Is the church people or a place?

From Change Your Church for Good: The Art of Sacred Cow Tipping (W Publishing Group, 2007) by Brad Powell:

God intended the church to be about people, not place. Acts 8:3 tells us, “Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.” This passage clearly communicates that the church was and is people. They didn’t drag off the houses. They hauled off the people. The church is people. And yet, most churches tend to focus on place over people.

I would argue that what the Acts 8:3 passage clearly communicates is that the church is people gathered in a place, not just people. Certainly the greater context of the Book of Acts would support this:

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. (Acts 2:1)

And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together… (Acts 4:31)

God’s people are commanded to not forsake the assembling of themselves together (Hebrews 10:24), obviously requiring a place to assemble. And if the church is not both people and place, how does Brad explain 1 Corinthians 11:18:

For first of all, when you come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you, and I partly believe it.

Two verses later Paul refers to the church as “coming together in one place” (1 Corinthians 11:20).

Place was significant in the Old Testament whenever God was present. Jacob picked a place at random to sleep and when he awoke he said, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I knew it not.” He dedicated that place to God (Genesis 28:11-19). Moses was walking through a desert and heard the voice of God speak to him to remove his shoes because “the place where you are standing is holy’ (Exodus 3:5). Joshua set up stones in the Jordan river to mark “the place where the feet of the priests who bore the ark of the covenant stood” (Joshua 4:9).

The church is God’s people gathered in a specific place. And when the church is gathered, God has promised to be in their midst. The presence of God in the midst of God’s people demands reverance and awe. Today’s contemporary church makes irreverance a vital part of their creed. Brad Powell again:

[W]e invite people to bring drinks into our auditorium for services. In fact, we have cup holders in our seats to facilitate this. You wouldn’t believe how many people, especially those who come to our church as nonbelievers, have told us that they were willing to come because they could dress casually and sip a latte or cappucinno while we told them about God.
Of course, it has its problems. It never fails that someone will spill a drink in the back row. Since our auditorium floor is sloped, the spill will slowly make its way all the way down front. It makes for cheap entertainment. People will start placing bets on how far it’s going to go. I think the record is twenty-three rows. (Please know that we don’t actually sponsor or sanction the betting.)

If you invited a group of people into your home, would you tolerate this kind of lack of respect for your home? If you were invited to someone’s home would you behave in this manner? And yet this kind of irreverance is actually encouraged by the pastor of a church where God’s people are supposedly gathered to meet God!

Is the church’s character and calling shaped primarily by the word of God or by the prevailing culture?

Emergent the New Nicolaitans?

Has “the doctrine of the Nicolaitans” (Revelation 2:6,15) resurfaced in the Emergent Church? John MacArthur thinks so. In his latest book, The Truth War: Fighting for Certainty in an Age of Deception, MacArthur defines the doctrine of the Nicolaitans as “a kind of radical licentiousness” further defined as “using Christian liberty as a cloak for vice and an opportunity for the flesh,” which later characterized gnosticism, “a deadly brand of false religion that flourished in the second century and often infiltrated the church, masquerading as Christianity.” What made this threat so dangerous is that it came from within the church (Acts 20:29-31), and more specifically from among the leaders of the church, precisely where the Emergent threat is originating in the present day.

Truth is under attack by those who profess to be purveyors of truth: evangelical ministers.  MacArthur roots his definition of truth in what the Bible teaches: “truth is that which is consistent with the mind, will, character, glory, and being of God.”  God is the source of all truth, and knowing truth is the irreducible minimum in knowing God. Unlike the view of postmodernism, truth can be known. Knowing truth is essential to our salvation: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” However, saving faith is not merely assent to propositional truth. It is also fundamentally about a relationship to a Person – Jesus Christ – who claimed to be “the Truth.”  While “there is without question a personal element to the truth,” MacArthur argues that “truth simply cannot survive if stripped of propositional content… 

While it is quite true that believing the truth entails more than the assent of the human intellect to certain propositions, it is equally true that authentic faith never involves anything less. To reject the propositional content of the gospel is to forfeit saving faith, period.”

The Emergent crowd suggests it is arrogance to believe anything for certain, and to do so makes us out of step with the culture and therefore incapable of communicating with the culture.

Emerging Christians are determined to adapt the Christian faith, the structure of the church, the language of faith, and even the gospel message itself to the ideas and rhetoric of postmodernism.

Emergent theologians are telling us that knowing truth is futile at best.  Ambiguity and mystery are the new creeds of modern evangelicalism.  Our commitment to propositional truth died with the collapse of modernism according to the Emergent theologians:

[Stanley Grenz and John Franke] are convinced that every desire to gain a fixed and positive knowledge of any truth belongs to the collapsing categories of enlightenment rationalism.

MacArthur points out that propositional truth isn’t rooted in the enlightenment rationalism that gave rise to modernism, but rather propositional truth is rooted in the eternal nature of God which is changeless.  To abandon propositional truth for fuzzy, wuzzy metanarratives is to abandon the very essential that forms who we are as followers of Jesus Christ.  But this is precisely the path Emergent takes us down. The cardinal sin in these postmodern times is the claim to be right.

What Brian McLaren, Stanley Grenz, and John Franke argue for is the “contextualization” of Christianity for these postmodern times.  Their argument boils down to “if we cannot know everything perfectly, we really cannot know anything with any degree of certainty.”

Since culture is constantly in flux, they say, it is right and fitting for Christian theology to be in a perpetual state of transition and ferment too. No issue should be regarded as finally settled.

MacArthur cogently addresses what truth is and how it trancends both modernism and postmodernism.  If you are looking for a cogent and understandble response to Brian McClaren and Stanley Grenz, you’ll find it in chapter two of MacArthur’s book. MacArthur concludes this chapter with a call to counter the culture:

[T]he absolute worst strategy for ministering the gospel in a climate like this is for Christians to imitate the uncertainty or echo the cynicism of the postmodern perspective – and in effect drag the Bible and the gospel into it. Instead, we need to affirm against the spirit of the age that God has spoken with the utmost clarity, authority, and finality through His Son (Hebrews 1:1-2). And we have the infallible record of that message in Scripture (2 Peter 1:19-21).

Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Cultural Relevance

Consider these words from Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, long time pastor of Westminster Chapel in London, England:

Our Lord attracted sinners because He was different. They drew near to Him because they felt that there was something different about Him…And the world always expects us to be different. This idea that you are going to win people to the Christian faith by showing them that after all you are remarkably like them, is theologically and psychologically a profound blunder.

From Preaching & Preachers (Zondervan, 1972)

When the Church Becomes Like the World

Dr. John MacArthur released Ashamed of the Gospel: When the Church Becomes Like the World in 1993 but its message is just as applicable 14 years later:

Traditional methodology – most notably preaching – is being discarded or downplayed in favor of newer means, such as drama, dance, comedy, variety, side-show histironics, pop-psychology, and other entertainment forms. The new methods supposedly are more “effective” – that is, they draw a bigger crowd. And since for many the chief criterion for gauging the success of a church has become attendance figures, whatever pulls in the most people is accepted without critical analysis as good. That is pragmatism.

Perhaps the most visible signs of pragmatism are seen in the convulsive changes that have revolutionized the church worship service in the past decade. Some of evangelicalism’s largest and most influential churches now boast Sunday services that are designed purposely to be more rollicking than reverent.

Even worse, theology now takes a back seat to methodology

Churches are allowing drama, music, recreation, entertainment, self-help programs, and similar enterprises to eclipse tradtional Sunday worship and fellowship. In fact, everything seems to be in fashion in the church today except biblical preaching. The new pragmatism sees preaching – particularly expository preaching – as passe. Plainly declaring the truth of God’s Word is regarded as unsophisticated, offensive, and utterly ineffective. We’re now told that we can get better results by first amusing people or giving them success tips and pop-psychology, thus wooing them into the fold. Once they feel comfortable, they’ll be ready to receive biblical truth in small diluted doses


Should lost people find the church strange?

From Change Your Church for Good: The Art of Sacred Cow Tipping (W Publishing Group, 2007) by Brad Powell: 

The Sunday morning service was killing us. We couldn’t reach new people because the service was irrelevant to everyone but insiders…If the primary services of the church aren’t relevant to outsiders, the church will not grow or reach people.

Is the church a place for outsiders or insiders? And how does one go from being an outsider to an insider? And what does relevance have to do with it?

Paul of Tarsus went to a city called Colosse to plant a church.  Paul describes the people he was sharing the gospel with as “aliens” and “hostile” toward the message (Colossians 1:21).  They found Paul’s preaching strange because it was strange, and intentionally designed to be strange!  You might say it was even irrelevant.  It made no sense to them. The church Paul was planting was totally foreign to their culture.

Yet it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believed (1 Corinthians 1:21). Through Paul’s faithful preaching of the gospel (Colossians 1:5,6), not his marketing or management skills, God worked. God created faith in the hearts of those who heard the word, and through this gift of faith God reconciled them to himself through the death of His Son (Colossians 1:21,22).  It was the word of truth, the gospel that was bringing forth fruit in the form of new believers (Colossians 1:5,6).  No attempts were made to make these aliens and strangers comfortable with the church.  Paul was simply faithful to preach the word. And God was faithful to honor his word by saving people who were initially distracted by the irrelevance of the message. Paul planted and watered; God gave the increase.

When faith produced new life, the outsider became an insider.  The outsider began a process of spiritual growth and development toward the goal. The goal was not their happiness. The goal of this new spiritual life was holiness and blamelessness (Colossians 1:22) that came about as a result of being grounded and settled in the faith, which was itself a result of being taught God’s word and admonished through God’s word by fellow believers (Colossians 3:16). The result of this exposure to God’s word was worship characterized by the singing of psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Colossians 3:16), focusing the heart of the worshipper with thankfulness to God in recognition that this whole process of moving from an outsider to an insider from start to finish was God’s doing. Without God actively working to reconcile us to Himself, no amount of culturally relevant language would ever produce the necessary faith to believe. Relevance has nothing to do with God’s power to save. Nothing. God saved 3,000 people on the Day of Pentecost after they had heard a sermon spoken in a language totally foreign to them!  Is God hamstrung by the culture? By language?

Should the church in the Twenty-First Century endeavor to remove the distinctives that make it strange to the culture? Or should we allow the lost to enter fully into the experience of being aliens and hostile toward God and His church, allowing the Holy Spirit to work through the word to produce faith, generating spiritual life, and birthing these aliens and strangers into the life of the church?

Making lost people feel at home in church is a lot like helping a struggling butterfly out of its cocoon.  You aren’t doing it any favors.  The struggle for life is an important part of the process.  And the struggle the lost have with the strangeness of the church is very much a part of the process the Spirit of God uses to bring them to a point of genuine faith. Taking away that struggle invites not true conversion, but mere participation in a place where they’ve been made to feel at home.  Tom Bodet can leave the light on for them; the church has a higher calling.

Is the church’s character and calling shaped primarily by the word of God or by the prevailing culture?