City Harvest Church is an independent evangelical church founded in 1989 as a youth outreach under the Assemblies of God umbrella. They run some 30,000 attendees. Founding pastor Kong Hee withdrew from the payroll in 2005, and has since been serving as “honorary founder/senior pastor” [link].
Hee first came to my attention a couple of months ago, when he was arrested for appropriating tens of millions of dollars from the church to support his wife’s singing career. There’s a summary article in the August 4 print edition of The Economist [link]:
Mr Kong’s detractors are smug after years of wailing about the evils and excesses of the new mega-churches which, they claim, put entertainment before spirituality, Mammon before God. Mr Kong often prophesied that donations to the church would cause donors’ personal wealth to swell. Such a “prosperity gospel” exploits the materialist aspirations of young Singaporeans living in a society with more millionaires per head than almost any other.
Church members have closed ranks, claiming that they approve of their leaders’ spending (CHC’s building fund alone raised S$23m last year). They seem to have trusted Mr Kong to spend their money in any way he saw fit. Local activists also acknowledge that the church contributes much to the wider community. Still, the case has revealed a lack of accountability and transparency at religious organisations. Worshippers often place blind faith in their church leaders, showing little interest in where their tithes and donations go.
As per usual I’m not overly interested in the details of what the Kong’s did. But I would humbly suggest that when your pastor’s wife posts a video of herself dropping $217.30 on groceries at Whole Foods several thousand miles from your local church that’s a good indication somebody’s not being too careful about the money.
I wanted to refer readers to a recent sermon review by Todd Wilken on Issues Etc. [link] in which Wilken spends about forty-five minutes, net of commercials, ripping into Driscoll from a number of directions. Among other things, if I heard him correctly, he accuses Driscoll of having a crypto-Roman-Catholic soteriology.
I like the fact that Wilken does sermon reviews; for those of us looking for a tradition to call home, these sorts of things are very helpful for underlining what the differences in the various traditions look like in practice. It’s also helpful to hear how a sermon sounds to someone else. That being said, I think Wilken’s definition of what constitutes a good sermon is way too narrow, and would, when facing many passages of Scripture require a preacher to skip them altogether or do such violence to them as to leave them meaningless.
That being said, this message from Driscoll, at least as edited down from its full hour-plus, is a mess. If anyone has a link to the full-length sermon I’d love to hear it. I am not a big fan of taking sermon time to talk about the expansion (or contraction) of a church network; it’s something I’d put on my list of warning signs when visiting a church, because it suggests that the growth of the church is part of its message. And it’s the sort of thing that’s fine in a bulletin or a business meeting or an annual report, or even the announcements, but it just doesn’t belong within the sermon.
I think it’s interesting that Driscoll is apparently not Reformed enough for some of his Reformed kin; he was apparently Reformed enough to be considered Young, Restless, and Reformed by Collin Hansen, but he’s apparently strayed far enough out of the circle of light that it’s okay for Wilken (and James White, for that matter) to be critical of him. Go figure.
On The Dividing Line James White has been responding to Matthew Vines regarding gays in the church for what seems like forever. Vines doesn’t talk about gay marriage in particular; he’s giving what sounds like a senior thesis on liberal arguments in support of gays in the church. If you’ve seen For the Bible Tells Me So [link] or Fish Out of Water [link] you’ve heard most of what Vines says already; his presentation seems to be targeted at people in liberal churches and assumes a certain level of literacy. I’m not sure who the target audience is for the films listed above.
I’m grateful for White’s response to Vines’s handling of Scripture; I think it’s a pretty good presentation of the conservative position in response to a particular liberal position, and I don’t get to see those very often: liberals tend to offer a response to a generic conservative position, and vice versa, and this is a cut above in my humble opinion.
That being said, I don’t understand why White does some of the things he does; like a lot of conservative speakers he jumps too quickly to slippery slope arguments, and doesn’t spend enough time talking about the continuity between the current discussion of gay marriage vs. older discussions of polygamy, age of consent laws, divorce and remarriage, cousin marriages, etc. And I have to admit I am really tired of hearing arguments of the moral equivalence between gay marriage and bestiality, etc.
This isn’t a topic I want to dig into too deeply at the moment; I have to admit that it seems to me like gay marriage is a subject that gains currency at a certain point in the election cycle, and I have to wonder whether this is just a coincidence.
That being said, interested listeners might find the recent documentary from the ABC Radio National 360 series, Kissing Cousins [link]. Yes, it’s about sexual relationships between cousins. And yes, it’s a sympathetic portrayal. And no, so far as I know, Scripture doesn’t prohibit marriages between first cousins.
I’ll admit I’ve been sucked in by the Albert Mohler podcast The Briefing; I think he does surprisingly well in picking topics and doing analysis, and frankly for most current events stories five minutes is about all I can digest/stand. So I’d like to point interested listeners (not readers: Mohler doesn’t currently offer transcripts) to the May 16 edition [link].
First of all there are a couple of great related stories about demographic trends: first about how dogs outnumber people in the Bay Area, second about how Japanese consumers now buy more adult diapers than baby diapers. Mohler is right in saying that over the long haul low birth rates make for strange societies. He draws the right conclusion for a Southern Baptist audience: any group facing a demographic collapse has to change or die.
But in the closing story, about the Yahoo/Scott Thompson resume flap, Mohler reverts to a standard preacher’s trope of contextualizing a story from the broader world in a narrative that makes sense inside the church but doesn’t in its original context. Thompson, as everyone knows, was removed as CEO of Yahoo after it came to light that his public resume included a degree in Computer Science he didn’t actually have. Mohler’s analysis here is that public lying is immoral, and Thompson was removed because everybody understands that immorality is bad for companies, or some such.
Perhaps it is my imagination, but I think what Mohler is attempting to do is to draw a straight line between an imaginary depopulation taking place in the Bay Area because homosexual couples have so few children, and a claim that companies have some sort of moral center that abhors lying (and should abhor homosexuality, etc.). This kind of missing premise argument drives me nuts when I hear it in church, so maybe I’m being a little sensitive here.
The facts as we know them go like this: Yahoo used to be an industry leader, but it has fallen behind competitors like Google, and so has come under pressure from activist shareholder Daniel Loeb. A Loeb associate found the discrepancies in Thompson’s resume while looking for leverage over the Yahoo board, and Loeb parlayed a small advantage into a seat on the Yahoo board. See e.g. [link], where James B. Stewart of the New York Times connects the dots by way of the peculiarities of Silicon Valley corporate culture; Stewart says it’s not because he was lying, but because he wasn’t a computer scientist.
Either way I think it’s fair to say that if Yahoo were making lots of money and its share price were climbing and Loeb was getting a great return on his investment he wouldn’t care if Thompson had a degree in computer science or not, and Mohler is inserting a moral element into the story that I just don’t see in the facts.
I recently started listening to Albert Mohler Jr.’s weekday podcast The Briefing [link]. I picked it up because James White recommended it, and he recommends so little that anyone else does I thought I’d give it a listen just on his recommendation.
I’m kind of luke on Mohler generally; I’m already on the record for saying that I agree that the modern American evangelical church is sick but disagree that Calvinism (or Lutheranism, or Reformed Theology generally) is the solution, and I have kind of a wait and see attitude regarding the leadership of any of the new Calvinists within Evangelicalism. By the same token I’m so sick and tired of Richard Land that I’m glad to hear anybody within the Southern Baptist Convention talking about cultural and political issues from a Southern Baptist perspective. It should be a time of great disenchantment, and I’ve been waiting for someone to start doing the heavy lifting of disenchanting.
Mohler works from a fairly narrow palate of themes and a broad spectrum of sources. I’m glad to hear someone cite more than just a handful of mainstream media outlets who doesn’t behave as if Fox News, OneNewsNow and WND.com constitute a well-balanced news diet.
Mohler talks a lot about “worldviews,” a word that only conservative Christians use heavily, and after a few dozen episodes I’m still not sure what he means when he says it. I’m accustomed to it meaning “things we/they believe instead of thinking” or “things we believe because they fit other things we believe, not because we’ve evaluated their truth claims specifically.” It is usually taken as shorthand for the great gulf fixed between us and “them:” unbelievers, liberals, Socialists, etc. and which cannot be crossed but can only be identified. I hope he means more than this, but I’m not sure.
Mohler talks a lot about a “Genesis 3″ perspective, by which I think he means a world that is already Fallen and cannot be fixed.
And finally he talks a lot about “America as a post-Christian nation,” which after listening to him for a while I have to believe he means as a term of nostalgia, suggesting that America was once a Christian nation and can only be understood as such. And here’s where I have to part company with Mohler. So far as I can tell America was never a Christian nation; it was always a post-Christian nation. So far as I can tell the Christian phase, if there was one, was long over by 1776, and it left no trace in any of the country’s founding documents. And it troubles me greatly to hear revisionists like David Barton taken seriously in various Christian media outlets (I’m thinking of Janet Parshall here, but I’m confident there are others).
I want to come back to this later, but I want to stake out a position first. Let’s not kid ourselves: America was never a Christian nation. I love being a Christian and I’m grateful to be an American, but I always want to remind folks that those aren’t the same thing.
The Australian radio service ABC Radio National has had somewhat piecemeal religion reporting since they canceled The Religion Report, but they’ve recently had an interesting series on religion and ethics with staffer Scott Stephens and various guests. I would like to recommend the recent appearance [link] by academic Marcia Pally as part of her book tour for her recent The New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision of the Common Good [link].
There’s a fair amount of condescension here toward us evangelicals, as if we’re finally getting our collective act together and joining the human race by rethinking some issues that have historically been important to us and have framed a lot of our political choices, etc. but Pally is basically right in saying there are some of us who have a sort of “post-Bush depression” where we’re having to reconsider what we’ve become, allegedly on the basis of Christian principles. I recommend listening to the whole thing, especially since it clocks in at under fifteen minutes.
I have been facing a deadline crunch at my day job, and I’ve had to let the blog sit idle (not to say fallow) for a couple of weeks. I’m hoping to clear the backlog over the next week or so.
If this is your first visit to this blog you may not yet know that I’m one of the people who agrees (that is, “affirms”) that American Evangelicalism is sick: the churches are big and too much like television, the teaching is too shallow, the theological conservatives are too cozy with the Republican Party, etc. etc. Unlike most of my unsettled brethren I don’t know what the cure for this sickness is; I tend to be skeptical when I hear many of the proposed solutions.
I realize that for many Christians the way out of the post-Evangelical wilderness (or whatever you want to call it) is to join an older theological, liturgical, or ecclesiastical tradition, and for some of these people this means becoming a confessional Lutheran. I understand some of the appeal of say the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS): it has roots in an old but nearly modern tradition; it sort of has American roots; it has a vast literature, has fairly straightforward answers to lots of questions, and it has some semblance of an intellectual history. You don’t have to think to be a Lutheran, but you can be a thinking Lutheran.
Still when I listen to Issues Etc. with Todd Wilken I am tempted to put the speakers into one of two categories:
- People who sound like Christians
- People who sound like Catholics
And most of the guests fit into the first category, which is one of the reasons I keep listening. It’s the people in the second category who just plain drive me nuts. These are the ones who remind me of the Catholic apologists I used to hear on Sacred Heart Radio: who do not countenance the actual questions people ask about their point of view; who set up “Evangelical” straw men I find unrecognizable; who put questions in the mouths of these fictional Evangelicals that sound like they’ve been back-fitted to the safe Catholic catechetical answer.
Which brings me to the recent series with Jeremy Rhode titled “The Gospel for Former Evangelicals” [link]. Rhode is about 15 years younger than I am, graduated from seminary about four years ago [link], and sounds like he’s still in the honeymoon phase of his relationship with the LCMS. I don’t know who these former Evangelicals he’s talking about are; what kind of Evangelical they used to be; how many of them there are; or what would possess them to consider Lutheranism; but Rhode’s presentation of confessional Lutheranism as a cure for what’s ailing the American church strikes me as unfair both in its presentation of the disease and its cure.
I just can’t bring myself to seriously consider what Rhode suggests is the heart of the fix for Evangelicals: that the Body of Christ is in any sense actually present in Communion; that Communion (rather than Jesus’s death on the Cross, which it symbolizes) brings forgiveness of sin; that distinguishing between the pastor and the office he holds is anything but a recipe for abuse; that baptism actually brings regeneration; etc.
I highly recommend listening to the entire series if you can stand it and understand it. It’s as good a place as any to start understanding what little dialog there is between confessional Lutheranism and American Evangelicalism.
In conclusion: we affirm that American Evangelicalism is sick; we deny that confessional Lutheranism is the cure.
As I have mentioned many times here before, I came out of an independent Baptist background, was involved in one of the first modern megachurches, spent some time in a Calvary Chapel, and since then in a Presbyterian (PCA) church. Most of the churches I’ve seen have been, either de jure or de facto, run, owned, or ruled by one pastor, and there has been a relatively weak board of deacons or elders, as well as in some cases more than one paid pastor. I realize my experience is not exactly typical, especially when compared with that of people who attend churches with strong denominations.
The churches I attended growing up formed as splits off Southern Baptist churches, and were at least partly reacting to a theological liberal drift in Southern Baptist seminaries. They tended to associate with one another formally only to sponsor missionaries, in imitation of their SBC forebears. They were in almost all other regards independent, although there were a couple that always recruited pastors that went to the same school.
The megachurch was built around a single personality (Jerry Falwell) and is still sort of finding its way since his death. They’ve joined the SBC; I really have no feel for how that new relationship is going.
I loved my Calvary Chapel, but it more or less crumpled under the weight of pastoral misbehavior. Calvary pretty much has a “Moses model” of leadership and any accountability between churches was during my time there limited to a single sanction: “Big Calvary” could disaffiliate a local church, but that was about it. There were representations of other affiliations, but in a crisis they turned out to be over-represented.
Each of these churches had a way of explaining how their take on church governance lined up with the New Testament passages describing pastors, apostles, elders, and deacons. There was also in each case a kind of “folk theology” that was assumed but not stated that the pastor filled some sort of apostle/elder role, and our deacons or elders filled some sort of elder/deacon role.
We always understood that apostles were more than missionaries; their “apo-” prefix meant they were sent by someone, and we took that to mean God, rather than just sent by a church or group of churches. We knew at one level that all the real Apostles were dead, but we tended to give our local pastor a break when he sat in Paul’s seat, so to speak. This made me uncomfortable, and still does.
We also understood from the Scriptures that the original elders were appointed by the Apostles or their delegates (Timothy; Titus) but we sort of glossed over this because the Apostles weren’t available, and being Baptists we had soft spot for voting. We voted on our deacons and they served as elders. Because our churches were relatively small this worked reasonably well. We occasionally ran into problems because deacons had limited terms and pastors were in principle serving for life.
Every model is imperfect, and every model is liable to some kind of excess. I think lately we’ve seen more trouble from megachurches with superstar pastors who are not accountable, and it’s this situation that is causing some churches to move to elder-led structures. I have lately been listening to a 22-part podcast from an Albuquerque church that has elder leadership as described by Alexander Strauch [PDF, link].
This church has a formal group of elders, some paid, some not, and follows Strauch’s interpretation of various New Testament passages. This is the first time I’ve found a church (apart from the Brethren fellowship I mentioned in another post) that attempts to constitute their leadership according to all the various verses that talk about elders.
I’m about halfway through the series, and I’m putting off any analysis until I get through it. So far I’d call it fascinating. I was surprised to discover that they constitute themselves as an independent church and take a dim view of both head pastors and seminaries, but they have a single paid elder who does the bulk of the pulpit preaching. Twenty-three hours of anything is a lot to digest. More later.
A while back Issues Etc. re-ran a 1999 series on interpreting parables in the original cultural context featuring author Ken Bailey. The five-part series can currently be found on the Issues Etc. archive page for Ken Bailey [link].
I love this sort of in-depth study; it really makes the text come alive.
At the same time I can’t help wondering how much of this sort of thing is necessary to be a theologically orthodox Christian. I come out of a tradition that values the plain meaning of the text in translation and prefers to ignore any questions regarding accuracy of translation, the difficulty of being certain when attempting to add anything to the plain meaning of the text.
Anyway, in this case Bailey assembles an interpretive framework for the parables in Luke 15 that makes them seem less foreign by appealing to his description of the culture in which they were originally spoken. It’s fascinating stuff; I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide just how Lutheran the results are.
A reader was kind enough to point me to a recent Washington Post profile by religion writer Michelle Boorstein of Liberty University vice president, campus pastor, political operative, and first-time author Johnnie Moore [link]. Readers with memories longer than a year may remember Boorstein’s article on Ergun Caner’s demotion [link] that more or less served as the official history of the Caner situation outside the community of interested parties.
I am inclined to read the Moore profile as a sort of birth announcement for Moore’s political career, mostly as an idea leader or vote-deliverer for the young evangelical vote. It also appears to be part of the publicity push for Moore’s book Honestly.
Here are a few pull quotes:
From this lofty perch, he has come to two conclusions about American evangelicals.
The first is that they have become too callous[...] Moore says evangelicals have cared too much in recent decades about building massive megachurches for the upper-middle class and too little about getting their hands dirty serving the poor.
His second conclusion is more Falwell-esque: Evangelicals are becoming too liberal about their faith. To Moore, if you say you believe in the Bible as literal truth, but privately believe it’s a metaphor, you’re a phony.
Moore sees his fellow young evangelicals as highly emotional and “entitled” — but idealistic. They don’t trust organizations or traditional political activism (which is why he thinks they don’t identify with the tea party), but they want to be a part of causes (which he believes Obama convinced them they were).
[Rev. Samuel] Rodriguez, the Latino evangelical leader, says evangelicals like Moore will eventually merge in America with ethnic minorities and be a massive force.
“Some of these other groups have a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy about their Christianity; it’s sort of clandestine, they kind of dilute it. But Johnnie would say: Why can’t we be both sold out to Christ and addressing issues like sex trafficking?”
There are bits and pieces of this that give me hope; I’m always hopeful that those of us who share the legacy of the Moral Majority will someday acquire a social conscience that is expressed in more than just a handful of issue check boxes. On the other hand, I have a sneaking suspicion that Moore represents just another generation of sellouts who express mature, high-sounding personal values while helping persuade young conservative Christian voters to vote for candidates who ultimately don’t share those values, much less express them as policy. I guess we’ll see.