Take me to God’s Church

By Ben Swift

Many churches of all persuasions are hiring research agencies to poll neighbourhoods, asking what kind of church they prefer. Then the local churches design themselves to fit the desires of the people. True faith in God that demands selflessness is being replaced by trendy religion that serves the selfish. (Billy Graham)

As a teenager growing up the Anglican Church of Australia in the 1980’s, the Sunday Service was a place of quiet reflection in between rousing hymns. I still have memories of being scowled at and my mate being slapped on the back of the head by his father when we couldn’t keep our laughter in, particularly one morning as we watched a baby caterpillar dangling from an old man’s ear, of which he was completely oblivious. These days in many churches our laughing would go completely unnoticed as the music and general hum from the thousands of people inside would drown out any giggling on our behalf.

There certainly has been a shift in church culture in many church arenas throughout the world over last few decades, particularly with the rise of the ‘megachurch’ and the willingness for many churches to move with the culture of the times. But just what has been and continues to be the driving force behind the evolution of church culture? Is church still church and what does that even mean?

Around the turn of the twentieth century, western culture, beginning in the United States, reached a tipping point. This changed the types of people we admired, put on a pedestal and sought to be like. According to cultural historian Warren Susman, we moved from a ‘Culture of Character’ to a ‘Culture of Personality’ which opened the floodgates for a rising tide of anxieties from which we would never recover.

Susan Cain in her book, ‘Quiet’, suggests that what counted was no longer the impression one makes privately, but the impression one makes in public. Personal honour was now being trumped by ‘personality’. The Culture of Personality paved the way for people and organisations to shape themselves based on how others perceived them to be. People became captivated by those who were bold and entertaining; the greater the performer the more successful the self. The Western World, following the Industrial Revolution, was now being shaped by the extrovert ideal, leaving introverts to either step outside of their comfort zone, denying their quiet, creative and reflective tendencies, or to find alternative ways to be heard.

The church has by no means been exempt from the influences of the Culture of Personality. Comical Parodies on church culture such as ‘Church Hunters’ bring this to light as they expose the ‘worshiptainment’ machine behind the growing success of many churches in drawing new members.

Where do we draw the line however in what constitutes church? In other words, “What is of God and what is of man when it comes to the Church?”

With all that the Church has become in terms of denominations and traditions, there are many things that could be put under the microscope. It seems logical though (how very Spock) to begin with the origin and meaning of the word itself. According to Dr Herbert Lockyer the meaning of ‘church’ in the Old Testament referred to “a body of called out ones.” It was translated by the Latin term Ecclesia from two Greek words, ek, meaning “out” and kalein, “to call”. Its Hebrew equivalent Kahal is found no less than 123 times in the Old Testament and was used to describe a congregation or assembly of people of any kind.

Interestingly the first person to apply the word church in a Christian sense was Christ himself.

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock [the truth about Christ] I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you build on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:18-19)

This is what led to the words of Peter as recorded later:

As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him – you also like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ….. But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness and into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:4-5 and 9)

If we look to the Scriptures for the truth about what defines the Church, the message is clear. The Church, just as the old Sunday school lessons taught, is the people, not the steeple, called and set apart by God to worship him, walking in the light of his truth and shining his light within the darkness of a world where the living Stone has been rejected. The marks of a church that identify it with the true Church are described well by Louis Berkhof as follows:

‘Strictly speaking, it may be said that the true preaching of the Word and its recognition as the standard and doctrine of life, is the one mark of the Church. Without it there is no Church, and it determines the right administration of the sacraments and the faithful exercise of Church discipline.’

With this in mind, it is not difficult to find the influence of man throughout any church. From traditions of dress passed down through centuries of church history, to varied musical tastes, to evangelistic programs and seminars that we’re encouraged to do to obtain ‘superspirituality’ (whatever that means), our fingerprints are all over the Church.

In an age where shopping for the right church provides us with an ever increasing smorgasbord of worship styles, it remains vital to keep in mind the most important aspect to consider. Is there a true preaching of the Word?

Despite living in a time where the extrovert ideal has not only shaped much of Western society, but also the culture of many churches, it is important to borrow one of today’s most popular phrases, “Stay true to yourself.” Not in the sense that you are ruled by the self, but rather that you don’t deny the true and unique characteristics that God has blessed you with, introverted or extroverted. We should always keep in mind that a healthy church is one where members of the body complement each other, not dominate and breed anxiety in one another. After all, we have been set apart by God for his glory, not our own.

Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body.” If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. (1 Corinthians 12:14-20)

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