That also made me think about all the other church signs that are around town and how some say Presbyterian, Methodist, Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, and some say something else completely different. I wouldn't want to offend any group by not mentioning them by name.
A bit over a year ago, Barb asked what was different today compared to the early church. There are a few things that come to mind. But if I'd have to pin down the one basic point that has changed it would be the fracturing of the united body of Christ into competing factions.
How has this come about?
To address this question, it helps to start out at the very beginning. We can't say much about where we are today unless we know from whence we started. So, I'd like to start out and read a couple passages in John, spoken by Christ Himself. These will go a long way in explaining why Christ and to a large extent the early church was united and successful in their ministry.
The first passage I will read comes from John 5. First, let me give a brief summary of what is going on in the first part of the chapter to set the context. There was a pool named Bethesda in Jerusalem which the Bible declares was visited periodically by an angel. This angel would trouble the water and whosoever first stepped into the water after the angel left was made whole of whatever disease the individual had. There was, therefore, a mighty rush to be the first.
There was a man there who had lived with an infirmity for 38 years. When Jesus saw him there, he knew his history, and asked him
5:6 ...Wilt thou be made whole?
The man declares that nobody is around who will take him to the water when the water is troubled, so he has never had a chance to be healed. Christ declares
5:8 ...Rise, take up thy bed, and walk.
The man is made whole immediately, takes up his bed, and walks away. Some Jewish leaders see him doing this and pounce because carrying his bed was considered work and it was the sabbath when no man was supposed to work. They ask him what is going on, and he replies that the man who healed him told him to take his bed away from the pool, but when he looks around to point Jesus out, he doesn't see Jesus and can't tell them who gave the order.
Later Jesus runs across him and warns him in
5:14 ...Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee.
Now that the healed man knows it was Jesus who healed him, he tells the leaders, and they seek to slay him because of the work that he did on the sabbath day by healing the man. There is a long confrontation between these leaders and Jesus, but there are a couple of passages that particularly stick out. I'll also include some selections from later discourses as well. I'm then going to do something unusual and ask you to take a minute or so and think about which of these passages strikes you the hardest. We'll stay quiet while we do this. After you've had a chance to think about how this might apply to making your ministry more successful (and everyone has one), I'll summarize the points that struck me as particularly significant in making Christ's work at starting the Church easy.
John 5:17, 19-20, 30-37, 7:16-18, 8:26, 28-29, 9:4, 14:9-12
5:17...My Father worketh hitherto and I work.
5:19 Then answered Jesus and said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.
5:20 For the Father loveth the Son, and sheweth him all things that himself doeth: and he will shew him greater works than these, that ye may marvel.
5:30 I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me.
5:31 If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true.
5:32 There is another that beareth witness of me; and I know that the witness which he witnesseth of me is true.
5:33 Ye sent unto John, and he bare witness unto the truth.
5:34 But I receive not testimony from man: but these things I say, that ye might be saved.
5:35 He was a burning and a shining light: and ye were willing for a season to rejoice in his light.
5:36 But I have greater witness than that of John: for the works which the Father hath given me to finish, the same works that I do, bear witness of me, that the Father hath sent me.
5:37 And the Father himself, which hath sent me, hath borne witness of me.
7:16 Jesus answered them, and said, My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me.
7:17 If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.
7:18 He that speaketh of himself seeketh his own glory: but he that seeketh his glory that sent him, the same is true, and no unrighteousness is in him.
8:26 I have many things to say and to judge of you: but he that sent me is true and I speak to the world those things which I have heard of him.
8:28 Then said Jesus unto them, When ye have lifted up the Son of man, then shall ye know that I am he, and that I do nothing of myself: but as my Father hath taught me, I speak these things.
8:29 And he that sent me is with me: the Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him.
9:4 I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh when no man can work.
14:9 Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Shew us the Father?
14:10 Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works.
14:11 Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me: or else believe me for the very works' sake.
14:12 Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father.
That was a rather long selection of scriptures, and I am sure that one or more verses stood out to you as you reflected on them. I would make the following very high level points about why Christ was successful in the work He did.
- The Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit did their work in unison. Jesus didn't try to do anything that the Father wasn't in the midst of doing; He didn't try to plant seed and grow crops where the Holy Spirit hadn't already softened the soil. Just as importantly, everything the Father was doing, He did. He didn't leave out the parts that weren't fun or to His liking. He did it all in the timing of the Father. I find 5:36 interesting in that He says the Father started works and left them to Jesus to finish.
- He let those works that God was doing in His ministry be the effective witness for His ministry being true and right and ordained by God.
- He had to continually seek the will of the Father in everything and pay attention at all times to the Holy Spirit's direction to make this happen.
- He taught the doctrine of the Father, and not whatever suited the times.
- He didn't seek His own glory but sought glorifying the Father. He didn't seek to please Himself, but God, continually. This resulted in God going with Him. He didn't just get sent out on His own to do the best He could.
- He had a sense of urgency in what He did for people's eternal souls were at stake. He loved the people in the world who were lost just as much as His disciples.
- He didn't put His own life first, because He knew that He would end up on the cross.
Finally, He promised that we would do the same things He did and even greater works after He went to join His Father in heaven because of that resurrection and joining of forces. It was one of those Amen, Amen statements. He meant it. If we don't see it happening everywhere today, it isn't His fault.
I added that last bit of scripture just for a challenge for us. He truly gave His church a shining example of unity and a great start. If each of us can, as individuals, try to emulate Him in prayer, unity with the Spirit, obedience, trust, love, and follow through, the progress Satan is making against the church would be stayed. The closer we get to God, and the more often we are doing the work He has started, the more often He will back up our work with the same miracles and wonders that He backed up Christ's work with.
All those neat things we'd like to see more of were things that the Father started, that Christ saw Him start, and that Christ finished by speaking the words or doing the acts. We must be united with the Father to be successful in this. To heal the self inflicted damage that has already been done, we're all going to have to take some steps of reconciliation towards one another, both individually and corporately in communities. God rarely works where there is discord. There is too much noise going on in our own minds to see the path He is taking in order to follow it.
The Apostles and The Early Church
The Early Church Wasn't Perfect
Let's move forward in time. We tend to look back on that Early Church as a paragon of virtue and hold the named members who started it in high esteem. Much of this is warranted. But I'd like to preface the rest of my comments tonight by stating that the early church wasn't perfect either. It's easy to beat ourselves up and think that we aren't measuring up to a 2,000 year old ideal, when we may not be as far off in some ways as we think.
Remember that Peter was prone to arguing and did battle with the guards in Gethsemane. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, sought special places of honor for their works which led to some jealousy and contention in the ranks. In fact, many chapters of the New Testament are taken from letters written by Paul, trying to correct problems in the Early Church and get it or keep it going down the right path. So while they should hold a place of honor, we must realize that they were filled with humanity just as we are and had their own strife and issues that needed correction.
A quick review of a few scriptures in Revelation 2-3 reveals some of the cracks that John mentions in the letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor. A brief summary of these would point to problems getting distracted from their love of Christ, allowing false doctrines that included idol worship and fornication, false prophets, having a false sense of security due to wealth and goods and a feeling that they don't need the Lord, and having a lukewarm attitude that is neither on fire for God or cold and thus with potential for correction. Only two of the seven escaped having something that God had against them that needed correcting. Not a very good ratio, but comparisons between those seven and the church of today would uncover some similar strengths and problems.
But It Existed Near in Time to Jesus
So what did the Early Church have right? After all, for their faults the church the Apostles started has survived in one form or another for 2,000 years.
The Oral History
I think that the first major thing that they had right was a very recent memory of Jesus Christ, passed down from people who knew and walked with Him, heard His teaching, and saw the works that He did. I strongly suspect that there was a lot of oral history that was commonly known in those times about aspects of Christ's life and His ministry that never made it into the Holy Bible, but were passed around among families and towns and villages where He walked while on this Earth from people whose lives He touched - just like that man at Bethesda. That cannot be discounted and helped firmly establish the church.
The Holy Bible provides a lot of history, a guidebook for how to be saved, and a good doctrinal basis on which His church should be based. It also provides some useful prophecy about events that are going to be relevant to the world after the rapture if anyone is willing to read them. It gives warnings about things not to do. But its recorded history can't compare to the knowledge base that was present in many parts of Israel about what Jesus had recently done. Those portions of the world that Christ never physically visited still had the advantage of being the recipient of missionaries who had known and walked with Christ.
The Words Were Backed Up Just Like Christ's Were
God's influence in Christ's daily ministry along with His radical teaching for the time were the sorts of things that caused thousands to gather on the hillsides to hear Him. I'm sure that not everyone that heard were changed any more than they are today. Yet it was hard to discount the miracles that were being performed. The miracles and healings that Christ performed were also continued by the members of that Early Church. It was evident that the power of God was present in His church.
Each generation since then has had their own miracles and healings performed as well. These things didn't stop when the generation of the Apostles died out. But today, unless someone at work, at school, or a close neighbor or family member sees the physical result of a miracle or healing and inquires on their own, they will rarely hear of God's work the way churches and people treat God's blessing today and as insulated as our society has become.
All too often in modern times, we end up relying on doctors instead of God anyway, so even if God has a part in our healings we lose the testimony value of His work in the eyes of the unsaved because they will attribute it all to the work of the doctors and the medicine they practice and refuse to give God any glory at all. We can bless Him for what He has done for us, but it frequently loses the impact on the unsaved of the man at the pool of Bethesda because it isn't clear what part God has played to those who hear.
I'm not against doctors or medicine. They can do many great things today. Most of the time they even do them right. But those advances in technology and knowledge come at a price of rising skepticism on the part of the unsaved when we claim that God has done something great for us or claim that it is God that revealed the knowledge to the doctors in the first place. The rightness of our position may be ironclad, but it doesn't have the effect of a man healed from leprosy or blindness by Christ in the New Testament in testimony value. In addition, since our culture can handle most small things without any worry, we don't turn to God for the little things anymore so our faith doesn't have a chance to grow little by little over time. We largely wait until something is really wrong to turn to Him, and don't have the faith that comes by walking with Him through a host of little things and trusting in Him to help us, to make the next really big thing just a tiny bit bigger than the last. Instead, there's a huge step in faith to make to carry on.
The Voice Gifts
In the Pentecostal movement, we've had probably millions or perhaps billions of messages in tongues and interpretation, prophecies, and the like. Yet in almost all cases, the church across the street never hears these messages or learns about what God is doing here. Churches seem to jealously guard what they are given. The unsaved certainly don't hear them. Sometimes these words are harsh pushing us to do things we really don't really want to do or correcting us when we are wrong, and churches might not want them published because they would cast a particular church in a negative light. Yet we wouldn't have much of the New Testament if the church at Corinth, for example, had felt the same.
The New Testament church was a new thing. People shared even the negative things with each other to sharpen each other. Today, too many churches think they know it all since there's an easily available printed Holy Bible. If we have that, what else could we need? If we have a dynamic service, do we tell anyone about it? I don't do that very well - that is for sure. Many may gossip about the bad things that are going on, but talk about what is good? That's harder. What's the football score now anyway?
I've started trying to record the interpretations when they happen here and post them. Sometimes the batteries die. Sometimes the mike doesn't pick up what is said or the volume level drops and it is hard to transcribe sections. Sometimes I get one, and put the recorder away and another immediately starts and I don't try to get any of the second one because I wouldn't be able to get the whole thing. But I put up as many as I can on my website and identify the church and service when they happened, without naming any individuals involved. In this day and age, we need to be getting the word out instead of jealously guarding and keeping it to ourselves.
I personally find that it helps to hear it again because frequently in the morning service we are too busy these days to take time to quietly ponder God's messages to us because it might push the schedule a couple minutes over or might make someone uncomfortable so we blaze right on with whatever we were doing after God interrupts us. It wasn't that way 30 to 40 years ago here. Although then as well as now I doubt that many Christians could quote the words God took the time to speak to us personally in a service by that afternoon. Some can quote a lot of the Holy Bible, but the new stuff isn't treated with the same respect. Where would we be if the early church which had to copy stuff painfully one page at a time had been that cavalier with early church history?
If I preach a sermon, it's also posted on one of my websites. I recently migrated to different software to try to make my life a bit easier doing the entry, and haven't gotten all of my old teaching sessions transferred, but the process is ongoing. We need to be using technology more to get the word out than to serve the people who are already in the church. The Internet is a fantastic tool, used correctly.
There Was One Church in Town
The next major thing they had going for them was there was a single Christian church. If you were a part of Christianity at all, you belonged to a common group of people who were frequently in the minority in the town. That isn't to say there was complete unity in those days. There wasn't. But if someone offended you, you had to work it out with them because you weren't likely to be able to move to a new town, and if you stayed in the town you were in, there was usually just one body of believers with which you associated.
Being in a minority position had advantages. Persecution has advantages. Nobody likes it, but it strengthens those who survive and binds them together more strongly.
Today, people drift between churches for any reason you can possibly think of. Since I came to Casper, I have attended four churches for a reasonable length of time. My family started at Faith Assembly in 1967, and, with the exception of four years out of town at college, and a summer spent at Highland when I was single and looking to not be, I remained there till the building program that built this facility was initiated. The politics involved made me sick. We then went to my wife's former church and stayed there till they decided to start a church school. In that case, we both thought that the decision was probably the right one for the church as they had many people who home schooled, but it didn't seem right for us. We went to a neutral Christ United Methodist for several more years until the pastor running that decided to move on. By that point, Pastor Ron was due to retire in the near future, so we came back here. That's a bit of our history for those who didn't know it.
Were all of those reasons for switching good reasons? Probably not. But the fact that there were numerous churches in town with largely independent bodies made it easy to switch. God's work would be better served if it was harder to switch, I think. People moving around can be exposed to many good new ideas and help further the bonds between Christians spreading the best seed they've experienced at their previous churches -- or they can act like metastasizing cancer cells causing strife and tearing down other believers and churches. Unfortunately, I've seen more of the latter than the former, and haven't been perfect in that regard myself. We need to do a better job of keeping in touch with each other and resolving problems without having the body split.
There was One Doctrine
Finally, the words of Christ and His doctrine were fresh in the early church member's minds. They passed it down to the followers of Christ and these followers passed the message on to new believers.
Paul never tried to pull any punches. He said exactly what he thought and tried to get churches back on track that had gone off base. But he also penned these words to the church at Colosse. They were my original text for tonight before deciding to start back further in time with Christ - our model. Dake titles this section "How to continue in Christ"
2:4 And this I say, lest any man should beguile you with enticing words.
2:5 For though I be absent in the flesh, yet am I with you in the spirit, joying and beholding your order, and the stedfastness of your faith in Christ.
2:6 As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him:
2:7 Rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith, as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving.
2:8 Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the traditions of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.
2:9 For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.
2:10 And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power.
Similar statements were made to the Corinthian church
1 Cor. 1:18-25
1:18 For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.
1:19 For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent.
1:20 Where is the wise? where is the scribe? where is the disputer of this world? hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?
1:21 For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.
1:22 For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom:
1:23 But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;
1:24 But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.
1:25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
And a further warning to the Galatian church:
1:6 I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel:
1:7 Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ.
1:8 But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.
1:9 As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.
1:10 For do I now persuade men, or God? or do I seek to please men? for if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ.
1:11 But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man.
1:12 For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.
I purposely requested the three hymns that we sang tonight, because they give a lot of doctrine. 30 to 40 years ago, you wouldn't even need to hear a sermon if you listened to the music. The hymns that were sung covered all the basics of Christian life and afterlife. But people today don't seem to want to listen to doctrine in their music any more than they do from the pulpit. That was one difference we noted at the Methodist church. Even though they sang hymns, few talked about the blood. I remember lots of hymns that had to do with plants and dancing but few about Christ's sacrifice except the requisite two or three numbers at Easter. They liked Charlotte, and she got them started singing "There's Power in the Blood", but mostly the controversial bits were bypassed. Many hymns that I grew up with weren't even found in their hymnal.
Sunday Schools emphasize fun because it is said that kid's can't learn anymore without games. I'm sure my class would champion the fun and games of a previous day. But I just can't teach that way. Trying to teach anything after a class is wound up is hard, and it doesn't take much to wind them up when they are high on pop, sugar donuts, and coffee. Doctrine is just not appreciated anymore. Most churches, and certainly Faith Assembly, aren't to the place where the warning of Timothy applies
1 Tim. 4:2-5
4:2 Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.
4:3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears;
4:4 And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.
4:5 But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry.
but it is encroaching on us at a steady pace. It is something to keep ever vigilant about.
So how did we get to where we are today? First, the church grew by leaps and bounds. As the church grew, bureaucracy grew as well. With bureaucracy came positions of power and agendas. Gradually, the oneness that existed between Christ and God and the Holy Spirit that let Him start a church that would last for 2,000 years slipped. People forgot the teaching of Colossians and let traditions slip in where they didn't exist before. The church hierarchy decided to pick a single day on the non-Jewish calendar to celebrate Christ's birth that probably didn't have a thing to do with the actual date. They let Easter float, but didn't strictly tie it to Passover + 3 which doesn't always fall on a Saturday night to Sunday morning day of the week. Easter Sunday was more important.
Nothing big, really. Just a little here and a little there. I really don't think that there were many people over that long period of time that consciously said I'm going to move the church in direction X because it will be more profitable for me if I do. I'm willing to give perhaps more benefit of the doubt to early church leaders than that.
But the facts are that the focus of the church gradually shifted away from doing only what God wanted done to doing a bit of what man wanted done as well. As centuries rolled by, there was a bit more of man and a bit less of God. Man's traditions became entrenched, and eventually, you had schisms in the church where individuals rose up and said this is enough, and tried to bring the church back closer to where they thought the early church was.
There were some breaks in the order after a few hundred years. The big Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox break came at roughly the millennium mark in 1054. It took another 500 years or so for the next big break to come in the Protestant Reformation when Martin Luther stood up to the Catholic Church and their practices of selling freedom from God's punishment for sin for money. He also challenged the grace through works philosophy that was (and still is present). The practice of priests interposing themselves between God and man didn't get much favor in his eyes either. According to Wikipedia, the printing press allowed his theses to spread throughout Germany in a matter of weeks and throughout Europe in a couple of months. The church would never be the same again.
Within a short time. the world saw the start of the Anabaptist, Anglican, Calvinist, and of course the Lutheran Protestant denominations. After this were splits of the Puritans and Separatists from the Anglicans, of the Calvinists to Presbyterians, joining of Presbyterians and Puritans to form Congregationalists, and joining of Anabaptists and Puritans to found the Baptist denomination. Later, the Pietists broke off from the Lutherans and much later, the Methodists broke away from the Anglican church. The Adventist movement broke off from the Methodists even later and the holiness movement grew from the Methodists a short time later. One of the denominations in the general holiness movement was the Nazarenes. From the holiness movement grew the Pentecostal movement of which our church is a part. Wikipedia has a good graph of the timeline.
I won't go into the reasons why each break happened. In the best light, I would only say that in all likelihood, each break was an attempt to get their worship and devotion to God to be closer to what they thought the Early Church had. That is a gross simplification in some cases, but if you chart the final leaf points, it seems to be true. In the worst light, there were politics, doctrinal differences, power struggles and many worldly reasons for each split. At each branching point, only a portion of the church took off in a "better" direction. Most stayed behind, doing what they had been doing in the past (sometimes for centuries). The only two movements that died out were the Pietists and Puritans/Separatists. Unfortunately, some of the splits that are close to occurring today are happening because too many people want to start accepting their grey areas (that God says are black) instead of walking a separated life. We're close to the tipping point in several places where we stop trying to get better and start getting worse again. This is one of those pivotal points where we need to start making the right choices instead of the wrong ones.
None of the splits were without pain, and the division has gone on for so long (almost 500 years now) that the end leafs are so far apart that it seems never the twain shall meet. I am reminded of the mercury thermometers that we had back in the old days before you had temperature at the touch of a button. They stayed functional as long as the mercury was in the tube doing what it was supposed to do. If you dropped and broke one, the mercury scattered everywhere and it seemed you could never get it all back together in one spot and cleaned up. It is that exact division that is hurting the church today. I don't expect that it will ever be cleaned up until Christ sets up rule during the millennium. But that doesn't mean we can't start taking steps to try to bridge the gaps between the branches and start presenting a united front to the world once again.
As we read Numbers this week and read about the budding of Aaron's rod compared to the other leader candidates, I thought how nice it would be if the leader of each Christian denomination would bring a dead stick to a common meeting place and let God cause one of them to sprout to make it clear what doctrine was to be followed. Unfortunately, He might not pick any of them as I'm not sure any of us are living up to what He wants perfectly. It would be nice to pick the best that each has going for it, and start fresh, because many denominations have something good to offer. Unfortunately, denominations look at what is good and bad too often with man's eyes and not with God's eyes. It's that very thing that is causing friction between the U.S. branch of Anglicans and the rest of their body today. God has already said what was bad at the center of that strife, but the hardness of man's hearts doesn't want to listen.
How Does This Affect Us Today?
What are people confronted with if they go searching for a Christian church today? dexknows.com, the online version of Qwest's printed phone book, lists 98 entries for our city under "Religion and Spirituality". That covers all "Clergy and Spiritual Consultants" (whatever they are), "Religious Organizations", "Religious Services", and "Religious Supply Stores". For our small town, the listings are mostly for churches, although there are a small number of organizational listings as well.
For a larger metropolitan area like Denver and its surrounding cities the total number of "Religion and Spirituality" listings was 1547 at last count from dexknows.com. In Denver itself, for just "Religious Services" there were 461 entries, 434 of which claim to be Christian.
Getting back to Casper, since that's our primary concern, what do the yellow pages entries and ads look like? If a person with no knowledge of denominations were to look for a Christian church, that person would find seventeen with the word Christ in their names someplace. Several of these would be for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Five have Christian in their name.
If you didn't want to search the listings line by line either offline or online, how would someone who just wants to pick a Christian church choose? If they look under "Churches - Christian", they see two local choices - The Evansville Christian Church and The Salvation Army Church. If they look for any headings with the title Christian, they would increase their choices to six.
As people who have come up in denominations, we immediately counter that there are hosts of Christian churches to choose from, they're just broken down by denomination. The point I would counter with is that in larger communities, these individual Christian headings would weigh just the same as those for Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Other religious groups. In the big cities, dexknows.com breaks down the services into at least these categories and perhaps more depending on the number of religious groups in each. But in the printed phone book, they're all given equal weighting. Their headings are the same generic color and font as the Christian ones. How to choose?
The thing is, perhaps the majority of people out there today don't know much about denominations. The only thing that they may hear about them is negative news blurbs when someone in a position of authority in one of them does something wrong. If anything, that may push them away from complete denominational headings of supposedly Christian churches just because some leader in a particular church of a particular denomination did something wrong in a distant city that has nothing at all to do with any church in the local community. If you think that isn't true, ask the Catholic church how the negative fallout from a few of their priest's mistakes is hurting their whole order.
How do we counter this? To answer that, I'd like to give my first impressions when looking at the current printed phone book listings. The local listings cover four printed pages. Grace Bible Baptist Church, Mountain View Baptist Church, Community of Hope, and Strong Tower stand out among the Christian churches. You'd think that Calvary Baptist Church would, but its ad is too colorful. It looks like too much like an ad, if anything. These churches pay the price for both large and well positioned ads and they do catch your eye.
But I'd also like to point out another ad that catches the eye just as surely as these individual church ads do. It's at the bottom corner of the page where Churches - Christian appears. It's a nice integrated table for the LDS churches in town. They all have a common name that prominently proclaims each to be The Church of Jesus Christ. All of their churches are treated uniformly, with address, Bishop and Phone numbers. There are no overt pictures or colors or fonts to make it stand out. And yet it does stand out by its very nature.
What that ad says to someone who is looking for a place to worship is that all these churches get along, they're united, and they have Jesus Christ in their name, so they must be Christian. This is not the time to debate the problems with the beliefs of the Mormon church. Let's simply say that many of their beliefs are at odds with what the Bible teaches. You'll have to debate long and hard with one of their members to get them to uncover those differences though. The fact that you will be assigned to a church and service based on where you live if you decide to join the church eliminates the need for any one of their churches to try to win your eye's attention and lets them appear completely united. This is a big advantage for them.
They express unity with their ads and the Christian churches in town express disunity with their myriad of headings and different ad formats trying to catch your eye. In many cases, it is easier in towns where the LDS are the majority. In places like Salt Lake City, there are pages of unified LDS listings and only a handful of listings for Christian churches. It is also easier in mid-sized towns like ours where they can stand out. From an advertising perspective, we're losing.
A Modest Proposal
This apparent division between denominations is something that the Christian church needs to work hard at fixing. Anything that gives Satan an excuse to make people not make a decision and thus stay lost, or which leads them to a religion that has warped the Holy Bible in many subtle ways must be countered. It isn't enough to convince all the denominations in town to only list themselves under "Churches - Christian". Any church could do that, regardless of what they really believe. You can bet that if the common advertising worked, the LDS church would as well.
This is my idea for a way that each Christian community can counter this problem we face. It will take cooperation between all the Christian churches in town to accomplish, but the time is short and we must all start pulling together or we will be sunk separately. We need to get back to the united fellowship that was present when Christ was living on the Earth and in the early church before the fracturing became prevalent. I think that there is much more that needs done as well to start living up to the Christ ran his own ministry, but being united instead of divided is in my estimation something that needs to come up front. There's that whole
Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand:
scripture that Christ mentioned in Matthew that still rings true. We all need to get back to moving together when the cloud lifts over the tabernacle and stopping to work when the cloud stops. Unity is a good thing. Being united with God at the same time is much better.
First, I'd like to suggest that a minimum set of standards be established that all churches in the local fellowship would adhere to, without exception. I'll list some basics here, but each community could choose their own basic list. The important thing is to keep it simple. The Methodists in Casper wouldn't be comfortable with our music. The Baptists wouldn't like the Assembly of God's letting the Holy Spirit work in the service. We wouldn't approve of infant baptism in the Catholic church or the thoughts the Catholics have about what happens at Communion. There would be other differences on open or closed Communion and a host of other inconsequential details to the commandment that Christ gave in
16:15 And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.
16:16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.
So here's my short list for what churches in the Fellowship should agree with...
- Accept the Bible as divinely inspired, and let it and it alone form the foundation of your belief system. Any other books, teaching materials, or words that have been given by past leaders in your denomination cannot contradict the Bible and what it teaches. There are items the Bible is silent on that we may disagree on. There are items of future prophecy that we may not have a clear agreement about interpretation of. But the things that the Bible speaks out on must be accepted as written. This is true for both positive strive to do and negative abstain from doing items.
- The leadership of each member of the local fellowship of churches must personally agree to follow New Testament precepts to the greatest extent possible. Nobody is perfect, and everyone makes an occasional mistake, but we all need to pull together to live up to its standards. The leadership needs to make a conscious effort to promote these concepts for the lifestyles of subordinate jobs and of the body of believers that attend their church. If we won't witness with our mouths, then our lives are all we have to witness with.
- All of the leadership of the local fellowship must agree to meet together a minimum of once per month and make a minimum of 10 out of 12 meetings each year to discuss common strategies, get to know each other better, and sharpen each other. There have been groups in Casper that do this, but I'm not sure how active these groups of ministers are or if they would agree to meet the requirements here.
- Whenever there is a leadership change at a church, the new individual in leadership must be interviewed by the other members of the fellowship to ensure that they both meet the eligibility requirements for the Fellowship and are willing to carry on its work. If not, the church must be removed from the Fellowship until such time as the leader has time or desire to assume the responsibilities.
- During the majority of services when visitors are present or when the Holy Spirit directs, they must give an altar call for the unsaved to accept Christ as their Saviour. Whether this is done by an actual call to the altar or whether people are invited to pray at their seats is not important, but the call must start going out. Some churches will never do this because the gospel is something they don't want to address. In other cases the membership may be small and the pastor knows each member well. This is why I specifically limited this to when visitors are present unless otherwise directed by the Holy Spirit. Adding an additional item of form to the order of service isn't the point. But the preaching of the gospel is what we are supposed to be about and we need to actually do it more often than we do.
- Another reason for the meetings is that each church needs to get to know the other churches and their service styles. If someone is uncomfortable with the music at one church, the leader of that church should know enough about the other fellowship members to direct them to one where they would fit in. It is important that people never have a chance to leave their Christian quest. They should always be able to be pointed to alternatives that are a better fit for them at this point in their lives.
- Finally, all of the churches in the group should advertise in common. If they run websites, then there should be a link to a common site with a listing of all the churches in the Fellowship, contact information, links to any websites they run, and a one paragraph summary of their style of worship and format. This can also be hosted on each church website, but it would be harder to keep in sync. The list should also be posted in a conspicuous spot in the foyer of each Fellowship church and updated as new members are added. The group should periodically run ads in the local papers, the cost equally borne by each member, giving a listing of fellowship members, contact information, addresses, perhaps service times, and a brief summary of what the Fellowship believes (for and against) at the bottom.
This is not a panacea. It won't solve all of the problems magically overnight. I know that there will be differences in worship style and suspect there will be differences in doctrine until Jesus returns and lays down the law for how things should be done. Diversity in worship style should be welcomed. Not everyone is comfortable with hymns and not everyone is comfortable with praise music. There is room for both. But I firmly believe that until we all start cooperating with each other and stop tearing down each other over every little thing, Satan will keep on winning.
These are very simple first steps that we can take to eliminate the perception of rivalry between Christians. There is truly more that we have in common than we disagree on and generally the things we agree on are the important things that matter for eternal life. This salient fact is lost to the world. As far as an unsaved person can see, each denomination believes differently than the next. They almost appear like separate religions. Restoring unity in the body will help to kill that lie from Satan. The more beliefs that the churches can agree on and list in advertizing, the more united Christianity will appear.
As you witness to people on the Internet from around the world, the things that have been done in the name of Christ stand out as an obstacle to reach them, and as the days go by and information flows more freely from place to place, the obstacle is getting higher and higher. We can't go back in time and alter history to erase the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition. We can't erase the clashes between Protestants and Catholics in more recent history. We can't even do much to influence the killings and bombings that go on today in Christ's name.
The fact that these things haven't been primarily done by Christians really doesn't make a difference to the unsaved. The people called themselves Christian or used His name when doing them, so all Christians are being painted black due to it. We need to start reversing this process by letting our love for each other flow. If that can happen, then perhaps people will be more likely to believe and accept our love for them.
It might be an incentive to try to get people to solve their problems instead of taking them with them as they move from church to church. It might help us to get to know each other better and start working together. Satan will hate that.
Something like this would probably never work if it was attempted in big metropolitan areas. But Wyoming likes to think of its towns as cohesive communities (whether they really are or not). We have a chance in Casper, and in the surrounding smaller towns to start working with each other and stop competing. We have a chance to turn around the divisive spirit that makes God's plans harder to carry out and start listening to Him and seeing what He is doing again. If we all get behind what He is doing, and start shouldering the part of that work that He expects us all to carry on doing we can make Wyoming a shining star for the world to look at and see what Christianity should be.
There's 60,000 people or so in Natrona County. That's more than enough people to fill every church we have several times over. We need to stop competing for the people who normally attend and look out to the harvest fields that are ripe. We need to start loving the lost and each other again. That won't solve all the world's problems, but it would be a great for us - and we're all I'm worried about at the moment.