The Church's Oxygen

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, September 12, 2016

The Church's Oxygen

During a recent trip to Peru, I experienced something new: altitude sickness.

I traveled in a short period of time from sea level in Lima to the city of Cusco, which is around 12,000 feet above sea level. Within three hours, I was as sick as I have ever been in my life. Vomiting, headache, and extreme fatigue set in with a vengeance.

All because of a lack of oxygen. I suffered through the night in my hotel room, and it was all I could do to get out of bed the next day by checkout time to head to my next destination.

I must have looked pretty bad because at the front desk, the first thing out of the attendant’s mouth was, “Do you need some oxygen?”

Apparently altitude sickness is common enough among travelers that within minutes I was provided with an oxygen mask and tank for a quick hit.

After five minutes of breathing through the mask, I felt an almost instantaneous return of energy and a calming of my nausea. The headache lessened dramatically.

It was startling to me how sensitive the human body is to a lack of oxygen in the air we breathe. I have been equally startled by how sensitive the church body is to a lack of what it needs to breathe.

What is the oxygen of the church that, if deprived of, would lead to sickness?

That’s easy.


When there is relational unity within a church, there is health. When there isn’t, the very oxygen the church needs to live becomes thin. More quickly than you can imagine, the church gets very, very sick. Not just around the area where there is a relational breakdown, but systemically sick.

There is little sense of worship. Evangelism wanes and few, if any, people get reached for Christ. Ministry becomes lifeless and programmatic. Discipleship rings hollow. 

All because of the lack of authentic community.

It is true that the body can acclimate itself to high altitudes and thin air. With the body, this can be a good thing. With the church body, it never is. But sadly, many churches have “acclimated” to disunity and live with the sickness as if it is normal.

Which is why there are so many dysfunctional churches with diminished impact.

No wonder that disunity was the one thing Jesus prayed against in His great High Priestly prayer before His crucifixion (John 13-17). Jesus prayed for unity and love among those who would share His name, for, He said, it would be the ultimate apologetic for His message and the message of the church.

In other words, it would be the very air we would need to breathe. Without it, not only would we grow ill, we would have nothing to offer the world’s great deprivation.

So breathe deep. Inhale and exhale the very oxygen Christ wanted for our lives. And when you sense a little altitude sickness coming on,

…do whatever it takes to put on the mask quickly.

James Emery White

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite

The Church's Oxygen