OK, now that I have got your attention, let me explain. I was again having a great conversation with a godly brother about the state of the church and related matters. I mentioned the sad state of so much of Australian – and Western – Christianity, and what might be done about it.
We were talking about how basically all churches and denominations have some amount of the traditions of men. Most would claim to be merely biblical, but perhaps none are entirely so. We all have various traditions we tack on to our faith, thinking everything we do is all gospel truth.
I mentioned, as an example, how in so many of the churches it seems almost mandatory to have worship conducted in what can only be described as a disco: black walls, strobe lights, smoke machines, etc. There is not one bit of biblical warrant for any of this, but so many churches seem to think that without all this they would somehow be quite deficient.
I have written before about such matters: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2010/08/31/christian-atheism/
And here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2009/11/29/david%E2%80%99s-mighty-men-godly-discontentment/
My brother fully agreed with me, but said that they would argue they need such things to draw in the young people or make it relevant. To which I replied, “What’s wrong with the Holy Spirit? Is he not sufficient to draw in both young and old?” The Holy Ghost was all the early church had. They had no gimmicks, no techniques, no marketing strategies, no advertising, and so on.
But they did have a growing and thriving church. They did not need or want manmade mechanisms to grow a church. They knew God alone would suffice. My friend, again agreeing, and again playing devil’s advocate, asked how we will keep people, especially our youth, coming to church. They need some sort of draw card.
I said we don’t really need entertainment and celebrities to draw people. If that was all we needed, then we should go the whole hog and have free pizzas, door prizes, and other appealing things 24/7. That would certainly bring in the crowds.
The trouble is, if the only way we can get people into our churches is through gimmicks, entertainment and worldly lures, then that will be what they come to expect for their entire Christian life. If their Christian journey is not fun, entertaining, feel-good and me-centred, they will go elsewhere for better and cheaper thrills.
We cannot start believers off on the wrong foot and then expect they will continue on the right foot. A false initiation to the Christian faith will always disappoint in the end. Such shallow gospel gimmickry can only result in shallow Christians.
The entertainment and celebrity culture (by which I mean not just the songs but the sermons and the whole feel-good experience), needs to be radically rethought. Indeed, I would suggest that we can probably dispense with most of it, and start asking ourselves how God in fact builds a church. One thought which has exercised my spirit for some time now I will throw out here.
If it results in even more believers thinking I am a bit of a strange duck, well, that may be the price I have to pay. I try not to worry too much about what people think, but I do endeavour to take seriously what God thinks. (Of course I am fully aware that God speaks through his people. So I do actually take all criticisms on board, and try to treat them like a fish dinner: take the meat while leaving the bones behind.)
So let me offer a real hardcore suggestion here. My recommendation is this: it may well be the best thing in many cases to simply shut our church doors and post a big sign on each entry with words something like this:
“Dear friends, sorry but our church is now closed for repairs. It will be closed for perhaps a few days, perhaps a few weeks, and maybe even longer, until a full and thorough renovation has taken place. These doors will remain shut for as long as it takes. We will notify you when the doors will reopen. In fact, there will be no need to notify you, because it will be apparent to everyone when the renewal work is completed. Thank you for your patience.”
Am I being facetious here? Not really – at least not too much. I do believe that sometimes the very best thing we could do for some of our churches is shut them down for a spell. When the church is shut down, God’s people and their leaders can then spend as much time on their faces before God as possible, beginning with some serious repentance.
The list of things to repent of would be extensive. We could repent of our worldliness, our compromise, our disobedience, our laziness, our lukewarmness, our apathy, our carnality, our waywardness, our sloth, our cowardice, our sinfulness, and our fleshliness. And that’s just for starters.
We could repent of relying on man-made techniques, pagan gimmicks, carnal entertainment, worldly celebrity status, and whoring after money, fame and fortune. Above all we could repent of thinking that the Holy Spirit is somehow just an optional extra, and that having lots of entertainment and things to do will somehow compensate for his absence.
We must take very seriously the words of Christ: “These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Matthew 15:8). Until our hearts are broken and malleable and contrite and soft, we will never be able to do much good for God. That is the clear teaching of Scripture:
“A broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17)
“For this is what the high and exalted One says—
he who lives forever, whose name is holy:
‘I live in a high and holy place,
but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly
and to revive the heart of the contrite’.” (Isaiah 57:15)
“These are the ones I look on with favor:
those who are humble and contrite in spirit,
and who tremble at my word.” (Isaiah 66:2)
And we should stay on our faces before God in an attitude of contrition, repentance and humility for as long as it takes. When, by God’s grace, the garbage in our churches and in our lives is weeded out, and we are at a place of brokenness before him, where we are willing to say, “Lord, whatever it takes,” and God then gloriously and wonderfully meets us and renews us and fills us afresh, then we can reopen the doors.
In other words, until the Lord meets us with a new, deep and serious work of God, breaking forth into a transforming revival, we should maybe take a break from all our busyness. When God-breathed revival breaks forth, we will not need to waste our time on entertainment and fleshly gimmicks and cheap tricks to keep the crowds amused.
We will be too busy falling before the holy and living God. We will have to think about how to deal with the overflowing crowds. That will be a much nicer problem to have. Remember, Jesus never left as his parting commandment, “Go into all the world and make megachurches, draw big crowds, and entertain the masses”.
He said “Go into all the world and make disciples.” That is an altogether different matter. And the only real way that can be done is by the power of the Spirit. Instead of so much relying on every method under the sun, we need to more fully embrace the only true means Christ has prescribed for us: the Holy Spirit.
As usual, A.W. Tozer had it exactly right: “If the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the church today, 95 percent of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference. If the Holy Spirit had been withdrawn from the New Testament church, 95 percent of what they did would stop, and everybody would know the difference.”
OK, let me offer a much-needed afterword for all those ready to tar and feather me and run me out of town. Are there a lot of great churches, Christians, and church leaders doing great things? You bet. Is God ever so gracious and merciful to us that he shows up week after week even though we have so much carnality and fleshliness in our gatherings? Yep.
It is the overwhelming grace of God that he so often uses us frail, weak and often selfish servants. My point is simply that instead of relying on so many gimmicks and techniques, maybe we just need to go back to basics and invite God back and ask him how he would like things to be done.
And my proposal is not all that radical. Pastors will often take a sabbatical; church leaders will often do a weekend retreat; and lay people will often go to a week-long church camp for spiritual renewal and refocusing. So my suggestion is simply a bit more of the same.
I thank God for all the faithful Christians, faithful churches, and faithful leaders who are sold out to Jesus and are intent on glorifying him. May their tents increase and may there be many more of them.