IS CHURCH FAILURE EVER LEGITIMATE?
As a 17 year‑old, I had a life‑changing encounter with God in a Primitive Baptist Church in Miami, Florida. That was in 1947. It was a “Saul of Tarsus”‑type conversion in which I was physically affected, began vibrating, and ran out of the building terrified. In the parking lot, I realized the shaking would not stop until I made a life‑commitment to the Lord, I did, the shaking stopped, and that night I returned to the church and was baptized. A few months later, in the early morning, I was a short distance from home when I looked up and in the air above me saw a Vision of myself preaching: God was calling me to the ministry. The news was disastrous as I had well‑made plans of my own. “Please! God, No! No!” I yelled, “Spare me!” He made no response. Cars were speeding past me but I did not look up. If one had hit me I would have cared less. The “Call” destroyed my life's‑hope. Beyond that, the Vision only explained that my ministry would be in two phases: The first would be traditional, predictable, and pastoral. The second was unexplained except that I would travel and minister in an entirely different style. While I did not want either one, the second was the most frightening. I was Ordained on Christmas Day, 1949, and began serving a church in Atlanta.
Almost thirty years later, November 23, 1977, phase two of the ministry began when a young, Spirit‑filled prisoner in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary laid‑hands on me and I was filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:1‑8; 9:17;10:14; ). In an incredible way, that event blew my life apart and I was radically changed, both theologically and personally. For the first time, I saw the Kingdom of God! Prior to that event all my focus had been on the church–specifically, my denominational fragment of it. When Kingdom knowledge and power came into my life that day, I was totally renewed. Scripture opened to me as never before; only then did I discover that Jesus spoke the word “Church” only three times in the gospels‑‑but He spoke of the Kingdom some 130 times. He loved the Church, gave Himself for it, so must we, but His focus was on the Kingdom. To be like Him, our focus must be in that same order. Regrettably, I confess that in Phase‑One of my ministry I was completely uninformed on the subject of Kingdom‑knowledge. Having said that, hear this carefully:
All church‑failure is directly related to congregations detaching themselves theologically from the Kingdom of God. Without the Kingdom and the Holy Spirit’s empowering, churches, pastors, ministries, have no power. None! They may have great organizational skill, unlimited financing, great advertising programs, and possess the best technological aid, but in New Testament terms these are not power. They are deceptive counterfeits. The next failure most churches make is to re‑organize themselves into competitive, denominational groups that treat each other with suspicion and fear. Personal ministries frequently do the same thing.
While our various denominations have served noble purposes, promoted wonderful charities, they have also rejected each other, encouraged division in the Body of Christ, and weakened the church's corporate strength. This segregated condition exists solely in the earth‑bound church; no trace of such division and powerlessness exists in the Kingdom. Jesus said, "All power has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore ..." (Matthew 28:18,19). The Kingdom is as invincible as the King who reigns over it. God wills for that same invincibility to be duplicated in the church. To whatever degree churches promote self‑centeredness and sectarianism, they cut themselves off from Kingdom power. The result is dysfunctional congregations and impotent ministries. "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you'" (I Corinthians 14:21). Yet, that is precisely what congregations practice. America has churches on every corner who look at each other with suspicion and fear. This division originates primarily in the leadership; it rarely begins with the laity.
As a result of Kingdom‑identity being absent, every week some 50‑60 churches from various denominations in the U.S. permanently close their doors. Years ago, Church statistician, George Barna, estimated that more than 100,000 American churches would shut down. This would be more than one‑quarter of the 375,000 congregations then existing. This was a shocking prediction. While New Testament revival is sweeping other nations and millions are being converted to Christ, here at home most of the church is in a powerless, degenerate state. A Chinese pastor who toured the U.S. was asked the question what he thought of American churches. He replied, “I am amazed what your American churches have accomplished without God.” This man understood Jesus’ Kingdom principle and the Holy Spirit’s power–very little of which he witnessed in American Christianity.
Jesus explained this power‑principle when He told the disciples "You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you" (Acts 1:8). Pentecost was the Holy Spirit's act of replacing the disciples human‑inferiority with Kingdom‑of‑Heaven superiority. In that wonderful moment of God's infusing the 120 believers with power, a conception took place very much like one occurring in the womb. With the Holy Spirit’s arrival, a totally new being was formed and the church was born. Heaven touched earth with glory. Through the visible church, the invisible Kingdom of God was placed within reach of ordinary men. The church’s first mission is to reveal the King and the Kingdom; it is not to call attention to itself. Today, our churches have only one God‑given model to copy: The church in the book of Acts. There is no other. None. The idea that Jesus established two churches—the Apostolic and a post‑Apostolic, with different powers, different instructions, different achievements, is a falsehood. Search the Scriptures! Jesus established one church for all time, all cultures, all conditions. The gospel of the Kingdom is unchanging. The modern church has no power because it is more eager to make excuses for its failures than it is to correct them, Jesus explained this power when He said "If I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the Kingdom of God has come upon you" (Matthew 12:28). Thirty percent of His recorded ministry was in casting out unclean spirits. One of the disturbing evidences of the Kingdom of God in the ministry of Jesus was noise—demonic noise. In His day, unclean spirits were compelled to verbally acknowledge His authority. Though He sometimes commanded them to be quiet (Mark 1:34), their racket served a specific purpose: In the same way believers must "confess with their mouths, the Lord Jesus," and acknowledge Him as Lord (Romans 10:9,10), demons also are compelled to publicly admit the Lordship of Jesus Christ. In that admission, they confess the defeat of Satan, their own failure, and the subjugation of their "kingdoms of this world" to the "Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ." That is an extremely painful admission for them to make. It is one of ultimate humiliation. While the believer's confession is "made unto salvation," the demon's confession acknowledges his damnation.
"As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me, and every tongue shall confess to God." Romans 14:11. Wherever Kingdom authority falls upon powers of darkness there is audible conflict. We read how "the demon cried out with a loud voice" (Luke 4:33); "the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground and wallowed ..," (Mark 9:20). "When he saw Jesus from afar ... he cried out with a loud voice ..," (Mark 5:7). Again, the unclean spirit "cried out with a loud voice" (Mark 1:25). Identically, in the ministry of Philip and Paul, "unclean spirits, crying with a loud voice, came out of many" (Acts 8:7). "A slave girl, possessed with a spirit of divination ... cried out" (Acts 16:16,17). Observe that in these New Testament instances, exorcisms were accompanied by demons "crying out." While it might appear that the one who "¼fell on the ground and wallowed¼" was in great distress, the greatest distress had come upon the demon himself. He was not only under the judgement of Christ but also publicly shamed before the devil and other demons. The Kingdom of God sovereignly forced its way upon his territory. Then, as now, demons do not voluntarily expose themselves or reveal their location. In encountering Jesus, they did so only because they were forced into absolute submission.
For modern Christians who claim that such power ended with the original Apostles, hear what Tertullian said in the third century in his address to the Roman Senate: “Let a person be brought before your tribunals who is plainly under demoniacal possession. The wicked spirit, bidden to speak by a follower of Christ, will as readily make the truthful confession that he is a demon, as elsewhere he has falsely asserted that he is a god. Or, if you will, let there be produced one of the god‑possessed, as they are supposed, if they do not confess, in their fear of lying to a Christian, that they are demons, then and there shed the blood of that most impudent follower of Christ.
“All the authority and power we have over them is from our naming the Name of Christ and recalling to their memory the woes with which God threatens them at the hand of Christ their Judge, and which they expect one day to overtake them. Fearing Christ in God and God in Christ, they become subject to the servants of God and Christ. So at one touch and breathing, overwhelmed by their thought and realization of those judgment fires, they leave at our command the bodies they have entered, unwilling and distressed, and before your very eyes, put to an open shame.” Tertullian was not alone. Another Christian pastor of the third century, Cyprian, wrote “Nevertheless, these evil spirits adjured by the living God immediately obey us, submit to us, acknowledge our power, and are forced to come out of the bodies they possess.”
In the past forty years, I have heard literally hundreds of demons scream, wail, threaten, beg, cry, whimper, plead for mercy. They have sometimes roared through children with ferocious voices (Acts 8:7), and whimpered in grown men like wounded infants. Whether in Africa, South America, Europe, Asia, other parts of the world, the behavior of demons has been the same. They fear Christ, have mortal dread of the word of God, and obey believers who speak it with authority. It is truth, not emotion, that sets prisoners free. I have seen countless alcoholics, drug addicts, people suffering mental and physical pain, be set free. We do not honor fallen spirits by bringing "railing accusations against them," Jude 9, and I forbid emotional outbursts from those working in a ministry team. Jesus "cast out the spirits with a word" (Luke 4:36). So must we.
You may not want demonic noise in your church or ministry. Ancient Jews did not want it in their synagogues. But know this: If the Kingdom comes upon you in power, there will be noise. Jonathan Edwards, Colonial America's great evangelical voice, said, "If there be a very powerful influence of the Spirit of God in a mixed multitude it will cause in some way or other a great visible commotion." If Hell is not shaken by your preaching, shame on you! If demons are not terrified by your presence, more shame on you! Jesus ignored His critics, plowed into demonic strongholds and set captives free. When He told us to pray, "Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done," He knew demonic manifestations would result. If disciples today experience genuine Kingdom‑power all Hell will break loose. So be it! Jesus further said, "I give you power to tread on serpents and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy" (Luke 10:19). Use it or lose it.
Does not the church legitimately experience failure? No. Jesus promised, "Upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it"(Matthew 16:18). The "Rock" is Jesus, the Messiah‑Christ, and unchallenged Ruler of the Kingdom (Matthew 16;16). The New Testament acknowledges the reality of the church's pain and persecution but not her failure; she can expect tyranny and trial but not defeat. Demonic attack will come but the church needs never to surrender. In Kingdom‑rule, Hell may fight but Heaven will win. But in spite of Jesus' promise of victory, we see churches collapsing before the enemy's assault. Whether the breakdown be spiritual deadness, financial ruin, loss of vision and motivation, attitudes of jealousy and rivalry, church failure is the direct result of her unwillingness to identify with the Kingdom of God. There is no other explanation. The church empowered by the Kingdom is a triumphant church (II Corinthians 2:14). If the Kingdom failed, God would have also failed.
Churches built on our present concept fail frequently. The Kingdom? Never. Jesus preached about "The gospel of the Kingdom" (Matthew 24:14), "The word of the Kingdom" (Matthew 13:19), "The mysteries of the Kingdom" (Matthew 13:11), "The keys of the Kingdom" (Matthew 16:19), "The heirs of the Kingdom" (James 2:5). He "loved the church, gave Himself for it" (Ephesians 5:25), all the while He pointed men's hearts to the heavenly Kingdom. Our emphasizing segregated parts of the church independently of the Kingdom is a contradiction of Jesus' message. Jesus expressed devotion for the church but focused His attention upon the Kingdom. He addressed the Kingdom‑subject more than 130 times but spoke of the church in only three instances (Matthew 16:18; 18:17).
The modern church, in contrast, has reversed the Divine order, ignoring her Kingdom‑identity and relating only with select, visible congregations. Do I need proof? World‑wide, there are more than 30,000 different registered Christian denominations. Each makes the claim that it is the correct one, has more truth than the rest, and is God's guardian of Scripture. To be spiritually correct, you must belong to it. Such bigotry guarantees the loss of Kingdom identity and power. Doctrines and denominations do not create godliness. Relationship with Jesus is the source. In spite of theological differences, a godly Baptist is just as pure of heart as a godly Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Methodist, or something else. Grace, not human titles, produces holiness. Thankfully, God reads hearts‑‑not church signs.
Hear me carefully: Avoid rebellion, be in faithful submission to God. Stay in whichever church or denomination He has placed you. At the same time, become a "Kingdom" believer. Ask the Holy Spirit for Kingdom power, to give you a Kingdom identity, fill you with Kingdom courage, and to lavish upon you Kingdom love. Pray, "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven," then watch Kingdom‑authority transform your life and ministry. You will crawl out of your denominational tent to see the mountain ranges of God's Kingdom surrounding you. The sight is breath‑taking. Indescribable! Glorious! You will like the new Kingdom‑person you have become.
Liberalism has gutted the main‑line denominational churches and left them in hellish unbelief. In many evangelical, "fundamental" churches, denominational interpretation has produced the same results. Though it is not usually recognized, the effects of liberalism and fundamentalism are similar. The first denies the inspiration of all Scripture; the second denies only selected parts. Both are deadly. One produces rebellion, the other creates religious legalism. Churches from each group will continue to die ‑‑‑ as will some full‑gospel congregations. At the same time this is happening, "a little cloud, the size of a man's hand is rising out of the sea" (I Kings 18:41‑45). This cloud brings the promise of great spiritual rain to the American Church. How?
Let me make a final observation: We are in a period of historic transition. Cultural‑Christianity is passing out of the scene. Authentic‑Christianity is returning and will ultimately fill up the void. How will this come about? It appears that we are in the twilight hours of world history and the stage is set for all end‑times prophecies to be fulfilled. More people are alive on planet earth at this moment than have ever lived in all its previous history combined. Never in the history of mankind have so many conditions been ripe for the harvest. The end‑times Church will be drenched with grace, as lovely as a Bride adorned for her husband, and as powerful as the greatest army the world has ever seen. The Kingdom will have come! John Wesley's words of two and one‑half centuries ago speak of that church: "When the church gets on fire, people will come for miles to watch it burn." Hallelujah! Let it burn!