What is religious externalism?

by Mike Ratliff

25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self- indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also. 27 “ Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matthew 23:25-28 NASB)

Because of our old church going Purpose Driven in 2006, my wife and I left. The journey to find a new local church fellowship was a long and difficult one. One of the churches along the way was just a few blocks from the one we 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 were all sorts of colored lights with spotlights on those “performing.” Each had their own microphone and were all dressed in the same colors. There were 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 “contemporary.”

After the “worship,” the main pastor walked onto the stage with the spotlights 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 that he set on the table next to the lectern. He said a few words to direct our attention to the screen that 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 of 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. He then asked in a very nervous way if I was going to write about the church. I never went 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 met 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, and 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. 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.

24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. 25 For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:24-26 NASB)

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?

17 And He left them and went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there. 18 Now in the morning, when He was returning to the city, He became hungry. 19 Seeing a lone fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it except leaves only; and He *said to it, “No longer shall there ever be any fruit from you.” And at once the fig tree withered. (Matthew 21:17-19 NASB)

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 that our Lord cleansed twice by running the moneychangers 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 brought me to repentance 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

8 thoughts on “What is religious externalism?

  1. if a pastor trusts the theatrics of a glassblowing video, more than the divine revelation of God’s written Word, that pastor himself is rather shallow.

    If a supposedly saved person doesn’t trust the Word of God alone, how can they expect an unsaved person they’re talking to do the same?

    you cannot base faith on the temporal quicksand of emotionalism, only on the eternal Word of God.

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  2. Reblogged this on Ezekiel Countdown and commented:
    Reblogged on EZC. Mike, spot on! Our family has encountered a few entertainment social clubs. A small country church just up the road (est. 1800s) has endured heartbreaking change once their pastor retired. Enter a young man who insisted on rewriting the bylaws, replaced hymnals with contempt-rock, tore out pews replacing them with U-circle chairs unaccommodating to both elderly and physically-challenged which has resulted in decades-long members departing. One of these dear saints is our neighbor who suffers with MS. House church is looking more attractive to our family and we have invited others to join us. Not hearing sound doctrine is as lethal to the soul as arsenic! We do not forsake the fellowship of the brethren, but we are finding that circle becoming increasingly smaller.

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  3. Mike, you nailed it. It’s pragmatism. whatever works. If you try to ask if it’s biblical, most of the time you hear “yeah, but…..” If there are results, if it appeals to human pride and reason, then what ever it is, it is okeydokey. I cannot tell if these professing Christians are bewitched, naïve or just plain stupid? Not only do they not know the scriptures, but if you try to show them from scripture what the truth is, they say “yeah, but…” They will say they believe the bible, they attend a “bible-teaching” church. But they Bible has no place in their lives. They are too busy to study it. Besides, things are “working”! I just want to weep over our professing church.

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  4. There is so little real Bible teaching anymore unless it is a Baptist Church! We may be in a church crisis in this country! But it is still the local church that God has chosen for His children to be discipled! The smaller the better for us right now! Thanks for this post!

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