According to recent reports, tweets on Twitter and status updates on Facebook you would think that the church in America is exploding. There are glowing self-reports of everything that the church in America is doing and all the success that it is experiencing. Mega-churches are becoming Giga-churches with the latest technology, state of the art auditoriums and satellite campuses. But something doesn’t seem right. An article this week in the Orlando Sentinel, my hometown paper, reported the numbers of the fastest growing congregations in the Orlando metro area. And what are they? What are the fastest growing congregations in Orlando? They are the Mormon temples and the Muslim mosques.
Now I’m not an expert as to why this is the case, but from my vantage point I have a couple simple observations. The Muslim mosques are growing fast due to the tremendous increase in immigration from Arab and Muslim countries and those giving it a try. The Mormon temples are growing more than likely due to their consistent and aggressive door to door evangelism. There is usually not a day that goes by that I do not see two young men in white dress shirts and black pants riding their bicycles down the street.
Meanwhile, while all of this happening, the churches are trying to entertain people into the pews with gimmicks and giveaways. Just a sampling of the mass mail efforts from churches in Orlando for Easter weekend services included opportunities to win iPads and experience Easter in 3D wonder with 3D glasses and everything. The problem with these strategies of filling the seats is that most people in Orlando who want an iPad already have one or something equivalent like a tablet or smartphone, and most people have already “experienced” the latest 3D movies and all of the 3D attractions here in Orlando, which is one of the entertainment capitals of the world.
So these people that have gadgets and access to some of the greatest entertainment and thrill rides in the world are lured into church to experience more entertainment and leave without having been given a spiritual meal from God’s Word.
Interestingly, I’ve been reading the book of Amos the last two days in my devotional time, and I came across a familiar verse and one that was not so familiar. The familiar one is Amos 8:11. In the midst of what seems like an unrelenting indictment of Israel’s idolatry and unfaithfulness, God declares that He will be sending a famine on the land.
“Behold, the days are coming,” says the Lord God,
“That I will send a famine on the land,
Not a famine of bread,
Nor a thirst for water,
But of hearing the words of the Lord.” - Amos 8:11 NKJV
I believe this famine has come to America. And it has come to the churches of America. Zechariah gave a woe to the idle or worthless shepherd who forsakes the flock. Isaiah the prophet meanwhile gives one of the most concise Pastoral theologies in one verse,
He will feed His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs with His arm, And carry them in His bosom, And gently lead those who are with young. Isaiah 40:11 NKJV
From this verse, we can see the calling of a true shepherd. The shepherd is to feed, gather, carry and lead his flock. One of the primary responsibilities of the shepherd is to feed the flock. A shepherd or pastor is called to feed the flock of God that Jesus has put in his care. The flock is not the pastor’s flock. It is the flock of God. And God wants “His” flock fed with His Word. The apostle Paul was able to tell the leaders of the Ephesian church that he was innocent of the blood of the men there in Ephesus because he had fed them all of the Word of God. (Acts 20:26-27) Joshua, after leading Israel to victory at Ai after the previous defeat at Ai, read every word of the Law of Moses to the people.
There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded which Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, with the women, the little ones, and the strangers who were living among them. Joshua 8:35 NKJV
One of the reports that I received was that a local pastor replaced his Easter message with a time of stand up comedy. So while the people need to be fed the Word of God, they are getting heavy doses of candy-coated entertainment. The people of God are literally dying spiritually from spiritual starvation. You might say, “well can’t people read the Word of God for themselves?” Yes, they can, but Jesus gave some special gifts to the body of Christ, the church for their edification, namely pastors and teachers. There is a difference from reading the Word devotionally and being taught the Word doctrinally.
I understand that one of the stages of starvation is atrophy of the stomach. Atrophy or wasting away of the stomach weakens the perception of hunger, since the perception is controlled by the percentage of the stomach that is empty. Victims of starvation are often too weak to sense hunger. I believe that this is the state of the American church. It is in the state of Atrophy. It cannot even perceive the hunger for God’s word any longer. And because of the lack of God’s Word in the system spiritually, the church has become anemic and weak. Meanwhile, the false shepherds are reporting that everything is alright.
God describes people that are in a dangerous position spiritually this way:
“You honor me with your lips, but your hearts are far from Me.” God said this in Isaiah’s time (Isaiah 29:13). And Jesus echoed this in Matthew 15:18.
With God having said that, you could say that one of the bright spots of the modern church is the focus and the flourishing of the modern worship movement. In many ways over the last decade, worship music has taken over the Christian music scene and nearly every church has a competent worship band. The modern worship scene has taken over in the void of Biblical preaching. Sometimes the strongest doctrine a church goer these days will be exposed to is the theology in a Chris Tomlin song before the rest of the entertainment and self-help psychology takes over. It is interesting that the other verse that stuck out to me in my reading of Amos this week is a verse on music. Apparently Israel while being completely unfaithful to the Lord had still offered sacrifices to the Lord. They offered the burnt sacrifice, the grain sacrifice and the peace sacrifice. God told them that He did not accept their sacrifices. There was something grievously wrong with their hearts. Then God says this:
Take away from Me the noise of your songs, For I will not hear the melody of your stringed instruments. Amos 5:23 NKJV
It is interesting to me that in the same passage God speaks of a famine of His Word on the land that He is also not interested in the songs of worship. In John chapter 4, Jesus met with a sinful woman at the well in Sychar and told her that God is looking for worshippers. But what type of worshippers? The world is full of “worshippers”. Just check out the next arena concert that comes to your town. No, God is looking for a specific type of worshipper. He is looking for those who will worship Him “in spirit and in truth”. God wants those who worship Him to worship in spirit and in truth. Yes we need to worship God with a passionate heart that truly loves God. That is worshipping in spirit. But we also need to worship in truth. And the only way we can do that is by having the truth of God’s Word as a priority in worship. My Senior Pastor in the Calvary Chapel movement, Pastor Chuck Smith, put it this way:
WE BELIEVE worship of God should be intelligent; therefore, our services are designed with great emphasis upon the teaching of the Word of God that He might instruct us on how He should be worshiped. - Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa - Pastor Chuck Smith
In other words, it can happen that we are worshipping in spirit but not in truth. We are worshipping with passion and excitement but we are missing a crucial element to true Christian worship - Truth!
This is not simply a critique of the current contemporary church but really a passionate call to pastors and churches to come back to the true calling of the church and to the true calling of a pastor. The apostle James cautions those who would be teachers and preachers that they would receive a stricter judgment (James 3:1). I think that this admonition is all but lost in the current dialogue. I pray for the church. I pray for the pastors of this nation today. Let us not lead the lukewarm church of Laodicea (Revelation 3:16). Let us lead the faithful church of Philadelphia, whom Jesus commended for having kept His Word! (Revelation 3:8)
By Charles Nestor II
Pastor - Calvary Chapel South Orlando