Radical ‘Altar’ations

church as we know it 4

Photo: EPA

The altar, priests, professional clergy, Christian temples (cathedrals & church buildings), incense, and a Jewish, synagogue-style pattern of worship are stuff of the Old Testament. After Constantine in the 4th century AD, the historic Orthodox Church wanted to align itself with the religious patterns of the day, many of them pagan.  It adopted a religious system that included all of these things and which the Roman Catholic Church then went on to canonize.

At the time of the Reformation, Luther reformed the content of the gospel with the message of salvation by faith.  However, he left the outer forms of ”church” untouched. That is why we still have the same church formats: forward-facing, pew-style rows of seating; stand up, sit down, front-led worship; the central and dominating figure of the pastor; the Hymn Sandwich (sermon, prayer and offering sandwiched by songs); a passive audience-style congregation that cannot obey the leading of the Holy Spirit, and very little in the way of fellowship.Church as we know it 5What about the Charismatic churches?  Didn’t they break away from all that?  They don’t have an altar.  They don’t use incense.  They don’t have priests.

However, there is no getting away from the fact that the basic format and church system remain the same, no matter who has got hold of them.  In the words of Wolfgang Simson, prophetic author, apostle and Kingdom instigator:


‘The Free-Churches freed the system from the State; the Baptists then baptised it; the Quakers dry-cleaned it; the Salvation Army put it into a uniform; the Pentecostals anointed it, and the Charismatics renewed it.’

However, the altar of super-structure has stayed the same and been worshipped at for centuries.   And whether there is an actual altar or not, a stage, a light show, or impressive architecture, God is making some radical ‘altar’ations to get His church back in the way He wants it.   It is after all, His Church.

So what kind of radical alterations does He want to make?  Let’s start with some basic instructions and information He gave for His New Testament Church:

‘When you meet together, each one has a hymn, a teaching, a disclosure of special knowledge or information, an utterance in a (strange) tongue, or an interpretation of it.’ (1 Cor.14:26 Amp)

Also, we are told in Ephesians 5:19 (Amp) to ‘Speak out to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, offering praise with voices (and instruments) and making melody with all your heart to the Lord.’

This is how believers in the early church met.  They didn’t need special buildings or regulated formats.  God expected them all to be active contributors in praise, in encouragement, prayer, song, sharing, exhortation, teaching, tongues, interpretation, and testimony, as they sensed the leading of the Holy Spirit.

I have been to meetings like that.  In fact, we meet like that regularly with a community of believers in a home where we eat and fellowship together, pray together, worship together, get to know one another, seek the Lord and listen to Him together, and where we all have a chance to contribute something God gives us.   These gatherings are led by the Holy Spirit as He wills.  God always says something.  It is always relevant to us all in some way.  It is always refreshing, stirring, challenging, comforting, uplifting, enlightening, exhorting, instructional, helpful, and sometimes all at the same time!  Our times of praise are spontaneous and anyone can introduce a song, known or unknown, written by God in their hearts that same week, or given on the spur of the moment.  Anyone can pick up a guitar or a drum and be a creative part of the beat or melody as they love God and listen to his heartbeat.  And throughout the week, we continue to stir each other up and encourage each other with what God has spoken.

God wants all His people empowered in this way, learning to listen to him corporately and individually, not passive members of a mostly man-made, man-led ‘service’ based on an Old Testament, paganised, Romanised format which has been rehashed unto weariness by every one of the some 40,000 denominations that exist.

Of course, this cannot be achieved in Church-As-We-Know it (CAWKI).  If God’s instructions cannot be fulfilled in Church-As-We-Know-It then church must change, for it is in disobedience to its Creator and Lord.  Therefore, radical alterations are essential to change the very super-structure that keeps us from obeying the King.  In fact, it is not just radical alterations required, but repentance and transformation of heart and thinking in order to relinquish back to God what is truly His – not the Church as we know it, but the Church as He wants it.

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Church is Changing…and It’s Exciting!

People are leaving Church-As-We-Know-It.  They are not backsliders or the half-interested who have lost their faith.  These are genuine, hard-working, dedicated believers who love the Lord.  Why are they leaving?  Many of them have just had enough.  They are tired and bored with the system – the same old, same old, week in, week out.  They love God’s word but are fed-up with being preached at Sunday after Sunday and going through the endless ritual of worship, listen, give.  They are tired of performances at the front, and pastors running the show.  They are looking for something more authentic where they and other believers actually have a voice and a contribution.  They are tired of being spoon-fed, seated spectators and unable to participate meaningfully.

Across this country, and many others, these people are increasing at an alarming rate. But is it really alarming?  The response tends to be one of alarm, fear, offence or defence of one’s own ‘church’ and its methods, structure and ‘presence’ of God in meetings. However, people’s desire to defend themselves is pretty useless in the light of what is taking place. Whether we like it or not, and whether we agree with it or not, it is happening.  When such massive changes are occurring, we would do well to stop, take stock and really try to understand.  We can’t just stick our head in the sand and say, ‘Well, it’s not happening here’! It might just come up behind us when we are not looking and bite us on the backside!  We need to find out what is going on and what God is doing.

And something really is going on!  We are meeting more and more people who are totally in love with God and just don’t want to ‘do church’ in the way they are being encouraged to do it any more.  These numbers are now running into thousands in this country alone.  Just recently we took part in a conference where every one of the 120 people there had already left Church-As-We-Know-It either physically or in their hearts, and was already involved in or discovering how to gather, be community, and reach out to people in ways they consider to be closer to what God originally intended.

Once upon a time, people like these were considered ‘backsliders’, ‘spiritual gypsies’, ‘rebellious’, ‘uncommitted’ or ‘trouble-makers’ and relegated to the ranks of the unspiritual and to-be-avoided.   These were and perhaps still are some of the names used to ensure (wittingly or not) that people conformed to the ‘accepted’ idea of church, alongside the emotions of guilt and fear.

Not any more.  This has to change.  God is doing a new, and an old, thing.  He is bringing about a return to relationship and gathering as His people which does not have to involve the trappings we are so accustomed to and which have taken the place of His Son.  He is calling us to return to simplicity, authenticity and dependence on His Holy Spirit.  He is calling us to a truer sense of community, and a truly incarnational way of reaching people that means us going to them, instead of expecting them to come to Church-As-We-Know-It-style meetings.

There is a tendency to think that the way things have been in our generation is the way they should be, and always will be.  However, this is an illusion and a dangerous place to live, keeping us in a place where we might just get left behind.  So many things we are used to are changing and will need to change.  Church-As-We-Know-It is changing.  Education as we know it will change. Even our current food and supermarket system is changing.  God is preparing us.  Are we listening?  Are we even prepared to accept these changes are happening?

Why should we be alarmed or defensive when we hear about change, especially in the church?  It is because the human does not like change; he doesn’t like his structures, and especially the religious structures of centuries being messed with or pulled down.  It bothers the religious spirit still so in control of much of church life.  The human fears that he may have got things wrong.  And ultimately he fears the loss of control.  However, when God does something it is always good!  And when God is in control, it is always better! What God wants to do always challenges us, but it always moves us on to something greater and better, and sets us free. It can be exciting if we will stop our rituals for a moment and find out what is going on.

I said in my last blog that this blog would address some of the reasons behind why we do what we do in Church-As-We-Know-It.  However, I’ll get to it next time.  In the meantime, here is an article (one of hundreds on a similar subject) that lends a certain perspective to what we are seeing. Understand it or not, like it or not, agree with it or not, it is happening. I’m not alarmed.  I’m excited!  Excited about what God is doing in HIS church!





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A Typical Service?

In my last blog about church traditions and practices, ‘It’s Time to Begin…Again’, I said that we had been a part of or visited over 50 churches across over 14 denominations in 4 countries on 3 continents (this is not to brag, it is simply a useful fact), and that one thing we had noticed was that they were all doing the same thing.  You might be thinking, “Well, what’s wrong with that?  After all, aren’t Christians all supposed to meet on Sundays, have a time of worship, and a time of teaching in their church meetings?”

Take a moment to read this.  It is a genuine explanation of what goes on in a church service taken from the internet.  It is a real ‘church’.  Just type ‘typical church service’ into Google and you will find lots of descriptions similar to this:

“A Typical Service

People come as they are, dressing in whatever way is most comfortable to them, yet still fairly modest.  Some dress up and some dress down.  Each Sunday begins with modern worship music played by a band that includes electric and acoustic guitars, drums, keyboard and singers.  Words are displayed on two large projector screens at the front of the building.

Worship expressions range from loud celebration to deep reverence and stillness.  After this time, the pastor prays for the nation and other prayer needs.  He then greets the congregation and encourages them to greet one another.  Recorded video announcements are made via the large screens at the front of the meeting.  Birthdays and anniversaries are acknowledged for the month.  After this, an offering is taken up as a continuation of the worship service.  Guests are invited to participate, but are never under obligation.

A practical and life-changing message is given from the Scriptures each week by one of the senior leaders.  People are invited to respond to the message.  We end the service with prayer for those who want or need it and with a final worship song.  Once the congregation is dismissed they head downstairs to enjoy free coffee, tea, fruit and snacks and getting to know one another better.”

This is a very clearly written, concise description of a Sunday morning church service.  Is this familiar to you?  If you are a neo-denominational ‘charismatic’ believer, it will be very familiar, with perhaps a few changes, but the essence will be the same.  Denominational believers will also recognise the basic format of greet, sing, hear announcements, listen to a sermon, perhaps sing again, a final prayer, and leave.  With changes here or there, and more or less degrees of formality in dress, music style and approach, the Sunday story is the same the world over…over and over, and over again.

As ‘charismatics’ have drawn away from older traditional church forms in order to ‘allow’ the Holy Spirit to move more freely, they have simply created another liturgy, another format, another rehash of the same old thing they were trying to get away from.  As they have gone into the world to preach the gospel, they have passed on this rehashed liturgy to other cultures and nations in the form of Christianity.

As soon as our gatherings become ‘A Typical Service’, formalised, structured from beginning to end, and predictable, we can know that there will be very little room for the real power of the Holy Spirit exercised through the whole of His body present, as described in the Bible.  And yet this is the way our meetings have been for centuries and now, dressed in new clothes, continue to be.  Why?

I began asking myself that question some years ago when we went to visit a gathering of believers in a remote village in Thailand.  We arrived in a dirt poor little place of dusty paths and housing constructed from bamboo and grass.  Families cooked in iron pots on open fires.  They had little in the way of belongings.  Electricity had recently been installed in the village.  Inspite of their poverty, they were a real community, sharing life together and helping each other out where they could.

When it came time for the believers to gather together, they met in a small mud-brick building with a concrete floor.  I was excited to see how these people would worship Jesus.   As things began,  I was a little surprised to see the men congregate on one side of the small hall and the women on the other in plastic chairs facing a small stage.  There was an air of sobriety.  The pastor and worship leader mounted the small stage and the worship leader began to play Hillsongs music on his guitar, the words translated into their language.  My heart sank.  There was nothing different.  There was no involvement of the people.  The leaders did everything.  The people did not contribute prophetic words (they probably didn’t know how to exercise their gifts), they could not share their experiences of Jesus, they were not using any instruments familiar to their culture, and they didn’t even have any of their own songs.  They sat and looked at the back of each others’ heads and sat through a performance put on by the more educated or ‘gifted’ leaders.  We were glad to get away for lunch where we could enjoy eating and be more human and real.  It was a tiny, poor replica of a modern, charismatic Western church service.  I was not only disappointed, I was almost nauseated.  I had to ask the question, ‘What had we done?’

As Western Christians, in our sharing of the gospel with people of other nations, what have we done?  It is essential that we ask ourselves that question, and as a missionary it is heart-rending to know the answer.  We have exported the very same things we repeat Sunday after predictable Sunday.  Instead of empowering those dear people to find their own expressions and creativity using what is familiar to them; instead of helping them learn how to hear from the Holy Spirit, exercise their gifts, and become unique expressions of Jesus, ‘Christianity’ has cloned them to become little versions of the predictable ‘Christian’ West.

“What does it matter?”, someone might ask.  “They are saved and that is the most important thing”.  It matters because Jesus didn’t just ask us to get people saved.  He asked us to disciple the nations, teaching them the things He has commanded.  It is His desire that nations, communities and individuals be empowered as they follow Christ.

But, you might ask, “What is so wrong with the ‘Christian West’?  After all, it has been this way for centuries.  Surely these are the normal things you do as a Christian?”

Are they?  Do you know why your church meetings have the format they do?  Do you know why you sit and face the front and go through the same motions each week?  Do you know why there is a 30-45 minute sermon each week?  Do you know why there is little or no participation of the body for mutual edification?  It’s certainly not from the Bible, nor is it from Judaism.  Practically all of the motions we go through on a Sunday have been taken from the Greeks and Romans, pagan cultures in which the early Christians lived, and which have been assimilated into Christianity over centuries, and perpetuated by influential, religious people either blind to tradition, or too afraid to break with it.  They have no roots in God’s word.  They are traditions of men that are squeezing out what God intended for His body, and squeezing out the real move of the Holy Spirit.

In my next blog, we’ll begin looking at why the ‘typical service’ has become so typical, and at the all-pervading power of habit. We must go back in order to go forward…as I said in my last blog, it is essential not only for our own sake, but also for the sake of the world we want to reach.

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Don’t Look Back!

What does it mean to be a ‘fit’ people for God?  My first blog in the ‘fit’ category was about paying attention to the food we eat.  Using God’s wisdom and the information He has given us to be fit and healthy people physically is good sense.  It’s important for us to be wise stewards of the bodies God has given us as temples of the Holy Spirit.

But being fit isn’t just a physical thing.  We need to be fit in other areas too.  In Luke 9:62, Jesus says, ”No one, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”  No one likes to be told that they are not fit for something.  Doesn’t it seem a bit harsh of God to say that if we look back we are not fit for the kingdom?

I thought about that a lot when God spoke this scripture to us at the beginning of 2013.  His instruction to us was not to look back, and we sure had a lot we could look back to! Four countries, more house moves than we could count, times when we were better off financially; friends, houses and special places we had left behind.  It seemed a bit unfair to tell us that if we looked back we wouldn’t be fit for the kingdom.  But then I began to imagine being behind that plough.  We don’t plough manually these days, but just for a moment try to imagine yourself behind a plough.  Your job is to keep those horses or oxen walking straight and plough in a straight line. Imagine that in the middle of ploughing a big field you turn and look back.  What is going to happen?  You are going to end up with the plough veering off to one side, and if you keep looking back, it will end up going all over the place.  There is no way you can plough up that soil and make straight furrows in the earth ready for planting if you look behind you.  To plough straight and do a good job of it, you have got to keep looking straight ahead.

Looking back on bad times with regret, or even on good times that seemed better, can prevent you from ploughing a straight furrow.  Like Lot’s wife who looked behind and turned into a pillar of salt, looking back can stop you in your tracks and disable you.  You can’t look backwards and forwards at the same time.  Looking back prevents you from looking forward and focussing on what God has for you now.  You can only do a good job with what God has given you to do by looking ahead and focussing on it.    That’s what God means by not being fit – if you look back, you can’t look at what you have been given to do in the kingdom of God right now.  You won’t be able to see what you are doing and you will be going all over the place and leaving a mess behind you.

What God has given us is a very practical instruction.  After all, we wouldn’t look back while driving, unless we were reversing, or glancing very briefly to check blind spots.  All the time you are driving, you have to concentrate on looking forward.  If you look back, you will be all over the road, quite probably have an accident and maybe hurt yourself and someone else in the process.  If you are in the habit of looking back while driving, you probably shouldn’t have passed your test because you are not fit to drive!

If we want to be those who are fit for the kingdom of God, we need to look forward.  Yes, we learn from the mistakes of the past, and we rejoice and are grateful for the good times in the past, but it is what God has for us now, today, tomorrow, next week, and next year that is really important.  To keep moving forward, we have to keep looking forward.

Have I done a perfect job of not looking back this year?  No!  But I’m getting better at it with practice.  It’s God’s instruction to keep looking forward that has brought us through some really big challenges this past year.  It’s been tough, but I’m still alive and kicking! With His help, I’m getting fitter for the work He has for me.

Let’s get ourselves fit for this coming year; fit to plough a straight furrow, do the best job we can, plant a great harvest and bear good fruit.  Let’s forget about the stuff that would try to hold us back by getting us to look back.  Let’s keep our eyes looking ahead at the wonderful things God has planned for us and enjoy all the blessings he has prepared for us in the kingdom!

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Telling the Truth

When people like Panorama make documentaries about social issues and bring to light injustices, scandals, improper practices and hidden activities, change often takes place.  It has to.  Exposure is unfortunately often the precursor to change.  I say unfortunately because exposure can be uncomfortable and embarrassing for those involved.  It would be nice to think that areas of life that need change could be changed without having to ‘uncover’ people and their practices in a way that can bring embarrassment or discomfort.
It would be nice to think that in the church, God could bring about change without ‘exposure’.  However, history often shows us that is not the case.  For centuries, where religion, legalism, control and power structures have governed the church instead of the empowering and releasing of people, radical change has often only taken place when people have stood up to it, addressed it publicly, and made it known in some way, either through speaking or writing.  In past centuries, they have often risked or sacrificed their reputations, or even their lives, in the process.  While no-one expects to be burned at the stake or beheaded these days (at least in most countries), talking openly and honestly about some things can cause Christian tongues to wag and some believers to be branded as ‘rebellious’  or heretics.  The days and ways of Tyndale’s times are perhaps not completely over.

When we make honest assessments of Christianity or church, there will always be some who regard it as criticism.  I remember talking with one pastor in a non-critical way about control issues in the wider church.  His response was one of shock.  He described my words as ‘an indictment on the church’.  In this context, the word ‘indictment’ according to the Cambridge dictionary means, ‘a reason for giving blame’.   Is the church beyond indictment?  Is it beyond blame?  It seems so.  Control has become such an issue in the church in some places that nothing negative can be said.  Even though it may be prophetic instruction from God Himself regarding the need for change, or helpful insights from observers or the faithfully involved, prophets and those who speak out against the established order of things can be regarded as critical troublemakers and ‘boat-rockers’ who need weeding out of congregations, keeping an eye on, and maybe even being asked to leave the church.

So it was with the blind man.  Blind from birth, his joy at gaining sight from the healing power of Jesus must have been extraordinary.  And yet, being healed by Jesus seemed such a natural, simple thing to him.  When the Pharisees questioned and ridiculed him concerning his confession that it was Jesus who had healed him, the blind man was amazed at their closed minds and non-acceptance of the possibility that Jesus could be the Son of God.  However, the religious-minded Pharisees couldn’t accept the new order of things; a Messiah who would actually heal?  Unthinkable!  As if ridding themselves of the blind man would rid themselves of the truth unfolding before them, they cast him out of the synagogue.  Being ‘relieved’ of church membership today, having support of a ministry removed, or at least being rebuked into silence by leadership, would equate to the same thing.

We served in China for several years as missionaries.  Being in a communist country, we naturally observed things that we as Westerners would perceive as loss or lack of the ‘freedom’ we are used to in our own countries.  However, over time, Stuart and I began to realise that the restrictions we saw imposed by the Communist Party on the general population were very similar to those imposed by leaders on the Western church.  People were not allowed to speak out against the government, its party members or its politics.  To do so could result in imprisonment.  There was no freedom of speech.  In the same way, believers are often not able to speak out about or against things in the church that need change and can be made to suffer if they do.

This is wrong.  If the church cannot stand up blameless before those who challenge its structures of control, it is because it is not blameless.  If it must ‘stone its prophets’, it is because it must get them out of the way in order to continue its practices unchallenged.  If it refuses to change and hides itself in the shelter of having ‘divine authority’ to act how it chooses, it will find itself uncovered by that same divine authority.  God’s desire is not to embarrass or cause discomfort.  It is our own ‘cover up’ of the issues that eventually causes us embarrassment or discomfort, not God Himself.  God’s desire is to bring to the light of His goodness those things that are not doing His people, or those observing His people, any good.  Such is His love for us that He absolutely desires the very best for us, absolute liberty and true empowerment.  Sometimes, He might step on a few toes to achieve that goal.  Don’t worry.  He’ll heal those toes too if we’ll let Him.

In the same way, this blog is not designed to embarrass or cause discomfort.  Nor is it to criticize.  There is the possibility that it may bring some discomfort, but that is necessary for change to take place.  If so, it is only because I want to see people truly free and empowered.   I love God’s people and believe the church should be the most liberating and empowering body on the face of the earth!  In order to see that happen, it is time we told the truth about church.

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It’s Time to Begin…Again

Across the country, and the world, people are leaving churches.  We hear positive accounts of what is happening in some churches – lively worship, youth groups, outreach programs and people being saved, but we are also aware that faithful believers, including some pastors, are leaving both lively and traditional churches of every denomination, including the ‘Charismatic’ neo-denominations.  There are many reasons for this.  Some people have had bad experiences.  Some people don’t feel listened to and find there is no scope for honesty or new ideas.  Many are bored or disillusioned with how we ‘do’ church.  Some feel discontented with the way things are and feel that something is missing and that there ‘must be something more’.  Some sense that there are new and more authentic expressions of being church dawning on the horizon.  There is a restlessness, a seeking, a desire to know Jesus and the Father more.  Whatever the reasons, it is clear that God is ‘doing a new thing’.  Or is He?

Let’s answer that question by beginning with the basics of what church is.  You cannot ‘go to’ church.  You are the church.  Let’s liken it to something we know – being a human being.  When you were born, you were born a human being and became a part of the human race.  When you wake up each morning, you don’t have to try to be a human being.  You don’t think, ‘Oh, I’ll put on my clothes, I’ll eat breakfast, I’ll go to work, and then I’ll be more of a human being’.  You might feel more human when you’ve done those things, but they have not made you any more human.  You went to bed a human being, you awoke a human being.  Nothing you do can make you any more a human being.  You can’t help it…you just are.

In the same way, when you gave your life to Jesus and were born again, you were born into the family of God, you were born a child of God.  You became part of the church of God, one of His people.  The words ‘church’ (ekklesia), temple or house of God refer in the New Testament to the people and not to buildings.  The English word ‘church’ is derived from the Greek word ‘kuriakon’.  Over time it took on the meaning of God’s house and referred to a building, but its original meaning is belonging to the Lord.  When you were saved you became a part of God’s people belonging to the Lord.  You became ‘church’, (although that is a word with a lot of baggage).  There is nothing you can do to make you more ‘belonging to the Lord’.  When you wake up each morning you just are.  So you cannot ‘go to’ church because you cannot go to who you are!

The early Christians knew this.  It is all they knew.  They had no concept of ‘church’ as we know it with pews or chairs in neat rows facing the front,  pulpits and lecterns, Sunday clothes and pastor-led meetings with obligatory 30-45 minute sermons.  They had no forms or ceremonies as we know them.  They had no ‘church’ buildings, no sacred objects, no priestly caste that separated the people into ‘clergy’ and ‘laity’. They were surrounded by synagogues and pagan temples, but did not build sacred places in which to worship.  For the first three centuries, Christianity was *’born in homes, courtyards and along roadsides’.  Wherever they met together, they themselves were the sacred building.  They didn’t go to church, they just were the church.  They were not an organisation, but a people who met in each others’ homes together around Jesus and the leading of the Holy Spirit.  Each of them had something to contribute as the scripture says in 1 Corinthians 14:26: “Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation.”  It was a place where Jesus could speak through each person in the body and where each person could give something of the Holy Spirit for mutual edification.

How far removed that is from church as we know it today!  Back in the 70’s and 80’s, the Holy Spirit moved people to come away from more traditional forms of church and come together in a less formal manner, hence the charismatic and house church movements.  My first experience as a new believer was in a charismatic gathering where everyone was able to contribute.   People would start songs, others would give prophetic words,  share a testimony, or share something from the word that God was speaking to them.  It was alive with a sense of genuine excitement, like a wind sweeping across the gathering, and there were spontaneous outbreaks and shouts of praise and rejoicing.  There were deliverances and healings.  It was uncontrolled, unpredictable, and beautifully real as the Holy Spirit, instead of men, led the time together.

Much of that has long gone.  Since that time we’ve been a part of or visited over 50 churches across over 14 denominations in 4 countries on 3 continents.  One thing we have noticed about them is that, from seeker-sensitive mega churches with £50,000 screens to grass thatched ethnic minority gatherings in remote areas, they are all pretty much doing the same thing! Meetings are predictable.  There is no room for spontaneity, outbursts of praise, miracles, contributions from other members of the body or mutual edification.  In fact, many people would feel embarrassed or out of place to contribute as the Holy Spirit led, as though they were ‘sticking out like a sore thumb’ and somehow disrupting the order.  Our traditions are getting in the way of the Holy Spirit and it is stealing the life and power God intended for us when we gather together.  If we are getting in the way of the Holy Spirit, it follows that the way we are meeting together is not scriptural.  If it was, the Holy Spirit would be ‘doing His thing’.  Instead, we are doing our thing.  Jesus himself said to the religious leaders of his day:

“Why do you yourselves transgress the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?”  Matthew 15:3

Our traditions, and often performance-based meetings, have come before the power of God.  And it is no wonder that we are floundering.

As people look for what it really means to be church, changes are happening.  As I said, God is doing something new.  Or is He?  It might seem new to us, but really what God is doing is taking us back in order to go forward, taking us away from our traditions (or perhaps taking our traditions away from us) and back to His word.  Why would He need to do that?  Because it is our man-made traditions that bind us, that keep us from walking in the true freedom of knowing Jesus, that dis-empower us from functioning as the body God intended, and that hinder the working and true leading of the Holy Spirit.  God wants to set us free.

So what is this about?  With millions in need of hearing the gospel, and a world that needs discipling, is it just about finding more enjoyable forms of gathering together?  Certainly, it is about gathering together around Jesus according to scripture and not according to our man-made traditions.  As we recognise where we are following tradition, leave it behind to obey God and submit to the Holy Spirit, our gatherings will become times of true mutual enjoyment, edification and encouragement where everyone feels empowered, and where everyone can make a significant contribution.  They will become times of power and healing as the Holy Spirit takes over and does his work, setting people free.

However, it is not just about us!  As we become free from our own unscriptural restraints, the gospel that we preach to the world will be a different one.  It won’t be loaded with our own traditional and cultural baggage that is nothing to do with Jesus.  We won’t require others to take on our brand of Western Christian popular culture in order to believe in Jesus.  We will encourage them to find their own expressions of loving Jesus within the beauty, variety and diversity of the many cultures God has created.  We will pass on a message of freedom, life and empowerment.  We will pass on the simplicity of knowing Jesus.

For our own sake, and for the sake of the world we want to reach, it is time to begin doing  things God’s way.  It is time to begin…again.

(*from Pagan Christianity – author: Frank Viola)

Posted in Freedom | 1 Comment

Launching into the Unknown…

There’s a reason that it has taken me a while to write this next blog.  When it comes to talking about freedom in the church, it can be a tricky subject.   Achieving greater freedom often requires us to first take a close look at our lives, our habits and our traditions.  That means we have to pause long enough and be willing to actually ask ourselves honest questions about why we do what we do.

As the writer, challenging people to question their traditions is a dangerous business!  The Bible bears witness time and time again to the strength and power of our traditions and how deeply embedded they are as soon as they are challenged.   Prophets who challenged the authorities and thinking of their day were stoned, killed by the sword or thrown into holes.   Jesus himself irked the religious leaders to the point of plotting murder because he confronted the traditions and status quo of his day.  He continues to challenge us today, but his message is not always well received.

It is a tricky business not only for a writer, but also for the reader.  Being asked to question dearly held traditions, or ones that are not held dearly but which are observed out of habit or because we think they are ‘right’, can be frightening.  There is a lot of emotion involved.  It’s a bit like taking a Flying Fox ride, or doing a parachute or bungee jump.  I have never done a jump, but I have taken a Flying Fox ride across a massive gorge, very high over a very wide river in China.  You stand at the edge wearing the harness, wanting to launch yourself into what you know is going to be an incredible experience, but it takes a bit of courage to actually do the launching.  However, you can’t stand on the edge of the cliff in the torment of indecision.  You have to do one of two things.  You either have to decide that you are not going to do it, take off the harness and watch others make that ride, or you have to step off the edge into a new experience.  You are the only one who can make that decision.

When it comes to questioning our religious ‘Christian’ traditions, there are all kinds of emotions involved because of what we have been taught.  When our family lived in China from 1996 to 2003, we learned a lot about Communism.  Communism teaches people not to ask questions, but to accept the political order, the controlling authorities, the often unjust laws, the religious control, and the human rights abuses unquestioningly.  People are all expected to believe and act the same way with rigid devotion to the cause.  Dissidents and rebels, those who ask questions, doubt the system or do things differently, are severely dealt with.  As we lived among the Chinese and had dealings with Chinese officials, we began to see parallels with our own changing nation, but especially with the ‘Christian’ church as we know it.  We realized that the Christian church as we know it had taught us over the years to accept certain traditions, rules, practices and authority structures without questioning.  Being able to ask questions is one of the advantages of a free society.  However, we saw that the church was acting more as a controlling body which was expecting people to believe and act the same way.  We were led to believe that its traditions and practices were scriptural and that to question them would be to question the authority of scripture and God Himself.

No wonder we have such a hard time questioning some of our traditions!  When we believe that our man-made traditions are actually of God himself, and we place such significance on things that are instituted by man but given the ‘divine spin’ by the church, how can we question them?  To question them would make us feel like we are almost heretical!  As I said, there are a lot of emotions involved when we start to question things to do with the church.  We feel guilty about questioning the rightness and relevance of some traditions.  We fear that we might be branded as heretical or rebellious.  We condemn ourselves, feeling that our faith is perhaps slipping.  Guilt, fear, condemnation : we know where these come from, and it is not from God!

Being able to ask questions should not only be a benefit and advantage of a free society.  It should also be a benefit of being God’s people, a free church, the most  free people on the face of the earth.

God longs to take us, his church (not the building where you meet on a Sunday or even the group of people you meet with, but his whole church) on into greater freedom.  He wants to free us from guilt, fear and condemnation, free us from religious traditions and practices that are not based on his Word, and release us into the true freedom of knowing him.   However, that will require us to step off the edge of what seems safe and familiar.  That takes courage, but it can lead to a greater freedom and a whole new experience of life and God.

If you continue to read this blog, it will cause you to question.  You will have to decide whether to jump into new experiences or stay with the familiar.  It will evoke emotion.  Should you launch yourself into the scary unknown?  Only you can make that decision.

Posted in Freedom | 4 Comments