For the past decade, “How Great Is Our God” has been one of the most popular worship songs in the United States.
The song’s success helped to make Chris Tomlin the world’s top worship leader, and turned his co-writer Ed Cash into one of the most sought-after Christian music producers in Nashville.
It also helped launch what former members are calling a cult.
-Bob Smietana, December 14, 2015
“I Am Called a Cult Leader. I Really Don’t Care”
I recently heard a pastor of a large American church say matter-of-factly that the average person in his church attended one out of three Sundays. Sadly, he wasn’t saying it was a problem. He was simply making an observation.
It’s an observation that stands in stark contrast to the admonition in Hebrews 10:24-25: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
You may be wondering what these two stories have to do with one another. The former (a very long but worthwhile article) describes what most of us would call a “cult,” a domineering religious community run by a single individual who allegedly demands absolute control over his followers’ lives, and the latter, espousing the value in believers regularly gathering with one another to worship God and for mutual edification.
I recently wrote about the good and the bad of religious community. Actually, that blog post was mainly about the bad. The first story about Wayne “Pops” Jolley, “a prosperity gospel preacher with a history of alleged spiritual and sexual abuse,” and sole owner/operator of The Gathering International, is much, much (allegedly) worse than the two Pastors I described in my previous write-up.
He’s (allegedly) a monster and, if the facts in the story are accurate, he should be in prison.
In reading that story, I found myself amazed that anyone would fall for Jolley’s lines and allow themselves to come under his control. The first “red alert” should go off for any Christian right here (on page 2 of the 10 page “Christianity Today” article):
Jolley’s followers are asked to make a lifelong covenant with him and God, where they pledge their obedience and financial support to him as their spiritual father. In exchange, he pledges to pass on God’s messages and blessings. (emph. mine)
Lifelong commitment to God I can understand, but lifelong commitment to obey and throw money at Jolley in exchange for him passing along what God has to say and His blessings to me? That’s outrageous.
There’s a popular meme I sometimes see on Facebook: “Jesus didn’t say ‘follow Christians’ He said ‘follow me’.”
You can click the link I posted above to read all about what “Christianity Today” has to say about Jolley and find out why he (allegedly) makes my skin crawl.
The flip side is the small article written by Bob Kauflin, and which probably leverages content from his book Worship Matters: Leading Others to Encounter the Greatness of God.
The blurb on the book’s Amazon.com page says in part:
Nothing is more essential than knowing how to worship the God who created us. This book focuses readers on the essentials of God-honoring worship, combining biblical foundations with practical application in a way that works in the real world. The author, a pastor and noted songwriter, skillfully instructs pastors, musicians, and church leaders so that they can root their congregational worship in unchanging scriptural principles, not divisive cultural trends.
I especially took note of the line, “can root their congregational worship in unchanging scriptural principles…” True, a lot of churches are very “program” oriented and seem to be searching for ever more ways to make going to church “popular” if not a thrill-a-minute, but I react to the phrase “unchanging scriptural principles” as written by a Christian, the same way as I do to “sound doctrine”. What you believe the Bible says depends a great deal on your interpretive traditions rather than (necessarily) on objective analysis.
I know that probably sounds harsh, but then again, I’ve participated in the eisegesis wars more than once.
And while I don’t doubt that Kauflin is a good, sincere, devoted, and compassionate disciple of Jesus, he definitely is writing from a highly specific point of view; a very traditionally Evangelical Christian point of view.
You can read his eight reasons why Church attendance isn’t optional by clicking this link. I’ll present my responses here.
1. Jesus came to save a people, not random individuals.
Well, sort of. Jesus came (it’s a lot more complicated than a simple Christian understanding of the purpose of Christ relates) for the “lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 15:24) to call them to repentance because of the “nearness” of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 4:17).
To expand on this a bit, he came at that place and that time to show Israel (the Jewish people) that God’s New Covenant promises (Jeremiah 31; Ezekiel 36) were indeed going to come true. He did this by being a living (and dying and then living again) example of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:13:17), the forgiveness of sins (Romans 11:25-27), and the resurrection (Colossians 1:18).
Bottom line, Jesus came to herald the emergence of the Messianic Kingdom into our world, dramatically unveiling the redemption of all of Israel. He didn’t so much talk about the rest of the world. Of course, post-ascension, he commissioned Paul with that task (Acts 9).
That means the reason Jesus came had little or nothing to do with going to church each week. That said, in late second Temple Israel, there were the moadim or the times when Israel was to gather in Jerusalem (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and so on), there were specific occasions for offering additional korban at the Temple, and Jews regularly prayed and studied at the Temple and at their local synagogues and study halls. Being a Jew was and is a corporate experience, and Paul did gather the Gentiles together to also worship as specific local groups.
2. We need to rehearse and be reminded of the gospel.
I’d probably expand this to include regularly attending places where the Bible is preached and taught. I love a good sermon, although I have a tendency to write copious notes and then blog my reviews of them, and certainly there is a great advantage to attending Bible classes and being able to discuss views and insights on the scriptures, including the Gospels and other Apostolic Writings.
If I understand Kauflin correctly, he’s also recommending that believers come together to encourage each other to practice the good news by living out lives that reflect the teachings of our Rav and the promises that are sure to come.
3. God’s Word builds us together.
It seems like this is strongly related to item 2 if not just a rewording of the previous rationale for meeting regularly.
Maybe I’m missing something.
4. We were made to serve and care for one another.
I agree that we can serve each other in corporate gathering, but there are just tons and tons of other occasions and venues in which to do this, sometimes ones that are better than church. After all, how better to serve someone than to visit them when their ill in the hospital, when they’re depressed and alone in their homes, when they’re bereaved, and under many other circumstances? You don’t need to regularly meet in church to do this.
5. We become more aware of God’s presence.
I’d agree with this with the caveat that some people have a greater awareness of God when they are alone. Yes, I have felt the presence of God both in church and in the synagogue, but I have also felt it when praying alone, so church isn’t the only place you’ll find God. Sometimes you’ll find him in the most unlikely places.
Also, I find Kauflin’s use of “the Church” being the “new temple in Jesus Christ” to be somewhat limited. We know that Messiah will re-build the actual, physical Temple in Jerusalem and re-establish worship there (Jeremiah 33:18), and Paul referring to the “body of believers” as a “temple,” is more or less metaphor, just as we are also referred to as individual bricks in that temple.
One does not replace the other. I think many Christians take poetic language and try to make it a literal thing in order to map to prevailing Church doctrine which historically, was created to remove the Jews and Judaism from any association with Rav Yeshua (I’m sure Kauflin isn’t deliberately “dissing” Jews and Judaism, merely teaching what he was taught).
We demonstrate our unity in the gospel.
This is basically correct, at least in principle. As I mentioned above, Judaism, both in Rav Yeshua’s day and now, has a strong corporate worship and study component (although today, the home is always the center of a Jews worship of and devotion to Hashem). As Jewish community defines its distinct covenant relationship with the Almighty, you can also say that Christian community defines the non-Jewish disciples of our Rav as those who, even as we are not named participants in the New Covenant (see Jeremiah 31:27), are nonetheless by God’s grace and mercy, granted many of the blessings of the New Covenant. We also have the promise of the forgiveness of sins, the indwelling of the Spirit, and the resurrection in the world to come.
However, I do object to the following:
Most of us instinctively (sinfully?) like to be with people who are a lot like us — people who like the same music, eat at the same restaurants, and shop at the same stores. But God is glorified when people who have no visible connection or similarity joyfully meet together week after week. They do it not because they’re all the same, but because the gospel has brought them together (Romans 15:5-7).
At least in my experience, Christians actively seek out churches that are composed of people who are just like them socially, politically, economically, “denominationally,” and in most other ways. It’s not like you could take 100 random Christians gathered from across the country, put them together in a building every Sunday, and have them automatically form a cohesive community of believers. Depending on their theology, doctrine, politics, and such, they’d probably split in a dozen different directions, and heaven help the poor Pastor who tries to preach to this eclectic bunch.
People choose churches in part because the majority of the members/attendees have many interests and perspectives in common.
A [Jewish] man is rescued from a desert island after 20 years. The news media, amazed at this feat of survival, ask him to show them his home.
“How did you survive? How did you keep sane?” they ask him, as he shows them around the small island.
“I had my faith. My faith as a Jew kept me strong. Come.” He leads them to a small glen, where stands an opulent temple, made entirely from palm fronds, coconut shells and woven grass. The news cameras take pictures of everything – even a torah made from banana leaves and written in octopus ink. “This took me five years to complete.”
“Amazing! And what did you do for the next fifteen years?”
“Come with me.” He leads them around to the far side of the island. There, in a shady grove, is an even more beautiful temple. “This one took me twelve years to complete!”
“But sir” asks the reporter, “Why did you build two temples?”
“This is the temple I attend. That other place? Hah! I wouldn’t set foot in that other temple if you PAID me!”
-Wikipedia: Jewish Humour
Everybody has their ‘druthers.
7. We can share in the sacraments.
My opinion on the Lord’s Supper or Communion is conflicted at best (I’m being polite), and my thoughts on baptism or immersion is that it’s more appropriate and Biblically sustainable when done in a river or other flowing body of water or, if it needs to be conducted indoors, in a mikvah-like environment.
It might be more appropriate to say that Number 7 is to share common ceremonies and traditional praxis. For instance, with Christmas fast approaching, churches all over the U.S. and in other nations are gearing up for their big Christmas presentations and worship services.
There’s nothing wrong with this, but Christmas is a tradition, not a Biblical event. Yes, I am aware that the Rav’s birth is recorded in the Bible, but how the Church celebrates Christmas today, both in individual Christian homes and in corporate assembly, little resembles the scriptural record, nor do we see anything like a directive to actually observe or celebrate Christ’s birth.
8. We magnify God’s glory.
Corporate assembly to lift up our God and to give glory to His Name. I can’t object to this one.
Of course, Kauflin’s bio describes him as “a songwriter, worship pastor, and the director of worship development” (and you can find out even more about him at his blog), so it would seem corporate worship has a special place in his heart. He couldn’t do a lot of what he does without a church full of people.
Also, as I previously mentioned, he wrote a book on the topic, so he’s invested in promoting corporate practice.
Why am I posting a comparison between two widely different men and radically distinct worship venues?
In spite of what Kauflin said in his article, you can’t always find appropriate community just by popping into the first church you see as you’re driving down the street. Certainly doing so by going into Jolley’s group would (allegedly) be a recipe for disaster. There are some places that should never be called a “church”.
But even under more optimal circumstances, in places of worship truly devoted to Christ, it doesn’t mean you’re going to fit in. I can only imagine that Kauflin and I would have a “spirited conversation” if we got together and started talking about the Bible. I’ve already outlined in some detail how I see his reasons for going to church every Sunday to not always hold water.
Also, I’m kind of wary of famous Christians and their books because being a well-known Christian writer just means you’re communicating a popular message to the majority of Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, Charismatics, or whatever subculture of Christians to which the author belongs.
Which goes right back to what I said before about how Christians will tend to associate with other Christians with whom they have the most in common. I’m not sure how this would have initially played out when the Apostle Paul was “planting churches” in the diaspora, but it’s pretty evident today, at least in the western hemisphere.
I’m not entirely sure why I felt compelled to write all this. The world would go on just fine if I didn’t give expression to these thoughts. I’ve certainly got other things to occupy my time.
I suppose I’m continuing to be a voice for the outliers, the ones who don’t quite fit in to a church…any church. While I find myself sometimes missing certain aspects of going to church (I said I loved a good sermon and I enjoy discussing/debating the Bible, though this almost always gets me in trouble), in addition to how my being a church-goer impacts my Jewish family, even after my two-year sojourn in a church, I never fit in, and both church and I decided to get a semi-amicable divorce.
Kauflin says worship matters. For some of us, it’ll have to matter alone. The alternative spans the range from awkward to ghastly.