What’s wrong with the Church? We all know it’s widely criticized among unbelievers: it always has been and always will be. I write this personal critique of the Church of Jesus Christ (I don’t mean LDS), not from an unbeliever’s or an agnostic’s perspective, but as a Bible believing Christian of over thirty one years.
I am here speaking from my own experience-yours may be much better. I must also admit that I am as guilty of failure and hypocrisy as anyone. I’m not claiming to be the righteous one pointing out everyone else’s faults.
The true Church of Jesus Christ, consisting of all true believers no matter what denomination, will live on, and “the gates of hell can not prevail against it” (Matthew 16: 18). Christ will have his bride – that’s one of the certainties of eternity. It’s our visible experience and our witness to the world which is in question, along with the associated question of who among us really belongs to Christ and shows it by their life. Assuming that you know what I mean, I’ll go on to offer my view of the situation, and follow it with a shocking warning from scripture, which relates directly to the present and last-days church.
UNBELIEF AND IDOLATRY
In my country of origin, the United Kingdom, the greatest (and root) problem in the church is unbelief. Of course I am generalizing, but generally speaking, the church is a shell, giving the appearance of faith but having very little. Even doctrines as fundamental as the resurrection and the deity of Christ have been tossed away, as though they were nothing more than old superstitions and hindrances. The church has rejected the Bible as the message of God to man. That’s like a ship’s crew cutting off the rudder, the sails, the engine and the navigational system in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, those who are at all passionate about their faith have succumbed to a form of mysticism, in which falling over in church is regarded as the ultimate pathway to, and sign of, the height of spirituality. This is another result of failing to “search the scriptures to see whether these things be so”. The very people who could be changing the culture are too busy falling over, looking for feelings, and babbling instead.
Here in the United States, the same problems exist, but there are other, more insipid issues too. What the Bible calls “worldliness” and “idolatry” are in many ways considered to be a sign of success in the church. I will elaborate, again from my own experience and observation: perhaps things are different in your neck of the woods. I hope so.
If the church buildings are big and expensive: if there are hundreds or thousands of people attending: if the budget runs into the tens and hundreds of thousands every month, this is considered to be a successful church. The minister is paid a huge salary, although of course he does not consider it to be huge. Not only he, but his associate pastors, his office staff, and other ministerial staff are often also paid handsomely. The church is run as a business, and the goal is to be ever onward and upward: building a larger sanctuary, a larger gym, more rooms to hide away the kids so the adults can “concentrate”, hiring more paid staff, and far more. Given that Jesus said very plainly “You cannot serve both God and money”, church business is considered to be exempt, because it’s all done “for the Lord”.
At the top end of the materialometer scale is the televangelist. One recently announced that he needed to be given 2.2 million dollars every month to sustain his ministry. There are many like him. Unfortunately, the televangelist is responsible for a lot of hatred and distrust towards the church, particularly in Britain. So what if his ministry fails? Believe it or not, there are plenty of on fire Christians who would love to do the work of preaching and teaching for nothing, if only they were allowed and encouraged. When I hear ministers on the radio complain that they will go off the air unless I send more money, I want to tell them to go out and get a job like I had to.
Now just as you get monkeys if you pay peanuts, so will you also attract materialistic, worldly adherents if your goal is to impress with appearance and trained professionals. If we have to have expensive facilities and impressive ministers in order to get the people through the doors, what does that say about the kind of people we are attracting, and the message we are giving them? Those who are really searching for God are not looking for Him in worldly wealth. They want the real thing…they want love, truth and acceptance.
I agree that there is nothing innately sinful about prosperity, but it is sinful if it’s the yardstick of success and acceptability, and the preoccupation of the church.
My wife recently observed, very wisely, that we see no poor people in the churches. Instead, those in attendance all appear to be doing very well for themselves, and leave the church to get into their expensive vehicles, in which they drive home to their large houses on the right side of the tracks, where the pastors also live. But wait a minute: didn’t Christ come for the poor? It’s no good having the token “feed the poor” drive once a year in which a few caring people take part and buy some cans of beans and bags of rice: the poor are supposed to be one of our preoccupations! Not only so, but if someone in ragged old clothes ventures into the church one Sunday, feeling like he or she sticks out like a sore thumb, and then leaves having been ignored by all but the dedicated usher at the door who shakes his hand for two seconds, are they likely to want to come back next Sunday? Are they going to invite their friends?
I’ll agree that Christ is not a socialist. But you can’t read the gospels and then conclude that giving away your unwanted cans of beans once a year to the poor, and then hoping that they won’t sit next to you in church is going to cut it when on That day he asks you, knowingly, what you did for the needy. Meanwhile the sanctuary and the gym get larger, and the prodding for money for the building fund gets louder. One of my pet peeves is when the large, expensive buildings appear, and then the ministers start to lay on the “tithes and offerings” message. In other words, “We’ve spent the money and made the building, now you have to pay for it with at least a tenth of your gross income, or you’ll be out of favor with God”. The New Testament church was not working on building an earthly empire of elaborate facilities, but on sharing with those who were in need, and in spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus did not ask for money to fund his ministry. Paul said that the believer should work, not to help pay for the new state-of-the-art sound system, but “that he may have something to share with those in need.” (Ephesians 4:28). He encouraged giving between the Macedonian and Corinthian churches, not in order to fund the new television network, but so “that there might be equality” (2 Corinthians 8, esp. verse 13). There are plenty of warnings in the Bible about hoarding wealth, but none about being poor.
People do not need some evangelist hundreds or thousands of miles away, talking about money half the time – they need someone where they are, to know them, love them, and to give them the message by their life that God is not into wealth and prosperity, but love, patience, kindness and truth. The Jerusalem church sold their possessions, not to pay the new youth minister an attractive salary and afford him a brand new house, but “they gave to anyone as he had need” (Acts 2:45). Ministers avoid this passage like the plague, or else they are quick to cry that this is not socialism. They are right that it’s not socialism, because socialism involves government taking money from someone who may have worked hard for it and giving it to someone who may not have. No, New Testament giving is voluntary, willing, caring generosity, for the good of those in need, not to pay for buildings and parking lots. Notice in the same Acts passage that the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (verse 4). If we were to get our priorities right, the numbers of people being saved would follow, and isn’t that supposed to be our mission? The answer that ‘we need the facilities to provide somewhere to meet” is hollow. The best, and perhaps the only real fellowship I’ve ever had as a Christian was in someone’s home, where we communicated with each other, where we got to know each other, where we could all take part, and where there was no need to spend huge amounts of money on anything.
Americans have many great character traits and qualities. However, in my part of it at least, the level of snobbery is astounding, and I am sad to say that it’s just as prevalent in the church as out of it. People have to fit the mold in order to be accepted by others in the church. Fitting the mold requires the right appearance (clothing, hair style, attractiveness, age etc), the right small talk, the right kind of vehicle in the parking lot, the right occupation, the right tastes in entertainment, and the right address. In one of the big churches I attended, people would regularly ask me two or three questions in order to establish whether or not I was acceptable to them. The one which always ended the discussion and any chance of friendship was “What do you do?” meaning “what is your occupation”. This was usually the second or sometimes the first part of the test. At the time I was driving buses for a living. My answer was below the qualifications for most, and it ended the discussion. I had several people physically turn their backs to me at that point, or else they would find a way to escape: “Oh, there’s so-and-so, I must have a word with him”, and off they would go, never to return.
Scripture is clear on this matter. Favoritism is sin, and when we pick our favorites because of their appearance and their prosperity, James said “Have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2: 1-4). If we can not love “the least” of Jesus’ brothers, who include the sick, the hungry, the poorly dressed, and those in prison, we are liars when we call ourselves Christians, and we might as well forget about salvation (Matthew 25: 31-46). Haven’t you noticed that Christ walked among the poor and the lowly, and the “low life”, and the sick and the diseased, and the beggars? How can we avoid them ourselves without being guilty?
PARTICIPATION STRICTLY CONTROLLED
Evangelical churches were once places where everyone was given an opportunity to get up and speak, and to “give their testimony”. This was, of course, abused by some, who took the opportunity to tell everyone their life story, but by enlarge most testimony times were uplifting and encouraging, and gave everyone the chance to express their faith in some way. Similarly, different people would be invited to pray, or sing, or read a Bible passage, or make an announcement, or cry, or praise the Lord. Now we have a situation where only the vetted few are allowed to speak or to pray or make any noise at all. While we might still be told to “use our gifts” given to us by God, we are essentially expected to sit down, shut up, watch the show, and hand over as much money as possible. What’s the Biblical injunction on this? “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” (not the individual). “For you can all prophecy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged” (1 Corinthians14:26, 31). Instead we have the privileged few running the whole service, making sure that no-one says anything out of line, or anything at all. There are many people in the church who love to sing, but who will never get the chance to, because only the stars of the show are entitled to do that now, you know – the ones who look attractive and who have a “great voice” and who are favored by the church leaders. The “worship” in some churches now consists of the band performing while the congregation half-heartedly mimes to the song. I’ve seen some vocalists and some church bands treated and acting like superstars, while numerous others can only dream of having a chance to express their love of singing or speaking, or to share what God is doing in their lives. We even have worship leaders who draw a large salary, when there are many talented and enthusiastic people who would love to do the same job for nothing except the pleasure of knowing that they are using their gift and glorifying God. I think we are losing so much by only employing those who are “qualified”. These are people who have been through some kind of training mill, and programmed with all the clichés that some other “trained” person has received years before, rather than seeking out those with imagination, passion, and a giving spirit. We have “cookie cutter” music, even in the so-called “contemporary” Christian music scene, because only those who are qualified with training, youth, beauty, money and the right connections are allowed into the club. Imagination, a gift of God, is not tolerated, because everything has to be vetted, funded and produced by people who already have preconceived, cliched notions of how it should be.
In the twentieth century my father was the bandmaster of the local Salvation Army corps for decades. He gave others the chance to take his place, but was returned to his position because he had a passion for Jesus and for the music. He was talented because he was gifted, he studied music at home, and he practiced to perfect his gift. He dedicated all of every Sunday, and many hours during the week to his calling. He never received a penny for his work, and if anyone had tried to give him any he would have refused it or given it to the church. He wasn’t tremendously handsome, and he wasn’t a favorite of the ladies, but he made the band the talk of the county, and gave the glory to God. Probably half the members of the corps were in the band, and the other half in the choir, called the “songsters”. In other words, everyone took part, and different people were called upon to pray or sing every service. In fact, prayer time was open to all, as was the testimony time. Participation grows faith and courage.
In twenty four years of living where I am, I have had very little real fellowship. By fellowship I mean getting together with other believers, communicating about life and about spiritual matters, having a laugh, and engaging in meaningful Bible study. In twenty years I haven’t met anyone who was truly interested in such communication. Invariably, men’s “Bible study” occurs at five or six a.m., to which two or three elderly gentlemen attend. Bible classes are just that, a class where one person stands in front of the class and talks. There’s very little interaction or participation, because only the one at the front is “qualified” to speak. Everyone else should keep quiet, or at most answer any open questions in the prescribed way. It’s all about control. I have to say that usually that’s a boring, dry experience.
WHAT’S NOT BEING SAID
In order to avoid offending those in the congregation who are paying for the new structures and salaried positions, and to keep as many people attending as possible, some of the most fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith are being omitted from mention in the church. They include sin, repentance, suffering, the cross, the blood of Christ, the Judgment, hell, and humility. The world has infected the church so that such plagues as adultery and divorce are as common in the church as out of it. This must be at least in part because ministers are avoiding speaking out on such things in order to keep their positions, and because love is not there.
The church, and I include the evangelical church, has for he most part failed miserably at defending the faith and teaching its followers to defend their faith. Outside those doors people are being hammered with the nonsense spouted by evolutionists, with the world’s cry to tolerate all kinds of behaviour that God calls detestable, with the lie that there is no evidence to support the Bible, with the powerful temptation to engage in its own corruption, and so on. The gripping (pun intended) depiction of the Kraken and its prey(top) is an apt image for what I’m saying here. How rare it is t o find a minister – the captain of his ship – who is equipping his passengers and crew for the onslaught.
WHERE IS THE LOVE?
Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God. The second is to love our neighbor. John said that we cannot claim to love God if we do not love our neighbor. Again, Jesus said that the world will know that we are his disciples if we love each other. What does the world say about us? Does it remark on our love for each other? Of course it does not, because love is very rare these days in the church. Oh yes, there are cliques in which people are nice to each other and have a good chat after church. But I for one have felt very little love in church in all the years I’ve been attending. Have I given it? That’s a fair question, and my answer is that it’s very hard to outwardly love someone who has no wish to know you, even if you would like to know them. I would love to give people my big grin and my silly English sense of humour, and be interested in their lives, and help them to feel wanted and useful. But when I speak to someone and I sense them backing away or pulling a “this guy’s weird” sort of a face, it’s much easier and more logical to leave them alone. You see, I don’t have the looks or the dress sense or the money or the occupation to be accepted in the church: I don’t fit the mold, so I don’t deserve to be loved. You may dismiss what I’m saying if you wish, but if I were a betting man I would bet everything I have on the fact that there are millions who have experienced the same rejection in the church.
If Jesus Christ walked into your church one Sunday, looking like your average carpenter, and hanging with a few mates who happened to “just” be fishermen who weren’t even good at catching fish, how would they be treated? Their image would not fit the mold. This leads me to another of my pet peeves:
Hundreds of years before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah wrote this about the coming Messiah:
“He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53: 2-3).
How is Jesus depicted in any culture? He always looks like the culture’s perfect man. The Mormons have traditionally given him white, unblemished skin and blond hair, even though he lived in theMiddle East, his human origin Semitic, and the climate sunny and hot. Perhaps they’ve changed him now, I don’t know. But the mainstream view of Christ in America is that Jesus was a hunk. He was beautifully handsome, with perfect features, wavey, thick black hair growing out of his forehead, and a muscular body that would have made Arnold Swarzenegger jealous. My young son has a comic book version of the Bible, in which Jesus looks just like this, and has a stern, macho expression, as though he’s ready to knock someone’s block off.
Does this description compare to that given in Isaiah? Obviously it does not. The New Testament contains no physical description of him at all, which likely means that physically he was not remarkable. Instead, it speaks of his character, being full of “grace and truth”.
Here we can gain an insight into what is important to a culture. In the case of the United States, it’s physical beauty, wealth, and strength. No matter that Jesus was not a body builder, and that he was on the road for a few years with nowhere to lay his head, and therefore also probably couldn’t stuff himself with carbs and protein in order to maintain his physique, even if he had wanted to.
The book of Revelation contains seven letters from Christ to churches of that time – towards the end of the first century. Some commentators believe that the seven letters represent different church ages, with the seventh being the present and terminal age. I’m not yet sure if that’s true or not. If it is, then the last letter, to the Laodicean church, is doubly relevant to us in the United States and the West.
The letter is to a church which is preoccupied with worldly wealth to the detriment of spiritual wealth. In it, Jesus says “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.” As Christ looks at the heart, he sees our spiritual poverty and our hypocrisy, while we are thinking what beautiful facilities and homes we have, how beautiful and healthy we are, all the time failing to love God as we should, and failing to love our neighbor in grace and truth. He will not overlook our sin. He will not wink and smile. Instead, he said “I know your deeds…so, because you are neither hot nor cold, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” Why do we spit anything out? Because it tastes disgusting and maybe toxic. We spit it out as something that is totally worthless.
Already Christians face severe persecution in many part of the world. In the west, where until now the Church has enjoyed freedom, we are seeing the signs of coming persecution. Don’t believe me? Try getting your kids to mention Jesus or the Creation at school. Try preaching on the street, or speaking out against homosexuality, or putting a Christmas tree outside the council offices, or talking to people about Jesus at work, and see what happens. God can and will hand us over to our oppressors, in order to “”sort out the men from the boys”: in other words, to purify his church. Our only option and hope is repentance – individually, and in our church communities.