Monday, May 19, 2014

The One Thing that Makes Church Christian

There are special organizations springing up all over the world.  They are enthusiastic people coming together because of their similar beliefs.  They gather on Sunday mornings, often with their families.  They sing, listen to wise teaching, care for the poor and sick, orphans and widows.  They are filled with young people and old people alike.  And they have nothing to do with Jesus Christ.

They are in essence "atheist churches".  They are made up of people who want the experience of church...listening and singing along to music, hearing helpful life teaching, a community where they feel they belong and accepted.  They use their organizations to serve the poor near and far and to reach out to their communities.  They often teach on subjects like how to be happier and how to be a better person.  But there is no mention of God.  In fact, instead of being united in their beliefs, they are united in their unbelief.

Various news outlets have covered these "atheist churches" in the past few months and both Christians and non-Christians alike are talking about them.  Here are just a few articles discussing them.

Article from NPR
Article from the Huffington Post
Article from CNN

What I find most interesting is that while these "atheist churches" are going after the benefits of more traditional churches but without the God message, our Christian churches are trying more and more worldly things in an effort to meet people where they are while still preaching the Gospel.  There are churches now that meet in coffee houses, bars and some that strictly meet online.  Regardless of which side you are on or what philosophy you subscribe to, we can all agree that our ideas about church are being shook up like never before.

So, this begs one particular question in my mind.

Suppose there was one of these "atheist churches", where one Sunday morning they taught about the historical life of Jesus and some of His teachings on loving one another and helping the poor and sang songs like "Let it Be" by The Beatles, "Bridge Over Troubled Water" by Simon and Garfunkel and "Who Will Save Your Soul" by Jewel, songs that if sung in the right mindset could be worship songs, but are definitely songs from the secular world.  Maybe they could even sing some hymns that while they originated in the church have been adopted by mainstream culture, such as America the Beautiful or Morning Has Broken.  At the end of the service, they came together and shared a meal, talked about their hardships in life and supported and comforted one another and then later in the afternoon, ran a food pantry and soup kitchen and served hundreds of poor and down-on-their-luck.  After the food pantry closed, there was a short meeting about the "church's" volunteer trip to Haiti where not only were they going to build temporary shelters for people, but also focus on the profound psychological effect that experiencing such poverty would have on their lives once they returned home.

What differentiates this "atheist church" from the churches we Christians go to every Sunday?  And honestly, wouldn't many Christians be just as happy, if not moreso, going to this "church" as any Christian one?

John 15:5 states, " 'I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.'"

So if atheists can "do church" just as well as Christians can, if they can do service work just as well as Christians can, if they are just as moral and just as compassionate, then what is the difference between our church and their's?  If Jesus says apart from Him, we can do nothing, then isn't everything that the "atheist churches" do, including putting together a "church" service, having compassion and loving one another, serving the community and the world, isn't that all "nothing" in Christ's eyes, since they make it very clear that they are apart from Him?  What is it, then, that makes our churches the actual Bride of Christ?

The difference is relationship with Him.  And that puts an interesting spin on what our goals as churches should be.

-The music on Sunday morning doesn't have to be perfect.  It just has to connect people to Him.
-The sermon doesn't have to be riveting and delivered eloquently.  It just has to connect people to Him.
-Mission trips don't need to be big, elaborate affairs.  They just need to connect people to Him.
-Fancy children's ministry, men's groups, flashy VBS's all need to connect people to Him.

Sure, it's nice to have good music, preachers with a flair for public speaking, exciting mission trips, and ministries with all the bells and whistles.  But they mean absolutely nothing if they don't meet the first requirement, which is connecting people to Him.  If connecting people with God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit isn't the primary goal, you may as well shut the doors and go home.  If the praise team isn't on their knees begging the Holy Spirit to lead them to greater forms of worship, if the pastor isn't listening closely to every word that God wants Him to speak, if missions teams aren't constantly asking themselves and God how Jesus would serve, then all we are putting on is a well orchestrated show.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ doesn't need to be dressed up, made relevant or sold to people.  If that is what we are doing, we are just fueling the consumer machine.  If we pay more attention to what the church down the road or the megachurch with thousands of followers is doing than what the Holy Spirit is leading us toward, we're attempting to simplify God down into a magic formula.  And that is what the "atheist churches" are doing.  They are taking the church formula, subtracting out God, and carrying on the rest with no problem.

I'll leave you with a quote by A W Tozer:  “If the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the church today, 95 percent of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference. If the Holy spirit had been withdrawn from the New Testament church, 95 percent of what they did would stop, and everybody would know the difference.” 

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