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Posts Tagged ‘Church’

I had the joy of experiencing what the church is really all about these last few weeks. I’ve spent a lot of time in the hospital visiting sick folks in my role as a minister—to the point that I actually like hospital food. But, thank God, I’ve been healthy for my adult life and have never had to stay in the hospital myself. So, it was a new experience to be in the hospital with my wife for part of three days and have church folks drop by and visit. We got to see for ourselves how nice it is to have people come by just to let you know that they were thinking about you. Then when we came home the love from the church family continued with people dropping in at home, sending cards, calling, and best of all—bringing food by for a weary mom and dad (there’s a reason why people have kids when they are much younger than we are!). I thought that it was very ironic that one family who brought us food was the very family who we had taken food to a few weeks ago when they were sick: the circle of blessing was complete.

All of this got me thinking about the church at its best: we not only share in the worship of God but in the event of our lives—good and bad. 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 speaks of this: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.” We are called upon as a church to take the comfort and healing which we receive from God and comfort others who are troubled. If you are going through something there is probably somebody in the church who has already been through that who can help you. If you have been through something, the time will come when you will be able to help someone else. When you are sick there will be someone there to visit you and bring a nice pot of chicken and dumplings—when you are well, there will be someone to take a meal to. That’s the church at its best.

I really feel bad for people who don’t have a church family to share the joys and sorrows of life with.  It’s sad when a couple is searching for a building to get married in because they have no church family, or even worse, when they are buried and there is nobody to mourn with and minister to the family.  Sure, church families can be a pain at times, just like biological families, but for the most part they are literally the body of Christ, sharing in the compassion that they have received from God.

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The Great Easter only got better after the Sunrise Service.  Everyone was in a great mood and there was wonderful fellowship and laughter during the breakfast and hour before the service.  Churches go through cycles: sometimes there is strife and the tension in the air is palpable.  Other times there is such a sweet, sweet feeling of love and joy that you can’t help but feel good just to be there.  It’s a shame it can’t be all good all the time, but we are humans and I’m reminded that even the NT churches had their strife and trouble.  But for this year, this week, this day, all was great.

The service just hit in all the right ways.  A man whose wife had been very sick got up and thanked the church for all their love and care during her recovery.  He said that we should be proud of our congregation.  Indeed.  Then a lady who was baptized last week had me tell everyone that she knows that she finally made the right choice to make Jesus her Lord.  Indeed.

The music was perfect.  “The Old Rugged Cross”, “How Deep the Father’s Love”, “He arose” and two specials, “This is my body” and “My Redeemer Lives”.  I could have gotten up for the sermon and dismissed everyone and it would have been great (and people might have been happier in the end!).

But even the sermon went well.  This week proved my theory that when I think a sermon stinks it normally comes out as better than normal.  I guess when think it’s bad we rely on the Spirit more and He shines more than we do.  When I think it’s a wonderful sermon it falls short.  This week I didn’t feel good about it, and no amount of tinkering could get it good.  Even when it was done I didn’t feel that great.  But person after person thanked me for the great sermon– so they are either kind or the Spirit took the ball and ran with it.

The numbers were great too: we were up by half as much, or to put it another way, we had 150% of average.  That gives us a good goal to reach on a consistent basis for next year.  And most of the folks were not C&E worshipers or out-of-town guests, but regulars who have slackened up.  There is great hope that we will see these guys more in the months to come.  Let’s hope so.

Even the horse pastures were lively: the foals are out there running and playing under the stern eyes of their mothers, prancing around on stick-like legs.  I love to look out the office window and see them just plain ol’ having fun.  The lilies and daffodils are coming out and the trees are getting their buds.  It’s a great time of the year.  Each day gets a little warmer, it will soon be disc golf weather every day of the week.

Praise God for times when all is well.

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I was talking with a couple of my buds about the current obsession in some circles of evangelicalism with “outing” church things as pagan.  You know, the new Barna book which claims that sermons, pulpits, buildings, etc. are all pagan in origin.  To me this smacks of a backlash.  For the longest time the conservative elements of the church have slammed the more liberal elements for doing away with traditional things or for adding new things to the worship service.  In response, the more radical churches are insisting that some of the traditional things, like pulpits, are not so kosher either.

All this seems silly to me.  In fact, it reminds me a bit of the history of my own church movement.  About 100 years ago a group of Restoration Churches decided that they didn’t want organs in the church.  They were too worldly and too costly.  Organs were associated with rich city churches and saloons.  They made a decision to not have organs in their churches, or any other kind of instrumental music.  No problem.  But, to justify that decision they needed a biblical imperative and thus constructed a hermeneutic that argued from the silence of the NT concerning instruments.  Now they were not just saying that they preferred to not have organs but that others were sinning for having them.

Fast forward 100 years.  Some churches don’t want guitars, drums, basses, or anything else that smacks of a typical 5 person rock band.  They think the rock band format is too worldly, too loud, or not worshipful enough for their ears and accustomed style.  No problem, that’s a choice that each congregation is free to make.  The problem comes when they try to use the bible and flimsy arguments to insist that the rock style is not just something they don’t like but something that is unbiblical.

Now we see the backlash.  So Barna likes a house church with discussion instead of a sermon.  That’s fine, but don’t try to argue that meeting in a building with pews and a pulpit and a sermon is unbiblical.

If we are really trying to be a good New Testament church we should look back to what God wants in our religion.  God made it clear in the Old Testament that while he cared about decorum in worship, proper rituals and sacrifices, and proper Temple personnel he was more worried about the state of our heart.

Hos 6:6
6 For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.
NIV

Amos 5:21-24
21 “I hate, I despise your religious feasts;
I cannot stand your assemblies.
22 Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
23 Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
24 But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!
NIV

Without neglecting propriety in worship, God desired our hearts.  The same is true in the new covenant.  There are some things that we need to follow in our worship out of obedience: regular communion, biblical baptism, prayer, fellowship, compassion, the “apostles’ teaching”.  But we are getting way too focused on the unimportant things: buildings, music styles, sermon styles, etc.

A New Testament church is not defined by these things.  Instead it is defined by people seeking to be Christ in this world, worshiping in spirit and in truth.  God cares more about our hearts and our obedience than he does whether we preach behind a pulpit or from a beanbag.

James 1:27
27 Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
NIV

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Am I missing something?

This post dovetails with my previous post, but is different enough to have its own spot.

I’m from a very non-liturgical tradition.  Don’t really care for empty tradition or worship that just goes through the motions.  I’m not impressed with robes, candles, pomp and circumstance, incense and monotone congregational readings.

I’m from a tradition that takes the worship to the people.  Simple, heartfelt songs, informal services, conversational sermons, very little ritual or tradition.

Yet, I feel like I am missing something, especially as our worship has become more focused on the non-Christian and the “seeker”.  I am able to go to some of the most “successful” evangelical churches in our country which put on worship services which rival a Broadway show (or at least an off-Broadway show).  The music is my genre, the message accessible, the seating comfortable and the seats full of people.

But I leave the service feeling like I’ve been to a motivational seminar, a really good (and free) Christian concert, or a political rally for our favorite candidate: not like I’ve been in the presence of God with the community of believers.

I’m really longing for worship that is worthy of an Awesome, Holy, Reverent God who is to be loved and feared, you know, the one spoken about in the bible.  I don’t want a life-coach, I want a God who is bigger than me.  Yet, I don’t want just an empty worship with all the right words but none of the adoration.

What am I missing and how can we have reverent worship without becoming wooden and ritualistic?  Anyone else out there feeling this way?

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You might think of this as a follow-up to my “Jealousy Card” post. It seems that whenever someone points out the error of a well-known preacher or church– either in doctrine or practice– someone is quick to jump up and accuse the criticizer of jealousy. That’s such a lame charge to make and does nothing to advance the discussion; if you can’t defend the person on the merits of their doctrine or practice then playing the “jealousy card” is just a cop-out.

That being said, the next question is, “Is there any point to pointing out when preachers or churches are using bad doctrines or methods”? In the case of really well-known ministries it’s not too hard to find information (especially if they are all over the secular media), and it only stands to reason that it is the bigger, more public ministries that are going to be in the limelight and subject to more criticism and scrutiny. We are seeing a lot of growth here at the little church that I minister at. Percent-wise it’s a huge increase (in a day when many small churches are declining rapidly), but a 20% increase in a church of 100 is only 20 people. Let’s just say that Larry King is not going to be calling me the next time I put out a newsletter and 60 Minutes has not shown up with their cameras. The bigger you are, the more scrutiny and criticism you are going to face. But there seem to be some online ministries that do little more than to troll the web and press releases to find churches that are doing things that are wrong. Are they wrong to point out things that are, in their opinion, bad teaching or bad practice? After all, we might say that it is not anyone’s business what another preacher or ministry is doing and that we should just focus on our ministry-field and leave everyone else alone.

Yet, within reason, I think there is validity in pointing out when someone is teaching something that is wrong or is doing things that are unbiblical. Yes, we should be careful to make sure that our criticism is loving and is not motivated by things like jealousy or unwarranted suspicion (though I really think that jealousy is rarely the motivation for criticism in ministry… at least not to the extent that people make it out to be). Here are some of the reasons:

  • It is biblical. Biblical to criticize? You bet it is. The main thrust of the Old Testament prophets was in pointing out false teaching and false practices. And they were primarily criticizing their fellow Israelites, not the pagans. It was syncretism– the mixing of true religion with false religion– that caused the downfall and exile of Israel. It was false teaching that led the people away from God, it was false practices that God detested. Is there an equivalent to teaching people to worship idols so that people could have bigger crops in the OT and teaching people to worship the “Almighty Dollar” in modern times? I think so. Is there an equivalent to teaching people to commit sexual sins by worshiping fertility idols in the OT and using sex to get people into church in modern times? Could be. The prophets railed against the false teaching and false practices of false prophets on their time.
  • That’s Old Testament, what about the New Testament? Most of the New Testament is an indictment against false teaching and false practices. Jesus spoke strongly against the Pharisees who were teaching false things about God and imposing false practices in their worship. Was Jesus just “jealous” of the large Temple with all its gold and the Priests and Teachers of the Law who were doing so well? I think NOT. Yet much of his ministry was spent speaking against their false teaching and practices. The epistles abound with condemnation against false teaching and false practices… in some cases the false teachers were even singled out by name. Were Peter and Paul and John just jealous of these false teachers who were so good at getting rich off their false gospel and ability to con “weak-willed women”? I think NOT. I would much rather see a pagan fill a building with thousands of “converts” than someone who claimed to be a Christian yet was preaching and teaching something false… at least their followers would not be false converts to the saving Gospel. All throughout the bible we read condemnation and criticism against false teachers and their false practices.
  • Next, we have a right, indeed an obligation, to point out when prominent ministries and ministers are misrepresenting the Gospel. Like it or not, the secular world is going to make judgments about the body of Christ based on prominent ministers. That’s why a scandal involving a well-known preacher is so devastating. If I were to preach a false gospel or have a moral failing here in my small church in my small town there will be little impact on the culture outside this region. A former youth minister here in Northern Kentucky was just arrested for taking sexual liberties with a 14 year old girl… did you hear about it in California or South Africa? I doubt it, he was from a small church in a small town. But when Ted Haggard slipped up it made national and world news. The guys who are broadcast around the world, who represent the church at large (willingly or not) in the news, on Larry King, on 60 Minutes, on the bookshelves, and in the cultural consciousness have an obligation to represent the Gospel and the practice of the church accurately and if they don’t we have an obligation to point out that what they are teaching is not biblical. Let’s face it, there are some names that are household names even in non-Christian homes and people will think that what they say must be true simply because they have so much media attention. If I preach falsely I affect less than 200 people. If a mega-minister preaches falsely he (or she) is affecting millions of people (and probably the 200 people that I minister directly to).
  • We are called to test the spirits and discern if someone is preaching another Gospel than the one that we have learned, which is no gospel at all. In our post-modern day and age it is tempting to shrug our shoulders and say that whatever people want to believe is their business. But we don’t have that luxury as Christians. I appreciate those who spend time discerning false teachers because inevitably I will have people asking me if the latest fad in Christianity is legitimate or not. I can’t just encourage them to believe whatever makes them happy. It’s either the Gospel or it is no gospel at all.
  • We need to be warned of things that we might be tempted to imitate in our local churches. Let’s face it, many smaller churches follow the lead of the more prominent churches. How many of us imitated the Prayer of Jabez, 40 Days of Purpose, 40 Days of Community, the Sex Sermon series, Servant Evangelism, the Seeker-Driven model, etc. How many of us use pre-packaged sermons or do a sermon series on a best-selling book? How many of us are wearing Hawaiian shirts in the pulpit? (And no, I’m not saying that any of these things are good or bad, just using the example of imitated things). There is nothing new under the sun, there is no need to reinvent the wheel, and a bunch of other cliches. With so much cross-pollination of ideas it is a good thing to have people pointing out the things that ought NOT to be imitated. There have been many things that I have seen that seem innocuous until I’ve read more about them from the discernment guys. And since any good minister is going to be looking for ways to preach the Gospel to as many people as possible, it is tempting to imitate the practices of other ministries that are packing the house… not out of jealousy, but out of a desire to grow the Kingdom of God. So, it’s a good thing when someone points out that a teaching or a practice has harmful “side effects”… it makes us stop and consider if we want to do whatever it takes to fill a building or whatever is pleasing and honoring to God. We appreciate it when the government warns us of tainted meat, shouldn’t we appreciate it when people warn us of tainted doctrine? At least in the church you have the right to do a “voluntary recall” if you want.
  • Finally, there is one church. Yes, what some guy does in a church in another state has very little direct affect on my little corner of the world (unless they are publishing books and broadcasting their message into my home). Yet, we are all in this together and on the same team. I am not being loving if I just look the other way when there is false teaching or false practice, especially since my silence will be a tacit approval to the world to the false teaching. It’s a shame when the hardest criticism I’ve heard against prosperity theology came from Larry King and not from our so-called “evangelical leaders”. We know that there is going to be wheat and tares in the church, and while it is not our job to weed out the tares, it is our job to look for false teachers and to expose them. We who are leaders in the local church are called to be shepherds and that means we sound the alarm when there are wolves in the flock. The world really is flat today and whereas the actions of a minister in another part of the country might not have affected my little church 100 years ago, in this day of mass-publishing, internet, and world-wide media broadcasting, it does. What is taught in a church in North Dakota does affect a church in Maine… especially if that church in North Dakota is being broadcast around the world.

So, yes, there is a place in the church for careful discernment. Sure, we have to be careful that our motives are right (and that involves a lot of soul-searching), that our words are loving, and that our criticism is biblically-based. In the long run we will not be able to stop false preaching and false practices, but at least we can follow the lead of the Prophets and Apostles in pointing out false doctrine.

I’m not a discernment ministry blogger or minister. I don’t go out of my way to root out false teachings or false practices… I just don’t have that kind of time. I don’t make it a point to focus in on the questionable practices or teaching of some of the better known ministries out there, though I might preach against their false doctrine or practices. I point out in my little blog here when I read something that I find personally distasteful, but that’s just me spouting my opinion (which is what the blog-world is predicated on, and is no different than me pointing out a book, movie or sports team I don’t care for). I know that there is a danger that our criticism could be seen by the unbelieving world as infighting (though, if we are pointing out FALSE teacher it is not really IN-fighting). Yet, for all those caveats, I really appreciate the discernment ministry guys for pointing out when the emperor has no clothes, or when the false prophet is in our midst. I don’t always agree with them and often roll my eyes when I think they are making much ado about nothing, but more often than not they are pointing out things that deserve to be pointed out.

We do have to be very careful that our criticism does not become sin, but there is a point in pointing out error.

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Scrooged

I’m very bummed right now.  Anyone who has ever ministered in a small church has been through this, I’m sure.  Just got a call from a woman who was looking for help to buy some medicine.  She tells me a very long and sad story about how she has a terrible rash and needs some help to buy steroids.  The rash is so painful it keeps her awake.  Right away she tells me that the benevolence association in our town will not help her, with a long story about how they can’t help with medicine right now.  She insists that she hates to ask for help, but doesn’t know what else to do.

I tell her to find out how much the medicine is.  Meanwhile I call the director of the local benevolence association which is where we normally refer people.  Turns out the woman is a well-known scam artist.  She has used up her aid limit at the benevolence association and the Salvation Army.  She regularly makes her rounds of the churches looking for help, and she usually has very flimsy stories.  Just what I thought.

So, the lady calls back, says she needs 60 bucks.  I tell her that unless she is a member of our church we can only refer her to the benevolence association.  This is really a good policy, since it refers everyone to a central place and cuts down on the scam artists.  With a sob to her voice she said, “Thanks and goodbye” very sadly.

Now I’m bummed.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m sure that she is a scam artist.  Giving her money is not a good option for a number of reasons.  First, we are a very small church with limited resources; we can’t be bad stewards with the little we have.  Second, helping the scam artists takes away resources for the truly needy.  Third, circumventing the aid associations, which are supported by the churches is not a good idea… it defeats the purpose of having them.  Finally, if she were involved in a church the church would take care of her (I’ve seen churches go to herculean lengths to help a member… it’s not elitism, just the fact that your truly know that the need is legit).

Still, I’m bummed.  What if she really needed help?  What if she is lying there in pain now?  What if she is cursing the church, and Jesus, because we didn’t help?  Perhaps I should have just given it to her out of my pocket (though, as my wife pointed out, we should have asked her for help in paying for the health insurance that we can’t afford).  I know these thoughts are silly and that my soft heart is just being toyed with, but still, I wonder.

I wonder what the huge churches with the multi-million dollar budgets do when they get a call like this… perhaps they have the funds and just give it to people without even checking out their story and then my conscience would be soothed.  Perhaps a call like that doesn’t even get past the secretary.

I just don’t know, and I feel this way every time I turn someone down.  I need a secretary!

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I read this great quote on another blog today: “There is nothing more counter-culture than actually living the Word of God.”

That quote hit me like a ton of bricks and really made me think a lot about why I get uneasy with some of the attempts to be “relevant” to our culture.  You know what I’m talking about: the churches that are trying so hard to be like our culture in order to attract folks.  Things like not reading from the bible, avoiding discussion of things like sin and holiness, using sexy advertising to lure people in, downplaying doctrine, avoiding anything that looks like “church”, etc.  (Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with using modern innovations or contemporary vernacular, but that is a topic for another post).

Taking the Gospel to our culture if fine and dandy, and what we are called to do.  But trying to make the church look like the world is wrong and counter-productive.  Truth be told, the more we are like Christ and really live like the church, the more counter-cultural we are going to be.

After all, in our consumerist society our call to rely on God and to eschew materialism is not going to go over well.

In our lust-driven society a call to purity is not going to go over well.

In our humanistic society a call to humility before God is not going to go over well.

In our relativistic society a call to exclusively worship God is not going to go over well.

In our “anything goes” society, a call to holiness is not going to go over well.

So why do we think we will win our culture over by being more like the culture, especially when we are calling them to a life that is very different from what they are living now?  Isn’t that bait and switch?

I heard a preacher defending the “Red Hot Sex” preaching series say that if he had advertised a sermon series on “Holiness” he would not get anybody, but a sermon title that appeals to prurient interests would fill the church.  Well, that’s probably true, but isn’t that deceptive?  After all, I would hope that in the end we are leading people to holiness.

We definitely need to reach our culture, but perhaps we should stop and think about the fact that in the end our culture will always find Christian living to be counter-cultural.  Jesus warned us (promised us?) that the world would hate us just like it did him.

No, we shouldn’t try to look like the church of the 1950’s.  But we shouldn’t try to mimic our culture either.

How about if we just tried to look like Christ?

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