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Does Sunday Morning Church Really Need All This Glitter, Showmanship and Gimmickry?

What’s wrong with church today? Are we in danger of turning worship into a flashy concert? Of watering down the message so nobody is offended? Of forgetting the simplicity of the Gospel?

4I grew up with a preacher’s kid. He was a fake following in the footsteps of his flimflamming father who did a great Vegas-style act at the grand piano. Both papa and son could turn on the tears and put on a fantastic show. The boy did a spectacular display of repentance and sorrow each year at our summer camp’s final-night altar call. He craved the spotlight. Moments after his public mea culpas he’d be back to his crass self, wanting to know if I’d scored with my girlfriend, claiming he was going to sneak away with his latest blonde during the baptismal service.

Privately, he and his dad were cynical and profane. But my childhood buddy has gone on to minister to a glittery mega-church much applauded in his denomination, a church distinguished by flash and showmanship and big attendance numbers – very much in the footsteps of his late father.

A few weeks ago, my friend’s son took his own life. It didn’t make the headlines like another mega-church preacher’s son’s suicide out in California. But I wish I had taken time with my friend’s boy. I wondered if he was ever exposed to the true gospel of Christ’s self-denying love.

The_Killers_in_concertAs I sat in a local church with its multiple video screens, kids on guitars silhouetted by stage lights, and overpowering music that defies congregational singalong, I remembered my old hypocritical buddy. Annoyed by all the noise of the day’s service, I pulled out my iPhone and to the consternation of my wife began surfing the Internet. I glanced around and noticed I was not alone. And when I googled “church” and ”gimmicks,” I was not surprised to find a number of Christian leaders are just as puzzled as I with church that has turned into spectator entertainment.

rockofages3“We have had gospel rock and praise dancing in worship services,” writes Samuel Koranteng-Pipim on the website Affirm, “gospel puppets, gospel clowns, gospel cafés/discos and gospel theatrics/dramas for our outreach to youth, young adults, and the ‘unchurched.’ Now, it seems, we must have gospel magicians for our church services and weeks of prayer. By resorting to these ‘gospel gimmicks,’ are we in danger?”

“What is the true definition of ‘church’?” asks Stewart Wilkerson. “Big screens? Best logo design? The newest technology? The more I think about church, the more I see how astray church has become. Church isn’t about hymnals. Church isn’t about singing the latest song that has the most hits on iTunes. Church is about Jesus…and Jesus only.”

live-nation“‘World’s Largest Church,’ ‘World’s Fastest Growing Church,’ ‘America’s Fastest Growing Sunday School,’ ‘Fastest Growing Church in the State.’ These are frequently heard and seen slogans in these modern days,”  writes W.F. Bell in The Gimmick Gospel. “But, isn’t it a little silly to brag or boast about numbers? Where in all of God’s Word does it tell us to gimmick people into attending church services or Sunday School?’

“Millennials’ intolerance of hypocrisy necessitates that those of us in leadership do more than preach about values that this demographic holds dear,” writes writes Dorothy Greco in Christianity Today magazine.

Megachurch pastor Ray Kollbocker says today’s young adults “want Christianity to be more than information. They want to see how Christianity actually changes the world, not just talk about the change.”

0116WINTERJAM1mh“Because millennials have such an intense hunger for transparent relationships and truth,” writes Greco, “churches could foster intergenerational mentoring within their communities rather than depending upon the more impersonal leadership classes.”

And they hate fakery. Last week another longtime friend of mine was found dead in his Houston apartment. He was the son of a famous evangelist who was more or less the Rush Limbaugh of the 1960s – a radio preacher whose financial support came from a then-amazing million-name mailing list of “partners” who listened to his warnings on late-night radio.

This televangelist dreamed that his son and namesake would follow him at the microphone and in the pulpit, but the boy was tender and sincere – and refused to preach. At age 4, he was first trotted out at one of this father’s legendary crusades where the little boy sang “Jesus Loves Me” to the adoring crowd – and was hooked.

Although as an adult, he was too honest to fill his father’s pulpit, he was addicted to the love of the audiences. He cut multiple record albums – all sold at his father’s venues – and as an adult pursued a career in opera.

But he was scarred and wounded — a victim of spiritual abuse. In his final days, he confided in me having found peace with his Maker. “I don’t know that I ever was really saved as a kid,” he told me. “But I know I am now.” Even so, he had no desire to share his faith from the pulpit – although his father’s name would have gotten him on national TV and into churches nationwide. He cringed at the very idea – not even wanting to write a book about growing up with his famous dad.

7My friend just wanted to love Jesus quietly. He was tired of the glitter and the gimmicks. And so are so many others.

“Centuries ago,” writes Koranteng-Pipim, “the prophet Jeremiah spoke out against this tendency on the part of God’s people to mimic the gimmicks found in other faiths: ‘My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water. . . . Now why go to Egypt to drink water from the Shihor? And why go to Assyria to drink water from the River?’ (Jer 2:13, 18 NIV).

6“Unfortunately, some of us pastors and church leaders are sometimes to blame. We appear to put popularity, job security, position, and the illusion of outward success above our duty to the Chief Shepherd. We seem to fear that if we were to take a stand against these forms of worldliness in our churches, we would create enemies and threaten our support among our constituencies.

“If it is true that rock music (disguised as praise music and praise dancing) is the most effective medium to reach young people today, why is it that math teachers and chemistry professors don’t set their classes to heavy-beat and hip-swinging music? Common sense tells us that these entertainment media are not the most credible methods to communicate serious messages.

1“A doctor, meeting an apprehensive patient, does not dress like a clown in order to tell his patient that she has cancer. Jesus did not use the gimmicks of entertainment to proclaim his Sermon on the Mount. On the day of Pentecost, Peter did not set up a drum set or ask Mary to lead out in praise dancing to announce the resurrection of Jesus and His enthronement in heaven.

“And Paul did not persuade people on Mars Hill using gospel magicians.”

“What a perversion of the one true gospel is this modern ‘gimmick gospel.’” writes Bell in The Gimmick Gospel. “Give-aways, gadgets, and games are weekly emphasized to keep the crowds coming. It’s ‘Balloon Sunday’ one week, ‘Ice cream Sunday’ another week, and ‘BoZo-the-Clown Sunday’ the next week. On and on the ‘gimmick gospel’ goes, going so far as to have ‘karate preachers’ performing their stunts, and ‘cut-off-your-tie’ days.

Sommerkonzert“After getting thousands to attend Sunday School, what is taught them after getting them there?” asks Bell. “How tragic that multitudes of blind people are being led by blind leaders, ‘And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch’ (Matt. 15:14).

“Let us rid this country of the ‘gimmick gospel,’ for it is fakery, faulty and foolish. And in the words of Charles Spurgeon: ‘We can do without modern learning, but we cannot do without the ancient gospel. We can do without oratory and eloquence, but we cannot do without Christ crucified. Lord, revive Thy work by giving us the old-fashioned gospel back again in our pulpits.’”

8“The millennial generation’s much-talked-about departure from church might lead those of us over 30 to conclude that they have little interest in Jesus. Nothing could be further from the truth,” writes Greco in Christianity Today.

Is keeping up with today’s culture a bad thing? Must we shun technology and stagecraft? “The only thing permanent around here is change,” once quipped my friend and pastor, the late Jamie Buckingham, who was a bestselling author and the most popular columnist at a national Christian magazine.

2Jamie’s sermons were designed to draw in the seeker. “People don’t come to church wanting to feel bad,” he once told me when I asked why he didn’t preach hell and damnation. “They come to church wanting to feel better.” As a result, his church embraced technology and change. I remember well when a new music minister introduced new praise choruses. The congregation had been cutting-edge once upon a time, forsaking hymnals for overhead projectors and edgy praise songs. But they’d relaxed into their own new traditions — and this new songleader with his unfamiliar, new songs was irritating, prompting Jamie to have to remind them of their cutting-edge history.

concertWhy introduce the new? Why embrace videos and special effects? Nobody wants to be stuck in a rut — particularly a church trying to be relevant to the next generation.

“Unfortunately,” writes Greco, we’re seeing “many Protestant pastors relying on a consumer business model to grow and sustain their churches. This template for doing church and the millennials’ hunger for authenticity has caused an ideological collision.

“Seeker-sensitive services originally promised to woo post-moderns back into the fold. Out the stained glass window went the somewhat formal 45-minute exegetical sermon, replaced by a shorter, story-based talk to address the ‘felt needs’ of the congregants while reinforcing the premise that following Jesus would dramatically improve their quality of life.

New Orleans Second Line Parade Hits Streets Of New York City“Contemporary worship had already found its way into the mainstream, but their new model nudged the church further toward a rock-concert feel. Finally, programs proliferated, with programs for nearly every demographic, from Mothers of Preschoolers to Red Glove Motorcycle Riders.

“None of these changes were pernicious or even poorly intentioned,” admits Greco. ”In the case of my previous church, choosing the seeker model began innocently. The staff endeavored to create a wide on-ramp for folks who might ordinarily bypass the sanctuary in favor of Starbucks. (As an incentive, we provided fair-trade coffee and bagels each week.) Trained not to assume that everyone was on the same page politically or spiritually, we sought to have friendly, nuanced conversations with visitors.

Born_Again_Concert_039“Being aware of those who come through the doors of any organization is a good thing. I have walked out of many services without a single person engaging with me. However, many churches gradually, and perhaps unwittingly, transitioned from being appropriately sensitive to the needs of their congregants to becoming – if you’ll permit some pop-psychologizing – co-dependent with them.

“What does co-dependence look like within a church?” asks Greco. ”Avoiding sections of Scripture out of fear that certain power pockets will be offended. Believing that repeat attendance depends primarily upon the staff’s seamless execution of Sunday morning–rather than the manifest presence of God. Eliminating doleful songs from the worship repertoire because they might contradict the through line that ‘following Jesus is all gain.’

Fans_Dancing_at_The_Avett_Brothers_Concert_1-29-11_Peter_Ringenberg“Jesus was neither a co-dependent nor a businessman. He unashamedly loved those on the margins and revealed himself to all who were searching. He seemed quite indifferent about whether or not he disappointed the power brokers. Additionally, Jesus understood that the irreducible gospel message—that we are all sinners in need of being saved—was, and always will be, offensive. No brilliant marketing campaign could ever repackage it.

“I have been following after Jesus for more than three decades and the gospel still makes me bristle. Love those who publicly maligned me? Confess my sins to a friend? You’re kidding Jesus, aren’t you? Only he’s not kidding. Both his words and his life clearly demonstrate that to align ourselves with him means that we must be willing to forsake everything so that we might become more like him.

1“Rather than helping congregants in this endeavor, churches that bend into their mercurial whims foster a me-first mentality. This actually plays into one of the potential root sins of this generation: self-absorption. While it’s all too easy for those of us over the age of 30 to poke fun at their selfie antics, I think young Christians actually want the church to help them reign in their narcissism. Writer Aleah Marsden told me, ‘We definitely want to see Jesus at the center because the rest of the world keeps shouting that we’re the center. We don’t need the church to echo the world.’

“As they clamor for a communion supper with the best wine and freshly baked bread, the seeker-sensitive, consumer model has offered them treacly grape juice and dry cracker pieces, leaving them unsatisfied and frustrated.

Born_Again_Concert_039“If the Barna Group statistics are accurate,” notes Greco, ”more than 8 million 20-somethings have given up on church or Christianity. Do their actions indicate a need for us to, as David Kinnaman suggests, ‘change our church structure, guided by the unchanging truths of Scripture to nurture their unique gifts and calling?’ Or is their departure an invitation for all of us who consider ourselves Christians to prioritize transformation into the image of Christ?”

It may be time for evangelicals to learn something from the Catholics. At the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII, famously called for a window to be opened and challenged his leaders to invite the Holy Spirit back.

9Vast changes were made to the Catholic service. In the years that followed, the mass became much less a liturgical show observed by a silent faithful. Congregational singing was welcomed back. Members of the congregation were invited to the podium to read the day’s text and assist in serving communion.

Today the new pope is taking it further, challenging his leaders to humble themselves, to wash the feet of the poor and take themselves off of pedestals.

As a preacher’s son, I feel the pain of the other pastors’ kids with whom I grew up. So many have quietly shunned the flash and the spotlight. Too many have left the church.

5One of the most remarkable exceptions is a preacher’s son I’ve known since he was eight years old. Now in his 50s, John Andrew Loveall quietly retreated a decade ago to rural Central America where he established a school for Mayan tribal kids whose families’ poverty forces them to work. Eight-year-olds sell tourist trinkets and their 10-year-old brothers shine shoes. None were able to attend school until Loveall established Escuela Integrada Para Ninos Trabajadores – the Integrated School for Working Kids – which now has an enrolment of more than 400 in the tourist town of Antigua, Guatemala’s colonial capital.

loveallThose kids are embracing the simple Gospel as they learn to read, write and do arithmetic. Many have gone on to high school and college. They know the Bible. They know that a loving God hears their prayers and wants to make a difference in their lives – and has a plan for each one of them if they will quietly seek it and listen to Him speaking to their hearts.

They’ve been changed by the simple Gospel of Jesus Christ. And by a pastor practicing that simple Gospel.

Want a Good Movie for Your Youth Group?

Ray and Rich Romano at the premiere of The Investigator

What does it take to make a good Christian movie? “Passion,” says Nicole Abisinio, producer of “The Investigator,” based on the true-life story of comedian Ray Romano’s brother Rich.

In the long-running TV series “Everybody Loves Raymond.” the character “Robert” was loosely based on real-life cop Richard.

In real life, Rich, like Robert, is a policeman with a loving but quirky Italian Catholic family and a know-it-all high-profile brother. In the film, Rich’s undercover cop character has to take early retirement after a drug bust goes bad. He finds himself filling in as a baseball coach at a Protestant private school, facing a classroom of disrespectful rich kids and scholarshipped athletes, the latter who have special privileges since their successes bring in donors for the struggling academy.

The skeptical kids challenge their uncomfortable substitute teacher to re-open several high-profile historical cases, including President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and whether Jesus Christ is a historical or mythical figure. At the same time, he has to transform a mediocre varsity baseball team into winners.

Why did producer Abisinio choose such a project? After all, she started her career in New York City investment management, working in private equity and hedge funds for six years while simultaneously picking up roles as an actress – mostly in forgettable roles. Then she started working as a movie production accountant and eventually as an executive producer in New York City. What she’s known for is finding film funding – bringing in multi-million dollar deals for films with actors including Terence Howard, Jack Black and Samuel L Jackson.

Producer Nicole Abisinio

Producer Nicole Abisinio

She got into horror films – which make a lot of money. However, cranking out axe-murder movies aren’t very fulfilling spiritually.

“I was a very hardened New Yorker,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I was producing action films and horror movies and really nothing that was necessarily positive. It was entertainment and it was, you know, sometimes not very good entertainment.”

She began to get discouraged, feeling that her work was doing little to make the world a better place. She grew increasingly discontent – and says there was a divine plan behind it all.

Ray and Rich’s alter egos in the film

“That’s just the way the Lord works,” she said at the recent premiere of The Investigator. “I began to see that there had to be more. After a couple of years of seeing my life change as I sought Him, I started looking for Christian scripts. I actually got very sick and almost died. It was during that period that Rich’s script came into my inbox when I didn’t think I was going to survive. The story uplifted my spirit, it changed me and it made me want to be a better person.

“I thought ‘Wow! If this script does this for me…’

“It made me want to fight harder to get better and if that did that for me, then how many people going through hard times could have that same experience? What if this script could help them be able to fight another day and fight harder and know that God is with them through it all?”

She jumped into the film with gusto.

Nicole even has a cameo in the film

“As an independent film producer, you know that you are going to spend a full two years – at least – on that film. So it has to be the right one. I knew I had to put together a solid business plan. But when I prayed about it, I knew that for the first time, I couldn’t go knocking on just anyone’s door.

“I didn’t go doing any of what I normally do. God spoke to my heart, ‘Prepare you house,’ so I got everything ready and knew that people were going to come to me.

“And they did. I received a phone call from a guy who I’d worked with on another project and he said ‘Oh, it’s so interesting that you’ve got this project. I’ve got this guy who is an investor …”

She met with him at a restaurant where the investor told her he had a dream of doing a movie about Christian apologetics and baseball. She says she almost fell out of her seat.

Skeptical kids and baseball fill this movie

Skeptical kids and baseball fill this movie

“Our movie was apologetics and baseball,” remembers Nicole. “It was unbelievable. He said ‘I’m going to invest.’ You can’t do anything without that, of course. Then we just went full speed ahead, casting 120 people and hiring our crew, but it was different this time. Everything was done differently than any movie I had done.”

Why?

“Because God was leading the way for it,” says Nicole.

Christian films traditionally struggle in the marketplace. Often they have trouble on a variety of levels.

“My husband is a movie junkie and a film geek,” writes blogger Nicole Cottrell. “By osmosis, I too ,have become somewhat of a movie nerd. Jonathan and I often sit and discuss the films we love. We talk cinematography, direction, screenplay, and of course, acting.

“We see all kinds of movies, from comedies, to dramas, independent films, to cult classics. But one type of film we avoid at all costs is the dreaded Christian film. [Twilight Zone music here…followed by a woman’s scream]. In decades of cinema history, maybe three or four films rate as a quality Christian film. ‘Chariots of Fire’ would be one. ‘The Passion of Christ’ another.”

Baseball also offers the film's best comic moments.

Baseball also offers the film’s best comic moments.

“The Passion of the Christ,” of course, did phenomenally at the box office — $370 million. Then there’s the “Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” which pulled in $291 million. So, yes, Christian movies can be money-makers.

The Narnia sequels, “Prince Caspian” and “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” did well — $141 million and $104 million respectively. Then there are the Sherwood Studios films – Courageous, Fireproof and Facing the Giants – which improve with each release, both in quality and in box office sales. Other well-done Christian films that have done well recently include “The Nativity Story,” “Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie” and “End of the Spear.”

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Ray and Rich Romano

And there are those blockbusters that aren’t “religious” but have strong Christian worldviews, such as “The Blind Side,” “A Walk to Remember,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. What makes a movie “Christian,” anyway?

“Created with a Christian sensibility, a movie should be haunted by the invisible world,” writes scriptwriting mentor Barbara Nicolosi in an article with Spencer Lewerenz. “For believers, everything that we see is a sign of a reality that we cannot see. Paraphrasing St. Paul, all of creation points to the Presence and Nature of the Creator.

“A movie made with this conviction will leave viewers with the sense that beyond all the chaos and craziness in the world is a Loving Mind that comprehends it all, and is over it all. This broader vision–encompassing what is seen with the heart as well as with the eyes–has as much to do with good writing as with pastoral urgency.

“A Christian film should be imbued with the certainty that we are not alone. We were conceived of, worked out, prepared for, and assigned a place in the plan. We are connected to one another and to the One who yearns for us as the apple of his eye.

“Humans are meant to be merciful to one another,” writes Nicolosi. “Talents are given to us to speed us corporately on our way home to God. We should treat human beings the way we would treat any unique and precious treasure that belongs to someone else. “

4“I don’t want to knock any film that anyone is doing in any other Christian films,” says Abisinio, “because they have paved the way for us. The thing that has been said the most about this film and anyone that has seen it is ‘Wow! This film isn’t cheesy.’ This film is high quality, it’s got great acting and it’s real.

“That word just needs to spread. The more people that see it and tell everybody what they think of it, it will just go from there and explode.”

Wade Williams portrays the lead character -- Ray Romano's real-life policeman brother

Wade Williams portrays the lead character — Ray Romano’s real-life policeman brother

One of the film’s greatest barriers, she says, are skeptical Christians.  “It’s the Christians who are like ‘Well we don’t want to watch a Christian movie because it’s going to be bad. It’s going to be a church movie. It’s going to be on a video camera and you know, not have a story or be cheesy,’” says Abisinio.

As soon as they see the movie, she says, “it’s like, ‘Oh well, if we knew it was going to be this good, we would have done this or that to help you get the word out.’ It’s pulling teeth to get them to come see it in the first place, but as soon as they do, then they’ll do anything for us.”

For example, “The Passion of the Christ” opened in 3,408 theaters nationwide. “The Investigator” openned in 11 – but Abisinio says those 11 markets were carefully chosen. In each city, churches and youth groups went to see the film together. Pastors recommended their congregations see the film.

Then, when the DVD comes out in 2014, says Abisinio, so will a Christian study guide that examines the evidence that the film’s main character covers in his classroom – the proofs that Jesus Christ actually did everything that Christianity says He did. That’s certainly going to help with the bottom line – and, yes, even Christian films have to make a profit if their producers are going to have a shot at another film.

This is a perfect movie to show to a youth group on a weekend retreat. Nobody hops into bed. No blasphemous language. Lots of youth angst and teenage conflict. The baseball team’s arch-rivals are wretched enough that you want to throw popcorn at the screen.

Some of the editing is confusing – superfluous scenes could have been axed, but were obviously dear to the screenwriter and to Abisinio. The baseball scenes are fun – and here is where the film’s comedic element shines. Occasionally the character development is confusing as opponents become supporters too quickly – a little more suspense would be more satisfying. But it is inspirational to see the arrogant young football quarterback quietly ask Coach if he can have a shot at baseball.

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Coach runs into skepticism on the field as well as in the classroom

Filmed in the St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Tampa area, lots of local extras were used – and at the premiere, all seemed thrilled with the result and had brought friends and family to see their moment of fame.

It’s done well with reviewers: “This intriguing investigation takes place as we also follow the teams rise to the championship game,” writes Dove family reviewers who gave it a coveted rating of 5 Doves. “Will Sergeant Buanacore recover his faith? Will the team come together and play disciplined ball? You will have to watch this inspirational film to find out. You will also be surprised to find out that this moving drama is adapted from real events and we are pleased to award it our Dove ‘Family-Approved’ Seal for ages 12 and over.”

“I didn’t think they made this kind of film anymore,” wrote Pastor Bob Coy, Senior Pastor at Calvary Chapel in Ft. Lauderdale. “Redemptive message, high quality, good acting, a keep you glued story, educational, inspirational, and for the whole family! It’s more than just a movie, it has the power to change your life!”

”A candid and encouraging look at wrestling with faith and doubt through hard times,” wrote the American Family Association Journal.

”A moving and thought-provoking film about one man’s journey to investigate his faith and return to Christ.” Wrote the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg.

”The Investigator is a Christ-centered, heart-warming story about discovering grace and truth,” according to Movieguide.

”This gripping tale is one of redemption and finding God’s grace in the most unlikely of places. As a ministry that promotes films that promote a culture of life and love we could not be more thrilled,” wrote Jason Jones of Movie to Movement.

9”For those who are like the doubting apostle Thomas, you will explore a way to investigate the resurrection of Jesus through the character of Police Sergeant James Buanacore, a twenty-year veteran investigator. Overall this is a heartwarming story, of personal transformation that will touch adults as well as adolescents,” wrote Dr. Caroline Cerveny of Interactive.

“This is a special film,” says Abisinio. “Everywhere we’ve gone, we are seeing it literally changing people’s lives. They are wanting to come to God. it’s amazing. I’ve never seen people literally affected to that extent.

“I think it is because it’s real and we don’t hold back.”

Syria in Flames: Is This How to Defend Our Faith?

Towns and villages in Syria that have been home to Christians for 2,000 years are being steadily emptied as families flee persecution, the deadly violence of a civil war, fears of chemical warfare and a rash of targeted kidnappings in which Christian leaders have been held for large ransoms.

14681-81489But some are staying – declaring they are called to be lights in the darkness.

“Since the civil war in Syria began, Christians have increasingly suffered attacks from radical Islamists,” reports International Christian Concern. “In the past 18 months, a staggering 2 million Syrians have fled their country to seek refuge in neighboring countries. Syrian Christian leaders are asking for our help for those Christians who have fled. Unable to work, they are desperate. Help is necessary to sustain the families and very little aid has come to them so far.”

Life is even more difficult for those who have chosen to stay. At least a third of the Christians in northeastern Syria are believed to have fled – after centuries of relative peace.

“It breaks my heart to think how our long history is being uprooted,” Syriac Christian leader Ishow Goriye, told Ruth Sherlock, of the British newspaper the Daily Telegraph reporting from the Syrian area of al-Hasakah.

He is among Syriac Christians who say they are determined to stay – because of their high calling to be living witnesses of Christ’s love, mercy and grace – no easy assignment in the middle of a multi-sided civil war between zealous extremists.

Syria’s Orthodox congregations have for centuries proudly claimed to be the most ancient in the world. Shortly after Christ’s crucifixion, a zealot named Saul led an expedition into Syria, intending to bring fugitive Christians back to Jerusalem to be tried for apostasy.

Instead, on the road to Damascus – still today Syria’s capital – he had a dramatic experience and was transformed into the missionary who spread the Gospel throughout the known world and authored 14 of the New Testament’s 27 books.

According to St. Luke writing in Acts 11:26, “The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” in Syria – now Antakya, just across the border inside Turkey. Syria was the home of one of the great early leaders of Christianity, St. Ignatius.

Goriye “has watched as Christian families from al-Hasakah pack their possessions on the rooftops of their vehicles and flee their homes ‘with little plan to come back,’ reports Sherlock. “Conflict in the area, desperate economic conditions, lawlessness, and persecution by rebel groups remain the main reasons for why Christian families are fleeing the area.”

syrian-christian-girlsBut, notes David Curry for the advocacy group Open Doors, “Hidden in the noise of the current political environment is still an unrepresented issue in Syria – the intentional and systematic persecution of Christians. We are calling Christians on all sides of the political debate to dedicate themselves to prayer for our fellow believers who are targeted for their faith.

“They’ve done nothing wrong, only being bold enough to associate themselves as Jesus followers” – not an easy assignment in the middle of a firefight between jihadists.

“Please pray earnestly for protection of their lives, families, businesses and freedoms. Without the support of Christians in the West, these believers face even more danger,” reported Curry. “Thousands are already refugees, prisoners, homeless and victims of kidnappings due to this systematic persecution. With the growing marginalization of Christian faith around the world, it is imperative that we unite in prayer.”

“It began as kidnapping for money, but then they started telling me I should worship Allah,” a former kidnap victim told the Telegraph’s Sherlock. “I was with five others. We were tied and blindfolded and pushed down on our knees. One of the kidnappers leant so close to my face I could feel his breath. He hissed: ‘Why don’t you become a Muslim? Then you can be free’.”

Rebel groups presume the Christians support the government – although Goriye’s Christian Syriac Union party has long been in opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.  While speaking to the Telegraph, Christian leader members “were loath to criticize the opposition rebels, but many confessed that the situation had become ‘too bad’ not to talk about it,” reported Sherlock.

“Rebels said we had to pay money for the revolution,” a refugee told the Telegraph. “My cousin is a farmer, and wanted to check on his land. I warned him he should take armed security but he refused. A group kidnapped him in the barn of his farm. We had to pay $60,000 for his release. They are milking the Christians.”

“A few prayer requests from churches inside Syria – ” reported Open Doors, “include lasting peace, counselling for children who have been traumatized by violence, support for almost one-third of the Syrian population who are either refugees outside the country or homeless inside Syria, medicines, food and other relief materials get to those most in need.”

imagesCA9XY1YDBut included in the prayer request was that Christians around the world pray that the Syriac Christians remaining in the war zone “be a salt and light in their community even as civil war rages. “

Much of Syria’s Christian community has avoided “choosing sides” in the war, seeking self-preservation in neutrality, reported Sherlock. “But the strategy has left Christians defenseless in the face of sectarian attacks and the lawlessness that now define rebel-held areas. Last year, when government forces pulled out al-Hasakah province, leaving the terrain in the hands of Kurdish groups and Sunni opposition rebel, Christians became an easy target.

“A Christian man calling himself Joseph and living in al-Hasakah said: ‘The only unprotected group are the Christians. The Arabs had arms coming from Saudi and Qatar, the Kurds had help from Kurdistan. We had no weapons at all.’”

“The deadly violence percolating half a world away in Syria and the warnings of a possible U.S. attack have some people not only looking ahead to what might happen in the coming days — but also looking backward into ancient, apocalyptic prophecies in the pages of the Old Testament,” writes J.D. Gallop in USA Today newspaper.

“In recent weeks, some dire prophecies have turned up on websites, in book stores, as the subject of Bible studies and in sermons by some Christians and others who see a link between the old passages and modern-day events in Egypt, Libya and Syria.”

After all, “Behold, Damascus is about to be removed from being a city, and will become a fallen ruin,” reads Isaiah 17, a passage some Christians say they believe details a horrific event that leaves the city uninhabitable and leads to worldwide tribulation and the second coming of Christ, notes Gallop.

“Another passage in Isaiah 19 deals with civil war in Egypt and the rise of a ‘fierce king.’ Talk of those prophecies has intensified as President Barack Obama considers a U.S. military strike on Syria in response to what Washington says is evidence that the Syrian leadership used chemical weapons against its own people. In turn, Syria vows to retaliate against neighboring Israel if the U.S. strikes.

“Fighting raged through the picturesque mountain village of Maaloula, near Damascus,” reported Sherlock with the Telegraph’s Magdy Samaan, as the regime launched a counter-attack against the rebels.

“They entered the main square and smashed a statue of the Virgin Mary,” said one resident of the area, speaking by phone and too frightened to give his name. “They shelled us from the nearby mountain. Two shells hit the St Thecla convent.”

“Maaloula, tucked into the honey-colored cliffs of a mountain range north of Damascus and on a ‘tentative’ list of applicants for Unesco World Heritage status, is associated with the earliest days of Christianity,” noted the Telegraph.

746681-syria-christian-christmas“St. Thecla, who is supposedly buried in the convent, was a follower of St. Paul. The inhabitants are mostly Melkite Greek Catholic and Orthodox Christians, but have historically lived peacefully alongside a Sunni Muslim minority. It is one of only three places in the world where Western Aramaic, a dialect of the language spoken by Christ, is still used.

“Until recently, the town had managed to remain mostly unaffected by the civil war that has already claimed more than 100,000 lives. A visit by the Daily Telegraph last year found it ringed by government checkpoints but suffering from the lack of pilgrims and tourists who are normally vital to its economy.”

Residents say several rebel groups – a mix of the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra and the more moderate Free Syrian Army, attacked the village.

“First they took a brick factory owned by a Christian guy, who is now missing,” said the resident. “Then at around 5.30 a.m., a car bomb detonated at the checkpoint at the entrance to the village. Some of the rebels entered a home near the checkpoint belonging to Yousef Haddad, a Christian. They tried to force him to convert to Islam.”

A nun living in a convent in the village told the Associated Press that 27 orphans living in the convent were taken to nearby caves for shelter.

How are Christians under such assault supposed to defend their faith? Many cite Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane who chastised the Apostle Peter for drawing a sword in defense of the Saviour.

Egyptian Christians are under the same pressure – with thousands opting to leave embattled areas rather than join in the fighting on one side or the other.

On Sunday, the news network SAT-7 aired footage of Egyptians worshipping in the remains of the Evangelical Church of Beni Mazar in the town of Minia, Upper Egypt, It was one of over 80 Egyptian churches targeted in violent.

“Dark smears mark where flames licked the outside walls of the church building after arsonists set it ablaze,” reported SAT-7. “The charred hull of the interior is crumbling and peeling where wood and paint previously existed. Singed wiring hangs loose from the ceiling. On 14th August, Rev. Hany Jacque received a phone call notifying him that angry rioters had broken in the door of the church. For seven hours, the rioters stole furniture from inside, broke the glass windows, and burned the church’s books, including its Bibles. They also looted and burned its community services building next door, which had provided medical and financial assistance to all the residents of Beni Mazar, regardless of their religion.”

damascus-bab-quarter-christian_siOn camera, Jacque reflected on the destruction, “The Church is not walls and buildings. The Church is us, the people of God. They burned and destroyed the building, but it will never be possible for them to burn and destroy the Church because the Church will remain forever. If this was the cost for the God’s people in this place, that’s all right. Pay it, because God’s people must always speak the truth. This is a small price to pay for us to speak the truth.”

Congregants filled the desecrated building with songs of praise and the words of Scripture, singing, “Jesus, we bless your name.” They joined hands and prayed that God would accomplish His will in the Church. The song leader encouraged the congregation, saying, “The joy of the Lord is your strength…God’s glory in the midst of the Church is a sign for what is coming in the land of Egypt. The Church will be filled with glory.”

Attacks targeting Egypt’s Christians intensified after former president Mohamed Morsi was removed from power.

“It is evident that the almost universally non-violent response to these attacks (the worst assault on Christians in Egypt for almost 600 years) has greatly impressed many Muslims,” reoirted SAT-7’s Dr. Terence Ascott. “This has been a very public turning of the other cheek by the Christians of Egypt, and a very public act of obedience to Jesus’ injunction for His followers to ‘…love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matthew 5:44).”

But turning the other cheek is difficult.

“As Syrian Christians, we used to live in peace under Assad,” an unidentified Syrian Christian told International Christian Concern. “Assad is not a perfect man, yet he gave the Christians freedom and rights the same as Muslims. We could wear what we wanted and we had churches all over the country.

“Then when the uprising started, we began to see many Islamist jihadists from Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. They began to kill us (the Christians) and other minorities who are considered infidels. The Islamists killed us with knives and even decapitated some and burned down our churches.

imagesCA393KUL“Now, Christians are not welcome under their Islamist rule. No Western country will give us visas. Many times, we feel like the whole world, want to see the Christians of Syria slaughtered!”

Being a light in such darkness – defending the faith as Jesus would – is a difficult assignment.

But some extraordinary Syrians are doing it.

 

Are Denominations Dividing the Church?

One day, Jesus turned to one of His most faithful disciples, fisherman Simon Bar-Jonah, and gave him a new name. God had only done that a few times before – Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Jacob to Israel, then a few years later, Saul to Paul. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus not only re-named Simon, but told him: “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

St. Paul, painted by Pompeo Giralamo Batoni (1708-1787),

St. Peter, painted by Pompeo Giralamo Batoni (1708-1787),

“This was an extraordinary thing for Jesus to do,” writes Christian attorney John Salza, “because ‘rock’ was not even a name in Jesus’ time. Jesus did this, not to give Simon a strange name, but to identify his new status among the apostles. When God changes a person’s name, He changes their status.” Indeed, Peter would have a unique role in founding the church.

“The Gospel records that He built one church and that all saved people were in that church,” writes David Pratt. “He prayed for unity and rebuked division.” In 1 Corinthians 1:10, the Apostle Paul pleaded “let there be no divisions among you!”

So, how did today’s church get so divided – Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Mennonites, Orthodox, Mormons, to list just a few?

1“Today, hundreds of denominations exist in the name of Christianity,” notes Pratt, “claiming to be Christian. They are divided and contradict one another.” Sometimes their theological differences are puzzling. In order to receive eternal salvation, Southern Baptists believe we must hear the Gospel, believe Jesus is Lord, confess that belief before others and repent of our sins, then we must be baptized. The Churches of Christ/Christian Churches teach exactly the same thing – except for the sequence: salvation only comes after the final step, after baptism. Then the Southern Baptists believe a Christian cannot lose his salvation; the Churches of Christ disagree – a believer can “backslide” and end up in Hell just like anybody else.

New Orleans Second Line Parade Hits Streets Of New York CityBoth groups base their theology on the Bible. Some of their differences are incredibly minor – yet keep large groups of believers from having much to do with one another. For example, the Churches of God headquartered in Anderson, Indiana, is theologically almost identical to the Churches of Christ/Christian Churches – however the latter refuse to recognize any central headquarters.

Many Pentecostals believe much as the Baptists and the Anderson Churches of God do – except teach that salvation comes only after the in-filling of the Holy Spirit, which the convert must prove by vocalizing a heavenly language, “speaking in tongues.”

3Another enormous divide concerns how God’s gift of eternal salvation is given. On one side are those who believe salvation must be gained, even earned, by fulfilling certain obligations. Others disdain such obligations, saying salvation is freely given by God’s boundless grace and all we have to do is accept His gift.

The headquarters issue is a major sticking point among many groups. Millions of Christians in China are required by their government to repudiate any headquarters other than the government-recognized Three-Self Movement for non-Catholics and the national Catholic Association, both with headquarters in Beijing.

4Worldwide, the largest group of Christians, the Roman Catholic Church is headquartered in Vatican City – right in the middle of Rome, Italy – and disdains any notion that they are a denomination. Everybody else is, they teach. They, on the other hand, are the original church. However, the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ also teach that – insisting they are “non-denominational,” while everybody else is “denominational.”

5Greek, Ethiopian, Syrian, Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Russian and other Orthodox groups are divided largely over the headquarters issue. To outsiders, they don’t seem that different from each other or Roman Catholics – however, most are rich in rituals and traditions that have developed over the centuries and which are held dear by the faithful.

Mormons, a large and growing group, have their headquarters in Salt Lake City, and believe that their founder in the 1800s was visited by an angel who lead him to a manuscript of the Book of Mormon, which the church teaches is “another Gospel of Jesus Christ” – but is not accepted by any other group. Similarly, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists and Seventh-Day Adventists have their own individual headquarters and their own unique teachings passed down by their founders, but rarely accepted by anybody else.

6So, is all this division a good thing?

“To the average person,” teaches Pratt, “Christianity includes hundreds of different denominations that disagree with one another in name, organization, doctrine, worship, and plan of salvation. Such a situation clearly constitutes division, not unity. Yet all the denominations claim to be Christian and to follow Jesus Christ. If we really want to please God, however, we must forsake what we want and practice what He wants.”

7After all, Ecclesiastes 12:13 teaches us that man’s whole duty is to fear God and keep His commands. We should be determined to do God’s will, not our own. Matthew 16:24 instructs us that to follow Jesus we must deny ourselves. “True religion does not consist of what pleases us,” says Pratt. “It is entirely a question of what pleases God.

“The fundamental consequence of denominationalism is that error is just as good as truth! If the denominational concept is true, then all denominations are acceptable to God even though they flatly contradict one another regarding worship, salvation, etc. This means error is just as good as truth and unrighteousness is just as good as righteousness. Denominationalism must be wrong because it says that error does not condemn.”

8Pratt, of course, has a clear idea of what he believes to be the true church. And it does not include groups that are “in error.” Pastor Rick Harrington isn’t so sure. He says the issue can be viewed in terms of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”

“The Good: Denominations help people distinguish theological differences. If I am looking for a church that holds to Scripture alone as the highest authority, then I certainly want to stick to a protestant denomination. If I am also looking for one that holds to believer’s baptism, then I want to find a free church or a baptist church. If I want one that is paedo-baptist (infant baptism) I will look to the Presbyterian, Methodist, or Congregationalist. If I am Reformed, then usually that means Presbyterian or Congregational. If I want a high-church liturgy, then Anglican or Methodist. You get the idea. Denominations mean we are taking theology seriously. That is a good thing. To water down the message for the sake of unity is a huge mistake.

9“The Bad: Denominations can also be bad. By that I mean evil. They can be a source of divisiveness and arrogance. When one denomination begins to think that they are the only real Christians who have a full grasp on all the truth, there is a problem. I’ve seen this in all different denominations. Christ is bigger than any one denomination of Christianity. Sectarianism and divisiveness are flat out evil. This falls into the ‘I follow Paul’ or ‘I follow Apollos’ mentality we read about in 1 Corinthians.

“The Ugly: Sometimes denominations can just be plain ugly. People hide away in their denominational traditions and never peek out to see what else is going on in the world. It is not that people don’t think there can be Christians outside of their denominations, it’s just that they have no association with them. They are ‘American Baptists’ or ‘Southern Baptists’ or ‘Orthodox Presbyterian’ or ‘Evangelical Presbyterian Church.’ Think about how this looks to the world. Instead of making much of our unity in Christ, we turn the church into alphabet soup: ABC, SBC, BGC, EPC, OPC, PCA, UCC, CCCC, PCUSA, UMC, CB, ELCA, IFCA, etc. (yes those are all real denominations).

10“Can we save the good, and get rid of the bad and the ugly? Can we do away with the bad and the ugly, and still keep the good? Only in degrees. We can get better and better. How about a more radical idea?” suggests Harrington. “Be inter-denominational. Be a church that majors on the essentials, is not afraid to talk about and deal with the non-essentials but doesn’t divide over them. Welcome folks to join based on the gospel essentials, but still maintain strong theological differences without dividing over them.

“That’s what we are trying at First Baptist. We are a Gospel-centered, believer’s Baptist, complementarian church in practice. However, we have a good handful of paedo-baptists. I’m what would be a labeled a five-point Calvinist, but I would be happy to welcome an Arminian into fellowship and debate. We are covenantal for the most part, yet open to dispensationals at all levels of leadership. We major on the essentials.”

11Hardliners would say he has embraced apostasy. Others would say he’s trying to overcome human barriers and be obedient to the command in I Corinthians to shun all the divisions.

A recent conference on the future of evangelicalism raised some interesting questions about denominations. Blogger Trevin Wax tried to keep up with the discussion for his readers. “At the core of the issue of denominationalism is a simple question: is it a good or bad thing that the Christian church is split into so many different denoninations?

Egyptian Christians wonder what the future holds.

“Answering that question requires addressing many other issues as well, such as how a denomination might help or hinder individual churches’ ministries, and how members of different denominations should (or should not) work with each other,” reports Wax.

He puts forth an interesting reason that denominations can be useful: they bring balance to individual churches’ tendency to “over-specialize” in just one area of ministry.

A historic AME church in Manhattan

“Evangelical churches in general tend to specialize in, unsurprisingly, evangelism,” he writes. “Narrow definitions and limited experiences do not stretch us into the people that Jesus came to make us into. Even though we are all called at different points to different specialties (gifts, ministries, vocations – insert your word here) in the church, God has also called us to be first His in ALL aspects of life. We need to experience others who are specialists in aspects that we have, but may not concentrate on. We need their perspective, and we need to learn form them.

“Is your church part of a denomination, and if so, has that association been a help or a hindrance to its ministry? Share your thoughts!” he asked readers.

“I have maintained for a very long time that denominations equate to traditions,” answered reader Howard Gunter. “When a tradition and its accompanying practices become MORE important to the following than basic Bible doctrines, that denomination becomes a constraint rather than a blessing. I especially adhere to the point that specializing in a single or few practices derived from Scripture may rob the following of a full teaching of the Christian life as set before us by the ONE EXAMPLE: Jesus the Christ and in some cases encourage an attitude of eliteness. Another thing that emerges in some “specialized” practices is a forced or choreographed response which only tends to serve man and allows for personal pride.

“There are positives as well to traditions. The most glaring is that it provides a certain structure and comfort for a following and certainly order. I simply believe that we need to be open to guidance and leading of the Holy Spirit, without any sense of trepidation when something occurs that falls out of the realm of “tradition” as long as there is NO conflict with basic bible doctrine. I am well aware that various denominations interpret the doctrines differently and therein lies the draw to followers that seek a personal comfort zone in which to worship.”

“In my experience, the tricky thing about denominations is the same as political parties,” responded reader Dale Fincher. “If you don’t toe the party line you’re at great risk. There leaves little room for growth into new developments of theology and understanding. If one is merely a member of a church, he may feel that his larger denomination overlooks local needs. If you are on paid staff, you may find your career and financial support disappearing if you are convinced by conscience and study that the dogmatism of your particular denomination isn’t accurate. And this silences many preachers because it’s better to keep quiet than to not put food on the table.

A Houston, Texas, prayer session for America

“Something often overlooked is the more nebulous question of what it means for Jesus to be the ‘head’ of the church and for the Holy Spirit to bring unity. Seems, in practice, we sidestep these two and impose hierarchy to “replicate” the work God promised to do among local assemblies.

“That’s not to say denominations are ‘bad’ per se. They’ve done many great things. And when they go well, they have more strength, resources, and voices than mere local assemblies. But when they go bad, they can be devastating, silencing strength, resources, and voices of local assemblies.”

“When you look at the New Testament,” answered reader Morris Saffold Jones, “there is no justification for such a thing. In fact, the way church is practiced in America could be described as ‘a waste of time.’ The first century church got together and actually fellowshipped. Coming together today (for church) is a joke in that people drive to a massive building, drop 10 percent of their income in a bucket, listen to someone espouse their opinion for 45 minutes (without ANY dialogue – which means that many people have not engaged), then scramble through a throng of people to pick up their kids and go home to the same lives that they left 3 hours prior.

“In the first century, the ekklesia or the assembly was small, local, and lacked the destructive culture that we have today. they actually sat around a perimeter and debated the scriptures. Imagine that! thinking about the scriptures in front of other believers. Do we believe the Bible or do we believe in structure?”

 

Youngsters praying at a Miami church

 

“’Denomination’ is not in the Holy Bible,” observed reader Ira Kirkpatrick, “and is like a two edged sword. It brings people together and separates them as well. There were seven churches of Asia because of different cities and all were followers of Jesus Christ and that is what we need more than denominations. We do not need to be traditionalist to the determent of the spirit of the lord and its function in us.

“When we get to heaven there will not be Baptist, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Pentecostal or any other. I have seen all my life the divisions of denomination cause more problems than it solved in my opinion. We must read and study the Bible for what it states and not what we want it to say.

12“I am Christian first and when asked what religion I am, I say I am a Christian and follower of Christ. Blessed is the Lord Jesus Christ who did for our sins.

“God so loved the world that he did not send a committee, or a denomination.”

So, what do you think?

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