Tragic Irony - A critique of a popular Newcastle Church

(This is a critique I wrote of a large-ish Pentecostal church in Newcastle that I visited in 2004)

At the last minute I managed to convince my friend Tom to come with me. In hindsight it was a very good thing to do because we were both able to discuss tonight's service and bounce things off one another afterwards as we dined upon our Chicken Panang Curry in Beaumont Street, Hamilton.

We arrived bang on 6.00pm and the first thing we noticed about the place was the word "REVOLUTION" (with a back to front L) in knee-high letters across the stage. On the stage jumped 5 teenage girls (14-16yo) dressed in red who then proceeded to dance. The light was dim and everyone watched as these young women danced. I have no idea why this was done. I asked Tom if there was any reason he knew as to why a church service should start with a bunch of dancing girls, but he couldn't think of anything either.

Then up comes Youth Pastor RP. As he spoke I began to wonder if this was the same guy who did the healing sermon available from their website. He had just been to a youth camp where some people had been baptised (whoops from some members of the audience). He then proceeded to tell us the story of how his boxer shorts had disappeared. What the point was I don't know. He then informed everyone that the speaker for tonight will be DC, the pastor of NL Church, one of the churches planted by BCC in the last few years. I had actually seen that church's website a few months ago and read a bit of DC's blog. He looked like a dork on his website but was a bit less dorkish when he preached later on.

RP then started talking about giving. He sort of apologised for talking about money and said that some people were a bit concerned that God always seemed to want their money. He then said God isn't really interested in getting the contents of your wallet, he's interested in getting your whole life! He then began to read from Luke 19.1-13 about Zacchaeus, which was very difficult because the lights were still very dim. He spoke about the idea that when you seek God, God becomes closer to you - he becomes more real to you. Moreover, we should be concerned about seeing the favour of God on our lives (I sort of think that was what he said at one point). Now all this seems to contradict the idea that God is everywhere (ominpresence) and that our proximity to God somehow depends upon our attitude towards him. I know I might be nitpicking here, but I honestly think the idea of being "closer to God" is a bit of a strange teaching (not to mention a killer Nine Inch Nails song). Psalm 139.7-10 seems to make it clear that no one can hide from God. These verses clearly point out that we don't get closer to God by seeking him, nor can we flee from his presence because he is everywhere.

So anyway RP is talking about Zacchaeus and he then goes on to talk about how something "revolutionary" happened in Zak's life - he began a relationship with God. He suddenly realised that Jesus was meeting needs he didn't really know he had (something which is not mentioned at all in Luke 19). What happened to Zac was a public manifestation of something private that happened in his life.

RP then tells us about the senior pastor who has gone to Thailand to purchase prostitutes in order to free them from their bondage. Now this sounded great. The idea that a Christian leader should enter this country in order to do something practical to free these people (mostly children) from their bondage to prostitution and potential prostitution was a very good idea. It is, however, misplaced. Where do these girls go? Chances are that they will go back to their families... and then what? There is every possibility that they will end up being enslaved again and becoming prostitutes again. Unless the senior pastor rescues them permanently from their situation, his mission is doomed. The same sort of thing has happened in Africa where NGO's have purchased slaves, who then are set free and become slaves again. The only difference is that there is more money. He probably doesn't realise it, but the Senior pastor is actually increasing the demand for these girls, and making enslavement of prostitutes more likely by trying to purchase their freedom. This may not be the case, and I hope I'm wrong, but this is my thinking at the moment.

I then realised that RP's sermonette was a pre-offering sermon - designed to gee people up to get them to give. I'm fairly sure that he linked the giving to the Thai prostitutes, and I wonder if people gave money thinking that this would go to that venture.

After all this, a youth leader was brought on stage - CF. He was put up on stage because people wanted to publically thank him and praise him for all the work he has been doing. CF was apparently an "awesome" youth leader, and the people who spoke of him pretty much said that he was a godly young man and that they would follow his example. Everyone clapped and then he was presented with a fishing Rod as a present. CF is not an up-front person, and looked quite embarrassed and refused to say anything.

Now I was sort of wondering about this activity. It is a public reward for godliness- literally as he was given public acclaim and a new fishing rod. Should godliness be rewarded and recognised? Yes- sort of. I think this event, though, was overdone. In Matthew 6.1-4, Jesus warns us to let our acts of righteousness be kept secret and not to trumpet them about. CF, I think, felt this way. But others decided that he should be recognised. It also seems to fit in a sort of implicit way that those who live godly lives for God will be rewarded in this life. And CF got his reward in full - public acclaim and a new fishing rod. I hope CF doesn't get big headed over this.

Then the video started playing. A screen full of weird images of soldiers and other things, with a count down going on. As this was going, some nu-metal like music was playing (which Tom quite liked). All was going well until the video ended and the band started playing.

Well, tonight was the first time I have ever experienced heavy metal praise: the music was loud and it was slightly heavy (being Christian it can never truly be heavy!). The vocalists were jumping up and down on stage as though they were in a mosh pit, as well as others (1/3 of people) in the audience - although there was no real "moshing" as such.

On the screen - a power point presentation - was the picture of a US Navy Grumman F-14 banking in the sky, the sort that Tom Cruise flew in Top Gun. This was located on the left of screen with the lyrics placed centrally. Now what is all this about? Why was there a picture of a US fighter jet? Well obviously this was keeping in with the theme of "revolution" - although my understanding of revolutions seems to preclude rebels managing to procure high-tech military equipment. Anyway, the whole thing seemed to have an aggressive tone to it, and also seemed a little too pro-American and pro-Iraq war.

I then tried to concentrate upon the lyrics. Yes they were as bad as last week, with "you" being mentioned far too often, and virtually no mention at all of "God" of "Jesus". "Jesus is my Boyfriend" lyrics (hereafter now known as JIMBF) was the order of the day, with all sorts of ambiguous statements about serving "you", loving "you" and so on.

A note about using powerpoint instead of using overheads. Because of the nature of the singing, it was next to impossible for the powerpoint person to accurately predict which part of the song the band would be playing. As a result all the wrong song parts kept flashing up and disappearing as the powerpoint person tried to keep up with the band's on-the-spot decisions.

The most prominent person in the band was the blond 18 year old Darlene Zschech clone (hereafter known as 18yodzc). Obviously Darlene has had a huge impact upon young women, who all want to be like her and be the centre of the worship time at church. At one point 18yodzc stood with her eyes closed and her arms out wide - as though she was being crucified. At this point Tom asked me why do all female worship leaders look like they're having orgasms as they lead worship? An amusing question, but one that is actually quite important - all the pics I see of Darlene involve her standing with her eyes closed and an expression of rapture upon her face. Another question that I have concerns Darlene as well - she is blond. 18yodzc tonight was blond. The BCC website had a blond haired female worship leader prominently placed, and the two girls either side of 18yodzc were also blond. I wonder if there is any rivally between these two 18 year old Darlene Zschech Wanna-bes (18yodzwb) and 18yodzc? Obviously if God has graced your congregation with blond women then he naturally is going to use them in the worship time. So if you're a brunette, either dye your hair a more godly colour or find some other gift for you to exercise. I realise that I might seem a bit harsh here, but hey, they're blond and so is Darlene. I think there is a connection here that is not necessarily spiritual in nature, but worldly.

The band sing "How my soul longs for you" at least 32 times, but who's counting? Tom of course. It was 42.

How about this for JIMBF lyrics:
"Jesus I'm in love with you"
"Speak to me, whisper words of truth"
"Take my heart, won't you make me new"
"Jesus, how I love you, how I love you"

All I can say to this is: Lack of Biblical theology + Increase in emotion + Female influence on music lyrics = Jesus being portrayed as the perfect boyfriend. In all seriousness I think these sorts of lyrics are dangerous. I think that they not only portray Jesus in a worldly romantic light, but they focus on feelings rather than upon the divine nature and his work of salvation. The fact that Jesus is God and died for my sins is not as important as the fact that we should all feel great romantic love for him. This, I believe, is a situation where the devil can really get a foothold.

Finally the music ends. I have filled 3 pages of notes before the Sermon and so I borrow paper from Tom to keep going. DC finally gets up. He starts off by quoting from some Christian leader in Melbourne who reckons that "This generation of young believers is charactized by extreme passion". The topic tonight is REVOLUTION. DC starts talking about the need for a "Holy Revolution". Afterwards, Tom gives me his idea of this. He reckons that the word "Revival" has passed its peak and something new needed to replace it - hence the use of the word "Revolution". Tom insists that the term is starting to be used in a lot of pentecostal churches these days.

So DC is talking about a Holy, Spiritual Revolution that will change Newcastle, Australia and the world. He speaks about 20th century revolutionaries, who are characterized by their self-sacrifice and their total commitment to their agenda, and how they created VIOLENT change. Revolutionaries held onto their beliefs - they saw opportunities and they pursued them. He spoke about the guy in Tianamen Square in 1989 who held up the line of Chinese tanks. He spoke of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. He describes these people as "passionate, driven, selfless and courageous".

So what has that to do with us - well, we are "Holy Revolutionaries". At this point I'm getting worried. Pictures of F-14s and statements about "Violent change" unsettle me.

DC bases his talk upon Numbers 25.1-13. In this story, Israel is located in Shittim (DC pronounces it "Shit-em" rather than "Sh-team" so Tom and I laugh) and a whole lot of Israelites had been involved in promiscuous worship. Phineas, who according to DC was young (and thus representative of the congregation), takes a spear and pins down an Israelite committing adultery with a Midianite woman, killing them both.

A word about preaching from narrative here. Both tonight and in the healing sermon I heard the respective preachers tell little stories about those who were there. Unfortunately these little stories don't actually exist in the narrative itself and act only as a means of the preacher putting forward his case more by adding to scripture - which is, of course, a seriously bad thing to do (Proverbs 30.5-6).

Note: while DC is preaching, it is punctuated by youth worker RP saying "awesome" way too many times. In the past, "Amen" would have been used. Now we use "awesome".

Another note to confuse you all before moving on with DC's sermon: I have noticed often the use of emotionally charged words like "awesome", "revolution", "radical" and so on in these sorts of churches. I think they overuse these words to the point where they become cliches and buzzwords that dumb people use to sound important. "Proactive" and "Paradigm" were, thankfully, unused.

So, what do Holy Revolutionaries do?

1. They See the Atrocities. They are not blind. They have not been desensitized or conditioned to the culture. They are affected deeply by the world's sin and are moved and troubled by it

Then DC pointed out what such horrible things are. Is it poverty? Is it greed? Is it an uncaring nature that leads to poor people being ignored as they starve to death? No. It is the fact that "Charmed" is played at 7.30pm on Channel 10! It is the 13 year old girl who has been granted a sex change!

It is at this point that I realised DC's exegetical error. He is saying that we, like Phineas, should stand up for what is right and aggressively oppose any sin or immorality in our society. This sounds fine except for one thing. DC has made the assumption that if Phineas = us, then Israel = Australia. So while Phineas is driving spears into adulterous people, we, too, should be doing all we can to oppose all this evil. The problem lies in Galatians 3.29, where Paul says to the Christians in Galatia "If you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring and heirs according to the promise". What does this mean? It means, quite simply, that Israel does NOT equal Newcastle or Australia. It means that ISRAEL = THE CHURCH. This means, in practical terms, that if we are all to be Phineases, then we should be driving our spiritual spears IN THE CHURCH. Paul says as much again in 1 Corinthians 5. In this section of scripture, Paul is arguing that we should not associate with sexually immoral people (5.9). But what sort of people should be not associate ourselves with - all the sinners in our world? No! In 5.10 he says that it is fine for us to associate with adulterers, idolaters and swindlers who are from the world. Our command is not to associate with these people if they are in THE CHURCH (5.11). These Biblical principles really undermine DC's teaching at this point. Of course we want all these sinful people in our world to stop sinning - but how do we do it? DC does not provide the answer, which is, of course, to proclaim the message of Christ crucified. DC thinks, however, that our duty is to impose Christian morals upon a world that is not Christian.

2. Holy revolutionaries Act Aggressively. DC, fortunately, mollifies any thought I had about actual violence by saying that that is what we should NOT do. Yet he uses words like this and uses images of war and uses a passage of scripture that is quite explicit.

DC then uses "The Message" translation of 2 Corinthians 10.3-6 to make his point. While "The Message" is not necessarily a bad book there is no way in the world that it should be considered authoritative scripture. It should not be used in the way that DC used it, which was to assume that it was. "The Message" is an interesting take on Scripture, and is useful in the same way as any Christian book. But it is NOT the Bible. I am also annoyed about Pentecostal preachers who use different Bible versions to make their point. They should use only one.

According to DC we must aggressively take the gospel to the world. He then talks about "offending" people with it, or people being "pushy". He says that the truth of God is not personal opinion, and so therefore you are not pushing your opinion onto people. I have trouble with this statement, because it seems to validate any practice whereby a Christian can present the gospel in an aggressive, insensitive and ultimately destructive way. Telling the truth is important, but it needs to be done in love. A doctor can aggressively tell a patient that they have cancer and they are going to die, but that is hardly a good thing to do. They need to do it gently, they need to do it lovingly. DC didn't qualify any of these things. If you do it aggressively, then that is okay because it is the truth - that is what DC is implying.

DC finally mentions the content of the gospel - and he does so in one brief sentence that he does not go back to. Tom nudges me and says that he is certain that DC is a Christian. I agree totally. DC is a Christian. The problem is that he seems to see the gospel as something that is "tacked on" to what he is saying.

DC is ultimately preaching works. The entire thrust of his sermon is that this world can be changed if we work hard to serve God. Moreover, he implied, like the preacher from the previous week, that those who serve God will have less problems and hassles in the world. He implied that lives will be changed so much that the world will become a better place.

I question this theology. I fear that it is the work of Satan and that it is creeping in to so many churches. It seems as though the Christian life depends solely upon us, and that it is possible to lead a wonderful self-actualized life. God just sits there and waits for our actions, and then responds accordingly, like some divine ATM machine or monkey on a string. My belief is that God does all the work. We have a great deal of responsibility, yes, but it is God who is active and we who are, ultimately, passive. It is we who are the monkeys on the string. It is we who are the ATM machines that God punches numbers into.

This focus on the self finds its expression in a prophecy that DC received from someone about himself - that he will save the innocence of many. Yes - the HE, DC, will SAVE the innocence of many. So it is not God who saves, not Jesus who saves, but DC who will save these people.

DC opened himself up to correction. "If I have preached heresy tonight then tell me". I suppose I'll have to email him this completed report.

So to summarise.

If last week's service showed what was good at BCC, then tonight showed what was bad. The gospel was, again, almost absent and the Bible taught and applied incorrectly. Eisegesis, rather than exegeis, typified DC's sermon, as he sought to impose his own interpretation upon the Bible, rather than listen to what the passage actually said. The song lyrics were appalling and only once actually mentioned Jesus. Last week I stated that BCC was semi-Pentecostal. I don't care much for these labels any more. What I saw tonight was confusion. I saw much zeal and enthusiasm without sound biblical knowledge. I saw sound and fury that signified nothing. I saw people who were energized with something that was not from God. In short, I saw a church that had "no prophetic vision", where "the people cast off restraint", and where God's Spirit inspired word was ignored and the people not blessed as a result (quotes from Proverbs 29.18, ESV).

This experience has confirmed to me the tragic and deadly irony of the Pentecostal movement. These people - many of whom are Christians that I will be sharing heaven with one day - want to experience the power of God's spirit and have their lives transformed. Yet they fail to listen to Spirit because they ignore the Spirit inspired word, and they push the message of the gospel to the peripheral, reducing it to a mere "ticket to heaven". Churches like this will prosper and grow in a worldly sense, but they will lack depth. Christians will be amongst them, and God, who is all powerful, will still work in their lives. But, by not listening to God's word, they starve themselves and fail to be blessed in the way that God wants them to be blessed.

Over a delicious Chicken Panang Curry, Tom and I discussed these issues. One of these issues concerns the idea that Christians who live wonderful godly lives will be blessed in this world. Both Tom and I disagree with this thesis - all Christians will suffer and some will suffer more than others. But because these Christians have chosen to add to the gospel this message of prosperity, what will happen when blessings do not occur? We decided that there were three possibilities. The first is that some people will lose their faith altogether because they have experienced first hand the simple fact that God has not blessed them. The second possibility is that some people will realise that this teaching is false, but who retain their faith in God and move to a more Biblical church. The third possibility is that people will put on a "front" of success, and make themselves appear to be living a wonderful Christian life when in fact they are not. These people are essentially lying to others and to themselves. With this lie will come other lies, including financial and sexual sins committed because they felt they could hide it from others.

A final note on the first and second possibility. These people will need good, solid Biblical churches to go to. This, among many things, is why evangelical reformed churches need to be constantly planted in our city.

From the Theosalient Department.

© 2005 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/
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1 comment:

Unknown said...

I think you have captured the situation here quite well and that I agree with you. I have to confess to finding your description in your critique amusing ~ however it is anything but that I know. It is tragic that these people think they are serving God when in fact they are doing anything but that with their superficial nonsense and supposive emotional euphoria.

I have not had a lot to do with such Pentecostal and/or Charismatic extravagance, having determined some time ago that I wanted nothing to do with such fleshly-oriented displays of religion. I did however frequent a certain once popular 'Christian' coffee shop in Newcastle that closed as a result of the Newcastle earthquake. I remember being there one night when a 'prayer' session was held in which the leader of the group demanded God give them such and such amount of cash in order for the coffee shop to continue. Suddenly, without warning, the coffee shop became a scene from some hysterical farm yard, with gobbling turkeys in this corner and that, falling bodies here and there, etc. Not long after this 'prayer' session there was an earthquake that shut the coffee shop permanently ~ not quite the answer that was so confidently expected, but somewhat interesting I thought.

Keep up the good work with the site - enjoyed my visit and will come back.