by Ron Schwartz
Ants are a curious example of the church. The ants are not strong but their nest is. In an ant colony, there is the visible part above ground. It provides no useful purpose. It can grow to be very large but its appearance of strength is an illusion. It is actually a frail structure that is easily swept away. Then there is the invisible part below ground. That is the part that provides shelter and protection. There the queen is nourished, eggs are laid, and larva grows…
Where is the God of Elijah?
2 Kings 2:8-14 KJV
8 And Elijah took his mantle, and wrapped it together, and smote the waters, and they were divided hither and thither, so that they two went over on dry ground.
9 And it came to pass, when they were gone over, that Elijah said unto Elisha, Ask what I shall do for thee, before I be taken away from thee. And Elisha said, I pray thee, let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me.
10 And he said, Thou hast asked a hard thing: nevertheless, if thou see me when I am taken from thee, it shall be so unto thee; but if not, it shall not be so.
11 And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.
12 And Elisha saw it, and he cried, My father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof. And he saw him no more: and he took hold of his own clothes, and rent them in two pieces.
13 He took up also the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and went back, and stood by the bank of Jordan;
14 And he took the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and smote the waters, and said, Where is the LORD God of Elijah? and when he also had smitten the waters, they parted hither and thither: and Elisha went over.
At this point in Elisha’s life, having heard the power of Elijah’s words and having seen Elijah’s miracles, Elisha had yet to experience them for himself. He was an upright man, a fine Jew who believed in the scripture, but like so many of his countrymen, he had yet to “experience” the reality of God.
Most Christians spend their entire lives like Elisha. Jesus and the apostles, like Elijah, have gone before us. And, like Elijah, they performed many wonders and miracles through the Spirit of God. Like Elijah, their words were full of power and grace, the likes of which this world has never known since. Like Elijah, they have been received up into the heavens, leaving us alone. But God’s Spirit, like Elijah’s mantle, has now fallen upon us just like the mantle did upon Elisha. It is the same Spirit that performed miracles in the days of Elijah, Jesus, and the apostles. The question is: what will we do with this mantle?
Consider what did Elisha once he received the mantle. Did he walk home and put the mantle in his closet? Did he watch it fall to the ground and tell himself that it was not his mantle? Or did he scoop it up and experience the reality – the substance – of its power?
This story tells us that Elisha took up the mantle and experienced all the power and grace that comes from God’s Spirit. But can this be said of the Church today? Has the Church taken up the mantle of God’s Spirit, or has it allowed the mantle to fall to the ground while it goes on its way?
Today the Western Church is facing apostasy. It has ceased to be a factor in a sinful world. Its steeples and cathedrals are becoming historical relics of the potential it lost long ago, much like the monasteries in Europe. The contemporary church has abandoned the mantle left for it by Jesus and His apostles. For this reason, church attendance is flat; people attend as spectators and not as the disciples that they are called to be. For this reason, the contemporary church bears so little resemblance to the church it once was and is called to be.
Our Christian leaders are misled in believing that people are seeking the truth. It is not the truth they want, for truth is all around them. A trip to any Christian bookstore clearly demonstrates this.
But if not truth, for what then are people looking? What people are looking for is the very thing that was left to us just as it was left to Elisha. People are looking for substance.
I believe that people have grown weary of all the promises. They see the contemporary church as the pep rally it has come to be – full of hype but lacking substance. They have tried each new church that has sprung up, even the newly remodeled ones, in the hope of finding the real thing. But each such attempt has ended in bitter disappointment. It’s like a repackaged brand of pickles on the supermarket shelf. The label may say “new and improved,” but inside they are the same old pickles.
Churches try gimmicks and marketing campaigns, they preach the “truth” as they know it, but still they get little response. Why? Perhaps the church should quit trying to draw and influence people through the wisdom and talents of men, and pick up the mantle that lies before them.
Substance, Not Structure
2 Tim 3:1-2, 5
1 This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come.
2 For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy,
5 Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.
The true agnostic is not the person who does not attend church. The true agnostic is the person who attends church every Sunday but does not believe in God’s power. It is the person who has accepted structure over substance.
Most churches have replaced the substance of the Holy Spirit for structure. Substance results in permanent changes in our lives whereas structure is nothing more than a temporary fix. Our salvation experience is an example of substance. The change was permanent. Whatever the Spirit of God does in one’s life is permanent. Conversely, whatever men do is temporary. Men preach sermons that are forgotten the following week, but who forgets the times they were touched by God?
Structure now fills Christian gatherings in the form of the lively rhetoric and gifted performance artists. People leave feeling better but without the substance of a permanent change. Yes, every now and then God is able to touch a life by breaking through the veneer of holiness that shrouds these meetings. The person who is touched, having experienced the substance of God, far too often attributes his experience to the pastor and the church they attended. The veneer prevents them from seeing the true source of their experience. They then attend faithfully hoping that maybe, just maybe, they can experience it again. But church is not the answer nor is it the substance they are seeking.
Books have replaced the Bible in our homes, but more importantly, they have replaced personal revelation received from time spent with God. They are “how to” guides. They are interesting and skillfully written, but far too often they serve merely fill us with excuses as to why our lives lack substance.
People are tired of the empty promises from churches and books. They have tried all the self-help guides and thirty-day programs such as The Purpose-Driven Life. They always end up leaving the naïve Christian in the same state at which they began.
Consider the Ants
Proverbs 30:25 KJV
25 The ants are a people not strong, yet they prepare their meat in the summer
Ants are a curious example of the church. The ants are not strong but their nest is. In an ant colony, there is the visible part above ground. It provides no useful purpose. It can grow to be very large but its appearance of strength is an illusion. It is actually a frail structure that is easily swept away. Then there is the invisible part below ground. That is the part that provides shelter and protection. There the queen is nourished, eggs are laid, and larva grows. Churches are like that.
There is the visible part of the church that provides structure but lacks the substance of the Holy Spirit. This is often all that people ever see. They see the programs and performances of speakers and other talented leaders. They enjoy the comfort and décor of the facilities, but all these tangibles are not the true essence of the Spirit. Like the part of the ant colony that is below ground, God’s Spirit is the true strength of the Church. It cannot be seen. It is invisible, yet somehow it is able to bring about true growth in the hearts of people. Traditional churches come and go as easily as sweeping away an anthill, but the true substance of the Spirit of God is eternal.
Once you come to understand that the traditional church (as it exists in its buildings and programs) is nothing more than structure created by men – weak and temporary – you will begin to see that the real church cannot be limited to a membership or attendance count. Memberships only define the size of a social club. It has nothing to do with the church. That is important.
Most people cannot separate the structure created by men (buildings, property, staff, and programs) from the spiritual Church that extends beyond the limitations of their facility. They have misidentified their membership in their social club as being membership in God’s Church, and it is not. They sense the weakness and temporary nature of the structure and become protective of it. They channel large volumes of money into its upkeep and improvement, marketing it to others in an attempt to grow attendance and thus justify its existence. None of that has anything to do with God. It is more like the maintenance of time-share properties that are jointly owned by many.
The true Church does not exist in the structure created by men. Buildings and property do not limit it; neither can a pastor and his staff own it. The dictates of ministers cannot control it, nor can their excuses replace it. It’s everywhere. Pastors insist that they must approve every decision, every Bible study, and every teacher. Much like the anthill, this control is just the temporary structure they impose, the bylaws of the social club they have formed. These things are NOT part of God’s Church or His kingdom. They are part of man’s kingdom.
The contemporary church continues to evolve. It looks to the public for relevance because it has come to believe that it is key to its survival. Unless the church is relevant, people will not attend. If people do not attend, it will cease to exist. So it continues to change and evolve in an effort to grow and exist.
The contemporary church has come to believe that people are looking for social fulfillment. Consequently, churches race to develop the best programs and facilities to create a social club environment. When they do this, they often see a brief increase in interest and attendance, but eventually flattens and contributions once again fall off as the public’s interest fades. Why?
People are looking for substance. They often attend new churches (or newly remodeled), attend special programs and other social events, looking for this. Church leaders see this as their answer to what people want. But this is NOT what people are seeking. They want God and the true Church that exists in His Spirit.
Each time a church promotes a new event, they are crying, “Wolf!” People get excited and hopeful, so they come to see if perhaps this church is for real. But, just as quickly, their hopes are shattered when they see that it is still the same old social club, just repackaged.
People are weary of churches crying wolf. Their marketing strategies and campaigns are nothing more then deceptive advertising. They promise substance but deliver structure, they advertise God but provide a social club, and in the end, they will fade into obscurity while the true Church, born of God’s Spirit, unseen and unimpeded by men, continues on.
In many ways, the contemporary church has become the cheap “generic” alternative. It’s a replacement for God. It continuously builds new buildings and improves the old ones. It gets new speakers, tries new programs, changes its music, and holds special classes. It claims to have what people want, but when the veil of form falls away and the counterfeit is exposed, it turns to other gimmicks. It is structure without substance. It’s the vanity of men instead of the reality of God’s Spirit.
People have an innate need for God. It eats away at their soul until they turn to Him. People want God. He is all that can fill their hearts, fill their need. They are tired of churches claiming to be something they are not. They are tired of going to church believing they will find substance just to find that they were scammed again. When will the contemporary church learn that there are only so many promises you can break before people just stop believing, stop coming, and stop trying? When will the church stop crying wolf?
Ron and Karen Schwartz [email protected]