Giving up on the megachurch

I’ve refrained for a while from commenting on issues in Evangelicalism, or even Catholic apologetics, because it seemed to me like my new convert zeal was getting the best of me. But, I’m thinking maybe it’s time to reenter the ring, so to speak, seeing as how it’s been over a year since my Confirmation and I’m getting quite settled.

I ran across Brant Hansen’s blog today, via discussion of his decision to leave his Evangelical church on the Internet Monk and the Road Well Traveled. Brant’s dilemma resonates with me, as I shared many of his objections as I worked as a Baptist Sunday School teacher and Worship Team member.

What I’d like to ask is whether each of his objections isn’t best answered, on a theoretical if not always on a practical level, by the (Roman) Catholic Church, or if not that, (Eastern) Orthodoxy:

Here are some quotes from his description of life since he stopped “going to church”:

Now, I’m not prone to using a big church worship meeting as an ego trip, even at an sub-conscious level. For me: Temptation averted.

Absolutely. Big temptation averted for me as well. I seriously worry about modern “worship” which ends up, subconsciously if not overtly, focusing on me and my relationship with God.

Now, the MVP’s are not people who are excellent public speakers and musicians. It so happens, I’m a public speaker and musician, so this is — no kidding — a downer for me, personally. These skills make me a “real asset” to the typical American version of church. But the guy who doesn’t do this stuff, but still yearns for significance…? He can find it with us. After watching men, standing on the sidelines for so long, wondering what the point is…forgive me if I get goosebumps. It’s no wonder that “house churches” seem to have so much more male involvement.

He brings up a wonderful point about men in church. I became prominent in my Baptist church because I have some skill at teaching, and I play the piano well. A lot of guys don’t do either, and more importantly, are turned off by the emotionalism of modern worship and preaching. I know I am, even though I have a knack for performing it. But, there’s another solution, and it’s refocusing worship almost exclusively on God, like the “high” liturgies of the Eastern Churches and the Tridentine Rite. In both situations, in my experience, you have many more men involved, proportionally, than in your local megachurch.

And, now, ironically, I “see” how my Vision, itself, can get in the way.

Yep. It’s not about me. It’s about the Body of Christ.

I admire the faith, perseverance, and zeal of those who strike it off on their own, forming house churches when the vapidity of the megachurch becomes increasingly apparent. But, in the end, we all must answer several questions:

1. Where does our authority come from?

It’s not from the Bible alone, because if that were true, then we wouldn’t have thousands of denominations all claiming to believe the Bible alone, but not the way their neighbor believes the Bible alone. Regardless of how nuanced a sola scriptura view is, it ultimately boils down to logical contradiction, and therefore, to fideism. I know many people who are comfortable with the notion that their faith in Scripture alone is not rooted in Scripture alone but in a deep feeling of truth, but I cannot be, even though I affirm every bit as strongly as they do that the Bible is the inerrant, inspired word of God.

2. What makes my interpretation right? (corollary of #1)

3. If I cannot stand on the Bible alone, on what can I stand?

Do I follow Calvin? Luther? R.C. Sproul? John MacArthur? John Stott? John Piper? Billy Graham? Francis Schaeffer? Where do they get their justification? From whence do their beliefs come?

4. How do I reconcile Jesus’ and Paul’s clear insistence upon unity with what I see in our fissiparous Christian world?

I could go on, but these four will do, for now…

I pray that Brant and his family will continue their seeking, eventually coming in to the fulness of the Faith.


14 Responses to “Giving up on the megachurch”

  1. 1 Bekah December 28, 2006 at 11:03 pm

    Perhaps it is my perspective, but it seems to me that the Holy Spirit is driving the faithful (Catholics and separated brethren alike) to a climax. There seems to be more media coverage of these phenomena, an influx of articulate and self-sacrificing souls into unity, and a slow but mounting rise of orthodoxy. Though the battle is far from won, these little bits of evidence leave me hopeful and optimistic that there will be significant gains against modernist/reformist heresies. The division of the reformation is reaping fruit that is becoming increasingly hard for even faithful protestants to deny.

  2. 2 Edmund C. December 29, 2006 at 8:46 am

    I agree completely, Bekah. I spent last night in the company of several faithful Protestant friends: an Anglo-Catholic couple, a Baptist couple who both lean toward Eastern Orthodoxy and attend a Presbyterian church, and another Presbyterian friend. We agree on so much more than we disagree, and it seems like our disagreements gradually grow less and less. I am very hopeful that in time, our various faithful traditions will reunite. I am not sanguine, however, about the possibility of it happening in our lifetimes. The wounds of 1517 and after are still too fresh.

  3. 3 Bekah December 29, 2006 at 11:06 am

    I believe one of the key ideas we need to keep emphasizing with our separated brethren is the harm of disunity. I think this is a major hole in protestantism, which is either ignored or glossed over, due to the nature and condition of protestantism itself. If we can open discussions on this fact, I believe inroads are made to come to greater alignment on other matters. Once recognized, the only obvious remedy to the sin of disunity is union. And once that door is opened, the only logical conclusion is union with the Catholic Church.

    Disagreements on doctrine can be overcome, but without a compelling reason to reunite, most people will choose to stay safely in their comfort zones. It takes courage to seek truth for its own sake, but I believe most faithful Christians honestly strive to be representations of our Lord to the world, and will feel a stronger pull toward the Church if they realize what harm they do His Body by remaining fractured.

    This is not only true for protestants, but also for Catholics who refuse to accept defined doctrine. It is harder, though, with them because most believe they do understand the teachings of the Church, or at least feel they are personally allowed to dissent. I can see how to make this issue clear to protestants. I’m not so certain how to make it clear to Catholics. Perhaps when I sit down with my pastor, hopefully soon, I’ll gain some insight into this more.

    I think I’ll do a blog on that actually. It would be helpful to have some other opinions about how I should address dissension with him before I meet with him, rather than walking in ‘blind’.

  4. 4 Edmund C. December 29, 2006 at 11:09 am

    This is not only true for protestants, but also for Catholics who refuse to accept defined doctrine.

    Absolutely. Another thing that came out of my wide-ranging discussion last night is that my Anglo-Catholic friends’ pastor’s wife is (Roman) Catholic, yet she receives Communion every week at their church. If we don’t hold true to our own doctrine, it’s all the more difficult to explain the differences to Protestants.

  5. 5 Brant December 29, 2006 at 11:36 am

    Thank you for your thoughts on my ramblings. I’m especially thankful for the charitable tone, in addition to the cogent thinking.

    It should be noted I ran into the word “fissiparous” yesterday, in an NT Wright sermon, for the very first time. And here it is, again! I love new words.

    Great questions regarding authority. I completely agree (as someone who debated Franky Schaeffer…and lost) regarding the logical problems facing sola scriptura.

    It is, though, ironic — just as an aside — that I’m dealing with repeated questions about authority now, when I’m actually plugged in with some people who will hold my spiritual feet to the fire, rather than when I was involved in a large church that had one leader who didn’t know us, and was having affairs with staff members. No one asked me about authority then because, presumably, we attended a big Sunday service.

    How about this: (He wrote, expecting responses to straighten him out…) God is the authority. I am not to be autonomous, and must submit to His Kingship, along with fellow believers who seek to follow Him. The Bible is not a quick-answer “Instruction Manual for Life”, but a means of God revealing His story with us.

    Would that “work”? What does working look like? I realize it may all sound naive, but I’m not trying to impress anyone, either. Just thinkin’…

    Fellow longtime RoFT-er,

  6. 6 Edmund C. December 29, 2006 at 12:53 pm

    Brant, thanks for the reply. I’m always afraid that I don’t come across as charitable, especially when the subject is something I care deeply about.

    How about this: (He wrote, expecting responses to straighten him out…) God is the authority. I am not to be autonomous, and must submit to His Kingship, along with fellow believers who seek to follow Him. The Bible is not a quick-answer “Instruction Manual for Life”, but a means of God revealing His story with us.

    Yep, I agree completely. But, I think you ask a very good question when you ponder what “working” would look like in this case. How do we discern God’s will in our lives? How is God’s authority instituted on Earth? There’s the rub, in my opinion.

    Should we care that the house church down the street has decided as a body that abortion is OK? Maybe that’s an extreme example, and I hope it isn’t the case, but it’s theoretically possible, isn’t it? Are those people who decide that not seeking God’s will in their lives equally as zealously as us? Do they not hold the Bible in just as high a regard as we do?

    Probably my biggest character flaw (among many) is that once I latch onto an answer, it’s the answer. Maybe it’s not the only answer, and even if it is the answer, I know it’s pretty darned unlikely that everyone will agree with me.

    But, in this case, I came to a quick conclusion that I could not trust myself or any human group to which I would attach myself to correctly discern and interpret Christian doctrine. So, I dug through Church history starting with the New Testament, and plowed through St. Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Sts. Irenaeus, Cyprian and Augustine, etc, etc. The early Church put great stock (well, except Tertullian once he’d gone off the deep end of Montanism) in continuity–or apostolicity–and developed very, very early a hierarchy to maintain that and prevent the problem of competing orthodoxies. They weren’t all that successful at stopping heresy, but one thing that can be said is that orthodoxy could always be identified. Something supernatural kept this unbroken thread of orthodoxy, and this simple hierarchy of bishop, priest, deacon, laity, from breaking for 1,500 years. I decided I needed to attach myself back to this line if I was to avoid the crushing uncertainty of finding my own way.

    Maybe I’m just weak, but on my good days, when I’m not agonizing over this and that controversy over liturgy or priestly sex abuse, I get a glimpse of that “peace that passes all understanding” in knowing that I don’t have to have it all figured out. Someone else–indeed many someone elses over two millennia–figured it out and I can rest in communion with them.

    PS: how did you peg me for a ROFTer? That obvious?

  7. 7 Bekah December 29, 2006 at 2:01 pm

    Wow, good discussion. I’m glad you ventured over Brant. I should have linked you in my blog, too, but I hadn’t actually read your post, just iMonk’s response.

    The issue of authority, for most of us converts, is recognized as THE issue. In fact, that was the first question I settled, before all those ‘controversial’ doctrines, which made the whole process so much easier…

    The Holy Scriptures were the means by which I settled my own uneasiness concerning home-churching. It was I, not others, who encountered the question and engaged it (prodded by the Holy Spirit). I felt I needed to resolve the tension between Proverbs advisements against “leaning on my own understanding” and “the way that seems right to a man leads to death”, with what my family was doing. But, I’ve also felt that one of my spiritual gifts is discernment, and I KNEW that certain things most churches participated in or taught regularly and unquestioningly were simply wrong. But, I couldn’t accept that the Holy Spirit’s leading could/would be in conflict with Scripture, so that if Scripture advised not listening to myself, I’d better listen. Yeah, the reasoning is somewhat circuitous…but that is really the lot of a sola Scriptura believer.

    I needed to break out of the circle. But, I trusted Jesus when He promised He would never leave us orphans. I knew that there had to be an answer. I’d never encountered the early Church fathers, except a passing reference by one of my pastors to St. Augustine, so it didn’t really enter my mind to look there. All I knew was sola Scriptura and I felt confident the answer was there if I looked hard enough.

    It was at that point that I was grabbed by John 17 and it left a new conviction on my heart. When telling this story, I always iterate that this gave me a week long headache. It really did. It felt like a puzzle I was compelled to figure out with too many peices, and I had to determine which were the correct peices to be able to fit the puzzle together, and I didn’t have the top to the box.

    Jesus prayed for Unity. He didn’t pray for unity for our benefit, though. He prayed for it to be a witness to the world! That one verse put the nail in the coffin of the “invisible communion of Saints only” idea. The only way unity can be a witness is if it is visible, tangible, unquestionably real.

    Which meant there was only one Church.

    Even through this point, it never occurred to me that it might be the Catholic Church. Through all of this, I was completely convinced that the Catholic Church was erroneous. A red herring, perhaps. But I soon realized that it would be impossible to discriminate between all possible protestant denominations to find which had survived with the truth. I even sat down with a friend’s compendium of systematic theology, but soon realized the futility of my search.

    That same friend handed me a book that had confounded her, “Surprised by Truth”. Only at that point did either of us realize that people, believing Christians, actually became Catholic! What in the world were they thinking?? No one becomes Catholic. People leave the Catholic Church when they become saved!

    Intrigued, I read the book. If you aren’t familiar with it, it is a compilation of the conversion stories of Catholics, from all different backgrounds. There are several volumes now. I don’t remember whose story it was, but it wasn’t until I was halfway through the book that I discovered convincing evidence that the Catholic Church may be the Church founded by Christ, left to be a witness for the world, and the sole source of Christian unity on earth. It was, of course, Scripture.

    As soon as I read it, I recognized the Truth. I didn’t even have to read the explanation of the verse. It was John 6. I don’t know why this happens, but it seems that there are passages in the Bible that I never saw prior to being Catholic. John 6 is the passage in which Christ explains that He is the Bread of Life, and unless man eats of Him, he will not enter Heaven. Most of the disciples left over this. Though Judas didn’t physically leave, it was this that made him check out spiritually.

    The only Church I KNEW believed this strongly in Holy Communion was the Catholic Church. She also was the only Church that I knew had remained faithful on contraceptive issues, which also helped me identify her as THE Church. While I didn’t understand why she taught such confusing and controversial things about the Saints, Mary, regenerative Baptism, etc. I knew I already believed. It was relatively short order that I figured those things out as well.

    But, that is how I settled the issue of authority. I knew I needed an ‘out’ from relying on my own reason, but I also couldn’t just jump at any apparent solution. I do believe that the Holy Spirit is constantly leading His own toward unity, and will open those doors to a truly seeking heart, in whatever manner is necessary.

    The friend I mentioned had a slightly more difficult time of reconciling herself to the Church, but she joined me that same year. For her, it took a Marian “vision”. She also went through a period of home-churching with her family.

    Now that I’ve rambled on so long about myself, I’ll answer your questions in another post. 🙂

  8. 8 Bekah December 29, 2006 at 2:28 pm

    God is the authority. I am not to be autonomous, and must submit to His Kingship, along with fellow believers who seek to follow Him. The Bible is not a quick-answer “Instruction Manual for Life”, but a means of God revealing His story with us.

    I think you are on the right path with this. I invite you to travel a little farther. Absolutely, we all agree God is the ultimate authority. But what is His pattern in using, or perhaps administrating, that authority? Does Scripture hold any clues to that?

    A recurring theme in Christ’s parables, as well as the Old Testament, is the master who leaves authority in the hands of servants. One master leaves talents in the hands of servants, rewarding those who make proper use, especially by placing the whole estate in the hands of the most faithful. A vineyard owner leaves his vineyard in the charge of others, and then sends his servants to collect the debts, finally sending his Son, whom they kill. There are other examples. But it is common that the Master or King is an ‘absentee’ landlord in many of the tales. When those in his employ are left without a clear representative, bad things usually happen. God knows our character.

    Likewise in the Old Testament, we have clear patterns with authority. One of the pre-eminent that comes to mind is Joseph, who rises to first in command under the Pharoah, and is the first of the twelve. Buried in a not so-oft cited passage (by Protestants) is a rebuke by the Lord to a caretaker of the house of David, Isaiah 22. This is a situation which mirrors the others I’ve pointed out, a caretaker has been left control of the ruling house. The Lord is unpleased by the actions of this man, and warns of his doom and foretells his replacement. v. 21-22 “I will clothe him with your robe and strengthen him with your belt; i will commit your responsibility into his hand. He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. The key of the house of David I will lay on his shoulder; so he shall open, and no one shall shut; and he shall shut, and no one shall open.”

    Does this sound familiar? It clarified a very confusing passage to me, one in which I never got a satisfactory answer from any previous pastor I had asked of it. Matthew 16:18, 19 “And I also say to you that you are Peter…And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

    This authority of binding and loosing is reiterated in Matthew 18, but the keys themselves are only given to Peter.

    I would also ask you, if the Bible is God’s means of revealing Himself to us, is it His only means? Does it prohibit any other means, or implicate any additional means?

  9. 9 Brant December 29, 2006 at 7:49 pm

    Great stuff, and great questions. I’ll try to answer more fully when I get more than 30 seconds here.

    Regarding the very last question: Definitively, no, it’s not God’s only means of revealing Himself to us. Even the Bible says so — that God’s divine nature is revealed through what has been made — which makes me quite a fan of scientific pursuit, for instance.

    I never read the passage you are referring to as, “He’s only giving the keys to Peter.” I took that to mean Jesus’s followers. Put briefly, I’m wondering if we haven’t substituted the authority of the church for the role of the Holy Spirit.

    To use the B.C. patterns for authority, I think, presents difficulties for the A.D. church. As I mentioned on my own blog, Jesus replaced the Temple, and enraged leaders of the day with His claim to do so. And then He promised the Holy Spirit would follow us and guide us. The imperfect passes away, and it’s replaced by something far better.

    Anyway, I may be typing too quickly to make sense. Thank you for the thoughtful points!

  10. 10 Bekah December 29, 2006 at 8:58 pm

    Put briefly, I’m wondering if we haven’t substituted the authority of the church for the role of the Holy Spirit.

    Does your understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit produce unity? Does God work against Himself?

    I never read the passage you are referring to as, “He’s only giving the keys to Peter.” I took that to mean Jesus’s followers.

    Why? It is addressed to Peter.

    I actually was about to post on your blog requesting expansion of your ideas regarding the Temple issue. I noticed you linked to other works, though, and I haven’t had time to read them yet. I find the idea, well, misplaced let’s say. But I need to investigate more.

    I do think you are correct, in a way, that the “B.C. patterns of authority” pose a problem for Protestantism.

    I appreciate you taking the time to read my lengthy responses. I’ll try to keep it briefer. lol

  11. 11 Brant December 30, 2006 at 1:33 pm

    On the temple issue, I recommend The Challenge of Jesus by N.T. Wright.

    I asked a Catholic friend on my blog, but got no response: If my view — Wright’s view — is shown to be correct, does it matter?

    I don’t meant this flippantly; I honestly wonder, “What is at stake here?” Certainly, if Catholicism is somehow threatened by the idea that Jesus replaced the Temple, and spoke against it, I would like to know, “Why?” Heretofore, I was unaware why Catholics would object to this concept.

    Regarding Peter and the keys: I think I read it this way because Jesus could be talking to his disciples who were there. The “binding and loosing” thing could be just for Peter, too, but then Jesus repeats it for everyone, later.

    I’m not a Protestant, nor a fundamenalist. What’s more, I’m partial to many Catholic ideas. But I think it’s instructive that even within the Catholic church, there are pockets, churches, colleges, gatherings who utterly reject central teachings of the Church. You don’t need to wonder about my model, and “What if that group down the street supports abortion?” — when you’ve got Catholic institutions and groups that are already there.

    I’m pro-life, decidedly, and share the frustration felt by those Catholics who sponsor fidelity to the magisterium. Orthodoxy is not under threat merely from without the RC church, and I’m sure you know that. And thinking that an authoritative structure prevents false teaching, abuses of truth or people, syncretism with folk religions — well, it clearly doesn’t.

    Forgive me if I sound too snarky — I’m actually quite thankful for the kind tone, here. I’m just a-typin’ fast, again…

  12. 12 Edmund C. December 30, 2006 at 1:57 pm

    Brant, I just happened to turn on the computer right as you replied… I hope Bekah and I haven’t been gangin up on you too much. There may be too much out there for discussion, so let me address three things, the first two quickly:

    1. On Jesus replacing the Temple. I don’t see why Catholics should be threatened by this either, but I’m no theologian. I’ve been meaning to read more Wright; I think I can snag a copy of The Challenge of Jesus from a friend. Anyway, I think the question should be: why did the early Christians rapidly–by the early 2nd century at the latest–coalesce into a form of worship that mirrors the form of Temple worship on the surface but subverts it into a re-presentation (anamnesis) of the unbloody, once for all, Sacrifice of Christ? I’d encourage you to read, if you haven’t already, St. Justin Martyr’s First Apology, written around AD 150. Here’s a link to it (and the most relevant sections are Chs 65-67).

    2. On Peter and the Keys. I agree that the binding and loosing part are repeated later, but the first part is not. The wordplay in Aramaic is kinda neat: you are keepa and on this keepa I will build my Church. (here’s a link to an interlinear Aramaic/English Mt 16)Seems like Jesus is pointing straight at Peter here. Yeah, the other Apostles are present, but those words were directed at him. Also, think about the geographic setting, at Caesarea Philippi, where there’s a huge rock cliff, and if memory serves me correct, both an ancient temple to Pan and the legendary cave leading to Hades…

    3. On false teaching vs. authoritative structure. You are absolutely right. There is nothing about the authority structure of the Catholic Church that prevents false teaching. Way too many examples otherwise. But, what it does do is provide a foundation for correct teaching, setting up clear boundaries of orthodoxy. I would definitely question whether “Catholic institutions and groups that are already” supporting abortion, etc, have any right to call themselves Catholic.

    There doesn’t seem to be any good way to prevent false teaching other than coercion, which has, to put it mildly, its own problems. But, for those seeking true teaching, the framework for it does exist, and I haven’t found another one better than the Catholic Magisterium.

  13. 13 Bekah December 30, 2006 at 6:49 pm

    No, you don’t sound snarky at all, Brant. I appreciate your returning to the discussion. As I noted above, we do have our own problems with disunity, but not because there isn’t clarity about what is defined to be held by faith…it occurs within the Church because people refuse to accept what is defined and yet expect to be able to call themselves Catholic. In reality, if you don’t hold the teachings of the Church to be true, you are no different than any other Protestant within or without the fold.

    Second, returning to the idea of binding and loosing, how is this charism enacted in a Protestant Church or fellowship of any kind? What is the purpose of it?

    I will try to get to reading the info on the Temple. I can’t formulate a response to the idea until I get a better handle on why this is important, what is meant, etc. I’ll probably be able to get to that this next week. I try to limit ‘puter time on weekends.

  14. 14 Bekah January 2, 2007 at 5:31 pm

    Alright, I hope you come back to this, Brant, because I’d really like clarification. 🙂 I’m reading the articles you linked on your blog, and really don’t see anything incompatible with Catholic theology, but I don’t really see a definition of what you mean specifically by “Jesus replaced the Temple”. The way you assert that fact leads me to believe that you mean something different by it then I would, and I’d like to address your specific beliefs about it, rather than what I think you believe about it. The articles you linked in your blog do not seem to make the distinction I was hoping they would. I’m not all that familiar with N.T. Wright, other than having heard his name previously, so a casual reference to his teachings means little to me. I’m doing more looking at the site with his writings, though I think I may be able to speed up the process if you could give a little direction.

    The article on the Authority of Scripture is interesting, and leaves me thinking, “This is very supportive of Catholic use of Scripture”, though I’ve yet to finish reading it. One stumbling block is that he keeps referring to the use of Scripture by the church, but I haven’t found a definition of what he takes the church to be. Again, I’d like to be very certain of the meaning before addressing it, because people can take words to mean very different things. By your argumentation that Jesus replaced the Temple, and somehow how that relates to not visiting a building once a week, I get the feeling that there is something missing regarding to Wright’s definition, or your definition, in comparison to my own interpretation of what the church is.

    And finally, how similar are your views to those of Wright? I mean, if I examine his writings, would you take them to be very close to your own theology, or do you agree with some and disagree with others?? My point is simply that I’d hate to put a lot of thought into something, and then receive a response that that was entirely inconsequential to your own beliefs. 😉

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