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Who's Behind 'Crazy Love'?

Francis Chan, senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, Calif., is serious about making the church look more like Jesus and actually doing what the Bible says we should be doing. Beyond highlighting him for our cover story in November/December 2008, we spoke with Francis about everything from lukewarm Christianity to Joel Osteen to the state of today’s church.

Ministry Today: Besides the catchy song connection, what’s the meaning behind the title of your book, Crazy Love? Why did you choose that title?

Francis Chan: We chose the term “crazy” because when you look at the gospel it’s really a ridiculous story—that the creator of the universe would watch His Son be tortured for us. We can’t even fathom having that kind of love for someone, especially if we were that great and powerful. We hear the story so often that it loses its shock. It’s crazy, so our response should be crazy as well. If we’re showing Him, casual lukewarm, complacent love, it doesn’t make sense. Why did the people in the Book of Acts give up everything they had? Why didn’t they care about their stuff? Because they saw a man rise from the grave. Now if they saw a man rise from the grave and nothing changed in their lives, that wouldn’t make sense. Yet, that’s exactly what we do.

Ministry Today: What’s “spiritual amnesia” and what can be done to combat it?

Chan: There are times when we are so struck by the truth of God’s Word and the truth of God’s being, and yet a couple hours later, we’re so into a Lakers game we forget all about God. It is because we live in America and have a love of entertainment. In the words of John Piper we “amuse ourselves to death.” So that’s where the enemy hits. It’s similar to going on a mission trip. We have such amazing experiences, and we come home saying, ‘I swear I’ll never forget that.’ Then a week later we forget it and life is back to normal. That’s spiritual amnesia.

Ministry Today: You tip a lot of sacred cows in your book, even writing that lukewarm Christians are grateful for comfort and luxuries.

Chan: A lot of people have determined what they want to believe. So when they go to the Scriptures they go in making them say what they want them to say. I would love to just take care of myself, have enough retirement for my family and me. That makes sense to me. It’s logical to me, and I have the means to pull it off. I could very easily make a case for that biblically and say it’s OK for me to do that.

But when I really read the Scriptures as objectively as I can and ask, ‘What’s it really saying?’ it’s nothing of that sort. It’s all about caring for the least of these, sacrificing and risking my life. I can’t be thinking about what my life will look like in 30 years if my true brother in Christ is dying right now and will die this week unless I get food to him. In America we try to mesh what is American with what is biblical, and we come up with this church we have today.

Ministry Today: One of your chapters is titled “Your Best Life … Later.” Is that a conscious refutation of some of the more popular teaching out there?

Chan: Absolutely. I just think it’s just a bunch of bull. I even played with the idea of titling the book that. I think it’s such a dangerous heresy that’s out there that says God just wants you to be rich and healthy. It goes against the way Christ lived and against the way He told the disciples they’d have to live. I don’t want to be this person who is against anyone who is rich, but I just think if you’re a Christian you don’t really care about money. Why would we lure people into the Christian life promising physical riches? Isn’t God enough? Isn’t the fact that I’ve got a relationship with Almighty God enough? Jesus’ message was you should want to follow Me even if it means losing everything. That’s what Scripture teaches.

Ministry Today: You write that we tend to turn saints into celebrities. Being the pastor of a large church do you fear that could happen with you?

Chan: Yes. It’s happening with the speaking and now with this book. It’s weird. I hate all that stuff. I have to admit sometimes it’s nice to be recognized. But for me personally I’m so aware that at any second my life could end. That’s something that’s been so real to me ever since I was a kid. I think it’s because of the deaths of my parents. I’m very strange this way, but I think about death probably every day. I think: “This could be it. Am I ready?”

At the moment of death nothing else matters. I’m standing before a holy God. That’s the reality. And I think about it a lot. It’s not a fear. I couldn’t care less if I die. But I do think about it a lot. Maybe it’s because I do funerals or maybe because a lot of my family has died, but I’m constantly aware of death in a sober, humbling way. … I think the Lord has given me that awareness as a gift so I don’t get stuck in pride. When I come before Him I say, “God, I could be coming home to You today.”

Ministry Today: Your mother died giving birth to you. Your father was distant and physically abusive. Talk about how that affected your view of God and how you got past that.

Chan: I always gravitated to those passages about God’s holiness. They click with me because I understand fear and respect for authority. I also think the Asian culture teaches that. But understanding the intimate side really changed when I had kids of my own. I remember the moment it clicked. I took my daughter out of school one Friday and took her camping, just the two of us. There was so much laughter, and I’d never seen her so happy. She was just jumping, screaming and laughing. And I remember how great I felt, that I had made her happy. At that moment I wondered: ‘Does God feel that way about me?’ Does He think of me that way?’ It was all the fatherly attributes I’d seen in Scripture but didn’t really understand until I experienced it myself.

Ministry Today: What’s the number one problem you experience in your church getting men mobilized? Or, is there a problem?

Chan: There hasn’t been that much a problem here. We’re actually doing quite well in that area. But we’ve emphasized strong male leadership from the start. Men rise to the challenge when they’re told that they need to. We’ve always placed the responsibility on the men. I’m very quick to put everything on my own shoulders. If my wife or kids aren’t acting a certain way I don’t blame them. I’m supposed to be leading. I immediately look to myself. It’s my issue. There’s this concept of biblical manhood that a lot of people are scared to preach. But I’m not saying that there aren’t others out there preaching this. I’m not trying to get into a bashing session. Unless you’re talking about Joel Osteen.

Ministry Today: OK, I’ll send him after you.

Chan: (Laughs) I think I could take him.

Ministry Today: I’m not sure. I read he can bench 300 pounds.

Chan: No way! Are you serious?

Ministry Today: That’s what I read.

Chan: That’s funny.

Ministry Today: He’s pretty wiry, I guess. One more question. This is a little more serious. What do you see as the number one challenge for the North American church over the next 10 years?

Chan: I think the number one challenge is to get the church to really be the church. The church was meant to be a light. People were supposed to live so differently in the church. On any given Sunday you can go to church and then go into your neighborhood and meet unbelievers who have more love, joy, peace, patience and kindness than the people you sat in the pews with. If the Holy Spirit is literally in these people at church, shouldn’t there be an obvious difference between them and those who are spiritually dead? And I don’t see that. For so many years my non-Christian friends were more giving and dependable. How’s the world supposed to believe that something has happened to us if we’re no different than anyone else?

 

—Interview by Drew Dyck read more

Serving Leftovers to a Holy God

[The following is an excerpt from Crazy Love by Francis Chan. Used by permission.]

 

Of all the chapters in this book, this one was the hardest for me to write. I do not wish for my words to come across as controversial or difficult to swallow. But I had to write this chapter, because I believe what I’m about to talk about is important. And true.

In the last chapter we discussed various inappropriate responses to God’s love. Now we are going to look at scriptural examples of poor responses to God’s gift of love.  Before you discount or ignore what I am about to say, read these passages objectively, without preconceived opinions staunchly in place.  

My examination of lukewarm Christians in chapter 4 was by no means exhaustive. However, it did serve as a call to examine your heart in light of the points I listed. As I see it, a lukewarm Christian is an oxymoron; there’s no such thing. To put it plainly, churchgoers who are—lukewarm—are not Christians. We will not see them in heaven.

In Revelation 3:15–18, Jesus says:

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see.

This passage is where our modern understanding of lukewarm comes from. Jesus is saying to the church that because they are lukewarm, He is going to spit them out of His mouth.

There is no gentle rendering of the word spit in the Greek. This is the only time it is used in the New Testament, and it connotes gagging, hurling, retching. Many people read this passage and assume Jesus is speaking to saved people. My question is, Why?

When you read this passage, do you naturally conclude that to be “spit” out of Jesus’ mouth means you’re a part of His kingdom? When you read the words wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked, do you think that He’s describing saints? When He counsels them to “buy white clothes to wear” in order to cover their shameful nakedness, does it sound like advice for those already saved?

I thought people who were saved were already made white and clothed by Christ’s blood.

In an earlier draft of this chapter, I quoted several commentators who agreed with my point of view. But we all know that you can find quotes to support any view you want to take. You can even tweak word studies to help you in your effort. I’m not against scholarship, but I do believe there are times when we come to more accurate conclusions through simple reading.

And so I’ve spent the past few days reading the Gospels. Rather than examining a verse and dissecting it, I chose to peruse one Gospel in each sitting. Furthermore, I attempted to do so from the perspective of a twelve-year-old who knew nothing about Jesus. I wanted to rediscover what reasonable conclusions a person would come to while objectively reading the Gospels for the first time. In other words, I read the Bible as if I’d never read it before.

My conclusion? Jesus’ call to commitment is clear: He wants all or nothing. The thought of a person calling himself a “Christian” without being a devoted follower of Christ is absurd.

But please don’t take my word for it. Read it yourself.

For years I struggled with the parable of the soils. I wanted to know if the person representing the rocky soil is saved, even though he has no root. I then wondered about the thorny soil; is this person saved since he does have a root?

I doubt if people even considered these questions back in Jesus’ day! Is this idea of the non-fruit-bearing Christian something that we have concocted in order to make Christianity “easier”? So we can follow our own course while still calling ourselves followers of Christ? So we can “join the Marines,” so to speak, without having to do all the work?

Jesus’ intention in this parable was to compare the only good soil to the ones that were not legitimate alternatives. To Him, there was one option for a true believer.

Let’s face it. We’re willing to make changes in our lives only if we think it affects our salvation. This is why I have so many people ask me questions like, Can I divorce my wife and still go to heaven? Do I have to be baptized to be saved? Am I a Christian even though I’m having sex with my girlfriend? If I commit suicide, can I still go to heaven? If I’m ashamed to talk about Christ, is He really going to deny knowing me?

To me, these questions are tragic because they reveal much about the state of our hearts. They demonstrate that our concern is more about going to heaven than loving the King. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15). And our question quickly becomes even more unthinkable: Can I go to Heaven without truly and faithfully loving Jesus?

I don’t see anywhere in Scripture how the answer to that question could be yes.

James 2:19 says, “You believe there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that “and shudder.” God doesn’t just want us to have good theology; He wants us to know and love Him. First John 2:3–4 tells us, “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him.”

Call me crazy, but I think those verses mean that the person who claims to know God but doesn’t obey His commands is a liar and that the truth really isn’t in him.

In Matthew 16:24–26, Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” And in Luke 14:33, He says, “Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.”

Some people claim that we can be Christians without necessarily becoming disciples. I wonder, then, why the last thing Jesus told us was to go into the world, making disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey all that He commanded? You’ll notice that He didn’t add, “But hey, if that’s too much to ask, tell them to just become Christians—you know, the people who get to go to heaven without having to commit to anything.”

Pray. Then read the Gospels for yourself. Put this book down and pick up your Bible. My prayer for you is that you’ll understand the Scriptures not as I see them, but as God intends them.

 

Obedience and Surrender

I do not want true believers to doubt their salvation as they read this book. In the midst of our failed attempts at loving Jesus, His grace still covers us.

Each of us has lukewarm elements and practices in our life; therein lies the senseless, extravagant grace of it all. The Scriptures demonstrate clearly that there is room for our failure and sin in our pursuit of God. His mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3). His grace is sufficient (2 Corinthians 12:9). I’m not saying that when you mess up, it means you were never really a genuine Christian in the first place. If that were true, there would be no one who follows Christ.

The distinction is perfection (which none will attain on this earth) and a posture of obedience and surrender, where a person perpetually moves toward Christ. To call someone a Christian simply because he does some Christian-y things is giving false comfort to the unsaved. But to declare anyone who sins “unsaved” is to deny the reality and truth of God’s grace.

From other references in Scripture (Colossians 2:1; 4:13, 15–16), the church at Laodicea appears to have been a healthy and legitimate church. But something happened. By the time Revelation was written, about twenty-five years after the letter to the Colossians, the Laodiceans’ hearts apparently didn’t belong to God—despite the fact that they were still active as a church. Their church was prospering, and they didn’t seem to be experiencing any persecution.

They were comfortable and proud. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

 

Poor Rich People

There is a blind boy named Ronnie who lives in eastern Uganda. Ronnie is unique not because of his circumstances or the fact that he is blind, but because of his love for Jesus. If you were to meet Ronnie, one of the first things you would hear him say is, “I love Jesus so much, and I sing praises to Him every day!”

One of Ronnie’s closest friends is a girl who is deaf. What stands out about these two isn’t that they are handicapped or very poor, but that they are totally content and obviously in love with Jesus. They possess very little of what “counts” in our society, yet they have what matters most. They came to God in their great need, and they have found true joy.

Because we don’t usually have to depend on God for food, money to buy our next meal, or shelter, we don’t feel needy. In fact, we generally think of ourselves as fairly independent and capable. Even if we aren’t rich, we are “doing just fine.”

If one hundred people represented the world’s population, fifty-three of those would live on less than $2 a day. Do you realize that if you make $4,000 a month, you automatically make one hundred times the average person on this planet? Simply by purchasing this book, you spent what a majority of people in the world will make in a week’s time.

Which is more messed up—that we have so much compared to everyone else, or that we don’t think we are rich? That on any given day we might flippantly call ourselves “broke” or “poor”? We are neither of those things. We are rich. Filthy rich.

Robert Murray M’Cheyne was a Scottish pastor who died at the age of twenty-nine. Although he lived in the early part of the nineteenth century, his words are astoundingly appropriate for today:

I am concerned for the poor but more for you. I know not what Christ will say to you in the great day. I fear there are many hearing me who may know well that they are not Christians because they do not love to give. To give largely and liberally, not grudgingly at all, requires a new heart; an old heart would rather part with its life-blood than its money. Oh my friends! Enjoy your money; make the most of it; give none away; enjoy it quickly for I can tell you, you will be beggars throughout eternity.7

The reality is that, whether we acknowledge our wealth or not, being rich is a serious disadvantage spiritually. As William Wilberforce once said, “Prosperity hardens the heart.”

When talking to a wealthy person who wanted to go to heaven (and doesn’t that describe most of us?), Jesus said, “‘Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ When he [the rich man] heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!’” (Luke 18:22–24). He says it’s as hard as a camel to go through the eye of a needle—in other words, impossible. But then Jesus offers hopeful words: “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (v. 27).

In the very next chapter, as Jesus enters Jericho, we see exactly how the impossible becomes possible with God. There, the wealthy tax collector Zacchaeus gives half of his money to the poor and pays everyone back four times what he has defrauded them. And Jesus declares, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9).

The impossible happened that day—a rich man received salvation!

 

Offering Leftovers

God wants our best, deserves our best, and demands our best. From the beginning of time, He has been clear that some offerings are acceptable to Him and others are not. Just ask Cain, upon whose offering God did not look with favor (Genesis 4:5).

For years I gave God leftovers and felt no shame. I simply took my eyes off Scripture and instead compared myself to others. The bones I threw at God had more meat on them than the bones others threw, so I figured I was doing fine.

It’s easy to fill ourselves up with other things and then give God whatever is left. Hosea 13:6 says, “When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me.” God gets a scrap or two only because we feel guilty for giving Him nothing. A mumbled three-minute prayer at the end of the day, when we are already half asleep. Two crumpled-up dollar bills thrown as an afterthought into the church’s fund for the poor. Fetch, God!

“But when you present the blind for sacrifice, is it not evil? And when you present the lame and sick, is it not evil? Why not offer it to your governor? Would he be pleased with you? Or would he receive you kindly?” says the Lord.

Malachi 1:8

The priests of Malachi’s day thought their sacrifices were sufficient. They had spotless animals, but chose to keep those for themselves and give their less desirable animals to God. They assumed God was pleased because they had sacrificed something.

God described this practice as evil.

Leftovers are not merely inadequate; from God’s point of view (and lest we forget, His is the only one that matters), they’re evil. Let’s stop calling it “a busy schedule” or “bills” or “forgetfulness.” It’s called evil.

God is holy. In heaven exists a Being who decides whether or not I take another breath. This holy God deserves excellence, the very best I have. “But something is better than nothing!” some protest. Really, is it? Does anyone enjoy token praise? I sure don’t. I’d rather you not say anything than compliment me out of obligation or guilt. Why would we think God is any different?

Two verses further on in Malachi, God says, “Oh that there were one among you who would shut the gates, that you might not uselessly kindle fire on My altar! I am not pleased with you—nor will I accept an offering from you.” God wanted the temple gates shut. The weak sacrifices of the laid-back priests were an insult to Him. He was saying that no worship is better than apathetic worship. I wonder how many church doors God wants to shut today.

Jesus’ instruction to the people of the church at Laodicea was to buy from Him the things that really matter, the things they didn’t even realize they needed. They were wealthy, but Jesus asks them to exchange their wealth for His gold that is refined through fire; they had clothing, but Jesus counsels them to buy clothes that were truly white and would cover their nakedness; they did not desire anything, but Jesus says they needed salve for their eyes that would cure their blindness. He asks them to give up what they thought was so necessary and valuable, in exchange for what really matters.

Mark Buchanan writes, “Physical sickness we usually defy. Soul sickness we often resign ourselves to.”8 The people in Laodicea did not realize or acknowledge that their souls were sick, that they were desperately in need of what Christ offered. As Tim Kizziar said, “Our greatest fear as individuals and as a church should not be of failure but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.”

Recently I saw a bag of potato chips with a bold declaration splashed across the front: “Zero grams of trans fat.” I was glad to know that I wouldn’t be consuming any trans fat, which research has shown is detrimental to my health. But then I flipped the bag over and read the ingredients list, which included things like “yellow #6” and other artificial colors, and partially hydrogenated oil (which is trans fat, just a small enough amount that they can legally call it “0 grams”). I thought it was incredibly ironic that these chips were being advertised in a way that makes me think they are not harmful, yet were really full of empty calories, weird chemicals, and, ironically, trans fat.

It struck me that many Christians flash around their “no trans fat” label, trying to convince everyone they are healthy and good. Yet they have no substantive or healthful elements to their faith. It’s like the Laodiceans, who thought they had everything until Christ told them they were poor and wretched. They were all about declaring, “Look, we have no trans fat. We are wealthy, or we have good families, or we go to church every week.” Obviously, it’s not what you advertise that counts; it’s what you are really made of.

God’s definition of what matters is pretty straightforward. He measures our lives by how we love. In our culture, even if a pastor doesn’t actually love people, he can still be considered successful as long as he is a gifted speaker, makes his congregation laugh, or prays for “all those poor, suffering people in the world” every Sunday.

But Paul writes that even if “I have all faith, so as to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2–3). Wow. Those are strong and unmistakable words. According to God, we are here to love. Not much else really matters.

So God assesses our lives based on how we love. But the word love is so overused and worn out. What does God mean by love? He tells us:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends—faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13:4-8, 13

But even those words have grown tired and overly familiar, haven’t they?

I was challenged to do a little exercise with these verses, one that was profoundly convicting. Take the phrase Love is patient and substitute your name for the word love. (For me, “Francis is patient.”) Do it for every phrase in the passage.

By the end, don’t you feel like a liar? If I am meant to represent what love is, then I often fail to love people well.

Following Christ isn’t something that can be done halfheartedly or on the side. It is not a label we can display when it is useful. It must be central to everything we do and are.

If life is a river, then pursuing Christ requires swimming upstream. When we stop swimming, or actively following Him, we automatically begin to be swept downstream.

Or, to use another metaphor more familiar to city people, we are on a neverending downward escalator. In order to grow, we have to turn around and sprint up the escalator, putting up with perturbed looks from everyone else who is gradually moving downward.

I believe that much of the American churchgoing population, while not specifically swimming downstream, is slowly floating away from Christ. It isn’t a conscious choice, but it is nonetheless happening because little in their lives propels them toward Christ.

Perhaps it sounds as though I believe you have to work your way to Jesus. I don’t. I fully believe that we are saved by grace, through faith, by the gift of God, and that true faith manifests itself through our actions. As James writes, “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:17). The lives of many people who call themselves Christians in America lack manifestations of a vital and active faith.

And this, to be perfectly honest, scares me. It keeps me up at night. It causes me to pray desperately and fervently for my congregation, for the groups of people I speak to, and for the church as a whole.

Henri Nouwen writes about this in his book With Open Hands: “It is hard to bear that people stand still along the way, lose heart, and seek their happiness in little pleasures which they cling to—you feel sad about all that self-indulgence and self-satisfaction, for you know with an indestructible certainty that something greater is coming.”9 Or, as Luke 9:25 says, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?”

How many of us would really leave our families, our jobs, our education, our friends, our connections, our familiar surroundings, and our homes if Jesus asked us to? If He just showed up and said, “Follow me”? No explanation. No directions.

You could follow Him straight up a hill to be crucified. Maybe He would lead you to another country and you would never see your family again. Or perhaps you would stay put, but He would ask you to spend your time helping people who will never love you back, never show gratitude for what you gave up.

Consider this carefully—have you ever done so? Or was your decision to follow Christ flippant, based solely on feelings and emotion, made without counting the cost?

What scares me most is the people who are lukewarm and just don’t care. I think that if I did a poll of the readers of this book, many of you would say, “Yeah, I am definitely lukewarm at times, but I’m not really at a place to give more to God.” Many of us believe we have as much of God as we want right now, a reasonable portion of God amongst all the other things in our lives. Most of our thoughts are centered on the money we want to make, the school we want to attend, the body we aspire to have, the spouse we want to marry, the kind of person we want to become. But the fact is that nothing should concern us more than our relationship with God; it’s about eternity, and nothing compares with that. God is not someone who can be tacked on to our lives.

Remember the visions of John and Isaiah of the throne room of God? Remember the pictures of the galaxies and how tiny we are in comparison? Remember the diversity of God, seen in the thousands of species of trees in the rainforest? We say to the Creator of all this magnitude and majesty, “Well, I’m not sure you are worth it. You see, I really like my car, or my little sin habit, or my money, and I’m really not sure I want to give them up, even if it means I get You.”

When we put it plainly like this—as a direct choice between God and our stuff—most of us hope we would choose God. But we need to realize that how we spend our time, what our money goes toward, and where we will invest our energy is equivalent to choosing God or rejecting Him. How could we think for even a second that something on this puny little earth compares to the Creator and Sustainer and Savior of it all?

We disgust God when we weigh and compare Him against the things of this world. It makes Him sick when we actually decide those things are better for us than God Himself. We believe we don’t need anything Jesus offers, but we fail to realize that slowly, almost imperceptibly, we are drifting downstream. And in the process we are becoming blind, being stripped naked, and turning into impoverished wretches.

No wonder Jesus says He will spit lukewarm people out of His mouth!

Hear me clearly in this, because it is vital—in fact, there is nothing more important or eternal: Are you willing to say to God that He can have whatever He wants? Do you believe that wholehearted commitment to Him is more important than any other thing or person in your life? Do you know that nothing you do in this life will ever matter, unless it is about loving God and loving the people He has made?

If the answer to those questions is yes, then let your bet match your talk. True faith means holding nothing back; it bets everything on the hope of eternity.

I know that this whole swimming-upstream, pursuing-Christ, taking-up-your-cross, counting-the-cost thing isn’t easy. It’s so hard, in fact, that Jesus said the road is narrow and few will actually find it—and fewer still among those who are rich. Like the parable of the sower, don’t assume you are the good soil; don’t assume you are one of the few on the narrow way.

Copyright © 2008 Francis Chan from the book Crazy Love: Overwhelmed By a Relentless God published by David C. Cook; May 2008; $13.99 US; 978-1-4347-6851-3. Used by permission. read more

Crazy Love

Francis Chan, senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in Simi Valley, Calif., is serious about making the church look more like Jesus and actually doing what the Bible says we should be doing. read more

Megachurch Myths

A groundbreaking study on U.S. megachurches shatters every myth we had about America’s 1,200 largest congregations.

In 1960 there were 16 churches in America with attendance of more than 2,000. Now, fewer than 50 years later, there are 1,210 such churches—nearly twice as many as there were five years ago.

Not only have megachurches captured the attention of the evangelical community, but they've become a force to be reckoned with in the wider culture. Their pastors provide counsel to presidents, their congregations are courted by legislators and their resources are harnessed for civic functions and during natural disasters.

In 1960 there were 16 churches in America with attendance of more than 2,000. Now, fewer than 50 years later, there are 1,210 such churches—nearly twice as many as there were five years ago.

Not only have megachurches captured the attention of the evangelical community, but they've become a force to be reckoned with in the wider culture. Their pastors provide counsel to presidents, their congregations are courted by legislators and their resources are harnessed for civic functions and during natural disasters.

In 2005, four megachurch pastors had books on The New York Times bestseller list, and one of these books (Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life) has become the best-selling hardcover non-fiction book in U.S. history.

The attention these churches and their pastors generate is not entirely flattering. In an interview in the Feb. 22 edition of Australia's The Age, World Council of Churches General Secretary Samuel Kobia describes megachurches as "two miles long and one inch deep." The decision of several prominent megachurches to cancel services on Christmas day drew the ire of American evangelicals and became fodder for discussion on secular newscasts. Books from Os Guinness' 1993 Dining With the Devil to this year's Left Behind in a Megachurch World by church historian Ruth Tucker and O Shepherd, Where Art Thou? by seminary professor Calvin Miller have criticized what they see as the commercialization, materialism or shallow theology perpetuated by megachurches.

In almost schizophrenic fashion, American evangelicals have been quick to either uncritically embrace the numeric success of megachurches as a sign of spiritual renewal ... or cynically attribute it to cultural compromise. But the truth may be somewhat less obvious, as recent research would suggest.

Released February 3, Megachurches Today 2005 is a research study of more than 1,800 churches conducted by the Dallas-based Leadership Network and Hartford (Connecticut) Seminary's Institute for Religion Research (HIRR). The study follows on the heels of the 2000 Faith Communities Today study conducted by HIRR and reveals shifts in the growth patterns, geographical distribution and ministry dynamics of America's largest churches. In the course of the research, key characteristics of megachurches distilled—often corresponding with commonly-held myths surrounding the growth, leadership and activities of megachurches. Ministry Today got a sneak-peak at the study shortly before its release and had a chance to talk with the researchers behind it. Here's what we discovered:

MythOne

All megachurches are alike.

There are several characteristics that most megachurches possess—well-educated pastors, youthful attendees and conservative politics, according to Megachurches Today 2005. (As expected, only two percent of megachurches describe themselves as politically "liberal.") In fact, the study notes that they often "have more in common with each other than they do with smaller churches."

However, the monolithic stereotype of the suburban, white, theologically "vanilla", newly-established megachurch may need to be adjusted. For instance, while many churches have earned the status of "mega" in recent years—giving the impression that large churches are sprouting in places where there were none to begin with—the median year that these churches were founded is 1965.

Diversity most vividly shows in the worship styles of megachurches—60 percent of which claim they have changed the style of their services "some" or "a lot" in the past five years. Increasing accessibility and openness to using technology has led to implementation of multimedia aids such as video projection, increasing from 65 percent in 2000 to 91 percent in 2005.

But nowhere is this diversity seen more than in music styles, where, in the past five years, the use of traditional instruments such as pianos and organs has declined and the use of drums, bass and electric guitars increased to 80 percent. This trend in itself is intriguing—particularly in light of the fact that the percentage of megachurches that identify themselves as charismatic or Pentecostal has declined from 25 percent in 2000 to 16 percent in 2005.

Geographically, megachurches are most prevalent in the Sunbelt, with California leading the pack as the state with the most megachurches (178), followed by Texas (157), Florida (85) and Georgia (73). With the exception of Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming, every state has at least one church with more than 2,000 members.

In spite of these apparent regional concentrations of megachurches Scott Thumma, professor of sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary, as well as a researcher on the Megachurches Today 2005 study, believes that a geographical "decentering" is occurring.

"I fully expect to see more megachurches in New England, in the midsection and up the northwest coast of the U.S.," he notes.

MythTwo

Megachurches are fixated on raising and spending money.

The average megachurch brings in about $6 million per year in income, with expenditures at $5.6 million. This can give the impression that megachurches spend a lot of time raising money to support burgeoning staffs, buildings and programs.

However, according to the survey, fundraising ranked lowest on a list of activities that respondents viewed as important—behind study groups, religious education, prayer, pastoral care, evangelism, music, fellowship and social service.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this lack of pressure is the relative ease with which megachurches attract volunteer labor. The study noted these churches employ an average of 20 full-time, paid leadership staff positions and nine part-time positions—in addition to 22 full-time and 15 part-time administrative support staff positions.

However, megachurches manage to engage the labors of an average of 284 volunteers, who each donate five or more hours a week to church work—a ratio of 10 attendees to one staff or volunteer.

MythThree

Megachurches all meet in cavernous sanctuaries on enormous campuses.

In the age of sky-high real estate prices and building-supply costs, large churches must sometimes improvise to accommodate growth. In the Faith Communities Today 2000 study, a majority of respondents felt they had "insufficient building space for many areas of their ministries," and this trend has only become more noticeable in the past five years.

For instance, the average attendance at a megachurch in 2005 is 3,585, but the average seating capacity is only 1,400. (In fact, only five percent of megachurches have sanctuaries of 3,000 seats or more.) As a result, 97 percent of megachurches hold multiple worship services, and five percent hold nine or more each weekend.

Another way this disparity in congregation size and seating capacity is remedied is through satellite locations. At least 50 percent of megachurches use a combination of multiple venues and satellite locations to accommodate growth.

A recent book on this trend, The Multi-Site Church Revolution (by Geoff Surratt, Greg Ligon and Warren Bird) predicts that 30,000 American churches will be multi-site within the next few years. The authors suggest this phenomenon is driven just as much by missiological goals as it is practical constraints and cite churches as small as 30 that have launched satellite congregations.

In a recent interview with Ministry Today, Bird (who was also one of the researchers in the Megachurches Today 2005 study) noted one of these missiological goals is more effectively reaching youth and teens.

"Many new megachurch facilities are smaller in worship capacity but proportionately bigger in their children's and youth facilities," he says. "For example, consider Christ's Church of the Valley, Peoria, Ariz. [www.ccvonline.com]. Eleven thousand worship on a typical weekend, and the sanctuary—which seats 2,800—is well-designed and wired for all kinds of media. Yet the bigger square footage and expense has gone to the facilities used for children and youth."

MythFour

Megachurches exist for spectator worship and are not serious about personal devotion or theological depth.

Because of their size—and the multiple services that most offer on any given weekend—megachurches must painstakingly plan each aspect of their services for efficiency and consistency. Arguably, this level of routine could constrict the flow of authentic ministry on any given Sunday and give congregants the impression that they are merely spectators at an entertainment event.

However, 78 percent of survey respondents described their congregations as holding "strong beliefs and values," and the study noted that practices such as personal Bible study, prayer, tithing and family devotions are emphasized by the church as important aspects of the Christian faith.

Perhaps nowhere is the personal devotion of megachurch attendees more evident than in their propensity to invite friends, neighbors and family members to church with them. 58 percent of megachurches report that evangelism and recruiting is a key emphasis of their ministry. Although megachurches harness mailing lists, TV advertising, newsletters and events to draw new congregants, their most effective method is to encourage members to invite others to services.

When it comes to theology, megachurches are sometimes described as shallow in their approach—with sermons focusing on practical topics often beginning with "How to ..." rather than theological exposition. Warren Bird cautions against the universalization of this stereotype, however.

"In some camps of the seeker model this statement might be true, but the major trend in megachurches is toward life application of Bible truths," he notes. "Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill in Seattle [www.marshillchurch.org] and John Piper at Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis [www.bbcmpls.org]—and many old line denominational churches—are almost entirely theological in their teaching."

MythFive

Megachurches are nondenominational.

The majority (66 percent) of megachurches are denominational in connection, although, whether because of their nondescript names or their styles of worship, many are not easily identified with these denominations. The most represented denomination is the Southern Baptist Convention, claiming 16 percent of America's megachurches.

However, Megachurches Today suggests there is a subtle shift toward megachurches being nondenominational in affiliation, noting that "megachurches founded since 1991 are more likely to be nondenominational and less likely to describe their congregation as traditional, moderate, Pentecostal or charismatic." Younger megachurches gravitate away from the use of labels in general—preferring the more general moniker of "evangelical."

Warren Bird notes several exceptions to this rule.

"New Hope Fellowship, Honolulu, pastored by Wayne Cordeiro is an exception in that their literature and Website clearly proclaims their Foursquare connection. But even they didn't put 'Foursquare' in their church name," he points out. "Charismatic and Pentecostal churches tend not to play down their denominational connection too much, although some newer ones, such as Matthew Barnett's Dream Center [www.dreamcenter.org] and Angelus Temple [www.angelustemple.org] in Los Angeles, are leaving the denominational connection out of their name."

While it is clear that some megachurches downplay their denominational affiliation (the 2000 survey showed only a third said they expressed their denominational heritage very or quite well), very few changed affiliation (three percent in the last five years) or became independent (three percent since 2000).

They predict that, although a few churches may leave their denomination in the next few years, more will either drop the denominational label in favor of a more generic name, or form a quasi-denominational network of like minded churches. Twenty-two percent of megachurches have already done so. Further pointing to this trend toward independence, 37 percent of the megachurches surveyed say they helped plant at least one new congregation in the past five years.

"We are definitely seeing a renaissance of church planting by megachurches, both locally and internationally," notes Leadership Network vice president, Dave Travis.

MythSix

Megachurches grow primarily because of great programming and transfer growth from other churches.

While some would argue these congregations just happened to sprout in the right place at the right time—or even embraced some form of compromise or "secret formula" to ensure growth, researchers note that such formulas don't guarantee success:

"Almost none of the many evangelistic programs and efforts (such as advertising, creating recruitment plans, sponsoring visitor events, contacting persons new to the community or actually contacting persons after they visited the church) we tested had a strong influence on the variable growth rates of these megachurches." Instead, they cite spiritual vitality, adaptation to change, clear mission, youthfulness of the congregation and the tendency of megachurch congregants to tell others about their experiences at church. (They also noted the use of electric guitars and drums is also a factor.)

The common denominator among the fastest-growing megachurches is the extent at which members are involved in recruiting new members. 64.7 percent of those churches that experienced more than 100 percent growth in the last five years say that a lot of their members were "heavily involved."

But are these new congregants being stolen from less dominant and successful churches? Some are.

"The transfers that come from other local churches typically come from churches of all sizes, big and small," Bird notes. "When a church grows past about 400 in attendance, it often becomes what [church-growth consultant] Carl George calls a 'feeder-receptor' church. That is, whether it likes it or not, it becomes a magnet for transfer growth because it usually sports the biggest youth group around or the most 'happening' singles group around. As a result, the larger a church grows, the more intentional it has to be about reaching lost and unchurched people; otherwise the transfer-growth factor can be awkwardly high."

Travis cites reasons people will transfer to a megachurch (e.g., major life change, church strife in the previous church attended, attendance of other family members—even if one is not thrilled with the music) and reasons they never would leave to attend a megachurch (e.g., membership and active participation at the same congregation for more than 10 years, regular giving, deep affection for the fellow attendees and leaders, satisfaction with one's spiritual growth and the likelihood that your children and grandchildren would not want to attend this same congregation.)

"Most church transfers occur because people have opted out of their previous church, and no one chased after them," Travis notes. "It was dropping out and then eventually reconnecting with another church at a later time."

Additionally, dramatic growth can be connected with senior pastoral leadership: 83 percent of churches tracked their most dramatic growth during the tenure of the current senior pastor.

Perhaps less predictable is the connection between the senior pastor's education and the rate of growth. Megachurch pastors are generally more highly-educated than pastors in smaller churches. Thirty-five percent possess a D.Min. or Ph.D., and only eight percent have not completed a college degree.

However, the study noted that "as the education levels of pastors decrease, the rates of growth of these churches increase. ... It raises interesting questions about the mentoring of young pastors and the role of seminaries in producing clergy to fill these very large congregations."

"Today's culture values leaders who are proven doers more than leaders with appropriate educational credentials," Dave Travis notes. "If a pastor can preach and lead in credible ways, and is a lifelong learner, most folks don't care about titles or level of formal education."

Thumma points out this phenomenon may coincide with the prevalence of nondenominational megachurches—many of which do not have educational requirements for their pastors.

"These pastors do not have a pattern of going to seminary," he notes. "They're much more likely to become a pastor through mentoring with another megachurch pastor—their real training is at the feet of their fathers."

So, what does the future hold for America's megachurches? Experts point to an increasing interest in church planting, as well as a growing commitment to education and leadership training—particularly in the customized and resource-rich environment that a megachurch affords.

"An increasing number of megachurches are training the next generation of pastors," Bird notes, citing The Vineyard Columbus [www.vineyardcolumbus.org], a congregation that houses Vineyard Leadership Institute, a center responsible for training Vineyard pastors across the country. "Some become an extension site for a seminary, while others become their own program."

Ultimately, as Thumma notes, megachurches are a product of their times. The urbanization and customization of American culture that has provided a fertile environment for Wal-Mart and the Internet has also been a nursery for our largest churches.

"There's a tendency to think of megachurches as a unique phenomenon—a result of God's blessing or revival. This is a religious interpretation of what I see as a social phenomenon," he says. "But we should also be exploring how megachurches reflect and represent what's going on in culture and society in general."


Matthew Green is managing editor of Ministry Today. For more information on The Leadership Network, visit www.leadnet.org, and to download a copy of Megachurches Today 2005, visit Hartford Institute for Religious Research at hirr.hartsem.edu. read more

How to Spot a Holy Con

They speak in tongues, porphesy and tell stories of missionary exploits. Is their next victim in your church?

They come in all shapes and sizes. They are men, and they are women. They are friendly, they speak and behave like devout Christians—and they are looking to bleed you dry of every last penny in your possession. Christian con artists, spiritual seducers, godly grifters.

They’re constantly on the prowl for easy prey in the church—typically widows, widowers, the recently divorced and the relationship-starved. The more money you have, the bigger a target you are. Here you’ll meet one such charlatan—Jane Smith. Her name and those of her victims have been changed, but her story is true.

While you observe examples of her well-practiced art of deception, you’ll also hear from Jeffrey P. Bjorck, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary’s Graduate School of Psychology, as well as Wayde Goodall, pastor of Winston-Salem (North Carolina) First Assembly of God.

From their expert perspectives, they will point out warning signs and red flags in Smith’s twisted behavior so that those who are a part of your ministries are less likely to become victims of Christian con artists. Smith’s whereabouts are unknown as of this writing. But for many years she traveled around the country—and around the world—earning a very comfortable living by ripping off unsuspecting Christians.

And not only men. Smith was able to seduce and lure women into her traps as well. She sometimes posed as a full-time, Third-World missionary, sometimes as a rich widow, sometimes as a worker for or follower of various Christian ministries—and always speaking familiar “Christian-ese,” and always expertly plucking on the heartstrings of her targets.

That’s how it began for one woman, Michelle, who met Smith on a flight to California in 2003. According to a Dallas Observer article from December 2004, Smith was dressed in musty, secondhand clothes, sported a medical boot on one foot and began a sweet, seductive chat with Michelle, outlining her experiences as a missionary in India.

Michelle was charmed by the slight-looking woman with the bright, dancing eyes. When the flight attendant asked if either of the women wanted some wine, Smith expressed immediate interest. “She hinted it in such a way that I had to pay for it from the get-go,” Michelle said.

  • RED FLAG: First of all, many missionaries don’t drink—so this raises a question from the start. But more than that, Michelle got the sense from the get-go that she was supposed to be paying another person’s way—someone she barely knew. Smith was pushing on boundaries already. Bjorck

    As the two sipped their drinks, Michelle talked about her booming business in the Napa Valley area. That’s when Smith really turned on the charm. “She started with the light fluttering in her eyes, the touching, making intimate contact,” Michelle said. “It was warm, a tad bit flirtatious ... right from the beginning.”

  • RED FLAG: Isn’t “flirtatious missionary” an oxymoron? This is a huge sign that something isn’t right, given the presumed spiritual maturity of missionaries. And when missionaries are on furlough, their primary task is often to raise support from churches. Plane travel is often their time to de-stress, not to engage in questionable interpersonal behavior and conversation. Bjorck

    Turns out that during their conversation, Smith revealed to Michelle that she felt led by God to settle in California—to find property where she could instruct young people from developing nations the process of organic farming.

    What’s more, Smith told Michelle that before their flight she was praying with a woman in an airport chapel, and her prayer partner said she must get on their particular flight because she would meet someone “elemental” to her life. Then, to seal the deal, a pastor from out of nowhere bought Smith a ticket, positive he was performing a service for the Almighty.

  • RED FLAG: This is quite an amazing chain of miracles. But believing in miracles does not preclude the necessity to be “wise as serpents”—and typically valid miracles decrease exponentially as the chain of claimed ones increases. Her story here must be called into question. Bjorck

    Smith seemed so kind, so brave in her missionary adventures and so giving. And at that moment, Michelle found out how giving she could be, too. As the plane landed, Smith—without a dime on her person—launched a plea of sorts:

    “You’ll pay for my room tonight, won’t you?”

  • RED FLAG: Michelle could have asked: “What were your plans concerning your lodging before you got on the plane? Who are your contacts in California? Why would you come here with no solid contacts or accommodations?” Dishonest panhandlers and church scam artists frequently use Smith’s type of approach as they prey on the generosity of sensitive Christians. We are to be sensitive to the needs of all people, however, ever watchful, because we live in a world where dishonesty is normal. Discernment asks questions and then responds accordingly. Goodall

    Michelle was ill-prepared and had precious little time to mull over the matter. Of course—as with so many others before her—Michelle slipped Smith a handout. And the con was only just beginning.

  • RED FLAG: Notice Smith’s question—the wording is passive-aggressive and sets the woman up. She disguised her question as a statement: “You’ll pay for my room tonight.” If Smith’s victim says no, she risks disagreeing with what’s been put forward as a seemingly reasonable assumption—and then she’s the bad guy. Manipulative guilt is an excellent motivational tool. Bjorck

    Diane Jones is a California real-estate agent who has surprisingly sympathetic memories of Smith, despite a multimillion-dollar property transaction that went bad due to Smith misrepresenting her assets and forging official documents.

    “Ah, Jane,” Jones sighs, in a recent interview with Ministries Today. “She was obviously a sociopath and suffered from some kind of a mental illness, but she was also amazingly charismatic. She was quite convincing, very bright and did a brilliant job studying human nature.

    “She was a joyous person who praised the Lord. She mentioned God at every turn, and when someone’s telling you that and has it down pat, it’s completely disarming. I can’t replay the situation in my mind and see anything I did wrong. I loved that woman—whoever she was pretending to be.”

    Turn back the clock a bit—to 2000. Smith set her sights on a two-week conference in Colorado. That’s where she first held hands and prayed with James Dandridge, a career military officer from Texas, who was three years past a messy divorce and searching for direction in his life.

    After the pair prayed, Dandridge learned that Smith had a pretty impressive spiritual résumé. “She said she’d just come back from a trip with a prominent female charismatic minister,” Dandridge told the Observer. Smith also offered that she was “mentored” by the minister herself.

    Dandridge was enchanted by Smith—her gentle nature, her apparent spiritual depth. She was looking for a “Boaz” who desired an honest-to-goodness “Proverbs 31 wife”—an industrious housewife and helpmate as described in the Old Testament.

    Soon, Dandridge was offering Smith money. “She had access to my credit cards early on,” he recalled. “It was a seduction.”

  • RED FLAG: Anyone who would give credit card, Social Security or bank information to a friend or significant other needs a shot of reality. Con artists see and sense naive, hurting, overly compassionate people. They know when to ask the right questions, and they close the sale without hesitation. — Goodall

    Not that Dandridge seemed to notice. Just three months later—and after Smith visited his hometown and met his friends from church—Dandridge asked Smith to marry him. “I thought God was having mercy on me and brought somebody to me to fulfill my destiny,” Dandridge said.

  • RED FLAG: Dandridge’s account sounds as though there were no warning signs. He describes a series of small, passive choices. But once again I would suspect that these choices each involved manipulation masquerading under a facade of warmth that invokes pity. (Plus, a good rule of thumb is spending at least a year getting to know a potential spouse—shorter courtships often blind reality with romance.) Bjorck

    Soon money was flying all over the place. Dandridge lavished Smith with everything she wanted—including a lavish engagement ring and posh nuptials at a five-star hotel. The bill for the bash: in the neighborhood of $60,000.

    But on their wedding night, the once bubbly Smith turned on Dandridge, and became hostile and indifferent. In a marriage that would last but four months, Dandridge and Smith never consummated it. “Within 24 hours,” he recalled, “she’d turned into a witch.”

  • RED FLAG: Working with couples for more than 30 years has helped me understand that there are warning signs in relationships and marriages. No consummation and a quick personality change? Dandridge should have immediately (within two weeks) sought a pastor’s advice or a Christian counselor’s professional opinion. Dandridge was lonely, desirous of a life companion and wanted a normal home. Smith knew this. His unwillingness to get help—and embarrassment over his questionable decision—escalated into a downward spiral, and soon cost him his financial security and further damaged his trust in people. Goodall

    When they married, Dandridge had no debt and owned lucrative property and possessions, but he would eventually lose it all. This “Proverbs 31” wife hocked her engagement ring to buy a bigger diamond, milking her “Boaz husband” for yet another $15,000, and racked up the credit card bills with first-class air travel, designer clothes and frequent massages.

  • RED FLAG: Once again, the incongruity didn’t begin on their wedding night. Someone who wants to be a Proverbs 31 wife and is seeking a Boaz husband doesn’t insist on five-star anything. But for his part, why didn’t he behave as a Boaz husband after his wedding night and insist on a visit with the pastor for post-marital counseling? And how much did he really get to know Smith to begin with? In our often-privatized culture, people tend to avoid in-depth investigation into others’ lives—in previous years, such investigation might be called “healthy relationship.” Bjorck

    By the time Christmas rolled around, Dandridge felt like a prisoner in his own home—trapped there with a critical, psychologically abusive mate who, just a few months earlier, was so much the answer to all of his prayers.

    “She was so deceptive and dominating,” he recalls. “It was like witchcraft. The whole thing was a nightmare. She seemed to manifest different personalities. I know she’s demon-possessed.”

    Smith simply vanished by the start of the new year. Dandridge’s new SUV was gone, too, along with his safety net of gold coins. He had to pawn his wedding ring to get money for the barest of essentials. After filing for an annulment, Dandridge started getting phone calls from bill collectors.

    Turns out Smith charged up $100,000 on credit cards and used a host of different Social Security numbers. Their annulment came through almost a year after he had first prayed with the woman who flashed her seductive eyes at him. Dandridge had no choice but to sell his house to pay off the debts.

    “She pretty much cleaned me out,” he told the Observer. “She’s one scary lady.”

  • RED FLAG: I would encourage pastors in situations like this to keep more careful watches on those in their congregations who can invariably represent targets for such persons. In any congregation there will likely be a few persons who present as more gullible and needy than others, either due to their situations (like the loss of a spouse), their personalities or both. Case in point: A pastor should be particularly cautious when asked to perform a hasty wedding between a wealthy parishioner and future spouse who is relatively unknown. Bjorck

    Daniel Crane met Smith at a revival meeting in a megachurch just outside Atlanta in the summer of 2003. Like Smith’s other victims, Crane was looking for something deep in his life after the death of one of his children, a difficult divorce and business difficulties. Smith pumped him up with words of knowledge—especially that he would soon embark on a “seven-year season of prosperity.”

    Then the flirting started. Smith told Crane how much she liked his eyes, handsome features and well-conditioned body. “Her eyes would just dance,” Crane recalled. “She’d squeeze my hands. Her ability to know how to push and how to pull back was faultless.”

    After the tête-à-tête, Crane saw Smith moving in for what he thought was a typical “church hug. Instead, “She reaches in to kiss me on the mouth and presses herself full-frontal on me,” Crane said. “But it was quick, graceful and soft. It was surprising to me, but very elegant and very appealing.”

  • RED FLAG: Again a Proverbs 31 woman doesn’t appear to be flirtatious or inappropriate. Once again Smith is crossing interpersonal boundaries. In addition, those who combine authoritative words of the Lord and claims of other such spiritual gifts with an equal level of flirtatiousness should be viewed with healthy caution as a contradiction of terms. Bjorck

    When Smith expressed her desire to meet Crane’s children, he invited her home that day. There Smith told him of her unhappy living situation—her roommate was a con artist. “Deceitful” was the word Smith used to describe her—and, by the way, could she stay at his house for just one night?

    A month later, and Smith hadn’t yet left—in fact, she was now running the show, insisting that Crane’s children address her as “Mommy.” While Crane required Smith to sleep on the couch, and while Smith wasn’t sexually aggressive, she said some very odd, suggestive things. To his shock, Crane overheard Smith conversing with strangers that she was his wife.

  • RED FLAG: Subtle and overt sensuality—whether from a woman or a man—can cause victims of it to bypass logic and common sense. Her kiss? Her appeal to stay overnight? Her suggestive comments and telephone conversations? Why we ignore the obvious is a curious study. Our sensitivity to people’s needs must be balanced with caution and discernment. Goodall

    After an ugly argument, Smith threw a phone at Crane’s chest and finally left for good.

  • RED FLAG: One might parallel the abusive nature of Smith’s manipulation to sexual abuse of children. Molestation can involve pleasure but also typically invokes a gut reaction that something is not right. We educate children to notice such contradictory feelings as out of the ordinary, wrong and inappropriate, and we instruct them to get away and tell someone. In the previous scenarios, Smith exhibited similar kinds of danger signs. When a situation feels not quite right or too good to be true, it usually is. Bjorck

    Smith was later seen in a California homeless shelter with a Bible on her lap. The next day, she vanished again. Her last known sighting came courtesy of a diner waitress who watched Smith befriend a kindly couple … who offered to give her a ride to her next destination.


    Dave Urbanski is senior developmental editor for Youth Specialties, author of The Man Comes Around: The Spiritual Journey of Johnny Cash (Relevant Books), music editor for the Mars Hill Review, and writes about music, movies and culture for several publications. read more
  • Future Pastor

    One of America's best-loved pastors shares his secret for staying relevant: risk reinventing yourself.

    It's been said that the pastor today is more of a CEO than a shepherd, but perhaps there is a better metaphor to describe the 21st century pastor.

    As a church grows and broadens its ministry, the pastor must begin to view his role not only as a shepherd but also as a rancher. As a church expands its reach to meet the needs of different groups of people, the senior pastor must be willing to allow others to shepherd those distinct groups. As a rancher, he helps set the direction for all these shepherds so the entire flock can embrace a like vision and operate in unity.

    In order for a church to reach its community today, one must be willing to explore innovative ways to communicate to people who are receiving information, inspiration and motivation differently than they did just a few years ago.

    Each year, when thousands of pastors and leaders gather at our Pastors' School, we emphasize that the method is not sacred--the message is. As long as we maintain the integrity of the good news of Christ, we can be--and we must be--innovative in the way we present the message so that it is relevant to people's lives.

    Ultimately, there are two priorities set before the pastor as his holy charge. They are eternal and must be at the forefront of what he does: the Word of God and people. Everything else will pass away, but the Word of God will remain. And an emphasis on people and their everlasting souls will help keep the pastor focused, and limit distractions such as buildings and programs, which--albeit important--must not become the main focus in ministry.

    If the pastor, or a rancher, if you will, has these priorities in mind and heart, it will be easier for him to reach the community with new methods, but with the same message of the love of God.

    Numerous studies have shown that one of the primary barriers to churches reaching unchurched people in their communities is that many people feel churches are not relevant to their lives.

    I have always felt that the church should be on the cutting

    edge in the ways that it reaches out to people. Fifty years ago, using props and dramatic presentations while presenting illustrated sermons was considered practically heretical. Realizing that our society is becoming more and more visually oriented and less literary, we have to bring the message of Christ to people in a manner that makes sense to them.

    Similarily, when we removed the hymnals from the pews at Phoenix First and replaced them with two large projection screens, many thought that a sacred element of worship had been replaced by some sterile technology. Instead, the worship experience has been enhanced with the use of technology that makes the message relevant to people.

    A pastor must examine the church and its ministries, its facilities and, ultimately, himself to see that the love of God is being effectively communicated to people in a way that makes sense in the postmodern context.

    A pastor should be willing to risk utilizing cultural innovations in order to spread the gospel. For example, we often capitalize on the marketing efforts that are capturing the attention of millions of people in order for those same people to hear our message.

    We recently advertised an illustrated sermon titled "American Idols," complete with a vocal contest, and unchurched people from all over the community came. When the message was presented that idolatry and the pursuit of fame leaves people with a hollow emptiness that only Jesus Christ can fill, more than 1,000 people came to the altars to give their hearts to the Lord.

    We've built new high-tech buildings for youth and children, a "Youth Walk" hangout for teens and a cafe in order to create an environment where we can reach the next generation. Young people who might not otherwise come to church are affected by the message to such an extent that many of them don't want services to end as they continue to seek the Lord.

    If the pastor is a CEO as some church leadership experts claim, then perhaps some reinventing--as the corporate world would call it--is in order. When companies reinvent, they strengthen their identities and visions while increasing the scope of their outreach.

    Without compromising the enduring values of salvation, healing, the Holy Spirit and the second coming, we must create innovative means of communicating these truths to a generation that is biblically illiterate.

    One of the ways that we as pastors can examine our churches' relevance in our communities is to see if our churches represent the people that we are trying to reach in our weekly attendance. If not, we must be willing to take the risk of reinventing ourselves in order to reach a lost and dying world for Christ. *


    In his 50th year of ministry, Tommy Barnett is the pastor of Phoenix First Assembly, an innovative congregation he has served for 24 years. Barnett is the author of several books, including Hidden Power, Dream Again and Adventure Yourself. For a profile of Tommy Barnett, see page 38 of this issue of Ministries Today. read more

    A Teacher and a Mother

    A tribute to the life and ministry of Fuchsia Pickett. Her 50-plus years of teaching will not be forgotten.

    Fuchsia Pickett never fit the mold of a charismatic teacher. Reared in a Methodist family, led to Christ by a Presbyterian friend, educated at John Wesley College, and dramatically healed and filled with the Holy Spirit in a Pentecostal church, Pickett became an icon of unconventional wisdom during her 50-plus years of ministry.

    She stepped into the pulpit at a time when women's callings were typically confined to the nursery, and she taught on the importance of a crucified life when self-promotion and prosperity were the hallmarks of many prominent ministries.

    Who knew that one day this unassuming woman would impact some of the church's most influential leaders, including Myles Munroe, Judson Cornwall and others.

    On January 30, 2004, at the age of 85, Pickett died peacefully in her Tennessee home and went to be with her beloved Jesus. But her life and her teachings will not soon be forgotten.

    EARLY PREPARATION

    Pickett was born to God-fearing parents in Axton, Virginia, and faithfully attended a Methodist church during her early years. She married at 16, after graduating from high school.

    Soon after, Pickett began observing the vibrant faith of a Presbyterian girl with whom she worked. Convicted, Pickett would often lie awake at night questioning whether she would go to heaven.

    After attending an evangelistic rally, Pickett fell to her knees in her bedroom and cried out to God. That night, Pickett walked from darkness into light. Soon after, God began speaking to her.

    Lying in bed one night, she heard a distinct voice calling her name, and she sensed that the room was filled with the presence of God. "I want you to preach and teach My Word," the voice said. "I knew I had heard the voice of God," Pickett told Ministries Today in her final interview.

    God opened the door for her to attend John Wesley College, in Greensboro, North Carolina, and, later, Martinsville Bible College, Aldergate University and the University of North Carolina.

    THE TEACHER MOVES IN

    For the next 17 years, Pickett traveled throughout the country, preaching and teaching--although it was rare at the time for a woman to do so.

    Her father dying of Hodgkin's disease, Pickett began to notice in her own body symptoms of a debilitating bone disease. "I felt instinctively that my days of ministry would soon be over," she said. Pickett tried to hide her condition from her family until the symptoms became unavoidable, and she found herself in a hospital bed, supported with braces and packed in sandbags to sustain her body.

    She had written her own funeral, selected pallbearers and purchased a tombstone when a friend offered to take her to a meeting at a Pentecostal church. During the service, Pickett heard the Holy Spirit tell her to go forward for prayer. Her weakened body in braces, she dragged herself to the front and spoke to the preacher: "I don't know why I'm here. But I have a feeling that God would like these people to pray for me."

    After a simple prayer and a smear of anointing oil, Pickett began limping back to her seat. It was when she reached the seventh pew that she saw her first vision. A voice said to her, "If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land" (see Is. 1:19). The voice continued, "Are you willing to be identified with these people--to be one of them?"

    "Yes, Lord," she replied and began to lower herself into her seat.

    At that moment, Pickett recalled that the power of God struck the base of her neck and coursed through her body. Minutes later, she was dancing and shouting, her unneeded braces clattering to the floor.

    An hour later, having exhausted her vocabulary for praising God, Pickett found herself speaking in a language she had never learned or heard before. "Not only was I healed from the top of my head to the tip of my toes," Pickett said. "But I was filled with the Holy Ghost."

    "My Teacher moved in," she said. "For the first time in my life I began to understand, through revelation, the same Scriptures I had studied and taught faithfully for many years. They came alive to me, not as information, but as power that was working in me and transforming my life."

    DREAMS AND VISIONS

    Soon after, God began to reveal Himself to Pickett in dramatic ways. "You run your classes based on 60- or 90-minute sessions," she recalled the Holy Spirit telling her. "I don't. I live here in your spirit. I have moved in to be your Teacher, and My classroom is never closed. I wrote the Book."

    Pickett added: "As the Holy Spirit would quicken truth to me, whole books of the Bible would open and relate to each other in my mind. I saw how Leviticus related to Hebrews, Joshua to Ephesians, and I walked the floor, shaking my head and staggering in my ability to grasp it all."

    Local Pentecostal pastors caught wind that a Methodist minister had received the Holy Spirit, and soon, Pickett was invited to speak at Pentecostal camp meetings and revival services. As she explained, a Spirit-filled Methodist was a novelty at the time, and her story was welcomed with applause and amazement.

    But she was called to do more than just testify. Daily, God was revealing truths to her about Himself and His Word. Soon, her Pentecostal friend Ralph Byrd began to notice. "You remind me of a Guernsey cow," he told her one day. "You are so full of the milk of the Word that you are bursting with it and looking for every calf around you that you can feed."

    A TEACHER AND A MOTHER

    From that point on, Pickett traveled extensively, preaching at conferences, writing and teaching at Fountaingate Ministries and Bible College, which she founded in Dallas. Over the years, Pickett became respected as both a teacher and a spiritual mother in the charismatic movement. Her teaching was a unique marriage of prophetic revelation and verse-by-verse exposition.

    Pickett applied theological principles from her formal training, but she never held them too tightly when she felt the Spirit move her in a new direction. "I don't despise what I have studied," Pickett said. "That knowledge of the Word brought me to the point that I could receive true revelation of it."

    Unafraid to confront traditional understandings of difficult passages, she often embraced an unconventional allegorical interpretation of Scripture. Pickett described this as the living Word giving her insight into the meaning of the written Word.

    For instance, in a vision, Pickett was transported to the court of Esther, where the Spirit explained to her the meaning of the book and its characters: Esther represents the church, Haman the flesh and Mordecai the Holy Spirit.

    While some would argue that books such as Esther and Ruth are historical narratives to be taken in a strictly literal sense, Pickett taught that they are both historical and allegorical--or revelatory. "As Paul said, all these things were examples," she explained. "The Holy Spirit wrote the facts, but He also gave us deeper allegorical truths all the way through."

    The core of her teaching, however, was the deeper life, death to self and the Spirit's empowerment for godly living. "It is obedience to the revelation we receive that enables the Holy Spirit to keep giving us new revelation," she said. "The test of true revelation is the power it has to transform our thinking and our lives to the image of Christ."

    Was she afraid of making mistakes? "Not mistakes, but incomplete truths," she said. "No one person has it all because the truth is broken into bits." Never one to hold too tightly to her interpretations, Pickett encouraged her hearers to examine her teachings through the lens of the written Word.

    But doctrine was not as much a concern for Pickett as was the disunity and spiritual apathy she saw in the church. Four years after being filled with the Spirit, she received the most dramatic vision of her life, and, like the prophetess Anna, she longed for its fulfillment.

    While she was spending the night in a church in Klamath Falls, Oregon, Pickett saw a hydroelectric power plant being built by crews of laborers. It was surrounded by gates and connected to dammed-up rivers, representing streams of church tradition.

    Pickett said that there will be a last-days awakening, in which God's river of truth will again plow through the mechanisms of the derelict power plant, releasing revival in the nation and around the world.

    It's been nearly 40 years since Pickett saw the vision, but she held to its reality. "We are coming to the last session," she said. "God is digging out the reservoirs, filling them with His Word, connecting people who are hungry."

    THE STATE OF TEACHING

    As she looked at the current church culture, Pickett was both encouraged and concerned. "There seems to be a hunger for what God said rather than what so-and-so said," she said. "This hunger will bring in the presence of God. But if you're not hungry, you won't eat."

    In order for true renewal to come, Pickett contended that the church has to be cleansed of denominationalism, culture and prejudice. "We're fighting over a lot of doctrinal nonessentials--man's opinions, like how to have church," she said. "Denominational lines can come down, and we can focus on what we agree on for the sake of relationship."

    Pickett cautioned against minimalizing the importance of the Teacher--the Holy Spirit, that is. "He is the unveiler of the teaching," she said. "If we walk with Him, He'll talk to us and lead us beyond just what we're hearing or reading. The Holy Spirit is the Teacher, but the gift of God given to the church is the teaching."

    In her last days, Pickett was still exploring challenging books of the Bible--but not the ones most consider difficult. "Ephesians," she says. "It's one of the books of hunger. In other words, it gives insight and provokes hunger, a book to the mature."

    She also hinted that she would soon leave this world. In fall 2003, she told a congregation in Lavergne, Tennessee, that she "wouldn't be coming back."

    Sue Curran, who pastors Shekinah Church, the Blountville, Tennessee, congregation attended by Pickett since 1988, visited the teacher shortly before her death. "During my last conversation with her, she was desirous to live as long as the Lord wanted her to," Curran says. "Our church prayed to that end."

    A LEGACY

    As she grew older, Pickett had lost the physical strength of her younger years but none of the passion and good humor. An interviewer once asked her how old she was. "Age is a number, Honey," she replied with a smile. "Mine is unlisted."

    Although failing health prevented her from maintaining her rigorous speaking schedule, Pickett continued to address the Scriptures with this childlike faith and a sense of mystery, sharing her wisdom with Christian leaders who came to her for insight.

    It was always hard to get Pickett to talk about herself, but you never had to look very hard to find someone who was willing to sing her praises. One of her closest earthly friends was charismatic Bible teacher Judson Cornwall, who had known her since 1961 when she came to his church in Eugene, Oregon.

    "Her insight into the Scriptures was phenomenal," says Cornwall, 79. "The life that was in her seemed to be available to all who would listen with spiritual ears."

    Cornwall attributed Pickett's gifting to an intimate relationship with God. "You had the sense that she heard from the Holy Spirit in her prayer closet, and I happen to know that she had," he says.

    Still, Pickett always realized who really deserved the praise. "It's all about knowing who I am in contrast to who He is. It takes your pride down a number of notches," she said. "The praise that I receive doesn't belong to me. I just pass it on to Him--thank Him for it. I'm only the keeper and steward of knowledge--a trusted servant to handle the truth."

    Soul Food

    Fuchsia Pickett's books enjoy revived interest

    Fuchsia Pickett's writings and teachings continue to enjoy a broad audience, as people seek to gain insight and encouragement from books such as Receiving Divine Revelation, Stones of Remembrance and The Next Move of God.

    Shortly before her death, a new series of books was released, a compilation of her hallmark writings on spirituality. Repackaged in hard-bound collector's editions, the six volumes are a tribute to Pickett's life and teachings. Here are some highlights:

    Five Laws of the Dying Seed: Discover the Secret to a Fruitful Life

    "Resurrection life comes out of losing our lives. Jesus wanted us to understand that out of death comes life and that without death there is no life. His message focused on the antithesis of death--resurrection life that would glorify God alone. Yet, it underscored the necessity of death, a spiritual law that we must embrace if we are to become fruitful in the kingdom of God."

    God's Purpose for You: Answer Life's Five Key Questions

    "Many charismatic teachers deny the need for suffering. They have taught us to rebuke everything the cross brought, to confess that we don't have to endure anything that hurts or cuts away at our 'self' lives. They don't want to talk about the fourth baptism. We speak eagerly of the baptism into the body of Christ, water baptism and the baptism in the Holy Spirit. The fourth baptism, baptism of suffering, however, is not as readily taught. We don't want to suffer."

    Possess Your Promised Land: Learn to Defeat Your Hidden Enemies.

    "Even God's miracles, like the manna He fed His people daily in the wilderness, have the larger purpose of humbling us to teach us the reality of our dependency on our relationship with God. He tests us to see if we will obey His commandments, knowing that only if we do can we inherit our promised land.

    To purchase these and the other three books in this series (Understanding the Personality of the Holy Spirit, Walking in the Anointing of the Holy Spirit and Cultivating the Gifts & Fruit of the Holy Spirit), visit www.charismahouse.com, or call 1-800-599-5750.


    Matthew Green is associate editor for Ministries Today. He was assisted by Carol Noe, who conducted this final interview with Fuchsia Pickett. read more
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