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. 

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