Update: June 20, 2012
The total cost for insuring my family through the WOC plan is $19.6k with $1.5k being the clergy's responsibility. The church is responsible for about $18k. (I corrected those numbers up top since the original posting)
It is important to note that the conference has included an HSA contribution within the scope of this plan which is an important upside to the plan. (Again I still maintain they are doing their best with what they have to work with), but the plan has a deductible much higher than the personal plans healthy clergy can obtain.
Finally, I want to express appreciation for the Conference Treasurer for directly contacting me in response to this blog.
It’s interesting to watch the trends that drive worship settings in churches. For a number of years it has been assumed that a more contemporary setting is the best practical way to get young people who have left the church or never been a part of it to come inside the church doors for a worship service. Champions of the contemporary scene can boast the numerical success to prove this reality. Traditionalists have sat back, often frustrated, watching their time honored traditions go by the wayside in order to implement the various new styles. Of course over the last few decades this has produced more than enough debate and division in local congregations everywhere. Pragmatism seems to rule, the attitude is simply that if it works, and it honors Christ by proclaiming the Gospel then it is the right practice. We want to reach those who have not yet heard the Gospel, so we develop our services accordingly. In recent years we are beginning to see a trend that suggests that a more traditional service might be a pragmatically viable as the contemporary service. It is not uncommon to see, especially around universities, a return to a more traditional setting becoming the more attractive method of doing church. Traditionalists sit back and rejoice in seeing this trend, and are hopeful now that sticking to their guns is going to pay off as interest in the big box contemporary church begins to show signs of waning.
There is a brutal irony here. We who are more traditional are now coming out of the woodwork saying ‘look, it still works’ and we puff out our chests and rejoice in the trend that seems to vindicate our refusal to succumb to the latest trend. The irony is that traditionalists have argued against pragmatism ever since the mega-church stage show got rolling, and yet now that the traditional service seems pragmatically viable, the traditionalist appeals to the very pragmatism they once decried. Both the traditional and contemporary camps, are now appealing to the trends to say that their method is viable. The underlying truth that is being exposed here is that most traditionalists were still nothing more than pragmatists all along, and it is evidenced by their willingness to come out of the word work now that their method seems to be working again. Those of the contemporary mindset could rightly make the argument that the traditionalists were merely frustrated pragmatists all along. During the worship wars (contemporary v traditional) many of the contemporary people would level the claim that the traditional church was jealous that their methodology had run its course and was no longer as effective as the new style. We of the more traditional set decried that claim and we thought ourselves to be adhering to a more pure form of worship. Eventually many traditionalists, myself included, began to look at ourselves with some sort of ‘persecuted remnant’ philosophy, and found ourselves taking comfort in that. The truth is that the whole persecuted remnant thing was just a ruse. We traditionalists have come out of our shell, rejoiced at the gradual changing of the trend, and our rejoicing proves that we have longed to appeal to pragmatism and the will of the masses just as much as the most contemporary of churches.
The reality is that the appeal to pragmatism is flawed at the outset. Whether it is the traditionalist trying to justify their tradition by the renewed public interest in it, or whether it is the contemporary churchmen who can boast of gigantic churches, it really is simply two sides to the same coin. The fatal flaw in the whole debate is that success can be judged by how many people walk through our doors on a Sunday morning. Now listen, I get as excited as the next guy as I watch the church I serve grow, and I would be a liar if I did not say that I monitor our numbers very closely to assure that we are growing. The church that does not want to grow has serious problems. However if the church boasts rest in the fact that they are in line with the latest trend, and their growth is predicated on their trendiness (traditional or contemporary) there is a serious problem.
As we look in Acts we cannot deny the reality that large numbers were being redeemed, and that the magnitude of those numbers were recorded as important facts. You cannot speak out against a church because they have seen 3000 people converted, because the early church saw just that and found it important enough to include in the Holy Writ. There is one distinct factor in this though, that all the pragmatist worship design seems to miss… the great numbers that were converted were never converted by attending the worship service of the church. If you recall at Pentecost the great movement among the people was not because they were drawn into the service, but that those gathered in the upper room were led into the streets preaching a language which those outside of the church miraculously understood. All the great movements of the book of Acts were external to the gathering of the Church. The biblically normative method of church growth was the church outside of the facility discipling and baptizing. Of course those who were discipled and baptized then became a part of the church. The normal order of church growth was not attracting people to the church, but was in sending the church into the world.
This flies right in the face of all trend following. It doesn’t matter one bit that traditional worship is becoming more attractive to the next generation, because the worship service was never meant to be an attraction. Traditionalists are falling into the exact same trap that the contemporary church has fallen into, the trap of believing that people needed to come to church to hear the Gospel.
At some point we need to get off of this wheel, because the trends will continue to go back and forth, and the war will continue to wage, and whoever has the style that is most current to the times are the people who will believe themselves to be vindicated.
I can only think of one way to change this trend, and it is painfully difficult change to embrace. The change is simply this, make the Sunday worship gathering a setting that exists primarily for believers. The reality that unbelievers will gather in every assembly is a truth we must deal with, but that reality can no longer drive our methodology, be it traditional or contemporary. If we take this approach it allows us to preach as though we are preaching to believers, it allows us to practice church discipline as though we are disciplining believers… and more importantly than this, it places the onus of proclaiming the Gospel to the world upon the body of believers, not merely their pastor who represents them. This shift in thinking allows the pastor to approach their flock as an actual shepherd of believers, comforting them with the Gospel and commanding them with the Law so that they might go forth and make disciples. It causes the individual Christian to work with the people they meet in their vocation to bring them to the faith outside of the church, and then when the person begins to receive faith bring them into the church. It changes the whole dynamic. Yes it makes for smaller churches in the short run, but it makes for a more robust body of believers over the long haul.
Any thoughts on this?
Before embarking on this little exercise in reality I ought to make it clear that I am a Christian, I pastor a friendly welcoming and typically non-judgmental congregation, I believe that the Gospel invitation goes forth for all, and that Christ really did live, die, and raise for this world. I affirm what most evangelicals would consider the orthodox faith, and I make no apologies for that. I ask only one thing of you as you proceed, do not close your mind until you have given at least a few moments thought to what follows.
Let me start with one simple statement. Christianity is a cult. That is the thesis, and it is not too difficult of a thesis to prove. Christian, your hair may stand up on your back as you read that three word sentence, but it is true, and in denying it you unknowingly deny the faith handed down by Christ and the Apostles. Christianity is a cult.
Let us work through some of the standard markings of a cult, and let us see whether or not Christianity fits the bill.
All cults have a leader who makes audacious claims about themselves. The head of Christianity claimed to literally be the Son of God. This is the most audacious claim that could be made, it was the very claim that caused the leader of Christianity to be nailed to a cross.
Most cults claim to be the true manifestation of an existing accepted religion. Jesus claimed in Matthew 5 that he was the fulfillment of the Jewish Law and the words of their prophets.
Cult leaders demand irrational obedience to their leadership. Jesus demanded his followers to take up their cross and follow Him. Typically these commands include a separation from existing relationships. Certainly you recall Luke 14:25-27, and you will be hard pressed to convince me of that not being cultic language. Must I go on to Jesus’ other commands of obedience to Him? When Jesus called his disciples they were expected to drop their nets (their very livelihood), to not tend to the death of their parents, instead to let the dead bury their own dead. Come on folks, if you cannot see this as cultic you are simply stuffing your fingers in your ears and screaming “La la la la la la” at the top of your lungs. However we have only begun.
Cult leaders tell their followers that persecution by the majority validates what the cult leader is professing. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for my sake.” The leader of a cult knows full well that the majority will reject their message, so to encourage their followers the leader prepares them for constant rejection. If you cannot see this theme in the New Testament, again I think your blindness is intentional.
Cult leaders implement strange rites of initiation. Have you not read that we are baptized into the death of Christ. That we must be born again of water (baptism) and the Spirit? Wanna talk more about strange rites? Jesus said to his followers that unless they eat his flesh and drink his blood they have no part with Him. These are the words that only a cult leader would dare utter.
Cult leaders profess that the way which they proclaim is the only true way. Must I rehash all the exclusive verses of Christ? Jesus claimed himself as the way, truth, and life. His apostles taught that He was the only mediator between man and God. Another apostle claimed that all who rejected this leader would be cast into the lake of fire.
Cult leaders have insider language for their followers. Take a look at Matthew 13:10-17 and you will see that he taught in parables not to make things easy, but in order to confuse everyone who was not his follower. (As an aside, if you somehow think that parables were meant to make difficult topics more understandable you really need to stop reading this post and go read Matthew 13 for yourself. It’s at best a mistake, and at worst an outright lie to say that Jesus gave the parables to clear things up. The opposite is true, which by the way is the type of thing you might expect from a cult leader.)
Cult leaders have great things to say about their followers. “You are the salt of the earth… you are the light of the world…”
Cult leaders make wild promises to their followers… um, Jesus promised his followers eternal (yeah, like forever and ever and ever) life in paradise.
Cult leaders typically work with an inferior class of people… you know like tax collectors and fishermen, as opposed to theologians who would know better.
So far we have just looked at the leader of Christianity, we have not looked at the church itself. Oh did I mention that the one who prepared the way and announced the arrival of this leader was a family member of His? That might raise the cult red flag a bit. Now hopefully what I have written so far has shaken you at least a little bit, and much more could be written about Christ and the cultic nature of His leadership. I do want to make sure you know my heart in this. I am not blaspheming Christ by affirming that he is the leader of a cult called Christianity, not at all. The claims that Christ made of Himself are true, and He verified them in His resurrection and ascension. Unlike the cult leaders we are most familiar, Jesus substantiated His claims. Nonetheless they are undeniably cultic claims.
Now on to the Church. The church was founded upon the teachings of the close friends of this leader, the apostles, who continued to propagate the claims the leader made about himself. Hmmm… a leader and his inner circle have the authority.
One of the marks of a cult is the incredible amounts of time the cult spends together. Have you not read in Acts that the believers met daily in their homes breaking bread, and devoting themselves to the teachings of the apostles?
The church met for prayers, psalms, and spiritual songs. The church gathers to partake of bread and wine which they profess in some way is the body and blood of their leader. The church requires baptism into Christ’s death for membership into its ranks. The church still gathers each week to hear ordained leaders speak to them for 30 minutes or so about the writings in their sacred book about their leader.
Cults are heavy on indoctrination. Isn’t the great commission from Christ to the church to go and make disciples, teaching and baptizing. Disciples? The very term disciple is undeniably cultic. This could go on and on.
Let us look beyond the church itself and look at the very basic nature of Christianity. We have a leader who claims to be the Son of God, we have a Holy Book that claims to be the word of God, we have a body of people who claim to be the people of God, we have sacraments which we claim to be instituted by God. Plug your ears, scream “la la la la la” if you want, but you will not change the reality that Christianity is a cult.
Congratulations if you have made it this far. Those with their fingers in their ears have left us a number of paragraphs ago. However for you who have hung in this far, you deserve to know the whole point of this little tirade, let those who left go polish their little porcelain Jesus to make him look really nice to the rest of the world. We are here to deal with the real thing.
The unbelieving world knows that Christianity is cult, they may not label it as such, but functionally they know it is. As Christians however we fail to see it, or worse we do everything in our power to deny it. In our effort to ‘de-cult’ Christianity we render the entire New Testament impotent.
We have a false notion that the world does not want to be Christian because they think it is too cultic. So what do we do in response? We remove all the cultic elements from the public eye. It is popular in the more cosmopolitan churches to have their baptisms performed at a separate service, you know so ‘seekers’ are not exposed to the ritual. Those churches will typically do the same thing with the Lord’s Supper. We spend our time on topical sermon series which allow us to pick and choose the scriptures we will cover so as to avoid those cultish ones. We remove unison prayer, we remove ancient songs, we remove the communal reading of the Psalms, we go so far as to attempt to proclaim that not only is Christianity not a cult, but we lie and say it is not even a religion. Why? Because we believe that people will not like the church if we do those things.
We are afraid to give people the real thing, because we believe they will not like it, that they will be offended by it. So we run around saying it is not a religion, it is not unique, it is not holy, it is not separate, it is not strange… then we invite them to our church… and if we are still preaching the cultic Christ, they are offended because we hoodwinked them. Or, we invite them to our church which has stripped Christ of all his uniqueness in favor of a pep rally about transforming your life (as though it is about you, and not about the leader of this cult.)
The unbelieving world deserves the truth about Christianity. Then they can come to our churches, and we will welcome them, and they won’t need to feel like we are trying to pull some sort of bait and switch on them.
What follows would be an honest invitation to our church:
I would love for you to come to Delta United Methodist Church. We are not going to judge you, we are as messed up as anyone, certainly as messed up if not more messed up than you. However I give you fair warning, we do some strange things, we worship a man who has made some strange claims, we sing some songs with some strange lyrics, and we pray some strange prayers. (Of course as Christians we find these things to be normal.) You see we know we are a strange bunch, and we want nothing more than for you to experience this strangeness with us. Yeah I suppose you could say it’s a cult, but it is open to all, we have nothing to hide, and we look forward to being upfront and explaining anything you might have a question about. We have had the same questions, and most of us still have a number that are yet unanswered. Yet grace abounds my friend, and you will find it here.
Isn’t that more honest than:
Hey come check us out. We have great music, great coffee, a relaxed atmosphere, and most of all we are not religious.
Then a few months later:
Join our small group, come to our baptism class, become a member and tithe, give to our building program, come to our special communion service…
Wait what? This is quite a bit different than the invitation you gave a few months ago.