Monday, January 27, 2014

Is the Church a Building or the People Within?
Why Orthodoxy Has Allowed the Acquisition of Things to Supplant Christ.
All contents copyright © 2014 by M.L. Wilson. All rights reserved. No part of this document or the related files may be reproduced or transmitted in any form, by any means (electronic, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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Undoubtedly this will be another one of my commentaries which some will regard as contentious. Hopefully it will bring the reader information rather than contention. It is not my intent to bring division, but rather to instruct. Truth should always take precedence over a lie no matter how convenient or expedient the lie may be. When one is teaching on God Almighty, there is no excuse not to speak the truth. In our modern churches today, that appears to be a tall order as tradition seems to trump truth at every turn.

In truth, few of us have ever experienced “church” outside a building; we associate God and Jesus with going to a building, regarding such a Holy Place, “God’s House” as it were. This holds true even for those of other faiths. Jews attend Temple, Hindus and Buddhists have shrines (although Buddhism is more a philosophy than a religion in the strictest sense), Islam has Mosques; even Atheists have their own type of “church”, gathering in a designated structure which is set apart. We as a people have become inculcated with the notion of church being the building. Without the building, there really is no church, but rather just the people. Obviously this thought is completely in error. God’s House now rests within those who claim Him. WE are God’s House now, not a brick and mortar structure, not a temple or mosque.

The question which may come to mind is, “Why does any of this matter? If we worship in a building or in a field, whose business is it to anyone?” That is a good and legitimate question to ask. Ultimately one can find union with God in any place; the location and surroundings are immaterial. However that having been said, it does matter to those who claim to be followers of Christ. The reason it matters is because Christ is nothing if not truth. When we as Christians begin to apply to Christ that which is not true, what does that make us? Jesus was not much of a fan of Organized Religion; He saw the inherent danger in iconic worship. People would soon begin to venerate the material rather than the spiritual. Amongst other issues, the Pharisees took extreme exception to Christ’s opinion regarding their religious trappings.

It is of interest to note that when God ordered the construction of the Ark of the Covenant, He did so with the command it have handholds so it could be carried anywhere. Likewise the Tent of Meeting which housed the Ark was just as mobile (Exodus 25:12-14). The early tabernacle was dynamic, not fixed - essentially mirroring God. The subsequent temple which David wanted to build was constructed not out of necessity, but rather out of pride. David explained to Nathan the disparity he noticed with him as an earthly king living in a palace when God was merely “living” in a tent. God, of course, had a different opinion on the matter and questioned David’s intents. In the end He allowed for David’s son Solomon to build the temple, but it would only stand for as long as His people were obedient to Him (2nd Samuel 7:1- 16).  This required obedience didn’t last too terribly long for the Israelites and the temple was destroyed by the army of Nebuchadnezzer in 587 BC after 410 years of use—a far cry from the “forever” which was imagined. The second temple built by King Herod fared even worse and was destroyed completely after barely 70 years (and while still under construction) by the Romans. By contrast, the Cathedral in Notre Dame is over 850 years old. Thus the French Cathedral has lasted longer in one incarnation than both the Jewish temples by almost 400 years. (Perhaps the 12th Century Catholic Bishop, Maurice de Sully, had greater success because he didn’t ask God’s permission before building the cathedral.

Today it is clear that Christians regard the mark of a successful church as in direct proportion to its size. A mega-church with a membership of five thousand people and a staff of degreed pastors (a few ThD’s in the mix certainly doesn’t hurt either.) denotes a church that is wildly successful. But is it? Is a church so large the pastor (s) do not know the people occupying their pews really the example Christ spoke of? It is just as clear that one reading the scriptures would find the Apostles would have taken exception to the Mega-church model as what was intended. Such an edifice lent itself to an impersonal environment and not one conducive to the familiarity necessary for the health of the body. The church they take such pride in may be large and growing, but so is a tumor.

Not too long ago, one of these mega-churches crashed and burned very publicly. The Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California was a wonder in its day boasting a seating capacity of over 2700 people. It possessed a state of the art audio and visual system which produced programs for a weekly television program called, “The Hour of Power.” The building was striking in its architecture, sporting glass walls and ceilings in the main sanctuary which allowed for the Southern California sun to bath the parishioners in its warm glow. For all intents and purposes, this was a thriving, dynamic church. The lead pastor was Robert Schuller who had started this congregation in 1955. In its earliest days, Schuller held services in a drive-in movie theater. Interestingly enough, this early incarnation was closer to the 1st Century church model envisioned by the Apostles than the behemoth it later became. What made it so was its simplicity and intimacy. It soon grew beyond that formative state and Schuller eschewed the division talked about by the Apostles, opting to merely grow one single body instead.

The Crystal Cathedral was built in 1970 and grew to give Schuller world-wide fame. He wrote many books and hosted his television show for more than thirty-five years. In its time, the Crystal Cathedral stood as an overwhelming success to the power of God, having been host to world leaders and United States presidents and the most watched religious themed T.V. Program in the world. But was it a success, or did it just give the earthly appearance of success?

By 2010, the Crystal Cathedral was bankrupt with debts exceeding more than $55 Million. The building still had a mortgage in 2010 of more than $36 million. Drowning in debt which had severely limited its outreach, the Hour of Power ceased broadcast in 2006. In the next four years, there was an exodus of parishioners from the congregation as internecine battles amongst the Schuller family became known to the general public. By mid-2012, the Roman Catholic Diocease of Orange had purchased the Cathedral and renamed it Christ Cathedral. Schuller was retired, and for all intents and purposes the church he had built was no longer. One has to wonder what would still be remaining today of Schuller’s church had he followed the Apostolic model rather than the model of man.

Many might say that Schuller’s example was an anomaly and not representative of the church experience in general. To those who say that, I would point to the many churches one can find in just about any community with dwindling congregations. The dynamic aspect of God is antithetical to the fixed aspect of a brick and mortar building. Thus when the congregants grow and move on, when the older generation dies off, the building—and its many sundry needs—remain. How can a congregation believe they are serving God with their tithes and offerings when the bulk of that money is going to the mortgage, the heating, water and electrical bills as well as the administrative over-head? Most churches may only apportion five percent or less of their intake for actual ministerial outreach. All the rest of this money goes to fixed expenses. (2013 study conducted by Ministry Advisory Panel. )

When one stops to contemplate the trend occurring with the modern church and then realizes this is only the fiscal impact, the other damning aspects of the modern church is akin to throwing gasoline on a blazing structure in a vain attempt to put out the fire.

Consider the modern church structure is to seat a large group of people in a room. These people are seated so as not to see or interact with one another, but rather to face forward and be apart from their fellow man. After an appointed and limited time of pleasantries (in many of the churches I’ve attended, this is a time caustically referred to as “grin and grip.”), we assume our places, sing a few songs about Christian brotherhood and then we are to sit in silence while we listen to the opinion of one person for the next half hour to hour (depending upon the individual speaker).  None can raise their hand to ask for a clarification on point as this is regarded as “rude” and not in keeping with protocol. The subtext here is clear: The pastor is the educated one, not you. The pastor is the one versed in the subject matter, not you. The pastor is the one anointed by God, not you. Ergo, if you do not understand what the pastor is saying, the problem lies with you.

Of course many pastors have allowed for a time when they will answer your questions at some other time, but depending upon the size of your congregation, you may never get that chance. I have personally attended two churches as an adult where I never even met the lead pastor. His time was far too valuable to be bothered with such banal questions from someone like me. For that, there was another tier of people who would clarify the point for him. Additionally, there were home groups where the finer points of his sermon could be discussed—discussed, but not necessarily answered to anyone’s satisfaction. Few of these discussions would ever make it back to the ears of the one who first spoke them. Thus, any errors pointed out by members of the congregation remained unchecked.

The primary problem with such a church structure is that it does not really lend itself to Christian fellowship. One goes to church today to be indoctrinated, not to get to know their fellow Christians. Doctrine is used as a measure and an indicator of one’s “Faith.” To question what is taught is akin to being an adulterer and such a person is questioned on their beliefs and if there is no change, they are excised from the body post haste. This church structure, of course, was the desired intention since the first of the Nicene Councils began to codify Christianity under the Roman Emperor Constantine in 325 AD. If one were to go to a church service and expect to be able to engage the speaker in a Q & A, one would be sorely disappointed and would be asked to remain silent or leave. In truth, few pastors are equipped to engage their congregation in that manner. Most approach the dais with a prepared and practiced sermon and any deviation is simply not tolerated. (I’ve witnessed multiple services with the same pastor giving the same sermon without much deviation. Even the humorous anecdotes, timing and rhythm of the sermon remains unchanged from service to service. How can a pastor engage his congregation when one is unable to deviate from the script or speak on the subject matter extemporaneously?)  

A personal anecdote:  Years ago I asked a pastor of a small church I was attending a question regarding the passage in Matthew 27:52-53. The passage dealt with the bodies of many saints coming out of their tombs and going into town to preach to the people about Christ. I was terribly confused about this passage as it almost appeared as though the Bible was talking about zombies. To his credit, the pastor neither dismissed me nor tried to give me a contrived answer. He looked at the passage, looked back at me and shrugged his shoulders saying, “I don’t know.” I remain in his debt for his response because he displayed true humility and respected me enough not to try to explain that which was beyond him. It pushed me to discover the meaning behind the passage for myself and the spiritual significance, but that is for another commentary.

As I write this commentary I am listening to Johann Sebastian Bach. While Bach wrote for many noblemen of his day, his primary employer (as with Michelangelo) was the church. It could be said that despite its failings, the institutionalized church has also given us many wonders we otherwise would not have experienced. The Sistine Chapel is one such wonder to behold as are the many cathedrals throughout Europe (and even here in the modern day United States with such as the Crystal Cathedral). I raise this issue only to let the reader know that I am well aware of the seeming benefits of the institutionalized church over the centuries. However, to presume that God in His eternal wisdom would not have still graced humanity with the talents of these many people is to diminish God. Is this not the same rationale that David used in wanting to construct the first temple? The better question to ask is how many gifted individuals would we have been graced with had the institutional church NOT stood in their way? Such people are now lost to history irrespective their talents and abilities because of the church’s intrusion and restrictions. The modern church by its very structure does not lend itself to utilizing the talents of its congregation. There can only be ONE pastor. Should there be others with spiritual insight amidst the congregation, they are ignored. There is no church division and the only church planting which will occur has to first be sanctioned and planned for by the Church Association. Budgetary concerns have to be addressed and, of course, qualified, licensed, degreed pastoral candidates must then vie for the position; they must interview for the job - like any other prospective employee. As a component of the modern church, this is truly a sad commentary and not at all what Jesus intended. It may make temporal sense to those in charge, but is excludes the eternal power of the Spirit to work in the body.

What is the solution then? While I have raised many issues (and there are many more), what is the solution? In his book, “The Problem of Wine Skins – Church Structure in a Technological Age”, Howard A. Snyder is rather direct. He asserts we ought to do what Christ commanded which is to sell everything and give it to the poor (Matthew 19:21). Is this a realistic solution? Many churches have a great deal of money tied up in real estate and other property. There is also the attendant responsibility they have taken on in administrative overhead. Selling off the building would effectively put the pastor, associate pastor, music minister, youth pastor, accountants, secretaries, custodians, et al. out of their jobs. Yes, that is true. But consider this novel approach and one which was used by the early church which met with great success: The pastor volunteers his time and works elsewhere for his income. (Paul remained a tent maker and Peter a fisherman while they planted churches and preached.)  The congregation can meet in private homes until they reach a certain predetermined size and then break off and start a new congregation. Any administrative roles needing to be filled would utilize the congregation, an eclectic mix of people with varied talents heretofore ignored by the modern church. In this way, all have a part and all are included; no one is left out and pride will not have opportunity to take root in any one individual. (Even a degreed and lettered pastor does not know EVERYTHING and should not proceed upon that false premise.)

Is such a solution unrealistic? No, but it will meet with great resistance. It is a human trait that people do not like to give up stuff. A pastor or a degreed theologian has worked hard at his career and is not going to entertain for one second the possibility of simply throwing it all away. They will dip into their years of knowledge of the scriptures and parse same to contrive a valid excuse as to why God called them to create their monoliths and why God has personally sanctioned their church and continues to bless them. Of course they will; the pull of the flesh is strong and the enemy is cunning. So cunning, in fact that even the elect can be deceived. Humility must be a component of the pastorate. These are positions which are supposed to be above the traps laid by man. As Christ Himself said, … If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.( Luke 9:23)

History has shown us that such as the modern church construct is inevitable. Humans like control and will do what is necessary to make certain control is maintained always. The Jews first wanted a king and later King David decided to build the temple. Much later, Constantine the Great established the church under his rules and regulations for just this reason. He needed the people of God, but only on his terms. Once his primary goal was realized (a united Empire with him at the head), the established church structure was used merely to keep the masses “in line” and prevent further insurrections. Neither tactic worked very well and the established church structure survived him by only 150 years. With Rome’s fall in 486 AD, the remnant of the church bunkered in monasteries and was for all practical purposes, useless to the people at large.

Whatever people did learn about God and Christ came from small home studies. This was the new reality of humanity throughout the known world until early in the 10th Century. When the Holy Roman Empire was born, the structure of the church was changed; the people in charge were not at all the “good Christians” one would have imagined they should be, but rather were ruthless despots. Again, any such learning was done in the home and usually to their earthy detriment. Those who did not conform to the strictures of the Holy Roman Empire were brutally tortured and then executed. It is safe to say that little Christian learning was gleaned from orthodoxy during this dark period, despite its supposed legitimacy.

There is an even greater danger to the body than that of the hubris and pride many modern pastors suffer from which is the brutal facts of history. As early 20th Century philosopher George Santayana famously stated, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." What has bedeviled humanity before is prophesied to visit us again. The Bible prophesies a coming darkness before the rise of the dawn and eternal Light. In that time, the established church will not be in existence as it is today. Whatever “legitimate” church will reign over the earth will not be one which will imbue humanity with the goodness and the Grace of God Almighty. If we, as God’s face to our fellow man, do not begin to plan for this eventuality today, we will not be equipped to handle what is to come tomorrow. In effect, by maintaining these faux “houses of worship”, we are actually “…placing our light under the peck measure.” Our growth will remain, but again what kind of growth are we aiming for? If it is unity and harmony of the body of Christ, we’re failing and failing spectacularly.  Just as in the Dark Ages, the Church today is filled with people hurting and in desperate need of others, but do not feel safe. Those who have created their livelihoods on the name of God are not going to be too quick to cede the power and position they’ve worked so long to attain. Jesus has some startling news for such people, “… they have received their reward in full.” (Matthew 6:2)

We are entering what I believe to be the final phase of humanity in this earthly state. It could all end tomorrow, or in a hundred years or more, but the end is coming. For now there is still a sliver of light which we can enjoy and take advantage of, but it will soon grow dark. In those times, will planting yet another brick and mortar building, will adding yet another financial obligation, placing the awesome burden of debt upon a congregation really be what Christ intended? Must we as a Christian church always firmly plant our feet and demand that the lost come to us, rather than our being dynamic enough to go to the lost? When darkness once again falls upon the world (and it is a historical certainty that it will), these brick and mortar monoliths will fall as well. The hard work which was expended, the dollars wasted on new carpeting, paint, tile and administrators will be seized by the authorities and the occupants imprisoned, killed or otherwise turned out. (Think China, Cambodia, USSR, etc.) Meanwhile, many who could have otherwise benefited from those funds never will; many who could have shared in the unity of a dynamic body will have missed the chance while meeting after endless meeting was convened to deal with issues of zoning, taxes, apportioning of funds for maintenance, etc.

Unless and until we as a true church decide to stop wasting our time and effort on icons, on an edifice which we place before us to feel important and display our earthly worth and wealth to our fellow man as an indicator of “God’s love”, we will have failed in the primary objective given to us by Jesus Christ, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

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