As as pastor, I recognize that one of my responsibilities is to protect those whom I serve from influences and practices that have a form of godliness but deny its power (2 Tim. 3:5). At times, this requires critical reflection of what others are doing and saying in the Christian world, especially when, as Paul said, there are savage wolves among us who do not spare the flock, but draw away disciples after themselves (Acts 20:29). There is just too much at stake if we remain silent, we are called to pull souls out of the fire (Jude 1:22).
Many well-meaning Christians, however, don't take well to any kind of constructive criticism or warning against what particular churches are doing contrary to the received doctrine. We have come to a point in the Christian world that if we say anything by way of exposing error, we are labeled as unloving or schismatic. But such pressures, as strong as they are, do not remove our responsibility to expose error and false doctrines as we speak the truth in love.
With these things in mind, I have been challenged on more than one occasion that I do not have the right to critique any other local church if I have never attended the one in question. In the past, my answer has always been, "I don't have to slam my hand in a trunk to know it's going to hurt." But, fair enough, although I think such a charge is a diversionary tactic, it is important to "know" exactly what you are critiquing. So, to honor the challenge of others, last Saturday night I decided to attend North County Christ the King Church here in Lynden.
Let me state my motivations up front. First, since there has been an attraction to certain models of ministry contrary to classic Protestantism, I wanted to know, in this particular case, how NCCTK would align with the three marks of a faithful church in historic Protestantism: 1) the pure preaching of the gospel, 2) the right administration of the sacraments, and 3) church discipline.
Second, I honestly wanted to know what goes on at NCCTK. Are my concerns legitimate? Have I been unfair, uncharitable in my view of the church? If so, forgiveness would need to be sought for expressing false concerns. On the other hand, if my concerns are legitimate, serious repentance needs to be made for the tolerance of practices directly contrary to the Word of God. Therefore, to be charitable, I wanted to know what so many of our brothers and sisters in the community are being exposed to. One of my interlocutors, an elder in a Reformed church, chided me for expressing concerns, and assured me that NCCTK is a church where the gospel is preached. So as I went last Saturday night, I did my best to approach worship objectively, sincerely hoping that what he claimed was true.
Background to North County Christ the King Church
North County Christ the King Church organized in 2000 as a church plant out of the Bellingham CTK Church. The church has adopted the Saddleback/Purpose Driven model of ministry and is a good example of what being practiced in many churches throughout this country. On their website, their introductory statement reads, "At North County Christ the King you will find a comfortable atmosphere. We dress causally, have contemporary worship and passionate messages inspired by God through his word the Bible." They claim openly to be a loving and a "life-giving" church. Mailings have gone out into the community on more than one occasion inviting those who are tired of the traditional model (obviously churches like ours), to come and experience uplifting messages and exciting worship.
The church has purchased much of a local shopping mall turning it into a campus which includes a children's center, a youth center, and a giant worship center. They claim to have around 1,500 in combined attendance in their three services which are at 7:00PM Saturday Evening, and 9:00 AM and 11:00 AM Sunday Mornings. In a city with a population of under 12,000, this is a significant portion of the population, very few churches can claim this kind of ratio of church attendance to the given population. For more info, you can visit their website here
Saturday Night 7:00 PM Worship:
Atmosphere: As I walked into the church, there was someone there to shake my hand. After this, I had no contact with anyone. I stood alone before the service and after the service. This didn't bother me much, but, as I have been told, the Saddleback model is supposed to be friendly to the average Harry and Mary. If I were basing church attendance on friendliness, that night, I didn't receive any outside of the handshake and welcome given in the service.
There was a very cool coffee bar. It looked as if they offered a variety of different coffee drinks. Everyone seemed to be encouraged to take their coffees into worship and be relaxed. People came and left during the service in this same manner.
Congregational Make Up: As I made my way to my seat, I couldn't help but to be impressed by the worship center--it grabbed me. I estimate that around a thousand seats were set up. The general make up of the church was interesting. There were a lot of grey haired baby-boomers. I found this fascinating--it confirmed the main point of another article I wrote here. Knowing the Lynden setting, my guess is that most of these boomers, at one time, attended a Reformed church in town--keep in mind Lynden has around thirteen Reformed churches (five CRCs) within city limits.
Families in general did not sit together. Actually, I really didn't see very many families. This is probably due to the fact that there was a giant children's/youth center where most of the children attended while the parents wen tto the main service. If I were a kid, I would love that! It had everything. If you were junior high or above, you were "encouraged" to attend the regular service, and those who did sat together with their friends. Most of them wore hats, dressed in goth/skateboarding/emo/grunge ( I am really out of the loop here as I don't know the recent fads), and they generally seemed disengaged.
I tried to discern a general liturgy or order of worship. I will intersperse some annotation between each part of the service, but reserve full critique for what follows.
Time of Praise Music:
There was a worship team with three ladies, a band, and lead singer/leader. The worship leader read a few verses from a psalm--I took this to be some form of a call to worship. Then he said, "Good evening, ready to worship God? Let's do it." We spent the first 20-25 minutes singing praise songs on the screen--very repetitious. In other words, one of the songs went like this: "I stand in awe, I stand in awe, I stand in awe of you..." There was no attention, at all, to singing the Psalms.
Welcome & Announcements:
The senior pastor came up and welcomed the church and visitors. We had a moment of congregational hugs and greeting. He then encouraged us to applaud God, so we did; everyone clapped for God. We then had Video #1 on how men can recover their manhood by outdoor recreational activities. Men were encouraged to sign up for an upcoming retreat to recover their purpose in life. Prayer was then offered.
Another Pastor from the church was introduced and he came up to give the message. It was Valentines Day weekend, so before the message we were again directed to the screen for Video #2, a Valentines Day tribute comedy video. It was in black and white and the people seemed to really enjoy what was evidently a love-comedy.
We then got to the message. The series NCCTK is currently going through is "Off-Roading With God: Satisfaction Guaranteed". On the stage was a beautiful Suzuki Samurai 4WD vehicle, along with a big camping tent, forest trees, cool green lights, and everything that you would take with you if you were going off-roading and camping with God. I struggled a bit with covetousness over the vehicle; I always wanted one of those Samurais.
The Sermon was called Promise Fulfilled. The First "Off-Roading Observation (seriously)" was that God placed his promise in Abraham and Sarah. I wasn't quite sure what he meant by this. Didn't God call Abraham to embrace the promise by faith? The pastor seemed to teach that God dropped the promise "into" Abraham. The sermon rehearsed Abraham's stumblings along the way, as the next "Off Roading Observation" called us to live our lives out-loud. I was confused as to what he meant by this.
But, before I could figure it out, the lights went out, and the pastor had an imaginary conversation with God. God's voice came out of the speakers (it was a real calm, non-offensive voice), and the pastor, pretending to be Abraham, had a real life imaginary conversation with God. It was a casual conversation, God speaking just as if he were one of us, and the pastor responding with, "yes, dad, I know." I will reserve my comments for below.
Upon the Third "Off-Roading Observation" we were called to see that God is faithful and that we can have astounding faith and confidence to squarely face off against our repeat offenses like Abraham. The pastor felt the need to work in the Valentines Day theme, so we then watched Video #3--some sort of love tribute to God. A women gave her testimony of God's love. She described how madly in love she is with God, and how she now wants to squeeze out his love upon everyone else. Her tearful reply was that she has broken God's heart so many times. People seemed generally moved by this.
The pastor then made some general applications to Abraham's example, that "the key to attitude is focus, and the key to behavior is attitude". This seemed to be the driving point of the sermon. "When your faith is focused on the treasure in us, wonder and worship will increase exponentially motivating me to change". "Is this what you want", we were asked? He then made us all close our eyes, say a version of the sinner's prayer, and asked if anyone "really" prayed it tonight for salvation. Obviously a hand went up because he thanked the one who got saved. Prayer was offered.
The worship leaders and band then came forward. We sang Amazing Grace and another praise song. Interestingly, people seemed to really get into Amazing Grace as a lot of hands went up.
Offerings buckets were passed.
We were dismissed and thanked for coming. I stood around for a bit after, no one approached me, and people didn't really stay around for fellowship. The departure was pretty quick. All of this was done in one hour and ten minutes.
Now before I post a critique, I would really appreciate your thoughts on what I tried to objectively describe above. So...what do you think? Are these practices permissible or am I overacting in being critical of these worship practices?