Everyone’s least favorite picketers, Westboro Baptist Church, chose an unexpected target last weekend. It wasn’t a military funeral or any place that had to do with homosexuals. It was my brother’s church, a mid-size-to-large suburban church in Pasadena, south of Houston. When I tried to do some research on what exactly they were protesting, I found out that they were picketing at several churches that were clustered in the area (including a church where I was once on staff). Their reason: to call people to repent from “man-made, false religious systems.”
Pushing aside the irony that this “church” was protesting a religion that is man-made and false, it got me thinking about the false religious systems that really do creep into the minds and hearts of the people in our pews.
These are systems of behavior or thought that undermines the kingdom of God and keeps people ineffective in their faith. Many times they are not expressed openly but rather “caught” from the culture around us, twisting our understanding of our religion–the way we live out our faith–into something less than what God intends.
Here are four of the top false religious systems in the pews of small-town churches in America:
1 – Churchism
I love the church (even the institutional church), and I am constantly fighting for people to understand the tremendous dignity and importance God has placed on the church. If I were to do this same article but about false religious beliefs of professing believers outside the church, number one would be “anti-churchism.”
The false system I’m referring to here is about attitudes that substitute “my church” for God. Under this system, someone is a good church member who tithes, comes when the doors are open, and doesn’t cause dissension. What it does not require is any sort of personal love for God, heart and life change, or sense of mission in the world.
Under this system, the building moves from being a place that expresses and facilitates the worship of God to an object of worship itself. It starts to make sense to people not to use the building or other assets because they might get messed up. Preservation of tradition and glorification of the “glory days” take on undue importance. It’s more important to honor sweet Mrs. Jones (who has been dead 20 years) than to reach the kid across the street.
Even though most of us find these attitudes frustrating, pastors also can promote churchism in the way we push for the success of our own ministry. We learn strategies to get people to come to services rather than to Christ, teach our members to promote the events of the church rather than Jesus, and become jealous of other churches.
Many times these strategies feed the next false religious system…
2 – Consumerism
We live in a culture that is driven by discontent. Advertising offers mini-gospel presentations every day, convincing potential buyers of their hellish existence and then offering salvation through something that can be bought.
The appealing thing about this religion is that you are the object of worship: your own comfort, your own problems solved, your satisfaction guaranteed. When people are treated like this by the world that competes for their dollars, they naturally carry these same expectations into your church and to their Christian lives.
The constant question of the consumer is whether my needs are being met, whether it’s in a church service, a Bible study, or even marriage. The god of the consumer is not there to command or dictate the direction of my life; He exists to help me along the path to fulfilling my desires and dreams.
The results of this belief system are disastrous. A person caught in this belief system can’t ever truly learn to serve the Lord or others. The church suffers, because consumers often wander off to follow the next promise for fulfilling their desires. And when tragedy or hardship comes, the consumerist Christian feels betrayed and dissatisfied with God.
3 – Politics
In our increasingly secular culture where religion plays a decreasing role, the void for passion, purpose (and the ability to feel superior to others) has been filled with politics. The American political landscape has changed into an either/or, black-and-white (or rather blue-and-red) game.
Our last two Presidents both rose to power as demagogues, their popularity built on image and personality far more than on experience and policy. Each rode a wave of breathless supporters, while desperate prophets of the other side predicted the apocalypse that would surely come with their victory. Every election is heralded as the most important in history. Moderates (or anyone whose beliefs don’t line up to the expected partisan divide) are heretics who do not deserve to identify with the party they represent.
Most of small-town America is “deep red,” and this is especially true in the South. Many church members are far more willing to take a public stance for their politics with their friends, coworkers, and on social media than they are to share Christ. And they are very suspicious of any teaching, however biblical, that might call into question their political stance or might smell a little too “liberal.”
Whether we are operating in a “red” or “blue” area, we must gently but firmly challenge this idol, rather than allow the golden calf to stand. And we need to make sure that our own opinions are shaped by the example of Jesus rather than the politics of fear or partisanship.
Many challenges to political presumptions are met with appeals to pragmatism, that such idealism doesn’t fit with the “real world.” In these responses, the fourth religious system is raising its head.
4 – Practical Agnosticism
Agnosticism can be described as the belief that if God exists, he is unknowable and ultimately uninvolved in human affairs. No Christian would express these beliefs openly, but often church members’ words and actions betray that, for all practical purposes, they are agnostic.
Prayers and worship services are conducted with no expectation of a supernatural response from a real God. The answer to our needs is money. Careful planning and risk management are the keys to success. People are brought into the church through good marketing and good programs. The good life comes from hard work, the right relationships, good budgeting, and time for a little recreation on the side.
In this worldview, there is no room for the supernatural battle between good and evil. There is no room for answers to prayer that rise above all expectations. There is only room for human effort. There is no room for God.
Many pastors live their lives this way as well. We cannot lead our people to live in a supernatural kingdom of the heavens if we live only from the stuff of earth. We have to increase our dependence on prayer, our faith in the promises and ever-present work of our Father, and to live not by bread alone but by the Word of God. Then we can lead and train our people to live the same way.
So what about you? Do you recognize these false religious systems in your church? What can we do to challenge and combat false beliefs and lead people into the kingdom? Please share in the comments…