Addressing the Concerns of the Genuinely Concerned

Richard W. O'Ffill

The other day a friend of mine called me from another state. We were talking about some of the things that are going on in the world. There are a lot of things going on, but what do we expect? This planet is under the curse of sin, and the devil is pretty much in charge here on a day to day basis. Of course, God is in control and is moving the tide of human history. Though this planet abandoned Him, He has never abandoned it. Though the generations of man have generally rejected Him, He has never given up on them.

Have you noticed as you read the Bible that God traces His working in this planet through those whom He has chosen or through those who have claimed to have chosen Him? What I am saying is there is not much in Scripture specifically concerning Hinduism or Buddhism. Though surely heathenism is recognized, its history is not traced. What I am saying is that the Scriptures are not about the history of heathenism. What is traced is the rise and fall of truth as God has continually tried to introduce it into the chain of human events.

It seems to me that what we need to keep our eye on is what is going on in the Christian world. Error is error is error. What we need to keep a pulse on is the course of truth and those forces that would tend to corrupt it or to hide it or otherwise hinder it as a revelation of the will of God for this planet.

What I am saying is that I am much more concerned with what is going on among those who call themselves followers of Christ than I am about the ozone layer or a pending happening in nature. Though Jesus said there would be signs in many places and of different kinds, the 'biggie,' as we would say, would be those that would occur in the church.

In the days of Jesus there were, as there are today, what we might call "the liberals" and "the conservatives." The liberals in Jesus' church were called the Sadducees and the conservatives were called the Pharisees. The other day I was reading where Jesus was saying to His disciples one day, "...beware the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees." It occurred to me that in the twenty-first century He might have said, Beware the influence of the liberals and the conservatives. I hadn't thought of it that way before, but I thought that was an interesting way to look at it. Jesus was saying, look out for the extreme points of view.

If you have heard me preach before you probably came to the conclusion without much effort that I feel we are presently on what we might call a liberal kick in the church. The justification for this, according to the liberals at least, is that for too long we were on a conservative kick. So you might say we have now gone from the ridiculous to the sublime.

I was telling you about my friend calling me on the phone. He told me that he generally agrees with the things that I point out as being dangers that we are facing, but he said to me, "Dick, I don't think you are being fair to everyone that is involved. Some of us are not trying to be worldly; we are just desperate to find a little life in the church."

As I began to think of what he was saying, I could see that there was some truth in it. Is there such a thing as a dead conservative church? The answer is yes, a thousand times, yes. But on the other hand, is there such a thing as a dead liberal church? Though you might not think so, the answer is yes again. It may not be so apparent, because they may be serving cake in the lobby of the church and have a rock band and puppets for the worship service, but even in a lively atmosphere like that a person could be spiritually dead and not be aware of it.

You see, we need to understand that in the realm of the invisible what we call spiritual things are spiritually discerned. A hug, a piece of cake in the lobby and clowns for the worship service don't necessarily make something spiritual. But then neither does going to a church where you are invisible. In some churches that I have been to you had might as well be deaf, dumb and blind as far as the other members are concerned, because they don't seem to notice anyone but themselves.

Betty and I were on vacation one time with our four children. We went to a city on the Atlantic coast where we spent a week at the beach. When Sabbath came we looked up the church. Before I tell you what happened, let me say that I personally believe that being on vacation does not give us an exemption from going to church. The Bible tells us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together, and it doesn't mention a 'time out' for vacation.

Anyway, we walked into church. No one said hello. No one. It came time for the lesson study. We went out of the sanctuary to a classroom and sat around several tables with at least what must have been ten other people. You won't believe this, but we must have been invisible. No one asked who we were. We actually felt like we must have been invisible!

It wasn't until we walked out the door and shook hands with the pastor that he acknowledged us. I know you are thinking that we should have been our own welcoming committee. But please rest assured that I was friendly looking and making eye contact, yet still nothing was happening.

While we are remembering some unfriendly dead churches that we might have attended at one time or another--or worse, that we may belong to--let me tell you that I have attended Sabbath School programs where the superintendent, stretching it a little, must have spent three minutes preparing for the program. They read something that doesn't have to do with much, then after ten minutes of that we divide for the lesson study. I don't mean to exaggerate, but how often have I gone to a class where the teacher is likely to give the same lesson if anyone is there or not. By that I mean that there is little or no opportunity for sharing, and many times it would make no difference because the teacher has to get through the whole lesson and has little time for any relevant application of the points that he is trying to bring out.

I am sad to say that in many churches if the Sabbath School is a non-event, the church service seems to continue the same tradition. A person couldn't stay in business for profit the way that some services are conducted. Like the Sabbath School superintendent, the people who make the announcements, call for the offering or offer the prayer seem to have just put the idea together before they come out on the platform. Often the prayers are very predictable. The whole congregation knows what is going to be said next. The sermon is more of the same. I am not trying to be critical of my fellow preachers, but I am convinced that we began to go downhill in our worship service when the preaching died. This is not to say that everyone should have the same talent to preach, but a sermon that is put together on Thursday or Friday is not usually going to be very inspiring.

As I said, I don't mean to put down the pastor. In fact, I would like to say something in defense of the pastor's preaching. There are more and more places where trying to be the pastor is almost a lose-lose situation. People will tell us that they like sermons that step on toes, but when they say that they usually mean someone else's toes. They say that they want the pastor to tell it like it is, but by that they mean like they see it. The pastor here at the beginning of the twenty-first century tries to get into preaching. The result is that half the people get mad at him. The next Sabbath he tries another tack and the other half are mad at him. So to play it safe he gives the sermon the third week from the Reader's Digest and that week everyone is mad at him!

These days there is a term for a certain group of people and that is "burnt-out Adventists." Burned-out Adventists are in the church and others have quit coming to church. I have been trying to think of what could make a burnt-out Adventist.

In the past we thought that a burnt-out Adventist was a person who has lost interest in spiritual things. We say that the person may even be becoming worldly. That may be true sometimes and maybe it is true more often than not. But there may be another kind of burnt-out Adventist and that person could be very conservative in their thinking and lifestyle. This kind of burnt-out Adventist could be a person that does their religion without thinking. It doesn't matter if church is interesting or not, they go anyway. They have gone to church faithfully for 20 years and so they just don't feel the pain anymore. They have developed a kind of robot religion--religion by the numbers.

My friend said that he believes that a lot of the far-out things that are being done in some churches these days are a reaction to robot religion. He may be right.

I don't know if you are aware of it or not, but in the so-called celebration churches the people who are going to have part in the service on Sabbath will often come together on Friday night and practice and pray about what is going to happen the next day. They spend some real quality time preparing for the service. In many of those churches what is going to happen on Sabbath morning is not a spur of the moment thing, and you can tell it if you attend one of the services.

You may not agree with me, but I think that it is a good idea to have every component of Sabbath School and church well planned, and even, where necessary, rehearse in advance. I spend days getting the sermon ready. Why should the person who offers the prayer just take it off the top of their head, so to speak? After all, it is one thing to pray by your bed at night. When we pray in the congregation we are not just praying from one person's point of view; we are praying for the whole group, and to do this takes some thought beforehand.

Another thing, you may not remember the days, but when I was a boy, more people came to Sabbath School than came to church. That must have been at least partly because Sabbath School was interesting. I recognize that these days people tend to be sleeping in on Sabbath due to the fact that Mom and Dad work and the pace of modern life is fast. But as I was thinking about the problem of Sabbath School, I believe that if I had anything to do with it, I would begin with the classes and then have the Sabbath School program after the classes. By the way, more and more churches are doing just that.

Then another thing, I would give some kind of in-service training to the teachers. Again, the Sabbath School class is a place where it is easy to go from the ridiculous to the sublime. Some are doing a sleepy lesson study from the quarterly and in other places they have thrown the lesson quarterly out the window. I may be naïve, but I actually believe that in most cases it is possible to have an interesting relevant lesson study with a lot of participation using the lesson that is provided in the quarterly.

I am not comfortable with the trend in Sabbath School classes to make the Scripture more and more subjective. Let me explain what I mean. The teacher says to the people, "What do you think that text means?" round the circle. In the end, what the text means ends up being a compromise of the "group think" or else it means whatever you want it to mean, which is just as bad.

We do not learn chemistry or physics by consensus and neither is that the way to study the Bible. It seems to me that what we ought to do is to take what the Bible tells us to do and then discuss how we can apply it to our lives. We must never forget that the only reason for studying the Bible is to obey it.

A person who is not willing to obey the will of God as revealed in Scripture is wasting their time to read it. A person who is not willing to obey the Scripture is actually dangerous as far as interpreting the Bible is concerned. Jesus said that we are His disciples if we do whatsoever He tells us to do. My friends, the Bible is about obedience and we are going to have increasing problems personally and corporately until we understand this.

Now let me apply what I have been saying even more by asking a question. Is it possible for church to be boring to a worldly person? The answer is yes. Now another question: Is it possible for church to be boring to a person who loves Jesus? I believe that the answer again is yes.

Now before you all get up and run out of here, let me tell you that I looked up the word "boring" in the thesaurus. It means, among other things, dull, formal, blah, flat, humdrum, stale, tiresome, worn out and repetitious. With that definition of the word I am more convinced than ever that the church services can be boring, no matter if you are a liberal, a conservative, something in-between or all of the above.

I would like to say further that there is no reason why this needs to be or why it should continue to be. I believe that we get something out of what people put time into. If the pastor is giving Jesus some time in his life and putting some time into the sermon, then it will be hard to preach a crummy sermon.

In the same way, if the Sabbath School superintendent is giving time to Jesus in his or her life and gives some time to prepare the program, it will be fun to come to Sabbath School again. And as for the teachers--when a teacher wakes up to the fact that the Bible is about obedience and the task of teaching is not just to convey facts but to give the people a "how to" for victorious Christian living, then two things will happen: First, the teachers will need to get up to speed on living victoriously in their own lives, and second, as a result, the members of the class will begin to see the class as a life resource center.

Have you been listening to me? What is happening in many places is simply an attempt to raise the dead, but having a rock band, a puppet show, and having the sermon illustrated on the screen behind the pastor cannot be a substitute for Spirit-filled preaching. Spirit-filled preaching is not necessarily what you think. Spirit-filled preaching is what a person does whose life is committed to Jesus as Lord and Savior during the other six days of the week, and is closely patterned after the principles enunciated in the Word as they stand before the people each Sabbath morning.

I shouldn't have to tell you that the church is not a rest home for saints but a hospital for sinners. If you don't need Jesus as much as any other sinner then the church is not for you. Jesus said He didn't come to heal the well but the sick. A person who doesn't need Jesus doesn't need to come to church.

On the other hand, the church is a hospital for sinners. A hospital is where a sick person goes to get well. If a sinner likes to sin--if they don't want to change--then they shouldn't come to church either. Jesus is about change. If a conservative is too good to change or a liberal likes themselves the way they are, then the church is for neither one.

Another thing that we need to understand is that getting ready to go to church is not just something that you do on Sabbath morning. Getting ready to go to church is a lifestyle. The Scripture calls on us to present our bodies a living sacrifice, wholly and acceptable to God which is our reasonable service, and in another place it says that whether we eat or drink or whatever we do we must do it all to the glory of God.

All of this means that we are preparing to go to worship God all week long, and if you are not doing that then what happens at church can be a real bummer. Frankly, this is what has me so worried these days. Please forgive me, but it seems to me that we are finding that it is easier to change church than it is to change our lives.

We must remember that the gospel is about change. I greatly fear that, instead of the church changing the world, the world is in the process of changing the church. In our enthusiasm to liven up the church we may be committing an error that could be fatal to the spiritual lives of many.

Remember, the Scripture is clear that it is not by might or by power but by the Holy Spirit that change is supposed to come. It could well be that we have decided that the church was boring and that it needed a change, and now we have set out to use all of the resources at hand to make it happen.

The other day I was reading an article. It was entitled "Christ and Culture." It said that a culture war is not only being waged between Christians and an increasingly godless culture, it is now splitting churches. With the urge to make the church relevant and to try to keep the youth and to save the lost, churches are increasingly torn over what have been called "worship wars." In an effort to be culture-friendly, more and more churches are throwing out their traditional hymns and orders of service in favor of pop music, big screen videos, and motivational speeches.

The amazing thing is that I am not talking here about something that is just going on in our denomination, but something that is happening up and down the length and breadth of the land. In some churches parishioners can choose between a rock n' roll service and a country music service. Some Midwestern congregations are experimenting with polka liturgies.

A church in England has taken the next step in cultural accommodation. Since people in today's culture like to sleep in on Sunday mornings, meetings are held on Tuesday nights. To get around the church's old-fashioned moral image, smoking and drinking are permitted during the service. Since today's generation feels uncomfortable in a traditional church building, they meet in a pub. Since no one sits in rows anymore, they sit around tables. Since people today are not used to being just talked at, there is no sermon. Since people today do not recognize authority figures, there is no minister. They sit around and decide for themselves what they would like to discuss. The group is known as "Holy Joe's."

So here we are. The coming of Jesus is at the door. This was to be the church's finest hour. This is to be the time in which the contrast between the worldly culture and the culture of the followers of Christ was to be clear and well defined. What is happening? There seems to be two options available. The sleepy status quo or a rocking option. Surely the Lord must want us to find another way.

This is no time for the liberals to become more liberal and the conservatives more conservative. Remember, Jesus warned us of the leaven of both extremes. When I think about what is going on, it occurs to me that it had to happen this way. I don't mean by that, that it was God's plan for us to fall into a ditch on either side of the road, but it had to happen because it is evident that something must have been wrong. We must not have been rooted and grounded in the Rock or we wouldn't be floating from one extreme to the next.

I say that it had to happen this way because now we are going to see the folly of our ways. We are going to realize that you can't put your faith in a something; you have to put it in Someone. We must not have been totally committed to Jesus or this wouldn't be happening to us. He himself told us that when we build on the Rock, then a storm will not wash us out to sea.

What are we liberals and we conservatives going to do? It seems to me that we are both in a ditch. We will never get to heaven the way that we are going. When your car slides off the road, the trip is over until you get back on.

I believe that it is time for all of us to climb out of whichever side of the road that we have slid off of and get to the middle of the road. Some people are not comfortable with the term "middle of the road." I am not either, if by that you mean the middle of the wrong road. In this case, when I talk about the middle of the road, I am talking about the middle of the right road!

A friend of mine reminded me some years ago that Jesus was murdered by a coalition of liberals and conservatives. The Sadducees, who as I have mentioned were the liberals, hated Jesus because He was so principled. The Pharisees, who were what we would call in today's terms the conservatives, hated Him because He was so nice to people. Come to think of it, I think that is what I mean when I say that I want to be in the middle of the right road. I want to be a person who is nice but who has high principles. Don't you think you would like to be that way, too?

I see myself as a conservative person. As time goes by I am becoming more and more aware that, though I believe that I think I have a pretty good idea as to what principles are, I find that the thing that messes me up is my attitude. I can be very impatient with people who don't see the light as fast as I think they should. Not only that, I must understand that Jesus promised that He would send the Holy Spirit and that the Spirit would lead us into all truth. I must remind myself that I haven't arrived yet. There is more truth than any of us has the capacity to comprehend. I am thankful though that if we will continue to grow spiritually, God will continually add to our capacity to understand and apply truth.

I do not agree with the concept that God doesn't expect us to obey Him until we have read all of the fine print. We had better obey what He has made clear. A failure to do that will cause us to become susceptible to error and even without wanting to we will lose our way. Remember what it says in one place that, because they wouldn't believe the truth, God gave them over to believe a lie and they were lost.

Another obvious weakness that I have seen in myself, and maybe it is a characteristic of us conservative types, and that is that I am not kind like Jesus is. I think that we conservatives are often the worst enemies of the truth that we hold so dear because of some of our attitudes.

Another problem with some of us conservatives is that we must be careful or we can become 'spiritual sadists.' "Did you hear about the earthquake in California?" "Oh really? How wonderful!" "So many killed? You know that is surely a sign of the last days!"

Friends, we must not let our enthusiasm for the coming of Jesus cause us to rejoice over the death of the wicked. The Scripture is plain that God has no joy over the death of the wicked. We must, in fact, become like Abraham who pleaded with the Lord to spare Sodom for just a few. Speaking of California, I have often wondered why so many seem so anxious to see it fall into the ocean. If God would have spared Sodom for ten, don't you think there are more than ten righteous in California?

Of one thing I am sure, and that is, as darkness continues to cover the earth and gross darkness the people, those who have the mind of Christ will be found more and more interceding for the lost and pleading for the mercy of God.

So my work is cut out for me. I should say, now that I recognize some of my greatest weaknesses, the work is cut out for the Holy Spirit.

If you don't mind, as long as we are talking about both sides of the ditch, I wish that some of those of a more liberal mindset would look at themselves while we conservatives look at ourselves. I have been amazed that, while it seemed that the liberal mindset was accepting and open-minded, my experience has been that when push comes to shove and liberalism gets into the drivers seat, it can very fast begin to exhibit some of the same characteristics that they say we conservatives have, and that is they soon become close-minded and anything but accepting. You see, I believe that when we are really open-minded and accepting we will be just as sensitive about hurting little old grandma as we are about offending a prostitute who may be visiting church on a particular Sabbath.

We must remember that God is no respecter of persons, and it seems to me that both conservatives and liberals are. In this we are all to blame and we ought to be ashamed of ourselves.

Some liberals are sure that, if they hadn't been raised by God-fearing parents who taught them to have family worship and to keep the Sabbath and all the rest, they would still be in the church. The truth is more likely that, if their parents hadn't been the way that they were, the kids would have not had a church to leave.

One of the problems, it seems to me, that the liberal mindset has is that it doesn't like being responsible. That is a problem as far as God is concerned. The Bible teaches that all of us human beings will have to be judged by God, and that would not be possible if He didn't hold us each accountable. I am sure you can see how that is.

I may be wrong, but I get the impression that the liberal mindset is very subjective when it comes to faith and morals. I may be getting the wrong impression, but I seem to be hearing that whatever a person thinks is right for them is right.

I guess I wouldn't have any trouble with that except you can't fly an airplane that way or learn physics or chemistry. I may be in the lower fifty percentile, but I can't see how there are rules for all of the sciences, but there should be no rules in that part of our lives which has to do with faith and morals.

One more thing from my perspective about the liberal mindset is that I am beginning to think that underneath it all they have the same problems that we who come at it from the conservative point of view have. I am finding that when push comes to shove the liberal mindset is no more open-minded and accepting than the conservative mindset. Now I understand what Jesus meant when He said to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. In other words, extreme positions from either side will eventually do a person in.

I think that the real problem that we liberals and conservatives have by nature is not so much between ourselves. We just try to compensate for our weaknesses in different ways. I think the real problem that we all have is with God. Excuse this earthly illustration: In the most extreme the liberal thinks that there is no God or that everyone is God, while the conservative thinks that he is God!

There are three texts I am going to read that put things into perspective. Notice that these texts don't ask what race, color, creed or religion you are, and neither does it ask your gender or age group. The matter of liberals and conservatives is not mentioned either. Let me read:

Jeremiah 17:9: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?"

Romans 3:10: "As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one:"

Job 14:4: "Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not one."

Sounds like the texts are talking about human beings to me. If you consider yourself a human being that would mean that you are included. The texts must have been written before they discovered the importance of self-esteem. If the Bible would only affirm us then maybe we wouldn't hate ourselves so much! I am only kidding, of course.

The picture is clear. We are not what we think we are nor can we be, in and of ourselves, no matter from what perspective a person may want to come at it. The human heart by nature is trying to get out of obeying God.

The highest of all the created beings, the Archangel Lucifer, decided that he needed more affirmation and self-esteem, and so he said, and I quote, "For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High" Isaiah 14:13,14.

What can I say? From there we all have caught the disease, though we mask it in many ways. There is a generic name for it and that is pride. Selfishness is another way of putting it. We liberals and conservatives have a problem. Our problem is made even more difficult by the fact that on this earth we usually resolve our differences by compromise, war, or separation. Those are basically the only ways that we know how to solve irresolvable differences.

You might say, "So where are you coming from?" Where I am coming from is that we cannot resolve our differences with God by any of the means we use to solve problems that we have between ourselves. He was here before the problem came along and He will be here when it is all over. The question is, will we?

Friends, where I am coming from is that I am convinced that we liberals and conservatives can never make peace between ourselves--we will never be able to resolve the differences between us--until we have resolved the big one, which is our differences with God.

No matter the name that we paint on ourselves, the fact is that God has created us all through our parents. He has given us this life as a gift. This life is only for one thing, and that is that it is the time that we have to decide if we are going to be around after this war is over and God has created all things new. This existence has no meaning unless it is but a moment in eternity in which we are being graciously given the opportunity to decide if we will serve our Creator as it used to be.

Contrary to what you may have heard, at the bottom of it all we are each one our own worst enemy. God is not our problem. Liberals are not the problem. Conservatives are not the problem. We are the problem and God is the answer to our problem. Contrary to what some may think, the church is not the problem. If it is, by some stretch of the imagination, it is because we are the problem, and so we have problems in the church because we are the church.

If the church has somehow gotten to be boring, it is because we have become bored. If the church in some places is now rocking, it is because we are rocking during the rest of the week and not just on Sabbath morning.

This makes me think of the song that we sing sometimes, "Not my mother nor my father, but it's me O Lord, standing in the need of prayer. Not my sister nor my brother, but it's me O Lord, standing in the need of prayer."

In the context of the church--as liberals and as conservatives, as young and old, as men and women, as singles and as married folks--we ought to be linking arms and singing that song, "Not the liberals nor the conservatives, but it's me O Lord, standing in the need of prayer." Do you understand?

We must understand that we have more in common than we have differences, though we might not see things the same way. Though your culture may be different than mine, though you may speak another language or be younger than me or older than me, we have more in common than you think, because we are all alive this very moment, and with every minute that goes by we are nearer to the close of probation. We are on a ship that God has declared is going down. The Scripture is clear that this earth and all that is in it will pass away. The only ones that will remain will be those who Jesus rescues away. The only ones that He rescues away will be those who have a spirit of repentance and who want with all their hearts to obey His will.

Years ago I read somewhere that if two angels in heaven were called to the throne of God and one was asked to be the leader of the world's greatest nation and the other was asked to come down and work on a garbage truck, both angels would be perfectly happy because their only joy is to do the will of the Sovereign.

And so it is. Until we conservatives and liberals allow the Holy Spirit to bring us to godly repentance, until we liberals and conservatives allow the Holy Spirit to give us a spirit of total obedience to the will of God as revealed in His Word we have a big problem, and that is that no matter what we may have on our bumper sticker or no matter what our philosophical rationalization, we had might as well get used to it, and that is as the old song says, "All thems that says theys goin' to heaven ain' going there."

You, Liberal, please listen for a minute. You, Conservative--you who consider yourselves liberals--please listen for a minute. Listen to the Word of God: Romans 13:11, "And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed." This world and all that is in it is going to pass away. Are you going to pass away with it?"

This is no time to defend the status quo. This is no time to change for the sake of change. It is time to wake up. "Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God" Hebrews 12:1,2.


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