Gary Swisher

Archive for February, 2011|Monthly archive page

Lead Me, Feed Me

In Christianity, church, evangelical on February 28, 2011 at 10:53 pm

I recently read an all-too-honest critique on another blogger’s site about the drawbacks of the contemporary worship experience. The chief complaint in his article was that worship leaders were often very good at achieving a personal connection with the worship, themselves, while those in the congregation are expected to reach the same level of engagement, albeit as spectators. Members are expected to accept the “call to worship” and be “ushered in to the presence of God.” As one who has led worship, I know how much easier it is to engage when I am the one in the driver’s seat and not a spectator. I’ve heard other worship leaders say the same. Yet even knowing this, they still want and expect to see an impact on the faces and gestures of those they are leading in order to validate their efforts.

Now I understand that many in a congregation are more than spectators. There are at least a few folks in most gatherings who really do participate on a spiritual level. Then there are other worshippers who live by the “act it until you feel it” philosophy. They sincerely want to become engaged in their hearts, so they do it on the outside until the inside catches up. I wonder how that’s working out? Knowing ourselves, and human nature, we also have to admit there are some folks who might only appear to be in the worship “zone” for the sake of appearances. I suspect some of them are right up on stage, trying to “help” the members enter into worship by being a good example.

Why do churches focus on appearances when Jesus said to forget the appearance and focus on the heart? The more charismatic the congregation, the more pressure one might feel to look lively. But the need for enthusiasm isn’t an issue only with charismatic churches. I recall once hearing a preacher in the Church of Christ say, “If this won’t catch you on fire, your wood is wet!” And so we all think, “Yes, if I really love God why am I not feeling this worshipful attitude?” There can be a lot of reasons for this but rarely does anyone ever suspect something is wrong with the top-down approach to our services or the methodical view of the Christian life.

How many times have you heard someone who leads a Bible class say that at least part of their motivation to teach is that it forces them to be engaged in the word? Or we often hear, “I got more from teaching this class than I ever would have as a student.” We know the ones who lead are the true beneficiaries because they have to focus and put their energies on spiritual things (unless they are entirely insincere). As a worship leader, there have been many times when I was so spiritually primed for leading a service that I thought the spark that ignited me would catch the entire congregation on fire. I was usually disappointed at the lack of energy and engagement of most of the members. Why were they not able to feed off my fullness? Nearly every worship team complains that those in the congregation just won’t get excited about the worship. Why don’t they have more fun at our party?

We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep. (Lk 7:32, ESV)

My experience as a worship leader is just a springboard for this discussion. Looking at any aspect of the conventional church, we see the same malady. Consider the pastor, who studies, prepares and gets to know his subject matter and is truly, spiritually excited about it. Sure there is some fakery out there, but most pastors I have known really are focused on their relationship with God. Having taught many Bible classes, I know what it’s like to have a spiritual epiphany in my study and preparation. I could only hope to somehow communicate the deep revelation that touched me. This comes from a seeking heart and a desire to learn. How disappointing it is when the delivery of this revelation or the response it receives from the members in the class don’t live up to my own personal experience.

I see this frustration in pastors who also try to encourage change and growth. Just this week I heard a pastor say that so many at the church he leads were “in a funk.” Whether we are speaking in the context of the worship program, a Bible study or a sermon, the common criticism we’ve used when people don’t react to the amazing preparation of the leaders is that they don’t prepare themselves. They don’t feed themselves or worship through the week. That’s why they show up looking like limp noodles and responding to our fiery enthusiasm like wet rags.

But think again. Why should church members (wrongly termed “laity”) come prepared? Prepared for what? Does a person need to prepare to be lectured? Do you have to get psyched up to be serenaded with songs? Should we have to study the text for hours, knowing the teacher takes charge of the whole class and puts forth all his own thoughts? If you plan to attend a secular concert, do you need to spend a week preparing yourself to get in the right frame of mind? No! Expecting people to prepare to be spectators in a church service is like expecting patrons to bring their own food to a full-service restaurant. Why should you prepare food when you’re simply going to take a seat and get fed what someone else has cooked up?

Paul said that when Christians gather together each has a song, a teaching, an interpretation and so on. Everyone participates because everyone is in fellowship with Christ in their daily lives. Each is a priest. Each feeds independently and still has some to share with others. Edification is a mutual participation, not the territory of a few ordained and qualified personnel. This is not a restaurant experience—it’s a potluck!

In all the decades of attending worship services in many churches and different movements, I have never once encountered this approach. Not even once. Yet this should be the normal “model” for our gatherings. Sure, there have been times when people other than the pastor could speak out, but it was short, rare, and always subject to his permission. Even when churches have small groups they are often assigned material based on the pastor’s teaching or otherwise told what to study. This squelches the members of Christ’s body and undermines personal initiative in individuals’ daily walk.

Here is the crux of the matter. Church leaders want engagement but don’t allow members to fully engage on their own. Pastors expect preparation but take it upon themselves to prepare every morsel. Like the teacher who is forced to study the word because his role demands it, many pastors reap the benefit of the richness of a Christ-centered life.  Many, I believe, truly focus on their relationship with God in their spiritual lives, yet they continue to see themselves as spiritual conduits for “their” flock, rather than convey that we are ALL meant to seek the same and share in this process of edification. I have seen this tendency to be a conduit in myself, and I have never even been a pastor. We conduits and wannabes should be working ourselves out of a job.

The “five-fold ministry” was not supposed to create a permanent state of dependence but rather provide a means to an end, until the whole body is fully connected to the Head—the true Head which is Christ. The goal is that each member functions under Christ’s headship, not in a perpetual state of dependence on church leaders. Church leaders should adopt the attitude of John the Baptist: “He must increase, I must decrease.”

© 2011 Gary Swisher. All Rights Reserved



Religion Seeks a “Something” Part 2

In Christianity on February 16, 2011 at 12:31 pm

Objects of Our Activity

I really do like the analogy that’s been made about the emptiness in humans that only God can fill. There are so many things we can fill it with: music, news, TV, work, friends, pleasure… I know a person who never seems to get enough time at work. He works in the day, the evening, on the weekends… In the process he lost his family life. For him, the missing thing, the broken thing is made to feel more complete by work; only work. These things are like salve. They help something feel better for a little while, but never truly address the problem. We all have our salve. Our salve comes in many forms, all designed to soothe emptiness. What’s worse is when we fill this divine emptiness with religion. I say that because religion really makes us think we are doing something to properly fill the void. At least with our vices, we usually know they aren’t the answer. Religion is the most subtle thing in our garden.

The few fasts I have experienced have usually been a form of self-denial. Sometimes I taste something better of the peace that comes from the Spirit. When I left the radio off this time, I didn’t find myself wanting to fill the void, as a matter of fact, I realized I forgot to turn it on because Someone was already filling me. That was different. Sometimes we fast to get our focus right, but when the Bridegroom really is present why should we fast (Matt. 9:15)? I wasn’t missing anything because Someone is my Everything. I found a hidden pearl and I could really see how Christ is able to satisfy every piece of me; to fill all things. Nothing else was needed. I can at least imagine why one would let go of everything else without regret. In the words of a former religious fanatic, all else is counted as rubbish.

All of our things are but idolatrous detractions from the Father of spirits. The natural, human mind can’t comprehend that food draws us by a desire for True Bread, or that lust attempts to mask a desire for a spiritual connection with God. There is nothing we want that doesn’t serve as a substitute for the Father. His presence replaces our false contentment with true peace and life, removing all need and desire. This truly is the kind of treasure Jesus spoke of.  With a single heart, asking for the Father’s company, we will find Him, or rather, be found by Him. Our life in Christ is not about religious practice or discipline. It is sharing a spiritual fellowship with Christ. Our relationship with him is the essence of our Christian walk. Anything else is a form of idolatry,  These aren’t just words, or a doctrine we should agree with. He is the person we need to be in conversation with, on a deep spiritual level.

So many things stand in the way of a constant communion with Christ. Yet the human mind, with any amount of light, does realize that sinful things should be avoided as we seek to fill the spiritual void. We should seek good things rather than bad things, right? This is how the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil usurps the place of God, so that we can be like Him. If we are like Him we can go it alone. Unfortunately so many of us have answered the call of God by pursuing a “something”, rather than a “Someone.” Religion seeks a “something.” We may rightly seek self-control, but that is a “something.” Many seek the right doctrine; a “something.” Others seek spiritual gifts; “somethings.” In truth, we can only receive self-control as we experience fellowship with Christ in the Spirit. But even so, we should not be seeking it as an object to be possessed. It is only a byproduct of a real, live relationship with Christ. We should focus on Christ. A married man should not be seeking fidelity as a thing to posses and keep to his credit. He should grow in relationship with his wife. Out of love and partnership with her, he will also lose other desires and live as he should toward her.

Religion has mechanisms designed to program balance, discipline, morality, charity and all sorts of virtuous “somethings” into our lives. We can set up accountability groups and study groups, worship times and conferences, sacraments and services to make us “better Christians.” These are mechanisms aimed at acquiring virtuous objects—“somethings.” Some Christians chase after “spiritual nuggets” or new revelation. Others make speaking in tongues, evangelism, house churches, or some other thing into their object. It becomes their idol like the bronze serpent of old was to the Israelites. Even avoidance of religion is a false focus. A few years ago I encountered a group that made freedom from religion their object. They talked at great length of their liberty and of shedding the shackles of religious bondage. That was their “object.” Yes they mentioned Christ as the source, the reason, the Lord. But I think liberty was the object they relished most.

Our relationship with Christ is not bound up in Christian “activities.” I have spent much of my life pursuing the right church, the right pattern, the right doctrine. I have been involved in worship, Bible studies, charities, home groups, spiritual growth weekends and a steady stream of church attendance for many decades. I have spent far less time really focused on my relationship with Christ. How would that approach work in a marriage, or with children; with any other relationship? My marriage is not a regular meeting with other well-meaning husbands espousing the virtues of listening well and doing the dishes. Marriage is a love relationship with intimacy and dynamic vitality. Isn’t it clear that we can busy ourselves with so many activities of the church and, at the same time, neglect our true, First Love? The contemporary church seems to have a serious Martha complex; concerned with a great many things! We should not look at the church, its activities or a pastor as the source or broker of our spiritual life. We should not gauge our spiritual condition by how involved we are.  I have often viewed such objects as a primer for getting “spiritual.” I recently told a friend that it is hard for me to find a spiritual flow apart from such conventions. I am realizing, even more now, that religious activity is not the same as spiritual life. Our conventions amount to a substitute, a deviation from the fellowship of Christ.

In more recent years I have often focused on what I thought was the deeper essence of the gospel—that we are a finished and perfected work in Christ. I have worked hard to accept the truth that I died on the cross of Christ and therefore to reckon myself dead. But I have often done so only with my human thinking. I do this even though I realize that discovering such things is a work of the spirit. But like the Galatians I go about my natural ways even after having begun in the spirit. I forget that truth is not an object to be sought with my brain, but Truth is a “Someone” with whom I can relate. Only in real, living fellowship with the Truth can I manifest truth.

You will know the Truth (a Someone) and the Truth will make you free.

© 2011 Gary Swisher. All Rights Reserved

COMMENTS ARE WELCOME. Please click ARCHIVES to view any discussions.

Religion Seeks a “Something” Part 1

In Christianity, Uncategorized on February 15, 2011 at 10:44 pm

Rising Above the Noise

One thing I hate about blogs and social media is the seeming self-absorption of some who write. Do they really think we are hanging on their every thought and activity? I hope this entry won’t seem that way. It doesn’t really matter what I think or what my take on things is. I just have something to share that I hope others can relate to and benefit from. So please try to ignore the unusual amount of personal pronouns in this writing.

I seem to need the radio on when driving most of the time. My mind always wants something new to chew on or at least some music to fill the void. The past two days, however, I left the radio off. My only inclination to turn it back on was based on habit, not any real sense of missing the chatter. In the past I have set my mind to “fast” from media with mixed results. My last two commutes, without all the squawking, were not like that, however. More about that in Part 2.

The human race has become extremely media driven. I’m not talking about politics, although for some that is what media is all about. When I was young I couldn’t get enough music. Music really filled a void. I played it, wrote it, listened to my favorite artists in my room, listened in the car… But as much as I still enjoy music, I don’t have the dependency on it that I once did. It isn’t like food for me anymore. That may have a lot to do with the natural maturing process.

Today our youth are glued to iPods, iPads, iPhones… I wonder why they all start with “I”? (I did say there would be lots of personal pronouns.) If kids aren’t on the computer, talking on their phone, texting or listening to their MP3 player, what could they possibly be doing? Many adults are just as consumed by their media.

I think a lot of Christians are in the habit of thinking they should switch the channel of the TV or the radio (or website, etc.) to something more wholesome. Switch it from pop music to a Christian station for example, or change it from talk radio to Christian talk. This doesn’t always open up the airwaves to heaven, however. In large part they are only shifting the programming and commercials to a religious context. You still get the chatter and commercials, only with a “Christian” flavor.

In my attempts to find that “still, small voice” I have often just turned off the noise of the world, but as I said, with mixed results. I find it’s like yanking the cigarette from the mouth of the chain smoker. It doesn’t really change his mindset. He only becomes more fixated on the need to smoke. And since changing the channel to a Christian station isn’t really causing a transformation, I have realized there is another channel that can be switched that doesn’t involve the radio. There is a channel in my heart; but not so much my heart. Perhaps I should say it is a switch to “Someone.” More about that in Part 2.

Reformation: A Road Without End

In Christianity, church, evangelical, Theology on February 12, 2011 at 12:20 am

In an earlier post, Glossing Over Paganism, I wrote that the United States is a worldly nation, founded on a mixture of Christian precepts and pagan influence. This thought runs counter to the beliefs of most mainstream Christians, who often equate Christianity with American Patriotism. Their view, that our nation and the church are closely intertwined, has validity. But the common thread between them is very surprising and unsettling.

When Christianity first dawned on western civilization it was initially persecuted at the hands of an empire that enforced the worship of its emperor and the pagan gods. But key figures like Constantine eventually brought Christianity into the mainstream of society. The Christians who were formerly criminals in the eyes of Rome became its favored citizens. Pagan temples were converted into Christian cathedrals. Pagan holidays were “Christianized” to make it an easy transition for the people who had long enjoyed the rituals and revelry of pagan celebrations.

The church became a protected institution, but at great cost. it also became a state-controlled religion, syncretized with pagan beliefs and practices. By the time the Roman Catholic Church was firmly entrenched, corruptions to the true, pure church were profuse. The Catholic Church was formed out of syncretism; a mixing of pagan customs with Christian content. The idols of old became patron saints. The Festival of the Dead became All Souls Day. The Winter Solstice became Christmas (both involve a nativity of a divine figure). Many more things crept into institutional Christianity, none of which belonged to the true faith.

Because these things have been all around us since we were born, we take little notice of them. Our months and days are named for pagan gods, as are the planets of our solar system. Most everyone realizes this, but rarely gives much thought to how deep the roots of paganism run in our society. An enormous statue of Neptune (analogous with Poseidon) stands prominently on a walk at Virginia Beach. Does anyone raise an eyebrow in this “Christian Nation” when they encounter this pagan idol? Fewer still ever ponder or even realize that paganism is also infused into Christianity.

When celebrating Easter, we observe the Roman calendar, not the Hebrew calendar. The Hebrew calendar is the key to the true timing of the Passover season. How many Christians, who each year remember Christ’s sacrifice, realize they are commemorating a day on the Roman calendar which honored a pagan fertility goddess? If t is imperative to have an observance of Christ’s atonement, why do Christians hold to a date other than when Christ was actually crucified? How is it that sunrise services are actually old pagan traditions? And for that matter, why celebrate Christ’s birth each December 25th? Do Christians really know the roots of that date?

The corruption which manifested in the Catholic church grew until the time of the reformation. To most Protestants the reformation is past-tense. But in reality, we are on a centuries-old path which still stretches ages before us, on the journey out of darkness. In other words, every church in existence today still shares many corruptions derived from the mother church that sits in Rome.

Before we point all our fingers and toes at the oldest denominations it’s important to realize that there are un-sanctified elements in all churches which are far more subtle, even in movements that developed much later. The reformed churches are not at all free from pagan influence. Babylon has her daughters, and as long as denominations give rise to new movements they carry with them the forms of their mother. Even more recent church movements that aimed to remove doctrinal error have retained age-old practices which are not sourced in scripture. Yet all such corruptions do not take the form of overt pagan symbols, names and celebrations.  Even the seemingly benign and secular forms we use today are not derived from scripture. In his book, “Pagan Christianity”, Frank Viola identifies many basic conventions of the church which can be traced back to Greek and Roman practices.

The most simplistic and fundamental movements in Christendom today still maintain corrupted views of Biblical concepts in their practices. It’s fairly clear that nearly every denomination, old or new, utilizes the same elements and format in their “services”. The very concept of pastors, pulpit ministers or preachers, whichever terminology you choose (I will use the term pastor since it is the most popular), has more in common with Greco-Roman conventions than Biblical truth.

Viola sees the modern pastor role as having evolved from the Master of Ceremonies of ancient practice. This would, of course, apply as well to the priest role as seen in Catholic churches. No, we’re not talking Pat Sajak here, the Master of Ceremonies was no game show host! Just as the term implies, this man was the chief of rituals, the director of the service. The term obviously implies a performance-oriented, liturgical program set before an audience.

Nothing could be further from the Biblical concept of pastors than this Master of Ceremonies. So why does this role seem so similar to that of the Sunday morning pastor? No matter how informal a church might be, all things that take place on a Sunday morning have to be approved by the pastor. He sets the tone and oversees all the pieces and players of the Sunday service, from the sermon to the final announcements.

No, he may not control all these things directly, but in most cases he has the ultimate say on what goes. All those who are in charge of various aspects of the service answer to him. In some churches the pastor is very laid back and hands-off, yet if there is something he dislikes it would never last long because he holds ultimate sway. In other churches the pastors are much more obsessive about managing and dictating every detail of the service. In any case the pastor holds a place of great prominence, both visibly and behind the scenery while those in the pews are passive spectators.

Our churches are largely human institutions steeped in traditions that do not come from God, much like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. They rely on human conventions. They revolve around buildings and budgets, committees and business meetings, salaries, programs, bulletins, systems, methods, checklists, media, operating expenses, hierarchies and oligarchies. They closely mirror the corporate structure, having an organization of members, a board of directors (elders) and a senior pastor (CEO). Some of the heavy-handed power plays I have seen in the most fundamental churches rival the drama you might expect to find on Wall Street.

Much like our governmental systems the church as we see it today has made only slight improvements over many long centuries. We may realize the reformation is not over, but every generation sees only so far down this very long road. The radical truth is that we should give up the remodeling project because the fundamental form of the church is un-biblical. Perhaps we should learn our lesson and realize that continuing down the road of reformation may lead us no closer to New Testament Christianity in the next hundred years. So rather than continue on this road and look for the next movement or big development to come along, we should take the nearest exit.

© 2011 Gary Swisher. All Rights Reserved

COMMENTS ARE WELCOME. Please click ARCHIVES to view any discussions.

God Intentions

In Christianity, Theology, Uncategorized on February 2, 2011 at 12:22 am

Why does God allow human suffering? Theologians love to tackle this question. It’s a favorite atheist objection to the existence of God. In all honesty it is a fair question and one that every Christian faces as well. But I thought I might pose another question in contrast to this familiar one. If Satan exists, why does he allow human pleasure?

Scripture seems to say that Satan is the god of our world. If so, why do we experience times of peace? Why do so many children come home from school unharmed? Why are there so many charities aiming to assist people who need it? Why have there been so many medical advances in recent decades? Maybe Satan takes some pride in his world. His followers are good people too. He doesn’t want a complete mess of his dominion does he? How embarrassing would that be?

Here are some more questions about good things. Why is there physical pleasure? Why are so many people leading comfortable lives? Why do restaurants have such sensational deserts? Why are there so many Xboxes in households today? Oh wait, are these all good things from God’s perspective? Many good and pleasurable things are used to lull people into spiritual sleep, distract them from what has true, lasting value, and cause them to question God when he takes something away. Then again, we may seek this type of comfort in response to our pain, emptiness and loss; never really learning that they are not what we need. The god of this world knows how we each use such “good” things. All good things come from God, but how one defines good things depends on his mindset. So an illness could be truly good, while pleasure is ultimately bad. To my understanding this issue hinges on our perspective. It is about the spiritual man versus the natural (soulish) man.

This is not one of those “glass half full” or “glass half empty” propositions. I just think we have really missed the significance of both good and evil in this world. The thing is, good can be used for evil and evil can be used for good. When Joseph was sold into slavery and finally caught up with the brothers who put him there, he revealed that God meant it for good. Being sold into slavery was good. That was God’s estimation.

It was God who asked Satan to consider his servant Job. Not the other way around. Satan takes orders from God. He is not a rogue element, out of Gods’ control. It was the Spirit who led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted. Look it up. Paul was ministered by Satan to rid him of pride (see 2 Cor. 12:7). And Paul said that all things (good and evil) work for the good of those that love God. Notice it doesn’t say all things are good, but that all things work for our good. That is the understanding of those who love God. We cannot have that perspective if we doubt God in this. That is being double-minded. God puts all kinds of things to work for his good purpose, and for our good. No discipline seems pleasant at the moment—makes me wonder how much discipline I’ve had.

So why do we have suffering? No one likes suffering, nor should we seek it. But God exercises his providence, over the schemes and roadblocks that come before us, for his ultimate purpose. God does authorize suffering as we see in the case of Job, Paul and many others. Our natural mind wants to grasp this, understand it and ultimately control it. But, as God said to Job, you learn to be a creature, subject to all that happens, and I will take care of the divine role all by myself. When these things happen we want to lean on our own reasonings, seek advice and ask lots of questions, just as Job did. Why me? Why this? Why her? Why now? Why, why, why? All those things have their root in the natural man, which is why such questions are so often posed by atheists. They become obstacles that will either block us and cause discouragement or they will be overcome by something of a higher order. I believe we are meant to experience these things in order to learn what cannot be learned through our intellect.

Consider this. Jesus learned obedience. You can tell a three-year old that he should not do certain things, and attempt to reason with him. But only through pain will he ever learn certain lessons, whether the pain comes from a bad result or a fore-ordained punishment. My child’s comfort is not my number one priority. He primarily needs to learn to listen to his father and mother. The lesson is obedience, and pain is often the teacher. We do not just teach our children to avoid touching hot things, we teach them obedience. They must learn submission. A child who learns submission has learned a lot.

Discipline means to teach. It can also mean to spank. If you are a parent you know that some things are learned without any pain at all but many things are not. We are the same way. We cannot truly mature in our spiritual lives if we are so glued to this natural man who seeks whatever pleases him at the moment. Jesus learned obedience… through suffering.

Pain and discomfort can cause us to move, change, open our eyes or test our foundations for trustworthiness. The low-risk method by which we prefer to learn is to receive information. In churches we spend a lot of time in the classroom setting; reading, learning, sitting, watching, discussing, etc. These things have had their place. But whether we are talking about children or Christians, information often remains at the intellectual level. It does not often result in change. It, alone, does not transform.  The Jews were lawyers. The Greeks were philosophers. Many theologians are primarily intellectuals and little more. But Christ does not seek students. He makes disciples.

Jesus learned obedience through suffering. He also said “Come learn from ME.” Your Bible version may say “Come learn OF me”, but that is not the best translation of the word. We have spent plenty of time learning about Jesus. But if we are to learn from him, we may need to turn our attention from our familiar doctrines and teachers. How else can we learn from him but to get alone with just Him? Jesus does not just teach book knowledge. Bible school is important, but we are not in relationship with the Bible. Doctrines and knowledge do not transform us. We only tend to become puffed up with what we know. At some point we must move from what we know to Who we know. I hope God sees fit to take us out of the conventional classroom for his purposes. We can really learn something when God takes us to school.

No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, for those who have been trained by it, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace. (Heb 12:11, ISV) 

© 2011 Gary Swisher. All Rights Reserved

COMMENTS ARE WELCOME. Please click ARCHIVES to view any discussions.