Friday, 20 April 2012

Our Daily Chocolate

One of the great privileges we have as Christians is we have direct access to God – i.e., we are priests. Fundamental to this the capacity we have to hear directly from God through His Word. How amazing – God speaks directly to us through His Word. We do not need an intermediary. This means that we need to take seriously our reading and studying of the Bible. If we do, we will come to know God better, we will understand His ways, we will have wisdom and insight, and we will know Jesus more intimately. It really sounds worthwhile – the benefits are phenomenal!

With this in mind, I am somewhat dismayed at our quickly we marginalise the Bible, and we would rather read a range of so-called Christian books than really engage with the Scriptures ourselves and exercise our priestly right and responsibility. I do not want to reiterate the comments I made about this previously, but in this post I want to briefly discuss the use of devotionals like "Our Daily Bread" and "Every Day with Jesus". Now these can be good resources and have a place as a supplement to deep and profound Bible study, but they are no substitute! Today, it seems that people are too happy to read a somewhat random devotional, take a decontextualized verse as 'God's special message' for them for the day, and miss the real and deep principles and messages that are inherent in the Bible. What we want is an easily digested, motivational, tasty morsel to give us a quick 'Bible fix', without really having to work too hard. In effect, we ignore the clear message of 2 Timothy 2:15, "Study to show yourself approved to God, a workman that needs not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth."

Similarly, I believe that preachers are called to teach the Bible, but too often what I hear is something akin to a Tony Robbins motivational chat, where the Scriptures are used to support the preachers point rather than the other way around. After years, we are still given (and desire) milk, rather than 'solid food', and so we do not grow up into maturity.

Do we really want to know God and His ways? Then we have to move beyond a sugary little 'daily chocolate'.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Church: God’s Cheer Squad or God’s Team?

I have always enjoyed sports and in this post I want to draw on some of the 'sports'-type metaphors that are in the New Testament teaching on how Christians and the Church should live. I understand that the Bible isn't really about sports, but I think in Scripture it is clear that we are to be active participants rather than enthusiastic supporters. I am concerned that the local church seems to primarily be concerned with promoting and developing a great Cheer Squad, rather than athletes who will compete in the game!

Hebrews 12: 1-3 (NIV)

1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Now, as a lay person I notice a few things about this passage. First, we are called to run a race – to participate in the 'competition' or 'game'. Also, this game is hard work and requires perseverance and a sense of discipline, but the goal or reward is supreme. Second, if it is a race, competition, or game, then there must be an opposition, and in verse 3 this is noted. Finally, there is a Cheer Squad or team of supporters – it is those who have gone before and have finished the "race that was marked out for them" (i.e., not us who are still alive and in the game).

Considering these things, there appears to be some clear implications for individual Christians, and the church. In short, we are to be 'athletes' in God's team, not an enthusiastic Cheer Squad. As such, as I have discussed in a previous post (The Main Game), the local church and its services and programs should be consumed with training people to 'compete'. Church services (and other internal activities) are not the main game – they are where Christians are equipped to 'play the main game' in their homes and communities throughout the week. Indeed, activities like quiet times, Bible study and church-based activities are about preparing ourselves – about ridding ourselves of all that hinders, so we can engage and compete well. As Christians, the focus is not on the training (e.g., Sunday morning service), the focus is on our lives where we engage with the opposition 'in the game'. Who trains and then does not compete – this is a non-sense, and yet this is what we seem to be doing!

Local churches are focussing on and becoming a Cheer Squad. Like a good cheer squad they spend a lot of time practicing their team chants, singing the team songs, and talking to other squad members about the game. Indeed, they spend some of their meeting times studying and listening to coaching about the game. The only problem is that they never play – they only like going to cheer squad events. Furthermore, they don't go and watch at the game venue and cheer, they only want to be cheer leaders in the Clubhouse where they only have to meet and engage with other cheer squad members. Sad. Occasionally the Cheer Squad has a recruitment drive, but this involves trying to entice non-members into the Clubhouse.

Is it any wonder that the church is dying in the West. The church has chosen to be a Cheer Squad, safe and sound in their Clubhouses, and too few are actually in the game. Of course, the opposition is having a field day because they are hardly challenged because so many are consumed by Clubhouse life, and this now sucks-up all the church resources. To illustrate, last Sunday at the local church I heard them proudly announce that 10% of all tithes go to missions, but all I heard was "90% of all money we spend on ourselves and our Cheer Squad activities in the Clubhouse!"

Does God really need us to be a Cheer Squad? If we are a good Sunday Fan Club and know all the club songs and sing with gusto, are we doing what we really wants us to do? As I have noted before, I think we are far more enamoured with 'worship' than God is, and I think He would rather have us get in the game. The real game is not in the Clubhouse, and the real game requires actually doing and being a Christian at home and in the community. Once our days here are over, we can hopefully enjoy sitting in the stands and cheer to our hearts content, because we will have nothing else to do, and it will be glorious. Until then, "fix your eyes on Jesus" and persevere IN THE GAME.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

The Western Church: A top-down, spiralling in gathering, or bottom-up, spiralling out community?

Recently I was complaining to a friend about my view that the local church is becoming an irrelevant failing institution. Rather than simply agreeing with me and offering the appropriate sympathy, she challenged me to investigate my claims and to come up with some alternatives. Of course, this was a perfect response, and so I have been thinking and researching this for a few months now (including occasionally writing a post on this blog). In this post I will try and concisely outline my views on the church, and in particular the way we have been seduced by the pervading philosophies of the Western world and now have little to offer the not-yet-saved world because we no longer reflect the Biblical pattern or mandate for the church.

As I have noted on earlier posts, I am not a theologian, but what I have done to research the church is to carefully read and study the books that focus on the church, starting in Acts. I am not saying that the rest of the Bible is not relevant, but I just wanted to start where the Christian church began. Also, I have read a couple of books about the church, but primarily I have focussed on the Bible.

Top-down or Bottom-up?

The main reason I wanted to focus on the Bible as my 'research site' and authoritative source is because we as Christians are privileged to have complete and direct access to God and His Word. Furthermore, we have His Holy Spirit - the very author of Scripture, within us to guide us and to interpret for us. We as believers are now priests and we do not need to go through an intermediary (i.e., another priest). So here is my first issue with the current church – we ignore our priesthood and rely on others to give us access to God and His wisdom. We aren't willing or confident to do the hard work of studying the Bible for ourselves, so we rely on Christian books (or other texts) where someone else has read and interpreted the Word, and they tell us what it says. This is problematic not only because it is a soft option, but also because the power of God's Word, interpreted personally through the Holy Spirit, is personally and contextually applied. God speaks to us through His Word in and where we are, not in some general sense. Hence, Christian bookshops now have a small section devoted to Bibles and commentaries and other study tools, and large sections dedicated to motivational books, cds, videos, posters, pencils, and numerous other religious trinkets.

The giving away of our 'priesthood as believers' is indicative of the top-down philosophy and structure of our Western churches. Church services are now highly orchestrated and practiced. What we now call worship is primarily a time of singing, and singing songs that are written by those outside the local community and don't necessarily reflect the lives of the members. At our local church we now have a 'worship director' (a 3-day per week paid position), and therefore, the philosophy is that worship can be directed. This is an anomaly to me and it is another example of the top-down church. It requires that the believers turn up, and regardless of what has been happening in their lives, their personalities, and their circumstances, they blindly follow the directing of the worship director and the worship team (who are all musicians). Come along and we will give you worship as a product, and apart from thoughtlessly singing along, you can passively be a worshipper. Of course, there is validity in the argument that worship is a response to the nature, person and work of God, and we can join together in this activity despite ourselves because it is all about God. But it also a response from us – not a programmed routine that we receive from the so-called worship leaders and passively mimic like a puppet. The rhetoric I hear around this is that "it is not about the music", but the practice of only ever singing during 'worship' seems to defy this claim. Similarly, I also hear the view that "inspirational worship will equip believers to live more worshipful lives during the week", but again, this reflects the false top-down philosophy. Sunday worship should be inspired from our lives lived in intimate relationship with God, where people come to share what God has done in their lives as they have done the: good works God had planned for them to do.

My reading on the NT says that church is a bottom-up, not a top-down community, where the activities and life of Sunday services comes from the community of believers, not from a director who orchestrates false worship that comes from a prescribed program of songs not the lived lives of the members. A top-down philosophy creates a community of passivity and nominal engagement, and one can be a worshipper by simply turning up and singing enthusiastically, whether the words mean anything to you or not - the sociological and psychological influence of group singing will carry you along. Hence, rather than inspiring the community of believers to more Godly lives, it gives them a false sense that they are pleasing and worshipping God, however they live during the week.

Our churches are set-up with a top-down philosophy, but this is not Biblical and it doesn't work. The currently demise of the Western church is evidence of this failing situation.

Spiralling in or spiralling out?

Another problem with the top-down approach to church is that it makes the church the centre and focus and so it 'spirals in'. In this paradigm, churches become consumed by organising and running programs for the members, who are placed as consumers of the church's products. The events are very important, particularly the Sunday morning service, because this is where the products (worship, teaching, etc.) are provided from above by the church employees (pastors, worship directors). Of course, this top-down approach promotes consumerism and commodification of Christianity where people voted with their feet and their wallets, and we now have pseudo-christian corporations like hillsong that make a fortune by selling religious experiences. The role of the 'top' in the top-down approach is to create better and better products and services to keep the consumers happy – not an ideal environment if the believers need to be challenged or confronted!

The issue with the current philosophy that pervades the Western church is that it causes the church to spiral in. Everything focuses on the church and the church events and programs. Our most enthusiastic and talented members are caught up and consumed by performing in church events, and outreach means putting on an event that hopefully a non-believer might attend (an in-drag rather than an outreach – an outreach would seem to imply that it was outside the church buildings/structures). This seems to be completely contrary to even a shallow reading of the gospels and the rest of the NT! Also, a church that is so focussed on entertaining and pandering to those in the church will eventually be self-defeating, because you can never keep everyone happy with programs, and so you spiral in until you eventually reach zero. A healthy and growing church will spiral out, and look to declare God's reign in all realms, and thus be an influence for good in the wider community.

The failing church

It is my opinion that the main reason that the Western church is currently diminishing and is seen as irrelevant is because it is built on a top-down and spiralling-in mentality, whereas the Bible promotes a bottom-up and spiralling-out paradigm. The current situation is a reflection of the pervasive Western market-driven, consumerism, entertainment philosophy and it does not work as it is based on individualism and does not promote community. Church services and other religious practices are the focus and centre now – the most important parts of the religious life – ceremonies and rituals. Rather than church services being 'training sessions' for the real game of the Christian life that is lived out every day at home, work and in the broader community, that have now become sacrosanct rituals that are the pinnacle of Christian life and experience, and hence we have become religious rather than Godly.

A church that is built on real Biblical community will be organic, family-oriented, and messier and less structured than the current clinical forms. Probably it will lose some of its middle-class niceness and polish, but it will actually connect and grow from the real lived lives of God's people, and it will be more relevant to people – those in the church and those who are yet-to-be-saved.

A Biblical church

First, there is no recipe for a church, but when the church was first established the community of believers held to 4 main tenets (Acts 2: 42-47):

  • prayer;
  • devotion to the apostle's teaching;
  • breaking bread (communion); and
  • fellowship.

I think these principles are still useful today if a church wishes to establish a Biblical community.


One doesn't need to have a degree in theology to realise that prayer is a central and recurring theme of the NT (or the whole Bible for that matter). It is clear that Christians are called to pray individually and corporately, and to pray for all aspects of life, and to pray continuously. Prayer is an unfathomable privilege – to actually commune with the Almighty God about our everyday lives, and our shared lives as a community of believers. You would then expect that prayer would be a regular and integral part of the community-life of the local church, and it would be an active and engaging rather than a passive activity. Prayer should be an ordinary and routine activity when the church community meets, but this doesn't seem to be the case.

At the church I am loosely associated with, we usually have an opening prayer (after the obligatory opening song or two), a prayer for the offering, a prayer before the sermon, and a closing prayer (that is also always followed by the obligatory song). These prayers are lead by the song-leader and one of the church pastors, and generally the congregation listens politely, quietly says "Amen" at the appropriate time, and then move on – it all seems rather passive and programed and unlike the vibrant activity described in the NT. However, on one occasion someone from the congregation shared an issue with the church, and then we split up into small groups of 3 or 4 and prayed together. This seemed to me to be a wonderful example of a caring community of believers really engaging together in the Biblical activity of prayer. Unfortunately this hasn't been done again – maybe some people didn't like actually have to be actively involved at church! Maybe we rarely have people sharing real-life issues or experiences with the church community where people are passive, so the need to pray is not overt?

It is a sad indictment on the church that prayer is so marginalised and passive in the church meetings.

Committed to Biblical teaching

Again, it is not difficult to realise that good Bible teaching is important. As noted previously, the Bible is our only authoritative source and so Christians should be devoted to reading it, studying it, meditating on it, and generally trying to understand it so they can hear directly from God. This means more than just a casual reading with a devotional book, or just listening to a good sermon every Sunday. If Christians are unwilling to really study the Word and to ascertain what it actually says – not what they want it to say, then they can hardly claim to be followers of Christ or to believe in that the Bible is God's Word. The Bible needs to be studied up-close by examining verses and short passages, but it also needs to be examined at a macro level – what are the over-arching messages of the NT or the gospels, or of the whole Bible. Too often we see the use of decontextualized verses, clumped inappropriately together, to say something that God never intended, but that is sugar to our ears!

Fundamental to actually understanding God's message to us today is to read and study open to what the Bible actually says. Unfortunately, we mostly interpret the Bible through firm and fixed views about Christianity, church and living a Godly life, and this is why the Western church is largely inert, and we are happy to accept religiosity and piousness as a poor representation of Christian life. How can people honestly read about the life of Jesus and yet have little or nothing to do with those who are unsaved? Whatever they may say, their lives shout that the gospel message is not that important so it isn't shared.

This is indicative of the second issue related to Christian's commitment to Biblical truth. First, people can't be bothered and/or don't want to understand what the Bible is really saying, preferring the version of Christianity that they are comfortable with already (spiralling in). The second issue is the lack of devotion to God's message. On most Sundays, God's Word is preached from pulpits, but in general this seems to be treated as a form of religious entertainment rather than life-transforming Truth. People in congregations may sit there politely and listen, and some may even take a few notes, but few apply what they learn to their lives outside of church. It is just another form of top-down, spiralling-in church life, where we are told stuff, which we basically ignore outside the church walls – religiosity!

I think there is a real issue of inertness and religiosity amongst church congregation members, there is scope for Biblical teachers to present their messages in more pedagogically sound and engaging forms. If the Biblical message is to be life-changing, then people need opportunities and pedagogical structures to assist them to consider the Truths deeply – a sermon that is lectured from the front is fairly limited. People should be asked questions that cause them to reflect and consider the ideas and how they relate to their lives; to make notes and to check the message against other passages of Scripture; and to pray and ask God to transform the individual and collective lives by His Spirit. With people really committed to God's Word, and preachers committed to facilitative pedagogy, we can see the church "devoted to the Bible's teaching" as was required of the early church.

The Lord's Supper (Communion)

The third practice that characterised the early church was regularly partaking of 'communion'. This too should be a regular practice in our modern churches, not as a ritual but as a constant reminder of the historical Jesus who is the foundation of the church. It was Jesus himself who said "do this until I return". I think in church we can often make too much of 'communion' added all-sorts of other routines, ceremonies and activities to the simple act of remembering Jesus. The real Jesus of history, not some romantic image we construct of Him, but the real Jesus who was fully God and fully man – who lived amongst everyday people and who died a cruel death on our behalf.


Finally, fellowship is not just about sitting and standing together in a concert hall for 90 minutes, sharing a quick cuppa with the selected people we know and like (while trying to avoid the annoying ones we don't!), and then shooting off for another week. Real fellowship is about sharing in each other's real lives, practicing hospitality, and meeting one another's needs. Of course, the current top-down, spiralling-in approach to church works against this, as fundamentally true fellowship involves the people of the church reaching out – bottom-up, spiralling out. This is not about programs or events, but about people having a Godly and Biblical perspective so they can actually live lives that are worship.

So what might this look like in practice?

The Bible does not mandate the form that church should take, so it is quite surprising that almost all local churches look the same, regardless of denomination or 'flavour'. Rather than looking for a particular form, I think churches need to find ways to enact the principles outlined above in ways that meet the needs of their local community (the broader community and the collective of believers). For me, I think churches need to be less formal, less program-focussed, more organic, and more family friendly (especially towards children). I imagine that a hall that is somewhere between a cafĂ© and a classroom would be good; where people engage with one another about their lives; where testimonies are common; where people encourage and pray for one another regarding their Christian lives lived at home and in the community; where people pray and the church prays; where people are looking for ways to be missional and to care for poor and needy; where teaching is organised and engaging and requires a response; where the nature and character of God is foregrounded; and, where Jesus – the real Jesus of history and the Bible, is central.

So what about worship?

I'm guessing that this part might be where people might want to disagree with me (and that is fine), but I think we have fallen in love with worship as a (musical) practice, rather than the God we supposedly worship. Put simply, while 'worshippers' will not think so, our current church worship events are primarily orchestrated and directed so people feel like they are doing something for God, when it is actually a rather self-indulgent practice – it is so the 'worshipper' can feel something, even if it isn't really what God desires. I appreciate that this may be offensive to some, but below I explain my position. All I ask is that 'worshippers' actually consider the broader Biblical perspective on this aspect of church life.

The word "worship" is only mentioned twice in the NT epistles, and none of these refer to the sort of corporate-type church practice that pervades our church services. In fact, in all the NT passages that refer to the church and church life, none refer to formal worship events or programs – they talk about prayer a lot, that services be orderly, and the roles of men and women, etc. So, the big picture of the section of the Bible devoted to the church era (i.e., now) is that corporate worship is not that significant. However, in the main passage where worship is defined it says;

"Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - this is your spiritual act of worship" (Romans 12:1-2).

To me, this seems to make it pretty clear what worship is! If you really want to worship God, then live an everyday life that is devoted to Him and is characterised by righteousness – this is an undivided life that is most evident in your home with your family, spouse and children, and at work and in the community. If this worship is in order and evident, then perhaps it might also spill-over into a Sunday morning service, but it does not happen the other way around, and if your life is worshipful outside the church, then don't bother singing on Sunday morning because it is meaningless. It does mention "speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs" in the NT three times, but none of these refer to 'worship' or church events.

True worship is about obedience and sacrifice – an undivided life.

"I urge you then, … , that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all Godliness and holiness. This is good, and what pleases God our Saviour, who wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy, 2: 1-3)

I do understand that people can select a few verses from the Psalms to justify the music-based approach to church and worship, but this need to be taken in context, and understood in the broader perspective of Biblical truth, and how it applies to the current church age. David did many other things that we seem to disregard and we selectively choose verses that support the sort of church and God that we want. Church therefore becomes about us, hence my opinion that it is primarily selfish and self-serving. I should add that I don't think it is wrong to worship God, but I think we should desire to worship Him as he desires for His glory, not just for our entertainment or self-fulfilment. Therefore, I do think it is wrong to devote a large portion of church service time and church resources to what seems to be a practice that is Biblically relatively minor.

So-called worship services look more like a pop music concert now with the performers on the stage leading the fans who proudly stand tall and self-righteous like mini 'Towers of Babel' (at some churches they even sound like babble!) reaching up high towards a God that seems to be somewhere up in the clouds. If worship was truly consistent with the character of the Almighty God, then people would not be tall and proud, but low and humble, conscious of their position and God's nature. Whatever words they may be singing (over and over again), all it really sounds like is "me, me, me, me, me, …" – it is all about ME.

So where to from here for me?

Well, I will not be reading, thinking and writing any more about the church, because fundamentally I am giving up – I concede defeat (I haven't even bothered to edit this post so forgive the typos). I know that this is a weak response, but in the end I think the Hell$ong mantra will win and the Biblical perspective will be lost as church is twisted to meet the desires of the people. I have little hope for any meaningful change, and I know that in the church where I am loosely attached, nothing will change, so I will concede defeat, attend (unlike many other blokes who see no place for themselves), and keep up appearances so church seems nice. I will try and engage with others outside the formal structures of the church institution and hope I can live a life of worship at home, at work, and amongst the not-yet-saved people that God brings across my path.

I have little hope for the current Western church and think that reform will only probably come through alternative structures that aren't so culturally bound. So, the church will be top-down and spiralling in, as church employees (and their volunteer disciples) seek to keep their clients happy. Rather than reaching out and making disciples, the church will operate a pseudo-religious entertainment-based institution that's goal is to keep the consumers happy so they maintain members (and their tithes).

So this is the last post, at least for a while. Not sure if anyone has read anything, but it has been useful for me to think about things by writing it down. Actually, it has caused more tension and trouble than I expected or wanted as people don't really want to have their sacred religious practices challenged – don't think, just feel and keep things the way they are, even if they aren't working.

"And this is my prayer, that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God" (Philippians 1: 9-11).

This passage sums up what God wants for us, and this results in true worship.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Loving with Robotic Arms

At least in the West, it seems like we have been swamped by bureaucracy. In almost every field of life we now layer upon layer upon layer of management, bureaucracy and system. We are forever having meetings and preparing programs and this now gazumps all meaningful activity! While I reluctantly accept that this is my lot at work, I fear that this disease is now also overtaking the church.

At the church I attend we are involved with a child sponsorship program with a church community in Indonesia. I think this is a great thing – the church is supporting brothers and sisters who are in need by sharing from their abundant financial resources.

The program is a partnership from the church, through a special 'social justice' committee, through the aid organisation 'Compassion', through the local church in Indonesia and finally to children and their families in the city in Indonesia. The program has received moderately good support from the church (maybe 50 sponsorships from approximately 300 families), but it is not what you would call an overwhelming concern, and it seems a bit like we have done our bit by sending our $40 per month and an occasional letter. We love these children in Indonesia, but through sanitising layers of management – with 'robotic arms' as it were.

However, recently a team of about 8 people went from the church and, amongst other things, spent time with their sponsor children. This appeared to be a life-changing experience, particularly for those from the church who went to Indonesia. They were able to love the children face-to-face, with real arms, person to person. The beauty of this was when the layers of bureaucracy were by-passed (although the trip was organised, sanctioned and overseen by the organisations) the love and fragrance of God was evident.

So why is it that the church is becoming increasingly concerned with structures, programs, institutions and systems - trying to organise love for those in need. Why is it we try and set up nice, clean, sanitised forms of compassion and love and we accept loving with robotic arms, when it is so unsatisfying, so unbiblical, so unlike Jesus. Churches are now setting up programs and committees to organise solutions to a range of issues and concerns they want to address, and in this way church members can do their good works without getting their hands dirty – they do their duty to love 'at a distance'. Programs are not so much an 'outreach', but more than an attempt to 'in-drag'.

I think what God had in mind for the church was for it to meet those in need, and work with them, side-by-side and face-to-face. God doesn't need our money, He asks for us as people, and He wants us to do His work and be His ambassadors, and this cannot be done through bureaucracy. It requires believers to be equipped through the church to then go into the world (that is, beyond the safe and sanitised community and club of the local church) and love and live as Jesus did. The amazing thing is, if we can do this, we will actually be engaged in real worship, and we will know God's blessing in more amazing ways than we will ever know in the church buildings.

So, next time you think about the poor and the needy, try and find a way to actually work with the community (i.e., the people outside the church club). Don't make another committee or program, don't send people to a Christian conference on social justice – equip your people and go out and love with open hearts and dirty hands. It might be messy, but it is what Jesus would do, and the blessings will be immense.

Why I Think Speaking in Tongues is not Biblical

I have been a Christian long enough to see the 'speaking in tongues' idea sweep through the church with the Pentecostal movement and now for many be seen as an acceptable practice for Christians. While I agree that it is somewhat confusing to adequately address all the verses that seem to focus on this topic as there appears to be some contradiction, I take a broader perspective and consider how the practice fits with Biblical teaching in general and what we know about God and the church. Upfront, I DO NOT think that the practice of a 'special prayer language' is Biblical. However, I do see that there may be times when someone is gifted with the capacity to speak in another tongue – a real language, in order to advance the gospel; i.e., in an evangelistic situation. This is consistent with the coming of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost when the apostles spoke in new languages, and the ethnically diverse crowd all heard the gospel message IN THEIR OWN TONGUE (i.e., known languages), and many were saved. This is what I believe the gift of 'tongues' is – not a gibberish so-called prayer language. Below I outline my reasons for this position:

  1. Languages have a structure, form, syntax, etc. You know when you hear a language, even if you do not understand it. However, 'tongues' as a prayer language lacks the characteristics of a language. Now I have to admit that I do not associate with people who engage in this practice (are you surprised), but I have heard it quite a few times in both church-type events and on television, and it seems to me to primarily be a repetitive sort of noise with no form, structure, or complexity of sounds. As such, it is NOT a language, and because the words 'tongue' and 'language' are the same, it is NOT a tongue.
  2. Given the point above, then it is not able to be interpreted, because only a language can be interpreted. Also, if the so called tongue that is 'uncomplex' and is made up of a few simple noises that are repeated, then the translation or interpretation should also be a few simple words that repeated mantra-style.
  3. From all the explanations I have had of 'tongues as a prayer language', it seems that God is just talking to himself, using the prayers vocal chords but by-passing their brain. So God says stuff to himself through a vessel that has no idea what they are saying. This seems quite bizarre to me and non-sensical. Now I do not want to limit God, but I don't think He does things just for a special trick or as a purposeless activity. I see no other such activity in what I read and know of God from the Bible.
  4. If you look at the spiritual gifts, they are clearly given to the church, through individuals. They are not for the edification of the individual, they are ALL for the building up of the church. Again, 'tongues as some sort of prayer language' is different and stands apart from the overall Biblical teaching on spiritual gifts. If it is so different, then it seems to me that this interpretation of 'the gift of tongues' is wrong.
  5. Also, if you look at the spiritual gifts, all believers, to a greater or lesser extent, have them all. But again, the view of 'tongues as a prayer language' does not fit.
  6. Given the clear interpretation of the gift of 'tongues' in most Biblical passages is as outlined in the opening paragraph (i.e., a known language for evangelistic purposes), it seems likely that this is what the gift actually is. There are not 2 different forms of 'speaking in tongues', so the prayer language version must be incorrect.
  7. A practice much like the 'ecstatic utterances' version of 'speaking in tongues' is not a new phenomenon and it recent history it did not begin with the church. It has been commonly practiced in various pagan and occultist ceremonies as a sort of mantra and/or mind altering activity. I am no expert here, but it seems that in all these cases (including the so-called church version) it is primarily a psychological tool to make the speaker feel like they are closer to God, even though in reality it is nothing more that mindless gibberish.
  8. While this is really more personal than a sound argument, but have yet to meet a Christian that 'has the fragrance of Christ' and is widely respected and Godly that engages in the 'ecstatic version of speaking in tongues'. I readily admit that there may be many Godly believers who may be involved in this erroneous practice; just I haven't met them yet!

I could continue, but perhaps this post is now long enough. While the practice of 'tongues as a special prayer language' is probably in many respects a harmless, if somewhat frivolous and silly activity, my main concern is that it misrepresents the nature and character of God. It makes Him look foolish, and of course there is no hint of foolishness in God. God is wise, purposeful, and passionately concerned with His church – my desire is that we, as the church, reflect His nature and His character.

Monday, 15 August 2011

The Priesthood of all Believers

I have been struck recently on the amazing fact that we, as believers, are indeed priests, and as such we have direct access to God. We no longer need to go through a mediating person (i.e., a priest) – I have direct and open access to the Most High God, and what's more, His Spirit dwells within me. This is too wonderful for me to grasp.

So what does this mean for us? I think there are some critical things for how we live today. First, I can read and interpret and understand God's message, through the Bible, myself. Now I am not saying that this is simple or easy, but it is what God wants me to do. This means that I should and must read and study the Bible myself. Primarily, I should be finding out about God and the Christian life through reading and studying the Word myself.

I have from time to time gone to Christian bookshops. I am amazed at how small the section is that is devoted to Bibles and study helps (e.g., concordances, commentaries), AND, how big the space is that is devoted to other Christian books, cds, videos, and other religious icons. It worries me that now, rather than reading, studying and interpreting the Bible for ourselves, we would rather understand our faith and how to live, by reading books written by others about the Bible. Now don't get me wrong, I think there are many good Christian books and they can be helpful, but it seems that many Christians have now given up their God-given privilege to hear from Him directly through his Word through diligent study, and are happy to read the interpretations of others.

We don't need gurus. We can study and understand God's very Word for ourselves. We are priests, but unfortunately it seems to me that we are too willing to give up our priestly rights and accept the Word secondhand through books, blogs, or even songs and cds.

Monday, 11 July 2011

The Church Service as Entertainment

A few years back Neil Postman wrote a book called something like "Entertaining ourselves to Death". In this book he discussed and criticised the seeming unending desire we now have to be entertained. He suggested that the way our lives have now been so focussed around entertainment has led to the demise of a range of things we used to value in society including work, integrity, relationships and our moral fibre. Now one could debate the claims he made, but it is pretty clear that in many Western countries we do devote a lot of our time, energy and resources towards entertainment. If we are not entertained then we proclaim "I'm bored".

I think that this focus on entertainment has also taken over much our church services. Services are designed around activities that make the members (or clients) feel entertained. This is evident is the current emphasis on singing and pop-type music, and sermons that are more like motivational talks.We even have a smoke machine and flashy lights that create a concert-type atmosphere during our 'worship times' (I'm sure Jesus feels much more honoured when we have these accoutrements!). Now there is nothing wrong with these things per se, but I think we set up a false image of God's church when we try too hard to entertain people and make them have warm fuzzy feelings. I see nothing in Jesus' life and ministry that was about entertainment. It also means that church services have to be done to please the people (so don't challenge them too much!)

As I have noted before, my church is a fairly middle of the road Baptist church, but there is a lot of evidence that we have become entertainment oriented. For starters, we have a huge stage – a necessary place for the entertainers (i.e., musicians and 'worship team') to perform. In fact, the church recently put on a production of Godspell, and by all accounts it was a good production. It was done as a so-called outreach, But I don't think many non-Christians attending and those who di would have been entertained but probably not challenged – that's what plays are for, to entertain! This production sucked huge resources from our church and as a congregation we were obsessed by this 'outreach'. Indeed, almost everyone (apart from me) thought it was wonderful, and I am horrified to thing that they are already planning for next year's entertainment event (aka outreach). Why have we, as a fundamental evangelical church, become so obsessed with entertainment events? Is this what God had planned for His people? Not as far as I can tell from my reading on the NT. In fact, if the 'Godspell' crowd wanted to really outreach, why didn't they go and join one of the local community drama or theatre groups? Or is that a too obvious?

The entertainment focus of the church at large can also be seen in the large frivolous events like Hillsong that are devoted to religious entertainment that their pilgrims falsely claim to be Christian and worshipful. At these shows we are told by the entertainment promoters (e.g, ridiculously wealthy pastors like Brian Houston – the entertainment industry is lucrative!) that "God is going to do something special", like He is passionate about making us feel warm and fuzzy through religious entertainment, and "that He is going to do a new thing", even though the entertainment will be very similar to the night before, and the night before, and the night before, … I think Jesus would feel sick if He was in attendance – at least the Jesus I read about in my Bible.

I believe we have become consumed with entertaining people in church events. Consequently we are not a dynamic God-focussed people who are changing the world, but rather a bunch of self-indulgent couch-potatoes who go to church to be entertained, say "that was nice", and then go away and live exactly the same as we did before. Is it any wonder the church is diminishing in numbers and influence in the Western world? How sad.