Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Heathy and Unhealthy Churches

Many churches are places which actively worship and serve God. Yet some churches have a lot to answer for in relation to caring for the body of Christ- the people they are to care for and minister to. Stories abound of the cults that have driven their followers into unhealthy situations, caused them extreme spiritual and emotional turmoil, financial hardship, mental anguish and sometimes death. So what are some considerations for a new convert to Christ to follow when deciding on where to fellowship with other Christians? Here are a few ideas, gained from over thirty years of church involvement and some reading on the subject:

  • check out a number of different churches in your local area and get an insight into the style of service- exuberant worship? quiet, reflective style? A mix of both?
  • have a look around at the congregation. Do they represent a cross section of society- families, singles, children, elderly people, youth and young adults? If you have children, it may be wise to investigate if the children in the congregation attend a variety of schools, or if they all attend the same school.
  • What are people wearing? This may seem trivial, but it can be a cue to the type of attitudes imposed. When I visited a church once, I was the only woman wearing slacks, and all the men in that church wore thin ties and short haircuts, a la 1950's USA. Warning flags there. Similarly if midriff tops and mini skirts were acceptable, or if it looked like the ladies were having a designer label competition, I'd be wondering about attitudes. 
  • What kind of worship style do you enjoy? Some churches sing only modern worship songs. Some use hymns. Some play loud music, some soft. Personally I enjoy singing anything in church, because I sing to worship God, but if you have a great love of hymns, don't go to a church that doesn't sing any and complain. 
  • Beware of churches that can use "worship time" as a kind of mind-altering experience- where the continuity of music, combined with loudness, beat and repetition can produce a hypnotic effect in some people. I've seen this done regularly in Pentecostal churches where after a period of such "worship" people start speaking and singing in tongues, all together, which I now believe is not Biblical. Similarly, when "worship time" leads people to start doing bizarre things- laughing hysterically,  barking like dogs, writhing around on the floor, this to me is a big red flag that something is extremely wrong. God is the God of order, not chaos, and He created humans in His image,not to debase or demean our humanity in any way. If people claim to be doing things "in the spirit" make sure it is the Holy Spirit at work, not an evil spirit.
  •  What emphasis is placed on prayer? Jesus said, "My house shall be called a house of prayer"(Matthew 21:13), not a house of music or a house of activity. A catchphrase of Rev. Peter Sweetman, one of the pastors at my church, is "Much prayer, much power. Little prayer, little power." Is the Lord acknowledged in prayer? Are people encouraged to pray, personally and corporately? My church gives opportunities for people to have someone pray with them after every service, as well as having prayer groups throughout the week.
  • What emphasis is placed on preaching and teaching the Word of God ? To me, this is a linchpin of any church. Without it, we are a Christian social club. Many churches have great music, great fellowship and ten minute sermons. What a contrast to the underground churches of China where people spend the whole day in hidden rooms, listening to the word of God expounded from the only Bible available. Does the minister preach from the Bible? Does he or she give evidence of thorough knowledge and study of the scriptures, and encourage personal Bible study? Does he or she deliver a sermon seriously and thoughtfully, using Biblical references, or is the sermon packed with theatrics- dramatic vocals and posturing, elaborate, long winded personal stories and the emphasis on experiences rather than the word of God? Does the minister gave a sense of relating the scriptures to the particular church that he/she is ministering to and the focus of their mission at that particular time? Does the church encourage small group Bible studies?
  • Does the church assist spiritual seekers by offering courses such as Alpha or Christianity explained?  
  • Is there a sense of outreach to the wider community and to world missions?
  • Is the church affiliated with other churches in a wider denomination, or is it a completely independent body? Generally, those affiliated with a union of churches may have more accountability. It can help to google the particular denominations and find out a little about their beliefs and how they differ from one another. 
  • How is the leadership organised? Is there a pastoral team, or one individual? Is there a church board and how is this organised? Is there a system of elders and deacons/deaconesses? Are all the leaders male or are women able to hold ministry positions also? How much opportunity is given to the laity to participate in decision making? Church meetings often provide an insight into who are the power players in a church. Be aware that some people use church positions to exercise their own egos, far from the offices of service to others that these positions were designed to be. 
  • How is personal counselling organised?  Are women and girls in the congregation given the opportunity to be mentored and counselled by women? Is professional counselling available?
Then there are the cults, not even worthy of being called a church. Beware of any "church"  that asks you to:

  • Separate yourself from your home or immediate family
  • Cut off contact with family and friends
  •  Pledge allegiance to a person or group of people
  • Sell your house or possessions and give the money to the "church"
  • Leave your workplace and work for the "church"
  • Participate in rituals or ceremonies which seem strange or uncomfortable, particularly if they involve any body contact. These can be designed to determine if a person is vulnerable to exploitation. Be aware of practices where you have no option to opt out e.g. everyone is told to dance in the spirit. If you do not feel comfortable doing something - don't do it!
  • Fill out extensive questionnaires about your lifestyle, finances etc. 
  • Beware of "churches"where a leader gives detailed directives on what to wear, who to date/marry, disciplining of children or similar. A healthy church provides general moral principles on such subjects - what  the Biblical standpoint is on such issues. 
  • beware of groups where members are publicly humiliated or have personal problems discussed in a group situation. If you are asked to talk about things publicly which make you feel uncomfortable, or if you feel uncomfortable listening to others talk about personal things, it may be a red flag that there is a lack of respect for personal privacy and confidentiality.
  • beware of groups where you cannot ask questions about the way a group is organised and operated, including financial operations.
In summary, God requires that we meet with other Christians on a regular basis for prayer, learning, ministry and fellowship, to build up the body of Christ and reach out to a world that does not know Him. Yet the Bible does not instruct us to follow a particular denomination or church. We, as responsible adults, have the opportunity to attend churches, to evaluate them, to contribute to them, and, if necessary, to leave them. 

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Verses from Uluru

Whitefella came
and took, took, took
till the giving land bled
took the land
took the waterholes
took the children
took too many lives
But the land reclaims its own
The land says
and do not take
Give fully
give like its gracious, gentle people

I have turned my back

I have turned my back
and walked, walked
Remembering no more
putting an end to
words, thoughts, deeds
of hurtful times
I have trod red earth
laden with life-affirming rain
Have walked into healing
The song of the bush calls softly
Holding out strong arms
of the dreaming.


Therefore this is what the Lord says:
 “If you repent, I will restore you
 that you may serve me;
 if you utter worthy, not worthless, words,
you will be my spokesman.
Let this people turn to you,
but you must not turn to them.

Jeremiah 15:19

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Thinking about what we believe

 “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). 

I think that often Christians can feel intimidated by popular opinion which is becoming increasingly hostile towards them, and can be fearful to speak about what they believe. This is sad when what we believe is the one true hope for individual peace and joy. We can become defensive, when we should be stating clearly the truth of the Christian gospel. The love of God, which flowed through Christ and His Holy Spirit into the world is a real, powerful love which reaches out to humanity.
Christians are often now portrayed as “haters”. Nothing could be further from the truth. God is a God of love. Christianity is the one religion which teaches love of all others, including those who hate and misuse you. Christ tells the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s gospel, chapter 10. This well- known parable about a victim of crime who is ignored by the religious passers- by and is cared for by a Samaritan, someone of a different ethnicity, demonstrates what Christ meant when he told us to love our neighbour.
Throughout the world Christians are ministering to others, often at great personal cost. They are involved in cross-cultural ministries to people of different ethnicity, religion, lifestyles and values.
This does not mean that you need to agree with the lifestyles of others or compromise on what the Bible teaches. God’s word clearly states what He does and does not allow. He has put the boundary fences in place, and as an old adage goes, one must be careful when removing fences to consider why they were placed there.
Christians already live in a society where their values are very different to what commonly occurs. The Bible, through the words of Jesus in the New Testament defines marriage as one man and one woman, married for life, with divorce only an option in the event of adultery. It teaches that living with a partner and sexual relations without marriage are considered fornication, which is also forbidden. These values are very different to what commonly occurs in mainstream society today. Abortion and euthanasia are other areas where there may be differences between public opinion, the law and what the Bible teaches.
Throughout the Bible, when individuals, communities and nations followed God’s prescription for life, they were blessed. When they rebelled and forsook God’s ways there were unhappy consequences, often a time when the people repented and turned back to God and were blessed again. 

The thief comes only in order to steal, kill, and destroy. I have come in order that you might have life—life in all its fullness.” (John 10:10)

Monday, 5 September 2016

A bit player in the nightly news

There was a young girl born to a wealthy family. She was her father’s adored daughter. As a child she swung on his arm, and played games with him and basked in his love. He gave her so many experiences that she loved and playthings that she enjoyed.
As she grew older, she drifted away from him. She no longer believed that he knew best. She wanted to be her own person and make her own decisions. He warned her about the company that she was keeping, but she ignored him.
She began taking drugs. She began stealing to pay for her habit. At her first arrest, her father was in court to support her and paid her bail. He did the same thing the second time she was arrested. He pleaded with her to get help to kick the habit.
She laughed in his face.
“So you think you’re so high and mighty Mr ---,” she said.
She didn’t even acknowledge to anyone that she was his daughter. She began to use a series of assumed names, hiding her real identity from her associates.
Her father’s life was filled with grief and despair. When word came to him that she’d been arrested again, he decided that the most loving thing he could do would be to let her face the consequences of her decisions. He could no longer encourage her habit by bailing her out every time she was arrested.
The third time, she went to jail.  Her father went to visit her.
“What’s the matter with you?” she screamed at him. “Why didn’t you help me?”
“What kind of a father are you?”

But that’s not the end of the story.


   “And granted that God does have the capacity to act in the world, it does often look as if he is not paying the sort of attention to what's going on that he should be.” Philip Almond , Professorial Research Fellow in the History of Religious Thought at the University of Queensland.  “Questioning the Miracles of Mother Teresa” ABC News

Friday, 2 September 2016

When Plans Change

Most people have heard of Mother Teresa, the Roman Catholic nun who, with her order of the Missionaries of Charity, brought comfort to the poorest of the poor living and dying on the streets of Calcutta, India.This weekend the Catholic church will canonize her as a saint.
Fewer people know of Jacqueline de Decker, a Christian lay worker who, after spending years ministering to the poor in Madras, joined Mother Teresa as she embarked on her missionary project. Jacqueline was filled with enthusiasm to be part of Mother Teresa’s vision and was to be her first co-worker.
However, this was not to be. As preparations were being made to begin ministry in Calcutta, Jacqueline was struck down by a debilitating spinal condition which required her to return to Belgium. Throughout the rest of her life she would undergo over thirty operations and lived in chronic pain.
What was a great personal disappointment became the genesis of another ministry. Mother Teresa wrote to Jacqueline, proposing that whilst she was physically unable to continue her work in India, she could be there in spirit, offering her suffering and prayers as a sacrifice to God to further the work of the gospel. Jacqueline became the coordinator of what was to become a worldwide ministry, the Link for the Sick and Suffering Co-workers of Mother Teresa. This ministry linked participants who were ill or disabled to able-bodied missionaries, supporting them in prayer and other means of encouragement.
“The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, Gang aft agley,” Robert Burns wrote. A former work colleague of mine used to say “Man proposes but God disposes.” Sometimes we can make elaborate plans, only to have them collapse in heaps around us.
The person that you dreamt of spending your life with turns you down. The publisher rejects your manuscript. Interview after interview leads nowhere. A missionary couple is preparing for service in South America when the husband is stricken with leukaemia. Ministries dissolve under criticism and negativity.
It’s always trite to mutter the platitude “It’s God’s will”. It’s not God’s will to inflict suffering. Suffering and pain are part of living in a fallen world, with flawed, fallen human beings. God cares and comforts when we suffer. He promises a coming kingdom when “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever." (Revelation 21:4) Happy time!
As is demonstrated by the story of Jacqueline de Decker, however, God can and does use the circumstances of our suffering. When plans change, He offers new plans and opportunities. Many people who are involved in pastoral care are only able to minister effectively because they have been through difficult experiences themselves. At present my church is beginning an outreach ministry to people who are experiencing the difficulties and pain associated with divorce. Who will be involved in coordinating this ministry? Several people who have experienced divorce themselves, as well as professional counsellors.
It cannot be overestimated what a desperate need there is for prayer support for practical ministries and prayer warriors to be involved in every aspect of Christian life. There is no need for anyone to think that they are too old, too frail or too disabled to be involved in prayer. We all should be able to pray for our immediate families, our church family, extended families, workplaces and perhaps a particular overseas mission, country, people group or project which God lays on your heart.
 If we can let go of what we wanted without bitterness and be open to what the future holds, God will supply direction and strength for what lies ahead.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.  You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”  (NIV Jeremiah 29:11-13)

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
  in all your ways submit to him,

    and he will make your paths straight.”  (Proverbs 3:5-6)