Saturday, October 30, 2010

How to Shop For a Church

Some people are born and die in a particular church and others change their church more often than they change their underwear. How should a person choose which church to join? Unfortunately, many people decide to join a church based on either purely subjective criteria or on the wrong objective criteria. A subjective approach will cause someone to continually change churches based on how they feel that particular week. Did it feel worshipful? Did it feel like the Holy Spirit was present? Were the people friendly? Emotions are not bad but they don't form the basis for Christian unity. We are not united by a common emotional experience or even by a common conversion experience. I don't know a single person who has really had the Damascus road experience (killed Christians, then see Jesus on the road and made blind by Him only to have his sight restored later on).

Choosing a church based on the wrong objective criteria will result in people joining churches for reasons other than those for which the church was established. Some are most concerned with finding a church that has lots of programs for their kids or where they can best utilize their "gifts." There is nothing wrong with having programs for children or a piano player or an organist but the Christian church is not built on them. For quite some time, worship in the church was done acapella. The person seeking to utilize his or her gifts would have had to have to become a pagan if they wanted to do it in a religious setting. God gives us our gifts so that we can use them for the benefit of our neighbor and they don't all necessarily get used during corporate worship. If someone is especially gifted with jackhammer skills, he shouldn't go around looking for a church where he can use his jackhammer during the church service and most people don't. But for some reason when it comes to more "artistic" skills, people get it in their head that they have to find a church where they can use these skills during the service. Piano or organ skills can be used for the good of the neighbor during corporate worship when there is a need but they are no reason for joining a church. If a person may find that his or her "artistic" skills are better used in service to his neighbor in a community organization rather than during the church service.

The idea that church is the place to showcase your "gifts" points to a much deeper problem. True worship is not giving but receiving. True worship is receiving God's good gifts by faith. True worship is faith struggling against despair. True worship is a Divine Service where God serves us in His Word and Sacrament. All false worship, including Pagan worship, is all about us serving God. When worship is about receiving, then it makes little difference whether or not I get to use my gifts during the Divine Service. Christian worship is not about me using my gifts but me receiving God's gifts. The decision about what church you should attend should be based on what church delivers God's good gifts to you on a consistent basis. The decision should not be made based on who you "feel" is giving you God's good gifts but based on who is actually doing it.

The New Testament Church (and the Old Testament Church) is a creedal church (Deut. 6:4, 1 Kings. 18:39, Matt. 16:16, Matt. 28:19, John 1:49, John 6:68-69, John 20:28, Acts 8:36-37, Acts 16:31, 1 Cor. 8:6, 1 Cor. 12:3, 1 Cor. 15:3-7, Phil. 2:6-11, 1 Tim. 3:16, Heb. 6:1-2, 1John 4:2, I could keep going). In fact, creeds in the New Testament Church predate the New Testament writings. When people are asked what they and they say they just believe what the Bible says that usually means they don't believe much of anything at all. There are all kinds of groups teachings all kinds of contradictory things that all claim to believe what the Bible says. If a church cannot give you some kind of creed that shows what they believe then that probably means that they don't know what they believe and are relying on their individual feelings to guide them (which can vary based on what they ate that morning). When Jesus asked Peter who Peter believed that Jesus was, Peter didn't say, "I believe whatever the Bible says." Peter said, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." This Creed became the foundation for all future creeds. The creeds are objective statements because the Christian faith is an objective faith based on real historical events. Those who desire a subjective faith should go elsewhere. There is plenty of room in Mormonism and Eastern mysticism for those who prefer subjectivity. The natural man always prefers subjectivity because it allows him to create a god that is really just a projection of himself. When a person says "I believe whatever the Bible says," what he really means is "I believe God is a big version of me. I read the Bible in such a way that it affirms what I already believe and ignore those parts that conflict with what I already believe."

The New Testament church is centered upon Christ and what He has done and does do. Jesus said all of the Scriptures are about Him (John 5:39). All other religions are based on us and what we do. So if you are trying to ascend to God through your works or get good advice, Islam or Judaism or some other religion is what you are really shopping for. It's time to stop trying different Christian churches. If you decide you are looking for a Christian church you should look for church whose creed is centered upon Christ. The Apostle's Creed, Nicene Creed, etc. are all about Christ and what He has done objectively. If a "church's" "creed" is centered on not consuming alcohol or not baptizing babies or the proper mode of baptism, then you might be at an AA meeting but you are not at a Christian church.

Since the New Testament is all about Christ, the preaching of the church should also be all about Christ and specifically according to the Apostle Paul about Christ-crucified for you (1 Cor. 2:2). If the preaching is not centered on Christ-crucified it is not a Christian sermon. Just because they have an altar call at the end where they tell you to ask Jesus into your heart (which isn't in the Bible) doesn't mean that you are listening to a Christian sermon. The altar-call Jesus isn't the real Jesus. You might be listening to a Finneyan sermon but not a Christian one. If it's all about what you need to do for Jesus then you are listening to a Muslim sermon in which they have cut out Allah and pasted Jesus in his place. Churches which just "believe what the Bible says" often just preach on whatever is bugging them that week. They may claim to be led by the Holy Spirit but if they are preaching something other than Christ-crucified then there is some other spirit at work. The spirits must be tried (1 John 4:1). The Holy Spirit can't stop talking about Jesus (John 15:26).

Since the New Testament Church is all about Jesus, the worship of the New Testament Church is all about Jesus--not about what we are going to do for Jesus but what He has done for us. If it's about what we are going to do we might as well be at a political rally. (YES WE CAN!) While it is theoretically possible to have a "contemporary" worship service that is Christ-centered, I'm still waiting for someone to show me an example of one. The bulk of what is considered "traditional" today is Christ-centered either. Since the Christ-centered contemporary worship service only exists in a science lab and has not yet appeared in real life I will avoid a lengthy discussion about types of music. But music itself is not neutral. Historic church music is designed to call attention to the words. It is designed to be objective. Contemporary praise songs and many hymns written after about 1750 use a different type of music that draws attention away from the words and is designed to make you feel a certain way. This type of music has always existed and was used in various pagan religions but it hasn't been until relatively recently that this style of music has been incorporated into the worship of the church. Chant is a wonderful way to call attention to the words that we are saying and make them memorable. The historic liturgy is the best available way to stay Christ-centered in worship. It's full of the Scriptures (Lutheran Service Book gives the Biblical references) and it's all about what Jesus has done for us. The historic liturgy is grounded in the historic worship of the church. Churches that claim to just "believe what the Bible says" often replace the words of Scripture as contained in the historic liturgy with their own words.

The high point of the historic liturgy is the Lord's Supper. If you ask somebody why they go to church, people will say they do go to church to worship God or learn more about God or to be inspired. But why did the early Christians meet? The Bible says the met "to break bread" (Acts 20:7). "To break bread" in the New Testament is to partake of the Lord's Supper (1 Corinthians 10). Partaking of the Lord's Super was the reason for meeting. Many so-called "Bible-believing" churches will meet many times without every partaking of the Lord's Supper. But according to the Bible the Lord's Supper is the reason for meeting. Some think that infrequently partaking makes it more "special" but once again this is only because they are practicing a subjective man-centered religion. The Lord's Supper is special because of what it is, it is not made special by our feelings and there is nothing within the Scriptures to suggest that we should receive it infrequently. During times such as the festival of Pentecost when people had a vacation from their daily work, they met daily to partake of the Lord's Supper (Acts 2:46). I don't recommend skipping the prayers or the sermon but it would almost be easier to make the case Biblically for infrequent preaching and prayers than infrequent reception of the Lord's Supper. Wouldn't infrequently hearing a sermon make the sermon more special?

Most "bible-believing" churches not only celebrate the Lord's Supper infrequently but deny what the Bible says the Lord's Supper is. In the Bible, Jesus says the bread is His body and the wine is His blood (Matt. 26:26-28). Jesus never says it represents His body and blood. If you asked many of the Christians from these "Bible-believing" churches what the Lord's Supper is for, they would say we celebrate the Lord's Supper out of obedience to Jesus in order to remember Him. But Jesus does not describe it as an act of obedience but says that it is "for the forgiveness of sins" (Matt. 26:28). Many "Bible-believing" Christians say that baptism is the "believer's first act of obedience." But the Bible never says that. The Bible says baptism is "for the forgiveness of sins" (Acts 2:38, 22:16). Thought they claim to believe what the Bible says, they deny it.

If you are looking for real Bible-believing church rather than one that just claims to be, where should you start? Historically the Lutheran churches have done the best job of staying centered on Christ and teaching what the Scriptures do about baptism and the Lord's Supper. They are creedal churches and their creeds are centered upon Christ and faithfully affirm what the Bible affirms and deny what the Bible denies without trying to resolve the paradoxes. I recommend starting with the Evangelical-Lutheran Liturgical Congregations directory. If possible, try to find a church listed that celebrates communion at least once a week. I recommend starting with the ones closest to you and working your way out. If you can't find a church in your area on the list you might want to check out some of the synods listed here. Unfortunately, not every Lutheran church within these synods is going to be faithful to her historic Biblical calling. Some of the churches in these synods will have non-Christ centered contemporary worship. Some will have preaching that isn't Christ-centered. You might need to put up with quite a bit of garbage depending upon where you live. Your pastor may need some encouragement to deliver good Christ-centered sermons. For examples of good sermons visit this website. Sometimes the historic liturgy can save you from your pastor. Even if your pastor doesn't preach the Gospel, at least you will hear it in the liturgy. I know of one person who recommended visiting an Anglican church when out of town and participating in the liturgy but listening to an iPod when the pastor starts preaching.


NewKidontheBlogg said...

Oh my! I followed you until the iPod. I think it would be rude to listen to your iPod during any pastor's sermon. You can listen to good sermons on your iPod in your car, when you jog or any other time, but not during worship in my opinion!

I do use my Notebook computer to take notes during the sermon, but would never dream of using its WiFi to get on the Internet during a worship service if it were not my home church. If I am visiting friends or relatives and we go to their church, I show them respect by listening to their pastor.

However, you do have excellent points here, Chuck.


Chuck Wiese said...

I never actually did the iPod thing but I wish I had when I visited a particular Lutheran church in the UP. It would probably only be beneficial in a situation where you know that you are going to hear the Gospel in the liturgy and absolutely know that the pastor is not going to give you the Gospel in the sermon. I just sit there and get angry when the pastor doesn't give me the Gospel.