The Homogeneous Church

I like people like me. Well, maybe “like” isn’t quite the right word. What I mean is, I’m comfortable with people like me. It’s understandable, I suppose. I have much in common with those who are like me. We have no problem finding things to talk about. We’ve had common experiences and share a common background. We may even share the same friends and acquaintances. We speak in the same way, and in many respects, we think in the same way. All of these commonalities work together to make me comfortable with people who are like me. There’s nothing right or wrong with that. It’s just the way I am. I think it’s the way we are.

Unfortunately, “the way we are” can sometimes cause us to act in ways which are, indeed, matters of right and wrong. When our natural sense of comfort with the familiar morphs into bigotry and hatred for those who are not like us, our comfort has become sin. When we allow our comfort to cage us in when we should be reaching out, we are stunted in our growth and unable to be and do that which Christ has commanded.

This is particularly pertinent in relation to the church. Much contemporary ministry philosophy is based upon this reality that people are more comfortable with those who are much like themselves.

This has resulted in at least two significant problems, both having to do with the gospel.

First, there’s the problem of proclamation. For the last thirty or forty years, the church has been chasing its own tail as it seeks to catch up to the culture and be “relevant”. The quote attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, “I must follow my people, for I am their leader”, is never more apt than when applied to the behavior of the church in its pursuit of the culture.

The idea seems to be that if we can be more like the culture, or like a specific subset of the culture, then they will be comfortable with us. If they are comfortable with us, then we’ll be able to convince them that not only are we just like them, but Jesus is just like them, too. And if they think Jesus is just like them, they might want to follow Him. Why they would want to follow someone who is just like them, however, remains a mystery.

As is usually the case, there is a kernel of truth in this. Jesus became like us in his incarnation, and that is a glorious and necessary truth, but what makes the gospel unique is the way in which He is not like us. I don’t need someone who is just like me. I’m sinful. I need someone holy. I’m human. I need someone divine. I cannot stand under the wrath of God. I need someone who has stood there in my place. I cannot raise myself from death to life. I need someone who can raise me up because He Himself has been raised.

The commonalities are important. But it is the differences that give us hope.

Another problem has to do with ecclesiology. From the very beginning, the guru’s of the Church Growth Movement have contended that to grow a church we need to focus upon a specific demographic, and seek to make our churches reflective of that particular group. The idea is that people will be more receptive to the gospel when it is presented to them in their own environment…within their own comfort zone. This has affected the way in which we “do church”. Church must be made to be a comfortable place and people are most comfortable around their own kind.

The result has been a church planting strategy which is focused upon specific groups…Baby-boomer churches, Baby-buster churches, Gen-X churches, and on and on and on. Depending upon your definition of church growth “success”, you will have little problem finding examples of it.

Some would ask, “Isn’t that a good thing?” And I would answer, “No. It is not.”

To ask the question, “Isn’t that a good thing?” is altogether different from asking, “Has God ever used these churches to draw people into His kingdom?” If one were to ask the latter, the answer would be an unequivocal, “Yes. I have no doubt that He has.” But that is not evidence of correct, and by “correct” I mean “biblical”, church planting or church growth strategy. It is evidence of the extreme graciousness of God in accomplishing His purposes even in the face of our foolishness. Moses was not only foolish, but positively disobedient, when he struck the rock. In spite of this, God graciously provided water for His people.

There is no doubt that individuals have come to know Christ through these ministries. Nonetheless, it must be said that this kind of ministry philosophy is not a good thing. More than that, it is a wrong thing in that it runs precisely counter to the biblical ideal of what the church is to be, and also counter to the biblical example of what the church is to accomplish before a watching world.

As one reads the New Testament, one is struck by the fact that whenever a problem of cultural or racial division arose within the church, the solution to the problem was not separation. The solution was to foster ever increasing union around the gospel and its implications.

The church of Christ is to be a witness to the power of the gospel to change lives and minds and hearts, as Peter’s was changed when he saw the sheet descend from heaven. The church is to be a witness to the power of the gospel to break down walls of division between races and ages and cultures. The church is to be an earthly representative, imperfect though it is, of the heavenly glory, in which men from every tongue and tribe and nation are gathered together, worshipping the One who sits on the throne, and the Lamb.

That is what the church is to be. But when we say that we are a church for this group or for that group, and that these group labels form the identity of our church, we are defeating one of the very purposes for which God has established His church.

I shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose. After all, if I’m honest about it, I know that the pragmatists among us are…well…my kind of people. The day will come, and quickly, I pray, when we will all be His kind of people.

The Recreational Church

(Published in Touchstone Magazine, May 2006)  

Though not an extreme environmentalist, I do sometimes find myself contemplating the number of trees that are destroyed in order to fill my mailbox with so much unsolicited paper. Every now and then, however, something is found in the pile of flyers, solicitations and credit card offers that causes me to take a second look.

Not long ago, I found another of those ministry magazines that every pastor periodically finds among his stacks of mail. It’s slick and it’s glossy and it’s received by (not “subscribed to by”) over 150,000 pastors and church leaders! I know this, because it says so on the cover, complete with exclamation point.

Pastor Biker
Like all the other magazines of this type I’ve received over the years, this one promises me the key that I need to turn my dull, traditional, irrelevant church into a dynamic, explosive, cutting edge community consisting of, as evidenced by the pictures, beautiful young people from Southern California. There’s nothing wrong with beautiful young people from Southern California . I’m sure that many of them are quite nice. There simply aren’t that many of them here in New York .

The magazine also holds out the promise that one day, I too might be able to ride a bright, shiny Harley Davidson, just like the pastor on the cover. I never knew that so many pastors rode motorcycles until I started getting these magazines. I had a motorcycle once, but it wasn’t a Harley. I crashed it. I’ll never be on a magazine cover now.

Granted, they don’t come out and say that my church is dull, traditional, and irrelevant. That seems to be the message, though. “I didn’t want to build a church building,” says the pastor/biker. “I knew that’s not the future. I believe that people’s lives are so hard nowadays that when they come to church, it should be recreational.”

“Recreational.” That’s a term that would never come to mind when describing my church. We don’t have X-Box’s in the foyer for the kids to play. Neither do we have a Krispy Kreme franchise in the courtyard or a theatre in the basement. “Recreational”? No. That wouldn’t describe us.

God’s Work
I get the impression that I should feel bad about that. But I don’t. Maybe I’ve missed something along the way, but when did providing people with recreation become the purpose of the church? When did Christ change His call from “Take up your cross and follow me” to “Come to this place that we don’t really want to call a church, and recreate”? When did the nature of the Lord’s Day change from being a time when the people of God gather together for God-centered worship and the preaching of His word to something that is, as this church’s worship leader describes it, “an event that even the most anti-religious person can come [to] and feel comfortable”?

“Feel comfortable”. How is an unbeliever to feel comfortable sitting there in the midst of a peculiar people who are offering worship to a holy God with whom, according to the Scripture, he is at enmity? How is an “anti-religious” person to feel comfortable in a place where the gospel being proclaimed is to him foolishness and a stumbling block?

Of course, as Paul writes these things in 1 Corinthians, he does put forth a third option. To the unbeliever, the gospel will be foolishness, or a stumbling block, or the power of God unto salvation. But for Paul, whether unbelievers heard the gospel as foolishness, or a stumbling block, or the power of God, had nothing to do with whether or not they were comfortable. It had nothing to do with their felt needs, either. The result of the gospel, Paul believed, was dependent upon the work of God in an individual’s life.

It had to be this way, Paul says, so that issues would not get confused. Has someone professed Christ as the result of the genuine work of God? Or are they here among the people of God because of the recreation? That was a real concern for Paul. And his method of addressing that concern was to make sure that nothing stood in competition with the proclamation of the word of God.

I’m not so sure that Paul would be very enthused about a “recreational” church. Apparently, he didn’t think it was necessary. He says,

I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.

Paul’s Answer
Like I said, maybe I’ve missed something. But it seems to me that the contemporary evangelical church has succumbed to what C. S. Lewis referred to as “chronological snobbery”. Yes, things have changed, in ways too numerous to count. But people haven’t. Human beings are the same as they have ever been. They are fallen. They are lost. They are blind. They are unable to understand spiritual things. They can do nothing that is good. They do not seek God. They are, in fact, at enmity with Him.

These are truths the Scripture clearly sets forth. The Scripture also sets forth the solution to this human condition. So why are we looking elsewhere? Paul said that the solution is found only in preaching Christ crucified. Why do we think the solution lies in making church recreational?

Some would answer, “We need to do these things in order to convince the unbeliever of the good news of the gospel.” And therein lies the problem. We do not and cannot convince anyone of the truth of the gospel. That is a spiritual work accomplished by the Spirit of God. “But,” the reply comes, “If we simply preach, then many will turn away. They won’t want to hear it.” Precisely. They will turn away if God is not working within them. And that’s ok.

As the sixth chapter of John’s gospel begins, Jesus has developed what the magazine would consider a very successful ministry. He was healing, and feeding people, and as a result, huge crowds followed Him everywhere He went. Then he made what many today would consider a great strategic blunder. He began to preach. He preached about His own primacy. He preached about His own sovereignty, even in the realm of salvation. He preached about eating His body and drinking His blood. He preached about His resurrection. And the crowds departed.

In Luke 16 we read of Lazarus resting in the bosom of Abraham while his former master suffers in the flames. His master requests of Abraham that Lazarus be sent back to warn his brothers of the terrible place to which they are heading. Surely, the spectacle of someone raised from the dead will convince them. Abraham, however, knows better. “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.”

Two chapters later, in Luke 18, we are told of the rich, young ruler who comes to Jesus, asking that question we all love to be asked, “How can I inherit eternal life?” How does Jesus answer? He doesn’t bother with felt needs. He doesn’t try to make the gospel palatable. Knowing that the young man’s heart was wed to his wealth, Jesus aims for the tender spot. The man turns away in despair, unable to trade the temporal for the eternal. And Jesus lets him go.

Tickled Ears
As Timothy labors in his ministry to the Ephesian church, he is exhorted to do one thing, primarily: Preach the word. Paul commands Timothy to preach doctrine, and to preach in a way that does not tickle the ears of his hearers. In other words, he is to preach in such a way that many will turn away.

That takes more than 15 minutes worth of amusing, emotion-laden stories. Is there really a difference between preaching to felt needs and tickling the ears of those who will not tolerate sound doctrine? If God is who He says He is – holy, glorious, majestic – how dare we call something, focused upon the needs, desires, and enjoyments of man, and call it worship?

How can one with a biblical view of worship say what this worship leader, quoted in that magazine said? “We take a day that traditionally has been a very holy, sacred day and turn it into an event that even the most anti-religious person can come down [sic] and feel comfortable.”

No thanks. I don’t want a Harley that much.

Dear Shepherd

Dear Shepherd,

I am one of your sheep. Being a sheep, I possess certain “sheeply” characteristics, as well as certain needs common to sheep. For instance, I can’t do much in the way of defending myself. I’m not completely helpless, but there is a reason why the specific task of guarding the sheep has been given to you. I need you. I don’t have the time or the expertise to keep up on all of schemes that the wolves are constantly coming up with in order to destroy me. I need you to do that. I need you to protect me. I need you to be in your study. I need you to read. I need you to be aware of the dangers. The wolves are here. Sometimes they get right in among the flock. I need you to do your job.

I’m a sheep. That means I need to be watched over so that I do not stray from the rest of the flock. That’s when I can really get into trouble. I am prone to wander. I move along, living my life, and before I know it I’ve been separated from the rest of the sheep. I find myself out there on my own, and that’s no place for a sheep to be. Will you keep watch over me? When you see me begin to wander, will you come after me, and lead me back to the safety of the flock?

I’m a sheep. Being a sheep, I need to eat. That is, I need to be led to the food. You need to do that for me. As the Great Shepherd said, “If you love Me, feed my sheep.” You serve Him by serving me. But you’ve got to serve Him in the way He has instructed. Shepherds don’t serve the sheep by acquiescing to their every whim and desire. Shepherds serve the sheep by doing what shepherds are supposed to do. Shepherds serve the sheep by guarding, by leading and by feeding. Frankly, if left to myself I’ll eat anything I can find. I may come across good grass now and then, but I’m more likely to come across that which will not nourish me, or perhaps will even do me harm. I don’t know the difference between good grass and poison. That’s why I need a shepherd to lead me to food that will strengthen me and not kill me.

I’m a sheep. Being a sheep, in addition to those things I need, there are some things that I don’t need. I don’t need to be entertained. I certainly don’t need to be entertained by my shepherd. When you try to entertain me, you’re not doing what the Great Shepherd has told you to do. And if I can be blunt, shepherds aren’t very good entertainers, anyway. When you try to be an entertainer you usually just look silly. Neither do I need you to “spice up” my diet. What the Great Shepherd provides for my nourishment is all I want and all I need.

Your sheep don’t need you to be spending all your time focusing on ways to bring more sheep into the flock, either. If you are faithful to being the kind of under-shepherd that the Great Shepherd has called you to be, He’ll take care of growing the flock if that’s what He wants to do. But frankly, some of these sheep you’ve been pulling in are a little peculiar looking. Some of them look less like sheep and more like…wolves.

I beg you. Be a shepherd to me. I don’t need a celebrity and I don’t need a CEO. I just need a shepherd. Can you be content with that? From what I can see, the Great Shepherd considers the work of a shepherd to be a very high calling, indeed. How do you see it?

On behalf of the flock,

a sheep

Donald Trump: National Theologian

I don’t know how I missed this.  A little over a week ago, on Saturday, July 18, The Donald and his hair appeared at something called the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Iowa, where he participated in a Q&A session in which he was asked about his Christian faith, so-called.

His comments were quite the revelation.

On Church:

“People are so shocked when they find … out I am Protestant. I am Presbyterian. And I go to church and I love God and I love my church,” he said.

No one will be surprised to find that the churches this “staunch conservative” has attended all his life have been those associated with the PCUSA and the RCA (Robert Schuller’s denomination), both exemplars of mainline liberalism.

On Forgiveness:

“I am not sure I have (asked God for forgiveness). I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don’t think so,” he said. “I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don’t bring God into that picture. I don’t.”

Forgiveness?  Why would I need forgiveness?  I’M DONALD TRUMP!  I DON’T NEED NO STINKIN’ FORGIVENESS!

On Communion:

“When I drink my little wine — which is about the only wine I drink — and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed,” he said. “I think in terms of ‘let’s go on and let’s make it right.’”

Gotta love the little cracker.  Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Donald Trump and his hair:  National Theologian.