Who are they worshiping in chapels at Bethel University?

A Look at the "Spiritual Tranformation" Admittedly Taking Place at Bethel University
By David Sheldon

I came across an article in Bethel Magazine that I could not let slip by. It saddened me greatly to see my alma mater detouring so greatly away from the Word of God.

Bethel Magazine is a magazine sent out quarterly to alumni and friends of Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Bethel University is a school of the Converge Worldwide denomination. The university's best known church is Bethlehem Baptist of Minneapolis whose pastor is Dr. John Piper. The Fall 2011 Edition included an article titled Now is the Time to Worship (pp. 22-24):

I would like to draw your attention to a few quotes from the article:

  1. "…chapel is a vital catalyst for students' spiritual transformation." p. 23 [At the Center]

  2. "…pursuing a kingdom vision of worship, which guides our intentionality in being artistically and linguistically inclusive in crafting our worship experiences."
    "…creates worship experiences…"
    "To create an atmosphere that will steward a kingdom vision." p. 23 [Extending Worship]

  3. "To continue to help all students go deeper…to help the team 'brand' chapel themes and incorporate lighting, staging, video, and creative arts into chapel services. Whatever an individual's preference or learning style, 'We want people to say, Wow, I really saw God'…Some people 'hear' God speak through the message, and others through dance, worship, or images." p. 24 [Experiencing God in New Ways]

Let me first share with you that after reading this article, I was not encouraged by what occurs during Bethel chapels. Let me explain. Based upon the language used, no matter how they "brand" their chapel time, it is evident that the actual central focus is how one feels, what one experiences, what one sees or hears no matter the medium. Bethel seeks to elevate the person, to glory in the worshipper. Not the God of the Bible. The "lingo" of the article itself presents this reality.

The lingo is the language of self-consumption. "In whatever format, at whatever campus, the goal of chapel is always the same: Spiritual Transformation." (p. 24) Shouldn't the goal of chapel be to worship God as He is and as He requires. Spiritual transformation's real focus is on the inward self. (For a more extensive look at Spiritual Formation read Spiritual Formation by Gary Gilley.) But of course, they want everyone to join in! "We desire chapel to be something that is pursued rather than mandated," he (Pastor Ross Manders) explains (p. 23). Why shouldn't people join in? The water is quite refreshing, after all. But these chapel "experiences" seem primarily sensual, mystical, subjective and man-centered. They are essentially wrought by man's hand.

Assuming Bethel and Converge are still Protestant in their thinking, "the Christ" of Protestantism now speaks to us through our senses. Images, sounds, videos, and dancing are intended to help one hear and see God. Is this "speaking of God" and "hearing from God" brought to you through rational thinking? Or is it through feelings and impressions via some beautiful song, a pretty picture, a talented guitarist, or a stimulating video? Hmmm, it would seem to me this is sadly "the staging of the Christ" in their chapel event (I do not use the word "event" lightly). What do I mean by "the staging of the Christ"? Let me ask you first: Where in Scripture does it state that worship is to be theatrical? Entertaining? What about dramatized? My definition then is this: The staging of the Christ is humanly pretentious events with one's "senses" as the priority and then labeled worship. Where in Reformation Theology is focus put on the stimulation of our senses in order to experience God? That is not Scriptural illumination, but rather the over use of one's own imagination. What might God think of the use of our imaginations as the primary means to worship him? Is this self-satisfying or God-satisfying?

On the contrary, the most important thing in true corporate worship is the object of our worship – the true and living God as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. God is pleased when he is worshiped in accordance with His Word. Where is self-satisfaction the actual "in spirit and in truth" object and goal of worship in reformation theology? Answer: Nowhere! Should we not go to the written Word to determine how that One wishes to be worshiped? Yet Bethel states that the student-led worship is the dynamic thing. You say that it is just a matter of wording. Okay, let me ask you: Has anyone ever "seen" God? The article states: "We want people to say, 'Wow, I really saw God.'" LaRue says. (p. 24) What did God tell Moses when he asked Him if he could see Him? Bethel actually uses that exact language to describe their goals in worship. They want God to "reveal" Himself through man made images, dancing, or whatever visual, and offering the Word preached for one's consideration. Isn't the Scripture preached really the dynamic thing? After all, it is described as the cutting two-edged sword. The God of that sword "sees" the thoughts of our very being. That sword discerns the very intentions of our heart. When we go to the Word, do we come away with a mere passive understanding of that God who reveals Himself? According to what is stated in the article, the preaching of the Word is not essential.

So, how exactly does the God of the Bible wish to be worshiped? Through what means are any of us able to know and worship God as HE seeks? Martin Luther, as the foundational leader of the Reformation, says it well as he confronted Rome's false gospel AND he renounced her false ways, simultaneously. This is clearly seen as you read the 95 Theses and also seen in this quote from Martin Luther:

"Idolatry is all manner of seeming holiness and worshipping, let these counterfeit spiritualities shine outwardly as glorious and fair as they may; in a word, all manner of devotion in those that we would serve God without Christ the Mediator, his Word and command. In popedom it was held a work of the greatest sanctity for the monks to sit in their cells and meditate of God, [solitude] and of his wonderful works; to be kindled with zeal, kneeling on their knees, praying, and having their imaginary contemplations of celestial objects [meditation], with such supposed devotion, that they wept for joy.
In these their conceits, they banished all desires and thoughts of women, and what else is temporal and evanescent. They seemed to meditate only of God, and of his wonderful works.
Yet all these seeming holy actions of devotion, which the wit and wisdom of man holds to be angelical sanctity, are nothing else but works of the flesh. All manner of religion, where people serve God without his Word and command, is simply idolatry, and the more holy and spiritual such a religion seems, the more hurtful and venomous it is; for it leads people away from the faith of Christ, and makes them rely and depend upon their own strength, works, and righteousness…"
The table talk of Martin Luther, Alexander Chalmers, CLXXI, p. 68

Luther didn't mince words. He was saying that apart from the preaching of the Word, all religious acts, as holy and devoted as they may seem, are deadly! Was not that great reformation based in the first principle which was and is the sole authority of Holy Scripture? Rome's false worship and false ways were on his radar as well as Rome's false theology. He observed what they did, said it was not Biblical, and gave Rome his judgment based on the Word. Modern day evangelical worship would receive Luther's same direct criticism.

In an article I wrote a few years back, I mentioned that mysticism and the whole spiritual formation/contemplative movement directly attack the sole mediation of Jesus Christ. The movement neglects Christ as sole mediator in private practice, and in corporate worship. Mysticism has crept in to many "evangelical" church services. The false worship is introduced to congregations via humans by seducing spirits behind the demonic teachings. Someone partaking in the service may never know this is even happening! It is extremely subtle. Let me give you some examples of how this takes place. For instance, "Christ speaks to me through an image!" Or, "I see God because He has been staged before me with flashing lights!" These images and flashing lights displace Christ and His sole mediation. Unfortunately, this is more widespread than we realize and is expanding at an astonishing rate.

Based on what is stated in Bethel's article, do they seem concerned with how God wants to be worshipped? Wasn't that important to Jesus as He spoke with the woman at the well in John 4? Even when the article does mention a "sermon" being preached, they are not talking about a straight-forward Biblical understanding of the Word preached. "After the dynamic student-led worship, a pastor or other speaker offers an inspiring or thought-provoking message, the focal point of each chapel service." So, the worship is dynamic, but the message is something else? According to Bethel, the message has to be "inspiring" or "thought-provoking" and worship has to be dynamic. Based on the language used in the statement, what actually is the focus? What has often been called "worship wars" over the past few decades is really a growing man-centered contemplative spirituality movement. Yet, it is what currently passes for worship in most churches. It will continue unless we repent. I say we because I am a Bethel Seminary graduate. I am reminded of Daniel's prayer in Daniel 9. In it he confesses how it is that the calamity of their Babylonian captivity has come upon him and God's people and they condition they now occupy.

"8 Open shame belongs to us, O Lord, to our kings, our princes and our fathers, because we have sinned against You. 9 To the Lord our God belong compassion and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against Him; 10 nor have we obeyed the voice of the LORD our God, to walk in His teachings which He set before us through His servants the prophets. 11 Indeed all Israel has transgressed Your law and turned aside, not obeying Your voice; so the curse has been poured out on us, along with the oath which is written in the law of Moses the servant of God, for we have sinned against Him. 12 Thus He has confirmed His words which He had spoken against us and against our rulers who ruled us, to bring on us great calamity; for under the whole heaven there has not been done anything like what was done to Jerusalem. 13 As it is written in the law of Moses, all this calamity has come on us; yet we have not sought the favor of the LORD our God by turning from our iniquity and giving attention to Your truth. 14 Therefore the LORD has kept the calamity in store and brought it on us; for the LORD our God is righteous with respect to all His deeds which He has done, but we have not obeyed His voice." Daniel 9:8-14 NASB

Disobedience is not obeying the Law as revealed through Moses, i.e. the Scripture and the prophets of Scripture. It is abandoning the pursuit of the Lord's favor by abandoning truth. Daniel knows God is at the center of it all and that the only way any of us can actually pay attention to Him is by giving attention to His Word. This is true worship. If true worship is not happening, then by default a false worship is taking its' place. False worship is the growing displacement of the Jesus Christ of Scripture from His throne, known by His Spirit through His Word and to be worshiped in spirit and in truth.

So, how can you know if false worship is taking place? As Luther said, counterfeit spiritualities are outwardly glorious but are without Christ the Mediator via His Word, His command. They come by human hands, apart from the sole agency of Word/Spirit which is how Jesus functions in His role as sole mediator for His people. "Just jump on in and FEEL the spirit's presence," as I have often had some tell me. Doing that is really an inward focus on self. Let's never forget that every real Biblical encounter with deity and the worship "experiences" recorded never had euphoria as their distinguishing marks! When was the powerful wind of God's presence evidenced because some Biblical subject felt or sensed something due to the creation of an "atmosphere" by human hands? Yet, lights, images, sounds, feelings, focus – these are now the "mediation" in the current "seducing river" of modern corporate worship. That, my friends, is idolatry. All believers are commanded by the Apostle John to keep themselves from idols.

But be encouraged because you can know for sure the "corporate" Christ you worship is actually the Lord Jesus Christ of the Scriptures. You will know because the Bible preached will be the center of your Sunday morning worship service! It will be a mega-dose of truth from Scripture. Otherwise, how could you know and worship the real Jesus?

Copyright 2012 David Sheldon, all rights reserved.
Can be copied in its entirety for personal use or to be distributed, but not for profit.

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