In 1950 Coney Island was in its hay day. Our house was on West Second Street, just off Neptune Avenue. Coney Island was America’s playground back then. It was like growing up on the Midway at the State Fair. Millions came to enjoy the beach, the boardwalk, respite from the sweltering heat, and for many, the carnival type atmosphere. There were bathing suits and blankets stretched out on the sand. There were bone-rattling rides, tunnels of love, and brass rings to reach for. The air was filled with laughter, chatter, and carnival barkers offering to amuse you or shock you with the “freaks” of nature, and that all for the price of one thin dime.
Carnivals and carnal churches have a lot in common. Carnal means “flesh,” and there is plenty of that in the carnal church. People still love cotton candy. Many a supper was spoiled by confections. Today, if the preacher can’t say it in twenty minutes, he is talking to the air. If he can’t make it as exciting as a spiritual roller coaster, few buy his tickets. It’s the way things are these days. People are in a hurry. We are busy. A thousand voices are shouting for our attention, and there is just not enough time.
There were carnal churches since the days of the Apostle Paul. It is not the cotton candy Christians that make the church carnal, although seeing everyone go for the Corn Dogs should give you a clue. A carnal church is one in which there is “envy,” “strife,” and “division” (1Cor. 3:3). These three reveal the awful progression of the carnal spirit.
Envy. Pilate recognized this flaw of human nature. He said it was for “envy” that the religious leaders turned on Christ, even though they claimed a righteous indignation. No poor “freak” I ever saw in Coney Island was ever more grotesque than “envy.” It twists the soul, deforms the spirit, and spoils the heart. Sometimes something as spiritual and glorious as the pulpit becomes a thing of envy in a carnal heart and the one who stands behind it the object of contempt and scorn. This is a truth that should bring us to sackcloth and ashes.
Strife. Envy leads to strife. No sooner does the dart of envy strike its target, but it begins to pour out its poison and makes the carnal heart restless. Many a young man used the beach as an opportunity to show off his muscles. The carnal church has a good measure of muscle showing. Charles Atlas knew there were bullies on the beach. There are bullies in the carnal church as well. Kicking sand in someone’s eyes can be done is subtle ways and sometimes with gossip, complaining or slander.
Division. Sometimes saying “I like Apollos,” is just a carnal way of saying “I don’t like Paul.” Say it with the wrong spirit and an equally wrong spirit will follow your “pitch.” We all have our favorites. Back in the old days, soft ice cream came in three flavors. Now we have more choices. Only the Holy Spirit can keep us from rejecting everything but our favorite. The church is divided into groups, sects, orders, and denominations. Perhaps I should say, “the carnal church is.”
The Carnal Christian is much like the carnal church, and is much about merry-go-rounds, and roller coasters, and showing off at the beach. He is much about cotton candy, and flashing lights, and looking for the next amusing thing.
In worship, my soul comes away from the cacophony of a carnal world, having no desire to compete with, nor attempt to “remake” the church out of a carnal world’s confections. In worship I leave the carnival outside. I remember seeking refuge under the boardwalk from searing sand and the sweltering heat of summer in the city. I remember stepping into that refreshing shade and that deliverance.
There is a greater refreshing in worship. I am thankful for real worship as described in the Book of Psalms, and the "secret place of the Most High." It is church not made with hands. Lord, deliver me from my own carnal self that I might desire more to muse on Thee than to be amused. Help me to remember that this world is not a friend of Grace. Help me not to be dazzled, distracted, or drawn away by it or the delights of the Midway.
Satan cannot keep a Christian from going to Heaven, but he works hard to get many to spend their whole Christian life half-way, or mid-way. May the Lord help me to remember where I came from, where I am going, and why I'm still here.