Your Church Smells

italianfood1As a kid, my family enjoyed dinner every Sunday after church at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. This would be the Italian side of my family. The second thing that hit me when I walked through their door was the plastic covers on the lamp shades–thankfully NOT on the sofas and chairs.  The first thing was the smell: a heavenly blend of garlic, marinara sauce, and Italian spices from the roast beef.

Play, watch TV, eat, fall asleep while the grown-ups visited. A good life.

Whenever I smell Italian food, I think of Grandma and Grandpa’s house.

If you were to visit (they’re in heaven now, so you can’t), you’d say their house smells “Italian.”

If you were to ask them to describe their home’s smell, they would say… “Our house has no smell.” Or maybe, “Our house smells normal.”

italianfood2Your own culture is invisible to you. It doesn’t smell like a culture. It doesn’t smell at all, to you. It’s your NORMAL.  My Irish friends don’t listen to Irish music, they listen to music. My Greek friends don’t eat Greek food, they eat food. We become oblivious to the smells and textures of our own culture. We interpret them as NORMAL and as UNIVERSAL. Who DOESN’T love the smell of cooked cabbage, right?  (Peeeeewwwww!)

And that’s what can make church-people like me so dangerous: we create a church-culture that WE can’t smell. But our VISITORS CAN SMELL IT. It’s the first thing that hits them.

In our minds, we don’t do contemporary worship or traditional worship or cutting edge worship. We just do worship. Everybody should like it, right? To us it is meaningful. To us it is reverent. To us it is celebrative.  It has become our “normal.”  It’s the music of our hearts. Hate to burst your bubble, but just because it’s in your heart, doesn’t mean it’s in everybody’s heart.

We universalize our normal. We get so used to it that we can’t imagine anybody NOT being used to it. It has no smell.

But our visitors smell it a mile away.  They smell our worship style, our color scheme, our musty air, our architecture, our pacing, our technology (or lack of it), the elements we include, the elements we omit, our language, our coffee brand, our Bible translation, our inter-relational harmony, our wood pews or theater seats, our printed media, our projected media, our choice of instruments, our volume, and our preaching style.  All the stuff that we stopped noticing  years ago. It all communicates.

Your church smells. The most important question you can ask is this: IS IT A GOOD SMELL OR A BAD SMELL TO THE PEOPLE GOD HAS CALLED YOU TO REACH?

Can you smell it?  If you can’t, your church is in trouble.

noseThe second most important question you can ask is: DO WE EVEN KNOW WHAT SMELLS GOOD TO THE PEOPLE GOD HAS CALLED US TO REACH? If God has called you to reach your community, what is their median age? What is the segment of that age you are best equipped to reach?  What smells do they hate? What smells drive them away? What smells do they love? You have to know. You have to listen. You have to relate… and you have to SACRIFICE.

That’s the next important question, actually the most decisive question of all: ARE THE PEOPLE AND LEADERS OF YOUR CHURCH WILLING TO BREATHE WHAT SMELLS BAD TO YOU SO YOU CAN REACH THE LOST?

I am NOT saying that we should water-down our doctrine. No way!  I believe in teaching the whole counsel of God from the Word of God. I am NOT talking about the content of our faith, but about the PACKAGING of it. I am talking about the morally neutral, cultural elements that define us. I am talking about the stylistic stuff. Stuff that leaders should be super-sensitive to.  Are we needlessly driving away honest seekers after God? Are we putting a stumbling block in their way because we don’t like the smells they like? Are we willing to sacrifice our preferences for the sake of lost people?

How long would you hold your nose (and smile) if it meant a great flow of hurting people into God’s kingdom?

Three lessons here:

churchworship11. Learn to smell your church through visitor’s nostrils. Okay, maybe not the most appealing analogy, but you catch my meaning.  You stopped noticing that old planter in the corner, covered in dust, years ago. But it tells newcomers you don’t care. You stopped noticing the handwritten signs taped to the walls. But it tells your visitors something.  You can put out a million signs that say, Visitors Welcome. But if you create a church that doesn’t smell good to them, don’t be surprised if they stay away in droves.

2. Sacrifice your preferences for the sake of lost people. Here’s where Paul smacks us upside our self-centered head:

“For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you.” 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, NKJV.

If your church smells the same today as it did fifteen years ago, don’t be surprised if the young people go elsewhere. I’m not saying that your church is necessarily bad… maybe God is calling you to reach somebody other than young adults. That’s great. Be true to your call.  I’m just saying, don’t be surprised.

girlBut I’m also saying something deeper.  Are you, veteran Christian, so hardened that you’re willing to drive away potential converts for the sake of your personal preferences?  God help us! And God give us leaders brave enough to defy that unholy spirit.

“Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our [younger, weaker] brother’s way.” Romans 14:13, NKJV.

Oops.  Did I catch you self-righteously nodding your head? “See!” you think, “You’re offending the bretheren and sisteren! It’s wrong!”

No, it’s not wrong. It’s wrong to offend the WEAKER brother or sister… that is, the new kids on the spiritual block. It’s not wrong to offend the veteran, by this Bible verse.

Dear Long-Time Christian, please give up your right to be offended. Please give up your right to have it your way. Please give up the drive that makes you lock the church in YOUR personal Golden Era… Please let the church smell FRESH.

phariseeslegalistsThat  means we may offend–we must offend–people just like ME:  veteran Christians. I should love lost people so much that I can tolerate any smell to get them saved and folded into God’s family. I must make that sacrifice, not the lost people around me. God calls me to that.  And if I’m not ready for that by now, the church should pass me by.  Lord knows, I’ve had enough time to grow up.

Remember all those times you said that every Christian is a missionary? Well, it’s time to practice what you preach.

Pretend God planted you in a far-off land. Pretend you’re a missionary to an alien tribe. Pretend you have to eat food you don’t like, sing songs you don’t like, and worship in a hut you don’t like… in a language you don’t like… so they can spend eternity with the Savior.  Be a missionary, and please, for heaven’s don’t grumble about it.

3. Celebrate the smells of other churches. Don’t criticize them if they’re preaching Christ and his Word.  Don’t judge their music or vestments or programs or language if they are reaching their community for Christ. So they’re not the same as you. So they don’t share your preferences. They can reach people you’ll never reach.

Aren’t you glad somebody told you about Jesus in your language, your style?

That is a pleasing aroma to God.

Can you smell it?


I’d like to invite you to one more local book-signing.  I’ll be at Barnes and Noble on Saturday, April 25, at 10:00 to noon.  In many ways, this one is most important to me. I did signings at two local Christian bookstores, and that was fun. But this one is about our testimony. I’d really love the Barnes & Noble store to know that Christians come into their store and buy their books.  So if you can make it, just to visit for a while, or if you could hold off buying a book till then, that would be great.

Get on the email list and I’ll send a reminder.


12 thoughts on “Your Church Smells

  1. my preferred ecclesial-aroma?

    but I’m a relative veteran, so I don’t demand heavy metal church. 🙂

    (BTW, here’s they lyrics to the song they’re playing: Will the waves of time wash away the pain in my heart? Can i bury the knife that has pierced my soul or will i continue to turn it to remind me of my own blindness? Because i find no touch of grace to surprise my eyes, or rest my spirit and i have come to realize my few good moments were forged in self deception… and the question that plagues my mind… is grace enough? To build a bridge once burned? to fill what is hollow with the substance of virtue? Though the wings of a dove have wiped the tears from my eyes, this tongue has fanned the flames of unforgiveness. but love suffers long and rejoices in truth… and this imperfect creation is shortcoming but striving none the less for that which is eternal)

  2. Very, very nice Jonathan. Was that you I saw hurtling your body into the junior high mosh pit? Ha!

    Deep lyrics.

    Christ is preached.

    I rejoice.

  3. One month and 4 days after asking Jesus to take control of my life, I wrote this article:

    If you scroll through the comments, there’s even one from you, Dr. G!

    Although I might have written that article a little differently today, I still believe our terminology smells. We think it sounds nice, and perhaps even think it impresses our fellow Christians, but it stinks to so many people who don’t “speak our language”.

    I love, love, love this:

    Dear Long-Time Christian, please give up your right to be offended.

    I once heard you speak that in a service and it stuck with me. I’ve shared that line, that concept, with many others. Because it is SO true.

  4. Good heavens, Jonathan, you have been blessed with the gift of interpretation of tongues because I honestly couldn’t understand ONE, single word of Hopesfall – couldn’t even determine if Christ was preached or not aside from your written lyrics. And as for Doug Venable’s vocal rendition, I was almost ready to go and grab the Kaopectate to help make him feel better from his illness. (Hope nobody got hurt leaping through the air, too!)

    I give no apologies for being a long-time, veteran Christian. In fact, I “Praise the Lord!” for that and am terribly grateful. (Sorry to be squawking, Donny.) However, I must voice my opinion that it seems instead of the baby being tossed out with the bath water, it’s now the seniors who are tossed out to be a better smelling church body. Yes, I certainly agree the church needs to keep “freshening” itself to be attractive to the unbelievers and the more-mature Christian is the one expected to be the more tolerant; the love should go both ways though with respect and honor due ALL Christ-uplifting efforts.

    I think it helps a lot to understand these efforts are not WRONG, just DIFFERENT with the same goal in mind.

    Dr. G: you have my prayers and admiration to be called to the privilege of leading this mass of human differences called the “Church” to fulfill the Great Commission. I’m sure glad it’s not my calling!!

  5. Jean… That’s why the body of Christ has all kinds of variety! It smells like a bouquet… when it’s healthy. Any pastor would be happy to move with the movers… anywhere the PEOPLE, old or young, are eager to reach their peers, there we will invest our energy.

    The problem is that young people are the first and easiest to discard. This is because they don’t squeak, I think. We must be intentional in upcoming generations, or else the church in America will rapidly become like the church in Europe: 2-4% attendance, almost all older.

    Having said that, and I can’t speak for other churches, but our church invests significant time, energy, and money into ministry for, by, and to older folks.

    And Amen to the idea that it’s not Wrong, it’s just Different, though that’s not what I heard growing up. Back then, it was Wrong, ungodly, and satanic to be relevant…


  6. Thanks Bill! I loved this. I plan to print it out and use to as a discussion starter with my youth leadership team!

    BTW i’ve started your book, so far i’m loving it

  7. Bill…

    I recently read a book from Philip Yancey, “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” Here is the first paragraph from the first chapter that talks about “smell” or what others see in us in the church… Grace, Joseph


    I told a story in my book “The Jesus I Never Knew,” a true story that long afterward continued to haunt me. I heard it from a friend who works with the down-and-out in Chicago:

    A prostitute came to me in wretched straits, homeless, sick, unable to buy food for her two-year-old daughter. Through sobs and tears, she told me she had been renting out her daughter — two yeas old! — to men interested in kinky sex. She made more renting out her daughter for an hour than she could earn on her own in a night. She had to do it, she said, to support her own drug habit. I could hardly bear hearing her sordid story. For one thing, it made me legally liable — I’m required to report cases of child abuse. I had no idea what to say to this woman. At last I asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. I will never forget the look of pure, naive shock that crossed her face. “Church!” she cried. “Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.”

    What struck me about my friend’s story is that women much like this prostitute fled toward Jesus, not away from him. The worse a person felt about herself, the more likely she saw Jesus as a refuge…. Has the church lost that gift…?

  8. Amen, to what you said, Dr. G. We shouldn’t be tossing any age group out with the bath water! I love the grace you teach, the same response as you to the legalism I was reared with! Yuck! Keep it up, because there’s plenty of legalism still surviving not only in the elder-berries in our churches but the spoiled younguns who think the same narrow-minded thoughts as the elder-berries years before.

    Anyone with half a brain MUST realize our youth IS the future. The mantle of leadership will be passed on, but rather impossible if there is no one to receive it. We definitely need God’s help and power.

    PS. I am amused at the thought of some of our elders attending the Hopesfall whatever-you-call-it. Just seems an amusing picture in my mind….

  9. Timing is impeccable as usual. We’ve been involved in a church plant here and are currently working out the vision for the church. I think I’ll print this entry out and hopefully get the chance to share this with the group. I’m praying it flowers into a sweet smelling bouquet 🙂

  10. Jean,

    In a slightly humorous way, I was kind of making the same point you are. Young people (I’m 23) can be veteran Christians of a sort too. I grew up at church and prayed my life into the hands of Christ as a grade-schooler. I’ve heard lots and lots of guitar-band praise songs. Some really lovely, honest praise songs. Some really cheezy, cheezy praise songs. I’m learning to love well-arranged hymns. I’ll never love dispassionate, drudgy hymns.

    But I’d love to go to a church that met in a vacant store-front, where we play loud, intense songs about our struggles and passion and joy in following the Teacher and Savior. I’d love to use the bodies God made to dance and jump and even flip to express what sometimes words fail at. I’d love to struggle with those words in new and creative poetry about our Christian devotion. I want to sweat and scream and shout my relationship with the Creator. “I will become even more undignified than this..” I want to sit on a cement floor and study the word of God. To share a meal in the park across the street and celebrate the Lord’s Supper with our daily bread. and to share that bread and cup and more with the homeless men and women who live on that block.

    And there is a demographic of young people in search of God that that would reach. That, I’m sure, somewhere DOES reach them. And hey, maybe even some brave, adventurous old folks too.

    But I want to be apart of a community that is inter-generational. That is intercultural and inter-relational. I want the old folks, and the my-parent’s-aged folks and the little kids and (God help them) the Jr. Highers. I want a family that is built like a real family. So, I forgo my preference. At my church, that means lots of songs that sound like 2 decade old U2 songs.

    Noooooooot my favorite. But beautiful when a roomful of voices sing their passion for God to God.

    So, you’re right. Let’s not just focus on the “traditional” folks here. The radical, outrageous metal-loving young peoples gotta give some ground too, if they are interested in maturely respecting their community.

    I’m not taking my piercings out tho. You’re gonna have to deal w/ those. 🙂

  11. Hey Jonathan: Love your heart, young thing!

    And, I’ve got a few piercings too!!! Too cowardly to stand the pain of a tattoo, though! I’m collecting grambabies!

  12. Great post. Our church definitely smells “great”!!

    Same smells on a Sunday afternoon at my grandparents, but there was plastic on the sofas too.

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