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Voices in the Wilderness (1)

Have we become a church captive in our day?

The Church Captive (10)

"According to all that I show you, that is, the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings, just so you shall make it…
And see to it that you make them according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain." Exodus 25.9, 40

We are living in the midst of a silent revolution of faith. Millions of Christians throughout the world are leaving the old, accepted ways of ‘doing church’ for even older approaches. Those older approaches are rooted in the Holy Scriptures and the eternal principles of the living God. Consequently, the motivation for this transition from the old to the older is not simply to get us in touch with our history or to reclaim our roots. It is borne out of a desire to return to our Lord with authenticity and fullness. It is a thrust to bond with Him through the Word of God, the Kingdom of God, and the Spirit of God.”

  - Frank Viola and George Barna, Pagan Christianity?

Captive again?
In every age, as we have seen, church leaders have led their congregations, and the Christian movement as a whole, into seasons of captivity, not always because they were evil, malicious, and self-seeking, though at times, some were. Many simply were not careful to follow the Lord’s instructions to Moses, and pursued ways of “doing church” that seemed right in their own eyes, but which departed from the clear revelation of God’s Word. The result, in their generations, was that the Christian movement stalled and became stultified.

Have we fallen into a condition of captivity in our day? Many voices are rising, from a variety quarters, declaring that it is so, and calling Christian leaders and their churches to recognize our captivity, repent of our idolatrous and self-willed ways, and seek the Lord in His Word. There we can rediscover the patterns for “doing church” and being Christian that will move the Lord to revive and renew us.

And yet, do we recognize our present captivity? Since we continue doing the same things over and over again, hoping for different outcomes, we seem content to become ever more marginalized, without wondering why or having the courage to change our ways. We should remember those religious leaders who protested to Jesus that they had never been captive to anyone, all the while they were chained to empty traditions and foreign political powers.

In this and the next installment, we’ll hear from a few of those voices in the wilderness.

Too much culture, not enough Christ
In their book, Pagan Christianity?, Frank Viola and George Barna contend that the Church in our day has again become captive to patterns of Christian life and ministry that depart from what God has revealed, and have left the Christian faith little more than one option among many in a narcissistic age.

Specifically, Viola and Barna contend, among other things, that churches have become too dependent on culture and technique, rather than on the Word and Spirit of God. We do not trust the Scripture as fully as we should, and we are looking for ideas, methods, and experiences of faith and church that have nothing to do with what God has revealed in His Word. Consequently, we have become enamored of the wrong results – numbers and smiling faces instead of the righteousness, peace, and joy of the Kingdom. We prefer programs to disciple-making; are too dependent on buildings and professional clergy; and are trapped in a kind of cultural sclerosis that is choking the life out of Christianity in our day.

Their book is a hard pill to swallow, in part because it is so sweeping in its condemnations of our approach to “doing church”. But also because the authors might seem at times to overstate their case; and in other places, their appeal is not to as broad a Biblical base as they suppose.

But other voices like theirs are crying as well, calling us to examine ourselves and our practices, and to look for the old paths, the revealed ways of “doing church” which God has spoken to us, as He did to Moses, and which He expects us to pursue if we would be truly free in Christ.

A too-small gospel
According to Alan Noble, we have been preaching a too small gospel, and offering a salvation far less potent and real than that which Jesus actually accomplished. Noble writes, echoing Schaeffer, that we have in our evangelism sought to accommodate the interests of the secular world, rather than to disrupt and overthrow them: “The desire to live a life of meaning and to have our being in the world justified is natural and good, but our goal is not to offer them just another vision of fullness to add to their options. A disruptive witness denies the entire contemporary project of treating faith as a preference.”[1]

Dr. Noble warns that the gospel we preach has become watered down by secular ideas and agendas, and is focused more on making people feel good than on getting them really and truly saved. We have adopted the methods and ends of secularism, all the while supposing we are following the teaching and example of Christ and the apostles: “I fear that by unknowingly accepting some of the premises of secularism (for example, presenting Christianity as the best lifestyle option) and uncritically embracing the technology of distraction, the American church will be unable to effectively compete in a marketplace of ideas in which Christian sexual ethics and traditional teachings are increasingly viewed as repugnant. Only a Christianity that is more than just another option on the market can retain its voice when its ethics become culturally offensive” (emphasis added). 

Jesus in not merely one way, part of the truth, and some of the life. The Gospel is not, in the first instance, about us, but about the Kingdom of God, and the coming eternal reign of King Jesus. And believing in Jesus is not some means of being able to say to ourselves over and over, “It’s gonna be OK. I’m OK.” The Gospel is the power of God for salvation. Jesus is the only hope of glory. And the life of following Jesus means shucking the ways of the world and taking up our cross daily in obedience to the Lord: “The church must embody the faith in such a way as to reveal its exclusivity, solemnity, transcendent power, incarnational theology, and authority. To accomplish this, we need to examine a host of practices, from how we read the Word during services to church signs and music. When our unbelieving neighbors see or visit our church, they should witness a spiritual gathering of saints worshiping a living and holy God.”

Our failure to proclaim the full and true Gospel, as revealed in the Word of God, has encouraged the world to make up or discover elsewhere its own best ideas about how to find the good life: “As Christianity has ceased to offer the vision of fullness shared by the vast majority of people in the West, in its place we find billions of micronarratives of fullness.”

In trying to reach such people, we have adopted the ways of the modern world, but “The rhythms and practices of our modern world militate against reflection”, and reflection is essential if people are going to escape their immanent framework and consider transcendent truths. Instead of mimicking our culture, we need to disrupt it by being more authentically and holistically Christian in our personal lives and our worship: “A disruptive witness denies the entire contemporary project of treating faith as a preference.” 

Recognizing our captivity
Alan Noble, Frank Viola, and George Barna call us to repent of every semblance and trapping of secular practice, all our attempts merely to make people feel good, and take up again the work of calling people to fear and worship the one, true God.

But until we recognize our captivity – the chains of secularism, technique, and narcissism that we drag around like old Marleys – we will not turn to the Lord, speaking to us from the mountain of His Word, to embrace a Gospel that is whole, exclusive, demanding, unyielding, and the only hope of forgiveness and life.

At the level of the church, we must abandon practices adopted from the secular marketplace that trivialize our faith, and instead return to traditional church practices that encourage contemplation and awe before a transcendent God.

  - Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness

T. M. Moore

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Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, quotes from Church fathers are from The Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).

[1]All quotes from Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition).

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT.
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