You might think I’m oversensitive, but there are some things in the North American church experience I have a really hard time with—behaviors and practices, I think to some degree, all of us are complicit in encouraging. I have a hard time with the vapid and silly songs sung in so many congregations, many of which seem to have nothing to do with Jesus, but a lot to do with us. I struggle with the weirdness of “Spirit keys,” which make the end of a sermon feel like the emotional moment at the end of an episode of Full House. I get uneasy when I watch preachers use carefully rehearsed techniques to whoop people up, as if yelling and jumping around were the sign of true zeal. I get the heebie jeebies when it’s discovered that there are churches that manufacture baptisms, leaving behind lots of numbers but doubtful fruit.
There’s a common concern with all of these: they may well be counterfeits. They are a representation of true biblical zeal, of Spirit-wrought transformation, of heart-felt affection, but they lack the Spirit’s power. We might add numbers to our weekly services by practicing such things, but over time it becomes questionable how many among them are true disciples.
Many, I fear, are coming for the show.
Now, I’m not anti-numbers. I’m pro-as many people coming to every local church as the Lord would allow. But if people are coming for something other than Christ (even if they don’t realize it), if they are coming for the attraction but not for the Savior, we’re missing something.
“When we stage a worship experience that hypes up experience, feelings, or achieving certain states of success or victory, we miss the very point of worship itself: God,” Jared Wilson wrote.1 And if he’s right (and I think he is), then we have to realize the worst thing we can do is offer a counterfeit experience. Here are three reasons:
- Counterfeit experiences s are damaging to the local church because it creates a culture centered around the Sunday “production.” We develop a “come and see” mentality, and begin to believe worship only takes place at a specific time and place, for a set duration.
- Counterfeit experiences turn “ordinary believers” away from their calling as disciple-makers. All of us are equally responsible for sharing the gospel, encouraging, strengthening and correcting our fellow believers. But the counterfeit creates a divide where eventually congregation members take on the role of consumers, and paid ministers are seen as being responsible for the work of ministry instead of equipping others for the work of ministry.
- Most dangerous of all, we risk confusing people about their relationship with God. Crying during a message, or getting really, really psyched doesn’t make me a Christian. Just because I had a warm feeling during a song doesn’t mean I’m right with God. And there are many who discover this too late and find that what they thought they believed wasn’t. And so when tragedy strikes, they determine that they’ve tried Christianity found it wanting, when in reality it went untried.
I hope careful readers will recognize that when I write of these dangers, I am not writing of them pointing at churches I don’t attend. It’s a danger for my church, as well. To be clear, I’m not saying I believe my church is guilty of such things. If it were, I would be speaking with my leaders first, not writing about it without speaking with them. I am simply saying it’s a danger every church is susceptible to. It’s possible for any church—whether they are committed to expository preaching or topical spiritual talks—”to get big, exciting, and successful while actually failing substantially at what God would have us do with his church.”2
And because of this, it’s difficult to offer a definitive solution, save one—which might be the most difficult of all. We must guard our hearts against the seductive lure of “success:”
- We must look beyond numbers and methodologies and mission statements and ask ourselves some hard questions about the fruit we are bearing.
- We must be willing to accept criticism which may hurt. A lot.
- And we must be people willing to admit our error, to ask forgiveness from those we’ve wronged by trying to “help” the Holy Spirit, even when we don’t realize we’ve done so (Psalm 19:12).
Maybe you’re like me and you’ve been feeling concerns similar to mine. Maybe you’ve seen signs of these issues in your church. If so, let me encourage you to do the following:
- Pray for yourself. First, pray that God would show you the legitimacy of your concerns, and what is simply a personal issue that you need to work through. The last thing anyone should do is assume we have all the facts, or that we can perfectly discern the heart.
- Pray for your church’s leadership. The elders and pastors of our churches are not perfect people. They need Jesus just as much as you and I do. Pray that the Holy Spirit would guide them and they would be genuinely attentive to his leading, and be open to constructive feedback.
- Don’t give up trying to be a positive influence. It’s tempting to jump ship and hope that you’ll find somewhere better. But because we know there’s no such thing as a perfect church, you’re always going to run into these issues. Don’t be disheartened—use the opportunities God gives you to fulfill your role as a disciple maker. Speak with your leaders. Encourage other church members. Be a blessing to this local church for as long as God has you there.
Finally, don’t lose heart. Counterfeit experiences are dangerous and damaging. They hinder us in our effectiveness for the mission of making disciples. But even as we recognize the dangers, we do not need to despair. God will not let anyone or anything steal Christ’s glory. God’s mission to redeem and restore the world will continue—and no power of hell, nor scheme of man will ever stop it.