Theology Thursday: Alternative Churches

Recently I visited a local “Cowboy Church.” I would never have bothered ordinarily, but my extremely talented but chronically unemployed and more often than not homeless brother mentioned that he’s playing guitar in their worship services. Looking out for him, I went to the “Cowboy Church” to see him. I also wanted to make sure he wasn’t just being exploited by some sophisticated manipulator who will discard him after he has no more use for my brother’s talents, as has happened a few times in the past.

My brother did a great job on the guitar as always, but this time there less of my brother in the music and more genuine focus on the Lord and on worship. It was good to see that. That’s a big part of what I go to church for. I took part in the singing whole-heartedly as always, but couldn’t agree so whole-heartedly with the presumptive content of the public prayers, nor with the all-over-the-map, rambling sermon content. If there was a sermon outline or notes hidden on the pulpit somewhere to guide the preaching, I’d bet the pastor didn’t follow them. There was no exegesis of the Scripture, only the typical “proof texting” so typical of evangelical preaching and teaching. Basically a lengthy and contrived commentary.

So we’ve got gay churches, hiphop churches, rock’n’roll churches, surfer churches, and now cowboy churches. All aimed at a particular subculture and catering to their cultural idiosyncrasies. Maybe someone should start one just for scuba divers, and hold services underwater. Or maybe a whole conglomerate of dance churches. One for ballet, one for Tap, one for Ballroom, the whole gambit. All it takes is a mail-order ordination from any of several ordination mills and/or a membership fee to whoever dreamed up the association of fill-in-the-blank “churches” to affiliate with and lend legitimacy to one’s ministry. Today’s cowboy pastor was not seminary trained, though he did take a 60-hour course from some “bible school” and got his ordination from one of those “associations” that purports to be “just like a denomination,” except that no one knows what they believe about anything or who is accountable to whom and for what – other than annual membership dues.

They say, “We provide an alternative to traditional churches for people who can’t relate to church as we have known it. We can reach those people for Christ in a way that traditional churches can’t.”  Yet the service during my visit was identical in every respect to any typical independent evangelical church, except that this one has a whole bunch of “cowboy trappings” tied on. The pastor wore dusty jeans with chaps, a leather vest and a big black Stetson, which he removed only to pray. Lassos and saddles and other tack hung on the walls and from the rafters. A cowbell hung from a rustic lectern and rung softly every time the pastor leaned against the podium as he preached, pacing the floor and rambling without any apparent sermon outline. And of course, a cowboy-modified altar call.

The idea of “alternative churches” has me not a little concerned. We live in a godless culture which we are supposed to be calling people out of, and discipling them into a new “culture,” that of the kingdom of God and His righteousness.  I’m not suggesting that all churches should have the same culture without diversity.  That would be completely unbiblical since God calls His children from every race, tribe, language, and people. And being discipled to Christ does not eliminate the differences. Rather our service and discipleship to Christ transcends those differences so that we have true fellowship with one another in spite of differences. But as citizens of a kingdom that is not of this world, there ought to be some things that set us apart from the culture we are called out of, whether we are cowboys, farm boys, city boys, biker boys, surfer boys, ghetto boys or choirboys. But what should “kingdom culture” look like?  Shall we adapt it to the surrounding culture in order to reach them?  At what point does such adaptation become a phoney front or a means of manipulation?  Where’s the line between being “all things to all men” and tossing the Regulative principle of worship out the window to accommodate the people we reach out to? When does “contemporary worship” become entertainment instead of a holy sacrifice that is pleasing to God? And most importantly, what makes a true church, no matter the culture?

Look for my next post, entitled The Government of God, for a look at what makes a real church and why “alternatives” are unbiblical and dangerous. Originally written as a rebuttal to those who argue that they can worship without church and don’t need church and that church is optional anyway, this article hopes to show from the Scriptures why church membership is not optional, and what a true church looks like.


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