How was worship Sunday?

Please, pardon my title. It is an attempt to capture the shallow thinking of our time when it comes to weekly worship gatherings. “How was that sermon?” “Oh, it was great! Our pastor can really bring down the house! He’s such a good speaker!” “The worship was so good today. Those songs are such a blessing to me! Our praise band just knows how to minister to us, don’t they?” I wonder what would happen if the Apostle Paul came to preach in one of our churches next week? I fear he’d be ashamed of much of what he would see and his approach to preaching might not fly. I feel many would leave thinking he was not too impressive. Many in Corinth thought the same thing of him: “For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his personal presence is unimpressive and his speech contemptible.’” (2 Cor. 10:10) Why would some say such things? Paul had some of the same problems we have today, with fickle people demanding to be entertained and blessed and seem unmoved by a simple presentation of the Gospel which brings no glory to the preacher, no outpouring of emotion from those who don’t believe, and relies on no fleshly technique for its success.

1 And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. 2 For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. 3 I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, 4 and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

We have lost our faith in the power of the Gospel. So, what have we done? We have taken many different approaches to dress it up, to make it more palatable to our audience, to remove the offense, or to make it more exciting and emotional for lost men. What is the modern approach?

  • We need a young, socially relevant pastor with a charismatic personality.
  • Dress the pastor in jeans and an un-tucked shirt to put the crowd at ease.
  • Get the crowd juiced with adrenaline and emotion with driving music, then bring the mood down just before the message to get the “spirit” ready to work.
  • Somebody say “this sermon has so little truth, I have to use techniques to keep you engaged.”
  • Turn to the person on your left and say, “I’m obviously too dumb to understand deep truths, so I have to act like a parrot in order to remain engaged.”
  • Are you with me? Are you listening? Can I get an “amen”? Am I alone in here? Hello? (please affirm me and love me!)
  • They tell me to vary the pitch of my voice to be more interesting.
  • Let me read you 3 verses and tell you 5 stories (4 to make you laugh, 1 to make you cry)
  • Let’s play some soft music because the Holy Spirit apparently can’t work without it, especially during the invitation. Perhaps we can even play music the entire sermon if we need a little extra spirit.
  • Dim the lights in the audience, Brighten lights on the stage, make it feel like a concert. (I’m the star!)
  • Video is more engaging for a modern audience, so we must use video in every service.
  • Let’s get the sound just right. The sound enhances God’s ability to work.
  • We’ll never get younger people in here if we don’t change the music and use a full band.
  • I always like to begin all my sermons with some humor- it puts people at ease. The more I get you laughing, the more happy you’ll be. (maybe you’ll give more, too- relaxed and happy people open their wallets)
  • Let’s focus on love, joy, happiness, blessings, prosperity, grace, mercy, healing, heaven, and victory and leave out sin, death, depravity, hell, suffering, justice, guilt, wrath, and judgment.

Now, I will admit this to you. Not all of these things are sinful or wrong in and of themselves, but the trouble is with our thinking in using them. I’m convinced these are often the techniques churches use to manufacture “the presence of God” or “a move of God” in the absence of God’s working. If you look closely at that list of “techniques” people use, you’ll find that all of them are designed to appeal to the flesh of man. They are all intended to appeal to the senses. None of them is done in faith, trusting God to work. The truth is, we are attempting to make our message more appealing to a lost person and to the tares among the wheat. Is it any wonder many churches are filled with lost people? We hear things like “Well, if the church doesn’t become more relevant, it will never reach the people.” We use this as a justification to try just about anything during our services to make them more memorable, exciting, and relevant.

There are multiple problems in taking this approach. First, it is a slippery slope. If I’ve got to use various techniques to keep people interested, where will it end? If we have sold our souls to this thing and the people who are coming are there because of our exciting techniques, these things must become bigger, better, more exciting, more creative, and etc. This never ends. Soon we’re spending more time working on the packaging of our worship services than we do on the content of them. Related to this is the fickle nature of people. Churches which build themselves upon the latest fad usually attract disgruntled church goers from around their area, who are looking for the next big thing. There is usually a reason folks are disgruntled and rarely does the fault lie solely with the church they left. How long before your mass of disgruntled members have a relapse? A third issue here is this: as pastors, teachers, and leaders in the local church, we are called to equip the Saints. We are called to Feed His Sheep, not to herd the goats. If we spend all our time appealing to the goats and the tares, the sheep will starve or be forced to go elsewhere for nourishment. But most of all, our weekly worship gatherings are to be designed for an audience of One. All glory to God! We are to be pleasing Him with the design and the content of our worship services, not man. Our praise is to be directed to Him. So, what is most important here and what should our approach be? Look again with me at this text from 1 Corinthians 2…

I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom

Of this phrase, Matthew Henry writes, “He did not affect to appear a fine orator or a deep philosopher; nor did he insinuate himself into their minds, by a flourish of words, or a pompous show of deep reason and extraordinary science and skill. He did not set himself to captivate the ear by fine turns and eloquent expressions, nor to please and entertain the fancy with lofty flights of sublime notions. Neither his speech, nor the wisdom he taught, savoured of human skill.”

I would submit to you that many well-known preachers today take the exact opposite of Paul’s approach to preaching the message of the Gospel. They do come attempting to sound like great orators. They do attempt to bring a message of deep philosophy or some new revelation. They do attempt to insinuate themselves into the minds of their hearers, so as to impress them or draw them in. They make for their hearers an impressive show, as it were, a pleasing and entertaining message. This is not of God, friends. Many are fooled by it because the world takes a similar approach, but it does not honor God.

But what was Paul’s approach?

For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling…

Paul’s focus was the Gospel of Jesus Christ and nothing else. He himself came to them in weakness, fear, and trembling, not in human confidence or to assert the authority of his position upon them. He could have come saying, “I am an Apostle of Jesus Christ, you should listen to me!” Instead, his message was simple. It was straight forward. It was of Jesus Christ and Him crucified, and nothing more. His desire was not to impress them or to make them followers of Paul, but that they might hear the Gospel, the very Word of God, and that by it they would be transformed. Many were transformed, but others were left unimpressed, as I quoted from Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians above.

This begs the question my friends- what more is needed? Indeed, what more is needed even today? Do we believe today in the power of the Gospel? It seems clear from that list above that we don’t. Somehow we have come to the conclusion that we must dress up the message and prop up the cross in order to have a successful meeting or worship service.

Paul continues…and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.

This is what is missing today, my friends. It is missing from so many worship gatherings and messages, and this is what has driven us to our techniques. We need a demonstration of the Spirit and of power. We need God to change the hearts and lives of people from within, not our puny manipulations which end the moment our congregants walk out the door. The sad thing is, though we’re aware there is an issue (which is a good thing), we’ve gone looking in the wrong place for answers. We’ve looked to the world, for psychological techniques, like lighting, color schemes, visual aids, music, humor, drawing out emotion, vocal techniques, and etc. But what is the answer? The answer is found in the same place it was found in Paul’s day- in the power of God working through His chosen message, the Gospel of His blessed Son Jesus Christ in the power of His Spirit, presented in faith in the One who raises the dead. This is the answer, my friends. The Apostle Paul didn’t have video projectors, microphones, power point, air conditioning, and padded seats. How would he make it in 2013 without those things? How could a person sit in a hot room and sweat while listening to a lecture without being bored to tears? The answer is the power of God through the Truth of the Gospel. Now listen, I’m not saying we need to move our services to the parking lot or that all modern conveniences are evil. I’m saying that the power from our message MUST be found in the Truth of the Gospel, not in any technique we might use. Our faith is found in Jesus Christ and His message, not in our ability to present it effectively. He makes it effective or it is nothing.

I have come to believe this regarding many modern religious people. They think they’ve heard a great sermon or been a part of a great worship service if they’ve felt some emotions or been stirred in some way from a fleshly standpoint. “I felt the chills, the Spirit was there!” “Brother, you got me all fired up! The Holy Spirit was truly in this place!” “I loved the worship today- those are some of my favorite songs!” “Wow, that was a great service! I laughed, I cried, and then I wanted to shout!” Many are greatly impressed with the kinds of shows the Apostle Paul denounced in the text we just read. Let’s face it- Americans love a good show! You can fill a church building for 3 services if you use these techniques. So, in an effort to survive as local churches, we have turned to Hollywood for answers. They say, “You’ve got to get more people in here or you’ll die. You need excitement, fun, food, games, activities for kids, free stuff, and your services need to be more relevant, more sensational!” So, we’ve bought in, or should I say, “we’ve sold out!”

The answer to our problem is the same as it has always been. We need the power of God working in our midst. But He will not work where He is not honored. We must abandon our methods and techniques to God alone. We must focus on the Gospel in everything, in our speaking, in our singing, in our praying, and in all that we do. We must be determined not to glorify man, but God. Soli Deo Gloria! We must preach the depths of the Truth of the Gospel as the Apostles did, from Old Testament texts to New Testament letters. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a deep fountain of rich meaning, the truths of which are found throughout the Scriptures. God’s Truth must be central. We must cry out to Him. We must not settle for man-made techniques designed to fabricate that which only God can genuinely accomplish in the lives of His people.

Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.

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The Lost Doctrine of Suffering

When I read the Scriptures, I can’t help but notice a common theme throughout that seems to be lost in American Christianity today. The theme is “the necessity of suffering.” I might have also said, “the benefits of suffering.” No matter how you state it, it’s very clear that Jesus and His Apostles taught clearly that suffering is an expected part of the Christian life. Now, before I write another word, I want to mention something very important here. Some have taken this concept of suffering in Scripture and become almost obsessed with the notion, even going so far as to inflict pain upon themselves in order to somehow increase God’s blessing. The entire idea of purgatory that is taught in some circles is based around some similar thoughts. The idea is that we are purged of sin and uncleanness through suffering. Therefore, if we have not suffered enough in this life, more suffering for sin will be required before we can enter the next life. I want to say up front that I do not subscribe to any of these notions, nor do I believe that these thoughts can be found in Scripture.

Having said this, the problem I see today in American Christianity is not that we are obsessed with suffering. Our issue is that we refuse in any way to suffer for the sake of Christ or His Gospel. In fact, many traditions (and it really varies from group to group and pastor to pastor) have abandoned teachings on suffering altogether and have basically defined any and all suffering as necessarily evil or as an attack of the enemy. But is this the way Scripture depicts suffering? Not at all. In fact, Jesus and the Apostles speak in one voice as they speak about the necessity of suffering.

Romans 8

16 The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.

Philippians 1

29 For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, 30 experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me.

1 Peter 2

19 For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God.

1 Peter 4

12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; 13 but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation. 14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 15 Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; 16 but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And if it is with difficulty that the righteous is  saved, what will become of the godless man and the sinner? 19 Therefore, those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.

James 1

2 Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

James 5

7 Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains. 8 You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. 9 Do not complain, brethren, against one another, so that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door. 10 As an example, brethren, of suffering and patience, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 We count those blessed who endured. You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful.

Jesus said it this way: Matthew 5

10 “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. 12 “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Perhaps we should define what Scripture means when it speaks of suffering. Some folks, it seems, have a martyrdom complex of sorts and always see themselves as suffering some kind of burden. We must be careful about these things. The Apostle Peter, in the passage I quoted above, spoke about the difference between suffering for doing what is sinful or merely from our own poor choices versus suffering for our faith. The simplest way I know to explain the difference is this: any time a believer endures attacks (physical, spiritual, mental), insults, hardships, pain, persecutions, or anything like this for the sake of Christ and His Gospel, this is the kind of suffering Scripture speaks about as a blessing. Scripture also teaches that God sends particular sufferings into the lives of His children, such as sicknesses, stresses, and hard times in general, for their own good. These are not always due to some attack from people or due to standing for Christ, but are sufferings sent from God. The pruning of the branches that Jesus speaks about in John 15 could be an example. The Apostle Paul spoke of a thorn in the flesh that was given him to keep him from becoming conceited because of the amazing revelations and works God did in and through him. Others had sicknesses, trials, hard lives, problems in churches, and etc. These are all examples of suffering, though I’m certain there are many other specific examples in the lives of saints throughout the ages.

Now, here is the really difficult part for us and involves counting the cost of our faith. Scripture clearly teaches us that suffering is a definite for every Christian. Now, each believer’s suffering is his/her own and it may not look exactly like the suffering of others, but it is clear from Scripture that all believers will endure suffering of some kind. You may not face death as a martyr, but you will endure hardships. It is as Jesus Himself taught us in John 15-  “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also.” If you are a new creature, no longer of this world, and you are living according to your new nature, you WILL suffer in this world.

If that were not clear enough, look again at the verse from Philippians 1:29: For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake…” That is about as clear as it can be. It has been granted that you will suffer. That seems a strange way to say it, especially if you view all suffering as a negative. But then again, Scripture doesn’t view all suffering as a negative and neither should we. James said that we “consider it pure joy when we face trials.” Jesus said we are blessed when suffering for His sake. Paul said in that same text that it is for the sake of Christ that we suffer. Another way to say that is that it gives glory to God when we endure suffering for the sake of our faith.

Many Christians throughout history have suffered to the point of death for their faith. Others, even today, face the threat of death on a daily basis. Others face imprisonment or the loss of property or rights because of their faith. Here in America, we don’t face many of these things, but there are still sufferings we endure. The entire system of this nation and world goes against everything our faith tells us. I am convinced that it is impossible to truly live out your faith without enduring persecution. I’m equally convinced that many who call themselves Christians don’t face persecution or suffer for their faith because they are unwilling to endure it. That is, at the first sign of resistance, many simply back down and try to not make waves of any kind. They just try to blend in. Yet, if the salt has lost its saltiness, what good is it? If the light is hidden, all men continue to walk in darkness. So, many don’t speak of their faith and they dare not share the message of the Gospel for fear of upsetting someone. Friends, I have serious doubts about that person’s faith, I must say.

So, what is the American approach to suffering? Many ignore it completely. Many popular preachers, teachers, and evangelists preach the exact opposite of what Scripture says. Instead of speaking about the sufferings of Christ and His followers, they speak only of health, wealth, and prosperity. They speak only of blessing, implying that it is God’s will that they enjoy the temporal blessings of this life to the fullest. They teach that every sickness should be seen as from Satan and all disease will be healed if a person only has faith. They will teach that God wants you to have that new house, that new car, that promotion, and the American Dream. It is blasphemous, in my opinion. But this is what people today want to hear. It should not surprise us, given the fact that it was prophesied by Paul to Timothy when he said, “For the time time will come when men will not endure sound doctrine… but will gather around teachers who say what their itching ears want to hear.” You can fill a stadium with a message of prosperity. Is it any wonder, in a “church culture” that lusts for “positive messages” of God’s blessings, that a message regarding suffering would be neglected or absent? In this system, a message speaking of suffering would be seen as sent from Satan- as an attack, and as something which should be actively avoided.

So, should we avoid all suffering at all costs? Not according to Scripture. Should we go looking for suffering where it is not? No. We certainly shouldn’t develop a martyrdom complex, finding suffering in every hang nail or crying “woe is me!” every time we face the least resistance to our faith. But when suffering does come, we should accept it willingly and even embrace it with joy. God has purposes for our lives that we have yet to see, the greatest of which is that He would be glorified in us fully. He teaches us patience and endurance. He teaches us to love as He loves. He teaches us to be gentle, to be humble, to be faithful, to be obedient, and so on. In addition, He has designs in mind for your holiness and for your usefulness to His Kingdom. He has plans that you would be salt and light in this dark world. He has plans that you would be His ambassador and that you would live to help reconcile others to Him with the glorious Gospel of His blessed Son Jesus Christ. His design for you is to persevere in faith, even through the difficulties of life. And then you will be able to say with the Apostle Paul, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18)

One final word- why is teaching about suffering so critical? We are facing a world today that is increasingly becoming hostile to Christianity, yet we also have been given a task to take the Gospel to every nation. Who is going to do it? Will those who have been told God intends only to prosper them with temporal blessings in this life go and take a stand for Christ and His Gospel when it could cost them everything? Not likely. Those who won’t endure even slight criticism for the sake for the Gospel won’t face torture or the loss of their lives. I submit to you that we must teach these things because people need to understand the gravity of our mission and the cost of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. The Kingdom of heaven will be carried forward by servants who are obedient, even in the midst of suffering.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you.

D. Courtney Hill