Religious Externalism

by Mike Ratliff

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. “ (Matthew 23:25-28 ESV)

Not long after my wife and I began searching for a new church back in 2006, we visited one just a few blocks from the one had just left. A coworker of mine served there as part of one of their worship teams. This was one of the churches my ex-pastor was continually commenting about because of how small it started out and how big it had become while his church seemed to be stagnant, maybe even declining. The “worship” at this church was what I like to call “show time!” There are all sorts of colored lights with spot lights on those “performing.” Each had their own microphone and were all dressed in the same colors. There was at least 20 musicians on stage playing drums, keyboards, guitars, horns, you name it. The drummer was enclosed in a glass booth. It was all very cool.

After the “worship,” the main pastor walked onto the stage with the spot lights following him. The stage was black. The stairs were black. They worked the lights so that nothing could be seen on the stage except the pastor. He was dressed casually in all black. He was carrying a nice looking cardboard box which he set on the table next to the pulpit. He said a few words to direct our attention to the screen which dropped down silently behind him. Then the auditorium went dark. We watched a movie for about 15 minutes of a glass blower working on a vase. The video took us through the whole process of blowing and shaping the glass. It looked like both hard work and a bit fun. In any case, when the movie ended the spot light came back up revealing the pastor preparing to open the box.

He then spoke of Jesus desperately desiring for “us” to give Him a chance to make our lives better. All we had to do was “accept” Him, and then Jesus would remake our lives unto excellence. Then he reached into the box and took out a beautiful glass vase. He told us that this vase was the one the glass blower in the movie was working on. He gestured to the vase and said, this is what Jesus wants to do for you, to take you from corruptible sand to beautiful glass. I don’t remember much after that. That was one of the shortest sermons I have ever heard.

The following Sunday my wife was sick so I went by myself. This time, the sermon was even shorter. I don’t remember much about it. However, it ended with a dance troupe of teenage girls in tights doing a number on the stage to some very high powered music and a light show. As I was leaving I saw my friend and his wife. She was very angry. I asked what was going on. He told me that she hates “contemporary worship.” The following day I asked him why they continued to attend that church. He told me that they did it for their children. The Children’s ministry there is very good and they liked going because of it. I haven’t been back.

What is religious externalism? It is any disposition in a church that is a substitute for vital soul-saving Christianity. Some may say that that church above is ministering vitally in saving souls. After all, that church is now considered a Mega-Church, but just a few years earlier it meet in the Library across the creek from our old church. Doesn’t that super-swift and large growth indicate that souls are being won and the large numbers mean that God is blessing what they are doing? Their new church building is beautiful by the way. I don’t really care for all the black inside though.

Is it wrong for the leadership of a church to seek to have these super slick presentations in auditoriums that are more akin to that of a Rock show? When I was a young man, way before God saved me, I lived in the Washington D.C. area. I went with friends to several Rock Concerts at the old Capital Center in Landover, MD. It doesn’t exist anymore. I saw the Doobie Brothers, Heart, Backman Turner Overdrive, The Blue Oyster Cult, Bob Segar, Super Tramp, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer there. That was in the 1970’s. The performances, the lights, the sound I witnessed back then was not very different than what I saw in my friend’s church those two Sundays back in 2006.

What these folks are doing is appealing to the senses by using sensationalism. Of course this is exactly what The Purpose Driven Church and Willow Creek Church models are all about. They attempt to appeal to people on the “felt need” level rather in confronting them with their real problem, which is being eternally separate from God because they are sinners. The “gospel” I heard at that church was not the Gospel. Sin was never mentioned. The need for a saviour was never mentioned. Hell was never mentioned. No, it was all about coming to Jesus so He could make your life better. That combined with the sensationalism created an atmosphere that caused me to mourn and grieve for days after I attended. Why?

These people have cleaned the outside of the cup and dish, but inside there is no spiritual life. As we have been discussing lately here on Possessing the Treasure, God does indeed save sinners, but His will for them is to be sanctified to become removed from sin. That cannot happen if their flesh is not crucified and denied daily.

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? (Matthew 16:24-26 ESV)

Our flesh is wicked. It is still with us. It did not die when we were born again. Yes, we are new creations, but that means our faith has been quickened and we have new life in Christ. However, our old flesh is still there and we have a lot of bad habits to unlearn. We cannot do it ourselves. God must work in us to mature us in exercising our faith, mortifying our sin, and living for God’s glory alone. Since we are in this “battle” do you think it would be a good or bad thing to be exposed to externalism through sensationalism when we attend “church?” What is not of the Spirit is of the flesh my brethren and the flesh knows only sin. Sensationalism is not worship in spirit and truth because it is about self instead of about God. Genuine worship is about Him alone. Soli Deo Gloria!

What does God use as He tests, weighs, and measures a Church? Those in the Church Growth movement believe that it is growth, numbers. Is that Biblical? No, what God uses in this is how deep the knowledge of Christ is in the body, how obedient the people are to Christ, and whether they are exhibiting the fruits of the spirit. If these are absent or stunted then do you think He will care much for the beautiful buildings, the programs, the slick “worship,” the light shows, the dance troupes, and the easy-believism gospel they preach even though they have the large numbers?

And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and lodged there. In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once. (Matthew 21:17-19 ESV)

In Israel there are several species of fig trees. On most varieties figs are present if leaves are abundant. They produce the leaves and figs in only one part of the year. However, there is one species that does produce figs out of season. When it does, the leaves are abundant. Our Lord saw this fig tree advertising that it had figs, but it only had leaves. My brethren, the slick “worship,” and all the pragmatism that goes on in these seeker-sensitive churches is just the promise of figs with beautiful leaves, but there is no fruit.

Think of the Temple in Jerusalem which our Lord cleansed twice by running the money changers and merchants out. During that period, even on the day our Lord was crucified, the Temple service was magnificent. Now think of the upper room the night before our Lord went to the Cross. Just our Lord and His disciples were there. There was no externalism in that room my brethren. There was no sensationalism. Our Lord poured Himself into these men. He taught them, prayed for them, and worshiped the Father. Which pleased God, the beautiful empty worship in the Temple or the genuine worship service in the upper room?

Our natural disposition is to make idols of externals, and to sacrifice the inside of our religion for the outside. We must not succumb to this. I remember what I was like before God circumcised my heart back in 2004. I was very comfortable in those types of churches. However, I was not being fed there and, as a result, I floundered badly in my walk because I had no idea how to walk in repentance. I tried to do it many times, but it was all by my own will power and that only works for short period of time. No, I never got the victory over any of this stuff until then and I did not learn how it is done in those churches. No, it came about as I drew near unto God and He drew near unto me for 8 months in 2004. God drew me to Himself, but I am convinced that He will do this for all believers who seek Him in humble desperation like I did. He does the drawing and we respond. The fact that most professing Christians view this as us just trying harder than them is the product of the shallow discipleship they have had.

One of the hardest things I have on plate to do at this time is to deal with those who are ate up with religion. This walk is not just religion or what we do on Sundays. That was my mindset before 2004. No, it is an all day, every day walk before God doing all for His glory. It is communing with Him in prayer and Bible reading. It is following the leading of the Spirit into personal holiness. What we do on Sundays then becomes that time of fellowship, worship, and being fed by godly preaching from the Word. However, we never take our armor off and we operate or walk within this in all of our circumstances and relationships. If we will do this then God will continually take us deeper. That does mean that the tests and trials will only increase in both number and intensity, but in this we consider it all joy. Do you see now why Religious Externalism is the enemy of this walk?

Soli Deo Gloria

34 thoughts on “Religious Externalism

  1. “First clean the inside of the cup…………………”

    This verse from your opening paragraph makes me think about the harlot carrying a golden cup. My, how the cup appears golden! She is one of those seducing spirits which runs rampant in apostasy. Her cup is filled with an intoxicating liquor. The way is wide and easy, and the world partakes in her fornication. The appearance of the cup is golden, but inside, it contains delusion. It’s golden appearance says, “Come and drink me. I offer pleasure over righteousness. Won’t you join me?!”


  2. Satan the great deceiver would love for us not to know Truth at all, But if we are going to know it then he wants us just to know it not to apply it. Knowlege makes us smart, applying knowledge makes us wise!
    God wants us to live as wise.

    For example, if we are talking to someone about being anxious about something and we say… But I know God says, “Be anxious for nothing.” Now we feel like we have passed the test because we knew the answer, We feel spiritual… and we sound spiritual. But just knowing the answer doesn’t change us. But it looks and sounds right and it is truth. Satan wants us to be satisfied with that.

    God wants truth to change us…

    So…. if we are talking to someone about being anxious and we say, I know God calls us not to be anxious so I am keeping my mind steadfast on Him. I know He is sovereign, loving, merciful. I am taking my anxious thoughts and making them obedient to truth. I am presenting my requests with thanksgiving. And I am experiencing the peace that passes all human understanding! Truth Works! Now that is a wise person. The Holy Spirit teaches us how to take truth and apply it so that we are changed from the inside out.

    One looks good the other is God at work in us! One is external the other internal.

    James 1:22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.

    Matthew 7:20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

    God offers us peace and joy when we walk in the spirit. It springs from within!

    It is how we can discern (not judge) if someone is walking in the Spirit.

    Thank you for you post.



  3. Interesting about the fig tree. And so appropriate. We’ve attended a few churches that seemed like nothing more than shows. No fruit — just a lot of pretty leaves.


  4. Tami,

    Thanks for that insight my sister. You are right about the vast differences between the internal and external. If we are doing it right then what is external flows from the inside out. However, if we are walking according to the flesh then we attempt to change the internal by doing external things or being subject to the external things like religiosity. It is a fine line, but the differences are huge.

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff


  5. Jen,

    Yep, it’s as if they are trying to prove that they are spiritual by the show. True spirituality is seen in the humble, servant heart…

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff


  6. Great article. You know, it’s funny that most times we hear about religious externalism, it is those accusing others of being “Pharasaic” in their view. But to see religious externalism in this light is equally important. Diet religion that caters to your flesh without making any spiritual demands. Even the demands – to “get in the game” or “live your best life now” – made are often catering to the fleshly desire to be all you can be for your own glory. No different than Tony Robbins.

    I am reminded of Peter’s warning when reading this (I read it last night):

    They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption. For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved. For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them. What the true proverb says has happened to them: “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.”


  7. Thats what the churches are around here too. They are actually hyper-arminian mixed w/lots of false doctrine. Their shows aren’t even pretty. We think they all say Ichabod over the front doors. In fact, over Mothers Day, we were in Des Moines for dads funeral the day before, and on Mothers Day we went to ‘church’ with mom. Oh my my my……..they go to a Presby. U.S.A. (roll your eyes now) and what a mess. Women elders, women making all the announcments, women leading the music, and it was the strangest way we have ever seen a Lords supper done! The preaching was a male, but he said that the last days are ‘how ever you interpret it’. Ugh!!!


  8. I appreciated how you put this false “worship” in quotes throughout. My dad always says that real worship is rendering unto God the glory that is due His Name (from I Chr. 16:29 and Psalm 29:2).
    You see this man-centered “worship” on tv all the time, from the churches that only want “the pretty/handsome ones” onstage, to the lights and bands and other gimmicks (and I’ll not go on about clapping that goes on after “special music”). All this stuff is nothing more than entertainment. It doesn’t glorify God, no matter how much “spiritual veneer” is pasted on and through it. We don’t get to “do our own thing” and call it worship. God isn’t pleased with our “showmanship”.


  9. Paul and Luann,

    I work with a fellow of that er.. denomination that you mentioned. Yep, my oh my is right. His church has the largest food pantry in the KC area which is used to feed the poor. However, these people also pray to some goddess. It is all works righteousness, not real Christianity at all. They deny Biblical truth because it condemns them.

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff


  10. My family and I searched for 3 years to find a church in our area. We visited 19 churches during that time. Almost all of them were exactly like the church you described.

    There were many Sundays we literally came home and cried because we felt so alone and we were becoming convinced that a church that did not “apologize” for being a church by trying to entertain and offer teaching that “tickled the ears” just didn’t exist in our area.

    FINALLY, we found a place where the people are madly in love with God and where the pastor preaches the Word of God with deep passion, conviction and study.

    Although I am grateful to the Father for the place we are now, I am terrified and heart broken over the condition of most churches in our area.


  11. I understand Joe. It is terrifying because I fear these people are way past the slippery slope and are now in a spiritual condition from which there is no escape. 😦


  12. I can’t think of the goddess name but read about it. My sister has been the secretary of ‘that’ church for over 10 years now! She won’t read her Word, but just listens to the pastors and believes what they say. My mom knows its flaky teaching but their family has been there for over 100 years now or something like that………….Luann asked her if she wanted to change churches and she said yes but her family had been there for years and years. Then Luann asked her, well what if God has left that church? Gave mom something to think about. We refered her to a Reformed Orth. Presby. church there in Des Moines, but she went once and said the people were to young…………….brother!!! We do alot of praying for our family.


  13. Praying and setting the right example is really the best thing we can do. Yes, tell them the truth, but always in love. There is an OPC not far from where we live. I would love to go, but I have to convince my wife first. 🙂


  14. I have a a different idea of religious extenalism .based upons my own personal experiences.. to me its when all the problems are out there and none are in your own heart.

    I have an issue hanging with people who think all the problems are out there… to the level of not wanting to share my innermost feelings and thoughts with them. As you can tell from my other posts I have pressed back when I sense this attitude.

    I realize sharing my sin would just make them silently or actively repress me. How many Churches today are hospitals for sinners or are they sanctuaries for saints. I would much rather hang out with people with addictions who know they are broken and understand how great their broken need is for Jesus rather than ones who have obtained some level of holiness. God molds us when we understand our complete brokenness. The sanctification process does not work unless we strive to live in repentance continuously — we just find a new idolotrous way to puff ourselves up.

    Like I have eluded to before a looooong story behind this but the commonality and externalism of phariseeism is still rampant and common in the Church today.

    I recommend the following link on how the Gospel changes from the inside out. (Internalism vs Externalism). Its a different definition of what Mike used but its a thought process I go through every day.

    [audio src="" /]


  15. For those that have written me off… the sermon is safe. Its from reformed, calvinist, monergistic theologian Tim Keller.


  16. I’m curious as to what you think of WillowCreek’s recent decision ot start deeper Bible teaching on Sunday mornings since they’ve found out in a poll there that 25% of their congregation is very unhappy with gospel lite. Do you think they really will get into the true gospel?


  17. Mike I attended just such a church as this. On the way into the sanctuary, the backs of our hands were stamped, just like back in my unsaved days when I used to go to bars. This was some sort of gimic — the theme for that day was mission impossible. No one ever explained the mission during the service. Their sanctuary was black inside too, and there were colorful strobe lights. The band played the theme from Mission Impossible and it sounded exactly like the actual recording of it. During this time, the dry ice was activated to make clouds rising up around the stage. I promise I am not lying. During some of the “worship” music they played, my unsaved female family member who was with me began to dance to the music they played. She absolutely loved the “church service.” We sat in the back and could smell the coffee from the coffee bar out in the foyer. If I had been taken there blindfolded and not knowing where I was going, I would never have guessed that I was in a church for a Christian church service. The pastor gave a little talk using some art work and he did mention Jesus. But his Jesus was supposed to help life run smoother. I can’t think how much smoother life could run for these folks as they were young, fit, and judging by the cars in the parking lot, wealthy. I wrote to the pastor a couple of times with my concerns. For my trouble I got two really defensive responses from a co-pastor at the church. They took it all personally and thought I was just trying to be mean to the pastor. Get this: the pastor graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary. For those who may not know, this used to be a very solid seminary, and still may be. I guess he fell through the cracks.


  18. Thanks for sharing that Julie. Also their response to your concerns is very telling. If they were really concerned about reaching “everyone” they would not have responded that way would they? They should have responded with Biblical support for what they were doing…Oh, I forgot, what they are doing isn’t biblical. 🙂

    In any case, this is very sad and it is tragic how common this has become.

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff


  19. Dear Mike,

    It is so important to put into words what is really going on. You have done that very well with this and other articles. Thank you once again for your faithfulness to God.

    I knew something was wrong when confronted with this type of church, which by all accounts is nationwide now. In the beginning this check in my spirit was difficult to explain to people. They all seemed genuine well meaning christians, good people. They professed Christ, said they believed the Bible. It’s easy to want to compromise, because it feels more loving. It’s tempting to stay silent for fear of being labeled judgemental.

    Many people are attending these churches because their children love the youth programs. I believe in many, not all cases, their focus on youth is just a clever marketing ploy to increase numbers. I can not express enough how incredibly dangerous it is for children to be taught this lukewarm gospel. How ill equipped they will be when faced with the fiery trials and persecution that is bound to come in these last days. That is if your child even finds the true Christ here. The biggest danger is that they will be deceived and lost for all eternity. Be aware that if you decide to take them out that it is possible that your authority will be undermined. Your children will be told that you, the parent, are backsliding because you no longer attend their church. They may try to convince them to keep coming. It will be difficult if they have many friends and this is their form of socialization and entertainment. Remind your children that the Word tells them to honor their parents. Pray for wisdom, pray for the Spirit to help you.

    We have to keep in mind that judgement is coming and hell is real. When we are conscious of this reality it is no longer loving to go along, but unloving because you care more about your position than their salvation from wrath.

    We have been warned, we just need to heed the warning.

    2 Peter 2:1-6 (ESV)

    But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.

    And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed.

    And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep
    For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to chains of gloomy darkness to be kept until the judgment;

    if he did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven others, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly;

    if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly;

    If they weren’t spared what makes us think we will be if we continue in sin?

    I am encouraged by those who comment and understand. May God fill you with His ever-increasing wisdom for His glory.


  20. Mike, Can you convince your wife to just ‘try’ it (OPC) and see what she thinks? If we had one anywhere near us we’d RUN to it!! 🙂


  21. Tanja, you are incredibly right on with the effect all of this has on church going children. In these seeker churches, they are learning to associate Christianity with fun, with being hip, with excitement and sensuality. But guess what? When they turn 12, 13, or maybe just a little older they find out real quick that THE WORLD is more fun, more exciting, more hip and much more sensual than that old church service ever thought of being. Pretty soon, church, even fun-seeker-church is b-o-r-i-n-g. They have found the world, or the world has found them and that is where they end up in many cases. It goes back to the heart and what Mike wrote. For if the parents’ religion is all just outward, then there is no reason for the child to take that on. If it isn’t about my heart and life, but just about outward forms, then it hardly matters what avenue I take, does it? One outward form is just as good as another. You do what pleases you, I do what pleases me.


  22. Hi Julie,
    You make a good point. The truth I think in many cases is that this form of “church” is really just the world with christianspeak. Having said that I believe there are genuine believers among the wolves and I am not speaking against them but we need to pray that the Holy Spirit will teach them. I don’t think Mike’s testimony is unique, many people are being asked to leave or in my case(s) told that I would probably be more comfortable somewhere else. While it is difficult at the time to undergo this persecution by who we thought to be our siblings in Christ it is God’s way of placing us back on the right path. It brings us to a decision about who we serve. Looking back on my adventures I praise God for what He has done, how he has kept me from deception. How blessed we are to have eyes to see and ears to hear. It is such total grace for I know I have done nothing to deserve it and God could have easily let me be deceived.

    I have found that the path is much narrower than I once thought, there are fewer genuine believers than I thought, sadly.

    I would encourage everyone to take very seriously where we are sending our children when they are asking to go to a youth group. It only sounds safe in the physical, there is nothing more dangerous to their souls than being led into deception with marketing techniques. It is wickedness.

    God bless


  23. Yes Tim, that is the one. My goodness, you are right, I do feel as if I have waded in something awful while at that site. The spiritually dark heart is very dark. As our Lord said, “How great the darkness!”

    Thanks for sharing this brother.


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