Category Archives: Church

Don’t Label Me a Heretic Until You Give This Some Thought

I wrote the following words in September of 2010, nearly nine years ago. Since that time, my path has led me away from what you might call the traditional church and to involvement with a home church. When I discovered this article, I thought it was interesting because it provides the seed that germinated into what I do today with church.

I have been in church all my life. My father was a pastor, and back in the early days, the church nursery was in the sanctuary, on my mother’s lap. The first church building, very early in my memory, was in a Quonset hut that doubled as a mechanic’s garage during the week. In case you don’t know, a Quonset hut was developed by the Navy during World War II as a prefabricated structure that could be erected by unskilled labor. After the war, the surplus buildings were sold for $1,000 each, and many are still standing to this day. If you remember the barracks buildings on the old Gomer Pyle television show, you have seen a Quonset hut.

I was taught from the beginning that church was a special thing, a very good thing, regardless of the meeting place. Church has always been where I found my friends. It has always been church folks who have most cared for me, prayed for me, provided for my needs, and helped me to grow up, and continue to help me grow in my faith. I met my wife at church and together we have spent countless hours serving Jesus by serving the church.wyliffe

For many years I was the pastor of a church, and for many years I have worked as a church consultant. I have been in numerous churches of all types and sizes. Just a couple of weeks ago I met a young seminary student named Jeremiah from Colorado. When I asked about his home church, he spoke of one that my parents had helped to start several years before he was even born. I have preached in his home church and told him that I knew their building originally was constructed as a duplex and later transformed into a church meeting place. It is a small world sometimes.

I have worshipped with churches that met in storefronts, former restaurants, school auditoriums, a daycare center, homes, tents, a former shopping mall (I’m not kidding), a high rise office building, the back of a print shop, and just about any type of structure imaginable. Christians have been very creative, and that is a good thing. I have also worshipped in beautiful, elaborate structures, filled with Christian symbols and stained glass windows. I have preached in large auditoriums where most folks watched me on a screen, and just recently I preached in a church that had no need for a sound system of any kind. Once I even preached to more than 7,000 people in a convention center.

I have worked with churches that were pastor-led, deacon-led, family-led, and poorly led. I have been immediately challenged about a point I made in a sermon, thrown out of a funeral, had a chicken slammed on my desk in the pastor’s office, listened to name calling and accusations during committee meetings, lied to, threatened, asked to referee a business meeting and a bunch of other stuff I can’t even remember. I have even left a church service early because I was afraid they were going to drag me up front and try to heal me. Just about the time I think I have seen everything at church, something else happens.

Through it all and in spite of it all – I love the church. I have given my life to the church, and it saddens me to ever see a church struggle. I cannot comprehend how disgruntled pastors or angry church members can viciously destroy a church.

I say all of the aforementioned things because I have a lingering question in my mind about the church that I think is important. First, I will state the question and then I will explain why I am asking. The question – should we invite lost people to church?

Your first reaction will be the same as mine, “Of course we should, that is what it is about.” That is what we have always been taught. The church has been given the Great Commission, to go into the entire world and preach the Gospel. Since I can first remember, I have understood the importance of inviting my lost friends to attend church with me. If they come, they will hear about Jesus and get saved. Even if I can’t muster the courage to bear a personal witness, at least I can invite them to church with me on Sunday. Church is where people go in order to be saved.

But, is that the way it should be? When the church gathers on Sunday morning, is the purpose to provide an evangelistic event?

That seems to be the way it is in most evangelical churches. I know some preachers who refuse to close a service without offering an invitation for salvation, even if nothing in the entire gathering led up to such an invitation. The reason this has become an issue for me is I have been doing considerable thinking about the way we do church nowadays. There are some trends in the church that disturb me, and probably you. Especially disconcerting is the move toward making church entertaining. Simultaneously, we have emphasized the importance of making church a comfortable place that meets everyone’s needs. For example, the idea of having church without state-of-the-art childcare is considered heresy.

Don’t bail out on me yet because I want to offer a thought. We all would agree theologically that the church consists of believers, followers of Christ. We have been told from childhood days that the church is not a building, it is people. When believers get together, it is essentially a gathering of the church, or in modern terminology – a church service. As believers, we desire to gather with other believers for the purpose of encouragement, prayer, strengthening, admonition, and just because we like to be with people we love.

I frequently wish the New Testament recorded more of the history of the early church, so I wonder what the gatherings of those first believers were like. They were a persecuted lot, so they often met in secret. To attend one of these meetings meant that you were serious about your commitment to Christ. They probably did not bring non-believers. First, why would they want to come and risk potential persecution? Second, it was probably not possible to trust unbelievers. Evangelism most likely took place in their homes, markets, street corners, and other gathering places.

Consequently, when the church (believers) gathered, it was for the purpose of worship, sharing the Lord’s Supper, instruction, fellowship, giving an offering (I had to get that one in there based on 1 Corinthians 16:2), and encouragement. If it was a gathering of believers, there was no need for evangelism. If I am correct that it would have been rare for non-believers to attend a church gathering, there was no need for evangelism. If that is the purpose for the gathering of the church, why do we structure our current church gatherings around the purpose of evangelism?

Before you go off screaming and accusing me of being some type of liberal heretic, let me hasten to add that I believe evangelism is an extremely important, even crucial task of the church. My question concerns the evangelism that occurs when the church gathers for what we normally call “worship,” the term we generally use to describe our Sunday morning gatherings. Is that the place for evangelism? If it is, when do believers get to experience the things that are only for believers – worship, Lord’s Supper, instruction, fellowship, giving an offering, and encouragement (see previous paragraph).

Perhaps this is why we have “worship wars” and worry about being offensive by passing the offering plate. I am not suggesting that we do not have evangelistic gatherings. However, they will probably look much different than gathering as the church. At such a rally it would be appropriate to be entertaining, relevant, non-offensive, motivating, exciting, and appealing. We could blanket zip codes with postcards, advertise with slick campaigns, preach sexy sermons, and all those things that are not necessary for the existing church family.

The church gathers because we are the church. Sometimes we will want to conduct special evangelistic events. However, we will probably discover that evangelism is more effective in our homes, markets, street corners, and other gathering places (again, see previous paragraph).

The concern I have for the church is that we are building these huge churches (I don’t know, but there are probably 25 mega-churches within Sunday morning driving distance of my house), but the number of people actually attending church each week is decreasing. Go figure! If it is true that true believers will gather with other believers and the number of folks gathering together is decreasing, our evangelism is not working. We are probably just reshuffling the deck and losing cards in the process.

It is hard, probably impossible, to plan a worship experience that is meaningful for believers and also appealing to non-believers. It is stressful as a pastor to create a sermon that speaks to the saved and lost at the same time. It is unlikely that we need to communicate the same things to folks who have different priorities, different destinies, and different lords. It may be time to rethink how we are doing this whole thing; at least I am going to continue thinking about it myself.

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My Inability to Mind My Own Business

Does anyone really know what LinkedIn is all about? It’s kind of like Facebook with less stupidity as near as I can tell. It seems that members are people who are either really proud of their occupation or else looking for an occupation that could be proud of. I set up an account years ago and only occasionally click over to see what’s happening.

I frequently get notifications of congratulations for the anniversary of my job, but I don’t know what that’s all about. The last few jobs I’ve had I just kind of gradually made a change from one job to the next that I have no idea what the anniversary would be. I feel like a married couple celebrating a wedding anniversary even though they lived together for years prior to the wedding. What’s the point?Gateway_Church_114_Campus

The other day I clicked on the LinkedIn site and at the top of the Home Page articles was a video posted by a young man on the subject of stewardship. Because of my long history of work on that subject, I gave it a view. He spoke of a book he was writing based on the stewardship teaching of Jesus. While reading through the Gospels, he was marking every verse that applies to stewardship and the book will be called “Jesus on Money.” He has 1,000 verses highlighted, and the plan is to categorize them so he can present them us in a way that help us understand stewardship.

The young man is an Executive Pastor at a megachurch in our city. Nearest I can tell, stewardship education is a part of his assignment. The church has a deep history of stewardship. Years ago when I was responsible for teaching stewardship to the 5,000 Baptist churches in Texas, I met with this man’s predecessor. One of the surprises was that he had a larger staff than I had and he was responsible for one church.

I know a few things about stewardship. The first book I ever wrote was on the subject, and it sold more than 300,000 copies. I also wrote numerous other books and material over the years. For a short time, all of the stewardship resources developed by the Southern Baptist Convention had evidence of my influence. However, it’s no secret that my views on church stewardship have radically changed over the years and what I believe now is nothing like what I believed then. But I do know what I’m talking about.

Given my stewardship background and my inability to ignore an opportunity to speak up, I typed a comment about his video: “An interesting first chapter for your book would be on what Jesus might say about churches that spend millions of dollars on buildings and staff salaries rather than giving to the poor.”

Not surprising, he responded: “If a church is only self focused then I’d say it isn’t very healthy. Terry Austin, have you written anything on this subject? I’d be interested to hear your personal generosity story and the exciting things God is doing through you to serve the poor.”

Of course, I had to say something: “I’ve written a great deal of material on Christian stewardship and my stewardship theology has evolved significantly over the years. I developed a capital fund raising program that generated a quarter of a billion dollars for church buildings and another that focused on church budgets. However, much of that theology has changed for me. My two latest books on the subject are “Authentic Stewardship” and “Why I Quit Going to Church” can be found at Amazon. Don’t let the title throw you off as there is an important emphasis on Christian stewardship.”

Before he could respond, I added: “Something else to think about. I have no idea how much money you give to your church but try to figure out how much of it makes its way to the poor. Last week, I gave cash and several large bags of clothes for refugees from South America and made a cash contribution to a woman in our neighborhood needing money for surgery her insurance won’t cover. It wasn’t a large amount, but probably more will go to the poor than what makes its way through most churches. The typical church spends 50% of income on staff salaries and 25-30% on building costs. The rest is used for things like childcare, youth activities, curriculum, denominational expenses, etc. Some churches have a food pantry, but most of those are stocked by non-profit money, not church donations. If you’re serious about wanting to help the poor, the church is not the place to go.”

His response was to invite me to come to his church and see all the great stuff happening. Obviously, he was not understanding what I was trying to say. If I’m misunderstood, I always assume it’s my fault.

So, I tried to make it clearer: “I’ve been to Gateway and 100’s of other churches just like it around the country. I met with the guy who I assume was your predecessor years ago when I was doing church stewardship. I’m not looking for a church doing “healthy ministry, many people coming to Christ and giving generously…” I know tons of generous givers, there is no shortage there. My concern is what the church is doing with their generosity. The church approach is to teach people to be generous and then turn around and use their generosity on themselves. Church are not giving to the poor, they are spending it on their own comfort. How many lives could be impacted with the millions of dollars Gateway spends on buildings and salaries each year?”

At this point he got angry and accused me of attacking his church and wanting him to quit his job. For some reason, he later deleted this comment.

In reply I said: I think you’re jumping the shark here. I began the conversation to encourage you to take biblical stewardship seriously and hopefully learn something that took me 30 years to learn. You’re the one who brought up your church. I have no reason to attack your church nor do I care if you quit your job or not. Neither do I have any interest in closing down churches. I simply think there might be a way to be the church that doesn’t require massive amounts of money. In your video, you expressed interest in identifying all the biblical passages about stewardship in the Bible, a concept that was first done by Larry Burkett. I worked with Larry for many years and when he came to the end of his life, he also came to the point of believing the way churches do things with stewardship needs serious alteration. If you stick with God’s Word long enough, you’ll probably come to that same conclusion yourself someday. My intent was to plant a seed and give you a head start. I apologize if you are offended, however, I’m not sorry for challenging you to think outside your own box.”

He admitted that he might have overacted but ended his part of the conversation with an additional statement about the greatness of his church.

The irony of all of this is that his church recently built a $35 million building in addition to multiple sites where they broadcast their Sunday services around the city. I don’t know for sure but I’m confident the number of paid staff members is in the hundreds if not more.

What will this young Executive Pastor find in the words of Jesus that speak to this use of money given by God’s people?

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The War on Christmas is Over

The U.S. war with Japan came to an abrupt end when two powerful bombs were dropped on the island nation, and thousands were killed. It was unmistakable that the only alternative to surrender was death. Some wars end that way—with a big bang. Other times, wars just kind of fizzle out. People look around and realize there is no longer any reason to fight.

There has been an enormous amount of talk the past few years about the War on Christmas. To be totally honest, the only ones I hear talking about it are a few sour headed Christians who seem to be upset that the rest of the world doesn’t celebrate Christ at Christmas. Apparently, Happy Holidays don’t belong in their world.War on Christmas

I started to think about this so-called “War on Christmas,” and it dawned on me that the war is already over. I looked around and paid attention to the evidence, and sure enough, it appears the Christians have lost the war.

As an observer of culture, this is my list of evidence that Christians have lost the War on Christmas:

  1. Christmas Eve services at church begin as early as 1:00, or in some cases this year, on Sunday the 23rd. If I’m not mistaken, the word “eve” refers to the evening before an event. Anything that happens before 6:00 pm on the 24th is not an evening event. Of course, the reason we start so early is that people have too much other stuff to do on Christmas Eve—Santa is on the way. A Christmas Eve service in the early afternoon is like an Easter Sunday service on Saturday—oh wait, some already do that as well.
  2. The highlight of Christmas is not Christ but giving gifts to one another. Use all the metaphorical language you like, but the bottom line is that giving gifts to one another at Christmas is not a representation of God’s gift to us.
  3. Jesus is an extremely minor part of the way we do Christmas. Most of our attention is given to family, decorations, food, gifts, shopping, and all the other stuff that fills our malls our family rooms.
  4. Church Christmas programs are over in early December because people don’t have time as Christmas day draws near.

If you think that Christians haven’t already lost the War on Christmas, you are like the Japanese soldiers found hiding in island caves two decades after Hiroshima. You haven’t heard the news that we surrendered years ago. Before you post that next meme about the War on Christmas, make sure Christ is more than an afterthought during your celebration.

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The Handmaid’s Tale: Is It Fact or Fiction?

I confess. I got hooked on watching “The Handmaid’s Tale” the past two seasons. I’m not sure of the original attraction, especially since it’s a hard show to watch. I don’t mean the acting or production is terrible; what I mean is that the story is painful to accept. For some, it seems like the setting is too far-fetched to suggest the possibility, but it is possible to see strands of realism flowing throughout the setting and plot.

Margaret Atwood who wrote the story that inspired the TV show said that she had a rule in place as she wrote. She did not “include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time.” In other words, she wasn’t making this stuff up. She merely rearranged attitudes and events that already exist and bundled them together in a new story.

Perhaps that explains my fascination with the show. To be honest, as I watched, I kept seeing the fringes of fundamentalist Christianity. Listen to how Atwood described the Nation of Gilead which is the setting for the story:

The group-activated hangings, the tearing apart of human beings, the clothing specific to castes and classes, the forced childbearing and the appropriation of the results, the children stolen by regimes and placed for upbringing with high-ranking officials, the forbidding of literacy, the denial of property rights—all had precedents, and many of these were to be found, not in other cultures and religions, but within Western society, and within the “Christian” tradition itself. (I enclose “Christian” in quotation marks, since I believe that much of the Church’s behavior and doctrine during its two-millennia-long existence as a social and political organization would have been abhorrent to the person after whom it is named.)Handmaid

            It’s almost as if the story is ripped from the headlines as they say. The underlying premise is that men seize control over women. Look at the current issues as they are dealt with in Gilead.

  • Abortion – In Gilead, men determine how and when a woman becomes pregnant. A woman does not even have access to birth control without a man’s approval.
  • Children – In Gilead, children are separated from their parents and given to those who are more deserving. After watching what our government did recently with immigrant children is it far-fetched to see something like this happening. The Attorney General even defended the practice by quoting Scripture.
  • Rape and Sexual Assault – The lot of a Handmaid is to be raped by the man of the house where she has been assigned. If she is fortunate to become pregnant, she is removed from the child once the baby is weaned. There was no “metoo” movement in Gilead.
  • Subjugation of Women – The nation of Gilead is divided into various castes, and in each class, the women are subservient to the men in that level. This is not unlike many fundamentalist Christian churches today. They allow the Pastor’s wife to be considered an “equal” with her husband, but she is not equal in the sense of function or authority. A favorite Scripture is that there is “neither male nor female” in Christ except when it comes to function within the church.
  • Streets are patrolled by heavily armed guards. Several times they shoot and kill those who step out of line. How often do we hear similar stories today – a man killed by police for being in the wrong place, being somewhere he should not have been.

All this is happening under the guise of God’s Word. When the commander was raping his handmaid (with his wife’s assistance I might add), he quoted Genesis 30, “When Rachel saw that she could not give Jacob children, she became jealous of her sister. She said to Jacob, Give me children or I’ll die!”

When one of the handmaids is being disciplined by holding her hand over a hot stove, an allusion is made to I Peter 5:10, “…but only in suffering will you find grace…”

At a marriage ceremony the words recorded in Genesis, “be fruitful and multiply” are cited as the primary focus of marriage.

As I watch the show, I can’t help but see a possible future for our “Christian” world. I also choose to use the word in quotes like Atwood because I see much of what is happening today under the banner of Christ as being abhorrent to Jesus.

The TV show has already gone past Atwood’s novel, which I’m also reading. For the sake of my own sanity, I hope the current writers choose to bring in a happy ending. However, I’m not sure how that can happen without a complete revolution taking place in Gilead. Perhaps there’s also a lesson for our nation about what has to happen before we can expect everything to be fine in the end.

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Faith Healers

Anyone who knows anything about me is aware that I am physically handicapped. As a consequence of a bout with polio, I have spent my entire life walking on crutches or sitting in a wheelchair. I’m not saying that because I want sympathy—I don’t need or want it. I refer to my physical condition to indicate that I have some experience with the subject at hand.

My mother told me a long time ago that it would break her heart when I saw a preacher named Oral Roberts on TV healing people. She told me that she couldn’t help me understand why that kind of healing never happened for me. If healing was the result of prayer, then something was wrong because I know my parents prayed endlessly for me.

When I was a teenager, a group of friends insisted that I go to a revival meeting with them in downtown Denver. The preacher was a man named Morris Cerullo. I had never heard of him, but apparently, he had a reputation for healing people. I wasn’t too excited, but I went with them. When we arrived at the arena, we couldn’t get in because the crowd was too large. Perhaps if my friends had been more like the men who cut through the roof to get their friend around their crowds to see Jesus, things might have turned out differently for me.Faith Healers

As I came to recognize God’s call to the ministry, one of the biggest challenges I faced was my physical limitations. Friends encouraged me in different ways. Some assured me that God would provide and make it possible. A few others suggested that it meant God was going to heal me and allow me to walk. That would have been quite a jump start to ministry.

While in college to prepare, some well-meaning friends organized a special prayer meeting for my healing. They gathered around me as I sat in a chair and we all prayed. I can honestly say that as far as possible, I believed. I remember thinking it was important that I take the first step, so I mustered up as much strength as possible in my legs and tried to stand. Instead, I fell to the floor.

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When the Church Chooses Country Over Christ

If the American church today had official colors, they would be red, white, and blue along with a sprinkling of stars. It is almost surprising that we don’t actually name it “The American Church,” rather than Baptist Church, or Methodist Church, or Presbyterian Church. It seems the church is more proud of its American heritage than with its denominational or historical heritage.

Several years ago I was scheduled to fill the pulpit for a pastor who was planning to be out of town on vacation. When I accepted the invitation, I simply checked my calendar to make sure I was available without noticing that it was Memorial Day Weekend. To be honest, as long as our family had no plans of being out of town on Sunday, it didn’t matter if it was a national holiday.

I prepared a sermon and showed up early, ready to preach.

Until the morning service began, I hadn’t given a thought to the fact it was Memorial Day. But the entire morning event was planned as an American celebration; patriotic songs, readings, and prayers. It was evident that I was the only one there that morning not prepared to pledge my allegiance to America.

I’m not denying that being an American citizen is a great thing. Like nearly every other American, there is no other place I’d rather live. However, that is not the reason the church gathers. America is not to be our object of worship on Sunday mornings (or any other morning for that matter).Freedom of Speech

To be honest, I’m often embarrassed by American Christians, and it is not because of sinful behavior, but by inconsistent beliefs. For example, there are many…

  • Christians who are more interested in permission to carry a gun than laying down their life for another.
  • Christians who are willing to support a politician whose lifestyle, words, and actions are incompatible with what Christ called us to be.
  • Christians who are willing to kill to protect their Second Amendment rights, but have no idea what the Second Commandment says.
  • Christians who insist on being tolerant, but then quickly scoff at conservatives and fundamentalists.
  • Christians who think they know all the answers because they have read the Bible.
  • Christians who believe the life of faith is all about believing and nothing about doing.
  • Christians who are hateful while claiming to hate the sin but love the sinner.

Many people in the history of this country have given up their life in the fight for freedom of speech. It is a freedom that should never be taken lightly because it is not available in many parts of the world. In fact, I feel safe in saying it is the most essential freedom for a free society. If I were a dictator of a country, it would be the first freedom I would remove. It is even more crucial than the right to bear arms. Many countries without gun control do not have freedom, but there are very few places where they have freedom of speech but still live under oppression.

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Remembering Christ’s Death with Chicken Soup and Gold Fish

One of my earliest memories is sitting around a tiny wooden table, actually, a table my sister used in playing with dolls. On the Sunday evenings after our little Baptist church served the Lord’s Supper, my father, who was the pastor, brought home the leftover wafers and grape juice (we were Baptists, so we didn’t use wine). The wafers were those tasteless tiny white squares of water and paste that came in a box from the Baptist Bookstore. My sister and I didn’t pretend to mimic a religious ritual, we simply enjoyed what we considered a treat.

I’ve had a lot of experiences with the Lord’s Supper since then. My father, who was a highly influential man among Baptists in Colorado refused to recommend me to pastor a church upon graduation from seminary. One of the factors was my belief about the Lord’s Supper (the other was baptism). Consequently, I never served a church in that state.

As a pastor in the Texas panhandle, we had a young mother named Rosalinda discover Jesus and begin attending our church faithfully, sitting on the front pew every Sunday morning. In today’s climate, we would be expected to report Rosalinda to the immigration authorities, but we chose to enjoy her presence instead. Several weeks after she began attending, we celebrated the Lord’s Supper. As the platter filled with the tiny wafers was passed around the room, Rosalinda assumed we were collecting an offering. She placed her gift of a dollar bill on top of the wafers. We heard snickers as the tray containing cash and stale crackers circulated around the room.

Lord's Supper

On another occasion, one of our resident legalists came to my office in the days preceding a scheduled Lord’s Supper the next Sunday and offered to sit in the back and point out who should not be allowed to participate. I’m not sure how he would do this, but I refused his offer as graciously as I could.

One of the more memorable experiences was watching my son who was sitting beside Omer Ritchie. Omer was a well-known fundamentalist pastor in his heyday, long before this event. My son Matthew was wearing a ball cap, and his arms are covered with tattoos, an unlikely duo for most churches. Omer and Matthew loved each other, and it was a touching moment to see Matthew’s large inked hand stretch out and place the loaf of bread in Omer’s frail shaking hand and say, “This is Christ’s body broken for you.”

A few minutes later, with the cup of juice moving the other way around the room, Omer said to Matthew, “This is Christ’s body shed for your sins.”

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