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?


  1. Pastor Gordon wrote, “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.”

    I wondered as I read this piece, how do NCCTK church leaders rationalize these deeds for worship in favor of the historic definition of the true church.
    In light of God’s will for our right worship, as it is revealed to us in his word – the Bible, we are not wiser than God and we are not at liberty to formulate our worship outside the commands of God.

    However, if we are indeed left to our own will and devices in worship and if God did not already speak to the matter, it would make sense that we would have to try to approach God through our own will and imaginations as the world does.

    The question we should be concerned with and pray we get right, is what worship pleases God - not what worship pleases us or our fellow man?

    If pleasing and glorifying God is the desire of our worship, why would the leaders at the NCCTK church approve these things that are so contrary to approaching God in the way he has commanded - in his word? I do not doubt that many there are sincere and have good intentions, but God has shown us many times over in his word that simple sincerity is not the issue when worshiping him. They that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.

    We are forbidden from approaching God in ways he has not commanded? We have God himself saying he will not accept will-worship.

    Therefore, one must KNOW what will-worship is and what it is not. God speaks to it in his word.

    Having read this article, one cannot but be more than concerned for the leaders of NCCTK who are responsible who are leading the approach before God in this manner. Their departure from historic Protestantism and the word of God in worship is most evident.

    Since there is nothing new under the sun, what group could they be most likened to in history that has attempted to approach God in a similar manner?

  2. I'm really disturbed by that. Disturbed, but not surprised. I did something similar when I was in Langley with a church down the road from us -- except I was able to make use of the video on their website and didn't actually have to spend any time going there, etc. But it was much the same. There was little sense of the transcendence and holiness of God. People were given stones for bread. Or perhaps a more apt metaphor would be "junk food for bread."

  3. Hi Catechist, I haven't posted my critique yet, but you're correct in raising the responsibility of church leaders here. Doesn't Ezekiel 34 provide an strong consideration in this light?

  4. Hi Wes, yes I am reminded of something Machen said in this connection, "awful transcendence of God..." It will show up in the critique. Quick question, How do you think we should deal with pressures to be silent when our people are attracted to these models that we believe are contrary to Scripture?

  5. Marnix VSt AldegondeFebruary 17, 2010 at 5:56 PM

    Interesting to say the least.
    I read Catechist and Wes and I agree, but I feel there is more to it then meets the eye.
    I do feel very sad to see young people leave the Reformed faith for these "Junk food" organizations. Why is it that they leave? And what can be done about it? If you'r not a stranger in Jerusalem it would not take you long to know that these outfits do not have the marks of the church. It's all entertainment and sermonetts in a worldly style
    marketing program. There is no depth to anything but the so- called missionary outreach to secure the numbers. But I really don't want to go into detail because I feel that's not the issue.
    Why are Reformed (and mostly young people) leaving the church for these organizations? How do we keep them from leaving?

    In the Reformed churches the preaching of the Gospel is the central part of the worship service. The feeding and nourishing of the flock comes from the pure preaching of the Word of God. Since it is the most important part of our worship, preaching has to be done with zeal, joy, and enthusiasm. For that reason the minister is called to immerse himself in the Scriptures. He needs to use all his talents to expose these false teachings. He needs to bring forth the treasures of the Scriptures, he needs to dig deep to bring out the Gold. That takes time. Are we giving him that time or is he too busy with all the other things in the church? Maybe you think I am off the mark but I sincerely think he should spend most of his time on the sermon. I know when a minister loves to preach he will try to be more in his studyroom then elsewere.
    Then lets leave him there and don't bother him with all that church work. Why do they always have to be the chairman of the consistory? Let's bring out the talents of the elders.
    The preaching is the main weapon to arm the members in the pew.

    I have seen and heard the short story preaching in the CRC. The exemplary preaching instead of Historic Redemptive preaching.
    A men who loves to preach will have the scriptures at his finger tips. He will compare Scripture with Scripture and he for sure will have an attentive audience.
    Let's fight fire with fire.


  6. The Pharisees and Sadduccees responded the same way towards Jesus and His disciples ministry -
    Your diatribe sounds like you must have the perfect church. People must have to dress a certain way to attend your church? They must not use buckets either, and does serving coffee after church taste better than before?
    You state at the end of your cynical editorial that you wanted a response before you critiqued - sounds like you had this particular church personally condemned before you even attended. Why bother to critique, you've already judged THAT church.
    Jesus came for sinners - not the righteous Matt 5:20

  7. Dear Mr. Amazing Grace,
    This is a very perplexing response, mainly because I haven’t provided any critique yet. What did I do to warrant such a response? Did I condemn bucket use, or coffee before the service? You haven’t even let me get to the critique. All I have done is report the facts of what happened. Your rash response indicates either one of two things; I know you and we have had some disagreement in these things before since you already have a context to my position (in this case you need to identify yourself); or, intuitively, your conscience already tells you that the other things you didn’t mention (the conversation with God, Off-Roading with God theme, the theater atmosphere, the Valentines Video, the Love Video, the Suzuki Samurai, et al) are in conflict with the kind of reverence proper to worship a Holy God, and you are merely using surface assumptions (bucket use, coffee, etc) to avoid the real issues at hand.
    I assure you that I preach the gospel of free justification by faith alone, but that does not remove my responsibility to “test the spirits to see whether they are of God”. Why did Christ overturn tables?
    You might try a different approach; I would be happy to have an open conversation with you. But, as it stands, you might look at the plank in your own eye for so rashly condemning the intentions of one who is sincerely trying to honor the Lord’s command to contend for the faith. If you believe I am wrong, that is your right, but you should at least afford me the same right to protect and pursue those who I think are in very serious theological error. Have we come to point that we cannot even have critique now without a raging response like this? Let me at least get to the critique first.

  8. Hi Marnix, I don't think that you are off the mark at all. I appreciate your comments. You are absolutely correct that our great responsibility is preaching. The CEO model attacks our very mandate. May Christ continue to raise up faithful preachers of the gospel, the fields are white for the harvest! CJG

  9. Amazing Grace...you're right, Jesus came for sinners and not for the righteous. However, you seem to be under the assumption that it is never right to critique any movement/belief/practice. I trust that if you will read through the gospels, you will find, on more than one occasion, Jesus offering some very pointed critique of certain individuals. And not only that, but he gives very serious warnings about the dangers of false teachers. Was Jesus wrong in doing so? What about the apostle Paul? He, too, did not hesitate to deal with false teaching and false teachers.

    Now certainly, as we examine the theology and practice of other churches, it is important that we do so with love and humility. But I don't see anything in this blog post that would make me say that it's NOT done with love and humility. Why is it that, whenever someone offers a critique, that people are offended and begin slinging around words like "arrogant," "self-righteous," or "narrow-minded"?

  10. Hi Kevin, You write, "However, you seem to be under the assumption that it is never right to critique any movement/belief/practice." You are absolutely correct. If we can't critique/condemn false practices apart from the charge of being a Pharisee, we have completely forfeited any Biblical definition of Christian. Thanks for the insights.

  11. In addition, the church should never have drafted either the Nicene Creed or the Canons of Dort, both of which were strong rejections of false teaching.

  12. yep, it's ad hominem, if I am off in my assessment, I invite a Scriptural interaction with my points.

  13. Marnix VSt AldegondeFebruary 18, 2010 at 3:09 PM

    Hi Amezing Grace!
    Yes, you got an earful from Chris. But you asked for it. If I had any doubts about your church you sure did remove it. But,lets be honest I got to give it to Chris for visiting your church. And you know, I doubt If you would ever think of doing the same. Your writing tells me somehow that you think you have the perfect church.
    and I think you are proving to me that somhow Chris is right. And don't come back at me saying: yea you go to his church! I'm sorry buddy, you're wrong. But lets wait until Chris has given his critique because I also want to hear what he has to say.

    You know Chris is doing what we all should be doing: Try the spirits if they are out of God. The fact that you took time to write on this blog tells me you are also willing to try the Spirits. Well,I for sure hope to see that. But lets leave the secondary things out of it like buckets and coffee and dress, those are not the most important issues. Come with the Scriptures like the Covenant and Baptism and more important issues for that is what we need to know. And you know why?
    Well, I remember what Christ once said when his brothers and his Mother (yea! His Mother off all people) wanted to see him. He said
    "For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother". That's not rocket science is it? And how do we know the will of God? His will is in the Scriptures. That's the only thing we go by. Hope to hear from you.
    Talk to yea later.

  14. Amazing Grace -

    Isn't it amazing that the Bereans were praised for "checking up" on Paul (the APOSTLE Paul) in Acts 17:11?

    Why wouldn't this be even more of the case today with ministers who haven't seen the risen Christ and who don't have anything inspired written in the canon of Scripture?

  15. My heart is heavy for "Amazing Grace" partly because I hear someone who has been hurt, much lIke I have been hurt by "the church". While growing up, the church I attended was very legalistic. Concerned with what you wore and how you looked on the outside. Lack of love with lots of rules and quick judgements. Leaders that acted more like movie stars than teachers.
    The first thing that I did when I was old enough, was run into the "saddle back" church. There I found LOVE, acceptance for who I was no matter what I looked like--they were just happy that I was there. My heart finally began to feel Gods unconditional love through HIs people-- something that I had never felt before.
    I do agree that these new "saddle back " churches lack true Bible teaching and opt for a more watered down, feel good version.
    But I also believe that we all could all benefit from some true unconditional love and acceptance.

    Love with out truth is heresy,
    truth with out love is legalism.
    --St. Augustine

  16. Hi Heather,

    Thanks for the interaction, I appreciate your comments. Yes, my heart too is heavy for Amazing Grace. I am not so sure he/she has been hurt, so much as he has formed opinions against what is perceived to be legalistic and refuses to look at the truth of the matter. There is the reverse problem of striking at a brother’s liberty because he wants to, for example, offer his first-fruits in the way that he dresses or looks (I raise this because AG did). Broad characterizations and generalizations are made this way and lumped together as a “legalistic” when, in fact, practices of people are often birthed out of genuine gratitude for the grace given. In other words, a lot of these churches keep kicking the traditional churches in Lynden as legalistic in matters of Christian liberty.

    Even worse, legalism is so carelessly flung around today that any honoring of the law of God is also attacked as legalistic. This is more common than the previous issue of liberty. For example, if someone says, “I want to honor the fourth commandment and keep the Sabbath day holy” this is the kind of stuff being labeled as legalistic, when in fact, it is a law of God. This is not a matter of liberty. In many ways, the modern day church is antinomian (no law at all)—and this appears to be what they mean by love, we won’t require anything of you if you come to us. You can hardly read Christ’s words without shivering at his calls to deny yourself. We need to properly define legalism as putting yokes over people for their salvation in addition to faith in Christ. Yes, it’s a problem, and wrong. But this doesn’t rule out a life of obedience to God’s law as a way of gratitude for the grace given. If you have faced legalism properly defined this way, my heart is heavy for you too.

    Thanks, CJG

  17. thanks for the blessings this string has been to me - many times what may be seen by some as legalistic abuse as a reason to flee to the arms of the all accepting " happy church" may only be a lack of willingness to be humbled and broken at the feet of Jesus - we are told that the Christian life will be not only a pilgrim path but one of suffering as well and that if you are truly following the "unleavened life " you will suffer for the Savior- again to the topic at hand - the marks of a true church - I have some acquaintances that simply refuse to look at the marks of a true church as being valid ( they go to a saddle back light church ) - and instead bask in the glo of the worship team , drums a-pounding and the group hug - but no law and definitely no Gospel - its almost like these folks are embaraased to takl about Jesus because then they might be convicted that they need to live a changed life - as some others have said "how sad " - it breaks my heart!

  18. Mike, good response! Yes, I maintain that this is a fundamental problem; we are embarrassed today of anything that is churchy. In this embarrassment, we have lost our distinctive witness as a holy and separate people from what is common (see 2 Cor. 6). Thanks! CJG

  19. I have read the comments to date and want to express such gratitude for my church family and the God-fearing council who invited Reverend Gordon to preach God's Word, REAL AMAZING GRACE. Our clothes are just a covering.

    I am sad and fearful for those who are not even aware they are not receiving God's Word inspite of faithfully attending their own church.

  20. "The worship leader read a few verses from a psalm-"

    Hillsong United - I Stand In Awe Of You
    by Hillsong United

    You are beautiful beyond description
    Too marvelous for words
    Too wonderful of comprehension
    Like nothing ever seen or heard
    Who can grasp you infinite wisdom
    Who can fathom the depth of your love
    You are beautiful beyond description
    Majesty enthroned above

    And I stand, I stand in awe of you
    I stand, I stand in awe of you
    Holy God to whom all praise is due
    I stand in awe of you. (Psalm 65:8, Psalm 119:20, Psalm 29:2, Psalm 96:8)

    "There was no attention, at all, to singing the Psalms."

    I haven't read your critique yet but if feels like I can already hear judgement in your tone. Is that possible?

  21. You write, "I haven't read your critique yet but if feels like I can already hear judgement in your tone. Is that possible?"

    Are you accussing me of being judgmental while you judge my tone, without rendering a sound judgment by actually reading the article?