I write this article (in May 2003) as a Christian of around 19 years experience in the Lord, who is currently very happy where God has placed me in the Body of Christ. I have a lot to be thankful for, but I am also aware of some trends which I think could at least be discussed in a forum like this. This article deals with some sensitive and painful topics, but ones which I believe are highly relevant and should be considered in the presence and in the light of the Lord and His Word.
There are many people today who have been Christians for years, and may have served in various capacities as ministers of the gospel, who no longer attend church assembly meetings. I am not talking about people who have never been genuinely converted, people who perhaps came once or twice to a church, made some sort of “decision for Christ” and dropped out soon afterwards. No, I am speaking about sincere people, born-again Christians, some of whom know the Bible quite well, who pray, and who have been faithful in various levels of church involvement for years. And yet, for various reasons, they can no longer be found in church assembly meetings today. They may occasionally attend various conference meetings from time to time. They may still pray and meet with Christian friends at times. Some meet in homes for short seasons with other believers, but tend to move on quickly as soon as any conflict arises in the group, or as soon as anything is demanded of them that requires things that are personally uncomfortable. These people shy away from any form of organised religion in the name of Christ. They have been badly hurt by the current pentecostal/charismatic religious system, and they are loathe to re-enter it. This is not a small issue. Some estimate that for every born again Christian in church, there is at least one who doesn’t partake in any form of organised church service. This problem is not likely to go away any time soon. As long as the causes of the problem remain untreated, the symptoms will certainly persist.
It is a dangerous thing to talk about weaknesses in the Lord’s church. After all, the church is the Bride of Christ – don’t go criticising the Bride to the Bridegroom. A lot of people get into trouble with God for getting into a bitter, critical, judgmental spirit towards the church as a whole. Some people are offended by pastors. They nurse the wound for years, and shrivel up and become unfruitful for years. Some in their bitterness may even lose their relationship with God totally. Ironically, many times those same pastors who caused the offense are fairly oblivious to their error, if indeed they were in error. They just keep pressing on, and many times God blesses them. So these pastors can be blessed, while those they offended get twisted and messed up, and go into a spiritual wilderness for years. A major reason for this is that they don’t know how to properly deal with these kind of offenses.
The Word of God addresses both sides of this issue. On the one hand, it says to pastors, “It is impossible that no offenses should come, but woe to him through whom they do come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, that that he should offend one of these little ones”. (Luke 17:1-2). Shepherds should take heed to themselves as well as to the flock of God. On the other hand, it says to all of us, “Take heed to yourselves. If your brother sins against you, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him”. (Luke 17:3). It also says, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:14,15). Men here includes pastors. If a pastor has sinned against you, in any way, you must forgive him. Otherwise God will not forgive you. We should also have the courage to take the issue up with the pastor, even at the risk of further rejection. We must all give account to God. God is the judge of his servants. We are much wiser not to judge them. God loves pastors, and God is able to make them stand.
“Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:4).
No matter how much we may have been disappointed, we are wise to avoid trying to stand in judgment over the men of God who have disappointed us. If we cannot reconcile with them, and can no longer trust them, at least we should pray for them. Then, if nothing changes, we should seek the Lord about where He wants us in His body, and be willing to find another local church. Better to do that than to poison others in the congregation against the pastor or senior minister, even if we have friends in the church who mean a lot to us, and we’d like to take them out with us. The people who cause church splits are usually quite sincere. Better to be misunderstood than to cause a rupture in a local church. The Holy Spirit is able to direct people, and our personal perceptions are not always identical to the mind of Christ. David, while running away from King Saul, did not judge Saul, but rather said, “May the Lord judge between you and me”. I think there is a lot of wisdom in that approach.
I have been through both sides of this thing myself. I have been hurt by pastors, I believe I have also hurt some people when I was a pastor. I think its true that pastors have a greater burden on them, greater pressures, and a greater accountability before God. God loves His pastors, and wants them to fulfil their call. Sadly, in Australia at least, 80% of pastors drop out of full time ministry well before retirement. If you are looking for a safe career, don’t push yourself into this role. Only go into it if God so leads you. And bear in mind that many pastors may themselves be feeling insecure. I am not saying this is good, but please understand that there can be powerful reasons according to the flesh for this to be the case.
Perceived Problems in Many Large Churches
It seems today that there is a tendency in many large churches to glorify the senior ministers inordinately. People have a desire for heroes to worship, and this can find its expression in the adoration of prominent ministers of the gospel. A lot of people are very happy to do this, but others are more thinking. Perhaps they have gotten close to the senior leadership in the course of trying to do things to serve the Lord in the local church and have been disillusioned by some of the things they have seen. Perhaps they have felt like they were overlooked and could not find any way to really express their gift in the local church. Perhaps they have devoted large amounts of their time and resources to a ministry only to be discarded when they could not agree with a direction the senior minister was taking the church, or a new doctrine that was being promoted. Perhaps they have been blacklisted for organising activities without the blessing of the senior pastor. All these things can lead to offense and cause people to drop out of the big church system.
The model that is followed today in many growing churches that profess a pentecostal baptism in the Holy Spirit seems to go something like this. The church may begin with a burst of the power of God, some strong prayer, and an initial harvest of souls. After the church gets to around 50-100 people, the leader, who is normally a very strong leader, begins to preach a vision for church growth. People get excited about this and the Holy Spirit works primarily through the gifting of the senior minister. If he is an evangelist people will get saved, otherwise the church can still grow, albeit slower. For the church to grow the pastor is normally a strong leader, with a compelling vision, and fairly astute in dealing with people. The role of the congregation is basically to provide finance for the senior minister, his personal assistants, the building, and other expenses like that, as well as to bring new people to church to hear the preaching and get plugged in. After a while, a small group structure may be set in place. This helps to relieve the senior minister of the need to deal personally with anyone except promising leadership, so he can get on with preparing to take the church to the next level. This next level usually will include raising lots of money for a bigger building, selecting and choosing suitably loyal associate ministers and administrators, and making sure that as far as possible things run relatively harmoniously and that more and more people can be brought into the church. As the church grows in size, the quality of available musicians gets higher, and pretty soon the music is very professional. It has been found that people like entertaining things, so church services tend to become more and more polished, slick and professional as time goes on. This is seen as an important key to church growth. Performers will be given more prominence at this stage, and of course, the preacher must also perform well. Hopefully, the pastor has a strong enough evangelistic gift to keep pulling in the crowds and getting people to start on the way with Christ and the church. Otherwise, he may be able to get other pastors with an evangelistic gift to come and preach for the church. Committed Christians are recruited to take care of these ones and try to help them get plugged into a small group, where they can discuss the pastors preaching, make friends and get more involved in the life of the church.
All this sounds pretty good, but the problem with it can be that amongst all the Christians that join the church there will be some who are not content to play the role assigned to them – of paying the church’s bills, and possibly leading a small group. They sense a call to some area of ministry themselves – perhaps as a teacher, an evangelist, as a pastor or in the prophetic. They may believe in the operation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit such as the word of knowledge and the gift of miracles. However, the local church that is modelled on the system above cannot really provide a platform for more than 2 or 3 people to do this kind of ministry at any one time, to any significant degree of involvement. And most of the time, pastors have such a heavy responsibility on them that somehow the gifts of the Holy Spirit are not in evidence through them. In this kind of situation, if the church has 1000 members, and 100 people capable of preaching well under the anointing, most of those 100 will never get a chance to develop their gift in the local church. Amongst those 100, no more than 4 or 5 would be mentored by the pastor at all, if that. Instead, these gifted people will be encouraged to remain there and sit on comfortable chairs and enjoy the service. They will perhaps be encouraged of course to play auxiliary facilitating roles, perhaps to hand out church bulletins at the doors, assist in collecting offering, distributing communion elements or assisting with the church sound system. Of course they will be encouraged to wholeheartedly praise the Lord using the songs that have been carefully pre-chosen and rehearsed to technical perfection. If they have a good singing voice and are willing to devote one night a week to it, they may sing in front of the church from time to time. But there is no expectation that they will have much to offer beyond this. There is little expectation that the gifts of the Holy Spirit could manifest through them in a significant way, which could only be explained by the presence of God. No matter how filled with the Holy Spirit they may be, the programme is usually so tightly controlled and directed that there is no way that an ordinary participant in the modern church system could get a direction from the Holy Spirit which would take the meeting outside of the parameters of the “run-sheet”. This is well understood and accepted by most.
Dedicated Christians can usually take this for several years, but after a while, it can start to wear a bit thin. After all, we were made to receive the Spirit of God, and manifest the Spirit of God in different ways. 1 Corinthians 12 talks about the different ways the Holy Spirit could be expected to manifest through different individuals in meetings where we come together, yet how often is this seen in modern pentecostal churches? If all church meetings, including home cells are tightly controlled and don’t need the gifts of the Holy Spirit to work successfully, it helps explain why these gifts have been relegated to the sidelines in the modern pentecostal/charismatic church. The whole thing can run well without them. This church system does not need them.
Its all very easy to tell the people they should be manifesting the gifts out in the world, but if they can’t get experience doing this in the local church, they are unlikely to have the confidence to do it effectively in the world. If it is that easy to do, it would be more common for church leaders to tell us of their exploits while out doing the shopping or going to the post office. We need to see an example in the things we are instructed to do.
One way to deal with this whole problem if you are called is to go and preach the gospel or teach people in a country which feels the need for outside help. Often you will have to do this at your own expense. But God often provides amazingly for this kind of activity. This is how I dealt with the problem myself. I was out of big churches for a while. I spent time in small churches which had an anointing to teach people how to actually move in the power of God effectively. You often won’t learn this in large churches. I did have a call from God to go overseas, but probably many people do. After all, it is written in the word of God in two places, “Go into all the world”. This is not something you can expect to hear too often from pastors who are only thinking about gathering people around themselves, but it is pretty close to the heart of God. I don’t mean to be critical here, but we do need as Christians to give a higher loyalty to the Word of God and the commandments of Jesus than to the desires and preferences of local church leadership. This is not always easy, and I am not suggesting that we take on a proud or rebellious attitude here, as that would also be contradictory to the plan and purpose of God.
But we need to learn to be priests and kings unto God ourselves, to know who we are in Christ, and to learn after a while to hear the voice of God clearly enough to begin to go in Jesus’ name and do something without constant supervision by leaders who have not been led by God to mentor us.
Others simply move from church to church, searching for a place where they can enter young adulthood in the Lord but not finding it. Others get so hurt they end up dropping out altogether of the kind of church system described above, and get into organising small prayer groups and home churches among like-minded and often wounded Christians.
Home Churches – Pros and Cons
It is true that the early church met in homes, and many see a lot of value in returning to this model today. However, the early church also grew daily. I have a problem with home churches that are indifferent to church growth. The Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved. If this doesn’t happen even monthly in some home churches, they cannot claim to be a restoration of the “New Testament” church. Something is lacking when we are not reproducing spiritually. Healthy sheep produce lambs.
Some people appreciate the informality and flexibility which a home church provides, and the great opportunity for fellowship that exists. A gifted Bible study leader can craft some excellent material and studies of great relevance to those who come to home groups. It is biblical for the church to eat together, something that also happens well at home churches. Home churches often excel at praying for one another’s needs. But if that is as far as it goes, it falls short of the plan of God.
I believe that the primary purpose for which the church has been left by God on this planet is to win the lost. Some home churches are so busy licking their wounds and talking about the defects of larger churches that they end up missing the plot totally. And it has been pointed out by people greater than myself that when there is no leadership in a group, the devil usually takes the chair. Home churches without strong leadership go nowhere. If there is no vision for growth, that church will become unproductive and self-centred. Ultimately, circumstances will cause people to move on – either changes of situation, or offenses between hurt Christians. The result is that nothing lasting is ever built.
On the other hand, small home churches that regularly win the lost are going to grow. What do you do after you have 40 people in the home church and no one has a house with a room big enough to accommodate more? Basically you have two choices. One is to multiply through appointing a new leader and starting another home church. This could work, as long as the new leader is adequately prepared spiritually to take the newly formed group on further in God. But preparing leadership for such a task is no mean feat. It usually requires a lot of prayer, discipline and of course a willingness on the part of the new leader to be mentored. This will be hard to achieve if the people involved have unresolved hurts from past involvement in what we could call the typical modern church system.
The other alternative is to hire a hall. Churches that go down this path will have to work hard to charter a new course, if they wish to be somehow different than typical modern churches in the early stages. Of course, there is likely to be a lot of resistance against returning to something which looks like organised religion.
Small things don’t need much organisation, but larger things do. If we want local churches which can meet the social needs of their members, we cannot limit ourselves to churches of 40 or so people. So we end up needing organisation and administration. If people have not resolved their hurts with the church system, they won’t be equipped to do this right. That is why it is so important to not take offense, to walk in forgiveness, and to avoid judgmentalism. If we cannot do this, it will definitely come back to bite us one day.
Jesus told us to make disciples, and be taught by the Holy Spirit ourselves. We should be open to God to use any kind of structure he may lead us to which facilitates these activities. If the structure no longer helps in these ways, it needs to be modified. Otherwise, stagnation and frustration will set in.
The Problem with Going it Alone
Some people are so hurt they don’t even want to get involved in home churches. They may say things like this: if two or three gather together in the name of Jesus, that is the church. So whenever I am with my wife, it is the church. Or they may not even be that sophisticated. I believe people like this are living in direct violation of the Word of God which says, “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much more as you see the Day approaching”. (Hebrews 10:25). The body of Christ cannot function on the giftings of two people. If you can’t join a church, you better know for sure that God has called you to start one. Otherwise, you are in rebellion against the Word of God.
No matter how badly we may have been hurt, it is no excuse to go on in disobedience to the Word of God. The verses which follow Hebrews 10:24,25 give one of the strongest warnings found anywhere in the Bible against falling away from God through wilful sin. God expects us to forgive those who have wronged us, seek His leading about the local church he desires us to join, and learn to be committed to it. Just as strong marriages are not built by people who split up at the first disagreement, so strong churches cannot be built by people who take offense easily and run away from the cost of commitment to a local church. May God help us to fulfil the commands of Jesus, to preach the Word, to make disciples, to love and serve another. These latter commands can only be fulfilled in our lives if we recognise and discern who are the “one anothers” that God has called us to be with for the current period of our lives.
Some people end up deceived by the devil, considering themselves “too good” to be part of a local church. This is a deep deception. We are all in process, and we need to love and honor other Christians, and not be haughty in our approach. A humble person realises that they can learn and benefit from anyone. Only a proud fool would deny the possibility of this. And proud fools are resisted by the Lord from start to finish.
I welcome comments and responses to this message. I realise the subject has not been treated fully, and hope this will stimulate discussion and serious thought.