Sunday, 4 March 2018

What prosperity preachers can learn from Billy Graham.

J Lee Grady, the contributing editor of Charisma magazine, recently wrote an article about the late Billy Graham. 

It enjoyed wild circulation online because of its clear, simple and effective content. It's about leadership, about the church, and I dare say about the world.

Billy Graham's ministry was premised on a prayer in 1948 (amongst many pivoting petitions), in a tiny motel in Modesto, California - according to Grady.

On that day, he gathered key leaders to pray and "the results of that meeting were profoundly prophetic."

Grady wrote that "the men outlined what would become "the Modesto Manifesto"—a list of core ministry values that became the guiding principles of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. The BGEA was founded two years later, in 1950, just one year after media coverage of Graham's eight-week gospel campaign in Los Angeles made him a household word."

One attendee, Cliff Barrows, jotted down the key points in the meeting, and in the article, Grady spelt them out as follows: -

"Honesty: "It was resolved that all communications to media and to the church would not be inflated or exaggerated. The size of crowds and the number of inquirers would not be embellished for the sake of making BGEA look better."

Integrity: "It was resolved that financial matters would be submitted to a board of directors for review and facilitation of expenditures. Every local crusade would maintain a policy of 'open books' and publish a record of where and how monies were spent."

Purity: "It was resolved that members of the team would pay close attention to avoiding temptation—never being alone with another woman, remaining accountable to one another, etc. A practice of keeping wives informed of their activities on the road and helping them feel a part of any and all crusades they undertook would be encouraged."

Humility: "It was resolved that members of the team were never to speak badly of another Christian minister, regardless of his denominational affiliation or differing theological views and practices. The mission of evangelism includes strengthening the body of Christ as well as building it!""

Here comes my commentary...

To be honest, I would be naive (or gullible) to think even for a moment that we have found the holy grail of evangelistic success based on those guiding principles.

What are words good for if not backed by a lifetime of deeds?

Now tell me, which megachurch ministry doesn't have those basic principles, or at the least, implied them in their mission statement or manifesto?

In fact, the challenge is this - if you happen to read any of their mission statement, and if none of them carry all or most of those guiding principles, explicitly or otherwise, then it's not a church my friend, it is a religious Mafioso; where the executive head draws all men (and women) unto himself and no one else.

As such, I have no delusion about words on paper. They are no doubt a good and stable railing (hand guard) to hold when you are trekking the terrain of moral darkness.

But we know it is not so much the railing that makes the enduring difference. It is the hand that holds on to it against all temptations to stray that truly counts and will eventually overcome.

For completing the race or fighting the good fight is like wrestling a gorilla. You don't stop when you are tired, jaded, disillusioned, disappointed, embarrassed, rejected or hurt.

You stop only when you have KO'ed the gorilla for good. And that takes a lifetime to accomplish because good character is not built up in a day; it is sharpened through the decades. 

So, let's go back to the Modesto Manifesto, in particular, honesty and integrity.

Has the modern megachurch leader lived up to them?

While the CHC saga is an easy target here (because they have were been convicted beyond a reasonable doubt) and that horse has been admittedly flogged to pieces by the media due to the incomprehensible vehemence of the convicted leadership, I think there is an equal, if not more insidious, deception of church leadership we often overlook because it is mostly not criminal in nature.

This deception takes after the Latin phrase - "suppressio veri, suggestio falsi,” which translates to this – “the suppression of the truth is equivalent to the suggestion of what is false”. 

Here is what I mean...

When it comes to money, some megachurches thrive on the collection. This collection like floodgates is mostly centered on one drive: Expectation. It is an expectation of personal prosperity, that is, give and it will be given unto you, a good measure, press down, shaken together...I'm sure you are familiar with the scriptural tagline.

It is therefore mainly a form of derivative faith where the promise of blessings becomes a hallmark of believing and this transfixed believing brings about an unwaveringly anticipation of the elevation of one's material status in name, fame and riches. 

These megachurches' leaders are gifted in the language of modern culture.  

One business lecturer, who studied from a secular angle the marketing strategies of megachurches, came up with this observation:-

"Market-friendly ideologies associated with individualism and self-empowerment are often blended with selective Christian theologies to emphasize positive living and blessings, while deflecting overtly negative Christian doctrines such as suffering, judgment, sacrifice, hell or death from sin. Their church services are scripted and "produced" with deliberate use of contemporary music, sound and lighting."" (Jeaney Yip). 

Although it seems unfair to look at it from that strictly business angle, because there are more to it than that, that is, the transforming power of the gospel, I can't as a Christian with decades of megachurch background, disregard completely her assessment. There is still some truth to it if you keep an open mind about it.

So, the unfortunate reality is, in that "scripted" and "produced" context, the tendency is to dish out scriptural promises one after another and see the money comes pouring in. In other words, they sow words that tend to make striking the prosperity lottery an everyday occurrence for the desperate hopeful. 

Alas, the difference between the national lottery and some megachurch collection is that in the former, you never know who will strike the big one at every announcement. The odds are stacked against everyone.

But for the megachurches, you know the one who holds the winning numbers (so to speak) is always the leadership, which holds total rein over the money heap. Hence, you can say that the one who brings good news brings even better news for himself 

(My god, the redundancy rate for the idle funds are beyond comprehension as they keep pouring in beyond what any wise counsel in church knows what to do with them).

Here is how it went so biblically for one megachurch many years back.

In one of the collection drives to raise funds for its church's half of S$976m retail and entertainment complex, Joseph Prince bedazzled the 22,272 attendees with this embellished gospel tagline: -

"As they come forth Lord to sow, release upon them Father the power to get, to create, to receive wealth in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ." (I call this the "or-your-money-back" petition).

He also added: "Prosperity is right. Amen. We prosper to prosper others. We prosper to prosper God's kingdom, so come believing."

Well, I can't say that prosperity is wrong. Blessings are real from God. They are part of His promises. Admittedly, Joseph Prince has got a point there.

But the glittering carrot that Joseph Prince hangs over the expecting crowd is not the gospel that spoke the whole truth about prosperity. I guess the occasion (raising funds) requires one to frontload everything about prosperity and leave that which is a financial wet blanket out of the way right? Maybe….maybe not.

Mind you, the Rich Young Ruler walked away from Jesus not because he cannot serve God with his wealth. It is because he can't imagine himself serving God without his wealth. God alone is thus not sufficient for him.

That is what makes it disconcerting when a megachurch preacher resorts to what is quite indistinguishable from cutting a deal with his congregation by challenging them to give generously so that God would give them back manifold. The biblical cheerful giver is now spurred on by the profit motive.

(Honestly, wouldn't it be more honest to just tell them as it is, that is, convey the need in earnest, without swinging the golden carrot over the congregant's head as if God is all ready with his pen in one hand to issue out blank cheques? Truly, here, you can witness for yourself the difference between how a mainstream church asks for funds and how a megachurch does it. The latter's tactics is without a doubt unparalleled in ostentatiousness, self-confidence and charismatic exuberance).

Alas, this makes prosperity more of a trap to a lot of believers than a springboard to maturity in the faith.

In fact, if you harken to the words of the renowned theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, you ought to give pause for more reflection about the numbing effect of the prosperity gospel.

This is what he said:-

"Why (the churches in the West) are dying seems very simple. It is hard to be a disciple and be rich. Surely, we may think it cannot be that simple, but Jesus certainly seems to think that it is that simple. The lure of wealth and the cares of the world produced by wealth quite simply darken and choke our imaginations. As a result, the church falls prey to the deepest enemy of the gospel - serf mentality. The gospel becomes a formula for "giving our lives meaning" without judgment.""

The gospel therefore becomes a means to an end in this money-heaping exercise. While Jesus rejected the kingdom of this world, riches and all, knowing full well its corrupting influences, the cultural edifice of wealth today tempts every church leader to accept with open arms the kingdom of this world.

Sadly, some gave in - even unknowingly - because they can't imagine themselves serving God without their accumulated wealth. God, stripped of the wealth and reputation, is just one egg short of a dozen?

What's worse is that in giving in quite unknowingly, the preacher brings with him the gathering masses to this catatonic state of blissful unawareness.

So, when the whole truth is suppressed under the guise of a blank-cheque prosperity, it inevitably exposes the lies one is trying in vain to cover up behind the glittering pulpit. 

All this applies with equal force, if not urgency, to Billy Graham's other guiding principles like purity and humility in the Modesto Manifesto. The principles on paper are no doubt foundational cornerstone for living and leading an overcoming Christ-like life.

But cornerstone or not, the builders build the house by their hands and not by their mouth. The words on paper only come alive if the life follows them through, every word in the order it appears, up to the end of the line and life. In other words, it is the conscious, committed and covenantal effort that see to it that the house is eventually built from ground up that matters most.

It is only when the builder takes short cuts, walks the broad glittering way, compromises on the whole truth, and enriches himself with under-table gifts that his foundation crumbles the moment it is put to the test. 

This is where pastors fall, cross the line, tempt fate, and start to believe in their own invulnerability.

Let me end with the concluding words of J Lee Grady:-

"So much of what we call ministry today has been compromised by ego, marketing and man-made agendas. Some of our own "Spirit-filled" preachers are happy to sell a healing or a financial miracle for $29.95. Others claim spiritual superiority because they have the largest following on social media or because so many lined up to attend their packed conferences.

We have exchanged honesty, integrity, purity and humility for hype, fake anointing, manipulated photos, inflated attendance reports, sensuality and boastful swagger. God forgive us.

Billy Graham raised the bar for all ministers. I pray we will never forget his legacy." Amen. Cheerz.

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