1 Kings 19:11-14 ESV And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. (12) And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. (13) And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (14) He said, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”
The lesson Elijah (and all of us) had to learn is this – just because we cannot see a hurricane, earthquake, or blazing fire of activity it does not mean that the Lord is not present and working. Elijah had seen God’s fire from heaven at Mt. Carmel, but now Jezebel was out to kill him and no heavenly inferno seems to be coming down on her. Elijah fled.
Now, we all know that many if not most local churches today are favorite venues for evil to oppress victims. Most of you have been through it yourself. The wicked are embraced and the oppressed are shown the door. It is quite typical for a domestic abuser to “serve the Lord” in a church where everyone believes he is a fine saintly man whose wife just pushed his buttons and then, poor man, she deserted him.
So it is very important that we see things as the Lord sees them and specifically here in this article I want to talk about the question, what does a real church look like? Or, I suppose it could be stated in the negative, what does a true church NOT look like?
Most professing Christians think they have the answer to these questions – but I am sure that they do not. They will answer, “a true church is a church that preaches the Word, exercises the sacraments, practices church discipline, and is shepherded by pastors and elders.’ That is the formal answer. But….what are most people really looking for “in a church”?
Recently I was looking on social media where I came across a church that belongs to the home missions organization I used to belong to. I spent some time looking around the site, especially at all the pictures they had posted there. And I was, I don’t know, I guess you could say “triggered.” What I mean is, I found myself as an outsider now looking in on a world I used to be part of. And what was that world like? Well, it was a world of activity. Of busy-ness. A world of full-range Sunday school classes, of choirs and solos, of committees and men and women’s ministries. There were summer picnics, campouts, and conferences. People standing up and giving their testimony of how they came to faith in Christ. There were connections with other churches and pastors and special services featuring a visiting speaker or music group. There was a mid-week or Sunday night youth group. It was a very active, busy, event-filled place, and everyone in it called it, the church.
I lived in that world and was a pastor in that world for years. It was a place where the hurricane, earthquake, and fire were sought. Why? Because everyone believed that unless they saw the Lord’s working, nothing was happening. So the pastor was expected to “produce.” When he couldn’t, people complained or grumbled or even left the place because, as they said, the Spirit wasn’t working there.
So I want to tell you something – I was triggered when I looked at those pictures because…I now know that in that world, the Lord wasn’t present at all. How do I know? Because behind the scenes, in the back of all that “holy busy-ness,” evil lurked. Most of the Christians there, weren’t. There was constant bickering and friction. In reality, regardless of all that activity, people were not truly coming to know Christ. And evildoers were tolerated, in the name of “grace.” Very, very few actually knew the Lord. As a result, it was a setting for the oppressed to be further oppressed and for oppressors to wear their Christian disguise.
I know now that the true church, a real church, is a remnant. I know that the Lord is always working in amazing ways, but like a gentle breeze that few even notice. The fact is, we walk by faith and not by sight. All of those programs and activities and “doings” that most professing Christians crave in a church are in fact after all plain old expressions of the flesh seeking gratification. And if anyone might doubt this, just read Revelation 2-3 and compare the church at Smyrna with the church at Laodicea.