The following post recently appeared on a friend’s Facebook page.
You know it’s a ‘sign of the times’ when even the Highlands and Islands have churches that promote Joel Osteen. What a desperate state of affairs. Why is this trend happening? I’m not a prophet, or the son of a prophet, but I think years of harsh Presbyterianism has left the highlands and Islands spiritually dry, hard and indifferent. That is why the more popular, humanistic, messages like Osteen’s are thriving even in the reformed strongholds. There must be a better way. Why must it be dead religion, or pop-culture Christianity? Why not a theologically robust, Gospel-declaring, missionally orientated, Holy Spirit empowered reformed church? Let’s lift our standard higher.
It was a fascinating observation from someone who comes from a variety of backgrounds and whose insight and enthusiasm I appreciate. And like all good posts it got me thinking – and writing! As somebody who was brought up in the Highlands and who ministered in the wonderful village of Brora for six years and retains a deep interest in that most beautiful area of the world, an area that has experienced a spiritual beauty as well, let me make the following observations:
1) Legalism – It is too simplistic to suggest that it is years of harsh Presbyterianism which has left the Highlands and Islands spiritually dry, hard and indifferent. No one will deny that there is such a thing as harsh Presbyterianism, but don’t believe the caricature or stereotype. Much of the Presbyterianism I found in the Highlands was deep, personal, compassionate and spiritual. In fact the rest of the United Kingdom has a great deal to learn from Highland spirituality. Including how not to do it. Because of course whenever you have a work of the Lord, you will always find the false replicas of the devil, and the sinful strivings of even the holiest of saints. Spiritual pride, legalism and division have been particularly harmful. But don’t throw the baby with the bathwater! There are many other factors in the current spiritual dryness that exists in many, though not all, areas of the Highlands.
2) Division – many of us can tell stories of small villages with several churches whose doctrine and theology you could hardly separate with a pinhead. I remember one community of 800 people which had four Evangelical Presbyterian Churchs and a fishermen’s mission, each with their own buildings and minister. It was as sinful as it was ridiculous. But those days are largely long gone. The truth is that there is a dearth of ministers and viable churches in much of the Highlands. Ironically some of those who complain most about divisions in the church have created even more by setting up new ‘non-denominational’ churches. When I was minister in Brora between 1986 and 1992 there was basically the Free Church, the Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church. Today we still have those three, but we also have the Free Church (Continuing), an independent fellowship, and who knows, there may be yet be more. More churches/fellowships that is, not more Christians. In fact given that most people travel by car there are doubtless people criss-crossing communities all over the Highlands heading for the church that they feel called to, or that suits their particular taste.
3) Even in the Highlands – The reason for this post was my friends astonishment that one of these new independent churches in North Uist had posted on their Facebook page a Joel Osteen video. I think what slightly amused me was my friends astonishment that this should appear even in the Highlands and Islands. I’ve known for years that God TV and other forms of Christian media have become part of the staple diet of many Christians in the Highlands, including in the Free Church. It has ever been thus. Heresy impacts good churches as well. That’s why we need good teaching, and is why we can never rest on our laurels. If we are feeding our people the glorious feast of the word, they will have no appetite for the froth and trinkets of the spiritual fly by night charlatans who think that godliness is the means to financial gain.
The trouble here is not so much harsh legalism, but the pietism that often springs up as a reaction to it. Some people are easily taken in by the Angels of light who give Jesus talk along with nice smiles, entertaining stories and a sufficient amount of cultural critique which makes their listeners think that they are on the same side. And so when someone like yours truly warns about the false teaching of Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Copeland and Joyce Meyer, many people just assume that this is the equivalent of some kind of inter Presbyterian spat, and they want to cry a plague on both your houses! The trouble is that these tele-evangelists are not offering a different form of the gospel, they are offering a different gospel altogether.
4) Edgy? – Another friend (yes, I do have two!) posted on the same thread:
We have a proliferation of independent churches which are: inherently divisive, have no confessional identity, an antipathy towards thinking which has been filtered through over two millennia of robust thinking and will only last for a few years until individual and institutional boredom sets in.
… and they are so not edgy! There comes a time in life when you have to stop throwing frisbees.
This is spot on. Of course not every new church is bad, nor are all independent churches necessarily dysfunctional, any more than all Presbyterian churches are necessarily liberal or legalistic! We are fully supportive of the work of FIEC- and would encourage those of an independent persuasion to link and join with them. But I’m getting a little bit fed up of the self-styled cool, hip, happening, edgy ,‘we know how to connect with the culture’ churches. It reminds me of the family who visited us after the collapse of a particular ‘community’ church. What went wrong? “Oh, we were really good at community, we drank a lot of coffee, but we just forgot about the word…” Community is of course essential. But without the word you might as well join the atheist church! Community without Christ will always be superficial. Thinking that community is Christ will always lead to tension and heresy. Such a community will continually be driven to and fro by every wind of doctrine.
The Question – So let’s return to the original post and to a great question:
There must be a better way. Why must it be dead religion, or pop-culture Christianity? Why not a theologically robust, Gospel-declaring, missionally orientated, Holy Spirit empowered reformed church? Let’s lift our standard higher.
Theologically robust? Check.
Gospel declaring? Check. Although how can you be theologically robust without being gospel declaring?
Missionally orientated? What does that mean? I hate the word missional! For some reason I have this word association linking it with latte drinking! And it is superfluous to gospel declaring.
Holy Spirit empowered? Check. Although again if we are professing to be a new Testament church is there any other kind?
Reformed? Superfluous. If we are theologically robust then we are going to be reformed. Reformed is not a denominational label or a party label, it is another word for biblical theology.
I think my own way of putting it may be a little bit simplistic and naive, why can’t we just have biblical churches? Any biblical church is a radical church. By definition. I guess the words that are used need to be defined. But the trouble is most of the heretical churches I know would quite happily call themselves theologically robust, gospel declaring, missionary orientated, Holy Spirit empowered and even reformed! The labels don’t mean much if the content is rubbish. That’s why am glad I belong to a confessional church, where our doctrine is not decided by congregational meetings, or prophetic leaders, but is in line with the teaching and history of the church over centuries. Yes always reforming. Yes always open to change. Yes flexible at the edges. But always hard-core and solid when it comes to the basics of the gospel. Whatever the spirit of the age! And above all a church which stands upon the Bible and doesn’t buy in to the current cultural zeitgeist that is impossible to know what the Bible actually says or indeed to apply it as the authoritative, inspired and sufficient Word of God.
Perhaps those of us who would say Amen to all the above, and would describe ourselves as a biblical church, need to have a more biblical attitude of repentance. It is our lack of love, compassion, passion, unity and zeal, which have far too often made the phrase ‘biblical church’, seem like purgatory rather than a foretaste of heaven. Maybe we should take the beam out of our own eye, before we take the plank out of our brothers?!
The Marks of the Church
Perhaps the old Scottish Presbyterian marks of the church were not so far off the mark? Bible teaching, the administration of the sacraments, church discipline and fourthly, distribution (this being what we would call today mercy ministry).
Jean Darnell’s Prophecy
For decades I have heard the Jean Darnell prophecy from 1967, and its subsequent developments. In 1987, just one year after I began serving the Lord as a minister, she pronounced:
It’s here, folks, that spiritual awakening: it’s starting; the very first signs of it are already upon us. Your generation are going to see a harvest of souls in this land such as you have never seen before. And it’s going to have a tremendous effect not only upon this nation and the British Isles, but upon many other nations.
She was wrong. This has not happened. And yet in every generation along comes another Prophet, to tell us that the great revival is just around the corner. I don’t know. They don’t know. You don’t know. And we don’t need to know. The hidden things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children. Instead of speculating about what we do not know and being motivated by spiritual pep talks inspired at best by well-meaning individuals, we need to be motivated by who we do know, and what he tells us in his word. The Sunday morning I will be preaching on Isaiah 55:6-11. This is Gods commentary on what we need and what is happening.
Seek the LORD while he may be found;
call on him while he is near.
7 Let the wicked forsake their ways
and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the LORD.
9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
10 As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
12 You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.
13 Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper,
and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the LORD’S renown,
for an everlasting sign,
that will endure forever.”