If you belong to a warm, embracing, encouraging and fun church congregation, today’s post is not for you. All I can advise is this: keep it that way, and you do this by limiting the size and power of leadership/management. When these people control as opposed to serve, you lose what you have.
We did, and so have many others: a long time ago, for a short time, we attended a quirky fun church that despite its informality, taught and empowered its members because much of the discipling came from the members themselves. For awhile it functioned, brilliantly, without a supreme leader.
And then the leader arrived. He spent the first year watching and laying plans (doesn’t this sound like what’s going on in many “free” governments today?), but once he moved, it was fast, and before the next year passed, all that was left of the church — our church — was its outer shell.
I didn’t begin to realize this until one day, at a “fun,” yet newly structured, family camping trip, a recent attender commented to me,
“This isn’t a particularly friendly church.”
I blamed her, because she was different, you know, not really upright in her life and with a sketchy past (you don’t have to slap me — I slap myself as I write that) — but she was right.
Our church had changed: it had been stolen.
Is this happening to you? It’s hard to tell, because like most takeovers, the really good ones are done slowly and subtly, but there are a few signs you can look for:
Take Me to Your Leader
1) New leadership. Any time there is a changing of the guards, be wary. I find it intriguing that in our churches, which are supposed to be intimate, communal, and embracing, we draw upon outsiders to lead.
And by leadership, I’m talking pastor, because rare is the good-sized church where the elder board makes the mandates. In small, very small, churches they can make life a nightmare for the pastor, but once the business gets bigger — with administrative staff and letterheads and podcasts — the pastor is the CEO, and the elders function as presidents and vice presidents. Yes men, I think they’re called.
You? You’re in the mail room.
Education, or Wisdom?
2) The pastor gets his PhD. I’ve seen a few thesis papers put out by Reverends who want to add Doctor to their titles: “Authentic Intentionality in a Communal Setting,” or, “Creating and Empowering Leadership Skills within the Laity Class.”
Wouldn’t it make sense for a doctoral candidate in theology to expound upon something from the Bible? Oh, yeah — that would be like a doctoral candidate in teaching — science, literature, art — researching something practical to do with his theoretical expertise, as opposed to the teaching of that expertise. Is your pastor getting his doctorate to learn more about the Bible, or techniques on how to run — and grow — a church?
You Are What You Read
3) Your Pastor’s library contains books especially written for pastors. What’s he reading? Books on apologetics, archaeological finds proving Biblical historicity, the Bible itself? Or does he have volumes of the latest on discipling reluctant attendants, pumping up the worship team, and increasing community and religious volunteerism?
You can get a clue through the sermons: one leader we lived through for too long saturated his sermons with the word “community.” It sounded warm and fuzzy and full of grace, until we started mentally replacing the word “group think” with “community.” Then it all made sense.
Fast and Furious
4) Changes happen fast, and you have no say in them. We feel stupid now, but the Norwegian Artist and I attended a “church community meeting” in which we were encouraged to “speak our minds about the proposed changes.” We did, but it would have been more profitable to head to the kitchen and eat stale doughnuts. The front runner speaker’s body language made it clear that the decision was already made (and it had been).
Looks Like Government
5) Bureaucracy increases. At one time, you, with your indifferent singing ability, were able to stand in front and lead songs. Now, all worship team leadership staff have to take classes and be approved by the board. “We need to exhibit a higher level of professionalism,” you are told. “We will review your gifts and skills and find an appropriate outlet for them.”
We knew we were in trouble at one church when the new leader arranged Leadership Seminar Training, complete with workbooks, multiple meetings, and tests. Within six months, the church had been divided into “leaders” and “non-leaders,” or management and staff as we preferred to call it. And as with the cubicle corporations that churches increasingly mimic, there were way too many middle managers doing . . . what?
Listen to Yourself
6) It just doesn’t feel right. When you say this, aloud, the general response is, “No church is perfect. You need to just be patient, and maybe be a bit more flexible in not wanting things all your own way.”
Trust your instincts — you’re not stupid.
So . . . what do you do if your beloved local church is slipping away from you? You either stay and try to make changes (good luck), give in and accept that this is how things will be, hop to another church and hope that the infection isn’t epidemic, or leave the system.
Because that’s what it’s becoming my friend, a system, and Christianity is not a system.
Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity, where I still belong to the church. It’s just not in any building. It is a church of individual believers, pursuing a strong relationship with Christ, and some of the people are busy in building on Sundays, and others are sleeping in.
But when we get together — in person, online, over the phone, at a house, or meeting in the street — we grab onto one another and say (and truly mean) — “How are you? What do you need prayer for? What have you been learning? Do you have time to sit for tea?” Jesus talked to people, not at them.
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The Misfit Christian — my book, written for people who don’t fit in, and are tired of feeling like spiritual apostates. Paperback and digital at Amazon.com.
“Did you read the book?”
“See the movie?”
“Then what makes you think you can have an opinion on the matter?”
I grew up in a family of scientists, where not having a PhD in a discipline (and most 13-year-olds don’t have one of these) meant that you were unqualified to have an opinion on the topic at hand — evolution, say, or the nutritive content (or lack of) of pesticide-laden food.
I learned early that an effective means of squashing dialogue and dissent is to call the other person stupid or unqualified, a technique used liberally in the scientific, political, educational, religious, or financial communities today. (As an aside, since most of the people “representing” these areas don’t have English degrees, perhaps they should refrain from writing, ever. See the absurdity?)
Misgivings about NDEs
So it is when you, or rather, I, express misgivings about Near Death Experiences, first-hand accounts by people who have died medically, been transported elsewhere (heaven, or hell), and returned to tell of their experiences.
It’s not that I don’t believe them — although the more money they make in the process of telling their story the less credence I give to their motives — it’s that I don’t need their stories to confirm my faith, and I encourage my Christian brothers and sisters, especially, to be wary, very very wary, about incorporating NDEs into their faith life.
Here are — 4 reasons:
Don’t Touch That Curtain
1) Scripture expressly tells us to not try to break the barrier between this world and the next. Leviticus 19: 31 says, “Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them,” and Isaiah 8: 19 asks, “Why consult the dead on behalf of the living?”
Many NDE messages include words of advice from dead loved ones, to “go back and tell the world about this,” (generally in a book, movie, and multiple talk show appearances), but “it is not the dead who praise the Lord, those who go down to silence.” (Psalm 115: 17)
Noticeably missing from NDE accounts are specific, direct messages from Jesus Christ telling them, “Praise and glorify the Son of Man, and tell people that I am the only way to heaven.” Rather, the message is a more innocuous, “Go and tell people that God is love.”
No Eye Has Seen, No Mind Has Conceived
2) Nobody on earth knows what heaven looks like. 1 Corinthians 2: 9 tells us, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”
These words come from the apostle Paul, who later spoke about a man (many think this is autobiographical) who “was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.” (2 Corinthians 11: 28) No books, no movies, no talk show appearances.
While there are many accounts in Scripture of the dead being brought back to life — Lazarus (John 11: 38-44); Jairus’s daughter (Mark 5: 35-43); the widow’s son (Luke 7: 11-17) — distinctly absent are firsthand accounts from these people about their experiences.
Jesus Is Silent
3) Jesus Himself, the best source of truth about what life is like after death, does not share this information with us. In the 40 days after His resurrection and before his ascension, Jesus , “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets . . . explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Luke 24: 13-35)
Christ’s focus was not details about the afterlife, but teaching how Scripture was fulfilled in Him, and instructions to His followers to “go make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28: 19)
“As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” (John 21: 21)
Is God Glorified? How?
4) God is not glorified through NDE experiences, but human beings are. Point number one touches upon the innocuousness of the message brought back, and how the supremacy and sovereignty of Jesus Christ is not part of that message.
In Matthew 17: 1-13, Jesus, in the Transfiguration, is visited by Moses and Elijah, and this mountaintop experience is witnessed by Peter, James, and John. Peter’s response is distinctly human-based:
“If you wish, I will put up three shelters — one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (Matthew 17: 4)
With a cover charge, perhaps?
Christ’s response is,
“Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” (Matthew 17: 9)
THAT particular event is the big one, and it is the one that is shoved into the background when we focus upon, seek out, and place our trust in Near Death Experiences.
We are told that, in the latter days, “false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect,” (Matthew 24: 24) and while many, no doubt, of NDE speakers have genuinely experienced something, if that experience does not glorify Jesus Christ, then it’s not a message worth focusing on.
“So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the desert, do not go out; or, “Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it.” (Matthew 24: 26)
For now, we are increasingly getting messages from “beyond.” In the future, we will be told that Christ Himself has appeared.
It’s happening, people — false messages, false signs, false wonders — that look really, really real, but don’t glorify God. Be awake.
Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity, where I encourage Christians to make a distinction between the words “spirituality” and “Christianity.” Just because something generates from the spiritual realm, does not mean that it is from God.
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I’ll be the first to admit that I make things too complicated, and as an astute and thoughtful reader wrote me about a recent article, The Kingdom of Heaven — How Do We Get There?,
“Isn’t it enough just to believe?”
I would say that he stopped me cold if I hadn’t already been sitting, and his point was that, In Acts 16: 30-31 the jailer in charge of the apostle Paul and Silas asked them,
“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
My correspondent wrote: Paul and Silas “did not say change your life, or walk with God, or submit to Him and follow where He leads you. They said ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.’ It’s that simple — why make it any harder than it has to be?”
Good question, and in my pitiful defense I point out that Paul and Silas’s answer is post-Jesus-on-earth, and I was discussing the things Jesus flat out told us, like becoming as a little child (Matthew 18: 2) and why this is important, but the point is well made,
Is it enough — Just to Believe?
And the short answer is, yes.
John 3: 16 is quoted so often, that we almost don’t hear the words when we say them:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
There is nothing in this verse that implies we have to believe in a certain manner, or at a certain depth, or with a total intellectual understanding of the background of why we believe: we just have to believe. It’s enough.
And that really bothers some people:
“Believing isn’t enough! Taking something on faith without fully understanding it is stupid, just stupid!”
Maybe, maybe not. Some people’s level of faith is simpler than others, and they don’t need to understand quantum physics in order to acknowledge the existence of the stars. They don’t need to know how their car works in order to drive it. And they don’t need massive amounts of historical, apologetic, or theological information to believe that Christ walked on the earth, sacrificed His perfect self because nothing we can do is enough to satisfy God’s goodness, and freely gives eternal life to everyone who asks Him for it.
Others require more before they believe, but ultimately, it is the belief that saves them. Perhaps it’s why followers of Christ are called, “believers.”
My own belief in Jesus came about when I was 19, sitting on my college dormitory bed. Raised Catholic, I had this idea that Jesus was one of the saints — less than Peter, greater than Joseph, roughly equal with John — but once I understood who He was — the Son of God, I prayed:
“I believe you. I believe in You. Take my life.”
And I was saved.
The Four Spiritual (Man Made) Laws
Only, in accordance with contemporary establishment evangelical Christianity, I wasn’t, because as we all learn when we get plugged into the system, you have to say the Four Spiritual Laws, a series of man made injunctions, pulled from throughout Scripture, that insist we must admit, acknowledge and understand our sinful nature before we give our lives to Christ.
I hadn’t done that!
So, like many other Christians, I prayed the “Sinner’s Prayer,” just to make sure that I got this right, and because I wasn’t fully sure I prayed it right the first, second, third, fourth, and 35th time, I prayed it every time it was offered, until I woke up to the fact that this was a level of superstition no better than insisting there is no 13th floor in a 40-story hotel.
My belief, my initial belief, was enough.
God Builds on Our Initial Belief
As we walk in our Christian life, we grow — in understanding, wisdom, perception, discernment, intellect, trust, faith, and love — because the Father teaches us, but every step we take still requires belief. Sometimes it is difficult for us to believe what God is teaching us, and when this is so, we feel that God disapproves of us and our lack of faith.
This is why reading the Bible is such an important part of the Christian life: not because God will be angry and wrathful and dreadful and irritable because we don’t, but because there is truth there that will free us from our misconceptions:
“I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” Mark 9: 24 describes a father, desperate for the healing of his son, who expressed misgivings that Jesus could actually do anything.
It is very very simple, and very very difficult, to believe, and this father’s prayer is a beautiful one, because it is universal. Did Jesus reject the man because of his unbelief? Did he send the child away?
No. He answered the prayer.
Is it enough — just to believe?
Yes, it is.
Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity, and thank you, Robert, for contacting me privately and expressing your thoughts. You were gracious, polite, reasonable, and insistent, and your words stopped me, and made me think.
That’s what we do as believers, isn’t it? It’s not whether we attend a church or not, it’s that we fellowship with, pray for, communicate with, and challenge one another, in love, because we are all growing up and running the race.
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Newly published, my book The Misfit Christian (paperback and digital at Amazon.com), for my brothers and sisters who feel like they just don’t fit in, and are tired of wondering what is wrong with them.
How to get to heaven is a piece of information that from the beginning of time, humanity has wanted to know. The rich young ruler of Matthew 19:16 – 29 (Mark 10: 17 – 30, Luke 18: 18 – 30) asked Jesus,
“What good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
Nicodemus, a religious leader, visited Jesus secretly at night and circumspectly touched upon the topic, something that should comfort the rest of us ordinary, non-leadership type people, because as Jesus observed,
“You are Israel’s teacher . . . and do you not understand these things?” (John 3: 10)
(Remember this the next time an assertive, confident bastion of the Christian faith tells you how to live your life and where to send your money.)
Are There Instructions?
Why didn’t Jesus just flat out tell us what to do? we quite sensibly ask.
Well, He did flat out tell us a number of things, many of which we avoid doing (“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” — Luke 6: 46), and one of the many issues Christ addressed was the kingdom of heaven, and what it takes to get there:
“I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18: 2)
Ah, something concrete we can do — become like a little child. Only, like any major change in our life, it’s not a task we accomplish on our own without God’s hand in ours: we don’t awake in the morning and say,
“I’m going to be like a little child! I’ll start by staying in bed until mom calls me down for breakfast.”
What is it about children that differentiates them from adults? Let’s look at three things, real quick:
The Least of These
1) They’re vulnerable. Children need to be protected, and they know this. They look to someone stronger, wiser, and bigger than they are. (Before we mention the word “authority,” please note that there is a huge difference between a parent and a policeman, between God and the government. Make sure you put your trust in the right power.) We need our Father to guide us, teach us, hold us, and fight for us.
There’s nothing wrong with being weak — we all are. It’s only tragic when we think we’re alone, on our own, and fully dependent upon me, myself, and I, something that is not so:
“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,” God tells the Apostle Paul, and us, in 2 Corinthians 12: 9). Yes, you’re weak. But thank God, He is strong.
It’s the Best Policy
2) They’re honest. The most disconcerting thing about children is that they speak their minds, and a critical aspect of “educating” them is to conform those minds to think and say what the adult — corporate, political, financial, controlling — world wants to hear. By that time, they have moved into and accepted our language of deceit, where we call the Ministry of War the Department of Defense, mandatory taxation a “contribution to society,” or the taking of life the freedom of choice.
When we are constantly guarding our words so that we won’t be attacked, is it any wonder we have trouble coming before God, and honestly pouring out our hearts?
Jeremiah, often disparagingly called the “weeping prophet,” was remarkably outspoken before God —
“You are always righteous, O Lord, when I bring a case before you. Yet I would speak with you about your justice . . .” (Jeremiah 12: 1)
“Shockingly candid,” is one description I have read of Jeremiah. Isn’t he just putting into words what many of us already think? Sort of like what a child would do?
Pride Bloats Our Souls
3) They’re humble. Children are small, physically weak in comparison to adults, and powerless. God designed children to be under the protection of loving parents (not the state), and secure in the safety of the home where they can grow. Look at a kitten, a puppy, a baby goat, a fawn — we accept that these animals were born into and need the protection of their parent, and that they learn from that parent.
We all know how hard it is to teach someone who is convinced that they know the lesson already, and their mistaken confidence in themselves and their abilities keeps them from actually learning. While this swaggering attitude is highly prized in modern society (we call it self-assurance, and that’s not such a bad appellation), God calls us to a different confidence:
“This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” (1 John 5: 14). God isn’t interested in how much we think of ourselves, but in how much we trust in Him. He wants us to ask.
Children are smarter than what we give them credit for — if the young child in your life is averse to spending time around your new business partner, you might think twice about the business relationship. The very innocence of young children enables them to identify, and recoil from, well camouflaged evil in others. They also gravitate toward goodness. As we become more like children ourselves, we will do this as well.
And then we are on our way to the kingdom of heaven.
Thank you for joining me at Commonsense Christianity, where I see daily a growing difference between true Christianity — which we can all find in the Bible — and the teachings of those who pronounce themselves spiritual and religious leaders.
Christianity is the only spiritual offering that does not require a human middleman, a guru, a teacher, or an interpreter. Every single human being has instant access to Jesus by simply crying out to Him. Do this, my friend. Submit to Christ alone, and walk where He leads you.
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