Church Life, Outreach, Missions
Passion or Conviction? God's Real Presence of Group Psychology?
by Ed Vasicek
If you know Ed Vasicek, you know that I am not too impressed by many of the trends in our broader American evangelical movement. Some trends have been positive, but many have not. The positive trends include a whole arsenal of teaching tools and technological advances. We can help people "see" the mission field through videotape; we can be better organized and work more efficiently by using computers; we can quickly and more frequently communicate with missionaries by email.
Negative trends are sometimes the result of the collapse of our social structure and our inability to relate well in marriage, family, and society. Since our emotional and social longings are being unfulfilled due to our personal disappointments and failures, we seek to satisfy these desires in alternative ways. Many look to the church to provide what should be obtained elsewhere. Churches that offer such substitutes may experience staggering growth, but one wonders how healthy this growth is. It is what many people want, but is it what they need? Let's look at some of these trends, trends that are pinch-hitting for the real sluggers of solid relationships.
The first trend is the "passion" trend, one of evangelicalism's new buzzwords. For centuries, the word "passion" had negative connotations. Passion was often seen as the cause of problems, anywhere from adultery to financial irresponsibility. The modern trend describes passion no longer as a vice, but as a virtue. We now speak of "passion for the Lord."
Having a "passion" for the Lord is not bad if by passion we mean "zeal," "life," and "dedication." The Bible nowhere speaks of "passion" for God, but it does address the need for zeal. Zeal (eagerness to serve) is measured not in depth of feeling but in its fruit, good works. Ephesians 2:10 tells us that God saved us and this salvation is evidenced by our good works. In Revelation 2:5 the scolding Christ instructs the lukewarm Ephesian believers to remedy their situation"Repent and do the things you did at first." Titus 2:14 tells us that God saved us to make us His holy people, "...eager to do what is good." This zeal is to spring from within, as the Holy Spirit provides us with a constant flow of zeal (John 7:37ff).
Some modern Christians use the word "passion" to refer to an adrenaline-like feeling that does not necessarily show itself in works. This is in contrast to Biblical zeal, which is tied to a track record of works. Even faith, though intensely felt, is meaningless if it does not produce action, works, or good deeds (the theme of the Book of James). James' argument still stands, "Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do." Rather than passion, I prefer the word "zeal" and the term "conviction" because, in my mind, passion can be a wave of enthusiasm that easily fades. Convictions are what people die for. There is a resolve in conviction that endures.
Another trend I have noted is this "Presence of God" thing. This IS a Biblical term, but, in my opinion, the meaning has changed from the Scriptural or traditional norm. Matthew 18:20 describes the simplicity of what it means to be in God's presence in a New Testament sense: "For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them."
The topic of God's presence is multifaceted, especially when the entire Bible is taken into account. God IS everywhere; He is omnipresent. But there is a sense in which He is especially located on the throne in heaven (we call this the "localized presence of God"). In Old Testament times, He uniquely dwelt above the Ark of the Covenant in the form of a pillar of cloud. The New Testament concept of the presence of God is not complex: when two or more believers gather in the name of Jesus, He is especially present. We do not need to work up the presence of God by getting into some religious frenzy. We either believe He is especially present or we do not, it's that simple. And this is the difference between the Biblical (and traditional) understanding of God's presence and its trendy counterpart.
A third trend is actually a return to an older belief that a church building is "The House of God." Biblically, the only permanent structure God ever commanded to have constructed was the Temple in Jerusalem on Mt. Zion. Modern church buildings are gathering places for God's people; they are neither shrines nor dwelling places for God's special presence as the Tabernacle or Temple were. If church structures are sacred at all, they are sacred because of what takes place when the Body of Christ meets; only in that sense are they "set apart." For the first few centuries of the Church, believers met in homes, alongside waterfronts, or even in underground catacombs.
Do not misunderstand me. I believe church buildings are VERY useful. I do not know that anyone loves our facility more than I do. But my point is this: God is no more present in the midst of a church gathering in a church building than He would be if we were in a gymnasium. What does change between the two is the psychological atmosphere. Unfortunately, few Christians understand the difference between body chemistry (altered by psychology or environment) and the workings of the Holy Spirit. The psychological should not be ignored, but it should be labeled "psychological" and not "spiritual." For example, our church auditorium has been improved greatly and the psychological difference jumps out at us. Because the atmosphere is different (e.g., praise banners, gentler carpeting, etc.), it may be easier to focus upon the spiritual, but the atmosphere is NOT spiritual; our focus on Christ is the spiritual element.
Let me illustrate these last two trends together. When a group of believers gather in Jesus' name, His special presence is there, whether felt or not. When religious unbelievers gather in a beautiful sanctuary and listen to awesome music, Jesus is NOT present in that same way, though it may feel as though He were. See my point.
Because so many folks experience a lack of satisfaction in their marriages, family, and society, and because more and more people are loners, many are expecting the church to compensate for their relational and social deficiencies. And some congregations offer to do just that; I question this.
May I make a suggestion? If you are not passionate with your spouse, do not attempt to satisfy your romantic craving by projecting it toward God. Work on your marriage; do not use God as a substitute. God is personal and does want a relationship with you, but I believe it improper to relate to Him as a romantic lover. Although the church is pictured as the Bride of Christ, that illustration does not mean our love is romantic. Christ also spoke about wanting to gather His chicks under His wings like a mother hen. If we are to have a romantic love for God based on the fact that we are the bride of Christ, then we should also develop a chicken-like relationship with Him since we are His brood!
The downside to all these trends is obvious: if we relate to God in inappropriate ways, we no longer relate to Him in appropriate ways. And we join a trendy, shallow form of Christianity: a belief system that forgets who God really is, a system that redefines the terms away from their Biblical meaning and thus is less than true. Instead, let us choose to know Yahweh our Lord through His Word, prayer, fellowship, His Spirit, and sharing daily life with Him. Let's relate to Him as God, putting Him first, accepting our status as servants. We exist for Him; He does not exist for us, though He does value our friendship. Let's remember that God is God.
Reprinted from the July 2001 Body Builder, a publication of Highland Park Church.
Highland Park Church