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For example, we visit the Garden of Gethsemane and walk amongst the olive trees that are old enough to have witnessed Jesus' prayer and betrayal. We also hire a private garden where we can take communion together and spend time alone in prayer. So thank you for helping. They have certainly found a way to make people feel good in a pleasant club atmosphere and the God who wants to serve you will make everything about your life really successful The super-nice church has arrived: any kind of jarring influence is removed from the service, like the Gospel for example.
It is not about our doing something in response to what God has done, like repenting, for example, it is about "being", joining in with our group and being nice to everybody. The service is more in the nature of a floor show than a real worship session - the whole thing backed by continuous soothing music - the tones of the preacher have much more in common with those of a hypnotist than a revivalist preacher like Billy Graham.
The entire programme is designed to please the consumer - and those in the congregation become consumers. Participation takes the form of being a good consumer, joining the club. It seems to me that some of these features may tempt some of our Church leaders to move in this direction. What we regard as "success" becomes confused when certain courses of action lead to larger numbers of people attending our church, effectively voting with their feet and accepting the much lower demands made on them. It becomes easier to understand why so many of our leaders are willing to compromise with the world on quite serious matters of morality, for example.
Seeker-friendly messages which leave out the offence of the cross are likely to lead to larger numbers in our group, but not necessarily bring them to Biblical faith. These sort of fellowships are in fact exceptionally successful businesses.
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I happen to know one of them quite well. Even with a congregation of 6, the building is one of the largest Church buildings in the United States - a Mega church in every sense of the word.
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There is a large book stall open every day, together with several large creches which care for toddlers for working mothers, a Primary school, two Bible colleges, two huge auditoriums, and various facilities used by a number of local social clubs for their activities. Going to this Church is a wonderful experience: the back-drop is impressive, with a stage set of Biblical street scenes provided each month by the Disney Corporation two articulated trucks are housed in garages either side of the stage out of sight, where they can be loaded and unloaded conveniently.
In this particular Church, Bible teaching is of a very high standard and the eldership exercises strict control of every activity. Employees are expected to be at their desks , which restricts activity outside the Church building.
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Other Mega churches are maybe not quite so fortunate and tend more towards being social clubs - several have Starbucks cafes open all day long on the premises with gymnasiums, swimming pools, singles clubs, old people's socials, and generally mirror the tendency to do everything big, seen everywhere in the newest American Malls.
Many of these Mega churches are far more influenced by the principles of sociology than any Biblical imperative. One Pastor reports that on any day you go to his church, there will be 1, people having cook-outs, playing baseball, fishing, walking, enjoying the nature trails - this kind of church concept is spreading very rapidly and is becoming the dominant social force in middle class suburbia in the USA.
Indeed the Mega church's approach to social issues can often influence the agenda of an entire community. It is a kind of religious Walmart. The policy will often be to avoid taking a position on controversial issues such as abortion, gay rights, creation, Darwinism, various moral issues. The policy seems to be guided by a desire to avoid any kind of offence to anyone. The Hartford Institute for Religious Research says. It is not something that looks anything like your parents' faith, they are tapping into the 'Bigger is Better' Mall-like mentality of America, and it is not going to go away any time soon.
Sometimes the historicity of Scripture is an issue which drives humanistic tendencies in the modern church. My daughter was astonished on attending Bristol Cathedral at Christmas to be told that "The Christmas stories do not pretend to be history as we know it. They are stories designed to convey religious truth. Tom Wright in his books on the New Testament refers to statements like that as the result of historians breaking every single rule of historical analysis!
He says that what made Judaism and Christianity so different to anything else in the ancient world was the fact that their Scriptures spoke of a God active in human history and whose Scriptures are accurate reports of historic events. Clearly the writers of the Cathedral service sheet had no knowledge at all of the Magi or who they were, of the shepherds or what they did for a living and why, or even why Joseph and Mary took such tremendous trouble to be in Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus at about the worst possible time for their family. Tom Wright, in his book "The Resurrection of the Son of God", gives a detailed analysis of the events surrounding the Easter story.
Judging by what he says, few believers have much idea of the enormity and uniqueness of the resurrection of Jesus, or of what it means today. The upshot of all this is a deep sense of dissatisfaction with what the church is teaching, in the hearts of the spiritually awake, hungry for spiritual fulfillment and "renewal".
Articles in the secular press highlight the alarming decline of traditional religion and the spectacular ascendancy of "designer spiritualism". All kinds of spiritualist cults are growing; these can be based on the Kabbalah, a kind of philosophical cult in Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and ancient therapies such as Reiki and Crystal healing. We are living in a multicultural pluralistic society featuring illiteracy in Christianity, but we have not lost our desire for spiritual fulfillment.
The mass appeal of some of these philosophies has taken the place of the hippie trail East to Nepal in search of The Truth. We no longer have to go abroad, it's all in our local village hall Yoga centre or possibly even our gym. Many Westerners, particularly women, will master Buddhist chanting in a meditation class, learn about ancient Hindu philosophies during a Yoga class, light an aroma-therapy candle, and say a prayer to some nameless god, in search of inner peace and physical well being.
In fact the largest churches tend to be eclectic, where most of the congregation come from elsewhere.
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Three of the most successful churches in England, All Souls Langham Place John Stott's church where I myself became a believer in , Holy Trinity Brompton, which now has a worldwide ministry with its various training programmes, and Christchurch Clifton, here in Bristol, are all eclectic churches. They represent the highly effective face of Anglican evangelicalism today. However, Paul Berg, retired Rector of Christchurch, three of whose curates were to become Bishops, and a great friend to me over many years, really did not see the work of the church as extending outwards by proclamation evangelism to the wider community in Bristol.
He saw evangelism as the means of introducing someone to his fellowship, not someone else's. His question was always "Korky, how many have you brought into my fellowship this month?
Ed Reis, one of the senior evangelists with The Navigators in Ohio, told me recently that one of the local Baptist churches had stopped his support because he was working to win converts who went to another Baptist church the other side of town. The whole concept of the missionary movement in seeking to win converts to the Kingdom of God has now been lost at local level - someone we know from our fellowship who has gone on the mission field will attract some support from those who know them in the fellowship, but by and large the fellowship as a whole will raise only a couple of thousand pounds a year.
There are of course exceptions to this and Kensington Baptist Church in Bristol has a wonderful record of supporting missionary couples, and over the last years has generally provided for between 15 and 17 couples. It is only those with a vision for all the people groups beyond the reach of the local church in their local community who are likely to understand that proclamation of the Christian message is the only way a breakthrough can be made. No attempt is being made in our Training colleges to equip students with the skills necessary for this kind of ministry and most ministers become so completely convinced by the evident logic of the teachings of the church growth movement as to discount the proclamation of the Gospel as a serious means of reaching the lost.
Sometimes OAC evangelists working in countries like France find street preaching such a tough proposition that they are drawn into little local French fellowships where twenty believers can be won in twenty-five years. The rough and tumble of presenting the Gospel out on the street to large numbers of people is a draining experience but it is how the Scriptures describe we should present the Gospel to the lost.
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Sometimes I meet people in front line ministry without formal training in street preaching, who allude to the fact that the people they are preaching to simply do not understand that they are sinners, and do not accept the whole concept of sin being a barrier between us and a relationship with a Holy God. Their experience of quasi-Christian national institutional churches where these issues are papered over in their religious cult practices innoculate them against seeing a need for reconciliation with God, and so heavily innoculated as they are, it is extremely difficult for them to catch real live Christianity.
Surely the response of the preacher should be to find a way of presenting the Gospel in a relevant way, making it understandable, rather than to emasculate the entire message by leaving out the key elements to make what is left acceptable and "seeker-friendly"? It is increasingly clear that proclamation evangelism is so low on the list of priorities in the modern Church as to make it extremely difficult for those with such a local ministry to survive.
Deliberately marginalised as irrelevant, the evangelist and the Gospel message will need to find new ways to survive. The evangelist must stand on his or her own feet financially, encourage their own prayer support group, and gain most team members and trainees while out doing the work, when potential trainees can see the role model that inspires them into action, and receive their call from God to this pattern of ministry. The evangelist can no longer function as a recognised part of the local fellowship leadership team as envisaged in Paul's instructions regarding church management.
The evangelist wishing to survive in the real world needs to have a regular local ministry pattern, and to be able to minister as a professional with his or her own dedicated management team. There are so few parish evangelists that they did not even rate a "tick this box" category in the Christian Research survey of church staff or positions held, a few years ago. As the huge and widespread local shopping Malls fill up with thousands of people on Sunday mornings, and fewer and fewer people find themselves in church, the relevant ministries are those able to function where the people are.
It is interesting that this initiative should come from business rather than the church. The Salvation Army have found an opening in offering a Sunday School children's hour, within the shopping mall area, providing parents with a free hour to shop while their children are looked after. The initiative for our schools ministry, which inspires substantial numbers of the Christian education team to go into their local schools, came from school teachers themselves - it was not an approach from us.
Teachers perceive the need to educate young people in Christian faith and life and they insist on the highest standards - it will be increasingly difficult to find people in our congregations with the motivation for this kind of work, and the commitment required to achieve an acceptable standard of skill, as the church moves into being a body of consumers. Lots of people have gone through our training programme here in Bristol to various levels of competence, and a number have gone overseas and established national ministries.
These tend to take slightly different patterns as situations in different countries vary, but most of those we train are able to see these different situations as opportunities rather than problems and their training has instilled what I regard as quite a unique level of adaptability. Most have been very successful in presenting the Gospel to large numbers of people.
Always the measure of success is our effectiveness in engaging with the hearts and minds of those we are addressing, not in the number of converts, because in Scripture we find that the evangelist is a teacher of God's message rather than a reaper of souls. In three cases Colombia, Albania and Holland our local ministry has led to the establishment of a number of churches, as that has been the need in those particular areas.
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