"It seems to me that there is too often an assumption that every new 'flavor of the month', every new campaign, half thought out idea or newest phase of the 'building fund' is more important than the people themselves, especially in larger churches".
wrote it an an article around two years ago; I meant it! And I
still mean it! The message of the article was: 'We surely need to
find a new way, or new ways, of 'doing church''.
I am not the first to be aware of the problem: We Christians want to mix with each other and to associate with each other, moreover the writer of the book of Hebrews points out that we should not give up the practise of the '...assembling of ourselves together' (Hebrews 10:25); this speaks of our real need for fellowship and for worship within a group of fellow believers, to say nothing of our need to '... grow in grace and (the) knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.' (2 Peter 3:18).
And yet, all too often for some extraordinary reason, the moment we do associate together for any period of time we seem to fall into errors, controversies, cliques, clashes of personality and - all too often - our genuine Christianity seems to be an early casualty!
The situation has become so bad for a few who have experienced so much strife, backbiting and animosity within "Christian congregations" that they now refuse to attend any place of organised instituitionalized worship at all, and merely meet as Christians within their own home, perhaps no more than 4 or 5 people, perhaps just one family.
I cannot say that these people do wrong, in fact, its the pattern that my wife and I followed for several years. Our home was where we worshipped God, we had a popular Sunday School, we occasionally held communion, and held a weekly Bible Study - all in our own home, all completely independent. Of course, we invited others to our worship; sometimes they came, often they did not, but it was our place of worship and we were supremely confident that we were at least following the New Testament example of worship within homes, in small groups, presided over by an Elder.
Yet it is staggering how many Christians inferred that we were doing wrong; they suggested that we were too insular - yet we were not in any way inward-looking. We were also involved in many outside Christian activities; in fact, I often went out to preach elsewhere.
I was also heavily criticized once or twice for not being the "member" of any particular local church. My response would always be the same:
If a Christian has committed his or her life to Jesus Christ, with a resultant desire to make Bible study and prayer the most important thing in his or her life, now seeing this world's ungodly societies as sinful and odious, and if such a person remains steadfastly on this course even years later, this is a sure sign that the grace of God has come to that person; such a person is a member of the eternal Body of Christ whose names are written in heaven. (Hebrews 12: 22-24). The New Testament never gives us any example or precedent of the need to also become 'member' of any specific local congregation!
I also had no problem with my own qualifications in considering myself an Elder. The early Elders were simply the husbands within a home which had accepted Christianity. If they took their Christianity truly seriously, were well-grounded in the faith and ruled their homes well, they were deemed to be Christian Elders! No college degree necessary!! (It so happened that I also hold an honors theology degree, but - quite obviously - that was not required in the first Elders).
So what are some of the problems which we - and others - have noted within too many congregations? Lets look at a few:
1. The Prevalence of the Assumed Authority of Tradition and the Refusal to Challenge this even in the Face of Very Clear Scriptures!
I happen to believe that there are more than a few Christians out there who are not attending anywhere because they have been so disappointed by this.
This tradition might be denominational, or peculiar to a particular congregation.
Sometimes we see ritualism as being the domain of Catholic, Orthodox or Episcopalian (Anglican) churches, yet fail to see that an over-reliance on tradition has also brought ritualistic legalism even into independent evangelical churches.
I was once preaching in a place when, just before the service, I heard a lady roundly criticized to her face by one of the 'leaders' because she had arranged flowers of...wait for it!.....the wrong color!! So this guy decided to make some ridiculous point (Scripture reference??) and this unfortunate little lady could have been offended (if memory serves correct, she wasn't).
For a period of time I also attended a small chapel where the same 'Introit' (sung introduction to a service) had to be always used, the same offering song had to be sung, the Lord's Prayer had to be said. I struggled for some time to get the elderly pastor to see that these things had become rituals (alas, without success). By the way, this was independent baptist. And yet, the very same New Testament chapter which gives us the example prayer of the Lord's Prayer, warns about the vain repetition of prayers! I find that even many new Christians are very aware of this and are shocked when they start to attend churches which have lamentably turned the Lord's Prayer into an endlessly repeated ritual:
'But when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them...' (Matthew 6:7-8)
2. An over-emphasis on money.
No, I am not referring here to prosperity gospel churches; they have forfeited the right to even be considered 'Christian churches' since they no longer preach the biblical gospel, I am speaking of far far too many evangelical and more traditional places of worship too.
For a period of time we attended the largest church in a city, hundreds of people. With the offering basket going round twice on the Lord's Day, there seems little doubt that an average Sunday offering would have probably exceeded £1,000. Yet after attending there only a very few times, the congregation were invited by the minister to consider buying the chairs they sat upon as a contribution to the church! Oh, all the teaching was good conservative evangelical stuff, loosely reformed, but 'open', but money just somehow seemed to get mentioned a little too often. There was once an evening lecture held on the Book of Daniel, we were all told, 'Just come along, pay your £5, and enjoy the lecture'. This was surely the wealthiest church in the city - why charge to hear a lecture on the Book of Daniel? There were other problems too in this place of worship: they pursued a growth policy which heavily targeted young people but tended to make older people within the congregation feel completely superfluous.
Then we attended a small place which sent the offering basket around twice on a Sunday even though the evening congregation was always exactly the same as the morning one! Worse still we attended one Good Friday double service in the same place and were horrified that the basket went around twice on this sacred day on which offerings are not normally taken up at all.
Some churches seem to be forever using 'notices' or 'announcements' time in order to encourage attenders/members to pull together or to tighten their financial belts in order to have the hall/chapel redecorated or re-carpeted, or to contribute to the latest "building fund" (why is there almost always some "building fund" going on and how much of this is directly concerned with preaching the gospel?), or in order to save really hard for the annual convention - yet there may be folk attending who are going through a real financial maelstrom, yet these people may be offered no help. There is something wrong here; without doubt the first Christians saw it as a denial of their walk with Jesus Christ if they did not assist the needy in their ranks. (Read Acts 2:44-45 and Acts 4:32-35).
It seems to me that there is too often an assumption that every new 'flavor of the month', every new campaign, half thought out idea or newest phase of the 'building fund' is more important than the people themselves, especially in larger churches.
I think that we Christians need to put a stronger marker between our financial behaviour and the financial behaviour of our modern western society which seems to have come to almost worship money, success and financial affluence! To be frank, the offering basket is not a good message to be giving to new attenders; we tell these people that, unlike the world, we are interested in souls - not money - then...........we send around the offering basket!
But I am thrilled to be able to report that we recently attended quite a small place of worship which did not send an offering basket around at all! Apparently the members handle their financial contributions away from the place of worship, so that Sunday is a day purely for spiritual matters and no possible offence/discomfort is given to new attenders. How I applaud this!!
I have spoken to many mature Christians who have admitted to me that even after many years of regular church attendance the offering basket still gives them embarassment. How I agree! I would like to see all churches doing away with the practise!
3. 'Control Freak' tendencies!
No church pastor/leader should ever seek control over the lives of attenders. In fact, this is very much a cult tendency. Members should be allowed to live their own lives and have their own personalities/preferences. The extremist WCG sect which we attended many years ago sought control over the lives of its people in many areas. In its more extremist days the WCG told you who to talk to, what kind of music you should be listening to and even what sort of personality you should have! (warm, friendly and gregarious - this meant that on its 'feast days' one was confronted with an army of "warm, friendly and gregarious people" - of course, it was all an act. Most of us were feeling either tired, bored or fed-up with the same old message, but we pretended to be the way this cult/sect said we should be in case one of the deacons spotted us looking............perfectly natural!)
Okay, that is an extreme example but even many evangelical churches seek rather too much control over their congregation's lives - this is dangerous; be wary of attending such a place!
If, for example, you have told your pastor that you cannot afford to tithe, that should be the end of the matter (actually it is a travesty of Christian worship life if tithing is mentioned at all), but if there is pushiness by church leaders to 'go through your finances with you, to see how you can give more to God' (they mean to themselves!), flee such a place at the first opportunity. Christian places of worship have no mandate before God to interfere in member's financial affairs!
There is no doubt that too many churches have tended to seek psychological and financial control over their people, rather than simply pointing them towards a walk of faith with the Lord Jesus Christ!
But there is liberty in walking with Christ. The New Testament makes it abundantly plain that there is no room or place in the Christian life for countless rules and regulations. The Old Covenant has now gone!! See 1 Corinthians 10:23-29; 2 Corinthians 3:7-17; Galatians 5:1,13; and 1 Peter 2:15-16.
This article has not been able to outline all of the problems which seem to have become more and more endemic in places of Christian worship over the last hundred years or so but it has touched on a few reasons why - without doubt - the formerly 'major denominations' appear to be in their death throes. There now appear to be two somewhat contradictory and conflicting tendencies emerging in Christian worship patterns:
1. The tendency towards huge 'mega churches' of an evangelical nature, with smaller chapels and places of worship disappearing.
I have huge doubts about this tendency! Very often these huge places still have no more than a tiny group of Elders at the helm; even if these are truly biblical men, it is impossible to effectively guard against the entrance of heresies/false teachings into some of the smaller worship/study groups which these mammoth churches necessarily have to promote. I discovered that liberal theology was making serious inroads into the small study group which I attended while we were part of a 'mega church'; when I pointed this out to one of the church leaders I was told, "We have no idea what happens in the home groups because nobody ever tells us". The New Testament example would appear to be of small groups all presided over by an Elder.
2. The surge of the new 'super small' house churches supported by those that have come to feel that large institutional Christian groupings always lead to compromise. I am very much in sympathy with this point of view; it really does appear that the insistence that mega churches must be the answer, is to buy into the philosophy that money, wealth, success and size are the answer to spiritual problems - but it can never be so. So I am personally very much in sympathy with this second group. It is just a pity that much of the new house movement has certainly been affected by false teachings, but perhaps that was initially inevitable, it remains the case that this is a very hopeful development, and where house groups are led by an able and biblically sound Elder, they will always be able to make the justifiable claim that they are worshipping in the precise manner of the early church.
Robin A. Brace
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