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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  • Richard Reiter says on

    Hymn books. We don’t use them but they are in the pew. When we mentioned to donate them someone left the church.
    I agree change for the sake of change is not rational.
    I like what Paul discussed in 2 Cor. 3. The tablets and the glory on Moses and the tablets was fading. Yet people wanted to see that fading glory. For me an application is there are buildings, books, tables that represent a glory from days gone by. As humans we become attached to those things because of the glory they represent. But the glory of the Spirit of God is the glory we are to be beholding in the mirror. His glory remains. Only when I turn to the Lord will my veil be removed and no longer am attached to the fading glory but the Spirit.

  • Anything that has a memorial plate on it. I’ve been at churches where every window, pew, and even the offering plates have mini plaques on them.

    • Nick Stuart says on

      That’s probably how they were paid for. The people who paid for them did so on the understanding there would be a plaque. Remove the plaques and don’t be surprised when the next fundraising campaign comes around if people are reluctant to give on the promise that the gift will be acknowledged with a plaque (yes, I know that shouldn’t be the motive, but we’re talking about money, the real sacred cow here).

  • Gone, but not done says on

    It’s another comment storm!

    How can one read this post and its comments without massive waves of nausea?

    Is it STILL any wonder 33 million (and climbing) have left the institutional church?

    • Those of us who have been in Christianity all our lives just know that is how things function. It’s the SOP of organized religion. We know there is nothing that we can do about it but learn to work within it. It is why a lot of people leave organized religion to save their faith.

  • The former church building (next door) has been like a museum for years. We recently removed all of the pews and installed cushioned chairs because the pews were so old and splintered, they had nails sticking out in places that harmed worshipers. But they continue to criticize, complain and condemn the cushioned chairs!

    The main sanctuary needs refurbishing. But the pews which are way too close together and too long, are sacred. But nothing can be moved or discussed about changing anything.

  • Southern Baptist’s can be as tied to traditionalism as the Catholic Church is. You can ask, “Is it in scripture?” and get a response, “it’s the way it has always been done.” As if tradition has a higher or equal authority as scripture.

  • The building is frequently a sacred cow. Paint color, carpet, draperies, etc. can cause splits and fights quickly. Far more time will be spent on those than on religious matters.

  • I remember most of those in FBCP, but, thankfully, 10 of them are history..

  • Gary Sanders says on

    I always find these articles somewhat frustrating. As I read them, I often wonder why the sacred cows are so bad and about the motivation of those who want to change. The fact they are called sacred, and yes I know they are not, but that implies they were important at one time. While they might need to be addressed, and even changed, too often I think the change is simply because the pastor wants to change it. There does not seem to be a desire to understand why they were/are important. This then becomes change for the sake of changing, which is not the best reason for change. I think church members feel this way about change, including changing the sacred cows. What church members see is a random shake up, because it can be done. So they are resistant. Perhaps they are trying to determine why there needs to be change? When they ask pastors take it as a challenge and cast them as vision killers or people stuck in the past. Maybe it is incumbent upon pastors to demonstrate why there needs to be a change? Pastors tell them about change after they have developed the plan, which they have been thinking about and praying about for months. If members were not with the pastor in the praying, thinking, seeking part of the plan, they will likely not be with him at the implementation part either.
    Also, and I could be mistaken, there seems to be an unstated accusation, that if you do something “older” or “traditional” then you are not being effective in ministry. I don’t think that is true and look forward to the articles 20 years from now when the full band, dark lights, words projected on the screen, meeting in an auditorium, etc. become sacred cows.

    • I see your point completely. Change for the sake of change is not good, just as “the way it’s always been” is not a good enough reason to keep it that way. We aren’t perfect, but in my church I felt called to have a contemporary service in the evenings, while maintaining our morning traditional service. I brought the idea up to the board 9 months before I approached them again to ask to implement the idea. I asked them to pray about it, I let them know I was going to bring them a plan, and I asked for feedback so I could take it into consideration and prayer. Then, months later, after speaking to a select group of elders and influencers, I presented the plan to the board. While it was my vision, an important part of my job is to cast my vision so others can catch it, not to hide my vision and expect everyone to be ok with it all the sudden.

      Thom Rainer has a book out that I had all my elders read before I got to this job (senior pastor in a very small Texas town) called “Who Moved my Pulpit.” It is an excellent read for change and lays out a very good plan, which includes many of the things your post mentions as concerns. It is on Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/Who-Moved-My-Pulpit-Leading/dp/1433643871/ref=sr_1_5?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1535377818&sr=1-5&keywords=Thom+S.+Rainer.

      Thanks for bringing another perspective to this conversation!

    • Paul Hood says on

      Gary, let me say this. Any Pastor that institutes change without talking to the people, all the people is called a dictator. He is not fulfilling what a pastor is suppose to be, A Servant. Find out why things are done the way they are and talk about the sacred cows. let me add this, them saying “That’s the way we’ve always done it” don’t fly every time. just because Grandma did it like that does not mean I, or anyone else, should be forced to do things that way. I have no problem with people who shout in church, but, i also know that it isn’t how high you jump but how straight you walk when you hit the ground. You can out shout everyone in the church but, if you cuss out the people you work with the next day what kind of witness are you. More importantly, what kind of example are you sitting for your children?

      Even if we don’t like it, once you say you are a Christian people are watching you. You become a kind of leader. Where are you leading them? Just asking.

    • Christopher says on

      I’m sorry, but this is a such a cop-out. I don’t know any pastors who desire a fight to change something “just for the sake of change.” Most pastors see more objectively and pragmatically than those who have been wrapped up in their own religious world for decades. Furthermore, most pastors work diligently to make people in the church understand the need for changes and then they still have it thrown back in their face.

      The fact is, if your focus was truly on reaching the lost and making disciples of Jesus, then you wouldn’t care what the church looked like as long as those ends were accomplished.

      • Actually, I have worked in a few churches that brought in this type of pastor not long before I left them. They brought in their own ideas and implemented them as soon as they could, often working against the vision the church had been following, after hearing from about 20% of the congregation that this change was what they wanted. I’ve been told this is very common when a new pastor comes into a church.

      • I can’t seem to find in the scripture where everyone gets an opinion and a vote. Seems the last time the mob ruled in the New Testament, they crucified the Savior.

      • Nick Stuart says on

        Judges 21:25

      • Christopher says on

        Did you ever think that maybe the vision the church was following wasn’t working and that’s why they needed to call a new pastor? Furthermore, what successful organization in this country hires a new leader and then tells them they have to do everything the way the old leader did it? That mindset is completely irrational and it’s ruining the church!

  • Our “communion table” is a huge idol in our church. Don’t change it, set anything on it, move it to another location on the stage, or block its view. Yes, it is pretty, but it is NOT the reason we are here. In fact, I messed up and called it an “altar” one time and was quickly corrected that, “It is a ‘communion table’ because we are a new testament church.” I let them know I am happy to call it that, though it is not a salvation issue, and asked them if they could show me in the New Testament, or anywhere, where they found the word “communion.” That was fun. 🙂

    • I know the feeling. Also, in many evangelical churches the terms for the various parts of the building must be correct. Auditorium, fellowship hall, multi-purpose building, pulpit, must be used properly. In liturgical churches, there are different terms for the same things. The title of the lead person and leadership in the church must be correct too. Preacher, minister, evangelist, pastor, etc. must be correct or else you will be admonished.

      • Paul Hood says on

        The leader in the church, which is me by the way, is Paul. I have many titles but friend is one I like. I do not require that i be called anything. However, My whole church, including the kids and my wife, refer to me as Pastor Paul. not something I had to asked for but I guess it is something God figured I had earned.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      I hear that a lot too, Tim and Mark.

  • The time of service on Sunday morning.

  • Dimas Castillo says on

    Our church does not have a cemetery, but it does have a wall with pictures of every dead member

  • The teenagers in our church are the sacred cow. Rather than Parents lead they follow their teens. I have been told that to direct application in a message that will challenge behavior or thinking is to target and pick on the them. Just leave them alone! The Pastor is always wrong and the youth are always right.

    • Christopher says on

      The sacred cow in our church is the youth pastor who, according to some, can do no wrong. Add to this that he is a known liar and manipulator. No one denies this and yet no one seems to care.

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