Now Playing: The Uncomfortable Pastor
The church survey is complete. We have come to the end of the road, and that actually means that we have begun a new chapter in church membership. So I want to share my observations. I admit that my observations are not exhaustive: we have not visited all churches, not even in this area, but we have visited churches that could have been possibilities for our fellowship and some that we knew beforehand could not. Though there are exceptions to every rule--that famous rule of English grammar, I do expect that what we observed would at least often be repeated if the experiment were conducted elsewhere in this country and perhaps even beyond. Sadly, as I have at times learned, the fads that operate here also sneak into other countries. It is difficult to go places where we have not attempted to promote our church culture; we simply will not trust the Holy Spirit to do it Himself.
I must also confess that I have a bias. I will attempt to be objective, but to claim complete objectivity would be foolhardy. Please know that this is my honest attempt, though it may be couched in personal language. I am quite sure that I approach this differently than some other church seekers in that through experience I do somewhat understand what happens ‘backstage,’ so to speak. Whatever is on display was developed through a philosophy of some sort.
Our goal was to evaluate through the grid provided by Acts 2:42. This verse describes the activities of the early church and is actually unique in the Bible. It says that the time of the church assembled focused on four areas: apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer. Some form of fleshing out that list was evident in most of the churches we visited, especially if one did not inquire too deeply into what each of those items entails. So let me address in some order those and add any other observations that I consider pertinent.
If we consider this to be a situation in which people are relating to other people, we could go so far as to say that every church we visited provided some exhibition. Only one church seemed uncomfortable knowing how to relate to visitors. All the others made us feel welcome.
We did wonder how genuine this was, however, because, though numerous churches asked visitors to fill out a card, only one seemed to pay attention to the card and act upon it. That one sent someone to our door and presented us with a welcome gift. I can only wonder what the others did with the information they requested.
Also, the term ‘fellowship’ often is popularly used to refer to some kind of gathering where people eat and/or drink (especially coffee!), but it must be much more that that. It’s primary meaning is that of sharing or having something in common. Numerous kinds of serving in the life of a local church would belong under this heading. Our attendance a couple times at one church quickly communicated to us that we would probably never be able to serve in any capacity there. (This was later confirmed to us by two unrelated sources who had considered becoming part of that church.) Otherwise, it would have been an excellent church in which to receive Bible teaching. There was at least one other church in which it seemed that our serving would be difficult, if at all possible.
Now I know that many folks see this heading and assume it refers to the Lord’s Supper. Probably every church we visited practiced some form of it, and we saw it practiced in some. But I have to mention that the term is used in the Bible also in a place where it could not possibly refer to the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist, but rather simply a meal. Again, many churches offered some kind of refreshment. Sometimes it was a continental breakfast, other times almost a full-fledged breakfast with fruit, rolls, coffee, quiche, etc. At a couple churches because we were new we were invited out to a noon restaurant meal sponsored by the church or someone in the church. Plus we were invited to various potluck meals. I’m not sure how much food a church needs to offer before it qualifies in this category, but it probably isn’t much. So it seems that if physical food is the biggest need, that could be met almost anywhere.
It might be difficult to conceive of a church service without prayer. One church we visited came close to that, and I can say confidently that whoever was supposed to be the object of their prayer, it was not the God of the Bible in the name of Jesus Christ. But most churches included some form of outwardly Christian prayer in the service. It might be personal prayer verbalizing the current needs, or it might be formal prayer which applied more generally.
Actual prayer meetings were not as obvious. Sometimes such were announced. Perhaps there were prayer meetings which were not announced, but in that case we would assume they were not a planned part of church life. At one church we asked, because we were not sure, and we were informed that prayer happened in connection with virtually every meeting on that church’s schedule. And after some investigation, that claim seemed to us to be true. Some of that church’s events provided opportunities for sharing prayer requests and praises, and the people present were expected to avail themselves of provided lists so they might pray throughout the week at home. It was encouraging to see that various assemblies did provide opportunity for prayer.
Someone may well wonder what the apostles’ teaching is. So let me quickly introduce it. The Bible for the twelve apostles was what we call the Old Testament. Their texts in the beginning had to come from that, if they quoted or explained the Scriptures at all. So there is that. But we must add to that all of the New Testament. This was the new that Jesus promised and which the Holy Spirit would make known to them. So, generally, we are accurate to say that the apostles’ teaching is biblical teaching.
This was a very difficult area for me. I have spent my adult life studying the Bible with attention to detail so that some form of critique comes easily. I observed what a number of pastors are doing and concluded that, if that is pastoring, then I was indeed a very poor pastor. They have gifts and abilities that make it natural for them to be CEO’s of churches, if you please, and to easily hobnob with the local political and business folks. They can preach with drama and with a flair for being in the spotlights. Their dress is cool, and they seem attractive.
I was told one pastor could be a great Bible teacher--he was certainly compassionate and helpful to others in various ways, but right now he was intent on a building program, so he was not teaching on a high level. In another church the lights were so low, it seemed you were in a theatre: the focus was on the preacher, but taking notes was nigh to impossible, if there were something worthy of noting. In a few there was an attempt to teach from the Bible, even by way of exposition, but mostly there the Bible was a book present but not heard.
Through conversations and observations it was apparent that most pastors are not there to simply communicate God’s message. This is a huge comment, but I will stand by it. And to me that is sad. They are there to promote an agenda, and, if the Bible is useful toward that, they may use it. If the Bible is not useful toward that, they may still refer to it at times, but it is clear that what God has said is not what the pastor is trying to get across. The agenda may be a personal one, or it may be the direction set by a denomination. But the Bible is mostly peripheral, even though it claims to be God’s revealed word and profitable in every way for the believer.
I have also been made cognizant of the usage of words. It is well-known that various segments of life have their own vocabularies. You may not understand all the words a piano technician uses, and he may not understand all the words a computer programmer uses. But in this case the words in question are biblical words that mean in the church’s usage not what they mean in biblical usage. That is confusing at best and could be deceptively costly. Some of the words I have in view include: tithes, baptism, marriage. We actually know what these words mean in the biblical text, but church usage has assigned them a different meaning so that now the practice of the church is faithful to their own meaning but divorced from biblical meaning. I don’t understand what is to be gained from that. Of course, this also affects the overall theology, or lack thereof, of the church.
As you can tell, if you have read this far, I am not bullish on the current condition of the local church. The truth is that I am not. There is only one comfort to which I hold, and that is that in Matthew 16:18 Jesus said, “I will build My church.” If He does not do it, it will be totally corrupted, and the plan will fall apart. As Alexander Carson said despairingly a couple centuries ago, “There is not one of all the ordinances of the Lord Jesus Christ, that has been left untouched by the wisdom of man” (Baptism: Its Mode and Subjects). The same can be said of the institutions of God.
Having said all that, when a Christian finds a local church that attempts to be what Jesus Christ, its Head, calls it to be, then that Christian needs to celebrate the discovery and be active in the body life of that organism. If every church heeds the biblical model, the church will be recognizable everywhere, and at the same time no two churches will be identical, as they represent their cultural expressions of the Body of Christ in each specific locale.