February 29, 2020

Stalking the DVD Antichrist

Stalking The DVD Antichrist
It’s the end of worship as we know it…and we feel fine.
by Michael Spencer

I spotted the Antichrist today. He looked back at me from an ad in a flyer from a major Christian retailer, which shall go unnamed, though I don’t know why I care about the name. I mean, it was Lifeway, which used to be Baptist Book Store, but it changed its name to sell more stuff to people who weren’t Baptist, which is a good thing, I suppose, though, ultimately, it’s a market driven decision, which gets around to why the Antichrist was comfortably looking back at me from that ad. But I digress.

The Antichrist was disguised as a DVD. DVDs are hot right now. I have a bunch of them myself, so I guess I am part of the problem, except I don’t buy Christian DVDs. I buy war movies, mostly. With a few westerns, and movies everyone else in the family hates, but I like. “Navy Seals” is a good example. Anyway, this DVD was a “worship” DVD. Instead of just being music, this was the whole show, music and video, live and anointed by the Holy Spirit, who I suppose was left out of the credits. Except this DVD was the Antichrist. How do I know? Because of the title. Bannered across the page was the following unmistakable fingerprint of the Antichrist: “The TOTAL Worship Experience.”

See, I told you. The Antichrist.

I guess you had to be there. Or you have to believe, like I do, that Jesus was actually telling the truth when he said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Mathew 18:20) In others words, there is something unique about the gathered church. Paul had it in mind when he told the Corinthians to “come together” as a church. (I Corinthians 11:17-18) And when he said they were to exercise discipline when they were “assembled” in the name of the Lord Jesus. (I Corinthians 5:4) It’s the reason the writer to the Hebrews said, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)

The Antichrist is selling the TOTAL worship experience without the church. Just me and my DVD, gettin’ into Jesus with my killer home theater. No bad seats. No crying kids. Nobody around but me and my sweetie and a bowl of chips. And I can watch it as often as I want. It’s made to order, which is, of course, the problem.

Ever read this in the Psalms: “Praise the LORD! I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.”? (Psalm 111:1) It’s a fairly common part of Israel’s worship book. You might recall that God made it fairly clear in the Old Covenant that gathering for worship, as opposed to having a home tabernacle in the back yard, was mandatory. Home tabernacles- known as high places- were generally frowned upon.

That’s not to say that Israelites didn’t pray and worship in all kinds of places and circumstances, but the place of the gathered congregation in the worship of Israel is unmistakable. While Jesus was a rebel, he also actually demonstrates what a good Jew he is by going to Jerusalem for worship and going to synagogue for worship. The gathered congregation is an undeniable part of his life. Jesus wasn’t Buddha.

Assembling together is part of the Christian experience of the disciples, the teaching of the apostles, and, of course, the witness of the early church. We tend to overlook the fact that, given so many Christian truths that universalize Old Testament particulars- like the Sabbath, the temple, the Holy of Holies, the sacrifices, etc.- it can be a bit surprising that the regularly meeting, local, gathered congregation was such a central part of Christianity. Can’t a Christian make the argument that God is no more present at church than he is in the car on the way to the soccer game? Can’t Christians say that every day is the Lord’s Day? Jesus is our great high priest and he is everywhere? Isn’t my time with God alone just as holy as any time spent in church?

As true as some of these things are- and they are true- they are also a very one-sided presentation of the New Testament witness. The gathered church is everywhere in the Bible. In its calling to discipline, in its commission to equip, worship and teach, in its officers and ministers, in the ordinances and commands that can only be carried out in the church. The book of Acts is a history of the gathered church. The epistles are witnesses to the life, problems and experiences of the gathered churches. Revelation is a letter to seven local, gathered congregations.

Christianity is a faith of individuals who gather into communities of belief and covenantal, confessional faith. This isn’t a seminar. It’s not group therapy. It’s not a conglomeration of consumers shopping at the same outlet. It’s an intentional community. A place where people come together because God said so. A place where “brother” and “sister” mean something real. A gathering that calls us out of individuality into the Body of Christ. Get off your butt. Get out of the house. Show up somewhere.

The audacity to advertise the “TOTAL worship experience” by way of DVD is so brazenly anti-Christian that I have no problem calling it the Antichrist. On sale for $22.95, and packaged to look for all the world like one would have to be a fool to question whether this was not the best development in Christianity since the Jabez Rosary.

The diabolical possibilities are endless. No carping preachers. No off key soloists or amateurishly performed special music. No senior adults taking up the seats. No crying babies. No youth group misbehavior. No annoying building programs. No one raising their hands in the front row. No bad seats or bad breath. No thermostat problems. No old boyfriends. No family members. No clammy handshakes. No scary tongue-speaking. No long invitations. No repetitive liturgy. No un-pretty people. No being labeled a “visitor.” No..no…no…..no… A person could get used to this.

It’s the spiritual equivalent of cloning. We’ll give the Christian the ability to order up whatever kind of worship experience he wants with no need to go anywhere, join anything, or believe anything. We simply select the characteristics we want and create the product. Complete with a menu of choices that will please any denominational background. “Press here for Michael W. Smith’s commentary on the song. Press here for prophecies included. Press here for “Behind the TOTAL Worship Experience” interviews with worship leaders. Press here for songs in French, English, Spanish or Tongues. Press here to order more TOTAL Worship videos.”

Of course, I’m just being my usual extreme self. Nothing like this will ever REALLY happen.

I owe a lot to Mike Yaconelli. Somewhere along the way, that lovable curmudgeon convinced me that the church, as divine as it is, is- on the human level- a zoo of pathetic and utterly ridiculous people behaving badly and seldom doing anything right. This saved me from the heart attack I was working on trying to change every church I belonged to. I finally gave up and just embraced the unkempt, slovenly mess as the bride of Christ. Things have been a lot easier ever since. I don’t want the TOTAL Worship Experience. I am having too much fun at the zoo. I’m in here with all the other animals! (Toss me a peanut.)

I have observed in my ministry that about half the serious Christians I know are either out of church or shopping around. I wish I could say this was because of their strong desire for a vital, Biblically centered church experience and there just are no options around anywhere. The fact is that the reasons are pretty much all the same. They’re shopping and not buying. Or just not shopping at all.

American evangelical Christians are consumerized to the point that the TOTAL Worship Experience and every other version of the individualized, non-gathered church has a ready-made audience. The mantra of millions of American Evangelicals is “I can’t find a church that I like.” Well- respectfully- so what? Find one that you don’t like. Where in scripture is the permission form for any one of us to make out a list of our own preferences for a church, and then to sit it out till we find one that fits? (For those of us who have taken up residence in the zoo, the requisite speech that goes along with this position is one of life’s most irritating moments. Don’t get me started.)

Listen. My list of church preferences is so narrow that I could justifiably sit home every Sunday on five matters of essential principle. I don’t want to hear about the God of Arminianism. I don’t believe there is any Biblical warrant for the public invitation. I have no appetite for legalism. Congregational church government makes me ill. I loathe the saccharin content of most hymnody this side of Isaac Watts. The list goes on. But I’m convinced that God has no real appreciation for this collection of potential excuses, and therefore, I have spent most of my life standing and singing twenty verses of “The Savior Is Waiting” after a sermon on “Ten Things God Can’t Do If You Don’t Pray Just Like This.”

Should Lifeway ever discover that there was money to be made selling me DVDs of Alistair Begg, Al Martin and Timothy Keller, I would be surely tested. The TOTAL Reformed Worship Experience. For $42.95. I’d be a goner.

I’ve chosen to show up on Sunday for my children’s sake, and for appearance sake and a dozen other reasons running from good to phobic. But I hope, at the core of my Christianity, I recognize that the gathered church is a constant reminder of just what a wild and extravagantly ridiculous idea grace really is. That this collection of characters is destined for glory, worship around the throne and judging angels….it’s hilarious. The Bible never makes any pretense that the church will look like much to the world. Hats off to the churches that have made church cool, hip, trendy and the place to be. (Hint: It CAN’T last. So enjoy it while you can. We are TOO PATHETIC.)

As we’ve said for years, be careful about looking for the perfect church. When you find and join it, you’ll ruin everything.

So I leave you well warned, intrepid reader. The Antichrist is out there. With the perfect church packaged in a DVD. Waiting to show you one Spirit-filled good time right there in your own family room. If you’ve already taken the bait, there’s still time to break the thing and run, not walk, to the terrible little church on the corner, where church as Jesus meant it to be is still going on. Remember this: There will be no DVDs in heaven, but those pathetic and quirky saints will shine beyond a million suns.