Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:21).
Fast Cars. Beach houses. Entourages. Money. Women. Fame. Church.
That’s a day in the life of “The Preachers of L.A.,” a new reality show centered on the lives of 6 megachurch pastors of the so-called “prosperity gospel” in Los Angeles. The show, on the Oxygen Network, is a chaotic mix of prayer, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, and neatly orchestrated dust-ups between senior pastors and their “first ladies.”
Men of the cloth cruise Southern California in lavish cars weighed down by their gold watches and tiny dogs.
As Ron Gibson, a bishop in the largest Pentecostal denomination in the country, explains: “P. Diddy, Jay Z. They’re not the only ones who should be driving Ferraris and living in nice houses.”
Clarence McClendon, said to be so good-looking that he must take out restraining orders on women in his church, concurs: “The Bible says that I wish above all things that you would prosper and be in health, even as your soul prospers. I believe that.” He says with a grin.
Many would argue that the show is more Kardashian than Christian. That these shepherds of the word are the epitome of everything wrong with religion, with church, with Christianity. And would they be wrong?
On the other side of the world from the Preachers of LA are Nicolai and Sergei, two brothers age 4 and 6 living in an apartment building in Russia. Nicolai and Sergei spend all of their time together. Their parents do everything they can to provide for them, which means in Russia that both parents have to work ten or twelve hours a day just to have enough to put a roof over their head and food on the table. One winter day Nicolai and Sergei were home alone, huddled up in the house trying to stay warm. Their coats weren’t warm enough for them to go outside and play, but the inside of the house wasn’t much better. They sat in the living room watching the stove fight against the bitter winter to keep going. After sitting for a while, Sergei turned to Nicolai and said “I’m cold, can we turn up the heat”. Nicolai nodded. It did seem to be getting colder. So Nicolai did what any older brother would do, and made a decision to turn up the stove to keep his little brother warm. The two worked together to get some additional fuel and fill up the stove. As Sergei held the door open for Nicolai to pour the fuel in, a sudden flash shot out of the heater causing Nicolai to spill the container of oil on Sergei. Before they could react it ignited, setting the blanket the small boy was wrapped in ablaze. Neighbors heard the screams and came rushing in to help and take little Sergei to the hospital.
Can you imagine? I could. That story hit me deep in my core. Because when I first read the story Nicolai and Sergei were the same age as my two boys. I looked up from the newsletter I had read it in while sitting in my big leather chair, directly at my two boys playing happily on the floor in front of me. I no longer saw Nicolai and Sergei. I saw my boys, Alex and Zach. I saw all the blessings that I had poured over them. How little they lacked in their precious lives. How I would do anything for them and how devastated I would be if anything happened to them. I looked at my youngest who would be the same as as little Sergei who was burned and rushed to the hospital and tears began to run down my cheeks. I pictured these two precious beings, so innocent and whose lives are filled with magic and wonder, being forced to endure hardships that no one should face. All of a sudden it was real and I was heartbroken. And this happens on a daily basis. Today there are 1.5 million Syrian refugees without a home who are trying to find a way to make it through the winter. And the harsh reality is that 23,000 children will die today because of preventable disease due to lack of water and nutrition haunts me.
But where is all this going? What do prosperity preachers have to do with a poor Russian family? Eternity!
Let’s start with some words from Jesus. Luke 12:42-48 42 And the Lord replied, “A faithful, sensible servant is one to whom the master can give the responsibility of managing his other household servants and feeding them. 43 If the master returns and finds that the servant has done a good job, there will be a reward. 44 I tell you the truth, the master will put that servant in charge of all he owns. 45 But what if the servant thinks, ‘My master won’t be back for a while,’ and he begins beating the other servants, partying, and getting drunk? 46 The master will return unannounced and unexpected, and he will cut the servant in pieces and banish him with the unfaithful.
47 “And a servant who knows what the master wants, but isn’t prepared and doesn’t carry out those instructions, will be severely punished. 48 But someone who does not know, and then does something wrong, will be punished only lightly. When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required.
Like so many verses in the bible we may at first take a look at that and immediately think of someone else who it applies to. After all, it’s those Preachers in LA who could be doing more to help the poor. But I want to tell you that’s not the case. Do me a favor. Get out your purse or wallet and hold it in your hand while you reread that last verse. “When someone has been given much, much will be required”. How does that feel now?
Several years ago I became a Child Ambassador for an organization called World Vision. As a result I’ve been able to work with World Vision at events to help raise awareness for world poverty and provide opportunities for people to sponsor a child which provides support to the family so that the child can have food, shelter, and an education. One event I participated in was a concert for the Christian rock band Third Day. The band had partnered with World Vision to help promote sponsorship of children in poverty areas. They showed a video and one of the band members gave a testimony about their work with Children in Haiti, followed by an intermission. During that time I took information on sponsorship with me through the aisles to see if people who didn’t want to actually come to the booth would be interested. When we got done at the end of the night another 34 children were sponsored and the World Vision coordinator said that was a good number. I walked back into the auditorium and looked around. The place seated probably 2000. That’s about 2% of the people, who you can assume are largely all Christians, sponsored a child. And that was considered a “good number”? There were more people than that who lined up to buy t-shirts and CD’s.
It’s an unfortunate reality of the world that Christians have created. A world in which we consume more than we convert. And while the stories of mega churches and celebrity pastors may seem like another world and wholly different from the one you’re living, I would point out that the reality is somewhere between the hills of Judea and the hills of Beverly the message of the good news has been buried. Not by a single giant swoop of a mega church backhoe, but by the small handfuls contributed by each one of us.
Have you heard of a group called “Faith driven consumers”. From their website “Faith Driven Consumers are Christians who choose to live out our faith in every arena of life – including the marketplace. We make daily decisions based on our biblical worldview and see everything we do in the context of stewardship. Our heartbeat is to give honor to God with every choice we make.”
Like other groups, Faith Driven Consumers are a minority in the rich tapestry of American diversity. As a rapidly emerging and economically powerful movement with a legitimate voice in the public square, Faith Driven Consumers comprise 15 percent of the population – 46 million Americans – and spend $1.75 trillion annually.
Did you catch that number? The proposed US budget for 2014 is $1.1 Trillion. This is the silent driving force of consumption in the United States. And why is this a big deal? After Dan Cathy’s remarks about homosexuality in 2012, Chick Fil A faced a national boycott called for by GLADD, the LGBTQ organization. They figured the best response was to withdraw their business from an organization whose leader didn’t support their lifestyle. In response the Faith Driven Consumers announced a Chick-Fil-A appreciation day in August of that year. What happened was rather than falter at the hands of GLADD, Christians drove records sales for the company and resulted in a 12% sales increase for the year growing to $4.6 Billion. When Phil Robertson made remarks about homosexuality and African Americans in an interview with GQ magazine that resulted in his suspension from the show, the campaign and boycott headed by the Faith Driven Consumers stopped Cracker Barrel from removing Duck Dynasty items from the shop and had the family patriarch reinstated within a month. Phil Robertson and the Duck Dynasty family are worth a reported $400 million dollars to A&E.
Now here’s the truly amazing thing. The total income of American churchgoers, not just the registered “faith driven consumers”, is $5.2 trillion, of which they give approximately 2 percent of 2 percent to a church or non-profit organization. The wealthiest Christians in all of history could end world hunger, solve the clean water crisis, provide universal access to drugs and medical care, guarantee education for all the world’s children, and support all orphans globally by simply giving the biblically recommended 10 percent. (The Hole in Our Gospel, 2009, p216-219).
That’s just with 10 percent. Imagine what the world would look like if we lived like the church in Acts!
Acts 4:32-35 32 All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had. 33 The apostles testified powerfully to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and God’s great blessing was upon them all. 34 There were no needy people among them, because those who owned land or houses would sell them 35 and bring the money to the apostles to give to those in need.
No one lacked for anything.
And yet we show the world our good stewardship by ensuring that Uncle Sy can still get fried chicken.
There are countless individuals who embrace their faith, but shun the church for this very reason. They want to make a difference in the world and not just coast through it. They are frustrated with the apathy the see with so many comfortable worshipers in state of the art auditoriums. People are walking away from religion because as Brennan Manning put it “they see Christians profess Jesus with their lips, and not with the way they live their lives”. The battle isn’t with the world, it’s with the Christians themselves.
What is the power of Christians to change the world? Have you ever stopped to think about it? If faith based consumers can focus all of their attention to save Chick Fil A or Duck Dynasty what would happen if they focused their energy on giving to the least of these?
Globalization has shrunk our world. We are more connected with the whole of humanity than at any other point in earth’s history. We are instantly aware of news about our favorite topics around the world. And sadly we more often than not turn off
those scary, uncomfortable images, walk to our refrigerator and make a sandwich, and everything is okay.
But with awareness comes responsibility. We are now aware of and able to respond to the cries of the poor and hungry around the world. I’ve been to parts of the world where a half deflated soccer ball is a prized possession for a dirty, naked child living in a shack. And I’m ashamed. I know that I have been given much and because of that much is expected.
Possibly the single most convicting section of the Jesus gospel for me comes to me from Matthew 25:31-45 “But when the Son of Man[a] comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. 32 All the nations[b] will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. 36 I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’
37 “Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? 39 When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
40 “And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters,[c] you were doing it to me!’
41 “Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons.[d] 42 For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. 43 I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’
44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’
45 “And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’
This is the message of the gospel. This is the message of the kingdom of heaven. That you would love God and by loving him you would love and serve and care for those around you as if they were your own children. That our hearts would be broken by the pain and suffering of this world and that we would come together so that no one lacks for anything. This is who we are and what we are called to do. As good stewards, who have been blessed enormously and charged with great responsibility.