More than a decade ago now, our missionaries to Taiwan, Gary and Sandra Edmonds, came to visit my home church. One statement Brother Edmonds made as he told us about the work has stayed with me ever since. I think of it often and it convicts me every time. He was talking about financial support and money, and avoiding personal gain, saying something to the effect of, “I don’t like money. I don’t like having it. I don’t like the way it makes my eyes turn green.” That part is verbatim: “I don’t like the way it makes my eyes turn green.” It was such a vivid picture of the effect the love of money can have.
This is the antithesis of the thinking of some in the modern church. The evangelical movement has exalted the prosperity doctrine and personal ministries of mega-church millionaires such as T.D. Jakes, Joel Osteen, Jentezen Franklin, and Steven Furtick. Even within our own ranks, there are those that esteem these men—a Oneness sellout, preacher of “another gospel,” serial sermon plagiarist, and headliner of the recent “Power to Get Wealth” conference—as the types of ministries, lives, and churches to emulate. We share their well-produced Facebook sermon clips and comment with “hand clap” and “fire” emojis. Some are patterning themselves after these men and adopting their methods with a shrug and an “eat the chicken, spit out the bones” approach.
I’ll be perfectly transparent with you. As a rookie pastor, I’ve found myself watching these clips and questioning my methods. Growth has been slow. Maybe if I preached more like T.D. Jakes? Maybe if I had the charisma of Furtick?
A soul-penetrating question has emerged for me, however—how, exactly, is Jesus exalted in all of this self-promoting, prosperity-preaching, “your season is about to change” messaging?
I’m usually able to resist this line of thinking. But then there’s a part of me that returns with, “Well, they’re doing something right, aren’t they?” And I completely agree with the approach of “eat the chicken, spit out the bones” in most cases. So why is its application here rubbing me the wrong way?
I believe it comes down to something I tucked away while reading David McCullough’s excellent biography of John Adams. A consistent theme throughout the book is Adams’ struggle with his own ambition. While we tend to think of ambition these days as a positive trait, Adams saw his and others’ ambition as a venomous enemy to be resisted, once saying:
“Ambition is the subtlest beast of the intellectual and moral field. It is wonderfully adroit in concealing itself from its owner.”
Later in life, he would add:
“Ambition is one of the ungovernable passions of the human heart. The love of power is insatiable and uncontrollable.”
See, I’ve been searching my own heart and intentions in order to answer the question of how Jesus is exalted in our new, ambitious framing of church and ministry. And I’m troubled by my own heart.
Why do I want to preach like T.D. Jakes? So my congregation will grow? Sure. That’s one answer—the “face” I give my ambition. If I’m honest with myself, however, I also want to be a great preacher so people will say, “Wow. He’s a great preacher.” Maybe that opens doors for me somewhere down the line? Maybe it takes my ministry “to another level,” as we love to say. Or maybe it’s the deceitful work of ambitious pride. And why do I want my congregation to grow? Is it really about advancing the Kingdom? Or are my desires rooted in personal ambition? I hope my motives are pure. I’d like to believe they are, but I have to weigh them as God does:
“All the ways of a man are clean in his own eyes; but the LORD weigheth the spirits” (Proverbs 16:2).
The following of those who preach the prosperity message is troubling to me because it is, on a spiritual level, wholly unimpressive. I simply don’t believe people are going to give their lives to Jesus because they see Christians that are wealthy and prosperous. Why? Because there are other ways to get wealthy. Jesus, in this scenario, is just one option among many to their own carnal ends. Man has always been able to build great things on their own. We build stadiums and fill them with people. We build teams and sell tickets to the masses. We build and put our name on tall buildings and golf courses and cheap ties, and win political office with millions of supporters. If it can be done without Him, then why bother with Him at all?
Why is the prosperity message so appealing anyway? I believe it’s because it offers the illusion of safety. We should resist that in our churches. If we’re playing it safe, we really must question our motives and our desire to follow Jesus with the kind of reckless abandon the disciples exhibited. We have the message of the apostles—do we have their spirit?
“But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).
If we’re not careful, we’ll allow ambition to so flavor our view of ourselves, that we would value our lives and this temporary home as something more desirable than the end. Yet in Acts 20, Paul says, “I consider my life worth nothing to me” (NIV). He was willing and ready to lay it down at any moment for the sake of the gospel. Nothing safe about that. Stephen does give his life for it.
One has to wonder if there were prosperity preachers in Stephen’s day saying, “God doesn’t want you to be stoned! He doesn’t want you to be eaten by lions! If people want to die in stadiums, that’s their business, but I’m with the God of Daniel! [Cue organ.] Somebody touch three people around you and say, ‘Not today, you overgrown house cat!’ [Turn up volume for bass run.]” Spiritual theater. Exciting, perhaps. But safe.
Unfortunately, the Apostolic church is not called to safe. We are called to run and meet hopelessness and disease and death with this crazy, radical flavor given us by His Spirit. The supernatural saltiness of risk. God is not good because He fills my bank account; He is good because He sustains me even when it’s empty. God is not good because He heals my body; God is good because somehow I’m able to rejoice in my affliction because I have a joy not tied to the next breath I take. Dear ones, these are things that make people stop and consider Him! The message that “this is not the reward!” He is the all-satisfying Treasure, valued above all the accumulated things of this earth. Above cars, above homes, above our facilities, above our latest-and-greatest promotional stunt, above the carnal desire of opulence and ostentation and notoriety.
Stephen was willing to give his life, and that was the full cost of revival. Revival in our day will require nothing less than the willingness to do the same—not counting our lives dear unto ourselves.