There has always been a battle taking place between the natural and spiritual realms. If we are to be real followers of Jesus, we MUST recognize this in every area of our lives. At a personal level, this is certainly true. Anyone that has even tried to follow Jesus will tell you that in our own strength, is just isn't possible. Jesus even told us that a number of times. We need His divine strength to follow Him, and He is more than willing to provide it so that we can learn to follow Him and ultimately to be like Him in character, to serve Him in His kingdom eventually. This can also be applied to our corporate gathering together, or what we would recognize as "church," though it should be said that the true church is the people, not the building. The prevailing attitude I have personally encountered is that "the church is a business and should be run like any other business." I cannot agree, because Jesus didn't. In fact, He overturned tables and hit people with a whip made of curtain cords, and this is the only time we ever read about Jesus being violent at all - he took violent action to expel these money changers that were making the Temple in Jerusalem a place of idolatry. Much of the focus of many congregations, especially here in the decadent west, is the budget, the property, the building, the salaries of the pastor and other church employees, to the detriment of the real reason we were called out of the world - the real work of the Kingdom of God - sharing the good news of Jesus Christ and how he has redeemed humankind to God and the equipping of people to share that message in word and deed in caring and compassionate fashion. This is a sign of a church that has left the spiritual realm and is functioning in the natural realm. There are identifiable and observable stages of decline, and there are consequences that are serious for the gatherings that take this road. Early on, without God's gifting of discernment, it may be nearly impossible to detect, at least at first. 1. People-oriented Pastor A church that is departing from the narrow path can be recognized like this - every member of the congregation will begin to "grow weary" of the work that God has called us to do like Paul warned us in Galatians 6:9, 2 Thessalonians 3:13, and the author of Hebrews warns us of in chapter 12:3. I have never seen a believer begin this course without that believer departing in some way from the cultivation of devotional relationship with Jesus Himself. Luke describes this in Acts 2:42 as " they continually devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread (worship), and to prayer." Such individuals will look to hire someone that is people-oriented to do this important work FOR them, instead of practicing this themselves as Peter tells us to do in 1 Peter 2:5: "you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ." The real difficulty lies in detecting this among church leadership because they may not see it themselves. Most denominational churches these days have placed a level of contrived organization that can mask this with activity by pastoral search committees, church boards, church commissions, ad hoc committees for outreach, or missions, or even small group activities. The activity generated in these cases is not even bad. The important thing is that the motivation that underlies this is natural as opposed to Spirit-based. The sure way to recognize this is to ask if this is being performed by the glory of God or if you are simply trying to make your life easier, which is a very slippery slope. It is also very easy to lie to yourself here, so you must be prayerful and humble about it. This stage can continue on for years, depending on how long it takes congregants to age out or burn out from doing activities "in the flesh" and not "in the Spirit," so to speak. 2. Pulpit-oriented Pastor As a church continues to decline over time, those of a more religious leaning (as opposed to a true spiritual walk with the Lord) will subconsciously sense something is wrong. Volunteers may be getting harder to find because of the afore-mentioned aging out or burning out of volunteers in the congregation. A decision will be made that "people need to hear solid preaching." This in itself is not a bad thing, and hope still remains that God will work in hearts to reignite passion for the Lord through the preaching of His word. The word we have coined for this is "revival," and it is a good thing (cf. 2 Chronicles 7:14). However, without a new spark of faith leading to obedience and closer devotional relationship with God in the leadership of the church, this too will fail as more people leave the church for various "doctrinal" reasons, or they aren't "feeling their needs being met" (read they aren't being entertained), or they put vacations and travel or other such things above the work of the kingdom of God and working for Jesus. The problem that this reveals is that doctrine, even good doctrine, is not enough for a church to sustain life. Somewhere in here, like in the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2, people leave (not lose!) their first love (Jesus) and begin to function in the natural realm. The only thing that will keep people from entering into this kind of departure and its resulting errors and ultimately heresy and idolatry is the continual devoting of oneself to those 4 basic principles that are seen in Acts 2:42 and that I wrote about in detail in my book, Practical Discpleship. 3. Property-oriented Pastorate Two very important transitions take place here. First, the emphasis is no longer on a person as Pastor, but instead is on the position of Pastorate. The Office becomes more important than the person in the office. This has serious implications, including the entrance of more liberal theology and hermeneutics, which will kill a gathering eventually. Revelation 2:15 speaks of the "doctrine of the Nicolaitans." That word is made up of two other Greek words - "Nicos," to conquer or lord over, and "Laos," the people. This can be strongly associated with the setting up of a class of people over another, a "clergy" made to be lords over "laity," if you will. These individuals often make themselves intercessors between God and man, to the contradiction of Scripture, that says there is only ONE mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5). This is nothing but detrimental to the cultivation of personal relationship with God, because it removes the need for such relationship - "church leadership" becomes the basis of relationship with God. The second key transition is that the focus changes from the people to the building and the bank account, and bigger is usually better in both cases. Budgets become the major concern, and more specifically control over those budgets, leading eventually (sometimes very quickly) to the next step on the path downward. Measures to control aspects of the property by a few or one individual are put in place. At the beginning, this is very transparent and has a great deal of accountability, but it inevitably departs from that into secrecy and closed-door meetings in the next stage of the cycle. 4. Power-oriented Pastorate Because of the shift in focus from pastor to pastorate, it makes a series of changes possible that will end the dominance of one individual or small group of individuals over the gathering. Also, because of control issues introduced under the "property" portion of the cycle (like a "church constitution" or a "doctrinal statement of faith" or committees formed to look after various parts of the property), politics begins to creep in, and that has NO place in the Body of Christ. How is it that we humans try to impose our organization and control mechanisms on something God created as if we know more or better than He does and tells us in His word? That never ceases to amaze me. It also has the side-effect of relegating the real work of the Kingdom, that is evangelism, discipleship, and the care of souls, to a much lower status than it needs be accorded (top priority! It is the reason we as a body of believers exist!). Jesus says in the letter to the church at Thyatira (Revelation 2:20) that a tolerance of a person that He names "Jezebel" is teaching God's servants to perform idolatry. Idolatry in this instance may be defined as anything that one gives higher priority to than God, and that includes things like "social justice (an important and good cause!)" or "feeding the hungry (again, an important and good cause)." This is what it means to take the Lord's name in vain, not just the use of His name as a curse. It is claiming to serve Him while serving something else. By now however, the natural motives of individuals are beginning to be much easier to identify. Prayer is a forgotten practice. Church bylaws are more important than the Word of God. Fellowship is relegated to "breakfast clubs" that discuss nothing related to Jesus. Worship is attending "church" for an hour on Sunday, and MAYBE what passes for a prayer meeting on Wednesday evenings, where very little prayer is actually offered. Please note especially the confusion in purpose and practice of the four basic spiritual principles described in Acts 2:42. This kind of error, heresy, and confusion lead to the next and final step of a "church" in it's "natural" development. 5. Politically Driven Decay At this point, "church" has become the building people meet at for social events. There is no presence of God at any of these things, because He has not been invited - He is no longer welcome in the midst of the gathering. Liberal theology and hermeneutics has done its destructive work. The Bible is rarely if ever read. Prayer is no longer offered except on ceremonial occasions by so-called pastors, in whose mouths the name of Jesus is foreign (and even mispronounced, as I have heard on one occasion). Fellowship, when it occurs, has no spiritual dimension. Worship is non-existent or all but gone. Decisions are now made according to mechanisms of control that are now more important than Scripture or the will of God. Money and property are the main points of focus and the main issue at so-called "congregational" meetings. The discussion is either where to spend the horrid amount of money the gathering now has or when to close the doors of the building and dissolve the "church," as if that were possible. It is a tragic thing to witness the death of a once-vibrant gathering over time. We who follow Jesus in Spirit and in Truth must continually be on our guard against this natural and flesh-based, self-centred cycle of death. Where we see it, we must actively stand against it. It is necessary to make a difference here between the people involved whom God loves and the dark forces that fuel this destructive cycle. Ephesians 6:12 says "We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, and against the dark forces of spiritual wickedness in heavenly places." We must put on our armour against the attacks of the enemy. We must stand for the interests of God Himself. We must engage the two weapons we have in this battle for souls. The first of those is the Word of God, the Bible. We need to know what it says for ourselves, and we need to learn to apply it to the situations we face in life. We must never cease from keeping it sharp and employing it in the battle. We also need to engage the heavy artillery God has given to us - we need to bathe ourselves, our leaders, and our gatherings in prayer. Think about it - if this really is a war, then we will only come to the kingdom soaked in dirt, blood, sweat, and tears. We should only stop when Jesus comes to take us home, whether that be at the event the Scriptures call the "harpazo," the Rapture of the Church, or when our own lives end in service to Him. I pray now that the Lord would make us sensitive to this downward spiral of death and decay and help us to stand as faithful stewards of His work here of earth.
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