Thursday, May 14, 2015

Hallelujah end-times flashback

(Originally posted November 22, 2009;
reposted here with minor edits
& new commentary)  

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I wrote the following post after a visit to my hometown church around Thanksgiving in 2009. After it appeared, a couple of Facebook friends from there unfriended me; I’m convinced they didn’t read the whole post. Later, I even removed the post. I’m not sure exactly why because it was truthful and not unkind. Anyway, it’s come to mind a couple of times recently, I dug out the copy I’d retained, and here it is. Before you react, please read the entire post, carefully.

It feels even more relevant now, given the recent studies showing the fall off in church attendance in the U.S. And in face of justifiable criticisms that what’s heard in churches isn’t always helpful. While many, many churches -- pastors and congregations -- are doing much better providing practical teaching and discipleship, some still are missing the point. It’s to those that this is addressed. If the attendance is dramatically down in your church, I wouldn’t be too quick to blame it on the devil. Instead of scaring the hell out of people, you may be scaring or boring them out of church.

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 This is the Tweet I sent out earlier today:

I think it’s only fair that I add some context.

I grew up in a small Assemblies of God church in New Castle, Indiana located on 18th and E. Over the years we had several pastors and a number of evangelists and others preach there. The church was populated by my aunts, uncles, cousins, and others who, though not related by blood, made up a wonderful, warm extended family. Our lives revolved around the church, and we were there for services and other events frequently throughout the week.

The church relocated to a new building in the 1980s on South Memorial Drive. When I visit, the number of those I know who still attend there have dwindled as many have died and others of us have moved away.

As soon as I was old enough, I taught Sunday school, was an officer in our youth group, and participated in many other aspects of church life. I loved being in church. I loved hearing the Gospel.

But it took me years to realize that, despite having sat through hundreds of sermons and Sunday school classes, I actually learned very little about Scripture or how to truly live a biblical, grace-filled Christian life.

Get the hell out!

The sermons tended to be tinged with legalism and messages that boiled down to “turn or burn.” Many were shaped to try to scare the hell out of us.

We were told to live holy lives which meant avoiding profanity and alcohol, not disobeying parents, and so on down the list of “don’ts.” Being tripped up by any item on the list meant being in risk of going to hell.

The silly saying, “I don’t drink, I don’t chew, and I don’t go with girls (or guys) who do,” was, in a sense, a guide for living our best life now.

Often the sermons were end-times themed with the exhortation to look at the signs around us as evidence that the end was near. Wars, earthquakes, and sin were abounding. Obviously, the world was going to hell in a hand-basket and we’d better be alert. It was getting darker and more evil all the time. Were we ready? Repent or be damned!

The problem with this kind of message, while based on truth, is that it doesn’t provide the specific equipping to live a viable Christian life. It was all fear and emotion followed by an altar call where we were to repent of generic sins so that when the trumpet sounded we would fly away with all the other saints.

We weren’t really getting the full Gospel.

More than once as a child I would wake up in the middle of the night gripped with the fear that I had, indeed, been left behind. Maybe I’d told a lie or disobeyed mom or had a bad thought. How could I know if I was still good with God? I would creep down the hallway to the door of my parents’ bedroom. Their snoring was reassurance since I was certain they would never be left behind! (I wrote a poem about this experience.)

Seeing the signs

As I was listening to today’s message, the ghost of all those messages past came back to haunt my memory. I could have preached it almost word-for-word without looking at the pastor’s notes. I’d heard it all before a hundred times from dozens of ministers.

It opened with a typical end-times text, Matthew 16:1-3:
“The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He replied, ‘When evening comes, you say, “It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,” and in the morning, “Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.” You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.

Three broad categories of signs were identified and we were subjected to an emotional rehash of the worst of the latest news with the observation that nothing as bad as what we’re seeing or reading about today has happened in years past.

I don’t completely agree with that assessment.

Horrible stuff has gone on since biblical times; we’re just more aware of it because of the pervasiveness of real-time information over the Internet and 24/7 cable news.

The primary point being made was found in Matthew 24:12, “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.…” The word “most” was emphasized. In other words, we were being prodded to ask ourselves, “Could I be one of the ‘most?’”

We also had a quick look at the 10 virgins where the point was made that five made it and five didn’t. Then, citing Matthew 24:40-41 -- “Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left."

From this it was deduced that one of every two people in the sanctuary would be left behind.

What?

I agree things are bad and there’s a lot of darkness in the world. I agree that the end is probably near; at least I certainly hope so; Maranatha!

But for the time being, we’re still here.

You’re chances are 50-50 & it’s not looking good

We’re still here and preaching is supposed to open up the Scriptures in new ways to encourage holy living. Conviction is okay. But it is not okay to, at least implicitly, condemn 50 percent of a congregation to hell through faulty logic.

Since when is faith a 50-50 crap-shoot?

The Scripture I referenced in my Tweet is 2 Timothy 3:16-17, NIV:
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”
Yes, there’s room for correcting and rebuking. But the teaching, training, and equipping parts can’t be ignored!

Much of what I grew up hearing focused primarily on rebuking and correcting and then stopped. There was little to no teaching, training, or equipping. Without those last three elements, confusion, failure, and guilt are the result.

That’s kind of what happened today, except it wasn’t even clear what was being rebuked or corrected. Rather than being a sermon, it was more like a fear-inducing editorial.

Please understand the minister is a good guy whom I respect and love. He’s a very good man I’ve known for years. When I went through some really hard times, he was encouraging and faithful to hold me up in prayer; he came alongside me in my pain. I believe that his intentions are good. And I’ve heard him preach some really good sermons. Sadly, this was not one. I’ve got a feeling he could use a nice long sabbatical.

Faith is not about feeling fearful

Today’s sermon is what I would characterize as typical end-times emotional fear-mongering aimed at driving people to the altar.

But to what end? To repent? Repent of what? Nothing was specified.

And once everyone left the altar and went home, then what? Go home and cower in fear? Hope for the best?

How does fear and emotion equip people for good works? How does hearing that one out of two people in the room will go to hell train me or anyone in righteousness?

Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone, after hearing this message, left thinking, “I’m probably one of those going to hell, so I may as well live like it!”

In closing the sermon, Matthew 24:12 was again quoted from the King James Version, “And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.”

The implication that there was a point at which one could “wax cold” enough as to be lost; disconnected from God. 

How cold is too cold? How much waxy build-up on the heart tips you into hell? Is this something that just happens?

“No one knows!” was the answer offered!

And that’s what I grew up with; a lot of guilt and condemnation usually served up with a heaping side of legalism.

Looking at the upside of believing

What could have made this a good sermon is found in Matthew 24:13: “…but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.”

Hallelujah!

There’s the better un-dark heart of the message!

Riff off that verse and go into both the “hope” and the “how to” of salvation. Don’t tell me to bow my head and close my eyes in fear and guilt and make me want to go home and cower behind closed curtains.

Give me something that causes me to lift up my head and open my eyes to the goodness and amazing grace of God.

Give me something hopeful and meaty that I can take into my week and joyfully share with others that will woo them to want to know more of the Gospel.

Give me something that can equip me to steadfastly live out my faith now.

Give me something that opens my eyes and heart to God’s Word in a fresh, new way.

Give me something that will help me shine in the encroaching darkness.

Give me something that shows me how to stand firm so that in the end I and the others in the room with me will be saved.

After all, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17, NIV).

Yes, the end approaches. But fear not! If you’ve confessed Christ as your savior, God’s got your back.




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Did you grow up in church? What kind of sermons did you hear? Are you still going to church? If not, why not? Share your thoughts, experiences, and reactions in the comments!

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