Sunday, November 28, 2010

Church Gone Wild

When a young pastor challenged his megachurch to abandon all for Jesus, few expected such a radical response

David Platt became one of the youngest megachurch pastors in history when in 2006, at the age of 28, he was appointed to lead The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama.

Yet just as remarkable is how his church of more than 4,000 responded to his challenge over a series of weekend services to take Jesus’ words at face value and abandon all for Him.

The result? Families (including Platt’s) downsized their living spaces, simplified their lifestyle and gave away profits to the poor. Business owners sold their companies to aid global and local mission work. Dormant believers became activated to launch ministries. And the church radically made over its budget to do more with less so it could invest more in local and global ministries.

This year, Brook Hills embarked on a one-year commitment called “The Radical Experiment” which includes dozens of short-term mission trips around the world to allow people a different context of service. “If we’re not careful, if I’m not careful, we can start to think the world looks like Birmingham,” Platt says.

Calling All Radicals

What radical abandonment to Jesus really means?

Twenty leaders from different churches in the area sat on the floor with their Bibles open. They had gathered in secret and intentionally arrived at different times to not draw attention to their meeting. They lived in a country in Asia where it is illegal for them to gather like this. If caught, they could lose their land, their jobs, their families or their lives.

“Some of the people in my church have been pulled away by a cult,” said one man sitting in a corner. The cult he referred to is known for kidnapping and torturing believers. Brothers and sisters having their tongues cut out of their mouths is not uncommon. As he shared about the dangers his church members were facing, tears welled up in his eyes. “I am hurting,” he said, “and I need God’s grace to lead my church through these attacks.”

A woman on the other side of the room spoke up next: “Some of the members in my church were recently confronted by government officials. They threatened their families, saying that if they did not stop gathering to study the Bible, they were going to lose everything they had.” She asked for prayer, saying, “I need to know how to lead my church to follow Christ even when it costs them everything.”

As I looked around the room, I saw that everyone was now in tears. The struggles expressed by this brother and sister weren’t isolated.

They went to their knees, and with their faces on the ground, began to cry out to God not with grandiose theological language but heartfelt praise and pleading: “O God, thank You for loving us.” “O God, we need You.” “Jesus, we give our lives to You and for You.” “Jesus, we trust in You.”

They audibly wept before God as one leader after another prayed. After an hour, the room drew to a silence, and they rose from the floor, leaving behind puddles of tears in a circle around the room.

A Different Scene
Three weeks after my third trip to underground house churches in Asia, I began my first Sunday as the pastor of a megachurch in America. The scene was much different. Dimly lit rooms were now replaced by an auditorium with theater-style lights. Instead of traveling for miles by foot or bike to gather for worship, we’d arrived in millions of dollars’ worth of vehicles. Dressed in our fine clothes, we sat down in our cushioned chairs.

To be honest, there wasn’t much at stake. Many had come out of normal routine. Some had come simply to check out the new pastor. But none had come at the risk of their lives.

Please don’t misunderstand this scene. It was filled with wonderful Christians who wanted to welcome me and enjoy one another. People like you and me, who simply desire community, who want to be involved in church and who believe God is important in their lives. But as a new pastor comparing the images around me that day with the pictures still fresh in my mind of brothers and sisters on the other side of the world, I couldn’t help but think that somewhere along the way we’d missed what is radical about our faith and replaced it with what is comfortable. We were settling for a Christianity that revolves around catering to ourselves when the central message of Christianity is actually about abandoning ourselves.

Don’t Follow Me Unless ...
Luke 9 tells the story of three men who approached Jesus, eager to follow Him. Yet in surprising fashion, Jesus seems to have tried to talk them out of doing so. The first guy said, “I will follow You wherever You go.”

Jesus responded, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.” In other words, Jesus told this man that he could expect homelessness on the journey ahead.

The second man told Jesus that his father had just died. The man wanted to go back, bury his father and then follow Jesus. “Let the dead bury their own dead,” Jesus said, “but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Having lost my own father unexpectedly, I can’t imagine hearing Jesus say the words: “Don’t even go to your dad’s funeral. There are more important things to do.”

A third man approached Jesus and told Him that he wanted to follow Him, but before he did, he wanted to say goodbye to his family. Jesus wouldn’t let him: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” Plainly put, a relationship with Jesus requires total, superior and exclusive devotion. Become homeless. Let someone else bury your dad. Don’t even say goodbye to your family. Is it any surprise that, from all we can tell in Luke 9, Jesus persuaded these men not to follow Him?

What About Us?
What if you were the man whom Jesus told to not even say goodbye to his family? What if we were told to hate our families and give up everything we had in order to follow Jesus?

This is where we come face to face with a dangerous reality. We do have to give up everything we have to follow Jesus. We do have to love Him in a way that makes our closest relationships in this world look like hate. And it is entirely possible that He will tell us to sell everything we have and give it to the poor.

But we don’t want to believe it. We’re afraid of what it might mean for our lives. So we rationalize these passages away. “Jesus wouldn’t really tell us not to bury our father or say goodbye to our family. Jesus didn’t literally mean to sell all we have and give it to the poor. What Jesus really meant was ...”

And this is where we need to pause. Because we’re starting to redefine Christianity. We’re taking the Jesus of the Bible and molding Him into our image—a nice, middle-class, American Jesus. A Jesus who doesn’t mind materialism and who’d never call us to give away all we have. A Jesus who wouldn’t expect us to forsake our closest relationships so that He receives all our affection. A Jesus who is fine with nominal devotion that doesn’t infringe on our comforts, because, after all, He loves us just the way we are. A Jesus who wants us to be balanced, who wants us to avoid dangerous extremes, and who, for that matter, wants us to avoid danger altogether. A Jesus who brings us comfort and prosperity as we live out our Christian spin on the American dream.

The Cost of Nondiscipleship
In The Cost of Discipleship, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that the first call every Christian experiences is “the call to abandon the attachments of this world.” The theme of his classic book is summarized in one potent sentence: “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.”

Based on what we’ve heard from Jesus in the Gospels, we’d have to agree that the cost of discipleship is great. But I wonder if the cost of nondiscipleship is even greater.

A few months before becoming a pastor, I stood atop a mountain in the heart of Hyderabad, India. This high point in the city housed a temple for Hindu gods. I smelled the offerings that had been given to the wooden gods behind me. I saw teeming masses in front of me. Every direction I turned, I glimpsed an urban center filled with millions upon millions of people.

And then it hit me. The overwhelming majority of these people had never even heard the gospel. They offer religious sacrifices day in and day out because no one has ever told them that, in Christ, the final sacrifice has already been offered on their behalf. As a result they live without Christ, and if nothing changes, they’ll die without Him as well.

As I stood on that mountain, God gripped my heart and flooded my mind with two resounding words: “Wake up.” Wake up and realize that there are infinitely more important things in your life than football and a 401(k). Wake up and realize there are real battles to be fought, so different from the superficial, meaningless “battles” you focus on. Wake up to the countless multitudes who are currently destined for a Christless eternity.

The price of our nondiscipleship is high for those without Christ. It is high also for the poor of this world.

Consider the cost when Christians ignore Jesus’ commands to sell their possessions and give to the poor and instead choose to spend their resources on better comforts, larger homes, nicer cars and more stuff. Consider the cost when these Christians gather in churches and choose to spend millions of dollars on nice buildings to drive up to, cushioned chairs to sit in, and endless programs to enjoy for themselves. Consider the cost for the starving multitudes who sit outside the gate of contemporary Christian affluence.

Where have we gone wrong? How did we get to the place where this is actually tolerable?
Indeed, the cost of nondiscipleship is great. The cost of believers not taking Jesus seriously is vast for those who don’t know Christ and devastating for those who are starving and suffering around the world. But the cost of nondiscipleship is not paid solely by them. It is paid by us as well.

Consider Mark 10, another time when a potential follower showed up only to hear Jesus challenge him with the seemingly impossible: “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.”

Did you catch the second half of Jesus’ invitation? If we’re not careful, we can misconstrue these radical statements from Jesus in the Gospels and begin to think that He doesn’t want the best for us. But He does. Jesus wasn’t trying to strip this man of all his pleasure. Instead He was offering him the satisfaction of eternal treasure. Jesus was saying, “It will be better, not just for the poor, but for you too, when you abandon the stuff you are holding on to.”

This is the picture of Jesus in the gospel. He is something—someone—worth losing everything for. And if we walk away from the Jesus of the gospel, we walk away from eternal riches.

The cost of nondiscipleship is profoundly greater for us than the cost of discipleship. For when we abandon the trinkets of this world and respond to the radical invitation of Jesus, we discover the infinite treasure of knowing and experiencing Him.

David Platt is thePastor of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Why I Believe In Jesus

Shamitha "Sam" Yapa

I didn't always feel that way.

I came to the United States to attend a small state college.

I planned to go on to medical school. My first year of college was perfect. I was getting great grades, and I had a girlfriend and lots of friends. And I was quick to point out to people that I had all of this without relying on anyone but me.

I knew plenty of Christians. In fact, I read the Bible often, just so I could argue with Christians. I wanted to know what they believed so I could break down their reasons for believing. For example, my biophysics professor was a Christian. He would tell me about the miracles in his life, the ways he supposedly saw God's work in the world. But I thought he was way off. I'd argue with him, and try to convince him he was foolish to believe in Jesus. His faith was a joke to me.

It didn't take long for God to change my mind. During my junior year of college, everything in my world started to fall apart. My girlfriend broke up with me, I ran out of money and I had to drop out of school. So much for having it made. I thought about going back to my family in Sri Lanka, but I didn't want to face them when I'd failed so miserably.

One night, I sat in the college library, trying to come up with ways to get out of my situation. The only solution that seemed "reasonable" was suicide. But as I sat there thinking of the best way to kill myself, I heard a voice say, "Have you ever asked me for help?" I looked around and couldn't see anyone. I thought I was going crazy. Then I heard the voice say, "I'm Jesus, and I'm right here next to you."

I know this sounds strange. Believe me, I was pretty freaked out by it, too. But I honestly heard Jesus talking to me. As I listened, I felt something I'd never experienced before.

I felt filled up, not hollow and empty. I knew that what was happening to me was real.

I wanted to talk to someone, but I didn't know who. Suddenly I felt God urging me to go see my biophysics professor. That's right, the same guy I'd been arguing with all year.

I walked across campus to the science building and found him working in his office. As I walked in, he said, "I'm so glad you're here. God has put you on my heart and I've been hoping you'd come and talk to me." We talked a long time. I told him how empty my life had become.

I told him what I'd experienced in the library. As he talked to me about Jesus' power to change lives, I knew I was ready to follow Jesus. He prayed with me. That was the day I became a Christian.

After that, things started to change. God provided just what I needed, like a rent-free place to stay. But it wasn't just my situation, it was my heart that was really changing.

I wasn't worried about the future because I knew the Lord was in control, not me.

The people around me saw the changes too. Before I became a Christian, I was arrogant, selfish and manipulative. I had done things to intentionally turn people away from their Christian faith. But after my conversion, I felt humbled by God's power to change me. I wanted people to see Jesus in my life, not me or my accomplishments. I was almost grateful for my struggles, because I knew God was using them to keep me humble and focused on him. I wanted people to think, "Hey, if God can change the life of someone like Sam, I wonder what he can do in my life."

Even when things in my life are hard, I know God is with me. I feel his presence through the people at my church who pray for me and support me. I see him in the Christian friends he's given me. I try to serve him by counseling at a Bible camp in the summers. And I still hear his voice through his Word and through his answers to my prayers.

So why do I believe in Jesus? Because he's real. That night in the library, when I hit the bottom, my New Age thinking didn't help me. Buddha wasn't there for me.

It was Jesus who saved me.

Copyright © 1997 by the author or Christianity Today International/Campus Life magazine.

Friday, November 26, 2010

A Statement On Prosperity Teaching - From the Lausanne Theology Working Group, Africa Chapter

We define prosperity gospel as the teaching that believers have a right to the blessings of health and wealth and that they can obtain these blessings through positive confessions of faith and the "sowing of seeds" through the faithful payments of tithes and offerings. We recognize that prosperity teaching is a phenomenon that cuts across denominational barriers. Prosperity teaching can be found in varying degrees in mainstream Protestant, Pentecostal as well as Charismatic Churches. It is the phenomenon of prosperity teaching that is being addressed here not any particular denomination or tradition.

We further recognize that there are some dimensions of prosperity teaching that have roots in the Bible, and we affirm such elements of truth below. We do not wish to be exclusively negative, and we recognize the appalling social realities within which this teaching flourishes and the measure of hope it holds out to desperate people. However, while acknowledging such positive features, it is our overall view that the teachings of those who most vigorously promote the 'prosperity gospel' are false and gravely distorting of the Bible, that their practice is often unethical and unChristlike, and that the impact on many churches is pastorally damaging, spiritually unhealthy, and not only offers no lasting hope, but may even deflect people from the message and means of eternal salvation. In such dimensions, it can be soberly described as a false gospel.

We call for further reflection on these matters within the Christian Church, and request the Lausanne movement to be willing to make a very clear statement rejecting the excesses of prosperity teaching as incompatible with evangelical biblical Christianity.

1. We affirm the miraculous grace and power of God, and welcome the growth of churches and ministries that demonstrate them and that lead people to exercise expectant faith in the living God and his supernatural power. We believe in the power of the Holy Spirit.

However, we reject as unbiblical the notion that God's miraculous power can be treated as automatic, or at the disposal of human techniques, or manipulated by human words, actions or rituals.

2. We affirm that there is a biblical vision of human prospering, and that the Bible includes material welfare (both health and wealth) within its teaching about the blessing of God. This needs further study and explanation across the whole Bible in both Testaments. We must not dichotomize the material and the spiritual in unbiblical dualism.

However, we reject the unbiblical notion that spiritual welfare can be measured in terms of material welfare, or that wealth is always a sign of God's blessing (since it can be obtained by oppression, deceit or corruption), or that poverty or illness or early death, is always a sign of God's curse, or lack of faith, or human curses (since the Bible explicitly denies that it is always so)

3. We affirm the biblical teaching on the importance of hard work, and the positive use of all the resources that God has given us—abilities, gifts, the earth, education, wisdom, skills, wealth, etc. And to the extent that some Prosperity teaching encourages these things, it can have a positive effect on people's lives. We do not believe in an unbiblical ascetism that rejects such things, or an unbiblical fatalism that sees poverty as a fate that cannot be fought against.

However, we reject as dangerously contradictory to the sovereign grace of God, the notion that success in life is entirely due to our own striving, wrestling, negotiation, or cleverness. We reject those elements of Prosperity Teaching that are virtually identical to 'positive thinking' and other kinds of 'self-help' techniques.

We are also grieved to observe that Prosperity Teaching has stressed individual wealth and success, without the need for community accountability, and has thus actually damaged a traditional feature of African society, which was commitment to care within the extended family and wider social community.

4. We recognize that Prosperity Teaching flourishes in contexts of terrible poverty, and that for many people, it presents their only hope, in the face of constant frustration, the failure of politicians and NGOs, etc., for a better future, or even for a more bearable present. We are angry that such poverty persists and we affirm the Bible's view that it also angers God and that it is not his will that people should live in abject poverty. We acknowledge and confess that in many situations the Church has lost its prophetic voice in the public arena.

However, we do not believe that Prosperity Teaching provides a helpful or biblical response to the poverty of the people among whom it flourishes. And we observe that much of this teaching has come from North American sources where people are not materially poor in the same way.
  • It vastly enriches those who preach it, but leaves multitudes no better off than before, with the added burden of disappointed hopes.

  • While emphasizing various alleged spiritual or demonic causes of poverty, it gives little or no attention to those causes that are economic and political, including injustice, exploitation, unfair international trade practices, etc.

  • It thus tends to victimize the poor by making them feel that their poverty is their own fault (which the Bible does not do), while failing to address and denounce those whose greed inflicts poverty on others (which the Bible does repeatedly).

  • Some prosperity teaching is not really about helping the poor at all, and provides no sustainable answer to the real causes of poverty.

5. We accept that some prosperity teachers sincerely seek to use the Bible in explaining and promoting their teachings.

However, we are distressed that much use of the Bible is seriously distorted, selective, and manipulative. We call for a more careful exegesis of texts, and a more holistic biblical hermeneutic, and we denounce the way that many texts are twisted out of context and used in ways that contradict some very plain Bible teaching.

And especially, we deplore the fact that in many churches where Prosperity Teaching is dominant, the Bible is rarely preached in any careful or explanatory way, and the way of salvation, including repentance from sin and saving faith in Christ for forgiveness of sin, and the hope of eternal life, is misrepresented and substituted with material wellbeing.

6. We rejoice in the phenomenal growth of the numbers of professing Christians in many countries where churches that have adopted prosperity teachings and practice are very popular.

However, numerical growth or mega-statistics may not necessarily demonstrate the truth of the message that accompanies it, or the belief system behind it. Popularity is no proof of truth; and people can be deceived in great numbers.

7. We are pleased to observe that many churches and leaders are critical and in some cases overtly renounce and cut the links with specific aspects of African primal or traditional religion and its practices, where these can be seen to be in conflict with the biblical revelation and worldview.

Yet it seems clear that there are many aspects of Prosperity Teaching that have their roots in that soil. We therefore wonder if much popular Christianity is a syncretised super-structure on an underlying worldview that has not been radically transformed by the biblical gospel. We also wonder whether the popularity and attraction of Prosperity Teaching is an indication of the failure of contextualization of the Gospel in Africa.

8. We observe that many people testify to the way Prosperity Teaching has in fact impacted their lives for the better—encouraging them to have greater faith, to seek to improve their education, or working lives. We rejoice in this. There is great power in such testimony, and we thank God when any of his children enjoy his blessing.

However, we observe equally that many people have been duped by such teaching into false faith and false expectations, and when these are not satisfied, they 'give up on God', or lose their faith altogether and leave the church. This is tragic, and must be very grievous to God.

9. We accept that many prosperity teachers mostly have their roots in evangelical churches and traditions, or were brought up under the influence of evangelical parachurch ministries.

But we deplore the clear evidence that many of them have in practice moved away from key and fundamental tenets of evangelical faith, including the authority and priority of the Bible as the Word of God, and the centrality of the cross of Christ.

10. We know that God sometimes puts leaders in positions of significant public fame and influence.

However, there are aspects of the lifestyle and behaviour of many preachers of Prosperity Teaching that we find deplorable, unethical, and frankly idolatrous (to the god of Mammon), and in some of these respects we may be called upon to identify and reject such things as the marks of false prophets, according to the standards of the Bible. These include:
  • Flamboyant and excessive wealth and extravagant lifestyles.

  • Unethical and manipulative techniques.

  • Constant emphasis on money, as if it were a supreme good—which is mammon.

  • Replacing the traditional call to repentance and faith with a call to give money.

  • Covetousness which is idolatry.

  • Living and behaving in ways that are utterly inconsistent with either the example of Jesus or the pattern of discipleship that he taught.

  • Ignoring or contradicting the strong New Testament teaching on the dangers of wealth and the idolatrous sin of greed.

  • Failure to preach the word of God in a way that feeds the flock of Christ.

  • Failure to preach the whole gospel message of sin, repentance, faith and eternal hope.

  • Failure to preach the whole counsel of God, but replacing it with what people want to hear.

  • Replacing time for evangelism with fund raising events and appeals

Rev. Dr. Chris Wright (Chair, Lausanne Theology Working Group); edited by Rev. Dr. John Azumah (Member, Lausanne Theology Working Group); in collaboration with Rev. Prof. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu, Chair of the Akropong consultations.

From the Lausanne Theology Working Group, Africa chapter at its consultations in Akropong, Ghana, 8-9 October, 2008 and 1-4 September 2009

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Poverty and Thanksgiving: A Call to Righteous Love

Rev Peter Morales, President Unitarian Universalist Association

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. It calls forth the essential spiritual value of gratitude. I have precious memories of feasts shared with family and with good friends at congregational dinners. I eagerly anticipate this year's gathering.

Imagine inviting family and friends over for Thanksgiving dinner and feeding some of them a lavish feast and some of them scraps and leftovers. While some are served an overabundance of delicious food, others receive tiny portions of unappetizing leavings. Horrible thought!

Two apparently unrelated headlines caught my eye a few weeks ago as I surfed my usual news sites. I can't get them out of my mind. The first is a truly major development: The percentage of people living in poverty in the United States is the highest in half a century. One out of seven Americans lives in poverty.

The second headline was a mere tidbit in the business news. It said something to the effect that companies that make things no one really needs have done very well in this recession. Though apparently unrelated, the two items are, of course, intimately connected. The poor are getting poorer and their numbers are increasing while the rich are doing very well. They continue to buy high tech gadgets and luxury items.

These news items should have been a major religious story. At one level, the growing gap between rich and poor is an economic and political issue. But it is also a moral and, ultimately, a religious issue. There is a temptation to see economic relationships as the result of uncontrollable forces. As a matter of fact, allowing this widening gap between rich and poor is a choice -- a moral choice. And it is a moral choice with enormous spiritual consequences.

All of the great religious traditions teach us that we are connected to one another. Every human being is my brother or sister. Every faith teaches compassion, that those who love God express that by loving others. Every faith also teaches us that we become fully human in community.

Economic inequality pollutes human relationships the way smog pollutes our lungs. Just look at life where the gaps between rich and poor are greatest -- Latin America and Africa. And look back to when the gap was greatest in American history. These were times of slavery and robber barons.

I know from my years in parish ministry the financial strains that beset families. I have seen a member lose her home because of predatory lending practices and witnessed the devastation of a sudden illness. The Centers for Disease Control reports that in 2009 59.1 million Americans had no health insurance, and we know that catastrophic health expenses can plunge families into poverty. Why is it that the United States is the only country in the developed world without universal health insurance for its citizens? And why here, in the richest country in the world, did more than 1 million children go hungry in 2008, according to the Dept. of Agriculture? These are more than political issues; these are spiritual issues as well.

Inequality breeds fear, bitterness, suspicion, crime and violence. It eats away at the dignity and self esteem of the poor while it hardens the hearts of the rich. Inequality numbs our spirits. Ultimately it dehumanizes us. Ironically, social psychology shows us that our grandmothers were right: The rich are not happier.

The answer is not some romantic neo-Marxist notion of a perfect equality. But neither is it the uncontrolled and rapacious avarice that sacrifices people to profit margins and outrageous consumption.

The growing gap between rich and poor harms us all. We can choose a better way. Let us share the bounty of the earth. There is enough for everyone at the Thanksgiving table.