Maybe church has become too inviting

Bear with me, I’m just thinking out loud here.

Though I am generally a rational person, there are many instances in which I rely on my experience and feelings/intuition. If you were to classify my personality, it would fall into the stylized category of INTJ, or Introverted Intuitive Thinking Judging, and the description(s) is fairly accurate: I think things through a great deal, but I also trust myself and am pretty self-confident. Part of this intuition, particularly in the realm of theology, comes from the spiritual gift of discernment that God has given me, by which I can discern both the correctness of a teaching and the difference between spirits. In very brief laymen’s terms, I can tell the difference between something from God, something from humanity, and something from Satan.

I can likewise see and interact with angels and devils, though occurrences are rare. And whether it’s due to my past experience or my ineptness, I tend to meet devils with far more regularity than I encounter angels. ((As an interesting sidenote, I generally find devils to be alone and angels to be in crowds, though there are always exceptions. Not sure why this is, though I could hazard some guesses.)) I recently encountered a devil in a rather unexpected place, however: a traditional, Sunday morning church service.

The sermon that morning happened to be on spiritual warfare, a subject not often preached, and I was surprised to sense the devil in the congregation. They aren’t, as you might imagine, visible to the naked eye, but this one was quite bold. It was clearly present in the sanctuary with no fear of remonstration or attack, subtly working its ways among the attendants. As the minister stated that many people in the congregation probably didn’t even believe in devils despite the stories of them in the Bible, I heard it whispering to people, strengthening their disbelief. “Devils, pah… we don’t hold with that nonsense. I’ve never seen one, and neither has anyone else. If there’s a Devil, it’s Man and War, etc. It’s all just metaphor. We don’t have to deal with that anymore.”

C.S. Lewis wrote in The Screwtape Letters that the greatest victory of Satan was convincing people that he doesn’t exist.

The worst part was when I confronted the devil, asking what it was doing there.

“I was invited,” it replied with a sardonic grin. The truly frustrating part is that this is the second time I’ve received this response in a church setting from a devil.

At any rate, it made me wonder if our Protestant churches haven’t become too inviting. In our bid to be seeker sensitive, to welcome everyone regardless of creed, and to ask relatively few questions or make any demands of parishioners, we often invite in those we would do better to keep outside. I’m not saying we should bar our doors from unbelievers, the poor, or most any individual–since this sort of argument has been used to rationalize blocking all sorts of people from church in the past, I want to make it clear that I advocate no such policy–but I wonder if we aren’t harming ourselves with our open-door policies.

I don’t have a clear solution, but my thoughts as inspired by this experience are as follows: maybe the Catholic Church had some decent reasons for requiring everyone to subscribe to the same core beliefs, to go through classes and professions of faith, and to undergo some testing before being admitted to the church; for excluding people from certain practices at the church before undertaking the sarcraments and such; and maybe our (by which I mean mainstream Protestants) disbelief and avoidance of all things spiritual, including the giftings of God and spiritual warfare, are leaving us vulnerable to Satan. If I had gone to the senior pastor of that church and shared my concern about devils being present in the sanctuary, I am fairly confident he would have been very kind, accepting, and patronizing. He might have let me consecrate the building. I doubt he would have really believed or done anything himself about the matter.

It is the flock that is hurt by this, so I feel like we should be doing a better job to protect them. We, by which I mean mainstream Protestantism as I have encountered it, are not doing a good job training our parishioners for spiritual warfare, and I certainly haven’t seen the leadership of the Protestant churches training themselves to protect the parishioners on their behalf. I don’t know where the Catholic Church stands on this sort of thing anymore, but I operate under the assumption that they’re more active about it than Protestant churches as a general rule.

I’m not about to become Catholic, but I again find myself thinking: they’ve been around for many centuries longer than Protestant churches, so maybe we should be taking some lessons from them on some matters? ((In addition, I’ve been learning some things about Judaism and their interpretations of the Hebrew Bible that answer a lot of questions Protestants ask, yet for some reasons these teachings haven’t made their way into Sunday morning sermons.)) I don’t know where the line should be drawn, or how, but I think we should at least be more aware that there’s a friggin’ war going on. If you duck your head in the sand, all you do is provide an easy, non-moving target.

Unapologetic

The back porch was screened with bamboo shades that descended along its sides like nature’s blankets, smooth and serenely complacent as if they had always rested there. Little light was available, but we had gone past the point of reading our Bibles and were conversing about something or other. The details of our evenings on that porch are hazy for me, but I recall the long drive west of Springfield to reach their home, the awkward feelings in my throat because I knew so few names, and the hesitant way I would smile at people and they might smile back as we talked briefly about God. I mostly just sat and watched.

My head came up when the associate pastor’s son began to speak about authenticity though. His tone caught my attention, and as I looked up, my eyes met his where he was staring at me with a fierce intensity.

“Yeah, some people go up to the front to pray, I guess. But I think there are some who go up there just to show off. Just to be up front so everyone thinks they’re holy and great. It’s all just a show,” he spat derisively, words clipped in a harsh staccato beat.

I felt my world drop out from under me. He was talking about Sunday mornings, where there was a weekly altar call for anyone who felt the need for prayer. They would go up front and those who felt led to do so would join them, praying as they knelt together. God regularly asked me to step forward and pray with people, so I did, but from that moment forward I would question myself and God. I didn’t want people looking down on me or thinking me a phony. I didn’t want to be on the outside yet again.

For the next six years I would struggle with singing in worship, praying with others, or even talking about my faith. I have not overcome that poisoned barb, and for the last six or more years I feel like I have been shrinking away from God.

There was a family with whom I ate lunch after church on Sundays, and one day I mentioned talking with God. He and I have had a very communicative relationship since long before I was Christian, and my salvation experience was similar to that of Saint Thomas, where God was very direct in convincing me of his authenticity. The response from the father of the family, a pastor, took me off guard however. He was jealous and upset. “I have served God for over 30 years,” he said, “and He has never spoken to me! So why would he speak to you?” he asked. From that day on, I would be hesitant to share my faith with others.

The time has come when I must learn to be the man God has made me. God has gifted me extravagantly in a variety of ways, with my health and intellect, my various skills and talents, and with spiritual giftings that He would have me use. I fail God daily when I do not do so.

I have been apologizing for the last six years for my relationship with God. Every time I failed to confront a friend who sinned, I was apologizing for my God’s commandments. Every time I failed to go forward and pray with someone, to raise my hands in worship as the Spirit moved in me, or to seek out the devils that plagued those around me and confront them in power, I failed my Lord. I am done apologizing for my wonderful God or my relationship with him. It is time to be honest.

A friend of mine replied with disbelief when I shared my testimony with him, “I’m sorry, but this just falls outside my worldview.”

“Then you will have to expand your worldview,” I stated, “because it is true.” For those of us who express belief in God Almighty, it is no stretch to believe in angels or devils. And if you can believe in God, his angelic servants, and those who turned from God and were cast from heaven, it is likewise not hard to accept that God has gifted his humanly servants in extraordinary ways. Saint Paul writes of spiritual gifts and expresses that all Christians share these gifts. I am not unique in this.

Nor should I be ashamed. God has freed me from sin, though I often wander from God and stumble over it again and again. What would it be like, I wonder, if I were to live free from this fear of judgment as well? If I were to give it up and stop apologizing for God’s gifts?

My primary gifting from God, or the one with which I am most familiar and comfortable, is that of discernment. It is the gift to discern the spirit of things, be they from God, humanity, or Satan. It is applicable in both testing the veracity of teaching as well as spiritual warfare and the testing of spirits, and I have begun expressing it more often. I feel that God has called me to learn more of him and the Holy Spirit, and to become more faithful, for the times ahead.

Therefore I will be bold. If the Lord is for me, who can be against me?

Interview with Springfield Vineyard Church

April and I have been considering changing churches for several months now, long before the announcement in January that they were cutting the college minister’s position to part-time. We already had some issues with the worship and preaching at First & Calvary, so the stuff with the college ministry just highlighted how some of our priorities differed from those of the church leadership. Subsequently, over the last few months we have been visiting other churches and asking around to see if there might be a better fit for us here in Springfield.

I had been invited to the Vineyard numerous times over the last six years, but I had never managed to visit. Now that we were shopping around, though, it seemed like an ideal opportunity to check it out. As I have since learned, Vineyard is more of a movement of affiliated churches rather than its own denomination, though labeling it as the latter wouldn’t take too great a stretch of the imagination. We didn’t know much about Vineyard as either a movement or a church, though, and beyond knowing a few of the members we were pretty hazy on what this congregation was like. Though we are going to participate in some of the community events they have coming up, we had a few topics we wanted to discuss specifically with Tim, the pastor of the Springfield Vineyard Church.

Spiritual Gifts

This was the biggest topic of the night and the one on which we spent the most time. In general, I have never felt particularly free to practice or express giftings of the Spirit in church, but that freedom is something I am desperately seeking now. I wanted to know how the Vineyard approached spiritual gifts and what they did about/with them.

Tim’s response was a bit of a surprise because he began by telling us how the Vineyard first came to be. In short, the man who eventually founded the denomination was on mission in Africa and he noted how certain ministries’ mesages were received. Those who embraced the gifts of the Spirit, performing healings or prophesying in the name of God, were well-received by the natives and took root. The more conservative missionaries who performed no such acts were largely ignored. After all, if a man can go down to the witch doctor and be healed, why listen to someone who cannot heal you?

If God is ready and willing to act in such a manner (such as healing), why should we avoid it? Therefore, the Vineyard embraces spiritual giftings and seeks to employ them, but it attempts to do so in a method that leaves room for… disbelief and error, I suppose. They don’t want non-believers to feel particularly uncomfortable, so if a person is prophesying, that person will phrase it in a way that allows the recipient to say, “No, I don’t think that’s for me.” Likewise, humility is essential in the exercise of the gifts, because it is entirely possible for us to misunderstand God or God’s intent.

The conversation on this point was rather lengthy, so I’ll leave it at this: I appreciated his response, and while I don’t particularly agree with always phrasing things in non-committal terms (I think that when God reveals himself, or commands us to do/say something, that’s unequivocal and shouldn’t necessarily be couched in terms that could imply relativity), the openness and acceptance towards those giftings was encouraging. I was satisfied with Tim’s response.

Missions

The Vineyard is a church planting movement, which is to say that one of their primary focuses as a denomination is to start more churches. They believe this is the most effective way to spread the Gospel, and so the job of a Vineyard missionary is to enter an area, start a church, train indigenous leadership, and after a few years hand that church over to the new leadership.

The Springfield Vineyard church supports three missionaries and also supports a team on short-term missions. In addition, they regularly schedule community service projects in local neighbourhoods, including the one in which April and I live. Their priorities seem pretty solid here.

Finances

Tim admitted that their church is struggling, just like every other, and this is due to a combination of different factors. Their budget, originally made three years ago, assumed a congregation of 150 members (at the time, they had 115). However, they recently bought a church building and moved. At this time, a number of the families that had previously attended the Springfield Vineyard stopped attending (presumably due to the longer drive). The Vineyard is now around 90/150 members, has a building to pay for, and all this in the context of an economic downturn.

Despite that, Tim shared the algorithm for judging church financial health with us: a financially average/healthy church receives $20 per person per week. The Springfield Vineyard is around $30 per person per week.

So, while they have less money than they need to meet their budget, less members, and specifically less affluent members, the numbers are encouraging. I’m glad to know that people are giving. I also appreciate the way the church goes about collecting money (it’s pretty understated, but also very transparent–Tim lets everyone know what’s going on along the way, and the weekly email sent out includes a budgetary summary). Tim told us that the Vineyard has always had an emphasis on serving the poor, and their previous location in an upscale strip mall in the nicest part of town was incongruent. He feels they are truer to themselves now and better able to serve God’s vision for them, and that’s what is important. I am confident the finances will work themselves out, and appreciate the transparency on the matter.

Church Leadership

Over the last three years, I have become accustomed to the somewhat democratic organization of the Presbyterian denomination. There are committees and subcommittees and voting sessions and nothing takes less than six months to get done. This system has its strengths and weaknesses, as you might well imagine,

The Vineyard is almost completely opposite, and Tim wanted to be very up front about that. The denomination believes in local control, so there isn’t really a hierarchy or strict set of codes by which local congregations must abide. There are no dues that I know of. And there is no congregational voting or even appeal. The only restrictions placed on Tim, as he put it, are ones he places on himself. That being said, there is a body of elders that leads the church and makes the decisions. The number of elders is currently… two. And Tim’s one of them.

This doesn’t particularly bother me, as I’m personally fairly oligarchical. I don’t think running an organization by referendum really works, so I think the key is getting good people in leadership and letting them do their job. If you don’t approve of the job they’re doing, you kick them out or go elsewhere, problem solved. But you can’t have ninety people with their hands at the tiller. I do hope the number of elders increases soon, but apparently there are more people involved than just those two, so that’s something. There are also the spiritual leaders and the Board of Trustees.

Sermons

After the frustrations April and I have both encountered with the sermons at First & Calvary, I was curious what Tim’s sermon prep was like. He told us that he knows what he’s preaching every Sunday through the end of the year and that average weekly sermon prep is about twenty hours. After hearing him preach twice, I was already sold though: he can manage 30-45 minutes sermons without notes, pausing, losing his place (except once, briefly), or repetition (unless such repetition is called for). As someone who has to do a decent amount of public speaking, I found his oration skills particularly impressive. Tim said that he has been doing this since he was thirteen years old.

Final Thoughts

We met for about two hours and left feeling better about the Springfield Vineyard Church than when we sat down. I was already pretty positive, and I’m even more so now. I think April is more satisfied with the church as well now.

We are attending a communal dinner with six other people on Saturday night, and we’re going to volunteer to contribute food for the upcoming church painting. After we’ve spent some more time with the community of the church, we’ll know better which direction we’re going.

Until we make a final decision, we will continue tithing to First & Calvary, but I’m definitely leaning towards the Vineyard. We’ll see.