Monday, March 10, 2014

Another Gospel

Interior of a Megachurch
A good friend of mine recently forwarded an article to me.  The article was actually a sermon (homily) delivered by an Assemblies of God minister here in Springfield Missouri about six years ago.

Assemblies of God Headquarters
in Springfield Missouri
For those of you who may not know, the Assemblies of God, at 65 million members, is the world's largest and most organised Pentecostal Protestant denomination.  Its headquarters is just a few miles away from my home, here in Springfield Missouri, in a large blue and white complex the locals affectionately refer to as the "Blue Vatican." Historically, these Pentecostals are known for "speaking in tongues" during church services, dynamic preaching from the pulpit and long altar calls, whereby parishioners walk up to the front of the chapel and publicly rededicate their lives to Jesus Christ -- often referred to as "getting saved."  The Assemblies of God is a Protestant denomination, meaning it clings to all of the historically Catholic teachings on the Trinity, Incarnation and Atonement.  They are not part of the "Oneness Pentecostal" movement that has denied the Trinity. So they definitely fall under Catechism 818 & 819 wherein they ought to be referred to as "Christian brethren" by Roman Catholics.

Recently however, in Springfield Missouri, the Assemblies have changed their style of worship, moving away from their traditional Pentecostal church model in favour of the more contemporary Evangelical Megachurch approach.  Speaking in tongues, words of knowledge and prophecy, all the traditional Pentecostal flair, has been replaced with a more entertaining worship service, consisting of pop praise and worship bands, some even using massive video displays and fog machines.  All the core Pentecostal beliefs are still there, mind you, but one is more apt to find such things as "speaking in tongues" expressed in private study groups associated with the main church, rather than in the main church service itself.  This formula has attracted tens of thousands of new members across the Ozarks. Many Baptists and Evangelicals have switched over to the Assemblies of God, mainly because of this new worship model. Even a good number of traditional Protestants (Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, etc.), and even a small number of Catholics, have joined this Assemblies Megachurch movement.

James River Assembly
James River Assembly, located in the City of Ozark (just south of Springfield), has become the flagship of this movement here in the Ozark Mountains, boasting of nearly 10,000 people in regular weekly attendance. It is to this particular church, and a few similar congregations, that many Baptists, Evangelicals and other Christians have switched to, often not even realising that "James River Assembly" is an Assemblies of God (Pentecostal) church.  The complex is so large, with so many activities and attractions therein, that I have heard some of the locals snidely refer to it as "Six Flags Over Ozark."  I don't share this sentiment, but I can understand why they use this comical epitaph.  It is rather large.  I occasionally like to stop by and just look around.  I've been known to stop by and get a coffee, pull out the laptop and blog on "Catholic In The Ozarks" while sitting in one of their comfortable lobbies.  The people are friendly and the place is so big, nobody is the wiser.  They have no idea that I don't even attend church there.  I've had some good conversations with folks there and talked about God.  I'm not there to evangelise people, and they have no idea that I'm Catholic, because I usually don't disclose that to them.  Unless they already know me personally, or ask some specific question, they'll probably never find out.  Once a friend who attend there asked me if I had decided to go to church there.  I very plainly told him "no" and "I just like using the lobby.  It's very comfortable and friendly."  (I mean, what are they gonna do?  Kick me out!?!)  This resulted in a smile and an invitation to come by and visit any time.  I told you they were friendly.  Now James River Assembly has gotten so large that it's opened up a second campus closer to my home.  James River Assembly - West Campus is a bit smaller, only boasting of 2,000 people in regular attendance, but what this means is that James River Assembly has taken the Megachurch model to a whole new level.  It is now a "denomination within a denomination."  James River has two campuses now, and there is no reason to believe it won't eventually open a third and a fourth and so on.  Yet, James River is within and under the Assemblies of God denomination.  I have no idea how this will work out in the years to come, and whether James River will remain under the Assemblies of God, or grow so large that it eventually breaks with the Assemblies and starts its own Evangelical/Pentecostal-style denomination.  I have no idea.  All I know is they have good coffee, comfortable lobbies, an excellent wifi connection, and good Christian pop music playing in the background.  The people are always friendly, and it's a good place to blog or read surrounded by people who are religious and believe in family values.  I much rather prefer this setting to a Barnes & Nobel or the local library. I suppose some Catholics might be afraid to step foot in such a place, for fear of being pulled out of the Catholic Church and sucked into Protestantism.  I suppose I wouldn't recommend going there to just any Catholic.  As a former Protestant teacher, I have been thoroughly inoculated against Protestant theology.  Because of this, there is no danger of me ever converting back to Protestantism, so I could stroll right into just about any Protestant setting, greet and love everybody therein, and stroll right out just as Catholic as I was before.  I suppose some Catholics can't do that, mainly because they don't know their faith well enough, so I guess it's not for everybody.  In fact, as I was writing this article, two Jehovah's Witnesses came to my door.  We had a pleasant conversation, wherein it became apparent that I would not convert, and they were not interested in hearing the Catholic side of things.  So we shook hands and parted ways on friendly terms.  My point here is to demonstrate that if a Catholic knows and fully understands his Catholic Christian faith, he has nothing to fear.  There is not a Protestant (or a Jehovah's Witness for that matter) in the world that can unsettle the faith of a well educated Catholic.  I tell you, it's not possible.  So if you haven't done so already -- LEARN AND KNOW THE FAITH.

Okay, now that you've become acquainted with the large influence the Assemblies of God has on this region in which I live, I'll go on to the article/sermon my friend forwarded to me.  It's really very fascinating, and at the risk of raising a few eyebrows, I will call it "prophetic."   The article/sermon was delivered by David Wilkerson here at the Assemblies of God Headquarters (Blue Vatican) in Springfield Missouri. It is entitled "The Dangers of The Gospel of Accommodation."  As best as I can tell, it was originally posted to the Internet in July of 2008, before the collapse of the stock market later that year and subsequent great recession to follow.  Here is the link if you would like to read the whole thing.  I would also like to call your attention to another article published by the Christian Science Monitor about a year later, that warns of a similar thing using statistical models and trends.  The article from the Christian Science Monitor predicts the coming collapse of Evangelical Protestantism within about 10 years or so.  The article/sermon by David Wilkerson very deftly tells us why.  The following is a excerpt from the Christian Science monitor...
(Christian Science Monitor) - Within two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants. (Between 25 and 35 percent of Americans today are Evangelicals.) In the "Protestant" 20th century, Evangelicals flourished. But they will soon be living in a very secular and religiously antagonistic 21st century. 
This collapse will herald the arrival of an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian West. Intolerance of Christianity will rise to levels many of us have not believed possible in our lifetimes, and public policy will become hostile toward evangelical Christianity, seeing it as the opponent of the common good. 
Millions of Evangelicals will quit. Thousands of ministries will end. Christian media will be reduced, if not eliminated. Many Christian schools will go into rapid decline. I'm convinced the grace and mission of God will reach to the ends of the earth. But the end of evangelicalism as we know it is close. 
source
The Monitor's article goes into a litany of reasons why, which includes such things as identifying with political conervatisim (the "Culture War") at the expense of preaching the full gospel, which of course not only includes option for the poor, but most importantly, the confrontation of sin in our personal lives and the interior need for repentance and regeneration by the Holy Spirit.  In the end, the Monitor points out that Evangelicals have failed to pass on the faith on to their children in any real meaningful manner.  The next generation of Evangelicals has been set adrift.  For the time being they will identify with Evangelicalism on a purely cultural or social level, but that will soon change -- very quickly.  Evangelicalism has no real cultural anchor to hold steady to.  Let's face it, when your "cultural spirituality" consists of pop bands, video screens and fog machines, how long do you think that will last.  Such things can be found in any music concert or teen club. Who needs a church?

The real message behind the Monitor's article however is truly brought out in David Wilkerson's own article/sermon published a year prior.  When we consider how much Pentecostalism overlaps with Evangelicalism (and this includes many Baptist churches) we can see the big picture.  Here in Springfield Missouri, Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism have become virtually indistinguishable.  In truth, the average Catholic couldn't tell them apart, and neither could the average non-religious person.  The overlap is bringing about a convergence, and in a way, we could consider the whole thing one movement now.  For the sake of simplicity I will simply refer to it as the "Protestant Megachurch Movement."  David Wilkerson's article/sermon was addressed specifically to the Assemblies of God, but I think it's so profound, and so darn accurate, that it applies to the whole Protestant Megachurch Movement entirely.  Here are some abbreviated excerpts from Wilkerson's article/sermon...
A New Gospel 
Accommodate means to adapt, to make suitable and acceptable, to make convenient. A gospel of accommodation is creeping into the United States. It’s an American cultural invention to appease the lifestyle of luxury and pleasure. Primarily a Caucasian, suburban gospel, it’s also in our major cities and is sweeping the nation, influencing ministers of every denomination, and giving birth to megachurches with thousands who come to hear a nonconfronting message. It’s an adaptable gospel that is spoon-fed through humorous skits, drama, and short, nonabrasive sermonettes on how to cope—called a seeker-friendly or sinner-friendly gospel. 
To begin with, those terms are unscriptural. The gospel of Jesus Christ has always been confronting—there is no such thing as a friendly gospel but a friendly grace. 
This new gospel is being propagated by bright, young, talented ministers. They have come upon a formula which states you can go into any town or city; and if you have the right formula, within a short time you can raise a megachurch.... 
Paul’s Warning
Paul warned of the coming of another gospel and another Jesus (2 Corinthians 11:4). He warned the church that it’s really not another gospel but a perversion of the true gospel of Jesus Christ. If you hear any other gospel, he said, let that preacher be accursed. In other words, no matter how pleasant, how pious, or how sincere, if the message is not the death of sin through the cross of Jesus Christ, let it be accursed....
Paul said they are going to glory in the flesh, in their bigness, their numbers, their influence, and their contemporariness. They will boast they are contemporary, that there is a gospel that is out of style that doesn’t reach human need anymore. They will glory in the world’s acceptance. Jesus warned, “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves” (Matthew 7:15). The context of that warning was: “Straight is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth to life, and few there be that find it” (verse 14).
His warning was to beware of the wolves who are going to say it’s really not that narrow and straight—they are going to come posing as submissive sheep. Jesus put His finger on the cause: ambition—ambitious ravening wolves. In the Greek it means “starved for recognition and quick gratification, quick growth.”
Jesus left no doubt about His meaning. For example, He was addressing a struggling pastor who has worked for years and hasn’t seen the kind of growth he wants to see. A young man with an accommodating gospel moves into town and and within a very short time has a megachurch. People are flocking there because there is entertainment; it’s a gospel of fun. I’ve been in some of them. It’s the gospel of entertainment that has no conviction whatsoever. There is very little in their gospel that speaks to sinners of repentance, brokenness, and cross-bearing. A Christ is preached, Jesus’ name is mentioned, but Paul said their’s is another gospel, another Jesus.
Paul warned that if you are caught in this trap, if you want that hook of entertainment, that hook of sudden growth, this is the hook: The enemy will put in your path a teaching....
What the Gospel of Accommodation Does
I see three things in the gospel of accommodation:
  1. It is the accommodation of man’s love for pleasure. 
  2. This gospel of accommodation accommodates all man’s aversion to self-denial.
  3. There is an accommodation of man’s offense to the gospel.
It’s cruel, pastor, to lead sinners to the Cross, tell them they are forgiven by faith, and then allow them to go back to their habits and lusts of the flesh, unchanged and still in the devil’s shackles. If the preaching of grace doesn’t have as its goal the producing of a walk of righteousness, then it’s another gospel, another Jesus....
source
I encourage you to read the whole thing.  The good minister here is trying to make an excellent point, and his observation is spot on.  The Protestant Megachurches, especially those with television ministries, fit this description perfectly.  Their object is not to offend, and create a "feel good gospel" that is acceptable to the most people possible.  There are only a few exceptions to this that I can think of, namely those few Megachurches obsessed with end times prophecy, and don't care who they offend.  Wilkerson is right in his observation that this "new gospel" has crossed denominational lines, as indeed, I've even seen some Catholic priests trying to imitate it. (This is a terrible mistake a Catholic priest would do well to correct if he finds himself doing it.)  However, I would like to make my own observation here.  What is happening with the Protestant Megachurches is nothing new.  In fact, I would dare say that whole phenomenon of the rise of Protestant Megachurches is following a rather old tradition.  Granted, it's been augmented by mailing lists, focus groups and internet strategies, but in the end, its the same old story we Catholics have been hearing about for the last 500 years.

Protestantism itself began as a kind of "new gospel" that accommodated the social trends and lifestyles of the time period.  When Martin Luther rejected Catholic teaching on Purgatory, indulgences, the sacraments and the authority of the pope, he was accommodating not only his own aversion to certain aspects of the gospel, but he was providing a way to accommodate the same aversion in others.  Let's face it, Martin Luther wouldn't have amounted to much in Germany, if there wasn't a new type of affluence there that found his new gospel appealing.  The same type of accommodation gospel would be realised in Geneva under John Calvin, and then in England under Queen Elizabeth I.  Century after century, the process has been repeating itself, with one accommodation after another, resulting in one great Protestant movement after another.  Today there are thousands of Protestant denominations, sects and affiliations.  During 20th century America, one could easily find a Protestant church to fit any theological fancy.  However, over the last 30 years or so, the Protestant Megachurches have arisen, and as a result, there has been a kind of consolidation of these various traditions into one big entertainment/motivational "worship" service.  Quite frankly, as a former Protestant and now Roman Catholic, I find the whole thing quite natural.  It was inevitable that Protestantism would end up this way, and it is inevitable that it will soon find itself in crisis because of it.

David Wilkerson is right, but I think he doesn't realise just how right he is.  The Gospel of Accommodation has been around for a very long time, and what he may not realise is that his own tradition (which he considers "traditional") is itself a form of accommodation from another Protestant tradition in the past. Because if we are really frank with ourselves, those of us who know history are quite aware that Protestantism has always been an accommodation.

That being said however, they're still Christian.  As long as they continue to accept the Trinity, Incarnation and Atonement, we Catholics can, and should, continue to call them "brethren."  That's what the Catechism teaches anyway.  So the best thing for us to do is to know our own faith, and know it well, so that we can teach them what we're about gradually.  When the collapse of the Protestant Megachurches comes -- and it will come eventaully -- perhaps some of their members will remember us, and return home to Rome in the process. Until that day comes I'll continue to stop by for the good coffee, comfortable lobbies, excellent wifi and good conversations.

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1 comment:

MarijaD said...

Excellent commentary! This is truly what happens when you come to believe that receiving the bread and wine is only a symbol. Accommodation. The people have to be excited about something. If the focus is not on God and receiving Him, then it will be on man and pleasing him. The Catholic Church's focus has always been on God, receiving the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, a profound and humbling experience for man, which should invoke deep reverence in his heart.

As a young Christian back in the 1970's I was a follower of David Wilkerson. Even worked at one of his Teen Challenge missions in New York. Have been a member of several denominations over the years, ever seeking-- what? I was not sure. Friendly and exciting preaching and music attracted me for awhile. The turning point came one Sunday when the mega church I attended celebrated the 4th of July with clowns throwing out candies to the kiddies as they pranced down the aisles, prom queens waving as they rode in golf carts down the aisles as well. It struck me as blasphemy to have such a hoopla in worship service. Such activities are fine in a stadium, but Sunday worship? I left that church never to return. I remembered the one time in Germany I had attended an old Catholic church with a Catholic friend and how quiet and reverent it seemed. I had to wear a mantilla and followed my friend in kneeling, standing, praying--everything, except receiving the Eucharist. To make a long story short, I began looking into the teachings and history of the Catholic Church because I recalled the reverence I experienced like in no other church. After 10 years of reading from the church fathers, church history, Catholic books and reading the entire Catholic catechism, I began RCIA and entered the Catholic Church in 2010.

Having been a member of several protestant denominations and having experienced all kinds of novelties in preaching and entertainment, I was very sad to learn of such things also invading the Catholic Church after Vatican II. Hopefully the Catholic Church will not cave in and give room to the "accommodation" we have seen continually splintering the protestant churches. The Catholic Church needs to remain a pillar of truth and reverence so that it will be there to welcome the protestant children who eventually tire of the fun and games at church and realize the true worship they have been missing.