Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Demon In Your Church

The church where I grew up had demons in it. I mean the place was covered with them.

What was that weird noise upstairs? Demons.

Why won’t this bus ever work right[1]? Demons.

Why is the graveyard across the street so spooky? Demons.

It seemed like everything that went wrong in our church was blamed on demons. I was fascinated. Going to church became sort of like going to see a horror movie. There would always be people talking about the weird thing that happened in the graveyard that bordered our church parking lot. There were surreal stories about lights in people’s homes going on and off on their own. And of course there was the semi-annual rock and roll seminar where we were reminded that Ronnie James Dio thought the devil was a pretty cool guy and we should avoid buying his music.

Today, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. Talk of Satan and demonic activity is reserved for the Christian Fiction section of your favorite Christians bookstore[2]. We’re too intellectual for this kind of thing. Angels? Fine. Demons? No way.

Obviously, both extremes are wrong. We can become so obsessed with demons that we begin to view the enemy as a novelty rather than a legitimate threat that has wished nothing but harm for God’s creation since the beginning (1 Peter 5:8). And we can become so intellectual that we rationalize our enemy right out of our sights and leave ourselves even more vulnerable to his attacks.

So were there really demons in my childhood church?

You bet.

I never did hear voices when I walked past the church graveyard.

I never turned a corner in the church hallway to find a small child with black hair, pale skin and a voice like Dikembe Mutombo telling me to “Get out!”

What I did see was much more frightening.

I saw it when I came home from college for visits. I didn’t know all the details then and I still don’t today. Whatever it was that happened did great damage to the church where I was baptized and discipled. I’m not sure if that church has ever recovered. Maybe they have. I hope they have. I’m just not sure.

I saw gifted, godly leaders run out of town by influential, long-time members.

I saw the atmosphere of joy, generosity and mission leave right behind them.

I saw a church that was so passionate about international missions suddenly too busy putting out internal fires to get the gospel to the international community that had literally gathered in our own town for the 1996 Summer Olympics.

I saw my church die.

I learned that Satan can do great damage to a church without ever really going public with some crazy tactic. Maybe that’s because in a lot of churches, weird voices and blood running down the walls might[3] wake them up to the threat that is against them.

I have no doubt that the phenomenal events can and do happen in churches and homes around the world. But it seems that things like gossip, fear, idolatry, lust for power and bitterness have been much more effective at destroying churches than creepy voices and floating hymn books.

A long time ago I went walking through the woods with my cousins. We were carrying led pipes and shovels. We were hunting for snakes. More specifically, we wanted to find a rattlesnake. Even at that young age, I had enough sense to wonder to myself, “What are we going to do if we find one of these things?”

Many in my childhood church were hunting for the supernatural. Sadly, even though they were looking in the wrong place, they found what they were looking for. The demonic problem wasn’t in the walls of the church or in the buses. It was much closer than anyone seemed to realize.

History has shown us that there are those who have grown quite accustomed to the demonic. In Mark 5:1-20, Jesus encountered a man with not just one but many demons. People would try to tie this guy up and keep him hidden from site but “no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain.” So every day and night they’d hear the wails and moans of this naked man who hung out in the graveyard cutting himself.

When Jesus arrives, we see a truly chilling confrontation; the naked, scarred body of a man with many demons standing face to face with a man who would soon be stripped naked and scarred for the sins of his people. Immediately after Jesus casts the demons out of this man, we see the formerly possessed man “sitting, clothed and in his right mind.”

And then things really get scary. For the first 14 verses of this account, we hear no mention of the people being afraid. The story is told as if the people in town were comfortable with the local demon-man. It was like going out to grab your shoes after the dog carries them off to the backyard. You don’t like it but it’s just part of the gig.

The first we hear of the people being afraid is when Jesus shows up and restores this man. In fact, these people were so afraid that they asked Jesus to leave their town. The demons were familiar but the holy was frightening.

Might this be true of a church? Could it be that the regular routine of gossip, slander, bitterness and power grabs, as destructive as they are, are just the way things are done and the truly redemptive pattern of forgiveness, love and repentance is too frightening? I think so. It’s almost like Satan and his demonic forces advance without ever firing a shot.

The question isn’t whether or not there is a demon in your church. There is. The real question is what’s more frightening to your church, the destructive power of a demon or the restoring power of the One who “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them” (Colossians 2:15)?

[1] In the year 325 AD at the Council of Nicea, church fathers decreed that all church buses should either never crank up or break down in the middle of where the movie Deliverance was filmed. Any bus that works properly is a heretical bus.

[2] As you walk in, go past the angel figurines and books co-authored by the wives of country music stars, take a right and you can’t miss the Christian Fiction section. 89% of the books are westerns with titles like “Love Whispers Slowly” or “Love Crawls Home”. The remaining 11% are somewhat evenly divided between books about demons with titles like “Demonic Disturbance” and books about the end of the world with titles like “The Obama Code”.

[3] I said might.

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