Idolatry abounds in churches today. Some idols are more benign than others. While it’s annoying that you can’t move that 100-year-old chair from the hallway to make room for a welcome booth because it has a plaque on it, it’s probably not worth praying for God to send fire from heaven to burn it; well, maybe not, anyway. But whether it’s a love affair with latest fashion style in a new church or clinging to dusty old relics in an ancient church, every church has those things that it clings to that are off the table for change or removal, and usually even for discussion.
How do we preach to destroy idolatry in the local church? I’m not going to claim there is anything easy about it. Religious idolatry is a disease common to every human soul, and the overtly religious are really good at it. I’d like to deal with it the way God does. He said, “I will destroy your pagan shrines and knock down your places of worship. I will leave your lifeless corpses piled on top of your lifeless idols, and I will despise you.” (Leviticus 26:30 NLT)
The trouble with that approach is that I don’t want to end up as the pastor whose corpse the congregation left outside so that they could continue to worship their lifeless trophy cases and broken down bronze-plaque-laden tennis courts.
Here are three principles I’ve found successful; well, at least as successful as possible when dealing with religious idolatry.
1. Be specific. You’ll never get anywhere preaching in vague ambiguities about “the golden calves of some churches.” You’ve got to talk about that specific trophy case right there with the newest trophy being from 1982. You’ve got to talk about how refusal to move that trophy case from the front entryway to make room for a visitor’s information booth makes sense.
Idolatrous people don’t know they are idolatrous, and if they do they surely aren’t going out of their way to fix it. If you beat around the bush, expect to be swatting around the bush right up until you preach their funeral. When people don’t want to hear something, you surely aren’t going to get them to by being vague.
2. Be loving. God can say things like what He said in Leviticus 26:30 because He’s God. He can get away with that stuff. You and I can’t. Be specific. Be direct. Be clear. But you'd better be loving and understanding and respectful of the history behind that idol or you will never build a bridge between why that idol is an idol and the heart of the idolater. Pastor, unless your goal is to run them off from the church or to test the waters on your job security, be loving.
3. Be biblical. At the end of the day, all of our finessing of the removal of idols from the local meeting house will be for nothing if we are not biblical about this. God condemns idolatry in all of its forms. The trouble is that religious people love idols, and secondarily to that, sometimes it’s not that clear what an idol is.
There isn’t anything inherently wrong with a trophy case, but when it obstructs the implementation of a welcome area for visitors, then it may be that its presence assaults the biblical notion of seeking and saving the lost.
Idolatry is a matter of the heart. That trophy case may represent a time of wonderful fellowship in the history of the church in the heart of a member who refuses to let it go or even be moved out of a place of prominence. For him, it’s not an idol, it helps him celebrate that era when God moved in the church.
But when celebrating what God did in the past obstructs what God is doing now, it is a good indication that affection for an object has crossed over into idolatry.
Show them why it is biblical to remove idols and help the people understand why it would be better to remove the idols. What do you think? How have you addressed idolatry of this kind in the church? How have you seen it addressed?