How to Destroy a Growing Church
In his famous book entitled, The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis. The famous Christian writer tells a cautionary tale about an old devil training a younger, less-experienced devil, in the art of tempting human beings into sin. The book is a series of letters between these two, where the senior demon provides all kinds of good advice on how to seduce and trap people with their own vices and their own weaknesses. There is an especially insightful chapter on how to do this with those people who claim to have religion. In other words, there's a special chapter where he writes a letter on how to really tempt people who claim to be extremely religious. The faithful, he says, require a different approach. But they can be manipulated if one knows the right strings to pull.
I recommend the book because it is a classic study on the weaknesses of human nature, and quite humorous for a work on such a serious subject. I mean, it's a serious subject, but he approaches it in a humorous way. I suppose that the greatest impact that Mr. Lewis's book had on me, when I read it, was that beneath the humor, there was a warning, concerning the sinister nature of the evil forces at work in the world and in our lives.
I really do believe that Satan and his evil ones are hard at work to destroy our souls, but not because C.S. Lewis wrote a book. I believe in the devil and his efforts because of the Bible. The Bible talks about the real devil and his tactics.
10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. 11Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. 12For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.
- Ephesians 6:10-12
Here Paul talks about powers, principalities, forces. He's talking about real things that exist with only the goal to destroy us as believers. In another New Testament book, Peter says,
Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.
- I Peter 5:8
Someone to devour. Someone to destroy. I don't think they show this on National Geographic or on Disney, but can you imagine what a lion could do to a human being? Could you imagine the destruction of a human being by a fully grown lion. This is the imagery that Peter is giving to Christians, warning them of the destruction that can be caused in their lives by the evil one's purposeful destruction, as a matter of fact.
So God warns us that Satan exists that is powerful and is actively seeking to destroy us as individuals and to disrupt what we do in the name of Christ. Now, one of the more successful schemes that Satan pursues is the destruction of the local church. After all, why put a lot of effort into seducing one member at a time with temptation, when you can destroy the entire group with one blow. This tactic is especially true with growing churches. Especially true with churches that are at peace with itself. Especially true with churches that experience joy. Churches that love to be together. Because these are the ones that present the greatest threat to his power over a community and a nation. Because brothers and sisters, who else responds to the lies of the devil being spewed in our society, but the church, that's our task. The church, the pillar and support of the truth, Paul says.
I believe we are such a church. Such a congregation. We are united as a body. We have great plans. We want to evangelize. We want to teach others the gospel. We want to have an impact for Christ, not only in our community, but in other communities, even in countries far away from us, where we invest in evangelism? We support missionaries. We are growing in numbers and maturity, in love and good works. Oh, yes. We're a prime target. For this reason, as I say, we're a perfect target for Satan's attack. He does not bother with unloving, infighting, un-evangelistic churches. They're already destroying themselves quite nicely without him, Thank you very much. It's the ones that are succeeding, it's the ones that have unity, it's the ones that provide a true witness for Christ, those are the ones that are targeted.
So as we continue to grow and mature, we run a greater risk of being attacked by his evil ways. So this evening, I'd like to forewarn us about this potential and also share with you some of the tactics that Satan uses or can use against us if we know his plan ahead of time. We can stand firm in our faith, and we can stand firm in our service to Christ.
How to Destroy a Growing Church
I suppose if C.S. Lewis were writing this part of my sermon, in the form of his Screwtape Letters, this part would be entitled, How to Destroy a Growing Church. The surest way to destroy any congregation, especially a growing one, would be to follow a plan of attack that would include three basic steps.
Step #1 – Sow division
The best way to stop a charging army is to make it begin fighting itself. Divide and conquer, is not only a slogan, it's a pretty effective way to defeat the forward momentum of any successful enterprise, whether it be a political party, a football team, a business, even a congregation of the Lord's Church. Now what's sad is that Satan used the same approach to divide no matter who it is, whether it's secular or sacred.
Satan uses pride to divide
Pride moves people to want honor and prestige for themselves, and thus alienating others in the group. Well, that works in a united church, in a united family, in a united business, in a united sports team. I mean, the same tactic works. Pride creates sensitive feelings that are easily hurt. Pride sees only the mistakes and faults of others, without true measure of ourselves. Now, if only one person in the church is proud, well, that's not much of a problem for the church. For that person it's a problem, but not for the church. It's when several proud people begin to compete for position and power, then we have polarization and with polarization comes division. And then, with division comes destruction.
Satan uses false accusations to divide
The Bible says that Satan is the accuser of the brethren, accusing them of their sins night and day before God (Revelation 12:10). Thankfully, we have Christ at the right hand of God, continually defending and purifying us with His blood, so that none of the accusations can lead to our condemnation. You ever wonder why there is therefore now no condemnation in Christ Jesus, Romans 8:1. Do you ever wonder why there's no condemnation? Not just because Jesus has paid the price for our sins. There's no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus because Christ is continually defending us at the throne of grace, Against the accusations of the devil. I like to say, this is my own idea, I like to think that every time in my own mind I'm saying, you're just useless, Mazzalongo. You're not as good as you think you are, boy. You're barely going to make it. How did you get to where you're at? I, in my best moment, I think, what I'm hearing here is the reflection of what's going on at the throne of heaven. What I'm hearing is the echo of Satan accusing me night and day. That's what I'm hearing. And I thank God that my Lord, our Lord is there to answer every accusation. He is there to defend me over and over and over and over again. This is where I find peace.
When Satan plants the seeds of accusation against someone in the hearts of the brethren, the results are often anger and resentment, instead of defense and forgiveness. You know how he works, he whispers half-truths, gossip, through the sinful lips of others; and soon we're like people in the world, harboring hatred and anger for our brethren, for things we think that they said. For things we think that they think. Imagine allowing your emotions to be guided by what we think somebody is thinking. Not a very solid base. Paul the apostle warned of this tactic and result in Galatians 5:15, when he said,
But if you bite and devour one another, take care, lest you be consumed by one another.
The church at Corinth was a dynamic congregation. It was located at a strategic point, in other words, for evangelism purposes. Its members were blessed with powerful spiritual gifts. It was flourishing in the middle of a completely pagan society, but its growth and momentum stopped because in-fighting broke out among its leaders, who lusted after the power and honor that comes with leadership. So if Satan can sow division among those who were directly evangelized and taught by a living apostle, and blessed with miraculous gifts, I guarantee you, he can divide and conquer us as well, who have neither of these advantages.
Step #2 – Create Diversions
I believe that the number one reason people don't become Christians or become unfaithful as Christians is that they are distracted. Not that they're essentially very evil or very immoral. I think they're just not paying attention. It's as if Satan infects them with spiritual ADD. For people who are not Christians, the diversions are as old as sin. John the apostle summarizes them in three phrases in I John 2:16. The main diversions in the world are:
- The lust of the flesh - sensual pleasure, both legitimate and illegitimate.
- The lust of the eyes - the bottomless desire to have more of whatever, you fill in the blank. More money, more sex, more power, more toys, more, bigger, better, stronger, faster, higher, lower, whatever.
- The pride of life - satisfaction derived from possessing and controlling things.
And so, the unsaved person remains unsaved, largely due to the fact that his attention is constantly focused on these diversions and not on seeking God and His will. If this busy person is ever saved, it's because somehow, somebody, has shared the gospel with him. Somehow, he's allowed a crack in his busy pursual of the lust of the flesh and the eyes, and the pride of life, he's so busy consuming this, focused on this. I mean, nothing has a chance to get in. Hopefully, maybe one day somebody, a cousin, a friend, shares the gospel, gives him a book, something, invites them to church to kind of smash that, like the matrix and show them what the truth is. Because if that doesn't happen, he's just going to keep on going. Are you kidding? Facebook, that's like chocolate peanuts, just one more, just one more, just one more, just one more, just - oh, I wonder what they're doing? One more over here, one more. Oh, they say go over there. Oh, just one more over there.
For people in the church, who have found God in Christ, the diversions that Satan uses in addition to these or when these three things lose their power to enthrall, the things he uses for people in the church are more subtle in nature, but just as devastating to one's soul. In order to create diversion in the church, Satan does some of the following: for example, he lures the church into the trap of majoring in minors.
For example, we spend more time worrying about decorating the building than filling the building with people to hear the gospel. Or we worry about having money to meet next month's obligations, and we ignore this month's responsibilities to serve those in need and teach God's word. Majoring in the minors. The minors have to be taken care of, of course, but they're not the majors. People get side-tracked into debating over who's in charge or whose way are we going to use to do certain things, instead of just getting the job done. Another diversionary tactic is to lead people to search for spiritual satisfaction outside of the church. I don't mean the building. I mean outside of body life. People wanting a spiritual high, for example, will read all kinds of books and watch religious TV and experiment with various religious theories and philosophies. In other words, they'll go elsewhere, lured by the false promise of a unique spiritual experience, when all they really need is right here, right in front of them.
The problem is that they're distracted by the sales pitch for a free spiritual high, looking to achieve it in an easy way. Either by emotional manipulation or the discovery of some "spiritual secret" and while they're distracted, they neglect the only true way to spiritual maturity, which comes through regular Bible reading and study. There's no secret to this. This is not mysticism. It's not shrouded in some cloud of mystery that nobody will know. Reading your Bible, studying your Bible, attending Bible classes, where others, who are perhaps trained in teaching the scriptures, can teach you more about the Bible. That's the road to spiritual maturity, and sincere worship, and the service of others for Christ's sake and personal sanctification by dealing daily with our sins.Repentance is the fastest way to spiritual maturity. Repentance is. Did I mention anything here that sounds like a mystery to you? I want to grow spiritually. I want to grow closer to God. I want to have a spiritual experience. I want to rise above the world. I want to be Christ-like. I want to get a taste of heaven now. What do I do? Where do I go? Which mountain do I climb? You come to church, read your Bible every day, turn off your TV, shut off your phone, shut the door, and go to God in uninterrupted prayer for 30 minutes, attend Bible class, volunteer to bring communion to someone who is sick. Visit someone who is in jail. Put the Bible Talk app on the phone of somebody you know who is not a Christian. You see the mystery there? There's no mystery.
When the people in the congregation, especially those charged with training and leading others, don't focus on true biblical ministry, the church wastes its spiritual energy. In order to sustain growth, we need to stay focused on our mission plan given to us by Christ in the Bible, and not divert from it or be led away from it by Satan and his tactics. Basically, our New Testament mission plan is very simple. One, we're to preach the gospel to the lost in our community first, to our nation and to the world as opportunity and resources permit us to do so. Secondly, we are to teach those who are converted to obey all the words of Christ our Lord. And teach them how to obey these things. Number three, we are to prepare the church for Christ's return by maintaining its unity, its purity of life, and its doctrinal purity. That's it. That's the mission. That's what we're about. That's what we should be doing. Easy to say, not always easy to do. But in these things we have all that we need to be doing. And all these things prepare us for spiritual life in another dimension, which we call heaven. These are the church's marching orders. And Satan will do anything and everything to distract or divert our attention, to stop us from carrying these things out. And you can tell when he's succeeding, when we are neglecting our mission in any area to a greater or lesser degree.
Step #3 – Pile on Discouragement
Just when you thought everything was all right, the roof caves in. People we love become sick or they die or they move away. Brethren we trust, disappoint us. Marriages that look solid, begin to fall apart. Some brethren fall away from the church. There is less time and more work. The needs begin to outstrip our resources. We become spiritually tired, depressed. We're on empty and just when we thought it just couldn't get any more difficult, news comes of more trouble that we did not expect. The good die young. The ones we need to lead, don't. The powerful ones in the church that can carry a heavy load and have carried a heavy load for years, all of a sudden, are struck with a disease or an illness or they break something and they can't anymore.
Just like Job, God doesn't allow Satan to kill us, but the old snake manages to pour it on until the thought of quitting the church seems like a quick way to be free and happy again. When the everyday spiritual grind is getting you down, ask yourself only one question: who is responsible for this discouragement in my life? We won't get very far if we try to blame God, because He sends the good in our lives and provides the strength to cope with the bad. That's not Him. No. Sin and ignorance and Satan's lies, these are the things that can cause failure, the pain and the sorrows that bring our discouragement.
He used this tactic on the apostles in the early church, bombarding them with persecution and rejection and isolation from their families and their communities, even their government. But they resisted the temptation to give up, because they had an abiding hope for a better life in a better place.
When my daughter Julia and I were in North Carolina just recently for her graduation, we went to Wednesday night church. We made our way to Gold Hill Road, the church where she attended. We sat in the auditorium class like visitors do, and the teacher was asking a question, and he would say, what is the greatest danger to the church? And some people, they were saying all kinds of things, war and ISIS taking us over; and my response was, the greatest danger to the church - worldliness. Worldliness. Our constant 24-hour, seven-day-a-week consumption of the world, that bombards us with marketing and advertising. Buy this, do that, go there, look at this. Ten ways to do this. 50 top things. What was so and so wearing? Worldliness is the greatest danger we face, not being bombed by ISIS. Worldliness. Why? Because we consume it from morning to night. And every once in a while, Wednesday for an hour, we take a break. And Sunday morning for an hour or two, we take a break. But the other hundreds of hours of the week, what are we doing? We're consuming worldliness all the time. That's the greatest danger.
I say this to compare to the first century. Their danger wasn't worldliness, their danger was actually being persecuted, being killed, being dragged off, being thrown in jail. That was their danger. And yet, they were strong. Right? They stiffened, they resisted. If only the greatest danger to us was that we were being arrested; that they were burning down our church buildings; that they were carting off our ministers and our elders. If only that was our problem, I would be much less worried for the health of the church. I'm more worried for the health of the church because of worldliness, than personal attack. Much more insipid, much more dangerous. What makes us think Satan will not use this approach with us?
Remember that the Bible promises that those who turn away from sin to Christ, they will suffer for that decision (I Peter 4:12-13). So let's not be surprised or defeated by a tactic that is so clearly described in advance by the Lord when He tells us, through Peter, that Satan is like a roaring lion ready to destroy us.
In I Corinthians 11:23-26, Paul tells the church that Jesus gave us the communion as a way of proclaiming His death and resurrection until He comes again. And what He doesn't say, but what is understood here by every Christian who takes it each week, is that the communion also points to our own resurrection that will take place when He returns. Jesus said,
And this is the will of Him who sent me, that of all He has given me, I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day,
- John 6:39
You see, all of Satan's tactics used to destroy the church, they're really an attempt to prevent the glorious resurrection promised to all believers. That's really what it's about. This is how it works. Satan knows that he cannot destroy the church itself. Jesus has already barred him from doing this. He said,
Upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not overpower it.
- Matthew 16:18.
So we know he cannot destroy the church as a whole. However, Satan can use his schemes to shake out individual members from the church and destroy their own personal souls and the reward that they are anticipating of eternal life. He'll divide a brother or a sister from one another and isolate them for further attack. He'll distract them with the worldly pleasures that he controls. He'll discourage them with the lie that it isn't worth being faithful anymore until the end. And some, not all, will become victims of his treachery and fall away and lose their salvation as a consequence. Satan can't win the war, but he's determined to take down as many as he can before Jesus returns. That's why the attacks are fierce and they are unrelenting.
I'm not a prophet, obviously, I cannot know the future, but as a preacher I do read and I do study the Word and I strive to understand the "times" that we live in. We're a point in our development as a church, where we are most vulnerable to Satan's attacks. How do I know that? Because things are going so well. That's why. Everybody's happy.
What's the worst job here? Shutting down the building at night. Nobody wants that job. Not because shutting down the building is so hard, it's getting everybody out of the building so they can shut down, that is difficult. Why is that? Because they enjoy being together! The brethren like being here, and not just the old timers, the young people, they're out there playing ball with each other and hanging out near somebody's truck and fooling around.
So how do I know we're ripe for attack? That's how I know. It's just going so well. Our elders are united. Our members love one another and help on another. People come here because they want to be with us. We can say things, even from the pulpit, and share a laugh together. And even laugh at ourselves. That's a wonderful place to be as a group as an organization. We have young people who love the Lord and want to serve Him. And we have very old people, who have loved the Lord, all of their lives and continue to be a marvelous example of faith and perseverance to us. We have it all here. That's why we're vulnerable. That's why we need to be careful.
And so you're now armed with the foreknowledge of some of his tactics. So be careful not to succumb. Remember, I have warned you. In the meantime, let those of us who are Christ's followers stay focused on our mission to evangelize and to teach and to prepare for the Lord's return either by the end of our lives or the end of the world. Let's be focused. Either way, weather He comes for us in death or comes for us at the end of the world, it will send us to a resurrection and eternal life in glory with God in heaven, either way.
And those we are here with us, but are not yet of us, because they have not yet obeyed the gospel in repentance and baptism, I say to you, realize that you have been deceived by the oldest tactic of all and that is procrastination. Satan will always you give you 100 reasons not to be baptized today, not to repent today, not to be restored today, not to deal with your sins today, a 100 reasons he will give you. But today, may be the day the Lord calls you to judgement. That's a very biblical idea.
So don't be fooled by Satan's tactics. Don't put off saving your soul until tomorrow, because tomorrow may be too late. If you need to make a decision for Christ tonight, to put Him on in baptism, to be restored to Him, to confess sin, whatever your ministry needs. We have many elders here and ministers here to pray for you, to minister to you. So we encourage you to come forward, always be careful of his tactics, and if you need ministry, then we ask you to come forward as we stand and sing, the song that has been selected, the song of encouragement.