When I was a teenager, I had a youth pastor who sat down all the lads in the youth group and had a frank chat to us about how to treat women. The talk could be summed up with “worship the creator, not the creation”.
Basically, we worship and glorify God by treating the women in our life well. It’s good advice for any young man. It wasn’t until recently that I realized that this helpful advice can also be used in how we treat the Bride of Christ, the Church.
By ‘the church’ I do not mean brick and mortar - I mean the nature of worship and politic of the fellowship of believers who meet together regularly. I note many of the writers in Christian Today address this same issue.
I’ve seen all too often ‘the church’ become the object of worship. Now don’t misunderstand me, it is imperative that we love the church, it is after all who Jesus died for.
Being planted and serving the local church is not just crucial to the spread of the Gospel but for our growth and sanctification as Christians.
The problem is when the priority shifts from spreading the Gospel to growing an individual church.
The difference can be subtle but incredibly important.
For example, at one large multi-campus church that I attended for some time, weekly video testimonies were a staple for our Sunday services. Showing testimonies of church members discussing their walk with God is a terrific way of encouraging the church and glorifying God.
These testimonies had the same structure as most testimonies, namely here is my life before, here is a catalyst, now my life is like this. The point of concern comes in the middle, instead attributing the change to a relationship with God, all to often it was attributed to attending the Church.
The church made them feel welcome, the church equipped them with the tools to make a change, the church has given them purpose and direction.
So close, yet so far.
When the church is what ‘saved’ you, then it’s the church that receives your worship. In the modern church that worship takes the form of serving. The more you serve, the more you love your church. The more you love your church, the more the church loves you.
Throughout my life I have seen time and time again, new Christians walk away from the church experiencing what is commonly referred to as ‘burnout’. They have thrown themselves into joining a church team, attending multiple services and homegroups, going to ‘team nights’, practices, and conferences.
In reality, what they are experiencing is not a ‘burn out’ but a revelation that what they are worshipping is not the true savior.
They have fallen into the cycle of works-based faith. They are, in actuality, worshipping the creation and not the creator.
This church worship is also why minor conflicts between church members or public falls of church leaders have such devastating effects. When the church is deified by individuals, then these issues are not just the actions of flawed humans, but the fall of their god.
Tragically, when those individuals begin to pull out of serving, when they stop worshipping the church, the church stops loving them in return. It is an ugly story that has affected the lives of many.
In Galatians 1, Paul states that he is ‘astonished’ at how quickly the church of Galatia have given up the gospel for a false gospel. What we are seeing in the modern church is the same 2000 year old story.
In my view, this results in churches drifting away from the gospel. Not by giant leaps, but by inches. It is important for me note that I do not believe that the leaders of these churches are intentionally leading their churches astray. I don’t believe that pastors and leaders have set out to create a culture of church worship.
They have not consciously attempted to save people to the church and not to God. This drift has occurred because they have overlooked the importance of keeping the main thing the main thing. The fact is, what you save people with is what you save people to.
This phenomenon is detailed in the book Mission Drift (Greer, Horst, and Haggard, 2014). Although the book focuses on Christian organizations, the concept can easily apply to our local church. The idea that without a constant reminder of the mission, we can drift away and over time find ourselves far from where we started.
Having a well-run, large church with many members who serve on team is not a bad thing. Efficient and dedicated teams are far more effective at achieving their goals then teams that aren’t.
In fact, serving on team and regularly attending church and homegroups are incredibly helpful ways to grow as a Christian. But if the core, outworked, visible mission of the church is not the spread of the gospel and the making of disciples, then the church has given up the gospel for a false gospel.
The question every church needs to ask is; what is the emphasis? Is Christ and His gospel central to every aspect of church life, or have other aspects of a functioning community of faith taken center stage?
Similar questions are raised by historically significant Christian leaders in every generation – not just me pontificating – where is the focus in each of our lives?
How central is the gospel for me? It is a common misconception that the gospel is just for saving people. Rather the gospel is for Christians too. When we do not constantly remind ourselves that its only through faith in Jesus Christ and what he achieved on the Cross that brings salvation, then we can easily stray.
Whether it’s the Galatians reverting to old Jewish law, or the modern church emphasizing serving the church, drifting away from the gospel is easy to do when it’s not central in our lives.
Jason Gay is an Educational Leader in regional Queensland. Loving husband and father of four, Jason is passionate about seeing all generations equipped with everything they need for a successful and fulfilling life. He writes about politics, theology, and the big ideas of life.