Gary Swisher

Archive for the ‘church’ Category

Looking for the Passover Bunny

In Christ, Christianity, church, evangelical on April 20, 2011 at 9:53 pm

As Christians all over the U.S. prepare to attend a special service on what is known as Easter Sunday, church leaders are looking for ways to get the crowds into their particular church. One church in my area, World Harvest, is holding a grand sweepstakes to get people to attend. Pastor Rod Parsley has decided that his church will give away a used car among other fabulous merchandise, including cool gadgets like an iPad. There is a long list of prizes on their website, and a host of prizes for the kiddies too. All you have to do to enter is register prior to the service, but you must be in attendance when they announce the winners at the program’s close. Subtle, isn’t it? (I wonder if Bob Barker will be on hand?) In addition to the merchandise, they’re giving away a real, live bunny and 50,000 eggs. I’m not kidding.

This kind of farce does not characterize all churches, yet I still can’t help get the feeling that most churches are very opportunistic around this time of year. They may put it under the guise of reaching the lost, but it seems they don’t mind strengthening their numbers and their reputation in the process, so they all look for ways to promote their Easter service. As nauseating as Rod Parsley’s raffle is, it may only differ in scale from what other churches will do. I know one that’s giving away mugs to anyone who will commit to attend their Easter service.

It seems there’s a crowd out there who feels compelled to make an annual pilgrimage to their local church of choice, just to make sure the bases are covered when it comes to the one important service (two if you count Christmas). After all the hoopla, the crowd that calls itself “Christian” on a survey will be pretty much finished with church for the next several months. The churches who courted this demographic will return to the normal level of attendance and go back to business as usual. All their prizes and promotions will be for naught.

But let’s take inventory. What comes to mind for most people when they think of Easter? Bunnies, bonnets, eggs, Hot Cross Buns? How about a chocolate cross? Is that too much for a disciple to bear? Add to this whole circus the fact that Christ was not raised on the day called Easter and things really come apart. Easter isn’t Christian. It is a Roman corruption displacing the Passover—which, incidentally, occurs some other week this time of year (on the Hebrew calendar). We don’t even commemorate the right day. No bunnies were around when Jesus was executed on a cross. And his cross wasn’t made of solid milk chocolate. It was real wood, covered with real blood. Let’s put that on a billboard and see how many will come. But if you want a good turnout, better give away some cars, eggs, maybe even some cash!

Sideshows aside, I think Churches are actually responsible for creating this pilgrimage-mentality. They have become complicit in the belief that, if you only connect with the cross of Christ once a year, it better be on Easter. They hope to hook some people into regular attendance, which might happen occasionally; and maybe some souls will even be saved. By-and-large, however, when all the wooing is over, there isn’t much return on the investment. Once-a year-pew sitters are hard to change, especially when the message is focused on the freebies, both physical and spiritual. The message of the cross becomes one of “seeker-friendly” convenience during most Easter services. It doesn’t have to be a prize-festooned extravaganza to cheapen the message of the cross. Just let the visitors know nothing is expected, that grace gets them off the hook, and hopefully they will come around next time. It makes you feel good to know that marginal Christians choose your church for their rare appearances.

No matter what the time of year, churches continue to make attendance a primary focus at the expense of Christ. The list of gimmicks never ends, ranging from Hot-Rod Sundays to personal finance workshops and even free carnival rides in the church parking lot. What message is the world hearing? Churches will do almost anything to get people to attend. It’s become a popularity contest. Yet Jesus wasn’t concerned about his popularity. He knowingly said and did things that would turn the crowds away. On one occasion Jesus fed a multitude, but when the people realized he wasn’t just a meal ticket (or a raffle ticket), they lost interest and left. They just walked away, and Jesus let them.  He didn’t even do follow-up visits on their front porches Tuesday evening. Knowing this, why do churches go to such extremes to please the masses and get warm bodies in the pews? Jesus was more likely to turn people away because what they sought was not in line with the kingdom.

Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. (John 6:26 NIV)

Then Jesus had some hard things to say…

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (John 6:66, NIV)

Jesus spoke the truth. He let the crowd know their reason for coming had no value. Not very seeker friendly when you think about it. Many of today’s churches are striving to do just the opposite by appealing to the carnal desires as a bait-and-switch. The only switch will be when the crowd gets their fill and walks away.

The Passover Bunny doesn’t exist. You cannot take a sacrificial lamb, pour out its blood and then decorate it with chocolate eggs and Easter Lillies. If the first connection to the crowd is aimed at their belly or their greed, how do you proceed to spiritual things without losing them? If the message the world is hearing is that Christianity is so boring and unfulfilling that you have to dress it up with gameshow prizes, how do you reverse that mindset?

You don’t.

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Hell Bent

In Christianity, church, Hell, Theology on April 7, 2011 at 11:11 pm

As with many things in Christendom, the understanding of hell is layered with corruptions stemming from church politics, vain imaginations and even paganism. The view of eternal punishment has been embellished over the ages, and oftentimes has seemed much more hellish than the picture scripture seems to paint.

When I grew up, hell-fire and brimstone sermons were more common. If I had been born a few years earlier, I’m sure they would have been a steady diet. The church movement of my formative years was once extremely legalistic. As time progressed, so did the emphasis on God’s grace. In many veins of Christianity, legalism has seemed to wane (not that it’s gone by any means) since the 1960s, and so has the prevalence of fear and judgment as a motivation for moral conduct. Is it possible that one’s particular bent on hell, or the amount of emphasis hell receives, is connected to the degree of legalism and judgmentalism one demonstrates?

The fire insurance view of the gospel has been a sad reflection on Christian theology, showing an impoverished understanding of the true riches found in Christ. Perhaps the reason a book like Love Wins, by Rob Bell, is getting so much attention is because it has become less palatable to focus on eternal torment. Fiery-judgment sermons are surely less prevalent now than in the past. I would argue that the times when church history was most characterized by condemnation and persecution of both believers and non-believers, it was due to significantly greater emphasis on what heretics and sinners deserved in the eyes of an angry God. In medieval times the church raised funds through fear by convincing Christians that they would go to hell for not tithing. So-called “heretics” were burned alive at the stake and unbelievers were tortured in a variety of inventive and sadistic ways, especially during the inquisition.

One such heretic, named Michael Servetus, was helped to his execution by the famous theologian, John Calvin. The quote below shows the degree to which Christian leaders of the time acted as divine judge and jury.

It is true that Calvin and his fellow pastors in Geneva were involved in the death of Servetus [to put it lightly]. However, it would be difficult to find any church leader in the 16th century who advocated a more gentle approach. Luther called for attacks on German peasants and wrote an angry tract against the Jews, called ‘On the Jews and their Lies’. Zwingli, the Reformer of Zurich, supported the execution by drowning of the Anabaptist leader, Felix Manz. Sir Thomas More, England ‘s Catholic Lord Chancellor, presided over the execution of those he viewed as “heretics” in England during the reign of Henry the VIII.
Source: www.calvin.edu/meeter/resources/servetus.htm

As I expressed in my previous series of posts, the parts of the Bible that lack detailed explanations are often the points where humans endeavor to explain the most. Hell is no different. Where Jesus tells of the weeping and gnashing of teeth, humans chime in with the most grotesque depictions of sadistic torture they can fathom. Thomas Aquinas is credited with saying, “That the saints may enjoy their beatitude more thoroughly, and give more abundant thanks to God for it, a perfect sight of [the] punishment of the damned is granted them.”  The Assemblies of God hold in their doctrinal statement that, “It is impossible to describe the … terror and torment of hell.” Why so? Did Jesus lack the words to do it justice?

A Catholic priest named John Furniss (sounds like furnace?) wrote a children’s book in the 19th century called The Sight of Hell. Below are some quotes.

Night came upon them from the lowest and deepest hell. She saw that in the upper hell, the torments were very grevious. In the middle hell they were still more terrible. In the lowest hell the torments were above all understanding.

There is in hell a sound like that of many waters…It is the sound of oceans of tears running from the countless millions of eyes. They cry night and day.

…if one single body was taken out of hell and laid on the earth, in that same moment every living creature on the earth would sicken and die.

The [devil’s] first stroke will make your body as bad as the body of Job, covered from head to foot with sores and ulcers. The second stroke will make your body twice as bad as the body of Job…How then will your body be after the devil has been striking it every moment for a hundred million of years without stopping?

The sinner lies chained down on a bed of red-hot blazing fire!

How will you feel in hell, when millions of [biting worms] make their dwelling-place in your mouth, and ears, and eyes, and creep all over you, and sting you with their deadly stings through all eternity.

With so many things being reformed in the history of Christendom there has never been a reformation of this distorted perception of God’s punishment of the lost. The same darkened mindset that developed such extreme and detailed descriptions of their torments has guided and influenced our Bible translations, scripture interpretations and sermons down to this very day. What mind is it that we bring to scriptures to inquire of God’s final judgment? We come with the foregone conclusion that no imagination of man can grasp what a hideous torture awaits the lost.

© 2011 Gary Swisher. All Rights Reserved

Ties that Bind (3)

In Christ, Christianity, church, denomination, evangelical, sectarian, unity on March 27, 2011 at 4:58 pm

Christ prayed that his believers would all be one. It is apparent today, with numerous divisions and such rigid walls about us, that we are opposed to this purpose of Christ. If we are not minding what Christ desires, it suggests that our flesh is in the way, because the flesh is enmity with God and cannot please him. Most of Christendom has forsaken unity in Christ. Instead, Christians emphasize their beliefs in the areas where they differ. May I reiterate that? Christians focus and build their identity on their points of disagreement! I am of Apollos… I am of Cephas… I am pre-millennial… I am Trinitarian… I am A Capella… I speak in tongues…And yet another says I am of Christ–as if to say all the others are not.

Wrong as they are, factions exist for a reason; they have a purpose in the body. Paul said that heresies must come in order to reveal those among us who are acceptable, or approved (1 Cor. 1:19). He doesn’t expand on this statement, but it seems clear that developing or adhering to factions puts us at odds with Christ’s purpose to have and behold one body that cannot be individuated. Individuating is another way for us to understand heresy, because our individual nature is the fuel. The lexicons say that engaging in heresy is choosing or taking for oneself. It is to choose or prefer some particular thing above others.

When we address the issue of factions, it is vitally important that we learn to discern between conformity and true unity. Conformity is based on numerous points of alignment. There is a mandate to agree in order to be included. Surely we can get along with those who share all of our vital views and practices. In this sense our churches are no more based on love than a political party. Agree to all the right issues and you’ve got support! When all doctrines are in sync in your group, fellowship seems more based on “right thinking” and conformity. How easy it is to love those with whom you have no conflict. Without differences to challenge our unity, how do we know we have the kind of agape love described in 1 Corinthians 13, remembering how this love surpasses knowledge? Doctrines are sourced in knowledge. Knowledge is needed, but without love it becomes divisive and legalistic.

So how do we define the body of Christ? Are we to rely on our complex doctrines, separate denominations and movements, perceiving the security of our faith to be found in a statement of beliefs, a list of practices, or our forensic approach to scripture? Or, should we take up the ecumenical approach? I doubt that the multiplication and combination of every religious tradition will move us any closer to the simplicity of Christ.

Jesus said to Martha that she was distracted by many things. Mary, on the other hand chose the one thing. It is the one thing that should be the focus of all believers. Otherwise they will continue to divide and create doctrines of their individual choice. Churches do not seem to mind the one thing. They are concerned and troubled about numerous and diverse things.

So then, if there is any comfort in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, fulfill my joy, that you think the same, having the same love, one in soul, minding the one thing, doing nothing according to party spirit or self-glory, but in humility, esteeming one another as surpassing yourselves; (Phi 2:1-3, LITV)

I like how this version puts it; minding the “one thing.” That is a very literal translation. There is simplicity in Christ. There is a singular focus. There is “one thing” in the Christian walk.  “There is one body and one Spirit…  one Lord, one faith… one God and Father of all…”

What does scripture have to say about the one thing? In regard to doctrines there is one faith. In regard to divisions there is one body. In regard to submission there is one Lord. In regard to unity there is one Spirit. In regard to our provision there is one God and Father of all. “For if you should have myriads of teachers in Christ, yet not many fathers; for I fathered you in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (1Cor. 4:15 ). This is the one thing.

Ties that Bind (2)

In Christianity, church, denomination, evangelical, sectarian, unity on March 25, 2011 at 10:21 pm

Part 2

Every wind of doctrine tosses about and disorients those inside and outside the church. The world doesn’t see a unified church under the simple headship of Christ. One denomination forms in order to fellowship exclusively with those who believe in worshiping on Saturday. Another movement holds that Christians are legitimate only if they speak in tongues. Still another group says you must be baptized three times; once each, for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A different movement holds that imitating New Testament patterns of practice are essential to maintain acceptance with God.

Many expectations are placed on believers, beyond the simplicity of Christ and the essence of the gospel. You must keep the Sabbath. You must seek the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Churches even go so far as to name themselves according to their divisive doctrines. Not to pick on any in particular, but consider the name, Free-Will Baptist Church. It is named after not one, but two doctrines. Or consider the Church of God, Anderson and the Church of God, Cleveland. These are not names of two local churches but actual denominations where there was once one.

Down through the years Christians have been exiled, persecuted and imprisoned, or worse, by other Christians for holding different views on various issues. John Calvin wished death upon one who held a different position than he. Anabaptists were murdered in droves by so-called Christians for their practices. We don’t kill other believers in this age. But we belittle them, condemn them to judgment or at the very least write them off and cast them aside. We are convinced that our opinions are correct because of our sound reasoning and better proof texts. We always see scripture as taking our side. Surely, we think, God holds our view.

We seek to fully explain, diagram and dissertate on any mystery left unresolved by scripture. Well-intentioned scholars and centuries of debate have not brought the church closer to true unity. Christianity only continues to divide. Even when many churches do agree on what has been deemed “orthodox,” as with the Nicene Creed, they still draw lines of separation to keep their organizations apart.

Wherever the Bible is unclear, it tends to invite iron-clad opinions. Where the Bible offers vagueness and lacks certainty, the human mind designs clarity through systematic theologies, constructs and belief statements that leave no room for variance. Such a mindset does not create unity but disunity (Rom. 15). Christians bind on others with 100% certainty the doctrines which often seem to have the least clarity. In the process they diminish the one thing which should bind us together. There are people dividing themselves, for example, into camps of belief (pre-trib, post-trib, etc.) based on the most difficult and veiled book in the Bible—Revelation. Why are camps formed around such uncertainty?

Part 3 coming soon…

Ties that Bind

In Christianity, church, evangelical on March 24, 2011 at 2:44 pm

Part 1

How is it that Christians have more requirements for inclusion in the brotherhood of faith than God does? Why does religion incite people to force conformity upon others? You must agree to this doctrine. You must accept this view. You must practice in such a way. Are we to give our allegiance to a statement of beliefs? To a creed? To a doctrine? If we examine Acts and the epistles, do we find the apostles making the requirements that churches do today?

Let each be convinced in his own mind. Romans 14 makes it very clear that we are not to pursue conformity or demand that others believe what we insist is right. Unity is based on one thing that ties us together despite numerous differences of personal opinion. Without our differences, our love for other Christians is untested, unproven. Just as Paul said, factions must come to reveal those who are approved (1 Cor. 19). Perhaps we can only find approval of ourselves when we can approve those in Christ with whom we don’t  agree. For, truly, only Christ is actually approved by God, but we are accepted in the Beloved. We are not approved by doctrines or knowledge but by faith, authored and perfected in Christ. Factions are based solely on man’s approval and the ability to make doctrines stand. But God approves those who rely on him for their standing. Who are you that judges another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. But he will stand, for God is able to make him stand (Rom 14:4 ). We must ask ourselves, “Are my beliefs, practices and church association the source of my security and confidence, or is it simply Christ and nothing more?”

We do harm to Christ’s church when we emphasize numerous issues, practices, beliefs and doctrines as a test of inclusion. What’s worse is that the emphasis on doctrines only cultivates division from every group that believes otherwise or chooses not to make that thing their emphasis. We are prone to seek after people and groups with whom we can agree. We spend very little time engaged with those outside our camp, except to debate and argue our differences. With so many factious doctrinal differences, these become our focus while unity in Christ is lost.

From the Greek, hairesis, we get “heresy,” which is often translated “sect” or “faction.” A heresy is simply a choice, a decision, in the sense that one parts company with someone or something else. We often confuse apostasy with heresy but they are not the same thing. Apostasy has to do with false teaching. Heresy is simply dividing up Christians based on their views. In this sense, Christendom is full of heresies. To be a heretic is simply to choose sides. Any time we choose to identify with some particular feature or belief that creates a partition within the one faith, it is a heresy. If we choose sides in Christ, we are cutting up the body. If someone says I am a Pentecostal, this is a heresy because he must delineate between himself and those Christians who are not Pentecostal. In the same way, all denominations are self-prescribed heresies, whether Methodists, Catholics, Presbyterians, Nazarenes and so on.

Denominations are not alone in this. We can gather under any concept we value. No matter how proper or Biblical our view, it is wrong to apply a label that designates ourselves or others as having some different quality or belief. Even if we take the concept of grace, for example, it is wrong to set some aspect of Christ or his gospel aside. If I take up the name “Grace Christian” it is factious. I am setting myself apart from all other Christians, as if they are non-Grace Christians, or as if Christ’s gospel can have a grace focus and a non-grace focus. In doing so I am setting myself apart and making a different version of the one faith. But there are not 31 flavors of Christ or his gospel. To align ourselves with some aspect of truth alienates others whom God has placed in the one body.

More to come in Part 2…

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

COMMENTS ARE WELCOME

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

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The Sunday Morning Show

In Christianity, church, edification, evangelical, pastor on January 27, 2011 at 4:48 am

A piece this week in Politics Daily focused on some twilight reflections of, likely, the most famous evangelist of our time, Billy Graham. In the article by David Gibson, Graham expressed regret about becoming entangled in politics. His close ties with U.S. presidents seems to have been the source of this regret, and a rare public falter when he believes he was influenced by the power of the office. At the end of the article Graham is quoted, saying, “[S]uccess is always dangerous, and we need to be alert and avoid becoming the victims of our own success. Will we influence the world for Christ, or will the world influence us?”

The last part of his statement should ring through the ears of any person who has been associated with a mainstream church over the past few decades. If there is one area (and there are truly many) where the church has become more and more prone to please the world, it is in the emphasis on a programmed performance–what most would call a Sunday worship service. In the name of cultural relevance, churches have adopted every element of show business from the broad stage with a complete musical ensemble to the media team that nuances lighting and sound throughout the service and cues the Hollywood-esque videos, complete with sound effects and dramatic visuals designed for maximum impact.

Our generation is so attuned to music and consumed with entertainment that church services have become more like movie trailers and infomercials. Many pastors seek real-life testimonials, human props and optimal audience interaction in order to impact their visitors and members, alike. Church leaders would reasonably argue that they are simply adjusting their delivery to the times. And so they are. Yet there has to be something wrong when you see churches so caught up in show business that they have sound systems that cost a quarter-million dollars in addition to elaborate music and drama teams.

One church in my local area actually had a series in which they created full-blown musical productions with drama vignettes intertwined in an attempt to connect with people based on what their favorite kind of music was! One particular Sunday they had a Rock music production. Another week it was Country Music Sunday and so on. I was able to view this extravaganza on their website. I have never seen anything that more closely resembles a circus atmosphere in a church (the word “circus”, by the way, likely shares a common root with the word “church”).

So am I advocating that churches retreat to monotone preachers and musty old hymnals? If this is the question that really comes to mind I think we are still missing the point. Whether it’s a showy, multimedia extravaganza or dry and lifeless regimen, church goers have long been treated to a systematic program. The trend we see now is very likely a reaction to the boredom many Christians experienced in past decades. It’s as if someone said, “Hey, Christianity should not be characterized as stuffy and boring. Let’s spice things up.”

For a long time now the pendulum has been swinging toward the dynamic and exciting extreme, and we’re talking extreme here! Anytime people are sitting in one place for more than 20 minutes and treated like receptors of information, you will have to employ every possible means to hold their attention and make it “fun”. This is why churches have long sought out dynamic and engaging orators and well-prepared and rehearsed musicians. But the apostle Paul said his speech was not eloquent. His critics complained that his presence was not impressive. When singing and praising occurred in the New Testament assembly, it seems it was very spontaneous and organic; not rehearsed and showy.

So where do we land? I have no doubt that the religious drudgery of the past (past, in some cases) has little to do with what our life in Christ is really about. But neither is the Lord Jesus Christ the true focus of the more modern worship service, even if his name and gospel are mingled into the context. Christ is not to be truly encountered or expressed through a prepared service that relies on performers and an audience.

If you, like me, bemoan the fact that churches today have lost sight of what is important and become very superficial, you might be inclined to go back to the old school, where whispering during the service is frowned upon and all the men wear their best suits. That isn’t the answer either. But the question is not about what type of service or program will put Christ front and center. We should first ask why we tend to rely so much on programs, and why we treat our gatherings as a spectator sport in the first place. And while we’re at it, we don’t need to fool ourselves into believing that God is the audience of our show either. God never required us to put on a performance each week.

© 2011 Gary Swisher. All Rights Reserved