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Three myths of the modern church and their devastating impact on you and your family

Copyright 2000 by Dave Kahle

I think we all understand that culture - those things that we are taught to believe as we grow up and that are subsequently practiced by those around us - is an immensely powerful force in shaping the quality and tenor of people's lives.

We can look at people groups scattered around the world and marvel at the things that some believe. We can see how their lives are shaped for both good as well as evil by their belief systems. Whole countries exist in which citizens' lives are shaped by the power of false religious beliefs. National Geographic regularly brings us views of people who lives are controlled by the dictates of the culture in which they are raised. Culture - the combination of beliefs, values, and practices that are taught and supported by the community - is one of the most powerful and pervasive forces in our lives.

Yet, while we can look at others and see some of the false beliefs in their lives, it's very difficult to see them in our own. Since we too are raised to accept certain beliefs, these beliefs gradually embed themselves into the core of our minds, dictating the quality of our lives, while we often remain blissfully unaware of their impact.

That is exactly the case we find ourselves in today. There are certain culturally supported beliefs that are widespread throughout the modern institutional church. It doesn't matter what the particular flavor of the church is, its denominational affiliation, or its position on the charismatic/pentecostal/conservative spectrum. It doesn't matter if it's in the USA or any other Westernized country. Regardless of these differences, almost every congregation holds these beliefs and adheres to these practices.

Not only are these practices pervasive, they're also so deeply held that virtually no one questions them. Created and supported by the culture, they have achieved the status of unquestioned "truth." To not adhere to them makes your Christianity suspect. Go into any institutional church anywhere in the Western world or one of the clones created by the western missionary effort, try advocating a position contrary to these beliefs, and you'll be helped to leave immediately. They are so fundamental that few churches can stand to have them violated. They are the practical foundations of the modern institutional church.

But, are they right? Are they scriptural? Are they part of God's plan for His church? Or, are they culturally induced beliefs and practices that have developed out of man's thoughts and are contrary to God's expressed directions?

Few people have ever questioned them.

Before I examine each of them, let's consider one more concept. Throughout history, there has often been a conflict between practices that seemed good to mankind, and those practices that were given by God. Typically God has instituted some practice among men, but mankind has decided to change things to some other order because it seemed good to them.

One example is the cry of the Israelite people for a king. The story is told in I Samuel, chapter 8. God had ordained the system of judges and prophets to organize and administer His nation. But the Israelites looked around them at neighboring nations, and saw that they had kings. They too wanted a king. It seemed good to them. A king could unify the people, bring organization to their country, be a rallying point for the people, lead them in battle, and make them just like the other nations around them. All good reasons to want a king. All reasonable, valid things. Having a king seemed like a good thing.

But God had a better practice. A simpler, more direct way of organizing His people that kept Him in the forefront. No king standing in the middle between God and His people.

However, He eventually gave them what they asked for. He said to Samuel, "It is not you they have rejected as their king, it is me." (I Samuel 8:7). Saul was then appointed the first of a line of Israelite kings. And, some good came out of that. The Israelites defeated their enemies in battle, power was consolidated around the king, and eventually, under Solomon, the Israelite nation achieved great prosperity and influence. These were all good things from man's perspective.

However, the net result was devastating. The Israelite people lost their reliance on prophets and judges and thus moved further from God. Their focus often strayed from the things of God to the political maneuvering of the royalty. Power struggles and moral corruption became commonplace. The kings led the Israelites into idolatry on numerous occasions. And the institution of the rule of kings led to the division of the Israelite people into two kingdoms, and the eventual loss of the ten tribes.

How much better would their lives have been if they had only stuck to God's simple plan and practices for them, rather then following their own ideas of what was good.

This conflict between God's simple practices and man's "improved" vision of what is good is a theme that crops up continually in the Bible. It began with Adam and Eve, and continued throughout the Bible. It was, in part, what Jesus condemned the Pharisees for, and certainly added to the motivation of those who crucified Him. Even in the last book of the Bible, Revelation, Jesus condemns the Nicolaitans for following practices that they consider to be good instead of God's simple practices that are best for His church. This constant conflict between God's simple practices for His people and our ever-evolving image of what is good is one of the basic themes of the Bible.

You can probably tell where I'm leading. It's my view that these culturally- supported, unquestioned practices and beliefs of the modern church fall into this same category. Rather then following God's simple plan and practices for His people, church leaders have instead developed practices which they see as "good." These beliefs and practices have become the culture at our churches. And this "good" crowds out and substitutes for God's best with devastating consequences.

What are these practices? These unquestioned myths that seem good to us but that deviate from God's best? These culturally-supported practices? Practice One: Our congregation must be led by a pastor. OK, I know that some of you don't use the word pastor. You may have ministers, preachers or priests. It doesn't matter what you call them. They are all specially trained men (or women) who are expected to officiate at the worship services, present a message from the pulpit, preside at weddings and funerals, be active in all sorts of church events and programs, visit the sick, and more or less be the professional Christian leader within the congregation. As one of the "ministers" I have known described it - "to be the hub of the wheel around which everything revolves." Sort of like a king is to a secular group.

So, what's wrong with that? Isn't that the way it should be? How could it be any other way? What would we do without a pastor to lead us?

I agree, it looks good. By having a seminary-trained pastor, the congregation is assured of (or so it seems) an educated person to bring thoughtful lessons from the pulpit. That is certainly edifying for everyone.

And there is someone to watch over the teaching in the church, to make sure that no one strays off the line. And certainly someone has to officiate at weddings and funerals. And church members are too busy to visit the sick and a pastor/preacher/minister/priest has the time to do that. All of those are good things. So what's the problem?

The problem is this. All of these reasons are mankind's good thinking, but they depart from God's simple practices. To make it simpler - it's not Biblical! No matter how hard you look in the New Testament, you cannot find, anywhere, anything like our modern pastors.

In the book of Acts, there are 29 places where groups of Christians are either mentioned or implied. In none of these is there anything equivalent to our modern pastors.

Yes, there were apostles who taught and evangelized. But these special people were imbued with special knowledge and authority that no pastor in our age would dare to claim. Today's pastors cannot trace their lineage back to the apostles. And the involvement of an apostle in a local group of Christians was the exception, not the rule.

The predominant practice was that groups of disciples were left on their own, with no person having any kind of authority over the small group. The common practice of the apostles was to trust the new believers to the care and safekeeping of the Holy Spirit.

What about elders? Yes, when a group of Christians had grown sufficiently that some in their midst were conforming their character to that of Christ, those thus qualified were occasionally appointed as elders - a confirmation of the service they had already been providing the disciples.

Aren't pastors elders of a sort? A few could develop into elders. But they'd have to meet the very clear qualifications spelled out in Titus and I Timothy. Clearly, these qualifications speak to the development of a person's character, and have nothing to do with seminaries or education. A few of the differences - elders are always mentioned in the plural while a pastor is a singular figure; elders are raised up from among the people they serve, while pastors are imported from outside the congregation; elders are qualified by virtue of their character, pastors are ordained based on their education. The position of pastor in our modern churches and the Biblical roll of "elder " are light years apart.

Clearly, our modern pastors are not (with a few exceptions) Biblical elders. They are something else. Something we don't see anywhere in the Bible.

But what about Ephesians 4 verses 11 - 13, you're asking. This is the passage that reads:

    "It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ."
Doesn't that passage establish the position of "pastor?" No. It's a mistranslation. The original Greek word which is here translated as "pastor" is every other place in the New Testament translated as "shepherd," and used to refer to Biblical elders or Jesus himself. In other words, the passage should read "shepherds and teachers" or "elders and teachers." In no way does this passage authorize the creation of a new class of Christian leaders.

There is then, no Biblical basis for having seminary-trained professional Christian pastors in our churches.

But what about the practical side? Let's set the Biblical case aside and consider the practical consequences. When one person is responsible for bringing the message at the worship service, that removes the responsibility from everyone else. The net result is that the mass of people moves further away from God, not closer to Him. Imagine how active and involved everyone would be if they had no one to pay to do it for them!

By removing the central figure, you move the responsibility out to the congregation. People become more active, live their Christianity more completely, and become closer to God.

And then there is Jesus last recorded prayer, in John, chapter 17, versus 20 - 23:

    "My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me."
He passionately prays for unity among his people, acknowledging that unity among Christians is a sign to the world that we are of Christ. By implication, a lack of unity indicates the opposite. Yet, our man-made system of pastor/preacher/minister/priest fosters division. Christianity continues to splinter into smaller and smaller segments, called denominations. The man-made leaders find reasons to separate themselves from other groups, rallying their followers around some issue that is expounded by the educated leaders but generally of little initial concern of the people, and build institutions based on a man-made distinction. The result? Thousands of denominations and a skepticism (rightly so) on the part of the non-Christian world.

What does this have to do with you and your family?

It threatens your spiritual life and the spiritual well being of your family. The pastor/preacher/minister/priest system encourages spectator Christianity. In that system, you and your family are expected to be passive on-lookers in the worship entertainment offered by the established clergy. The more passive you and your family become, the more likely your spiritual life will atrophy. It works like this: The more responsible the paid professional is, the less responsible you and your family are. The less responsible you and your family are, the less likely that you'll be active and growing. The less likely you'll be active and growing, the more likely that you'll die, spiritually.

Didn't you ever wonder why so many modern Christians are apathetic, superficial Christians? It's in a great measure the result of the institutional system that encourages by its practices (not by its rhetoric) a passive, spectator Christianity. And what about the continuing proliferation of denominations? What impact does that have on you and your family? Each denomination must, by virtue of the fact that it is a worldly organization, have levels of authority. In place of Christ the head of the family and the local church, we have regional conferences, national headquarters, departments and committees. All of this creates a political environment that encourages further division, and siphons the power and focus of the church away from Christ's charge, and directs it to internal maneuvering. So, your family is left with a view of Christianity that seems more concerned with institutional maneuvering, programs and policies, then it does with the simple gospel.

This impression of Christianity again leads to skepticism and a jaundiced view of the Gospel. In this confusing world, where it's difficult to know with which denomination to affiliate, it seems just as valid to not be involved at all. The pastor/preacher/minister/priest system has created a world that threatens the spiritual life of you and your family.

It's a clear case of mankind (in this case, institutional Christian leaders) substituting their view of what is "good" for God's simple, yet far better, practices. Just like the clamor by the Israelites for a king eventually resulted in the splintering and loss of most of the Israelite nation, so too, our modern cultural demand for a pastor is directly responsible for the splintering of Christ's church and the apathy and spiritual death of millions of modern Christians. Yet it is so deeply imbedded in our culture that few people have ever questioned it.

But that's only one of the deep, unquestioned errors of the modern church. Here's another one.

Practice Two: This congregation must grow. If you're involved in a congregation, I'm sure that the subject of congregational growth has come up over and over again. It's given as the reason for a whole host of pulpit-directed efforts.

We have to raise money for a building fund. Why? Because the congregation needs to grow.

We need to hire a youth minister. Why? Because the congregation has to grow.

We need to create these new programs. Why? Because the congregation has to grow.

And so on and so forth. Now, have you ever seen anyone question the assumption that "the congregation must grow?" Anybody stand up in a congregational meeting and say, "Why?" Any brave soul write a letter to the editor (usually the pastor/preacher/minister/priest) of the newsletter asking the question why?

Probably not. That's one of the unquestioned beliefs that no one dares question. To do so would subject you to the whispered judgement of a majority of the people. It's just not done. Culturally unacceptable.

Too bad. It ought to be questioned.

Before we consider the Biblical view, let's analyze the practical consequences of congregation growth. What happens when congregations make major efforts to grow?

First, the process of growth is often expensive, requiring funding to build new buildings, put on new programs, hire new staff, pay for advertising, newsletters, etc. And, while all of this seems good, the reality is that it often moves the focus of the church from the simple message of the gospel to the more complex message promoting "our church." Congregational members become involved in church programs, church messages, and church initiatives which substitute the "church" for the gospel.

And then, there are the effects of successful church growth programs. On the one hand, the worship service has more people, and seems more exciting and uplifting. There often are more hands available for church programs, so the core group doesn't need to volunteer for everything. They get a little break. And, since the congregation is now larger, the weekly collection is bigger. That means that you can hire additional professional staff to take over what church members were doing before. No need to have a volunteer organize a youth ministry, you can now afford a professional. No need to have a member of the congregation teach a Sunday school class, you have an associate pastor who can do that. As the congregation grows, it can afford more professional staff, maybe a full time church secretary, hey, maybe even (like a nearby congregation) a pastor of administration!

All of this seems good. You can invite your friends to Sunday worship knowing that you won't be embarrassed by amateur performances. Seems good.

But there is a devastating flip side. As the congregation grows, often more and more of the budget is siphoned off to the support of professionals, the funding of programs, and the building of buildings. The more money and energy devoted to these things, the less devoted to the simple work of the church. The more bureaucrats and professionals your church employs, the less need for involvement on the part of the people. God's charge that we are all ministers and priests becomes just a hollow statement that is ignored or given lip service, but not really pursued. And the more professional and polished is your worship service, the more it encourages spectator Christianity. Often, the net result of congregational growth is the super involvement of a few, and the alienation and marginalization of the vast majority.

You and your family could be one of them. As the congregation grows, often it only succeeds in building a larger bureaucracy and a bigger building, leaving the vast majority of members in spiritual sleep.

That's the devastating consequence of congregational growth. You and your family could very well be sucked into the effort, causing you to change your focus from the simple gospel of Christ to the building fund, the search for another professional, or the management of another pulpit-directed program.

Or, you could be left on the margins. Expected to be a spectator in the growing professionalization of the congregation. No longer necessary - thanks for your time, now move over and let the professionals do it.

What seems good to mankind is actually devastating to much of the congregation. Man's "good" substitutes for God's best. But what about the Biblical view? Isn't it mandated that congregations grow?

NO!

The great commission given to the church in Matthew 28:19 says: "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age." Jesus did not say, "Stay, therefore, around your neighborhood, inviting people to church, building ever-bigger buildings and programs."

Ok, I know that not everyone can be a foreign missionary, etc, etc. However, the point is that Jesus said "make disciples, baptize and teach." He did not say, "build the local congregation."

The mistake we make is when we believe that building the local congregation is a means to the end of evangelizing the world. The truth is that it is generally a substitute for it! Normally, when we're building the local church, we're engaged in activities that substitute for pure Christianity. We invite our saved neighbors to church, we don't invite our unsaved friends to Christ. We encourage our kids to support the youth ministry instead of teaching them at home.

What would happen to Christianity in this country if we believed that it is Christ's church that must grow, not necessarily our local congregation? What would happen if we focused on Christ, not "church?" Wouldn't we be more active in promoting Christ, not our church? When someone came to Christ, wouldn't we be more concerned about personally disciplining him/her instead of seeing to it that they got shuffled to the appropriate class? And if our congregation did grow, what would happen if instead of building a new building and hiring new staff, we encouraged a group to form their own small congregation? Wouldn't the net result be more people active, more leaders created, more personal ministry, less money spent on bricks and mortgage, less money spent on professional clergy, and Christ's church growing more rapidly?

The myth that our congregation must grow is one of the most deceptive of them all. It seems like such a good idea. But remember, mankind's good is a poor substitute for God's best. What's the impact on you and your family? Energy, money, gifts and talents wasted. Instead of building a relationship with Christ, you're in danger of focusing on the efforts of the church. Relationships No, programs YES. And the further away you and your family move from the purity of Christianity, the sadder and more unfulfilled are your lives. Focus your energy and your family's on the "congregation must grow" and you are likely to look back in sadness and regret a number of years from now.

Practice Three: Church is primarily about teaching and worship service.

Our culture has instilled in our minds the idea that Church is primarily about two things: going to classes, and worship services. These two ideas are so central to the modern church's view of "church" that we could not conceive of church as anything other than this.

Visit any institutional church and you will always find two things going on: teaching and worship. In fact, much of the energy and money spend by the modern church is spent to foster these two things. We need to build a larger building. Why? So we can have more classrooms. We need to build a larger sanctuary. Why? So we can all worship together.

Again, these concepts are so deeply instilled that no one can question them without being viewed as beyond radical, or immensely stupid.

But maybe they should be questioned. Let's again consider them from the viewpoints of their practical consequences and the biblical perspective.

From the practical viewpoint, we can see a lot of good. Because the modern church emphasizes teaching, we have a lot of people who are knowledgeable in the Word. That's good. And of course, we have a lot of teachers. The seminaries and Bible colleges are designed to create teachers, and that they do. And, after all, the kids aren't getting instruction in school any more, so somebody has to do it. Makes sense. Good idea.

But wait. Because we emphasize "teaching" so much, we encourage a group of professional teachers. Most adult sessions are taught by professional clergy. It's a vicious cycle. The more we do "teaching" the more we need teachers. The more teachers we create, the more reason we have to do teaching in our churches. And the professional teachers, as discussed above, create a spectator Christianity. The work is up to the teacher, the students merely show up and absorb the information. They become, like James says, in James 1:22 -25 :

    Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.
Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it--he will be blessed in what he does.

How effective is this anyway? How many people do you know who have spent years attending Sunday school lessons but still can't share their testimony about Christ?

How many young people do you know who have left the church totally in spite of years of lessons?

There is something lacking. The emphasis on teachers and teaching isn't getting the job done.

What would happen if we didn't have "teachers" and classrooms? What would "church" be like?

If the institutional church didn't do it, the individual Christians would still be responsible for learning God's word. Maybe individuals would study more on their own! Maybe parents would teach God's word in their families. Maybe the powerful fundamentals of Christianity would actually mean more to everyone. Maybe people would actually grow more rapidly. Maybe young people would see their parents actively trying to grow spiritually.

Certainly, we'd need less money for buildings and for the wages of professional teachers. Why, maybe we'd use that money to support evangelists and missionaries --perhaps even to aid someone in need. These aren't just idle arguments. According to P.K. Yohannan, a full time evangelist in India can be supported for about $3.00 per day. And, one evangelist can bring hundreds of people to Christ each year. If we refused to build just one more church building and if we refused to pay the salary of just one professional Christian, we could help convert India in a decade.

Once again, mankind's good ideas actually hurt our growth and stymie the growth of Christ's worldwide church.

And what about worship service? Isn't that the heart of Christianity? Shouldn't we be worshipping together?

Hey, it can be inspiring to be part of a big group singing together. And a solid lesson delivered by an experienced professional is always an edifying thing. Those are good things. But is it worth it? As long as we believe that it is, we'll need "worship leaders," and large buildings in which to worship. For a few moments of emotional lift once a week, we pay professional clergy millions of dollars each year, and spend billions on huge sanctuaries.

What if we didn't have "corporate worship services?" What would we do? We'd have to worship somehow. Maybe in our homes? Maybe worship would be a mind-set, not an event on the calendar. Maybe we'd go about our daily lives with an attitude of worship. Maybe we really would worship in "spirit and in truth."

But if we didn't have a "corporate worship service," what would we do when we gathered as a church?

Interestingly, the Bible has some ideas. You can find them in the dozens of "one-anothers" commanded in the New Testament. Here's an idea. We could minister to each other! Our meetings, instead of revolving around an entertaining worship service, might be small groups ministering to each other.

Maybe we'd even follow Paul's command in I Corinthians 14: 26: What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.

Summary: The modern church has drifted so far from the simple plan God has for His people that it actually siphons resources away from the building of God's kingdom and has a devastating spiritual impact on you and your family. The institutional church, with its reliance on paid pastors, church buildings, teaching and worship services, has created a passive, spectator form of Christianity that bleeds the power out of its adherents.

Supported by our culture, these devastating practices and beliefs are classic examples of mankind's "good," substituting for God's best.

The impact of these practices can have an eternal consequence for you and your family because they attract your attention to efforts other than the pure simple Gospel of Christ, and lull you into spiritual apathy.

What to do about it?

Clearly you must begin with a great deal of prayer. You'll want to bring God into your decision-making process, and you'll need His guidance and power to follow through on any plan you create. Patiently and fervently pray for His guidance.

It may be that you are led to begin with some small steps. It may be that you find yourself looking as your home as your initial "church." You may want to begin Bible studies within your family, so that you grow less dependent on the professionals. You may want to begin to set aside your "give" money each week in a fund, and wait on the Lord to show you what to do with it. You may want to begin to identify and exercise your spiritual gifts, independent of any congregational affiliation.

These are all examples of small steps away from dependence on the institutional practices.

It may be that God leads you to seek out a home church, or to start one. You may be surprised to find that there are resources and support on the Internet as well as in almost every community. Regardless of the steps you take to move away from your dependence on these spiritually devastating practices, you should be aware that your ideas will be viewed as alarming and radical by almost everyone with whom you share them. Your pastor will probably tell you that you are absolutely wrong, your friends will not understand, and others in your current church will view you as a threat. The seminaries, denominational officials, and all the other professional Christians who have a vested interest in the status quo of the institutional system may ridicule you and be angry at you.

Think carefully about trying to change the church or convince your pastor of your point of view. Remember, they have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

In just the same way that Jesus was a threat to the established religious institutions of His time, so you will be viewed as a threat by the institutional establishment. Stay the course; seek out like-minded people with whom to associate. Deepen your relationship with Christ and the other Christians in your life. Allow God to lead you.

And expect the benefits of living under God's simple practices for His people instead of mankind's seemingly improved versions.

Attachment A - Places in the book of Acts where groups of Christians are described or implied:

Acts 2 - The beginning of the church.
Acts 8:4 - Those who had been scattered preached the Word.
Acts 8:25 - Samaritans
Acts 9: After Paul's conversion, there was probably a group he stayed with.
Acts 9:32 - A church at Lydda Acts 9:36 - A church at Joppa Acts 10:4 - A church established in Cornelius' house.
Acts 11:19-21 - Ordinary people spread the Word.
Acts 11:25 - Barnabus brought Saul to Antioch.
Acts 13: The church at Antioch sent out Paul and Barnabus.
Acts 13:52 - There were disciples in Psidian Antioch.
Acts 14: There were disciples in Derbe.
Acts 14:21 They appointed elders for groups of disciples.
Acts 15:4 - There were apostles and elders -no pastors.
Acts 16:5 - The churches grew daily without pastors.
Acts 17:1 - 10 -- The brothers sent Paul and Silas out.
Acts 17:10 -There were disciples in Berea.
Acts 17:16 + -- There were disciples in Athens.
Acts 18:18 -- There were disciples in Corinth.
Acts 18:22 - There was a church in Caesarea.
Acts 18:23 - There were disciples throughout Galataia and Phyryga.
Acts 18:27 - There was a church in Achia.
Acts 19:1 - There were disciples in Ephesus.
Acts 20:7 - There was a group in Troas.
Acts 21:4 - There were disciples in Tyre.
Acts 21:7 - There were brothers at Ptolemas.
Acts 21: 17 - There were elders in the church at Jerusalem
Acts 28:14 -- There were brothers at Penteoli.
Acts 28:15 - There were brothers in Rome.

 

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