Thursday, September 6, 2007


As our travel group toured the Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Basilica, I was reminded again of the tremendous wealth of the Roman Catholic Church and the pride which they possess over their history and position. Lest you think I’m about to attack the Catholics, think again. ’ll get around to that when I finishing pointing out the mistakes of Baptists (which means I’ll never get around to it).

It was the third time I had visited the Vatican Museum, and it is a huge facility that would take eight days just to see all the art on display. And 90% of the art, artifacts and antiquities owned by the Vatican are NOT on display. In other words, the value of the Roman Catholic Church in art alone would run into the trillions of dollars. It’s hard to estimate since so much of the art is truly priceless.

It reminds me of the story I heard about two clergymen who served wealthy congregations. As they were standing in one of their ornate cathedrals, one waved his hand at the artwork and gold and said, “Look how far we’ve come. In the beginning Peter and John had to say to the crippled beggar, ‘Silver or gold I do not have.’ We no longer have to say that. Look at all the wealth we have.” But the other clergyman wisely responded, “That’s true, but neither can we say to crippled people the words Peter spoke when he said, ‘But what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.’ It’s true that we’ve lost the poverty - but somewhere along the way, we’ve also lost the power.”

Our group visited the beautiful Sistine Chapel, which is still the biggest draw at the Vatican Museum. After the refurbishment of Michelangelo’s ceiling and Last Judgment in 2000, the colors are once again brilliant. During tourist hours, the chapel is packed with several thousand people all standing with their necks bent backward looking up at the story of God’s message – maybe we’ve lost the vertical aspect of worship in our evangelical churches

As we walked through St. Peter’s Basilica, I was once again drawn toward the fascinating Pieta, Michaelangelo’s sculpture of Mary holding the limp body of her son. I smiled at the intentional artistic misproportion of Mary – who is larger than Jesus.
Dominating one corner is the massive tomb of one of the Pope Pious (I forgot his number), with the globe under the foot of the angel with a nail through England because of Henry VIII’s apostasy in leaving the mother church. Not very subtle.

The Roman Catholic Church is an amazing institution. I think there are some born again Catholics who know the Lord and love Him – in spite of the layers of tradition and history. (Is that radical? I even think there are some born again Baptist who know the Lord – in spite of all the Baptist politics!) Do they embrace doctrines that I think are unbiblical? Absolutely – just like legalistic Christians in every church. You’ve got to admit though, the Catholics have it down to a system – attend mass, confess to the priest, genuflect, participate in the sacraments – push, pull, click, click – salvation. But how different is that from evangelicals who still embrace legalism to earn God’s blessing and favor. Legalists like DOING things to feel good about their faith – they may be a little jealous of our Catholic friends who get to DO all those rituals. I guess you could say Christian legalists (oxymoron?) are guilty of penance-envy.

As we walked through the center of the basilica, our guide informed us that St. Peter’s is the “the longest, widest, and highest Christian Church in the world.” (I guess they don’t consider Joel Osteen’s “arena” in Houston a true church). They are so proud of the size of St. Peter’s that there are inlaid marks on the floor showing the length of the other large cathedrals in the world – for instance, there’s a mark for the Notre Dame in Paris, and even one for the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. These marks are placed on the floor so everyone can see how much bigger St. Peter’s is than the other cathedrals. Pretty arrogant, huh?

Actually, it reminded me of when I used to attend Baptist meetings and hear preachers compare the sizes of their congregations as a badge of honor. As a young preacher, I used to hear them ask other pastors, “How many are you running now?” I can remember thinking, “I may be RUNNING 200, but I’m only ‘catching’ about 50 of them!” When a preacher asked, “How many are you running?” I always suspected what he really meant was, “Now ask me how many I’m running so I can tell you much how much larger my church is.”
I must confess I was guilty of some of those church-size-comparisons when I was young. I was always in awe of the big church pastors. I’ve learned since then that CHURCH HEALTH is a much better indicator than CHURCH SIZE. I’ve known of healthy congregations of 100 who were faithful and effective, and I’ve known of congregations of 3,000 who were crazily dysfunctional.

I used to embrace all the practical church growth strategies so I could GROW a great church for God. It’s was a liberating day when I realized that it wasn’t my job to grow or build a church. Once when I was on a personal retreat, Jesus made these words come alive for me, “Upon this rock I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18). I remember saying, “Wait a minute, Lord I thought I was supposed to build your church!” The impression I received from the Lord emphasized the pronouns He had used. “I didn’t say, ‘YOU will build YOUR church.’ Or ‘I will build YOUR church,’ or ‘YOU will build MY church.’ I said, “I will build MY church.” Since that day, I’ve just tried to be faithful and believed that since Jesus was building His church, I didn’t have to try to build it bigger – I only have to try to create a healthy spiritual atmosphere in which growth can happen.

“How big is your church?” It’s more important to answer, “How HEALTHY is HIS church where you serve?”