Early this month I posted a critique of a church I visited in Newcastle in April 2004. I forgot to mention that I had actually written two reports - one each for the two sundays I visited. The report I posted was actually the second report, while the following is the first one. It's a bit more positive and should give a better understanding of the conflicting feelings I have towards contemporary Pentecostal and Charismatic churches.
I turned up to the service late, fearing there to be way too much singing for me to bear before I actually heard any teaching. Initially I felt that this was a wise move, although in hindsight it would have been better to read the lyrics of the songs they sang and heard any praying.
The building is quite new and is in the process of being renovated to add an upper story at the back of the building - although I only noticed this when looking. The building is superbly soundproofed and probably needs to be because of its location in a residential area - I'm certain their neighbours would complain of any undue noise. As it was, I only heard a very dull sound of drums when I arrived in the carpark.
The congregation numbered about 200 to 250 - large for Newcastle but about the same size as I experienced at St Paul's Carlingford during the 1990s. Given this experience I was a bit surprised that the congregation appeared so "small". During the praise time people were raising hands and doing the whole Charismatic thing, but it was not done en masse and many stood with their hands by their sides or in their pockets. Some were even sitting down during singing.
The congregation was young - by this I mean between 18-25 years old. There may have been younger people but I didn't see them. There was a spattering of older people in the congregation and there was nothing too "youthy" about the service to put these people off. It was informal - to a point - but it was not aimed too hard at young adults, which was good.
The Preacher - DJ
Within 5 minutes of me entering the music stopped and DJ got up to preach. I wasn't too pleased with DJ putting on a "spiritual voice" as the music wound down and the congregation were swaying with their eyes closed - I think this practice is manipulative and not what God wants in his church. To be fair, though, it was not kept going for too long.
DJ is an American aged somewhere in his forties. Despite this it appears he has the respect of the mainly young congregation. He pronounces Isaiah wrongly, but all Americans do this. He was neither too American nor too "try-hard" in being an Aussie. What we saw is what we got, and that was good.
The first thing which occured was a seemingly spontaneous activity. In front of the stage there is a baptismal area, which was called "the pond". DJ asked the congregation if they'd give $5.00 for a member of the congregation - SQ - to jump in the pond fully clothed, with the proceeds going to "Camp Revolution", an upcoming youth camp that many of the congregation were going to. Hands were raised and 62 people offered $5.00 for SQ to jump in the pond which she naturally did. It appears that this event was pre-arranged since DJ mentioned that she had talked about it with him earlier. SQ was also a Church leader since DJ mentioned that she had to lock up the church when everyone had gone, which was problematic since she now had very damp clothes. I wasn't too sure if this was just some cheap extra-revenue raising event or just a bit of fun. I could see such an event happening during church service for younger people and being appropriate. I'll have to give them the benefit of the doubt on this one.
Speaking of money, because I turned up to the service late I wasn't there for any collection - if any happened at all. Money and giving were not touched on at all during the evening as far as I can see - except the SQ wetting experience.
A quick note about the stage. All the musicians occupied the stage (Female drummer, two guitarists, bass player, keyboardist and a male vocalist who couldn't be heard at all - one of the guitarists was the "worship leader"). When DJ came to preach he took a music stand and then began to preach from the floor level rather than the stage. I don't know why this was the case. Maybe it was a communication technique designed to symbolize the preacher being equal to the congregation. Maybe it was designed to symbolize the preaching of God's word as being subservient to and less important than the music worship. Maybe DJ has a sore neck and hates looking down for long periods. It seemed strange - I'd like to know the reason.
Before he began teaching, DJ spoke about how important it is that Easter not become a "Tradition" in the church. This was something people in the congregation seemed to like. He then went on to say that Jesus being God and that he rose from the grave were not "Traditions" either. Obviously he was referring to man-made traditions as opposed to the historical Christian faith that is sometimes expressed in the word "tradition".
DJ started off by talking about the series on Colossians he had been preaching through. It was nice to know that he was preaching through Bible passages, but I would like to have heard his content in order for me to be really happy about this. Before his Sermon began, he opened up the floor for anyone who had questions about the Christian faith that had arisen as a result of the Colossians series.
It was stroke of pure luck and the infinite sovereignty of God that DJ spent most of his time clarifying the Bible's teaching on the Trinity. During this question and answer time he was assertive and informative, but not manipulative nor controlling. He has obviously done some theological training because this came through in his answers to the questions.
The first question concerned whether or not the Trinity was a biblical teaching. He summarized the Bible's teaching well and quoted verses that supported this. They were not verses picked from the air or taken out of context. This comforted me because DJ had obviously seen these verses as important for Christian Doctrine.
There was one answer that concerned me. Someone asked about whether the Trinity had some form of hierarchy, and if so did that mean that there was some inequality in the Godhead? DJ answered this by saying that there is no hierarchy in the Trinity and no inequality in the Trinity. This pricked up my ears because this issue had been raised in the latest Briefing where Robert Doyle asserted quite strongly that the economic Trinity was a reflection of the true Trinity - that of the Son being eternally submissive to the Father and the Spirit being eternally submissive to the Father and the Son, and yet this not impinging upon their equality within the Godhead, and not just the case when it comes to salvation. The idea that Christ is now sitting at the right hand of the Father (Hebrews 1.3) seems to indicate a permanent hierarchy as being a Biblical situation. DJ's expression of Trinitarian belief does not reflect this eternal nature of the Trinity, saying that there is no hierarchy in the Trinity. This is not to say that DJ is guilty of Arianism (which denied that Jesus was God because he was subject to the rule of the Father and therefore not equal with God) but it does suggest the possibility of Modalism - whereby the one God is represented in three different ways. This can be intimated as such when he answered a question about God the Father rejecting God the Son on the cross. He essentially stated that God could not look upon himself, then went on to say how confusing the doctrine of the Trinity was to our puny minds.
If DJ does, indeed, hold to Biblically-based Trinitarian views, then this was not fully expressed in the Q & A session. He did not talk about the distinction between the three persons of the Godhead because he spent most of his time disussing their unity and equality. It may be that DJ is a closet Modalist, but nothing he said tonight can point to this in any definite way. Until that time, I will have to give him the benefit of the doubt, although doubt still remains.
DJ answered two questions about Hell. What came through was his conviction that all those who have Jesus as their saviour are saved while those who do not have Jesus as saviour are headed to Hell. During this question time he was also asked a question about "Soul Sleep" in which he gave a thoroughly Biblical response (we go to be with Christ and experience time - not those words exactly but he explained as such) . He spoke of the general Resurrection in a way that stated that we would not receive our Resurrection bodies even when Jesus returned, but only when Satan was finally defeated. This was strong evidence of a premillennial eschatology.
He also answered a question about how we can know we are growing as Christians. I was too busy trying to grapple with his comments on the Trinity to take too much notice, but I did hear him say that it is sometimes others that notice our growth rather than ourselves. As I began to put aside questions of the Trinity I was comforted by his statements that he himself found it a difficult process and that he and Jesus had a lot of work to do. This was a comforting thing to say because it meant that he not only identified with his audience in terms of sinfulness, but he also strongly implied that the Christian life was one in which sin was always being fought against, which means that any teaching about sinless perfectionism as a result of the work of the Spirit was not present in his belief.
DJ also pointed out that Christians in heaven have some sort of difference in reward based upon their lives here on earth. This is an unpopular teaching but I think has a great deal of Biblical backing, and so I was pleased to hear it. The congregation seemed to accept it without any problems.
The result of these questions, in my mind, indicated that DJ has a higher-than-average knowledge of the scriptures and, Trinitarian and eschatalogical views notwithstanding, has a well thought out theology that can possibly be described as semi-evangelical. He is certainly no Scripture ignorant preacher who takes verses out of context.
He then launched into a sermon based on Galatians 2.20 - I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me. (ESV. Not the translation he used)
He used this verse because he was concerned that we need to apply the teaching of Colossians (whatever it was) to our lives. He spoke of how important it was that we live godly lives, and that people see Jesus in us. This is important because when we live lives contrary to our faith then people are presented with a false Jesus. He then went on to discuss his high-school life in the USA where he was a teenager during the late 60s and early 70s. His parents seem to be very conservative Christians, and pretty much forced him to have a conservative hairstyle to those long haired hippies. But he was determined to go his own way and he would change his clothes and hair when he went to school. But his behaviour was such that members of his own church who he went to school with asked him not to tell people that he went to their church - so disturbed were they at his behaviour.
At this point I was in agreement with a lot of what DJ said. Now comes the concerning part. He spoke of the USA as a nation that was born out of revolution - that people died and all sorts of horrible things happened, but that was the basis of the country's existence. He then applied that to the Christian life - that the only way to change is to have continual life-changing revolutions in our lives. This means a daily revolution. He then spoke of the youth camp coming up - Camp Revolution - and then used this as an example of how important it is to prepare for this as God will revolutionize people's lives.
The idea of a second baptism in the Holy Spirit was, I think, not in view here. (In fact, for a church that has a great deal of Pentecostal influences, the Holy Spirit was not mentioned much at all!). It does, however, seem to point to a faith that can only grow and change by some form of continual re-commitment, some sort of subjective life-changing experience that has to happen often if the Christian is to grow. And this is not something that happens to just some people, it is a revolution that should be experienced by all people who call themselves Christians.
Now while I believe that God uses tense situations in a person's life to revitalize their faith, the idea that this should be expected, encouraged and experienced regularly by Christians is something that is foreign to me. I believe that God can also work slowly, and that a person's Christian life can change over a long period of time, and that "revolutions" don't necessarily need to happen often in order for people to become more Christ-like. I cannot, at this present moment, think of any Biblical support for this idea. It was a very strong emphasis in the sermon, and yet it is not present in the passage from Galatians that he preached from.
The only theory I can think of is that DJ has mistaken conversion for sanctification - that the process of conversion (often made with subjective feelings and a sense of revolution) should actually continue in the life of the Christian. That somehow the "feeling" of joy and the desire to serve God that is fresh in the experience of the new convert can only be maintained if we all continue having these fresh experiences. In this sense, we are not baptised with the Holy Spirit twice, but over and over again each time we have our own personal revolution. (Note: DJ said nothing of the Baptism of the Spirit - what I have just said is my own take on what was being taught).
DJ then went on to emphasize the idea that our godliness depends upon our choice to do it. "I choose to put off the bad things of my life. And I choose to put on the good things. The only way that Jesus can work in me is if I choose to let him" (Note: not an accurate quote). This sort of teaching strongly implies that DJ, and the church as a whole, is Arminian. While Arminian theology is not a massively huge problem by itself, this specific teaching does pose the great risk that our trust is in ourselves and our work rather than in Christ and in what Christ has done. It was at this point that I realised what was missing in the sermon - any mention of Christ and Christ's work on the cross.
DJ did not at any point explain the message of the gospel - the message of Christ crucified and risen again. He did not explain what Jesus did on the cross when he died. He did not talk about the substitutionary atonement. He did not speak about the Resurrection in the context of the forgiveness that we have gained through God's grace. To be fair, he did speak of those who trusted Jesus as their saviour having the hope of heaven while those who do not as heading to hell. He did speak quickly about how Christ takes away our sins and means God will judge us to be innocent when we face him (both this and the former statement were present in the initial question time). The final song did mention that Jesus died on the cross "for our shame". But, to be totally honest, the message of the Cross was not explicit in the sermon. Instead the focus was upon being godly, based upon what we had to do, upon the revolutionary experiences we had to undergo in order to live a life that pleased God.
I am of the firm belief that the message of the Bible is about God acting to save his people through his Son, Jesus Christ. Therefore any sermon that is based upon a verse or passage of the Bible should have this as its prime importance. I'm not saying that we ignore what the Bible specifically says in one verse and simply impose the message of the cross everytime we preach - but I am saying that any faithful Biblical expositor should bring out the direct message of the text being explained, and how that teaching fits in with the message of the gospel as a whole. If this is not done - if the text is explained without the gospel - then something is seriously wrong in the message being preached, and, to be brutally honest, the preacher himself.
By not preaching the gospel from the verse, DJ not only prevented God's power of salvation to work properly through the verse, but added to it the burden of works - of focusing upon what we have to do in order to be godly, rather than upon what God has done for us in Christ. This sort of teaching is not especially Arminian, but is common among Pentecostalism - that we somehow need a bit more of God every day in order to live the godly life. Reformed Evangelicals know that we don't need more of God - he is omnipresent so we have as much of him as He wants us to have. We don't have to focus upon our works, we focus upon the work of Christ as the basis by which our good works emanate from. We don't focus upon our own subjective experience of revolutionary faith, we focus upon the objective work of God in bring Christ to earth as the propitiation for our sins. We don't focus upon what God can't do unless we let him, we focus upon what God does despite our sin.
It is this part of DJ's teaching that has serious flaws and makes me believe that all is not well at BCC. The preaching of the gospel is so important to the life of the church and tonight that gospel was not preached. I believe that when the gospel is ignored or changed in a church, then Satan is at work. It is this area that gives me most concern.
Strongly implied in what DJ said throughout the night was the idea that when we truly hold onto our faith - when we keep going through these revolutions - then God will bless us. However, the context of this form of blessing is to be found in our lives now, and there appears to be strong evidence that such blessings will result in happiness. When DJ preached, he spoke of how "We are shining examples of what our lives are like" and that "If you want to live a full and happy life, we need to look at ourselves". The implication of this teaching is that godliness leads to happiness and some form of self-actualization whereby we lead the lives that God meant us to lead through our continual love and obedience. This, and the fact that the BCC website contains links to a number of Christian organisations that promote health, wealth and prosperity, is evidence that, not only has the church begun to ignore the importance of the gospel, they have also added to it in the form of prosperity.
So if I summarise the teaching together, it is this. We are responsible for our godliness. We have to let Jesus work in our lives, and we have to go through some form of continual revolution for this to happen. The result of this godly living is happiness and, strongly implied, self-actualization and prosperity. To be fair, DJ did not explicitly say this - he did not say that God wants you to be happy, healthy and rich - but this idea could be extrapolated through the basic parts of his teaching. Also present was the idea of changing the world - that we can change the world if this sort of thing goes on.
When DJ finished his sermon he prayed. During this prayer he called upon anyone present who needed to make some form of commitment to put their hands up. I can't remember his exact words, but I am absolutely certain that he was speaking here about Christians who needed to do it rather than anyone who was an unbeliever who wanted to become a Christian. All I can remember is that he mentioned something about Christians coming forward. Now why should they come forward? "To gain a full and abundant life" said DJ. So here was a guy asking Christians to come forward so that they can be prayed over and counselled in order to gain a full and adundant life. Now I do have problems with this as well. It seems to imply that there are two sorts of Christians - the awful, yucky ones and those who want to live a full and abundant life. And how should this happen? By coming down the front and being prayed for. In the past, altar calls were made so that unbelievers could respond, but now it appears that altar calls are necessary for Christians to participate in as well. By the way, DJ did not generalise his call - he didn't say "If you're not a Christian and want to become one; or if you're a believer who needs prayer and someone to talk to; then come down now as we sing our final song". No. The call was for Christians, and the call was for them to come and be prayed over so that they may gain a full and abundant life. Now as far as I can remember, the Bible does not speak of such things - we have every spiritual blessing in Christ (Ephesians 1.3). All Christians have the Holy Spirit, and all Christians have been blessed by God. We don't need anything else. Anything else is an addition to the gospel. Anything else that is promised is not what God is promising. Someone who says that God is promising such things is misrepresenting God.
The musicians then got up and played. Two people were prayed over. I was half expecting slayings since someone - wet SQ in a towel - stood behind one of them. Fortunately she was there only because one of those people who came forward was a young woman and after DJ stopped praying over her (he just prayed and did nothing else) SQ took her away to talk to her. No one was behind the guy - I guess DJ would speak to him after. What this implies is that women who need guidance and help and prayer and ministered to by women in the congregation, while men minister to men. This seems a very good idea, and the church should be commended if this is their policy.
The musicians ended the final song abruptly, the worship leader saying "have a good weekend" to everyone. They even finished before DJ had finished praying over the guy who had come up. I would have expected a more-drawn out musical ending with all sorts of emotional stuff going on. The fact that it ended abruptly was actually good from my point of view because it indicated that it was a church that was not fully focused upon excellence in musical worship. Either that or they had a bad night.
A comment about DJ's preaching style. I have heard Brian Houston from Hillsong both live and on TV. Houston tends to shout a lot and make all sorts of nonsensical pronouncements - which really grinds on me. DJ, however, was not that sort of preacher. He did not come across as "God's anointed leader" and that all who fail to follow him do so at their peril. He has an easy and friendly speaking style. He is not manipulative (save for that moment before his sermon began) and he comes across as honest and genuine. His willingness to answer questions for 15 minutes indicates his desire to teach via dialogue and explanation of the faith rather than things like indoctrination. He was assertive, but he was not imposing his power or will in any explicit way.
One more comment about songs. The church sang Christian songs that I had not heard before - but I am not surprised by that. All the songs seem to have the "Jesus is my boyfriend" feel to them, talking about how much we love "you", how much "you" mean to us, how loving "you" is the most important thing in our lives, about how "you" love us so much. No actual mention of Jesus or God as being "you", although the idea that "you came to die for our shame" couldn't really mean anything else.
After my initial examination of the November 2003 healing sermon found on their website (which was terrible and theologically dodgy), I found a church that was not as bad as I had feared, but has taken on board unbiblical teachings too easily for me to be comfortable with. I have no problem in believing that the majority of the congregation are fellow Christians and will share heaven with me. I also have no problem in believing that DJ will be in heaven with me. Additionally, I also have no problem in believing that God works at BCC, and that he works through DJ's preaching.
But as I said to someone bluntly recently, "God also worked through the Holocaust". The fact that God chooses to work in a church does not necessarily mean that God fully endorses that church. All churches are imperfect and full of hidden sins, but I do believe that there has to be a point where we say "No, this is not acceptable". BCC is an example of this.
Based upon the sermon I heard tonight from DJ, and the sermon available from their website, I still cannot, in good conscience, recommend the church as one in which Christians should go to. The reason is threefold: The lack of clear gospel in both sermons and song lyrics; the unbiblical teaching that focuses upon the need for continual recommitments and subjective "revolutions" in the Christian life in order to grow as a Christian; and the unbiblical teaching that all those who lead godly lives will receive, in this life, prosperity, happiness and self-actualization.
Fortunately, the church does not, I believe, have a preacher who is unwilling to use his mind. DJ's explanation of the Trinity to the congregation was generally good and showed his Biblical knowledge. In this area, at least, the church is reasonably orthodox. The focus upon addressing passages of the Bible in sermons is a far better situation than preaching topical or thematic sermons, although after tonight's effort I question whether DJ actually does preach from the text as it stands. Nevertheless the Bible is read and given some form of explanation. Some explanations will undoubtedly be thoroughly Biblical, so we can expect that God will work when this is done.
I believe that BCC is at a crossroads. It will either get better or it will get worse - it has the potential to do both. Unfortunately I believe it is leaning for too much towards a "worse" position than a "better" position - as I understand it the church was reasonably orthodox 5-10 years ago. If I was to put this church into a "box", I would classify it as "Semi-Pentecostal". The lack of emphasis upon the Holy Spirit, the absence of tongue-speaking and slayings in the spirit, the importance of preaching and understanding theology, all point to a church that appears to have embraced a relatively conservative form of Pentecostalism. The lack of gospel emphasis and the presence of incorrect teaching, however, precludes the church from being described as evangelical.
It is my prayer that God teaches those in the BCC leadership to understand His truth. I pray that any teachings that misrepresent God will be taken away. I pray that the subtle workings of Satan in the church will be destroyed, and that the church turns away from false teaching and embraces the true word of God. It will take a miracle for this to happen, but God has done this sort of thing before.
From the Theosalient Department
© 2005 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/
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