Why the System Isn’t Working
One reason I stopped regularly attending church was that my eyes were opened to how everything about the system, its history, hierarchy, order of worship, timed sermons, salaries, etc. were all working together to suppress the Spirit of God. This, in itself, is not why I stopped regularly attending. After all, BELIEVERS ARE the church, so it follows that if believers feel that the system they’ve adopted for their gatherings isn’t working, then BELIEVERS ARE responsible to make the necessary changes, right? I and others tried to take baby steps in the right direction at the First Baptist Church of Umatilla, and we were met with fierce opposition from people who were used to and comfortable with the way things have always been. That’s why I was so excited about leaving FBCU and starting a brand new church called NorthPointe Fellowship. It was a private joke among the staff that our motto ought to be, “NorthPointe Fellowship: We’re not like that.”
Looking back, I have to laugh at our naïvety, thinking that we were actually going to create a church where the Spirit of God was not systematically suppressed. It was doomed from the beginning for many reasons, but the foremost of those reasons is that we had a one-speaker/many-listeners set up. We had no idea that furniture arrangement could say so much about how we were expected to relate to one another. Frank Viola explains this phenomena in his book Pagan Christianity:
Go into any given church building and […] Ask yourself what objects are higher and which are lower. Ask yourself what is at the front and what is at the back. […] Ask yourself how easy or hard it would be for a church member to speak where he is seated so that all may see and hear him. […] This arrangement makes it nearly impossible for one worshipper to look into the face of another. Instead, it creates a sit-and-soak form of worship that turns functioning Christians into “pew potatoes.” To state it differently, the architecture emphasizes fellowship between God and His people via the pastor!
Once I discovered that NorthPointe Fellowship was quickly becoming a clone of FBCU, repeating the same mistakes, I took the same attitude that I did at FBCU, that is, BELIEVERS ARE the church, so it follows that if believers feel that the system they’ve adopted for their gatherings isn’t working, then BELIEVERS ARE responsible to make the necessary changes, right? But the system, brilliant in its dark and deceptive way, does not permit change. I say that it is brilliant in a dark and deceptive way because, by appearances only, it changes all the time. New styles of worship music. Dressing up or dressing down. Co-pastors or guest speakers. Testimonial Sunday. Children’s church invades big church and takes over. Meet in a park. But the basic model that does not change is that the big-mouth/pastor/authority/few dictate what the big-ear/congregation/submissive/many may believe and teach. In this kind of system, believers are UNABLE to make the necessary changes.
A well-intended but terribly misguided woman at NPF actually told me, “You are no longer welcome here.” When I told her that she didn’t have the power to kick people out of the church, she said, “I will oppose you in every way I possibly can.” Her opposition was effective, to say the least. One by one, people who I had known and trusted as friends for over a decade approached me to tell me that they wanted to have nothing to do with me. They used her same language and mannerisms. When I realized that the spiritual bullying was only going to get worse and that no one was going to do anything to address the situation, I left. Really, I had no choice but to leave, because every Sunday afternoon and evening felt like I was recovering from assault. I should have felt defeated and depressed, but instead, I felt relieved. I had no idea how God was going to fix the system, but I knew that He wasn’t expecting me to keep on staying there and trying.
Fast forward six months or so. I posted a video on youtube called Jesus Saves Everyone. After I left the system, I recognized more and more each day that God was so much bigger than the system. My belief that God would fix the system was evolving and growing – yes, He would fix the system, but not in the way I expected He would. God’s way of fixing is different than the human way of fixing. Just a casual glance at the cross should be enough to establish that God’s victory comes by way of defeat, humility, and death. The system gave me a title, “prophet,” and God did not act in my behalf when the system decided to remove that title. The system gave me a career, “administrative assistant to the pastor,” and God did not act in my behalf when the system fired me. The system gave me a position, “worship leader,” and God did not act in my behalf when the system refused to let me hold a microphone. The system gave me a social standing, “trusted friend,” and God did not act in my behalf when the system gave me a new social standing of contempt, “liar, wolf in sheep’s clothing, heretic.” In the eyes of the system, I am defeated, humiliated, and dead in my spiritual walk.
But Jesus did not remain in the grave. He did not experience decay. God demonstrated His power in that Jesus got up and walked out of the tomb, alive. Death was defeated by way of death. And Jesus invites all believers to participate with Him in His death and resurrection. We don’t get to take part in His resurrection without first taking part in His death. Throughout history, most believers have only been willing to participate in His death to a certain extent. For all intents and purposes, they’ve gone to the Garden of Gethsemane, but they haven’t been to that lonely place Jesus went. Jesus said, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” He fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Most believers, instead of falling to the ground as they face the prospect of dying to all their spiritual comforts, their spiritual titles, their spiritual careers, their spiritual positions, and their spiritual social standings – they’ve fallen in a different way, that is, fallen asleep, “because their eyes were heavy.” And if they begin to awaken, their knee-jerk reaction is to draw their swords, even though Jesus said, “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”
What You Can Do to Fix the System
Nothing. There is nothing you can do to fix the system. It is set up in such a way that anyone who tries to fix the system is at best misunderstood and dismissed, at worst, demonized and outcast (supposedly in tough love).
The system Jesus put in place looks nothing like the system believers have adopted from pagan predecessors. Jesus’s church building is made of people, not bricks and paint and carpet. “God… does not live in temples built by hands.” (Acts 17:24) What is said from a stage or behind a pulpit should be scrutinized and automatically suspect, because it comes from people who behave in this way: “Everything they do is done for people to see… they love the place of honor… and the most important seats in the [churches]; they love to be greeted with respect… and to be called [Pastor] by others.” (Matthew 23:5-7) Jesus’s church places importance on what is being said among the congregation: “you are not to be called [Pastor] for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers… you have one Instructor, the Messiah… For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
The system basically ignores the idea that every believer in the body has a voice and Christ is the head. They might cite Sunday School or small groups as the time and place where every believer is given a voice, but because the of the emphasis the system places on the Sunday morning sermon and pastor(s) views, everything that is said in a Sunday School class or small group is tested against the wrong “head”. The head is not the Sunday morning sermon and pastor(s) views, the head is Jesus Christ. Take Ephesians 4, for instance. Notice how it is assumed that believers all don’t just sit and listen on Sunday mornings. They are involved in each other’s normal day-to-day responsibilities, getting along, pissing each other off, figuring out how to relate – this is REAL communication! Notice that the believers are not pre-approved and perfect leaders, they are liars, hot-heads, thieves, lazy people, and potty mouths. When each of them are called to minister, it is understood that they are called as real, fallible people. The body of Christ matures through one-on-one interaction, where everyone talks and everyone listens, and Christ is the head. It is in the “one another-ing” that we learn how to love as God loves. Ephesians 4:25-32:
Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for WE ARE ALL MEMBERS OF ONE BODY. In your anger do not sin… Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Here’s what it would look like if you actually tried to fix the system, from within the system. You suggest at the next church business meeting that everyone should have a chance to preach on Sunday morning, even the liars, hot-heads, thieves, lazy people, and potty mouths. You tell them to allow an opportunity for listeners to offer opposition and rebuttal. The pastor-head doesn’t get to wrap up the morning with his almighty opinion of what comes from God and what doesn’t, because you all are going to trust the Holy Spirit to reveal to each person what is good and right. In fact, there should no longer even be a pastor. And while you are at it, get rid of the building. Just cram as many people as you can into the living rooms of anyone willing to open their homes. At the end of the service give an opportunity for everyone to forgive each other for the bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander, and every form of malice that surfaced during the service. Agree that Christ is the head, and continue your communications throughout the week on Facebook, text messages, and phone calls. And stop calling it a service. Call it a powwow or a get-together, but get rid of the churchy words like service and Sunday School and the like. You’ve tried to fix the system from within. Here’s the response – everyone at the church business meeting looks at you like you are crazy, and they burst into roaring laughter. The pastor will thank you for your suggestion and ask you to be seated, or perhaps he will have you escorted from the meeting. The people who want to be kind will pretend they don’t understand or dismiss you as a soft-hearted dreamer. The people who want to murder you will make sure everyone knows how dangerous you are to the system. Some people will be a little of both extremes. No one will take you seriously. The end.
The bottom line is, don’t try to fix the system that you are in, but enter into the system of Christ. It is called the Reign of God/Heaven or the Kingdom of God/Heaven. It is not a broken system, but it appears to be, when it is viewed through the lens of traditional thinking. Jesus said, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.” In human terms, a system that works is a system that can be clearly defined and is easily identifiable. A church is easy – there’s a website with the statement of faith, a list of activities, the names of people in charge, what to expect, where to go, etc. The Reign of God is not so easy to define, because it can’t be contained within boundaries. Or, perhaps it is just the opposite. It is too easy to define, because the Reign of God can’t be contained within boundaries. I guess it depends on your perspective. It’ll either scare the hell out of you, because you can’t control it, or it will make you want to throw a party, because God is in control.
What the System Does
This blog is part one of two blogs inspired by a sermon called “Barbie God” by Pastor Scott Wiens. Usually, when I quote verbal or written messages by people who believe in eternal torment, these people accuse me of taking their words out of context. Since I will quote from “Barbie God” throughout the next blog, I encourage you to click here and listen to the message in its entirety. That way you can be a fair judge of whether I have taken Scott’s words out of context.
The next blog (here is the link) will demonstrate how today’s religious system is the modern day version of the Pharisaical system, as is evidenced by the content of Scott’s sermon. I will also encourage people (within the system or outside of it) by demonstrating how the almighty power of God completely transcends the system. I will also offer some practical perspective about how much power the system actually has over us compared to how much power we have over the system in Christ Jesus.
Comments from members of First Baptist Church of Umatilla, former members of NorthPointe Fellowship, and current members of the The Church at Whistling Pines are especially welcomed, because God knows, you don’t have the power to stand up and speak your mind on Sunday morning.