The Celestial Rail-Road

Updated: May 15, 2019

A Satire on the Modern Church Growth Movement

and other worldly invaders.

Like many others I’ve been through various phases of contemporary Christian “moves”, some which have been born by the Spirit of God, but many born solely from the imagination of man’s soul. One of the latter is known as the Church Growth Movement, espoused by the late Peter Wagner and taken on-board by others like Rick Warren, Donald McGravan, John Wimber, Randy White (who has now left the movement), plus an increasing host of others.

Quite a number of denominations use this ideology when they set out to “plant churches” - by which they simply mean transferring one group of believers to another place and calling it a “new work”. I would hardly call it a “work of the Spirit” because it uses modern managerial practices as its foundation. Most “planted churches” have been the result of luring already existing small congregations to join a bigger one, then moving them to another location and re-branding them (another business model) under the name of the larger group. This eventually results in either a Mega Church with 2 or 3 campuses (that kind of terminology should ring alarm bells straight away) or having an over-arching “mother church” of so-called apostles who regulate the subordinate congregations. There are exceptions to this, but as a generalisation that’s pretty much how it functions.

At a conference in the 90s I once heard a speaker tell all the pastors that unless they had a decent sized carpark new people looking for a church would simply bypass them on a Sunday and look elsewhere because parking would be an issue at that church! Really, he actually said that. Then he said that this was how major shopping centres operated. If they provided an undersized car park, shoppers would go elsewhere where the parking was easier, so if you want to entice people to your church build a bigger carpark. Now where is the Spirit of God in all this? Honestly if it wasn’t true it would be close to laughable.

The following allegory hints at the easiness of doing spiritual business, compared to the “narrow path” espoused by Jesus. The hard road has given away to a pleasant Sunday stroll – and so highlights how much today’s church has also made things “easy” – even in the matter of Salvation, which in many places has simply become lifting up one’s hand while everyone else’s eyes are closed as the Pastor leads you in a prayer usually devoid of any mention of sin or repentance!

So, when I came across this parable it made me chuckle. Although it’s a 19th century allegory of Bunyan’s Pilgrims’ Progress, it does have application for Christians today. The allegory rings very true, but how woefully sad that today’s church has fallen for this kind of thinking. I hope it may awaken you to just how far we can often be from true spiritual life in the Spirit. May change come quickly!

Peter McArthur, The Issachar Ministry.

By Nathaniel Hawthorne;

an allegory of John Bunyan's classic "Pilgrim's Progress"

Not a great while ago, passing through the gate of dreams, I visited that region of the earth in which lies the famous city of Destruction. It interested me much to learn that, by the public spirit of some of the inhabitants, a rail-road has recently been established between this populous and flourishing town, and the Celestial City. Having a little time upon my hands, I resolved to gratify a liberal curiosity to make a trip there. Accordingly, one fine morning, after paying my bill at the hotel, and directing the porter to stow my luggage behind a coach, I took my seat in the vehicle and set out for the Station House.

It was my good fortune to enjoy the company of a gentleman, one Mr. Smooth-it-away who, though he had never actually visited the Celestial City, yet seemed as well acquainted with its laws, customs, policy, and statistics, as with those of the city of Destruction, of which he was a native townsman. Being, moreover a Director of the rail-road corporation, and one of its largest stockholders, he had it in his power to give me all desirable information respecting that praiseworthy enterprise.

Our coach rattled out of the city and at a short distance from its outskirts, passed over a bridge, of elegant construction, but somewhat too slight, as I imagined, to sustain any considerable weight. On both sides lay an extensive quagmire, which could not have been more disagreeable either to sight or smell, had all the kennels of the earth emptied their pollution there. "This" remarked Mr. Smooth-it-away "is the famous Slough of Despond - a disgrace to all the neighbourhood; and the greater, that it might so easily be converted into firm ground."

"I have understood" I said "that efforts have been made for that purpose, from time immemorial. Bunyan mentions that above twenty thousand cart-loads of wholesome instructions had been thrown in here, without effect."

"Very probably, and what effect could be anticipated from such unsubstantial stuff?" cried Mr. Smooth-it-away. "You observe this convenient bridge. We obtained a sufficient foundation for it by throwing into the slough some editions of books of morality, volumes of French philosophy and German rationalism, tracts, sermons, and essays of modern clergymen, extracts from Plato, Confucius, and various Hindu sages, together with a few ingenious commentaries upon texts of Scripture - all of which by some scientific process, have been converted into a mass like granite. The whole bog might be filled up with similar matter."

It really seemed to me, however that the bridge vibrated and heaved up and down in a very formidable manner; and in spite of Mr. Smooth-it-away's testimony to the solidity of its foundation, I should be loathe to cross it in a crowded bus; especially if each passenger were encumbered with as heavy luggage as that gentleman and myself. Nevertheless we got over without accident and soon found ourselves at the Station House. This very neat and spacious edifice is erected on the site of the little Wicket-Gate, which formerly, as all old pilgrims will recollect, stood directly across the highway, and by its inconvenient narrowness, was a great obstruction to the traveller of liberal mind and expansive stomach.

The reader of John Bunyan will be glad to know that Christian's old friend Evangelist, who was accustomed to supply each pilgrim with a mystic roll, now presides at the ticket office. Some malicious persons, it is true, deny the identity of this reputable character with the Evangelist of old times and even pretend to bring competent evidence of an imposture. Without involving myself in a dispute, I shall merely observe that, so far as my experience goes, the square pieces of pasteboard, now delivered to passengers, are much more convenient and useful along the road, than the antique roll of parchment. Whether they will be as readily received at the gate of the Celestial City, I decline giving an opinion.

A large number of passengers were already at the Station House, awaiting the departure of the rail cars. By the aspect and demeanour of these persons, it was easy to judge that the feelings of the community had undergone a very favourable change, in reference to the Celestial pilgrimage. It would have done Bunyan's heart good to see it. Instead of a lonely and ragged man, with a huge burden on his back, plodding along sorrowfully on foot, while the whole city hooted after him, here were parties of the first gentry and most respectable people in the neighbourhood, setting forth towards the Celestial City as cheerfully as if the pilgrimage were merely a summer tour.

Among the gentlemen were characters of deserved eminence, magistrates, politicians, and men of wealth, by whose example religion could not but be greatly recommended to their meaner brethren. In the ladies' apartment too I rejoiced to distinguish some of those flowers of fashionable society, who are so well fitted to adorn the most elevated circles of the Celestial City. There was much pleasant conversation about the news of the day, topics of business, politics, or the lighter matters of amusement; while religion, though indubitably the main thing at heart, was thrown tastefully into the background. Even an infidel would have heard little or nothing to shock his sensibility.

One great convenience of the new method of going on pilgrimage, I must not forget to mention. Our enormous burdens, instead of being carried on our shoulders, as had been the custom of old, were all snugly deposited in the baggage-car, and as I was assured, would be delivered to their respective owners at the journey's end. Another thing, likewise the benevolent reader will be delighted to understand. It may be remembered that there was an ancient feud between Prince Beelzebub and the keeper of the Wicket-Gate, and that the adherents of the former distinguished personage were accustomed to shoot deadly arrows at honest pilgrims, while knocking at the door.

This dispute, much to the credit as well of the illustrious potentate above-mentioned, as of the worthy and enlightened Directors of the rail-road, has been pacifically arranged, on the principle of mutual compromise. The Prince's subjects are now pretty numerously employed about the Station House, some in taking care of the baggage, others in collecting fuel, feeding the engines, and such congenial occupations; and I can conscientiously affirm, that persons more attentive to their business, more willing to accommodate, or more generally agreeable to the passengers, are not to be found on any rail-road. Every good heart must surely exult at so satisfactory an arrangement of an immemorial difficulty.

"Where is Mr. Greatheart? Beyond a doubt the Directors have engaged that famous old champion to be chief conductor on the rail-road?" I asked.

"Why no," said Mr. Smooth-it-away, with a dry cough. "He was offered the situation of brake-man; but, to tell you the truth, our friend Greatheart has grown preposterously stiff and narrow in his old age. He has so often guided pilgrims over the road, on foot that he considers it a sin to travel in any other fashion. Besides the old fellow had entered so heartily into the ancient feud with Prince Beelzebub that he would have been perpetually at blows or ill language with some of the Prince's subjects, and thus have embroiled us anew. So on the whole, we were not sorry when honest Greatheart went off to the Celestial City in a huff and left us at liberty to choose a more suitable and accommodating man. Yonder comes the conductor of the train. You will probably recognize him at once."

The engine at this moment took its station in advance of the cars, looking, I must confess much more like a sort of mechanical demon that would hurry us to the infernal regions, than a laudable contrivance for smoothing our way to the Celestial City. On its top sat a personage almost enveloped in smoke and flame, which - not to startle the reader - appeared to gush from his own mouth and stomach, as well as from the engine's brazen abdomen.

"Do my eyes deceive me?" I cried. "What on earth is this! A living creature, if so he is own brother to the engine he rides upon!"

"Poh, poh; you are obtuse!" said Mr. Smooth-it-away with a hearty laugh. "Don't you know Apollyon, Christian's old enemy, with whom he fought so fierce a battle in the Valley of Humiliation? He was the very fellow to manage the engine; and so we have reconciled him to the custom of going on pilgrimage, and engaged him as chief conductor."

"Bravo, bravo!" I exclaimed with irrepressible enthusiasm, "This shows the liberality of the age; this proves, if anything can that all musty prejudices are in a fair way to be obliterated. And how will Christian rejoice to hear of this happy transformation of his old antagonist! I promise myself great pleasure in informing him of it, when we reach the Celestial City."

The passengers being all comfortably seated, we now rattled away merrily, accomplishing a greater distance in ten minutes than Christian probably trudged over in a day. It was laughable while we glanced along, as it were, at the tail of a thunderbolt, to observe two dusty foot-travellers, in the old pilgrim-guise with cockle-shell and staff, their mystic rolls of parchment in their hands, and their intolerable burdens on their backs. The preposterous obstinacy of these honest people, in persisting to groan and stumble along the difficult pathway, rather than take advantage of modern improvements like our train, excited great mirth among our wiser brotherhood. We greeted the two pilgrims with many pleasant gibes and a roar of laughter; whereupon they gazed at us with such woeful and absurdly compassionate visages that our merriment grew tenfold more obstreperous. Apollyon, also, entered heartily into the fun and contrived to flirt the smoke and flame of the engine, or of his own breath, into their faces and envelope them in an atmosphere of scalding steam. These little practical jokes amused us mightily and doubtless afforded the pilgrims the gratification of considering themselves martyrs.

At some distance from the rail-road, Mr. Smooth-it-away pointed to a large, antique edifice which, he observed, was a tavern of long standing, and had formerly been a noted stopping-place for pilgrims. In Bunyan's road-book it is mentioned as the Interpreter's House.

"I have long had a curiosity to visit that old mansion," I remarked.

"It is not one of our stations, as you perceive," said my companion. "The keeper was violently opposed to the rail-road; and well he might be, as the track left his house of entertainment on one side, and thus was pretty certain to deprive him of all his reputable customers. But the footpath still passes his door; and the old gentleman now and then receives a call from some simple traveller and entertains him with fare as old-fashioned as himself."

Before our talk on this subject came to a conclusion, we were rushing by the place where Christian's burden fell from his shoulders at the sight of the Cross. This served as a theme for Mr. Smooth-it-away, Mr. Live-for-the-world, Mr. Hide-sin-in-the-heart, Mr. Scaly Conscience, and a knot of gentlemen from the town of Shun Repentance, to descant upon the inestimable advantages resulting from the safety of our baggage.

Myself, and all the passengers indeed, joined with great unanimity in this view of the matter; for our burdens were rich in many things esteemed precious throughout the world; and especially, we each of us possessed a great variety of favourite Habits, which we trusted would not be out of fashion, even in the polite circles of the Celestial City. It would have been a sad spectacle to see such an assortment of valuable articles tumbling into the sepulchre.

Thus pleasantly conversing on the favourable circumstances of our position, as compared with those of past pilgrims, and of narrow-minded ones at the present day, we soon found ourselves at the foot of the Hill Difficulty. Through the very heart of this rocky mountain a tunnel has been constructed, of most admirable architecture with a lofty arch and a spacious double-track; so that, unless the earth and rocks should chance to crumble down, it will remain an eternal monument of the builder's skill and enterprise. It is a great though incidental advantage, that the materials from the heart of the Hill Difficulty have been employed in filling up the Valley of Humiliation; thus obviating the necessity of descending into that disagreeable and unwholesome hollow.

"This is a wonderful improvement indeed," said I. "Yet I should have been glad of an opportunity to visit the