Going Off-Roading With God--My Visit to NCCTK--CRITIQUE #1 Worship & Music

See Part One-The Worship Service Description HERE

It's important to state that my critique should not be viewed as an attack on NCCTK per se, but as a critique of what has become an accepted model (Saddleback) of worship that thousands of churches are trying to implement on some level in their own community.

My critique comes out of a genuine concern for the souls of those who I believe are being exposed to worship practices that are disobedient to the Word of God. I trust the reader will understand that such statements are birthed out of a genuine conviction of love for the church of Christ and the advancement of his truth.

Worship & Music :
Years ago, Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones warned about using music to manipulate people's emotions. He called this emotional rape, when music is used to bring people into a state of control to manipulate the outcome. The problem with this, simply stated, is that it is not honest; it creates an artificial atmosphere because it has not been grounded in the truth. It appeals to a certain, what RL Dabney called, animal instinct in the person, having the kind of effect that drug use imposes upon the body as it brings people into an elevated state. When you come down, nothing lasting has really occurred; in fact, the more one hits a low, the higher one seeks to go with the next dose. The same can be true with music as it very much panders to our emotions, and emotions are often extremely misleading.

One of the striking features of the song book that God gave us in the Bible is that it presents different kinds of Psalms for worship--lamentation, imprecatory, messianic, praise, etc. I tried to imagine what might have happened the other night if we opened with Psalm 22:1-2,
My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?
Why are You so far from helping Me,
And from the words of My groaning?
O My God, I cry in the daytime, but You do not hear;
And in the night season, and am not silent.
God's people used to sing these laments in worship. The Psalms are honest about life, giving perspective about hardship, trials, afflictions, sufferings, etc. These are real experiences of people expressed in the psalms to raise our afflictions to the forefront, then to be transformed by praise. As I sat in the service, I heard about a variety of ministries NCCTK offers--divorce ministries, Haiti opportunities, etc. These ministries deal with the hard realities of life. But I wondered if anyone thought through the inconsistency of what was actually happening in worship. Nothing about the service depicted that these hard realities belong to "us" when we gather for worship. In other words, the service was the greatest mask or cover-up to everything that people face as soon as they leave the service.

Worship in this scenario often becomes a sort of tonic to avoid the realities of sin and suffering that people face in life. The lights, the music, the drums, the worship center, the stage, expresso bar, and the message all provided a temporary escape not just from the consequences of living in a fallen world, but also from the realities of the wounds within.

Everything advertised about these services is that they are inspiring, uplifting, and life-giving. In what way? Making the claim of being "life-giving" as NCCTK does, is something only attributed to Christ himself (1 Cor. 15:45), and such a claim demands that we ask by what method NCCTK thinks this life comes. The entertainment style service makes an assumption that all we need for our life struggle is just a good amount of encouragement. The applications of worship assume that our greatest problem is that we have been derailed from being all God really wants us to be. In other words, worship (especially the music) is being used to manipulate what God actually says is our real problem and real need. Instead we end up pandering to what we think people want, and when we do this, we never give them what they actually need. But what is the balm that truly heals? Does all the pomp and glitter really give us life? I will unpack this more in a later post.

We see this cover-up even stronger in the way praise songs are implemented. Take the song I referenced above that we opened with. "I stand in awe, I stand in awe, I stand in awe of you..." Why do I stand in awe? The endless repetition of these praise songs not only ignores Jesus warning of trying to manipulate God to hear us by our many words, but they leave us without a basis for offering praise. Think about it. The Bible presents praise as a response to the reception of some mighty act of deliverance the Lord has accomplished for us. Take for instance Psalm 103:1-5,
Bless the LORD, O my soul;
And all that is within me, bless His holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul, And forget not all His benefits:
Who forgives all your iniquities,
Who heals all your diseases,
Who redeems your life from destruction,
Who crowns you with lovingkindness and tender mercies,
Who satisfies your mouth with good things,
So that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.
The basis for my praise comes, in this case, from God's wonderful forgiveness, healing, redemption, and provision. I don't work these realities up within me. It's never, "I just want to praise you, I just want to praise you", etc. The call to praise is always connected to an act of God's sovereign workings on behalf of his people at some point in redemptive history.

Thus, when a church begins worship with the first twenty minutes of praise music, all you have done is falsely elevate the people's emotions; there has been no place given to have the truth "as it is in Jesus" be our guiding light. Why do I say this? Because our singing is not a means of grace. Music is a response from us to the grace already given to us. This is so important, we are beginning with the wrong assumption that real uplifting worship elevates us to God first through music, instead of God graciously condescending to us in Word and Sacrament. This is wrong; this is backwards. Our praise is always in response to his nearness to us in the Word spoken.

For this reason, Protestants always believed worship is to be a dialogue between us and God. Our response flows from what he has declared through his servant in the written Word. We are called to separate these as two distinct aspects of worship. Notice the dialogical principle demonstrated below in a standard Protestant liturgy (what we do in worship):

Call to Worship (Scripture text)
God's Greeting (Scripture text)

Song of Praise
God's Will For Us in His Law (Scripture text)
Confession of Sin
(prayer / song)
Assurance of Pardon
(Scripture text)
Response of Gratitude:
Prayer (first part)
Tithes / Offerings
Song of Gratitude
The Word of God spoken (Preaching)

The Word of God displayed (Sacraments)
Song of Response
Doxology of Praise
Benediction (Scripture text)

God speaks in calling us to worship, we respond with prayer; he speaks in greeting us with a word of blessing, we respond with song; he speaks by instructing us in his will for us, we respond in confession and repentance; he speaks by assuring us of forgiveness, we respond in prayer and by giving our offerings; he speaks to us in Word and Sacrament, we respond with gratitude in song and he sends us out, not with a mere dismissal, but with his benediction as his pilgrims. Through and through, there is dialogue, and our responses are only appropriate to what the LORD has already conveyed to us in his Word through his appointed messenger. This is why the Lord constantly instructed his prophets to speak, "only what the Lord has commanded" (Ex. 7:2), as worship begins and ends with Word of God. The same is true for the pastor today.

Now consider the model of Saddleback, NCCTK et al:


Ready to Worship?
Praise Music -20-30 Minutes
Welcome by Praise Leader
Video #1--Men's Retreat
Video #2--Love Comedy on Valentines Day
Lots of Man-Made stories
Pastor has Imaginary Conversation with God
Word of God briefly read--topically driven message --->

Video#3--Love Story
Praise Music

Now who is absent here? Even the one element on the God-side was manipulated by the pastor as he imposed his topic on the text (will address this in the next critique). The Saddleback model claims to have a real worship experience in which we actually meet God. Does the above order of worship show this? An honest assessment of the service shows that Word and Sacrament, the primary means of grace, are not central. The Man-side is full with practices more appropriate to the theater than for what is appropriate before a Holy God. I had no sense that God's Word was the central driving motivation for worship. Their own liturgy excluded him!

As Calvin said, our hearts are idol factories, and because of this, as we create new idols to worship in place of the true God, we incessantly forget the basic principle that must accompany all true worship:"By those who come near Me I must be regarded as holy; And before all the people I must be glorified (Lev. 10:3)." Nadab and Abihu were incinerated for profaning God's holiness. Does God change?

As I looked up on the stage, there was a Suzuki Samurai 4X4, awesome lights, cool camping equipment, with a bulletin calling us to go "Off-Roading with God". People came in and out from the coffee bar forming a care-free environment, people even refusing to remove their hats. If God is truly unchanging, and remains a consuming fire, there is no way I could agree that Suzuki Samurais, Going Off-Roading with God, Valentines Day Videos, Love Videos, Imaginary conversations with God, were honoring the command to worship God "acceptably with reverence and godly fear" (Heb. 12:28). Much of these things profaned his holiness. If anything, we were doing things that had an "appearance of wisdom in self-imposed (will) worship" (Col. 2:23).

More to come on Worship and Preaching



Going Off-Roading With God--My Visit to A Local Saddleback Modeled CHURCH-NCCTK

It's a challenge today to take a stand for anything. This is no less true in the church of Jesus Christ, especially as we think through the implications of the Biblical warning that in the latter times some will depart from the faith giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons (1 Tim. 4:1). Part of our responsibility as Christians is to defend the truth, and to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3).

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.

Praise Music:
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?


ABOUNDING GRACE RADIO--Preachers and Hearers

What are the means of grace? Do we have confidence in the "foolishness of the message preached"? What should the design of Christian ministry look like? All of this and more on this edition of Abounding Grace Radio.

Abounding Grace Daily Broadcasts February 15-19, 2010
Monday February 15, 2010
Acts 16 The Opened Heart
Tuesday February 16, 2010
Acts 16 The Opened Heart
Wednesday February 17, 2010
Acts 16 The Opened Heart
Thursday February 18, 2010
Acts 16 The Opened Heart
Friday February 19, 2010
Our Faddy American Church Mess

Van Mastricht on Baptismal Efficacy

FV proponents consistently assert that the act of water baptism is an efficacious means of uniting the recipient to Christ. You can follow a debate here--notice the way in which baptism is referred. This doesn't square at all with the Reformed confessions because the FV wants a wholesale redefinition of the nature of a sacramental sign. HC Q&A 65 asks, “Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all his benefits by faith only, whence does this faith proceed? Answer: From the Holy Ghost, who works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel, and confirms it by the use of the sacraments.

Notice carefully how the Q&A speaks of the sacrament, it only confirms, it does not create or confer. What the FV wants to do with baptism requires the complete redefining of the nature of a sacrament, not as a sign and seal to confirm, but as an instrument to confer. Baptism is a means to signify grace and confirm grace, it is not the instrument of bestowing grace; this is contrary to the nature of a sign. The efficacy of the sacrament is the efficacy of the sign and the seal, and only this. This is why Calvin said the seals which are attached are nothing taken by themselves, yet when added to the writing, they seal what is written ( Ins. 4:14:5).
The reader should not be mistaken by FV language; for all their waxing eloquent on these disctinctions, they leave us in mass confusion. The Reformed have always been clear about the proper way of speaking about sacramental efficacy. Notice the crucial distinctions VanMastricht makes as he explains baptismal efficacy:

1. The efficacy of baptism consists in its sealing, agreeably to the nature of all sacraments so far as they are seals (Romans 4:11, which presupposes regeneration as the principle of faith).
2. The pollution of the soul is not purged away by the baptism of water ( I Peter 3:21), therefore regeneration is not confined thereto.

3. If this was the case, all the baptized would be regenerate, and that at the very time of their baptism. The Scriptures speak against this (Acts 8:13, 20-21, 23), and also experience shows that many baptized persons live most abandoned lives, and are not finally saved. We read also of persons regenerated before their baptism, such as the eunuch (Acts 8:36-37), the centurion and his family (Acts 10:2, 22), yea, of those who were never baptized at all, such as the thief on the cross (Luke 23:42-43). According to the common observation, it is not the want of baptism, but the contempt of it that is damning.

4. Regeneration is limited to no sacrament, not to circumcision (Romans 2:25, 27-28), nor to the Passover (1 Corinthians 10:3-4), nor to the Lord's Supper (I Corinthians 11:27), nor to any legal washings (Hebrews 9:10; 10:4), and therefore not to baptism, since it is expressely said that even a baptized person, if he beleives not, shall be damned (Mark 16:16). I will only add that

5. The Holy Ghost is said to regenerate according to his sovereign pleasure: "As the wind bloweth where it listeth..so is everyone born of the Spirit (John 3:8).

...Our opponents [Roman Catholics] on the other side argue from the text; "know ye not that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?" (Romans 6:3). To this I answer, this text means only that all the elect, being true believers, baptized according to the institution, have communion and participation in the death of Christ, which is sealed to them by baptism. But it is not said that this communion is effected particularly by baptism, much less that this communion is absolutely connected by baptism.


The videos of the recent Westminster Seminary California faculty conference, Christ, Kingdom, and Culture, are now online for free here