Megachurches: Gathering or Scattering?

Willow Creek Community Church, a large megachurch in the Chicago area, sought to attract seekers and the “unchurched” several decades ago by creating an environment in which they could say: “This is not your ordinary church.”  The church’s minister, Bill Hybels, performed a neighborhood survey prior to organizing the congregation. He went door-to-door asking residents what they disliked about church and what they would want in a church. From this, he constructed a “user friendly” worship service with sermons oriented to practical life and devoid of appeals for money, religious jargon and “heavy guilt trips.” Fast-forward 35 years, and a recent article in Time reports that “Hybels has been meeting privately for the past year with LGBTQ congregants to learn to better understand their stories.” His massive religious organization is not alone in the gradual acceptance of unscriptural lifestyles because changing times warrant a more inclusive message in order to continue to attract crowds.

Willow Creek is just one of hundreds of megachurches that have sprung up in a movement over the past 50 years. While there are without doubt many sincere Christians and godly leaders in this movement, the question I would like to consider briefly (given this short format) is whether this great gathering of souls to many large, suburban campuses answers to the Lord Jesus’ thought and words on the matter of gathering believers.

The Holy Spirit’s testimony in John’s gospel as to the Lord Jesus’ mission in this world is that that He “should die for that nation (Israel) . . . but that also He should gather together in one all the children of God that were scattered abroad” (John 11:52-53). Christianity and the church are here alluded to, though not mentioned, the Lord Himself being the gatherer. In Matthew, having introduced the church by name, He assures His disciples that “where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20). The passive voice in the phrase “are gathered” points to an external gathering power. Elsewhere in another context, Jesus says “he that gathereth not with me scattereth abroad” (Matt. 12:30). In these passages we note that He has been, and still is, at work gathering believing souls to Himself in the power of the Spirit, and if we desire to have fellowship with Christ in that work, it must be according to the principles in the Word of God, which He always honored. Otherwise, our attempts at gathering may have the effect of scattering.

Megachurches are most often the product of one highly gifted, charismatic leader. How many Christians are drawn away from fellowship with those whom the Lord Jesus has gathered to Himself on the ground of truth, and are attracted to such a leader, whether by force of his personality, or by the “social vortex” that his organization has created?

In ancient times, the masses were drawn to the likes of Joseph, Moses, and David, no doubt some of the greatest leaders in history, and it was according to God’s mind in all of those cases. But there is no earthly answer to those great leaders during the church age, and I will contend that it is so by God’s design. The Lord Jesus Christ is alone worthy to have “the gathering of the people be” unto Himself now, and in that coming day of His glory in this world (Genesis 49:10). Christ is the one pictured and previewed in those leaders of old, and not the charismatic megachurch leaders we’ve seen rise to prominence in our day.

The Apostle Paul was God’s “chosen vessel”, but he distinctly lacked charisma and was allowed of the Lord to suffer difficulties to keep him from glorying¹. It was Paul that warned the Ephesian elders of the scattering effect, not only of “grievous wolves”, but of men arising from among believers to “draw away disciples after them” by speaking perverted things². Would not Paul have considered it a perversion of the ministry the Lord had given him, should John Mark or Demas have left him to start their own movement by taking counsel with sinners for the purpose of learning how to most effectively gather both the saved and the lost into great assemblies headed by themselves? Preach a clear gospel to the lost in venues and forums appropriate to that, as many thankfully have and still do, but assembling for worship and ministry pertains to saints, not sinners.

The Lord Jesus assured his disciples that He would sometimes gather saints to His name in numbers as few as two or three, and not merely for casual fellowship. All administrative authority to bind and loose is given to even a small assembly gathered in the Lord’s name, for that gathering represents the whole church of God, “the pillar and base of the truth”³.  If that great Head of the Church is content to bless and sanction even only a few in many places throughout the world who cling to the truth, ought not you and I be content to have it so?

(Some background material was taken from “Exploring the Megachurch Phenomena”, by Scott Thumma, PhD)

¹ I Corinthians 2:1-5; II Corinthians 12:7-11  ² Acts 20:29-30  ³ Matthew 18:17-20; I Timothy 3:15 JND

 

Am I My Brother’s Keeper?

Most of us know the context in which this question was asked, far back in time near the dawn of human history. Cain spoke these words after killing his brother Abel, and after blatantly lying to God when he was asked: “Where is Abel thy brother?” (Genesis 4:9). What might have been going through Cain’s mind, in addition to that carnal impulse to deny culpability for his brutal act? He was asserting his independence, both as to being accountable to God, and as to any accountability for his brother’s welfare.

Asserting or defending one’s independence in moral and spiritual matters is never commended by God.  Spiritual independence is the rejection of the idea of accountability to God. Moral independence is the refusal to be accountable to another person or group for your actions, and often includes despising God-given accountability for the welfare of others. We find manifestations of this spirit of independence in the heart of the natural man in many other Bible characters, and we will briefly notice just two more of them.

Pharaoh shows his character and begins his downward spiral toward destruction by uttering this contemptuous question: “Who is the Lord, that I should obey Him to let Israel go?” (Exodus 5:2)  He immediately answers the question to his own condemnation: “I know not the Lord.”  There is no doubt that Pharaoh’s conscience spoke to him of God’s claims upon him, but he scorned all accountability to his Creator, and all accountability for the well-being of Jehovah’s people.

Nabal was a “churlish and evil” man, the very opposite of his good and beautiful wife, Abigail (I Samuel 25). When David and his men rightly desired some consideration from Nabal, he retorts with a question very similar to Pharaoh’s:  “Who is David? and who is the son of Jesse?”  And not content to leave it there, he adds insult to injury and opines as to David’s motives: “There be many servants now a days that break away every man from his master.”  In other words, Nabal casts David as a rebel who achieved independence from Saul, and if David requires some sustenance for himself and his followers, let him return and subject himself to his former master. But David was a fugitive, not a rebel.

Now David is a lovely picture for us of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the account just mentioned, Nabal reproached David just as the Pharisees much later, and in the same proud spirit, reproached Jesus, accusing Him of having an independent mission, saying “Thou barest record of Thyself; Thy record is not true!” (John 8:13-14)  But there never was a more dependent man on this earth than our blessed Lord, so that the Pharisees’ accusations against David’s greater Son just serve to manifest their own estrangement from God and His truth (John 5:30-38; 6:38-40).

It is not surprising to us that sinners would insist upon their moral and spiritual independence, but what is the lesson for Christians in pictures such as these?  “For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself” (Romans 14:7-9). Let our hearts and consciences always exercise themselves in dependence upon God, with the Lord Jesus as our example, and let us own and act upon our accountability to and for others in the body of Christ. He came not to please Himself, but “took upon Him the form of a servant”.  An independent spirit may be acceptable in a society that values political independence, but what ought to characterize the spirits of the godly? Our God is certain to honor and reward the life that is dependent and accountable, conformed to the image of His Son.

As Often As You Eat . . . and Drink

Are you able to remember the Lord Jesus often? How prominent a place does that poignant and special memorial, the Lord’s Supper, have in your church life? I ask not because I seek a definitive answer, but in order to encourage reflection on a matter that is not often addressed in evangelical Christian circles.

It ought to be a habit for those of us who are believers in the Lord Jesus to seek to discern first of all what He thinks about a matter, and how important a thing is to our Lord’s heart. We must all confess that we fall far short of that ideal paradigm, that godly filter for our thoughts, and so the Apostle Paul even expressed his disappointment in his brethren in this way: “For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s” (Philippians 2:21).

But if we would enter into the sentiments of our Savior when He asked His disciples to remember Him by the tokens of bread and wine, how might it change our thoughts, our feelings, our practices regarding it?  Would the Lord’s Supper then be to our souls an afterthought, or a burdensome ritual, or even an occasion marked by dread and awe* in which leaders seek to maintain order among their followers? My hope is that asking such questions is not a wearying exercise, but rather, that we would be stirred in our hearts to respond to what is still in the loving heart of our Lord Jesus, who is about to come for us, to bring us home to be with Himself forever.

In touching on the subject of that “blessed hope”, the rapture of the church by the returning Son of God (I Thessalonians 1:10 and 4:13-18), we are led in our thoughts to the wonderful revelation the Lord Jesus gave to Paul regarding the remembrance meal He instituted on the night in which He was betrayed. By eating the bread and drinking the cup, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (I Corinthians 11:23-26 ESV). The Lord asks us to look back to His death in remembrance, while looking forward in expectation to His return for us.

It is not really disputed among Bible scholars that the “breaking of bread” was at least a weekly practice among the early Christians, and several phrases from Scripture looked at in context will bear this out. “They continued steadfastly . . . in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). “Upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread . . . ” (Acts 20:7). “When ye come together therefore into one place . . . to eat the Lord’s supper” (I Corinthians 11:20). There are other allusions to its normal frequency, including the Lord’s own words: “As often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup . . .”

An earnest soul might well ask at this point: “Is it really all that important how prominent or frequent the Lord’s supper is in my Christian experience?” I would only refer such a one back to those words of the Lord Jesus: “As often as . . .”  How important is this act of remembrance and proclamation to Him? Did He intend to exercise us to fulfill His heart’s desire? May our hearts answer to what is on His heart, and what He still so vividly remembers in His soul – His atoning death for us.

 

* (An article in a certain denomination’s online encyclopedia uses the terms “dread and awe” to describe how the “communion service” has been perceived by many historically in that denomination.)

Islam: Religion Without Life

I will begin with the disclaimer that I am not an expert on the religion of Islam. However, all who are to any degree knowledgeable on the world’s religions will have an understanding of some of the basics of this great religious system. We can likely agree that Muslims reject the gospel of Jesus Christ and deny His eternal deity, His equality with God. Islam teaches that “Allah is one”, believing that tenet excludes the possibility of a God revealed in trinity, or as three in one. It also seems evident that Islam’s deity is not known for the attributes of grace and mercy, but for his exacting justice, particularly in judging infidels and rewarding his servants.

But how might a person who is irreligious determine which religion or “faith” is true?  A gospel preacher might inform such a seeker that the Christian gospel of the grace of God must be accepted by faith, and there is no more truthful a statement than that. However, would not an Islamic mullah also instruct the seeker in the need to believe the teachings of the Koran?  For it is accepted in Islam as Allah’s words to his prophet Muhammed through the angel Gabriel.  In either case, the seeker would be asked to place his trust in persons and principles that he can neither see nor hear nor touch with his natural faculties. So how can the truth be known positively, and not remain simply a matter of religious preference, heritage, or cultural inertia?

If you are a Christian who is trying to follow my line of reasoning, I assure you that there can be no real comparison made between the Biblical gospel of peace and the teachings of the Koran, regardless of how some defend Islam as a “religion of peace”. To emulate Muhammed is to be the very contradiction of peaceable, and God forbid that we should bring the Lord Jesus, that holy peacemaker, down to the level of comparison with so fleshly a character.

But what one thing fundamentally differentiates a true believer in the “living and true God” from a servant of Allah?  It is this: the one possesses a new life, a spiritual life, and the other has but the natural life that he or she was born with, nothing more.  In my admittedly modest amount of research, I have not found any teaching in Islam on the necessity of new life, or being born again. As with all worldly religion, the whole belief system of Islam appeals to, regulates, seeks to improve, and finally promises rewards to the natural man. In any case, why would its prophet set forth the need for a new life when he was satisfied in his natural life, “fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind”?

Man in his natural state is “alienated from the life of God” (Ephesians 4:18). God bestows new life by grace upon the objects of His eternal counsels (Ephesians 1:3-11; 2:5), causing them to be “born of water and of the Spirit” (John 3:5; James 1:18), water being figurative of the Word of God. Jesus is the living Word in whom is life eternal, and receiving Him for the dignity of a place in God’s family flows from a soul’s new birth (John 1:1-13). A believer on Jesus, the Son of God, has “the witness in himself” – the Spirit witnessing to the effect of the water (a new, incorruptible spiritual life) and the blood of redemption (I John 5:8-12). The religion of Islam has nothing like this internal, conscious blessedness to offer the searching soul.

Is Your Sanctification Permanent?

If you should ask me that question, I could rightly say without being dismissive of you: “That depends.”  In response, you might ask another question: “What does it depend upon?”  And if I could tell that you really wanted a satisfying answer, I would be glad to explain further from the Word of God.

First of all, we must discern the meaning of the word “sanctification” within its context in any given passage of Scripture. Standing alone and apart from any context, sanctification has this meaning: to be set apart for a particular purpose. In light of that, we will now look at the three main aspects of sanctification presented to us in context in the New Testament.

In some cases, we find that sanctification has a “provisional” meaning, such as in these passages: I Corinthians 7:14 (keep in mind that “holy” and “sanctified” are from the same Greek root) and Hebrews 10:29. It seems clear that a person doesn’t need to be a believer at all to be sanctified in this way, and the effect of such a sanctification may be temporary and based on a particular outward relationship a person has been brought into. Such an external relationship with a parent or with the Christian testimony carries with it much privilege, because it brings a man, woman, or child into a realm where Christ is honored and where the Word of God is taught. But oh, the responsibility laid upon such as these who are provisionally sanctified, lest they despise that privilege!

There is also what may be called either “progressive” or “practical” sanctification, depending upon the aspect we may want to emphasize. This aspect of sanctification is true only of real believers, for it refers to the work of God by His Spirit within Christians to progressively bring about conformity to Christ and separation from evil (II Corinthians 3:18; 7:1). We see the practical nature of this sanctification, this setting apart for God’s purposes in this evil world, in the prayer of the Lord Jesus to His “Holy Father” in John 17:17: “Sanctify them through Thy truth: Thy word is truth.”  Paul’s declaration to the Thessalonian saints leaves no doubt as to the importance God places on this practical sanctification: “This is the will of God, even your sanctification” (I Thess. 4:3).

But there is a “positional” or “perpetual” (permanent) aspect of sanctification that is true of every believer in Jesus whose sins are gone because He bore them in His body on the cross (Hebrews 9:24-28; 10:10, 14). This sanctification has nothing to do with the practical sanctification described above, except that both are limited to real believers. For how could the words “once for all” or “perfected in perpetuity” (Darby’s New Translation) have any degrees or conditions attached to them other than the perfection of the completed work of Christ? As certain as the Lord Jesus Christ has gone to heaven and will never return as an offering for sin, so certain may His “sanctified” ones be (sanctified ones are “saints”) that all their sins are gone from before the eyes of a thrice-holy God. We who are sanctified in this aspect are “all of one” [kind] with Jesus! (Hebrews 2:11)  And if any man sins as a saint, “we have an advocate with the Father (as His child, rather than with God as judge), Jesus Christ the righteous,” who has once for all reconciled us to God (I John 2:1; Romans 5:10-11).

Read these portions and worship, dear saint of God; you may enjoy a permanent sanctification that doesn’t depend upon you.

True Spiritual Worship

We noticed earlier the Lord Jesus’ tender dealings with the heart and conscience of the Samaritan woman in John’s gospel, chapter 4. While He reveals more to her about true worship than to others, and although she is faithful in her testimony to her neighbors, we don’t really find her worshiping there. But it is the Apostle John, elsewhere in his gospel, that in his own intimate manner gives us further insight into that supreme Christian privilege: worshiping the Father. After all, John’s gospel gives us the Lord’s teaching on the transition from the “hour” that then was to the hour that was to come (John 4:21-24), from the earthly to the heavenly things (John 3:10-13), and from Judaism to Christianity (John 15:24-27).

In chapter 1, we read of John the Baptist seeing Jesus coming, and then commenting on the Lord’s work relative to his own. But later that day, when he gazes upon Jesus, we find John to be more in the role of a worshiper, and his words become few: “Behold the Lamb of God!”  The blind man instructs us further in chapter 9, when he utters but two words (in the Greek) before it is said that “he worshiped Him” (John 9:38).  Mary’s act of adoration in chapter 12 was completely silent, but the “house was filled with the odour of the ointment”, picturing for us the effect of true worship, from a devoted worshiper, on all those near the Lord Jesus. Again, Mary Magdalene speaks but one worshipful word to the Master in chapter 20, after her broken heart was healed in an instant when He tenderly called but her name. Mere hours later, because of Mary’s faithful testimony, ten of the disciples were more prepared than she for Jesus’ revelation of Himself to their hearts. None of their words are recorded, but would you suppose there was much chatter and show in their worship of Him there? No, for the Scripture tells us simply of their collective worshiping spirits in John 20:20: “Then were the disciples glad (they rejoiced), when they saw the Lord.”

A lovely picture of corporate worship appears at the very end of Matthew, the only gospel to reveal by name the church (the assembly), whose united worship our God so highly values. The disciples went to “a mountain where Jesus had appointed them. And when they saw Him, they worshiped Him.” Perhaps at another time we will meditate upon what is pictured in the mountain and in His appointing them to go there, but for now, let us simply mark that assembly worship is the adoration of believing hearts toward the Lord Jesus, with Him the center and object, whether or not a word is uttered.

Dear Christian, how are you seeking to practice your priestly privilege in collective worship? Might it be by listening to a sermon on how to be a better person? Is it in being entertained by music or dance led by a human “worship leader”? Or is it through a ritual administered by a clergyman?  I have no desire to offend or to provoke a defense. Rather, I hope to stir up your heart and mine to better enjoy and practice what true, spiritual, corporate worship really is, according to the New Testament pattern:  a sober yet joyful adoration of God, perhaps punctuated with words and hymns of praise, at the table of the Lord with Him in the midst, where saints bless the cup and break the bread, in fellowship together with the Father and the Son.  (I Corinthians 10:16-21; 11:23-26; 14:15-19)

Does God Accept Your Worship?

While the question in the heading above may seem unnecessarily provocative to some who read it, perhaps it is because we are not accustomed to thinking of God as discriminating with regard to how He is properly worshiped by His creature.  There was a time in the days of the judges in Israel that “every man did that which was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25), and sadly, this same attitude pervades human religion and even the Christian profession.

The God of love and grace, the “living and true God”, has revealed in His Word some important principles regarding worship, and in order to have the confidence that God accepts our worship, we are morally bound to submit to His revealed desires as to the manner in which He seeks to be worshiped.

When the Lord Jesus tenderly opened the heart of the woman at Sychar’s well in John 4, He revealed to her, and so as well to us, that God seeks worshipers who do not worship any longer in Jerusalem, nor in Mount Gerizim. “The true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth . . . God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.”  Note well the words “true” and “must”, and that Jesus’ reiteration (v. 24) is even more exclusive than His introductory statement (v. 23).  He leaves no room for natural or worldly religion and worship, which marked Judaism, nor of false and contrived worship, which describes that of the Samaritans.

True worship, Christian worship, must be “by the Spirit of God” (Philippians 3:3, JND and ESV) and spiritual, and not according to Jewish rituals practiced by natural man “in the flesh”. The Law was given by Jehovah to test man in his natural state, but it can never make a man spiritual or bring him into fellowship with God, who is Spirit.  True worship must also be according to the triune God’s full revelation of Himself to man by means of the written word of God, and in the fullness of time, by the Living Word made flesh, the Son of God. It cannot be contrived according to man’s thoughts, as the Samaritans’ worship was; it must be according to truth, according to God.

But we must take a step back to establish the fact that the first prerequisite for true worship of God is to have the sin question dealt with to the satisfaction of God, and to the satisfaction of the worshiper, who by nature begins his course as a sinner.  Under the Law, sacrifices were to be brought by the worshiper, as a provisional remedy for the barrier that sin has brought in between God and man (Leviticus 1-7). Now that the “better thing” of Christ and Christianity has been revealed, a purged conscience in a believing soul is required for the true worship of God as Father, and so that the Christian may “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Hebrews 10:1-22). This purging (purifying) of the conscience comes only by genuine faith in the perfect sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross, and the shedding of His own blood after His atoning sufferings. There is no short-cut to true worship; it must be in virtue of the shed blood of Christ.

Lord willing, we will continue next time with more of what characterizes worship “in spirit and in truth”.