Saturday, February 26, 2005
I had taken time to visit my sister last week thinking it would be nice to take a week off and be on the receiving end of some preaching for a change. And it probably would have been if I had. Instead, I went to church with her and her husband who claim to be good Pharisees. After last Sunday’s service, I’m convinced they are Pharisee in name only since there wasn’t any preaching that I could tell. The first thing I noticed when I went into their “church” was that the foyer was enormous and looked more like a lounge than a church entrance. Instead of a tiny vestibule with a rack of tracts, a map with missionary prayer cards and a coat rack like my church, they had an “Information Center” that looked like an airline counter. Smiling staff with name badges greeted folks as they came in. There were books, tapes and Bibles on display (most of which were in some modern per-version) and a stack of brochures about the church. Flanking the greeters at either end of the counter were huge coffee pots and trays of doughnuts, cookies and other snacks. The foyer was crowded with people chatting, drinking coffee and either standing or sitting in the plush sofas, chairs and recliners. My sister explained that since they had gone to two services, they used the time in between for people who might not otherwise see each other to mingle and fellowship. Since I was the only one in a suit and tie, I felt out of place and thought it better to head directly into the sanctuary.
From there things just got worse. The sanctuary was so dark I felt like I was in a movie theater (not that I would know what they are like since I don’t go to movies but I’ve heard what other people say about them) instead of a church. The only illumination came from candles that were shining at various “stations” as they were called. These were tables set up with large posters or other displays that highlighted some sort of devotional topic. Each station had poems or quotes on display and had books open that “worshippers” could use to jot their thoughts or prayers. There were a number of people gathered around them, writing in the journals, lighting candles, praying or reading the quotes. If you ask me, it was all a little eerie. I went with my sister and her family to sit midway between the entrance and the stage – and I do mean stage since it had no resemblance whatsoever to a church – where we listened to two guys with guitars strum some quiet tunes I didn’t recognize under dim stage lighting. After a while the place filled up and they had a “service” of some sort. I guess. I know I didn’t recognize it as anything I’ve ever experienced before.
They started with a responsive reading from the Psalms with the words projected on a big screen. This was followed by thirty minutes of singing where the words on the screen changed once. It wasn’t really thirty minutes but it seemed like we sang the same words so many times it became meaningless mumbo jumbo. Eventually the singing gave way to playing by the “Praise Team” of some additional musicians who were joined by singers. Not one single song was godly as they sang only contemporary Christian music. Eventually the musicians quit and then they had a bunch of people come up and enact some sort of drama that went completely over my head. Finally the preacher stood up after the applause (which has no place in a godly church anyway) and had what I can only call as a talk. There was no podium, no pulpit desk, no yelling or pounding so, to my way of thinking, there was no preaching. I thanked my sister for taking me with her to church but I will make sure that I am never caught there on a Sunday morning again.
My experience heightened my awareness of the decline of preaching in our churches today. I’m not the only one who feels this way. Al Mohler wrote on “The need for biblical preaching” in the BP News this past week echoing many of my very own concerns. When I shared the article with my brother-in-law by e-mail his response was a little less than charitable. “Of course you are going to defend the primacy of preaching,” he wrote. “As a paid, professional pulpiteer that’s all you do.” I take great exception to this. Preaching is not “all I do.” First of all I spend up to six hours a day in intensive study preparing for the sermons I preach. He has no idea how much work goes into preaching a sermon. I have to search all of the main preacher web sites for sermon ideas. Then I have to find sermon illustrations from the myriad topics to go with the ideas. I find outlines to go with the messages and then the hard work begins. I research all my online commentaries, Bible study sites and even news stories to keep the message relevant. Sermon preparation is grueling work and best left to professionals.
He then went on to tell me that it’s hard for him to take my defense of preaching seriously since that is how I derive my living. He equated it to asking a barber if he needed a haircut – of course the barber is going to say you need one. We then began a rather fiery exchange back and forth that may have ultimately failed to convince him of the rightness of my position. I told him that all the great Puritans emphasized the importance of preaching and he shot back that they emphasized an “experimental faith” that complemented their preaching. When I said that they were not conducting experiments in faith but knew what they were talking about, he replied that I misunderstood the word. He said that they emphasized practical application rather than mere doctrinal disputation as I did.
I shot back that expository preaching was the foundation of sound Biblical sermonizing, that sound preachers should let the text set the agenda instead of responding to “felt needs” of the listeners. He said there wasn’t a single sermon in the Bible that was based on a verse-by-verse exposition of a text. He even went so far as to say, “Show me ONE SINGLE SERMON in the Bible where this is the case – where the text set the agenda. At best, sermons and letters quote Old Testament texts, but there is not one single incidence that I can find of an "expository" sermon in the Bible. One of the most famous sermons in the Bible in Acts 17 not only cites NO BIBLICAL TEXTS AT ALL but quotes from a heathen Greek poet instead.” As you can tell, he gets rather excitable in his posts.
When I countered that sermons were our primary means of evangelism and reaching out to sinners, he got sarcastic and wrote, “Fortunately, sinners aren't your problem. They rarely come to your church and if they do, they are generally unwelcome. They dress poorly, smell funny, talk rudely or may even be GLBTs and you really don't want them there. This is my point. If the gospel is so important, then why aren't you taking it out to the lost instead of expecting them to come in and wade past a gauntlet of ‘holier-than-thous’ to get it in an environment totally alien to them? If they don't know what theirdeepest need is and we don't GO tell them, then how is your preaching going to effect any meaningful change?” He then went on to say, “One of the things we NEVER see in the Bible is an evangelistic effort that involves inviting people to "come to church" and hear a sermon. This is a thoroughly modern invention and is nowhere practiced or admonished in scripture. So you are barking up the wrong tree.”
At this point I broke off our exchange because he couldn’t see the point that I was trying to make. The single most important thing I do is preach the gospel. It doesn’t matter if I only preach it to people who are already saved or if the lost never come in to hear it or if I never take it outside the four walls of our church. The important point is, I preach it and it is available to them to come hear it any time they want. Jesus may stand outside the door and knock but they can come in and hear me preach – as long as they dress respectably, sit quietly, don’t make a fuss or draw attention to themselves and are willing to do things our way – to hear about the unconditional love of Christ.
“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:
‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
Their teachings are but rules taught by men.’”
Matthew 15:7-9 (NIV)
Saturday, February 19, 2005
There is a disturbing trend that is at work among Christianity today that threatens to undermine the very foundations of Pharisee religious experience. Some of you see threats in the Culture around us. Others see threats from within. Today I would like to warn you of a threat from without that is far more insidious than any I’ve ever yet encountered. We know that Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light and that if it were possible, he would deceive the very elect. As a member of God’s elect, I want to reassure you that I have not been deceived by that old serpent’s latest attempt to worm his way into our Pharisee churches. Satan, knowing that religion is a cloak in which to hide himself, often assumes the guise of spirituality in order to deceive the weak. Many people are easily fooled and led away by his tricks. Fortunately for you, I am here to warn you of his snares and expose his latest trick. It is the increasing use of “spiritual directors” by otherwise biblical Pharisees.
Spiritual directors and spiritual direction is a quiet but rising force, all the more insidious because those most likely to be drawn into this web of error and apostasy are pastors themselves. One of the reasons that pastors are most vulnerable to the siren song of spiritual direction is because they spend their days and nights providing direction and guidance to the flock over which God has made them overseer. This can quickly become an emotionally draining activity that taxes the spiritual fortitude of even the best pastor. One of the reasons I do not succumb to these demands is because I do not have a large congregation and nearly everyone that attends my church is a mature Christian who needs very little guidance in spirituality. Instead, they need me to warn them about threats from the outside. This is why most of my ministry is dedicated to exposing the errors of others.
You may wonder what is so dangerous about spiritual directors and what is wrong with them. Allow me to expose their errors for you. First of all, most spiritual directors are of the catholic persuasion. There may be a few Protestants who advocate spiritual direction but most are catholic. Some are Roman Catholic. Others are Anglican or Eastern Orthodox. All of them represent the insidious influence of Catholicism. As we know, Catholics of all stripes avoid truths that the rest of Christianity holds dear. I have had people convince me that just because Catholics believe such things as the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, original sin and other doctrines they have at least some truth. Well, they may give lip-service to such but they don’t really hold the truth the way us Pharisees do. By mixing it with even the tiniest bit of error, they destroy the whole thing and even if they were 99 and 44/100% pure, that extra .56% of error would be enough to consign them to apostasy. Only 100% purity as practiced by us Pharisees is good enough for God.
Beyond their association with Catholics and error, Spiritual directors often hold radical notions such as nonviolence and even a “Network for Good” as if doing good has any place in true Christianity. We all know that Christians should be characterized by a deep and abiding faith instead of an outward show of good works. Most of what you read about spiritual directors and spiritual direction is vague and ephemeral. They talk about prayer as some sort of communion with the Divine when really it is a shopping list for getting our wants and needs answered. They describe meditation and contemplation as some sort of virtue or means to promote mysticism in the Christian experience. All good Christians know that there is nothing mystical about Christianity and to explore the “mysteries” of God will only lead to error. God is easily explained and understood by the systematic theology we preach and teach in our Pharisee churches. Every question has a simple, clear, easy to understand answer that can be demonstrated through the skillful use of proof texts. The only “mystery” I see is how people go in for this stuff.
Let me conclude by saying that people who need spiritual direction need look no further than the pulpit of their local Pharisee church. Pharisee pastors are exemplars of spiritual devotion, piety and holiness. If one would simply emulate our stern resolve to remain unspotted from the world and dedication to our Christian sub-culture, they would never be plagued by the nagging doubts or sense of “wanting something more” from their spiritual experience. If you want more, just order my sermon CDs on the dangers of spiritual directors.
“Be careful,” Jesus said to them, “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”…Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Matthew 16:6, 12 (NIV)