Sunday, 17 January 2016

Why mega-church preachers give me the chills...

I always wonder, why am I uncomfortable with mega-church preachers like Joseph Prince and Kong Hee? Why do I have an aversion towards them? Well, the latter (Kong Hee) speaks for himself after the recent conviction for misappropriation and dishonesty. But that said, it is not the conviction (and the pending appeal) that bugs me about Kong Hee. You see, we are human and will inevitably fall or make mistakes. That’s clearly understandable and pardonable. I am okay with that.

But it is his refusal to face facts and submit to authority (contrary to what Jesus said about rendering to Caesar) that is just incomprehensible to me. Kong Hee actually gives me the impression that everyone else (who persecutes him and his wife) is wrong except him, his wife and his apologetic god. Sadly, his is a tone-deaf world of self-denial that makes his desperate ordination of his wife to lead City Harvest Church (CHC) a truly mind-boggling show of defiance and impenitence.

My sincerest wish for the couple? Let’s hope that they will come to their senses soon because I have no doubt that CHC is a vibrant church with a heart for God. And they as a corporate body deserve better leadership, especially self-examining leaders. That is, not leaders who want to crossover to save a lost world for God with all that secular disguises, hype and ballyhoo. But instead, leaders who earnestly desire to live up to the simple principles of honesty, integrity and humility in the quietude of the Spirit. For isn’t it true that the greatest act of salvation is not about going out into the world to preach the gospel, but it is about confronting the darkened world within us and transform it for God?

Then, we have our local preacher Joseph Prince. He is leading the largest congregation in Singapore and possibly Asia. At this point, he should in fact be congratulated. His exposition of radical grace is world renown. His books are selling fast like hot cakes. One friend of mine is even urging me to attend his service – at least once – and he believes I will be convinced of the authenticity of his message.

To be fair, Joseph Prince is definitely a dynamic, charismatic and knowledgeable speaker. His message of radical grace is a great antidote for those who are still battling with the pretenses of legalism that condemns oneself more than it empowers. But as a matter of personal taste and preference, I have to admit to this inherent discomfiture or reservation towards Joseph Prince and his grace revolution. Maybe it’s just me. It’s just one of my annoying idiosyncrasies.

But still, there are two things about Joseph Prince that somehow bother me. The first thing is his visibility and Joseph Prince is the rave nowadays. Whether we admit it or not, Joseph Prince has transformed himself into a celebrity-like personality and household name. He (and many others like Joel Osteen, TD Jakes and Joel Osteen) have turned themselves into commercial brands with books’ rights, online catalogues, speaking engagements, television ministry, and broadcasting network to boot. You can’t get anymore visible than that. I guess if God is sovereignly omnipresent, then Joseph Prince is unnervingly ubiquitous.

Although I do not know whether this is somewhat deliberate or by subtle design, you just can’t mentally disassociate the name “Joseph Prince” from the doctrine of radical grace. It is therefore quite ironic that when we talk about Jesus, that which comes to mind is Calvary. But when we talk about radical grace, the image that comes to mind – at least for me - is Joseph Prince. And that is the problem when you put personal visibility too close to congregational humanity in the context of religion. The former’s influence over the latter cannot be underestimated. 

Sometimes, the vessel of God runs the risk of becoming the object of indirect, unconscious worship or adulation. The danger of that is the risk of the cult of personality. Of course, the mega-church preacher would be quick to disclaim or deny that. But it is something he just can’t help it the moment he markets himself, his name, his face and his ministry on book covers, on screens and on social media platforms.

The issue I have with visibility is that I suspect Joseph Prince is making God visible to his congregation by making himself visible too. It is for me a case of competing visibility. While I can trust mature believers in his church to be able to discern between the two forms of visibility, there is still a risk that others may muddle the two (or treat them interchangeably, most unconsciously).

Personally, the hallmark of humility is to lift God’s name above all name and the safest way to do that – without running the risk of the cult of personality – is to make God visible by making oneself gradually invisible. This is for me a case of subservient invisibility. Unfortunately, this is not the impression I get from Joseph Prince and his international ministry.

In John 3:30, there is a verse that reads, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” But with Joseph Prince (and the other megachurch prosperity preachers), I somehow feel that both are increasing at the same pace and at the same time. As such, you just have to ask yourself these questions and I think you will get my drift: Can NCC exist without Joseph Prince? Will the attendance for a Sunday fall over the long run if Joseph Prince takes a long Sabbatical? And if Joseph Prince would to leave and start another church, how many of the congregation will follow him?

The issue I have with Joseph Prince is that there is no doubt he is exalting the name of the Lord through his Sunday sermons, yet at the same time, through his marketing strategies with his trademark beaming smiles all over his books and media products, he is strangely also going for maximum personal exposure. So, to an observing bystander, he is left undecided as to whether the church is growing because of his popularity or notwithstanding it. Alas, at times, you just can’t distinguish the “JP” trees from the “Jehovah” forest.

The second thing about Joseph Prince is that he seems to have all the answers to life’s problems. There is nothing that he doesn't know about what God has planned for us. His presuppositions about God’s divine intent and actions over our life unnerves me. For him, the cure for the bane of human existence like poverty, sickness, indebtedness, depression, unhappiness and hopelessness are readily reducible to neat one-size-fits-all pulpit prescriptions. All the believer needs to do is to proclaim, declare, appropriate, have faith, trust and obey under the banner of radical grace. His superficial sweep of things makes a mockery of the genuine struggles of a sincere believer trying his darnest best to appropriate what he preaches over the pulpit with what he is personally experiencing at home, in his workplace or in a spirit-sapping trial.

At times, it takes much more than just a magical wave of the oral wane of belief to see a breakthrough in one’s life. At other times, radical grace just doesn’t work the way Joseph Prince has made it out to work, that is, sickness still remains after prayers, poverty is not eradicated, depression is not lifted, and hopelessness still persists. These are raw realities of a congregant’s life that Joseph Prince tends to gloss over or conveniently sweeps under the you-have-not-believe/trust/obey-enough rug.   

At the risk of oversimplification, radical grace gives the impression that God only has eyes for us, He can’t wait to give us what we want, He wants to bless us with prosperity unconditionally, He wants us to live a life without sickness or much struggles, and if we ask big, he will give big. So, stripped of all pretenses, it is really all about us and what God can do for us. Period.

Let me end with this thought. I believe faith is sometimes not about finding a solution for everything. Not everything therefore can be solved the way Joseph Prince wants it to be solved. The point here is not to make faith easy for us in this world, but it is to make our faith tough and resilient against the world. To me, Joseph Prince is not just preaching about a perfect God. He goes further to market the idea that we can live in an almost perfect world free from all issues of life that once shadowed the apostles if we only name it and claim it. This is misleading, but it is no less endearing and popular - and I can therefore understand his runaway popularity as a result. Cheerz.

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