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Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Protestant church idols? Naa.....

Churches and idols
While pondering personal idols, I have begun pondering church idols. Protestant churches don't have idols do they? The evangelical community? Pastors? Surely not!

Oh yes they can!

Some years ago Os Guiness and John Seel wrote a book "No God but God" designed to expose how the idols of our age had infiltrated the church. They found some idols and then some more. I wonder how well the book sold - perhaps the real question is how well the book was read (this can be called the Hawking Question: lots of people bought A brief History of Time, I have met few who actually read it). Here are four of the idols I have found in the conservative evangelical churches I have served in and loved.....

"This is the way we have always done things...."
This is a universal idol, I know, and we are surprised perhaps to find it in Bible believing churches, but the traditional impulse is surprisingly just as strong here as anywhere else. As a result, nothing can be changed, from format of worship, to new forms of evangelism, to new patterns of leadership.... Result? Instead of being the living organism a church is likened to (a body, the body of Christ, no less), it traditionalises and fossilises into an institution, incapable of any change.

"Celebrity Culture"
A second common idol is celebrity culture. This is the worship of leaders who have carved out a reputation either by speaking, writing books, playing in famous bands or pastoring large churches. We thank God for godly leaders and recognise those whom God has gifted with extraordinary gifts. That's not celebrity culture. Celebrity culture is when the church apes the celeb community: for example when it holds a public event it feels pressure to get in the latest author, singer, writer and whatnot on the Christian celebrity circuit to make the event worthwhile. Where in Scripture does popularity or fame equate with usefulness or godliness in the kingdom of God?

"Climbing the corporate ladder"
This is a third idol that plagues pastors in particular who view the ministry much as a business man might view the world of commerce - as a ladder to climb. How do they do this? Well you have to write books, get a big church and get yourself known as the founder of this or that. You would be amazed at how many pastors and Christian leaders think that the way up in the kingdom of God follows the same contours as success does in the world. Actually true greatness comes from descending rather than ascending. It comes, as it did for Jesus, John the Baptist, Paul and every true follower of Jesus in becoming the servant of all, and in so doing being despised and rejected by men.

A fourth idol found in the conservative evangelical world is the church aping the world when it comes to training its workers. For one thing we stick them in  lecture theatres rather than sending them to needy towns and villages. And then we ape the foolish scholarly traditions of the university. I recently came across a lecturer who stated that his present interest was "the relationship between eschatology and missiology. I am also fascinated by Johannine theology and the interaction between theology and culture." Now can you imagine Jesus sitting down with his disciples or Paul teaching trainee pastor Timothy this kind of stuff? "Thomas, I want you to spend the next three years exploring the relationship between eschatology and missiology!" Or Paul to Timothy, "Timothy my son, what you need to get to grips with this year is Johannine theology. Find out who the authors of the Johanine literature are and write me a 2000 word essay!" (Yes I know the 'Johanine literature' was probably written later than Timothy's time...). How did Jesus teach his disciples? How did Paul teach Timothy? It's there in the New Testament, but we are so shaped by the schoolroom we instinctively follow it rather than following Scripture. Then we are surprised when the preachers who emerge from this sausage machine have little more life in them than you'd expect from a production line. 

I am not arguing against the deep study of Scripture. I am arguing that we must shift our emphases in training to the priorities of the New Testament - we need to prize, faith, courage, love, character, servanthood more than knowledge.

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