Wednesday, August 17, 2016

1st Century Churches - 21st Century Practices

At X Baptist Church in Technology, TX, the ‘minister of music’ had for several years provided all musical accompaniment and some complete musical selections by electronic media. The pulpit minister, inspired by his example, determined to record a sermon to be shown on the big screen while he was away on vacation. He eagerly returned the next Sunday, hoping all had gone well. To his surprise, the pews were empty! Curious, he stepped into the aisle. He discovered the pews filled with CD players, DVRs and such like. The silence was broken only by an occasional electronic "amen."

Invention and advance in technology have revolutionized our world. We possess many revolutionary toys unknown to our Baptist forebears -- cars, planes, electricity, televisions, telephones, satellites, computers. Ease, convenience, instant communication, knowledge of world events, and rapid transit abound. These advances affect our churches. Few have stopped forward to advise us on what is lawful and expedient. Many advocate the churches should embrace most or all that technology has to offer. Absolute acceptance is not the answer — else we will destroy the biblical concept of church and worship. Total abstinence is not the answer, else we would still meet in log buildings with mud chimneys. In the absence of nobler minds giving counsel, I will attempt some exhortations, hoping this will spur the wiser to contribute dialogue toward resolving the problem.

How one arrives at the church -- whether by foot, wagon, auto or train -- is immaterial to the discussion. It is the practices that materially affect the church and its services that must come under scrutiny. These comments are mostly confined to the ever-increasing use of audio and video in church services -- television, video recording, radio, audio recording, live streaming, etc. The study of these areas should yield principles that can be applied to other usages that are rapidly advancing. No straw men have been built for the sake of argumentation. All cases come from actual church practices (thus some are a little outdated).

These concepts will help us judge the general use of video and audio -- gathering vs. scattering, worship vs. entertainment, simple vs. complicated.

Preachers and churches have for years used radio and television to proclaim the word of truth (and a lot of untruth for that matter!). These resources may be legitimately tapped by a church to proclaim the gospel beyond her four walls and her little “parish”. Yet there is a subtle problem related not to the resource, but its use. “Radio churches” and “TV Congregations” violate the gathering principle of the New Testament (Matt 18:20; 1 Cor. 11:18; etc.). It is fine to listen to a preacher of truth on the radio, but it is sinful when we substitute this for church. A radio pastor sees his congregation as all who listen, while a New Testament church is composed of those who gather in one place. An absent minister who has no personal contact with his “church”, plus a detached Christian who makes no commitments, does not equal scriptural criteria for a church. The personal relationship, interaction, and one-anothering are displaced by a far-away fantasy world.

A Christian sitting in front of a TV builds a spectator mentality. Christianity should be an active participation in service and worship - it is not about being entertained! A real church service involves Christians serving and worshiping their God in gathered capacity. Much so-called Christianity reveals a passive spectator being entertained by someone who is theoretically worshiping God. Use of audio and video remove an active participant and substitute an inanimate object. Recorded music is sometimes used to accompany a singer. Why must we introduce a foreign element from outside the gathered church? The recording may even include background vocals. Who are these people? Did they come together to record their worship of God, or are they in business to make money? If we are to have canned music, why not just play a tape of the vocals also? (My preference is that all music would be a cappella congregational singing.)

In 1996, I wondered how far churches were from just showing a prerecorded service? It’s done, but that’s really old news now, isn’t it? I wondered how far we are away from “churches” who “meet” via conference call. We are there in 2016, in a much more sophisticated manner -- the “multi-campus church” that meets via live streaming. The preacher is in one place, and the so-called congregation is in many other places. Not only does this destroy the gathered congregational relationship and defy Baptist views of the church,  it reveals a certain degree of ministerial arrogance.

The introduction of technological advances into our churches is in great contrast to the simple, unadorned worship of the New Testament church, and follows man’s sinful tendency to complicate that which God has designed (Exodus. 20:25). Even when considering things that violate no scriptural principle, it is better to keep worship plain and direct rather than complicated and confused. Do not become dependent on things to mediate our worship to God — whether it be an instrument, hymn hook or whatever. Do not rely on things external!

Pulpit affiliation is the practice of a church inviting a unorthodox preacher from an unscriptural church into her pulpit. Churches which adamantly condemn pulpit affiliation may unwittingly practice it. Those who would not invite a Southern Baptist Convention preacher to fill the stand might show a video of Billy Graham preaching; or, a congregation might be subjected to a Protestant such as James Dobson piped in via satellite. Many popular radio and TV preachers are thereby given a forum to come in and speak to the church, though they would not have been welcome in flesh and blood! We have churches who insist that a certain type of preacher will not be invited to their pulpits, who, through audio and video, bring in the same preachers that they deny physical access. Whether a preacher is literally invited, or given more electrical access, such is still in kind the same pulpit affiliation.

Some things that may not be improper outside the church can be improper when brought into the church gathering. One might not see too much wrong with certain Walt Disney movies. To watch them when we meet to sing the songs of Zion or hear God’s Word preached is certainly not appropriate. One thing popular today is to watch the Super Bowl in church capacity. One East Texas church advertised her Super Bowl Sunday services thusly: Super Bowl on giant screen, Half-time testimonies, Food and Fun, 5:00 p.m. (They had corn dogs and baked potatoes for $1). Football is so important to many Christians that they will not attend their services on Super Bowl Sunday. To compensate, many churches (so-called) offer the Super Bowl, with amenities, and reserve halftime for testimonies, worship, and probably more food and fun! Oh, the worship of it all! Would New Testament Christians even recognize who we are if they showed up for our services!

We must understand that, though we have the technology to do it, many things are not appropriate (proper, fitting) to listen to or watch at the Lord’s house.

Modern churches are especially susceptible to trying innovations to “keep the young people.” Many who would not for themselves advocate such things will promote them for various youth meetings and activities. Movies are often shown at youth meetings. This will bring up the question of what is fitting, but often goes beyond that. Churches will show a secular movie because it has some moral to it, or just because it appeals to the youth and will assure their attendance. But by many such movies inappropriate dress, suggestive scenes, unscriptural theology, and off-color language are all brought within the walls of the church sanctuary. This should be unthinkable! Are we so absorbed in modem culture that we cannot discern good and evil? When we ought to be separating ourselves to God and removing such trash from our homes, some are instead bringing abomination into the house of God. God forbid!

Shall we leave all the advances for the devil’s crowd to use, and hold ourselves aloof from all modem technology?

Many things can be adapted for use apart from our worship services. While we do not wish to pipe in unscriptural ministers into our churches, we can use radio, TV, e-mail and internet to reach places we cannot go. Churches from plain to hi-tech engage in such ministries. This can provide assistance to people in extenuating circumstances -- isolated, incapacitated, etc. We should try to make use of these resources in ways that do not violate the Scriptures.

When we gather in church capacity, we must be careful. Perhaps these questions will help guide us: 1. Will it violate the concept of the gathered church? 2. Will it hinder or help worship? 3. Will it introduce some element that we would otherwise reject? 4. Does it meet standards of propriety? 5. Does it substitute for something God intended? 6. Will it change any element of the actual worship? 7. Will it cause division? 8. Will it complicate our worship? 9. Would it be good if applied generally?

There are many things that we will reject as obviously unscriptural; some that violate no scripture, but are not expedient: and some things we may be able to use to enhance our services. Let us use wisdom in searching these new things and reject anything that will negatively affect our church gathering and our worship of God.

Adapted from “1st Century Churches - 20th Century Practices” in The Baptist Waymark, Vol. IV, No. 3, May-June 1996, p. 3-4

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