3 Signs of a religious spirit – and how to avoid developing one!

I don’t think I have ever preached on the danger of developing a religious spirit. However, having given a bit more time to reading the gospels over the summer, it is hard not to see how much opposition Jesus faced from the religious leaders of his day.

It would be handy if we could consign that kind of mentality to the days when Jesus was on earth. Unfortunately we can’t safely do that. It’s a mentality that manifested itself in the early church and throughout the subsequent history of the church.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written primarily to counter an extreme case of religion. If churches planted by the apostle Paul were vulnerable to the kind of legalism manifested by the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, the thought that we are immune to this religious virus is not rooted in reality.

So what are some of the signs? Let me give you three.

Firstly, we risk developing a religious spirit when we focus on our spiritual history at the expense of our future destiny.

Here’s what John the Baptist said to the Pharisees:

Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, 9 and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Matthew 3.8-9

They were so caught up with their own spiritual pedigree that they overlooked the lack of fruit in their lives.

An impressive spiritual family tree is incomplete without spiritual fruit.

Secondly, we risk developing a religious spirit when we fail to embrace what God is doing.

In the revival that came about through John the Baptist’s ministry, baptism was the evidence that you had embraced what God was doing.

The religious leaders rejected it. Luke 7.30 says:

But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptised by John.

We often think that our impressive history with God guarantees that we’ll always be at the centre of what he is doing. Yet history proves that the opposite is almost always the case. The people of the previous move of God become so locked into a kind of spiritual nostalgia that they miss what God is doing in the present – and sometimes even reject it as “not the real thing”.

Finally, we risk developing a religious spirit when we become more concerned about forms of religious expression than helping people.

On one occasion Jesus healed a woman who had what we would call curvature of the spine on the Sabbath in a synagogue. You might think that everyone would rejoice. Not so! The synagogue leader responded with a lecture about the Sabbath not being a day for healing – there were six other days for that:

Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God. 14 Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, ‘There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.’ (Luke 13.13-14)

The reaction is almost comic, but tragically it reveals that this man is more concerned about the forms of his faith rather than the people that faith is meant to help.

It’s very easy for those of us in a Pentecostal / Charismatic church to apply this to some of the more established liturgical churches. It has to be said that more traditional churches are not the only churches susceptible to “formalism”. Contemporary worship expressions, prayer lines, altar calls, preaching, and the unwritten liturgy of “the way we do it here”, can become just as formal and every bit as people unfriendly as we think is the case in more traditional churches. In short, what was once something that was Holy Spirit empowered degenerates into turbo-charged religion.

How do we avoid this trap? Love and humility. That was how Jesus moved amongst the people. In His day it exposed religious spirits. In our day, if we will walk the path of love and humility, it might help to save us from developing a religious spirit.


1 thing I learnt from an Indian apostle

A couple of years ago I visited India. It is amazing what God is doing there and throughout the developing world. Although I was there to speak / teach, I came home feeling that I had learnt more than I taught.

Just recently I had the “home leg” of the learning experience when one of the church leaders I had visited in India visited our church. Needless to say I wasn’t disappointed by the “learning experience” from my friend’s visit. I learnt more than one thing and was moved, not to say overwhelmed by much of what he had to say. One thing, however, stood out.

So what was the one thing? My friend told us that in his movement they instilled into the children that God had called them and ordained them to lead a fruitful life. This is based on Jesus’ declaration to His apostles in John 15 that He had chosen them and appointed them to bear lasting fruit (v.16). If you want to trace the idea further, read the mandate God gives Adam and Eve in Genesis 1. Or the promise He gives Abraham in Genesis 12.

He told stories that were both amazing and very moving to illustrate how even the children in the movement he leads were passionate for Christ and the gospel. This passion, it was evident, remained into adult life, to the point that many were and are prepared to sacrifice very good careers to become missionaries.

As I reflected on the kind of church culture I grew up in – one that extended far beyond my particular church – I noticed that our approach to and understanding of our purpose in life was very different. For us, the emphasis was on avoiding sin rather than producing fruit. In fact I think producing fruit was seen more as a command to be obeyed than a promise to be believed.

There are two problems with that approach.

Firstly, a fruitful Christian life becomes a pressure rather than a promise. And it almost always rests on our ability rather than His power at work through us. In the end it produces spiritual frustration more than spiritual fruit.

Secondly, an approach that focuses on “sin avoidance” tends to end up in spiritual sterility or even a kind of paranoia about being polluted by the world.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t emphasise the need to avoid sin. In fact, we might need to rediscover that emphasis. But on its own, it will not produce fruitful people. And if individual Christians aren’t fruitful, then churches will not flourish.

I should admit that I do go looking for the “secret sauce” or the “silver bullet” when it comes to any kind of success or effectiveness in the church, or elsewhere for that matter. Having said that, I am not for one moment claiming that this is the only or even the main factor in church growth in the developing world. And I do realise that there are enormous cultural differences between the Western world and the Indian sub-continent.

At the same time there are biblical principles that transcend culture. The conviction that God has called every Christian to flourish and bear lasting fruit, to my mind transcends culture. It’s a scriptural principle, not a tenet of a particular culture. And if that is the case, it should be the conviction of every believer- Indian or Western.

Captain Scott’s fruitcake – and why you should join a Connect Group

Various media outlets recently reported a story from the Antarctic. A New Zealand based charity working on a project in Adare in Antarctica found a Huntley and Palmers fruitcake wrapped up in a tin. The cake was part of the provisions taken by Captain Scott and his team on their ill-fated 1911 expedition to Antarctica.

It looked and smelled, they said, like it was still edible. After one hundred years.

Apparently the humble fruitcake is a favourite high energy food of those who are travelling to the distant south. Clearly it also has a bit of staying power! And as one of the Antarctic team remarked, it goes well with a cup of tea. Whatever your troubles, if you have tea and fruitcake…

Who would have thought that fruitcake is a kind of super food for polar explorers?

I’m sure fruitcake isn’t the only “ordinary” commodity that has hidden potential. Perhaps one of our biggest challenges is to see the hidden potential in things that have long become familiar to us.

That is true when it comes to church life as much as it is for polar exploration. There are so many things we take for granted. So many things we forget. Even in the earliest years of the church’s existence, her leaders were anxious to remind congregations in different parts of the Roman Empire of various strands of truth that they feared would be forgotten:

Writing to the Corinthians, Paul explained part of the purpose of his letter:

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand (1 Corinthians 15.1).

And Peter had similar concerns:

So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have (2 Peter 1.12).

As church life takes a more familiar shape after the holiday season, it is no bad thing to remind ourselves of the potential and power of what we do together.

One area that I want to highlight is that of our Connect Groups. (Since it is possible that some will read this post who are not part of Glasgow Elim, just think small group when I use the term Connect Group).

For some Connect Groups are like a poor mid-week substitute for the Sunday service. For others, they are little more than a social gathering. These attitudes are, more often than not, found in those who have not tasted and seen the life that is in a Connect Group. Or they have become the attitudes of those who had a less than satisfactory experience of Connect Groups.

Let me give you four good reasons why Connect Groups are important and you should be part of one.

Firstly, Connect Groups are a place where we experience grace.

Most of us have some sort of concept of grace. We know we are saved by grace (Ephesians 2.8). And we know that we can find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4.16).

But how does that grace come into our lives? 1 Peter 4.10 says: “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”

We are stewards of grace.

Ephesians 4.29 indicates that we impart grace (New King James translation) through our words:

“Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.”

If you want to know what such grace looks like, Galatians 5.22 or Colossians 3.12 are good places to begin. Connect Groups are an environment in which we can extend grace.

Secondly, Connect Groups are a good environment to exercise gifts.

1 Corinthians 14.26 gives us an insight into the life of the early church. Clearly everyone was expected to participate in the ministry. In most Sunday gatherings of most churches of most sizes, that is simply not possible. In a Connect Group however, everyone can contribute:

“What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.”

Connect Groups are an ideal place to discover and use the gifts God has given you and wants to give you.

Thirdly, in a Connect Group, you can expect to grow.

“…let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10.25)

Connect Groups are an environment of challenge and encouragement. We need both to grow. And if you are receiving those two inputs into your life you will grow.

Finally, Connect Groups encourage us to go.

Even when the topic is not necessarily evangelism or mission, the command from Jesus to “Go” is never far from the surface. One of the encouraging developments in our Connect Groups is that some groups are beginning to reach out to the people around them and even invite them along to their meetings. That’s brilliant. Just like the early church!

Small groups might seem about as revolutionary as fruitcake. But beneath that all familiar wrapper lies a way of connecting with God and each other that has the potential to propel us into the spiritual equivalent of a polar adventure. Sometimes we need to take a second look – instead of taking for granted.