 kind of thing:

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (NIV)

And you might be tempted to say, at this point, that this is a uniquely Christian idea. After all, it was the Christ that showed us the way.


But it’s incomplete.

The Spirit of the Divine, the breath of God, brought order out of chaos. Christ is the full incarnation…the full materializing…the full embodiment of the Divine. He shows us the very essence of what it means to be human. He is the one that shows us how spirit and matter intersect and interact. He shows us how all spiritual and material beings are to live the way of submission to others.

It’s all about one-anothering.

It’s the order that was brought into being from the very beginning.

Christ shows us the one-anothering that has always been true.

Out of chaos, out of the breath of God, came one-anothering.

It was always there.

It was always spiritual.

It finds its reality in the material.

(After all, without embodying humility and submission, you can’t really see and experience it. The material does what the spiritual cannot, and vice versa. But for us, they always go together. There is no duality.)

It’s not a Christian idea. That makes for a bad adjective.

It’s the reality that always was, always is, and always will be.

It found its origins in the breath of God.

Back to the Beginning.

So what precisely is the point of leadership?

(I bet you forgot the question, it had been so long…)

The point, in short, is to one-another in a way that the Divine Spirit showed in fully material form. This is how very good is brought from chaos.

It is to…

– be selfless when it seems best to be selfish

– choose love when indifference seems best

– forgive when you’d rather begrudge

– be righteously angered when injustice is rampant

– give away power when you’d rather hold onto it

– see others as bearers of God’s image, just like you

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The beginning of leadership is the realization of that which has been true the whole time. You are human. You are spirit. You are matter. You bear the image of the Divine.

And so does everyone else.

And that means you one-another with them in a way that is fitting. In the way Christ would.

This is the purpose of leadership.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not all of what you do as a leader, but it is the point.

Leadership begins the minute you understand this.

It’s not about hierarchy. It’s not about climbing an organizational chart of superiority. It’s not a linear thing.

It’s a relational thing.

It’s a one-anothering thing.

It’s the way it is supposed to be. It’s precisely why leadership matters. 


Anthony VanderLaan Church Consultant Cropped


I am a blogger, researcher, and church consultant, here to inspire and empower you to become a better leader and pastor; a leader and pastor that inspires and equips your church to come alive.

I write and speak about how churches can stop wasting time with sideways energy to get back on mission.

And I will inspire you to remember your calling and be proud of it.

Leadership and Results: The Pilgrim’s Funnel and Spiritual Stagnation

Leadership and Results: The Pilgrim’s Funnel and Spiritual Stagnation

Leadership and Results: The Pilgrim’s Funnel and Spiritual Stagnation

In my last article, I spoke at great length about leadership and results. If you want, you can read more on that here.

In short, the article suggested that our propensity, as a leader within the church, to speak about results can often come down to our own ego. In order to appear competent in public, we tout positive results that we have achieved. (Let’s face it, that’s simply a life thing, too. How many of us want to look good/save face/appear smart, so we talk about the good things we’ve done.)

Competence is one of humanity’s three basic needs. Every individual possesses the desire to feel competent. In order to do that, we need to be able to point to something that shows our competence. The easiest thing to look at is results.

So, we create metrics and categories that we measure against and advertise success in our annual reports. And, while the church may publicly talk about it as a communal success, leaders that lead from the fragility of ego will use it to prop up their own private leadership insecurity.

Increased attendance over last year? Check.

More baptisms than last year? Check.

Greater engagement in small groups and other ministries? Check.

And it’s not as if we need everything to look good in order to show our competence, either. As long as that ratio of positive to stagnant or negative results exists, we can still point to a general trend of positive results and take pride in it.

So, that’s a bit of a recap. But I need to shift the conversation slightly because that last article got me thinking in a different way about results. See, last time I spoke about the leader driven by results. It was more of a leadership soul-check. And that’s an important conversation for any leader; but, it’s especially important for church leaders.

However, this time, I’d like to talk about what happens to our churches and followers when we allow our ego to be at the fore of our leadership. In essence, what happens to the spiritual health of our churches and followers because of our drive to achieve a specific result. And, to wrap up the article, I’d like to discuss a solid starting point for what to do instead.

The Pilgrim’s Progress.

I’m sure many of you, at some point, have read The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. If you haven’t, you should. However, so we’re on the same page, I’d love to give a brief synopsis.

Before we get there, though, let’s make a pact. Let’s set aside the theological implications of the book and examine it from the perspective of an allegory. After all, that’s what it is.

Can we do that? Great.

To begin, the story itself is about a man named Christian who goes on a journey. The entirety of the story revolves around his travels from his hometown, the City of Destruction, to the Celestial City, “that which is to come”: Heaven.

Along the way, Christian sees many sights. Some of the memorable “attractions” he comes upon are the Slough of Despond, the Wicket Gate, Mount Sinai, Mr. Legality’s Home, the Village of Morality, and he even walks the King’s Highway to the Celestial City itself.

It’s not only the landscape that’s of importance, though. It’s also about the people he meets along the way. Some of his encounters lead him into the presence of an Evangelist, others into the arms of Pliable and Obstinate, and yet others into the home of Mr. Legality and his son, Civility. He even encounters a guide, Mr. Worldly Wiseman, that seeks to assist his journey.

The interesting thing about the journey isn’t so much the people or places that he encounters, though. No, the thing I find most interesting is that it’s not a straightforward path. There are detours. There are setbacks. There are places of great despair and others of deep peace. All of these are on the pathway to the King of Kings.

The journey itself wasn’t one that was straightforward, but it always led to somewhere and something.

The next stop in Christian’s journey may not have been the final destination, but it was a destination. At the very least, there was a roadside attraction, and experience was had. Once again, all of those stops were pivotal life events in Christian’s journey to God.

It’s All About the Journey.

Like I said, let’s set aside the theological implications regarding the details. Let’s not debate the soteriology (i.e., salvific implications) of the story. That’s secondary for this discussion.

Let’s talk about the journey.

Well, that’s just it, isn’t it?

Christian is on a journey.

The final destination? For him, it was the presence of God. His desire was to reach union with the Creator God; it was to be with him.

Let us, for a moment, supplement a geophysical conception of heaven with the notion of drawing closer to God. Christian was on a journey to draw closer to God.

And every step of the way he did. It may not have been a direct path, but it was always toward. It was always into, in a new way, the presence of God. Sometimes it took a detour to realize that the path needed to be altered. Sometimes the detour itself was a place of immense growth. Either way, no path was a wasted endeavour.

In his book The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis refers to this journey as moving further up and further in. In essence, at the highest of heights, at the very centre of it all, is God. The journey we’re all on is to move toward the centre.

Further up, further in.

Everyone is on a journey like that.

Quite literally, everyone.

Okay, they may not call the destination God, but it is always about (if I may sound so mystic as to say it) the Reality behind all of reality. As a monotheist from the Judeo-Christian tradition, that reality is the triune God.

Not everyone says they are looking for that, in those words. But everyone is looking for “further up and further in”; it’s simply a matter of journeying to find it.

And this is where you, the leader, come in.

When people arrive in your life and at your church, you become a part of their journey. In fact, your journeys intertwine. It may be for a short period, it may be for a long time. Regardless, for a time, you are walking along the same path.

And that’s a beautiful thing.

But there’s nothing that can derail beauty so quickly as having an agenda for someone else’s journey.

But this is what ego does.

It makes the comparison. It suggests that your journey has been good and, accordingly, it must be the journey someone else makes.

It says that your journey must be exactly like my journey. It’s like saying the road we are taking is, and will always be, exactly the same.

And this robs us of our unique identities.

St. Ignatius of Loyola said it this way:

“It is dangerous to make everybody go forward by the same road: and worse to measure others by oneself.”

And he’s right.

But it’s funny, isn’t it? (Okay, so I haven’t said what’s funny yet, but hang in there with me.) It’s funny that we would never say these words directly, but our churches can often be lead and organized in a fashion that says there is only one way to move further up and further in. And, if you don’t take that path, you will be hopelessly lost.

You’ll miss God because there’s only one way to find him here.

It’s called the funnel.

The Pilgrim’s Progre…er…Funnel?

There is a tendency amongst church leaders to shift from a journey mentality to a funnel mentality.

We wouldn’t ever verbalize it, or name it publicly; however, we would make the subtle shift in our organizational structures.

Why? Because of the results we crave.

We want people to get to the highest of heights at the centre of the garden. Indeed, it is a noble idea. But is their journey about them and Christ, or about us?

If we crave a result, then their journey is all about us.

But let me back up for a moment and explain what I mean by a journey and a funnel.

A Journey.

At it’s most basic, a journey is about getting from Point A to Point B. You have a starting point, and you have an ending point.

As I’ve considered it, there are three basic journeys we can embark on.

Journey 1.

The first journey we can take is simply to get to the destination. For this journey, we choose the most direct and fastest route. We hop on the highway and maybe drive a little faster than the speed limit dictates. Yeah, it burns more fuel, and we run the risk of getting a ticket, but it’s all about getting to the end point quickly so that we can begin to do something bigger and better once there.

Journey 2.

The second journey we can take is for experience and sightseeing. I was in Europe this past summer, and I didn’t want the fast route when I travelled. I wanted the scenic route. It meant taking different roads than the highways. Roads off the beaten path. It meant slowing down and noticing things that I normally wouldn’t. It wasn’t about arriving quickly, it was about ambling along and noticing. It was about having an immersive experience. The journey was good enough in and of itself.

Journey 3.

And still, there is a third journey that is neither of these. It’s the one where you set out to go somewhere and, as luck would have it, you not only never arrive but you don’t even know where you are. Yeah, it’s the one where your wife says, “Pull over and ask somebody for directions.” (I know, GPS in our phones has made this almost impossible now, but, trust me, this was a thing back in the day. I remember it happening to my dad.)

Here’s the deal: as leaders in the church we often talk as if all people are on the third type of journey, hopelessly lost and in need of directions. So, in order to help them (read: help ourselves to achieve a result), we give them a roadmap that takes them on the first type of journey, a direct and expedient highway to heaven.

Accordingly, they never get to experience the beauty of the second type of journey. As a result, they may only experience a tiny sliver of God and his grace, but get a whole lot of us in the process.

So, how does a funnel play into this?

I’m so glad you asked.

A Funnel.

Fundamentally, a funnel is about one thing: guiding a large volume of something through a small opening.

Funnels aren’t simply for in the kitchen, either. We encounter them in a lot of places. The most notorious funnel is the one in a construction zone.

You know exactly what I’m talking about.

You’re humming along the highway when you see it. The dreaded “Single Lane Traffic in 10 km” sign. Now you know it’s coming, but there’s no point in preparing, just yet. So you keep driving.

But then comes the next sign. “Left lane closed in 2 km”.

And then it’s the actual merge sign and a lot of traffic cones.

We all know what happens, don’t we?

Some jerk didn’t plan accordingly, and they race ahead and cut you off. In fact, a lot of people didn’t plan accordingly, and there are three lanes worth of cars attempting to now drive through one, makeshift lane. The result? A bottleneck. A traffic jam. A backlog. A delay. A stagnant mass of fumes.

And there’s a lot of anger, frustration, and anxiety that comes with that, isn’t there?

This is what the funnel does, though. It creates a backlog.

The “Disciple” Funnel.

We as leaders often have our own funnels. It’s the package that tidies up Christianity. It takes the journey and reduces it to a system. A system that requires everyone to pass through the same steps.

It’s the set of directions that allows everyone to arrive at the same destination via the same roadmap.

Maybe your church’s discipleship program looks something like this:

Step 1: attend a Sunday service.

(Ego-Driven Result: It helps us have a larger crowd. Looks good in an annual report.)

Step 2: repeat Step 1 very regularly.

(Ego-Driven Result: It shows the elders that we can retain people. Gives great job security.)

Step 2a: don’t read your Bible yet, because that’s too confusing for you at this stage. We’ll interpret it for you when you keep repeating Step 2.

Step 3: start serving in this church, because we become better disciples in a community.

(Ego-Driven Result: Boy, we have a lot of people connected to our serving ministries. It helps us look vibrant and attractive, especially to younger families.)

Step 4: get baptized.

(Ego-Driven Result: Look at how many people we’re saving here. Our church rocks! It seems as though God is blessing us.)

Step 5: join a small group or Bible study. You’ve been with us long enough that you can now read the Bible and try to interpret it.

(Ego-Driven Result: We can show that people are growing in their faith…especially if you stick with it! We look like a great community for people that want to keep it real.)

Step 6: if you haven’t started giving to our church already, now is the time.

(Ego-Driven Result: It helps us keep the crowd entertained and our staff paid.)

Step 7: make sure you have someone else that your telling to do these things because that’s how discipleship works around here.

(Ego-Driven Result: We need a lot of Step 1 to measure our performance against. I mean…we disciple people here, and this is how it’s done.)

Okay, so the parentheses are my own additions. And they may strike a nerve with many of you. But, the truth is, each component of a church’s discipleship funnel is driven by a result.

What may have started as a beautiful ideology surrounding the spiritual birth and growth of people can become a single roadmap to the same destination. It is similar to an assembly line that’s created to rapidly stamp out a finished product.

However, much like a traffic funnel, our desire for discipleship efficiency and results can lead to a spiritual bottleneck; a host of angry, slowed, frustrated, and anxious “disciples.”

Discipleship funnels sound like a great idea and can come from noble intentions. However, if we’re not careful, they can become nothing more than a result driven backlog of angry attendees.

So what do you do instead?

It’s easy for someone to pick apart all the things that can be amiss with the current state of affairs, but that’s not overly helpful.

Truthfully, I think it comes down to networks. Let me tell you what I mean.


Have you ever noticed that people naturally gravitate into their own little pockets of connection?

Of course! (And you likely aren’t crazy about it, either.)

If you stopped to think about it, you could probably create a visual map of the general web of relationships in your church. You could probably map out where many people sit in your auditorium, as well as where and with whom they stand in your atrium after the service.

Here’s my point, though: people naturally gravitate towards connections that they desire.

In the church, we don’t make enough use of this phenomenon. Instead, we attempt to create our own web of relationship, due to our discipleship funnel, that is often self-defeating.

How can I say this?

Easy. There are different network structures that are created for different purposes.

Let me give you two examples.

Bucket Brigades and Telephone Chains.

Imagine for a moment that there is a house some 75 feet from a riverbank. Now, imagine that very house caught on fire. (Suspend modern devices such as fire hydrants and hoses, for just a moment, too.)

In order to put out that fire, you need to assemble people in a fitting way to bring buckets of water from the river to the house. In this case, the most efficient way to assemble everyone is in a straight line spanning the 75 feet. With this kind of structure, they can pass buckets back and forth in quick succession to bring water from the river to the house, as well as return the empty buckets back to the river. An added bonus is that those in the brigade won’t tire as quickly due to running back and forth over the 75-foot distance; they get to stand in place.

The network would look something like this.

Anthony Vander Laan - Leadership and a bucket brigade

But now, for just a moment, imagine that you aren’t part of putting out a fire, but you are part of a telephone chain. I remember as a kid going on field trips for school. All the parents were given the exact protocol for what would happen if the plans changed and the timing for pick up and drop off was shifted. In this were to happen, often one person was in charge of calling two people who, in turn, would each call two other people, and so on, until the message was spread to everyone else. It’s fast, efficient, and achieves the required task. (Yeah, I know, this was long before email, notifications, and text alerts were a common thing.)

The network structure for a telephone chain would look something like this.

Anthony Vander Laan - Leadership and a bucket brigade

Now imagine you attempted to use the bucket brigade network structure to make the telephone chain work. It wouldn’t! Why? Because it’s inefficient. One person calls another, who in turn calls one more, who then calls another person. It would take hours for everyone to be called. And, quite frankly, if someone doesn’t answer their phone the message stops with them. Imagine it was the second person in that chain? That means no one would ever receive the notification on time.

It’s an ineffective network structure for the task.

Imagine the opposite scenario. Imagine requiring a bucket brigade and organizing it like a telephone chain. You’d have a few tired people and a lot of others simply standing around. A few people would carry two buckets and pass them off to two people who would only be carrying half of what they could. At the next level, only two of four people would receive water. Considerably less than half of the possible work would be completed and, as a result, the house would burn down.

It’s an ineffective network structure for the task.

Different network structures have different purposes, and it’s our duty, as leaders in the church, to create the best possible network structure to give people the freedom to pursue a Type 2 journey.

Hint: it’s not a funnel.

Peer-to-Peer: A Network for the Type Two Journey

It’s a term taken from computing, but it’s just as fitting for people; it’s the kind of network your church needs. It’s called peer-to-peer.

In this kind of a network, everyone is equally privileged and equally powerful. There’s a great deal of fluidity to it, too.

Social ties are formed, broken, re-formed, shifted, strengthened, weakened, and tested all at the behest of the individual. There is no one regulating the system. Why? Because no one holds an inordinate amount of power.

In short, this kind of network allows the individual to share with whomever they choose. Plenty. Scarcity. Power. Weakness. Hope. Hopelessness. Ideas. Disbelief. Wealth. Poverty. Grief. Love. Pain. Friendship. Suffering. Peace. All of it is shared. All of it flows from person to person. None of it forced or coerced. All of it given and withheld willingly.

What a dangerous concept. People gathering together and sharing all things with one another. Equal power. Equal privilege. Equal sharing. Deregulation. I think I read about that happening with some people, very early in a movement, somewhere, once upon a time…

In visual form, it might look something like this.

Anthony Vander Laan - Fig. 3 Peer to Peer Network

There’s a freedom to this kind of network. It’s regulated by the people that are a part of it. It can be shaped and moulded. It can expand and contract as needed. It’s open to new ideas, ready to engage old ones, and sensitive to perturbations. Things flow. It’s vibrant. It’s dynamic.

But too often, with a desire to maintain control over the journey, to fill the funnel, our church’s structures look something like this.

Anthony Vander Laan - Fig. 4 Centralized Jesus

Notice the centralization? Notice the power structure? It’s as though Christ is controlled by the church, and they dole him out in a tidy little package. (I think there was a big event about 500 years ago that had to do with this very thing…)

Notice, too, no one is necessarily encountering Jesus, either. It’s simply that they’ve encountered the local church. My biggest fear with such centralization, reductionism, and ‘funnel orientation’ is that Jesus is missed for the church.

Here are some ways this structure can come about:

  • requiring services to always last a set amount of time
  • never changing the order of your service components (i.e., liturgical stagnation…yes, we all have liturgy)
  • only hiring internally
  • only hiring people already like the current staff to protect your culture
  • only using small group curriculum designed by your church
  • primarily forcing individuals into small groups that are created by staff
  • only using music written and produced by your in-house band
  • only one teaching pastor
  • only teaching on the same passages
  • only teaching the same themes from various passages
  • only one teaching style
  • only one gender of teaching pastor
  • only operating ministries that are segregated by gender
  • no turnover of elders
  • only one gender of elder
  • age requirements for baptism
  • severely restricting access to communion
  • only a handful of people permitted on stage (i.e., protecting the platform)
  • deferring to your funnel rather than embracing the journey

If you do these things, you can run the risk of missing Jesus and the Church in favour of controlling your church.

Unfortunately, I think the desire for church growth often has this kind of result, too. But that’s a conversation for another time.

Some of these things may sound shocking and severe. All I can think, though, is that God moves as he chooses. In the Gospel according to John, Christ said, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.” (John 3:8)

It’s free. It’s whimsical. It can be fast or slow; regardless, though, it’s always powerful.

I think a regulated, controlled structure for a church misses the mark. It can blind us to the Spirit. It can rob us of individuality. It can suffocate freedom. It can create stagnation when we desire the dynamic. It gives us a highway when we want the scenery.

I think we want something that looks a little more like this.

Anthony Vander Laan - Fig. 5 Peer to Peer Network

A network that allows people to live, move, breathe, and journey further up and further in.

If you can’t, tell, I’m fired up about this stuff. I think it’s a conversation we desperately need at both the local and global church levels. And while a movement of that magnitude takes time, I believe each and every local church needs to start the conversation about making the shift from a centralized church to a peer-to-peer framework.

But if that’s the case, how do you make that shift?

That brings us to the final thing I need to share with you.

Making the Move.

Right now, I think there is one thing that you can do as a church to begin making the shift that I believe you need to make.

Name it.

Name the centralization that exists. Name the ways in which it exists. Vow to make legitimate changes that stand the power structures on their head.

After all, that’s what God’s Kingdom is all about; standing power on its head.

To name it, I think you need to convene your elders to discuss your current church structure. In those meetings (because let’s face it, this isn’t a one and done kind of thing) you need to ask the following types of questions:

  • Who controls the gospel in our church ecosystem?
  • Who doesn’t have a voice within our system?
  • Who is not allowed to do certain things within our church? Why?
  • Who has the most power, and how would they respond to losing it?
  • What behaviours, when we see them exhibited by people at our church, cause our leadership team to have a visceral reaction? Ask the follow up: which of these are legitimately important and which are not?
  • What do we require from someone in order for us to willingly baptize them? (Side note: Is it willing, filled with grace, and laden with love if you require something?)
  • What passages do we always teach? What themes constantly emerge? When’s the last time we heard a sermon from Leviticus, a minor prophet, the non-Pauline epistles, or Revelation (and not on the Seven Churches or chapters 21 and 22)?
  • What do our hiring practices look like? Do we predominantly hire graduates from one school? Are they individuals that solely think like us?
  • What does our current funnel look like? (You may not use the language, but I bet you could identify the steps you direct people to take in order to move forward in their spiritual journey.) What’s the true end result of that funnel? Who does that result satisfy most?

I think that if you start to ask those questions, you will be shocked where the answers lead. My guess is they’ll lead you directly to God. It may take time. It may take a lot of time. But the journey is so worth it.

After all, we’re all on a journey. Your church is on one just like the people that are a part of it. It’s one of further up and further in. It’s one immersed in God and his goodness.

One more thing, if you’re having trouble instigating that conversation or wading through the sea of answers, I’d love to help. Internal complexity often needs an external set of eyes and ideas to bring clarity. It’s what I do really well, and it’s what I’d love to do for you and your church. If that sounds like a good idea to you, I’d love to start a conversation with you and your church. Feel free to contact me here.

With that, I’d love to leave you with these last words:

The spiritual journey is never over.

There is no single methodology that will lead all people to the same place.

Every single person must go on their own meandering journey.

Free to be immersed in God and his goodness. Free to give and take as they deem fit. Free to stay on the highway, travel the dirt road, or create a new path to somewhere else.

You, as a leader in the church, have the distinct privilege of joining them on their journey. In fact, it’s as though you are afforded the distinction of embarking upon a hundred different journeys, each with a thousand different glimpses of God.

100,000 encounters with grace.

100,000 different vantage points of Creation.

100,000 different experiences of the re-creation of all things.

Why would you ever trade that for a bottleneck?

Anthony VanderLaan Church Consultant Cropped


I am a blogger, researcher, and church consultant, here to inspire and empower you to become a better leader and pastor; a leader and pastor that inspires and equips your church to come alive.

I write and speak about how churches can stop wasting time with sideways energy to get back on mission.

And I will inspire you to remember your calling and be proud of it.

Your Leadership is Defined by Results

Your Leadership is Defined by Results

Your Leadership is Defined by Results

Your leadership matters. I cannot state that enough. In fact, I’ve written on it, and you can read more on that here.

I know you don’t need any convincing on that either. Sure, you may wonder if your leadership is effective, if it’s changing anything, or if people appreciate it. But deep down you know that your leadership matters.

You wouldn’t keep leading if you didn’t believe that.

The real question, though, is what defines your leadership?

There’s one thing that defines your leadership: results.

There, I said it. Our leadership is defined by results.

And that’s pressure-packed, isn’t it?

I’m acutely aware of this, too. Everywhere I have worked or studied, there have been grading schemes and monetary incentives associated with productivity. That is, everyone’s looking for a result, and your livelihood depends on it.

The other thing that I’ve noticed is the urgency that’s associated with the results. It’s as though getting the task done isn’t enough, there has to be a great deal of angst affiliated with it. I’ll never forget hearing things like, “What are you working on?”, “When will that be finished?”, “What’s the next thing you’re doing?”, or, my personal favourite, “I need that done, like yesterday, okay?” (As if that last one was even a question…)

It has all led me to ask the question: why? Let me correct that, it’s led me to ask four different “why” questions.

They are four questions that, I believe, have the power to disarm pride, recalibrate our focus, and grant us the freedom to lead.

It means we have to examine the relationship between leadership and results.

So, let’s take a look together.

Why Results?

The first “why” I want to explore is why results?

To answer that, I would give one word: ego.

This is why results matter. They matter because you and I say they matter.

Now, I know what you might be thinking. “Yeah, very funny, Anthony. I get it. But you seem to be forgetting that there are other people that inform how we think. Results matter to them, too. And if those results don’t matter as much to me, as they do them, then I’ll be out of a job and a calling.”

I know. What I said can sound like a load of rubbish until you stop and think about it.

Hear me out.

Self-Determination Theory.

There’s a theory out there called Self-Determination Theory. It studies human motivation and basic psychological needs. (You can read more on it here.)

The short version, though, says that humanity has three needs. Three. That’s it. That’s all. They are as follows: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Let me unpack those briefly.

Autonomy is the construct of decision making. It states that we, as individuals, want to have control over our own lives. This doesn’t mean we desire to exist in a vacuum or isolation. Rather, it means that we want to decide, for ourselves, what we do, think, say, and believe. You and I want to make up our own mind about things. We don’t want it made up for us.

Competence is the desire to have control over the various outcomes of our lives and to obtain levels of mastery in various disciplines. You and I want to be good at what we do.

Relatedness is the desire to interact with, be connected to, and experience care with others. You and I want to exist and thrive in the company of others.

Do you see where I’m going?

If you and I desire autonomy, then we have the ability to make up our own mind about things.

If you and I desire competence, we can learn how to be better at what we do.

If we desire relatedness, we can go out and find it.

You and I have control. Let’s just own that for a minute. You and I aren’t forced to do anything. We decide that on our own.

But what if we desire competence at the expense of our autonomy? That is, what if we want nothing more than to be seen as the competent super-leader we wish we were, and we cease to make up our own mind about how to do that? Instead, we read leadership book after leadership book, attend conference after conference, only to provide a disingenuous reflection of what someone else has proposed is good leadership?

Let me give you an example of what I mean.

Competence over Autonomy.

The common theory amongst modern churches is that they must grow. (I have an article I’m wrapping up on this, so stay tuned for that. You can also read my article entitled Church Growth: Three Assumptions to get a taste for what I mean.)

But, as I said, the common theory amongst modern church leaders is that their church must grow. You read this everywhere. You hear this everywhere. Lines like, “If we’re not growing, we’re dying.” Or, something like, “We want every church to realize their full Kingdom potential. We want them to reach many people for Jesus.” Or, “A growing church is a healthy church.”

So, your result – as a competent leader – becomes church growth. Why? Because everyone’s talking about it and we don’t flex our autonomy muscle. In the process, we soften our minds to blindly accept the status quo.

But did you, truthfully, arrive at that conclusion on your own or did you simply adopt a result that other people have said is of value so that you appear competent in their eyes?

See what I mean? When we desire competency above all else – when our ego gets in the way – we, paradoxically, lose autonomy.

When we lose autonomy, we lose identity.

That’s not the only way it works, though. Since we have three basic needs, let’s examine what happens if we desire competence over relatedness.

Competence over Relatedness.

What if we desire competence at the expense of our relatedness? That is, what if leadership competence is so valuable that results matter more than the people who those results are supposed to be for?

Let me break it down with a few examples.

I’ve witnessed leaders who are interested in appearing competent, so they appear to be related to other people.

It’s the leader that makes a three-minute connection in order to talk about the fact that they connected with someone and the church is growing; new faces all the time. They, perhaps, didn’t even learn anything substantive about that individual(s); but they “made a connection.”

It’s the leader that can’t stop saying ‘yes’ to invitations in order to flex their wisdom in front of a crowd. “We had a great gathering. I spoke to so-and-so and I told them (insert wisdom nugget here). They were changed because of it.” How many times have you heard a line like that?

It’s not about the relatedness, it’s a mask to promote leadership competence.

When we desire competency above all else – when our ego gets in the way – we lose relatedness. Accordingly, we force false relatedness to force a perceived competence.

When we lose relatedness, we lose our sense of self.

I believe this is why results matter so much to leaders. Our ego can’t handle being viewed as incompetent, so we create results that allow us to appear competent.

That does, however, lead me to my second “why.” Why so much anxiety?

Why Is There So Much Anxiety Surrounding Results?

My answer to this question, as I have considered it, is one word: agenda.

The minute you and I have a result in mind, we have an agenda.

I’ve been in enough conversations with church leaders to hear the same themes come up over and over again. I’ll list a few of them a moment. I wonder if you can see yourself in them. Frankly, I’ve seen myself in these at some point, it’s why I can write on it.

– church attendance patterns/growth

– building campaigns

– reach into the community

– life transformation

– ministry engagement

– I have even heard, from some churches, that they set a target number of baptisms each year.

These are the agendas of the modern church.

Plain and simple, this is what matters to church leaders, and these are the things that have measurable results. A value is placed upon them, a strategy is created around the achievement of results in each of these categories, and resources are distributed accordingly. Those desired results are then measured against, and we recalibrate our values and strategy as it pertains to their achievement.

And when there is a result in place, you need to hit it. Otherwise, you don’t look competent.

And when your leadership competency is on the line, your ego – your identity – is also on the line, and anxiety isn’t far behind.

And anxiety isn’t helpful for anyone. Especially a leader. Why? Because anxiety is contagious.

And it all stems from one thing: having predetermined results because of desired levels of competence.

The Uphill Battle of Agendas.

There’s something strange about an agenda, you have to convince others of the validity of the results you want to measure your success against. Seriously. You have to convince yourself, first and foremost, that growth, buildings, reach, life transformation, and ministry engagement are important. But not only that, you have to convince someone else that it’s important to them.

And those are uphill battles.

Try convincing a rational, autonomous human-being to do something they don’t want to do. It’s impossible, right?

I mean, if my niece doesn’t want to eat her dinner, there’s no convincing her to eat. She’s done.

Actually, it’s not so difficult as you might think. Hold out the hope of dessert and she’s all over that zucchini.

Tease the senses and you can get a result.

We’ve done a pretty good job of it with adults, too. In fact, you might say we excel at it. We can manipulate the emotion, paint a dreary picture of the present and contrast it with the beauty of a perceived future, and sing the merits of the communal achievement of something great.

But that’s an uphill battle.

You have to look for statistics that verify what you want. You have to, secretly, set targets for the number of baptisms in the coming year. In the boardroom, you have to confer about desired growth patterns. In the staff meeting, you have to haggle over a one or two percent increase in ministry engagement.

And that’s a lot of conversation for a lot of nothing.

Don’t get me wrong, baptisms, life transformation, reach, ministry engagement, and expansion aren’t bad things. Quite far from it, actually. It’s a problem, though, when the outcome supercedes the process and when it’s a mask for deeper issues.

See, quite often, positive results are still a facade to cover up the anxiety that is holding together the fragile, shattered ego of a leader seeking public competence.

I know, because I’ve often wanted results.

I know, because I’ve seen others wanting results, too.

This, my friends, is why results are often associated with anxiety. It’s because of a personal agenda that is made public, to solve a hidden personal insecurity.

So why not do away with results? If they are so bad, why not just forget about them?

In the first place, I don’t think that’s possible. In the second place, I don’t think that’s helpful. And, in the third place, I think it’s suggestive of something wrong, something off, something disingenuous to the Spirit of God and his movement. And that is, precisely, what has led me to ask the third “why.”

Why Not Have A Different Result?

My answer to that question is two words: why not?

My friends, as a leader, you are afforded the great privilege of opening peoples’ eyes to a different set of results. You and I have the privilege of flexing genuine autonomy and relatedness, out of quiet confidence in our competence, to open the eyes of those who follow us to something more beautiful than they could ever imagine.

Why would we, as leaders, ever sell out to the thrill of generating a crowd in lieu of inviting people to awake to the Divine in everything?

Why would we, as leaders, fail to unleash our followers to experience God and his fullness —dare I say it, without us—in favour of keeping them in our ecosystem?

Those seem like bad tradeoffs, don’t they?

In the news of this kingdom, the headlines read “Megachurch has 500 Baptisms in One Day.”

In the news of the Kingdom, the headlines read “Anonymous Someone Pays Rent for a Single Mother.”

Why would we ever want to substitute the second headline in favour of the first?

In the chronicles of history, there will be a list of “great” people.

In the chronicles of humanity, all people bear God’s image.

Why would we stratify identity, in favour of elevating the status of everyone?

The currency of this day is instant likes, follows, views, reach, and reactions.

The economy of God is one of grace.

Why would we live anything else?

What if the result was different? What if it was more expansive, more subtle, more subversive, more in tune with the Divine, and less about our agenda and insecurity?

My friends, if that were the case, you would be swept up in a Holy Wind and there’s no telling what would happen then.

Why Your Leadership (really) is Defined by Results?

In case you haven’t gathered it yet, your leadership shouldn’t be defined by results. Well, at least not in the way you often think of it.

There is one result that really matters, and it was taken care of on Resurrection Sunday.

On Good Friday, God put a stake in the ground. Quite literally, he was staked to the ground. It was then that he planted his flag—as if it was ever gone—on Creation and said, “Mine.”

It was a battle that shed no blood but his own.

It was a peaceful war that said it is better to die than to harm more of my Creation.

It was a death heard that echoes through history.

On Resurrection Sunday, God walked from the tomb and began gardening; recreating his Creation. (Seriously, he was mistaken for a gardener.)

It was a life that continued after the grave.

It was a resurrection that shocked eternity.

It was a result that none of us could ever achieve on our own.

And that, that right there, is what defines your leadership.

Your leadership is about living peacefully in his grace. It’s about inviting others into the Creation and re-Creation. Not forcing the result, but waiting, patiently, for the Holy Wind to roar, to whisper, to move, to act in ways that only it can.

I believe your leadership is defined by results. But the result has already been achieved.

My friends, lead with a freedom to pursue no agenda. Lead with the freedom of a result already achieved. Lead with the freedom of knowing there is an active Spirit.

Anthony VanderLaan Church Consultant Cropped


I am a blogger, researcher, and church consultant, here to inspire and empower you to become a better leader and pastor; a leader and pastor that inspires and equips your church to come alive.

I write and speak about how churches can stop wasting time with sideways energy to get back on mission.

And I will inspire you to remember your calling and be proud of it.

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