15 Common Sacred Cows in Churches

They are usually called sacred cows.

Sometimes they are called idols. Though the sacred cow terminology has its origins in Hinduism, it is commonly used in churches to describe those facets of church life that are given undue (and sometimes unbiblical) respect to the point they cannot be changed.

To the delight of some and to the chagrin of others, I conducted an informal social media poll to find out what the audience deemed the most common sacred cows in their churches. The answers were voluminous. Some of the conversations were hilarious. Some people just got mad. Imagine that.

Here are the top 15 responses by frequency. Again, keep in mind this survey was an informal poll on social media.

  1. The parlor. Thou shalt not enter, touch, or change. Only the parlor elect may enter. Parlors typically have an occupancy rate of less than one percent. Parlorolatry is one of the signs of a church that will soon die (see my book Autopsy of a Deceased Church, chapter 11).
  2. The organ. I’m a bit surprised this issue is still around. But it is. And there are some pretty strong feelings about this instrument.
  3. Politics. A number of respondents said many of their church members equate a certain brand of politics (all along the political spectrum) with biblical truth, a truth that must be declared in the pulpit and elsewhere.
  4. Order of worship. Thou shalt not move the offertory to another part of the service. The Apostle Paul instructed us exactly where it should be.
  5. The building. Yes, this response is a general observation. But many respondents simply said “the building” was the church’s sacred cow. Perhaps I can dig deeper in the future.
  6. Flowers in the worship center. Both fake and real. Both clean and dusty. Often allergenic.
  7. Music/worship style. The worship wars have diminished, but they are far from over.
  8. Sunday evening services. An oldie that has been around awhile. Obviously, it’s still a point of contention in many churches.
  9. Pews. Single chairs are the instruments of darkness.
  10. Attire. I’ve opened this can of worms in the past. I might take another shot at it in the future. Bias alert: I despise ties.
  11. Committees. For God so loved the world he did not send a committee. Many of those who responded particularly focused on the number of committees and their failure to have a clear purpose.
  12. Cemeteries. Typically an issue with older churches. Most church building programs today don’t include land for cemeteries.
  13. Choir robes. Probably need them to cover up some of the problems in number 10.
  14. Previous pastor. The pastor of 25 years ago walked this earth as a near perfect person. The church members have no memory of anything this pastor did wrong. They hold to the inerrancy of the former pastor.
  15. White tablecloths over the elements for the Lord’s Supper/Communion. Didn’t see this one coming

Does your church have any sacred cows? Feel free to contribute to the conversation!

Posted on August 27, 2018

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • One more.

    The reactionary knee-jerk reaction against any of the above.

    For instance, we don’t get rid of the Organ because everyone else is doing that… perhaps… just perhaps… our church can reach people with the organ that the one down the street can not reach with a praise band. and NOT just older folks… a LOT of younger folks prefer traditional music.

    • Thank you!!!

    • It’s funny—and I’m truly not trying to be rude—but I keep hearing/reading that “a LOT of young people” prefer traditional music or a liturgical service, but I’ve never actually met one in real life. In my experience Millenials and the generation behind them vastly prefer some sort of contemporary service in a contemporary setting, and any hint that people are selfishly clinging to the old ways of doing things is unsettling and even repugnant to them. I do agree with your larger point—changing the way we do things just because we’re trying to keep up with the Joneses can be fruitless. The changes we make (and we should continually be reevaluating and making them!) should be to better enable us to reach our community and the world for Christ. As long as people are clinging to their sacred cows—whatever those stinky cows may be—not only is our focus is on ourselves and not on the lost all around us, but the lost actually will be turned off by us and the setting in which we worship.

      • Hi Pam! I’m 38 and really prefer hymns. Now you’ve met one!

      • I actually was referring to musical style, rather than song choice—hymns can (and should IMO) be included in a modern worship setting.

      • Amy, my daughter Lisa does not like the praise band style of worship. She is 27 and since she was in high school she has preferred the quieter, more traditional style of worship. She does listen to contemporary Christian music on the radio, but those songs sung in church tend to be louder making it seem more like going to a concert than a worship service.
        When her family visited last year they walked out before the service was over. Again this year she excused herself (to go to the restroom) during worship and didn’t come back to the sanctuary.
        For a year or two our church set aside a room for a quieter more traditional worship service, though it didn’t seem traditional to me, just quieter than the main sanctuary. 10 to 15% of those attending were Jr./Sr. high students.
        A brother in Christ suggested I wear ear plugs, what a WONDERFUL suggestion that was for the main sanctuary.

      • I agree that many contemporary churches have the volume WAY too loud, and it is an impediment to worship not only for people with sensory issues—like you said, it makes it feel more like a concert rather than something the entire congregation should participate in.

      • Amy, I am afraid that many worship leaders have been sold on the idea of creating an environment where an emotional decision can be made. In my area, many young worship leaders have been able to turn down the lights, turn up the volume over 100db, and play 40-50 minute music sets in their primary worship service.

        As a former pastoral staff of the church I specifically mentioned, there were lots of decisions and rededications. However, there was very little depth of conviction. I believe that many of these decisions were solely emotional and lacked the conviction of the Holy Spirit. A rock concert can be a moving, emotional experience, but there is nothing godly about it. Creating a false mood to generate shallow decisions may just give a true unbeliever enough false assurance to guarantee they go to Hell.

      • Nick Stuart says on

        My challenge question for any music minister who’d like to answer it:

        “What is the purpose of congregational singing if the congregation can’t hear itself sing?”

        Formulaic “church speak” answers like “God hears” and “It’s the attitude of your heart” don’t count.

        For what it’s worth OSHA requires companies where the noise level is over 85 db to have their employees wear hearing protection. For years the sound pressure level in our worship services pinned the meter on my phone at 100 db (full upscale deflection, who knows how loud it was). In the past year it’s been turned down to about 83 (although I sit at the farthest possible remove from the speakers so for anyone directly under them it’s probably a lot higher).

      • Paul Hood says on

        We have all types of music in our church. I look to ALL the people not just the young OR the old. Each person is important not just an age group.

        I have been around most of these “COWS” and as long as that don’t take away from Jesus i leave them alone. Try to put your “COW” above Him and it will not be tolerated.

        What we try to do is just LOVE people. Accept them as they are and let the Holy Ghost do the cleaning. The cleaning isn’t our job anyway. We catch He cleans. Of course I have use the term Holy Ghost where as most would say Holy Spirit. Both mean the same being but some are offended by the word GHOST.

      • In my 20s, I discovered the Anglican Church where they used the 1662 BCP. I stayed with it and Rite I is pretty similar. Today in cities, there are a lot of younger people in cathedrals and liturgical churches, with pipe organs and hymns and a real chalice with wine.

  • A big one, closely related to #8, is a program or ministry that has long passed its usefulness and relevance. It is no longer producing fruit, but a few influential people cling to it, and it sucks up time, space and resources.

  • Craig Giddens says on

    Some of these could be optional depending on the church. If you want to use an organ, then have one although electronic keyboards can also replicate the organ sound.

    If people want to come for an evening service then have it. If not then don’t.

    I’ve always thought that churches should have drop boxes places at various locations for people to put their offerings. On line offering is changing the way people give.

    I rarely wear ties, except to funerals …. and even then it depends on who’s getting buried.

  • The church’s history – its past. The “older members” are still clinging to it and hinder any efforts toward the church moving forward. Many items on your list are considered traditions. Traditions can be very positive like communion and baptism, but they can also be a hindrance and an idol. When we were in between organists, I had a member say she could not worship without the organ and would not be back until we found an organist.

  • So true. I’ve pastored 25 years and come to the conclusion it’s best to leave the sacred cows alone and pray for God to open Fresh Expressions of Church – eg. new church starts in creative ways that are tethered to the existing “old wine” that can support these new expressions.

  • Wow!

    Dr. Rainer is spot on as usual. I do not often respond but this post has hit right where I serve. Thanks for all you do for the Kingdom.

  • The cross hanging in the baptistry was covered too often by the motorized screen we would lower for parts of the service when showing a video or PowerPoint. I was told that people stated they couldn’t worship without seeing the cross. People threatened to leave and stop giving their tithes and offerings.

    • I hear this comment too. I wondered why the people who put the screen there don’t talk to themselves because they were around when they decided to put the screen in front of the cross. Maybe because we worship the old hymns projected on the old screen instead of the cross behind the screen?!?

    • Dual projectors on each side. It modernizes and they can see the cross. Win, Win

      • Projectors and screens are rapidly becoming past tense… We have shifted from one electric drop down screen and projector to dual LCD TVs connected… no screen issues, no projector bulb issues, and generally no exterior sunlight issues. They are hung on the wall.

      • I know of someone who left the church because of projectors. Regardless of where screens we’re she “wasn’t going to a church that worshipped with projected music.”

  • Chuck Register says on

    Constitution and By-laws

    • I hear an amen from my deacons. I have learned to be up on my constitution as a result.

      • David Rutledge says on

        Quit complaining about the By Laws, change the By Laws and take out almost all of it. It is a necessary document if you ever have to go to court. Most of what is in the By Laws do not need to be there.

      • Be careful with the By-Laws of the church. You might want to talk to a lawyer before you “gut” them. They’re much more important than you think they are. Especially in the current environment.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      So true.

  • Is it not a shame that coaches, news commentators and attendees at America’s Funniest Videos dress better and with more respect than many SBC Pastors. I remember one well known Baptist Pastor who was speaking at the Florida Baptist Convention who said “They told me I had to wear a tie. I told them that I did not wear a tie for God and I surely would not wear a tie for them.” The sad thing is that the Convention broke out in applause. God told Isaiah to preach naked and he did; John the Baptist to wear Camel hair and he did. When our respect for God, which is reflected by our dress, is less than a News Commentators respect for his audience we have a problem. No ecclesiastical garments needed just the best we have and that which reflects our awesome God.

    • 30 years of experience says my heart & actions do a MUCH better job reflecting God’s awesomeness than my attire ever could. So thankful it is God’s approval we seek and not man’s. “For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

    • You mentioned a few times that “God said” what to wear. When did God say that a Business Suit was best? I have not seen where HE says that a suit and tie is better than khakis and a golf shirt. Should it be a 3-piece suit, or can we leave off the vest? If the vest is optional, then why not the tie?
      As a child I was raised to wear a suit to church every Sunday, but unless I have overlooked a scripture, I think that is a matter of opinion and tradition rather than scripture.

      • Where did God say you should let your shirttail hang out? Where did He say you should wear jeans with holes on them? Where did He say you should pay twice as much for ragged jeans as you do for jeans that actually look new?

      • Where does God say it matters?? Throughout the entirety of the Bible it’s repeatedly made clear that God’s concern is the heart, not our outward appearance. Culturally, we are much more casual than we were fifty years ago—if we’re all dressed extravagantly (which is what a suit and tie and a dress with hose has become nowadays) how comfortable is an unchurched person going to feel if they join us for a service? Comfortable enough to listen to the sermon and the words of the songs? The Gospel should be the only stumbling block placed before the lost.

      • Amen!!!

      • Ken, I think you missed my point, and I think it was because you assumed I am that I am a proponent of ripped jeans, skinny jeans, untucked shirts, shorts, etc, etc. But, I did not say that “looking like something the cat coughed up” is better than a suit.

        My point is that I can’t find in Scripture where GOD prescribed the fashion that is acceptable to Him. We should dress nice, but which style is not in Scripture. That is man’s opinions and traditions. If I am wrong, please show me where Scripture says a 3-piece suit is the proper attire for church.

        I guess if we want to be Scriptural, pastors should be wearing the garments prescribed by God in the Old Testament, but I have not seen anyone wearing an ephod lately.

      • Look in Exidus where God was explicit in the priests’dress when the approached the tabernacle and His holiness. If they varied, they died. Do we approach God’s holy presense on At Sunday worship in shorts, t-shirt, and flip flops? Jeans and t-shirt with shirt tail flapping? How reverent!

      • Paul Hood says on

        Where did HE say not to? It was the religious leaders of that day that put on airs. Jesus wore sandals and a robe. John wore Camels hair. David danced NAKED before the Lord (his wife got angry). Why should we make those who my not have the funds for a suit feel out of place. If you put stipulations on dress why stop there. The bible says to keep your nakedness hid.

        It is more important to get them in church and help them become Christians that to tell them what WE think of their clothes. After all the scripture says to compel them to come in, Not one time does it say make sure they dress to YOUR standards before you let them in.

        This sacred cow has kept more people out of church than has help people to find Christ,

      • I have a church member that tried for months to get a co-worker to come visit our church. Finally he convinces the co-worker to come. The man had really long hair, so to avoid any judgmental looks, he put it up under a hat and walked in the building with our member. After a few minutes of introductions one older church member remarked, “well, it looks like someone doesn’t know you aren’t supposed to wear a hat in the church house.” The visitor left and told the man that invited him he would never step foot in any church again. I often wonder how many people miss Jesus because the pew-fillers are hateful sacred cow worshipers? I have since used this illustration in several messages. I don’t know which member said it or I would have confronted him directly.

      • Linda Caster says on

        AMEN !!

    • I’ve read where Paul told us to put on humility, but never a coat and tie. To many people are more concerned about their attire than their heart and attitudes. Pharisees dressed to impress and Jesus never applauded them for that. In fact, He spoke negatively concerning their attire and the pride associated with it.

      • I agree. The churches I have been a part of have all been places where anyone can wear what they feel most comfortable in. There are plenty of people dressed casually, some in jeans and some in suit jacket & tie / nice dress. I am one of those odd men who actually likes wearing a tie. It gives comfort around my neck, it helps keep me warm during those cold winter months (that’s when I add the jacket to it), and I like looking spiffy. Since I realize a tie can be a stumbling block to some people, I usually wear a “fun” tie if I wear one. When I’m playing the piano, I might wear a music tie. The one with a keyboard pattern on it often gets a number of compliments. If I’m directing the bell choir, out comes my bell choir tie. However, if it’s World Communion Sunday my entire family might wear our Chinese clothes (our children have connections there). Sometimes our children wear a Chinese outfit to church just because they felt like it that day.

      • I guess I was trying to say it really doesn’t matter how we dress up, but if it helps you to connect with God or the people around you feel free to dress that way. Clothes can be tools, but worship the Creator instead of the tool.

    • I agree with you. I fail to see what is so “spiritual” about looking like something the cat coughed up.

      • Tina Sagisi says on

        Are you serious?

      • Bob Finch says on

        The only thing that even comes close to God defining appropriate wear for a Christian let alone a Pastor is attire that gives a modest appearance. So while we may have clothing preferences for someone in the pulpit, the only criteria I can find is that their wardrobe be one that ensures a modest appearance on that person. And the alternative to a suit and tie thank goodness is not necessarily and/or only ragged jeans and a t-shirt.

      • Leon Dressel says on

        Leadership should be considerate of their audience. Modest and neat for the older folks and casual enough for the younger generation. The attire should not distract from the message, if that is possible.

      • James 2: 1My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. 2Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

      • Steven Clontz says on

        Yes, where what you have. But there ARE lost people gracing those doors that the best they have IS looking like what the cat coughed up. Should they be made to feel any differently because of that? Those old sneakers with holes in the sides may be better than the socks they may or may not have to wear underneath them. Those tattered jeans may be some of the better dress jeans they have. There have been people walk into the church I attend wearing some pretty revealing things and tattoos all over their arms and neck, because that’s the best they had. And by the end of service, THOSE are the people crying out for God’s love and mercy the most. Now if we turned them away, or if we ONLY wore suit and tie dress code, these folks would have an awfully hard time getting past their own insecurities to even come meet the Lord. I myself have shown up straight from job sites. But honestly, I’d rather meet a Lord loving enough, unfailingly so, in fact, that He accepts not only my flaws and forgives them, but also loves what He created enough that I can never dress it up or down enough to change the way He feels about me.

    • Larry, it’s asinine to make what a preacher wear an issue in 2018. There’s no biblical absolute that demands what a preacher should wear other than to wear something that is modest. Jean are modest. Polo shirts are modest. Heck, t-shirts are modest, though any graphics shouldn’t be distracting — but that’s a personal preference. And therein lies the problem. You argument is about your personal preference and you argue it as though it’s a biblical absolute. You and others argue that God was specific enough to describe what the priests were to wear to the exact thread in their priestly duties…yet you would also argue that the ceremonial law is dead. So which is it? Do we live by law or grace? Unfortunately, I fear there are too many in the church who’s personal preferences are nothing more than the same legalism of the Pharisees…and we know what Jesus felt about them. Now, if you want to argue that wearing jeans in your church is not relevant to the culture in which the church has been sent to reach for Christ then I’ll have that conversation. But it’s time we stop arguing over the speck in jean wearing pastor’s eyes when we’ve got a Pharisee-size plank in our own eye. Frankly, these are the conversations that the people who are yet to attend our Bible-believeing churches don’t understand. Yet too many of us are still willing to fall on this sword.

    • Nick Stuart says on

      Friends stayed with us one time and the mom asked me what was the dress code at our church (same denomination).

      My reply “Somewhere between casual and a nudist colony” [that was about 10-15 years ago when shorty shorts and skirts, bare midriffs, and halter tops were all the rage]

      Of course say anything and you will be denounced as vile by all the Men’s Accountability types for noticing, denounced by many of the ladies for having the temerity to suggest that women should be modestly dressed, and denounced as a legalist by the Christian liberty purists. So I keep my mouth shut. Ladies, rule of thumb: “Don’t show anything you don’t want anyone looking at.”

      In case you were wondering the mom and her daughters wore dresses that went to the knee.

  • Matthew Brown says on

    I’m surprised flags didn’t get a mention. The Church has gotten so wrapped up in this weird blend of evangelicalism and patriotism that the two have become inextricably linked, to the point that the American flag has become a huge idol.

  • Trees that block almost the entire view of our building from the road. Our building backs up to a large neighborhood. I have had people who have lived there for see time who had never noticed our building being a church. People who have passed by our building everyday for work have said the same. We have had visiting pastors pass us up not seeing it. Our current pastor even passed the building up the first time.

    • Thom Rainer says on


      • Catherine Leary says on

        Don’t get me started on trees! When our church was built, the local government gave us a permit on condition that we maintain “landscaping” including trees that would screen the building from the road. Unfortunately, the trees grew and grew – and the building disappeared. And the zoning board still refused to let us cut the trees. When they refused, I suggested we paint ten foot tall neon pink crosses on each side of the church steeple, which is the only part of the church to rise above the trees, but the church board rejected my suggestion as tasteless. I have to admit it would be tasteless, but at least people could find the church … as it is, we are the Ninja Church! We practice the art of invisibility!

  • Boom! Said that we still elevate many of these elements over sharing and living out the gospel.

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