Relationships and experiences—not absolute truth—are the moral compass for a new generation. read more
Relationships and experiences—not absolute truth—are the moral compass for a new generation. read more
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As pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Haggard was a committed charismatic, who reflected the respect Spirit-filled believers are being granted in wider evangelical circles.
But he was also a deeply flawed man, who hid a dark secret none of us could have imagined. His fall from grace raises the same questions that surface whenever the hidden failures of a high-profile leader are made public.
Although even the most elaborate accountability processes can be circumvented, could this situation have been avoided? Are there patterns of behavior that should serve as warning signs to church leaders and their congregations? Are the "superstar" positions of power and influence that characterize 21st-century evangelicalism too much for any man or woman to handle without cracking under the pressure and succumbing to their worst flaws? How does the church regain credibility when its own spokespeople seem to be strangely vulnerable to the very sins that it so vigorously condemns?
In the days following Haggard's admission and removal from leadership, Ministry Today talked with some of the leaders involved—as well as others who have navigated the waters of failure, discipline and restoration. Although many were unable to go on the record with more details than have already been covered ad nauseam in the media, several key observations distill that demand a shift in the way we deal with prevention, discipline and restoration in the wake of a moral failure.
At a time when some Christian organizations possess influence and notoriety on a level with Fortune 500 companies, the days of family-run ministries with secretive policies and no outside accountability have officially run their course. If anything, the Haggard scandal revealed the necessity of efficient, open processes of addressing ethical and moral accusations.
Perhaps wearied of denials and top-secret investigations that last for months with no substantive conclusion, commentators in the media seemed almost incredulous with how quickly the wheels of truth began to turn when allegations about Haggard first broke.
Within 72 hours, a megachurch pastor and one of the most influential evangelicals in America was exposed, unseated and placed in restoration. The bottom line? Every leader, no matter how powerful, should serve at the behest of an independent board of directors that has the power and fortitude to act quickly and decisively.
Unfortunately, the oversight for many prominent churches and ministries is left in the hands of employees and family members, leaving an organization vulnerable to accusation with no independent means of clearing its reputation.
For instance, in 1998, when a former Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) employee threatened to go public with his claim to have had a homosexual relationship with TBN founder Paul Crouch, rather than have the TBN board (composed of Paul, his wife, Jan, and his son Paul Jr.) investigate the claim and clear his name, Crouch paid the accuser $425,000 in hush money. Unfortunately, when the money ran out, the accuser came back in 2004 asking for $10 million more. When he didn't get it, he took his story to the Los Angeles Times.
For members of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), this is a non-issue. The ECFA has stringent requirements for entry—one of which is that "every member organization shall be governed by a responsible board of not less than five individuals, a majority of whom shall be independent, which shall meet at least semiannually to establish policy and review its accomplishments."
Although some leaders Ministry Today spoke with cited the stringent and costly membership standards of the ECFA, one need not join the ECFA to enjoy a comparable level of security and accountability. Any ministry could create its own structure of accountability by appointing an outside board and making its financial activities public.
Although not a member of ECFA, New Life Church had policies written into its bylaws, prescribing a process of investigation and, if necessary, discipline in the event that allegations were made against the church's leadership.
Thomas Gehring is a Los Angeles-based attorney for several megachurches and national ministries. Also the founder of Concilium, a dispute resolution service, he notes that, although state laws usually require a nonprofit organization to be governed by an independent board (no more than 49 percent family members, employees and so on), these same laws do not apply to churches.
However, Gehring emphasizes the importance of an independent board to the ministries he counsels and dispels the myth that such a board puts a crimp on the effectiveness of a visionary leader.
"I've seen an independent board actually help a ministry grow. It's an integral part of church government and church growth," he explains. "The talent that you can bring to a board is just phenomenal."
Regardless of the legal loopholes that allow churches to avoid having an independent board, Gehring points out that the public has high expectations of churches and religious organizations.
"The government, judges and juries expect you as a religious organization to take the high road," he contends. "You're supposed to do even better than just adhering to the law."
These internal policies are worthwhile, not just for ethical reasons, but for legal protection, as Pasadena, California, pastor Ché Ahn discovered. Ahn leads Harvest Rock Church and is the founder of Harvest International Ministry (HIM), a network of 4,960 churches in 32 nations. In 2004, Ahn was faced with a crisis when one of the pastors he oversaw was exposed in ongoing homosexual behavior. When HIM attempted a process of discipline, the organization was sued.
"The sad thing was that the lawsuit essentially short-circuited the restoration process," he notes, "because we had to delegate it to someone else."
The incident prompted Ahn and his team of 23 apostles to tighten up restrictions for membership and ongoing accountability. New applicants for HIM membership must now complete a form drafted by an attorney clearly stating that HIM has the right to exercise discipline in the event of sexual immorality, financial impropriety or doctrinal heresy.
As Ahn discovered, when a ministry's bylaws do not account for potentialities such as moral failure, that ministry is at the mercy of the offending party, who may see an opportunity to drag an organization into a costly and demoralizing court battle. In the current litigious climate, churches are not immune to the attacks of predatory lawyers and embittered constituents, and ministries would do well to re-examine their policies for hiring, firing and disciplining employees.
But some leaders point out that these mechanistic policies—although worthwhile—do not address the root causes of sexual failure that lead to such disciplinary problems in the first place.
"The church has fallen into a false naivete," says Doug Weiss, an author and counselor specializing in sex addiction. "We're still holding pastors to a 17th-century standard of purity, while they're living in a culture of immorality."
Increasingly isolated ministers in an increasingly sexualized culture is a volatile combination, Weiss argues.
"Ministers tend to get caught before they actually admit to sexual addiction," he notes. "And we have not dealt with increasing problems of this among our leaders much better than the Catholic Church and its abuse scandals. Instead, we should be dealing with sexual sin when its small—before it leads to death."
The founder of Heart to Heart Counseling Center in Colorado Springs, Weiss attends New Life Church and is involved in Haggard's restoration process, but he declined to comment on the specifics of the process for reasons of confidentiality. However, he regularly consults with ministers battling sex addiction—as well as the churches they serve—and contends that as many as 50 percent of Christian men are sex addicts in some form or another.
Weiss' solution? Lie detector tests. The psychologist recommends that churches administer them to employees annually as a further incentive to keep pastors and church leaders pure. According to Weiss, sex addicts will not apply for positions that require polygraphs, for fear of being exposed. Additionally, polygraphs help churches effectively restore and monitor staff members struggling with sex addiction.
"If the church is sued for the sexual problems of a staff member, this allows churches to legitimately say to the public, 'We've done our due diligence,'" Weiss notes. "If evangelicals do not decide to be proactive about our leaders and the issue of sex addiction, and perform due diligence in whom we hire as ministers of the gospel, there is a legitimate concern that God will have lawyers help us do so."
Weiss admits that some see polygraph tests as merely a mechanism for changing behavior, not for transforming the hearts of sex addicts, In response, he cites Numbers 5:11-30 in which God instructs the Israelites on how to determine the guilt or innocence of a suspected adulteress by having her drink a potion of water and altar ashes. Sometimes its these practical measures that protect us from spiritual downfalls, he argues.
"Spiritual people fall every day. In Revelation and in 1 Corinthians, there were people who were loving the Lord and people who were immoral, martyrs and sinners side by side," he explains. "The polygraph helps kill the flesh."
As far as concerns about the reliability of polygraph tests, Weiss quips, "They are 98 percent reliable—100 percent more reliable than most sex addicts I know."
Although polygraphs can serve as an effective preventative measure against sexual sin, Weiss notes that our individualistic models of ministry are essentially a breeding ground for immoral conduct.
"Jesus sent the disciples out two by two," Weiss points out, noting that this was probably not just for reasons of friendship or camaraderie, but also for protection against sin. "That was a good policy—not one that suspects everyone is guilty, but one that protects them from becoming so."
As a useful guideline, Ahn cites the "Modesto Manifesto," a document Billy Graham and his team of evangelists drafted in 1948 addressing the dangers of sexual immorality, criticism of local churches and exaggerated publicity. One well-known guideline in the manifesto required Graham to be accompanied at all times by a fellow male minister, to protect from accusation and ensure accountability.
"However, no matter what systems you've set up, you can find loopholes," Ahn notes. "Even if you travel with someone or someone always knows where you are. The real issue is the root issue of the heart. The root cause is pride, arrogance, thinking we're above this."
If anything, the Haggard fall illustrates that every pastor needs someone to whom he can tell his darkest secrets, his most destructive inclinations, his most painful failures. It is in the shadows of secrecy that we are vulnerable to our own depravity—secrecy that is often cultivated by the distance our positions create.
Although he has no means of enforcing it in HIM, Ahn encourages leaders in his network to have at least one person with whom they can have total freedom—a confessor. Ahn emphasizes that these voluntary decisions to be accountable must be made when someone is less prominent, less successful and has less to lose.
For many pastors, this level of transparency is essentially nonexistent, as a July 10, 2006 Barna Group study reveals. Sixty-one percent of pastors say they have no close personal friends. Simultaneously, the survey reveals that "one-sixth of today's pastors feel under-appreciated. Pastors also deal with family problems: one in every five contends that they are currently 'dealing with a very difficult family situation.' "
Many argue that this combination of isolation and deep spiritual and family challenges so common in church leaders is essentially a recipe for disaster. The only solution: deliberate, voluntary, relational transparency.
In the sidebar " 'I Was There' " (page 24) former Pentecostal pastor Nate Larkin reinforces this principle of mutual transparency in an autobiographical account of his own sexual failure in the mid-'80s and the subsequent decades of recovery.
"This is what I have had with another brother for 27 years," Ahn notes. "We share everything, from when we slip and watch something on television we shouldn't to blowing it with masturbation. It's that kind of transparency that we need to have with someone else."
With the exception of Haggard's family, no one felt the pain of his failure more than the New Life Church family, who endured the probing questions of media and neighbors wondering how they could put faith in such a flawed person.
Ministry Today recently talked with Steven Todd, a former pastor, New Life member and executive director of special projects for Africa Ministries Network, a missions organization with offices in Colorado Springs.
Todd is hopeful that the church will recover from the blow of Haggard's failure, citing the swiftness and finality with which Louisiana pastor Larry Stockstill and others on the board of overseers dealt with the accusations.
"It saved the church from weeks of 'he said she said' and a growing polarization of sides—perhaps those who would have been 'pro-Ted' and those against him," he explains, describing the discipline process as an "amputation," a drastic act bringing health to the congregation.
In hindsight, Todd admits that Haggard's notoriety placed undue strain on the congregation—and on Haggard himself.
"Lots of us began to tire just a bit from the constant presence of TV cameras in the sanctuary from CNN and other news outlets," he notes. "But quite frankly, Ted seemed to be handling it in stride. A joke around the church prior to the fall was, 'What is the acronym for Attention Deficit Disorder? Answer: TED.'"
In the weeks following the crisis, Todd notes that the church staff at New Life has been proactive about communicating with New Life's hundreds of small groups, providing them with information as it becomes available and encouraging discussion and healing. While no church can be entirely prepared for the implosion of its leader, Todd emphasizes the benefit of strong structures and decisive action when such a failure occurs.
"The key to all this has been honesty—from the leadership, in particular," he explains. "We can't shove it under the carpet or blame the devil. We have to face it head on. The presence of the overseer board, particularly Larry Stockstill, is extremely significant. We felt that we were not 'alone' and it provided a ballast for the congregation."
A RENEWED VOICE
Admittedly, the failure of Haggard was a tough blow to those who appreciated the fresh manner in which he engaged political leaders in the White House and on Capitol Hill. Haggard avoided the combative rhetoric that characterized conservative Christianity for the last 25 years, and he was frequently quoted in national media as the voice of American evangelicalism. In retrospect, perhaps we put all our eggs in one basket.
Joel Hunter, pastor of Northland, A Church Distributed, in the Orlando, Florida, area, serves on the board of directors of the NAE. He notes that this tendency to let someone else speak on our behalf is natural—and biblical—but that it does not negate the responsibility of local leaders and individuals to initiate direct communication with their representatives.
"We will always appreciate and look for a natural leader or spokespersons," he notes. "Teams and individuals do not replace the need for a go-to leader. Nowhere in the Old or New Testaments was much progress made without a leader stepping up to the task."
At the same time, some have suggested that Haggard's prominence was something of an anomaly created by the convergence of an evangelical in the White House, a Republican Congress, a war with Islamic extremists and the growth of the megachurch movement—phenomena that may be drawing to a close with the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006 and the election of a new president in 2008. With this in mind, Haggard's departure reinforces the need for a variety of voices—each emphasizing different biblical concerns.
"The voices will become more sophisticated and focused, not unlike how the major channels have given way to the cable competition. There is not only FOX News, but also the History Channel, movie channels and so on," Hunter predicts. "So there will be different groups of Christians more focused on specific concerns. But what will not change is the requirement for a biblical basis for our voices and votes."
For better or for worse, the shepherding of this voice is ultimately in the hands of flawed human beings—whose lives sometimes contradict the very values they espouse. Far from an excuse to stop speaking, this factor emphasizes the need for leaders to build walls of protection and networks of accountability to protect the integrity of our voice. The world is watching. God is watching. Where do we go from here?
Confessions of a former Pentecostal preacher with a secret too big to hide.
The "Ted Haggard affair" triggers a flood of memories for me—taking me back to 1988, when Jimmy Swaggart, who described Jim Bakker as "a cancer on the body of Christ" the year before, is in the spotlight and looking mighty uncomfortable. A private detective had photographed him leaving a motel in Metairie, Louisiana, with a prostitute. Now the prostitute is talking. The whole world, it seems, is talking. Swaggart starts crying. I'm experiencing feelings of anger, sadness and embarrassment, but mostly I am feeling relief. At least it wasn't me.
I had bailed out of the ministry the year before, during the PTL scandal, resigning my pulpit and fleeing to the anonymity of civilian life. The official reason for my early retirement: I was burned out. The real reason: I was hooked on porn and prostitutes. The contradiction between my professional life and my secret life was killing me, and I was terrified by the prospect of getting caught.
Ever since adolescence, I had wrestled in vain against the unspeakable power of sexual fantasy. I hated the things it made me do and I hated myself for doing them, but I found that I could not hate my sin or hate myself enough to stop. Well, that's not exactly true. I could stop. I just couldn't stay stopped for very long.
I'd tried all the remedies I knew. I'd repented ad nauseam, forswearing illicit sex until I couldn't bring myself to mock my Maker with another empty promise. I'd prayed until my knees hurt, studied until my head swam, memorized Scriptures and repeated them like the rosary. I'd sought counseling. I'd submitted to prayer for deliverance. I'd even confessed to my wife. Each new effort brought some temporary relief, but my hopes for sexual integrity were always dashed eventually.
Through all the moral turmoil, I managed to keep my public persona intact. You could call me a hypocrite, I guess, but a hypocrite is not sincere, and I did have a sincere desire to honor God and obey His law. I loved God—I really did. I just seemed incapable of remaining true to Him, and I knew that sooner or later my failures would be found out. As a professional minister I was riding a train toward disaster. When I turned 30, the train slowed down a little, and I jumped off.
I told myself that life would improve after I'd left the ministry, but my duplicity actually deepened. The arrival of the Internet fueled my secret life. Cyber fantasies, once entertained, were never content to linger in the realm of imagination for very long. They campaigned relentlessly for a taste of reality. I succumbed to their demands in stages, walking toward Sodom one step at a time.
I almost always walked alone. Occasionally I worked up the courage to tell another Christian—usually a minister—about my battles, but I was careful to approach the subject elliptically, talking mostly in code. The guy would listen sympathetically, pray for me in pastoral tones, and give me the same advice I'd dispensed to parishioners for years.
He might offer to serve as an "accountability partner," but that arrangement never worked very well for me. I'd give the guy permission to ask me the hard questions, but I'd resent him when he did. Then, when the old compulsion returned, I'd start lying to him.
My closest friend—OK, my only friend—was my wife, Allie. God gave me a truly exceptional woman. For years, she was the only person on Earth who knew what a loser I was and loved me anyway. Allie was safe. She bore up bravely under the weight of each confession, but my betrayals wounded her deeply, and after awhile I couldn't bear to hurt her any more.
During the darkest years of my life, I begged God time and again for a private solution to my private problem, but He never gave me one. Today, I'm glad He didn't. Today, I can finally see a purpose in His apparent passivity. My weakness, which the enemy intended to use for evil, God was determined to use for good.
God had not afflicted me, but He had decided not to remove my affliction. He loved me too much to remove from my life the one lever big enough to force me out of isolation and into honest relationships with other disciples. In the end, I found victory over my sin by surrendering not just to Christ, but also to the body of Christ.
Ever since I was a kid, I had been under the false impression that my core relationship with Christ was not only personal—it was private. And when I entered the ministry, privacy became a practical necessity. As pastor, I was the guy with the answers, the guy who had his act together. Sure, I could remind my congregation from time to time that "I'm not perfect," but the only sins I could safely acknowledge were misdemeanors such as grouchiness and speeding. I was their solitary hero, a solo disciple, an inspiration to the weak and discouraged. I was a shepherd, no longer a sheep.
Here's the problem. Judging from the New Testament, Jesus isn't very interested in solo disciples. He first said "Follow Me" to two guys, not just one—and to them He quickly added 10 more. They followed Him together for two years, as a team, while He taught them how to love one another. When He sent them out to teach and heal, He sent them out in pairs. At the end of His ministry, as He was preparing to return to His Father, Jesus assured His disciples that He would still be with them, but under very strictly defined terms. "Whenever two or three of you are gathered in My name," He said, "I'll be there."
Think about it. The distinction is lost in English, but virtually all of the promises and commandments of the New Testament were written in the plural. The church, Paul says, is not a loose federation of self-sufficient individuals. It is a body, a living, breathing organism, whose members are so closely connected that they can only move together. Biblical Christianity—the faith that actually works—is not private at all. No, biblical Christianity is a collaborative enterprise. It is a team sport, not an individual event.
Today, my life is rich beyond description. Allie and I are still married, and we're happier than ever. She's still my best friend, but my wife is no longer my only friend. I now have dozens of deep friendships with brothers in Christ. Most of them are members of a group called the Samson Society. My friends in the Samson Society know my story—the worst of it, anyway—and they still treat me with respect.
There are six guys in the group who know my whole story, and I keep them updated on a weekly basis. One of them has agreed to serve as my Silas, and I keep him updated daily. Sometimes, when I'm feeling especially vulnerable, I'll call him several times in a single day. Most of my comrades in the Samson Society have been driven to the fellowship by the consequences of isolation. Most of them aren't addicted to sex and some of them don't seem to be addicted to anything, but that doesn't matter. I now know that sex was never really my problem. It was merely my favorite solution.
For years, I used the mood-altering properties of sex to medicate the pain caused by my real problems, deeper issues which, as it turns out, are common to man. These are the things my brothers and I discuss every day: pride, fear, unbelief, resentment, self-pity and the like. And more than our sins, we talk about the Solution, reminding each other daily of our high calling and the power and beauty of the gospel. We carry one another's burdens, and we call forth one another's glory.
When I die, Allie won't have to scramble to find six guys to carry my casket. I'll be carried in death by the same guys who are carrying me in life. They are carrying me and I am carrying them, and the indwelling Christ is carrying us all.
Looking into the tortured face of Ted Haggard, I can't help but wonder, Where were his brothers? Where are they now?
I feel as called to write as I do to pastor, but my writing dream took a lot longer to fulfill. In fact, there were moments when I wished God hadn't even given me the passion to write because the dream was like a pebble in my shoe, a constant source of irritation and frustration. The longer I went without turning that dream into reality, the longer the shadow it cast on the rest of my life.
Then in 2002 I took one small step in the "write" direction. I started turning my weekend messages into an Evotional that I sent out via e-mail to subscribers. That weekly exercise forced the writing habit. And it proved to be an important part of my digital ministry. Exponentially more people read my Evotionals than listen to my messages.
The next step in my writing journey was self-publishing my first book, ID: The True You, with Xulon Press (xulonpress.com). The driving motivation was proving to myself that I could actually write a book. I self-imposed a deadline, invested $1,500 into the project and the book was released in November of 2004.
I wish I could tell you that ID was a New York Times bestseller. It wasn't. In fact, it sold 57 copies its first month in print. My first royalty check was a whopping $110.43.
Let's just say that I didn't start making early retirement plans!
Shortly after ID was listed on Amazon.com, I decided to get a little more proactive in pursuing my writing dream. I started working on another manuscript that I titled In a Pit With a Lion on a Snowy Day. I started praying for favor with publishers. I e-mailed my friend Brian McLaren and asked if we could grab lunch.
Brian is the author of several paradigm-shifting books including A New Kind of Christian. I asked him a thousand questions about publishing, and he was patient enough to answer all of them. Then he went the extra mile and introduced me to an author agent named John Eames. John and I had several conversations. He liked my writing style. I liked his experience and expertise within the publishing industry. And I signed John as my agent.
After helping me craft a book proposal, John began shopping it to seven publishers that he thought would be a good fit. Several publishers expressed interest, but a five-hour meeting with Kevin Marks and David Koop from Multnomah Publishers sealed the deal.
One thing they said impressed me: They said they weren't looking for an author. They were looking for a relationship. I felt like they "got me" and I "got them." And I respected their team of authors that included the likes of Andy Stanley, Louie Giglio and Bruce Wilkinson. After three months of conversational negotiating, I signed a deal to write four books over a two-year span.
As I look in the rearview mirror, I have several observations about my writing journey. I can see the way God answered my prayers for favor. I can see how perseverance eventually pays off. But the thing I marvel at the most are the supernatural synchronicities.
God is in the business of making sure we meet the right people at the right time. My book deal was the byproduct of divine networking and divine timing. And if God has called you to write, then He'll open the right doors at the right time.
I'm not going to lie. Writing, editing and marketing a book is hard work. It involves a lot of early mornings and late nights. And it won't simplify your life. But the last time I checked, the reward for good work in the parable of the talents wasn't an early retirement or extended vacation. The reward for good work was more work.
If you're not called to write then don't write. But if you are called to write, then you need to develop a writing discipline. And pastors have a distinct advantage. You're already writing a sermon every week. And with a little tweaking, you can convert that message into a chapter of a book. For what it's worth, my mentor in ministry, Dick Foth, once told me that the average pastor of a church with three weekly services preaches the equivalent of nine novels every year!
Writing will not only expand your sphere of influence, but the primary beneficiary will be your congregation. Writing books will help you preach better sermons. Your books will become discipleship resources for small groups and sermon series. And I even view my books as 200-page evangelism tracts. They are one way I share my faith with neighbors, unchurched friends and people sitting next to me on airplanes. I have no idea what my writing future holds. I hope In a Pit With a Lion on a Snowy Day sells more than 57 copies its first month, but I can't control how many books I sell. Only God knows what will happen when the book is released on October 2. All I can do is write like it depends on me and pray like it depends on God.
Here are seven writing tips for aspiring authors that I picked up along the way:
Write for intrinsic reasons. If you write for the wrong reasons your dream will short-circuit. I often ask rookie authors if they are willing to write a book even if it doesn't sell one copy. That is the litmus test because it reveals whether they are writing for extrinsic reasons or intrinsic reasons.
Writing for intrinsic reasons is like singing in the shower. You write, first and foremost, because you love to write. In fact, you can't not write because you feel called to write. Every author who believes in what they write wants to sell as many books as possible, but that can't be the driving motivation. Don't write because you want people to read. Write because you've got something you have to say.
Find a writing rhythm. Half of writing is rhyme. The other half is rhythm. My peak writing hours are 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. In fact, I get more accomplished before my official workday starts than I do the rest of the day. I hit a point of diminishing return around noon. My mind is too cluttered to write straight. I also find that sometimes I need to walk away from whatever I'm writing for 24 hours to regain my perspective.
Keep reading. Writers are readers. I read approximately 150 books per year. Granted, I have an unfair advantage as a preacher, because I slot about 25 hours of study time per week. But I've also learned to be a good steward of my time. I have a book with me wherever I go. And the truth is that everybody could read at least one book a month if they simply kept a book in their bathroom.
Find your voice. Writing a book is baring your soul. You feel intellectually and spiritually vulnerable. Writing forces you to come to terms with who you are and who you aren't. Unfortunately, many authors hide behind their words. You don't feel like you know them any better at the end of the book than you did at the beginning. I try to write as if I'm having a conversation with someone over coffee. Keep it real. Keep it personal. Don't just share your thoughts. Share your life.
C.S. Lewis said that every life consists of a few themes. Finding your voice is giving expression to those themes—your core convictions and core passions. Write about the things you're passionate about. And dare to be different. Don't be afraid to express your personality and originality in what you write.
Know your writing strengths. Writers need editors because all of us have blind spots. A good editor understands an author's weakness and complements an author's strengths. I know my strength is saying old things in new ways. I juxtapose truth in creative ways. I'm insatiably interested in everything, so I import knowledge from a variety of disciplines—everything from physics to business to philosophy to neurology—to add density and variety to my writing.
I'm good at conceptualizing truth in creative ways, but my weakness is application. And I recognize that in my own writing and preaching. I'm a 30,000-foot thinker. I tend to fly circles around the airport, so I need editors who help me come in for a practical landing.
Tie off the umbilical cord. I'm a perfectionist by nature. I will keep revising a manuscript 'til kingdom come if I don't have a deadline, but at some point you have to tie off the umbilical cord so a book can take on a life of its own.
According to Parkinson's Law, the amount of time it takes you to complete a project depends on how much time you have allotted. If you have a month, it'll take a month. If you have six months, it'll take six months. One way that I've overcome my perfectionism and procrastination is the 80-percent rule. I send my chapters to my editors when I feel like I'm 80 percent of the way there. It relieves some of the pressure I feel to make sure every chapter is perfect.
Pray like it depends on God. We have a core value at NCC: work like it depends on you, and pray like it depends on God. That is a pretty good modus operandi when it comes to writing. Writing is hard work. There is no way around it. But prayer is what helps a book come to full-term.
I actually had a prayer team that was interceding for me while I was writing In a Pit With a Lion on a Snowy Day. The prayer team prayed for every person who would pick up the book and read it. They prayed for my editors. And they prayed that I would write exactly what God wanted me to say. Those prayers give me a sense of destiny. I can't wait to see the way God answers those prayers in the lives of readers.
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."
From A Thief in the Night movies of the '70s and '80s to the more recent Left Behind book series, written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, the end- times story has come into the forefront of the imagination of the average churchgoer-and the average American.
More than 63 million copies in the aforementioned book series have been sold, with one in every eight Americans having read at least one Left Behind book. Even mainstream American entertainment has picked up on end-times terminology and culture. Movies (The Omen, The Seventh Sign, The Prophecy, The Rapture), books (The Stand, The Mask of Nostradamus) and music (“It's the End of the World As We Know It”) all borrow biblical phrases and imagery.
In fact, according to a 2001 Barna Group poll, 44 percent of American adults believed in a rapture. Those numbers fluctuated depending on church affiliation (71 percent of non-mainline Protestant organizations held to the belief while only 38 percent of mainline attendees did).
But how are theories on eschatology shifting in light of wars, natural disasters and epidemics? Is a younger generation embracing the end-times views of its forebears? And how does this renewed fascination with eschatology shape everyday ministry? Ministries Today sat down with some authors, pastors and scholars to explore what the future holds.
Eschatology is a heady topic-even for the most seasoned scholar. But, for many, their first introduction to end-time theories is prior to or immediately following conversion. In fact, one could argue that the threat of the immanent judgment of God is a useful motivation for becoming a Christian in the first place.
Truth be told, most of us have met at least one person who traces his or her conversion to reading the dire predictions of Hal Lindsey's 1970 book, The Late Great Planet Earth, or a tract created by Jack Chick. But some argue that fear tactics should not be the impetus behind evangelism.
“If our end-times talk is the good news being preached in all nations, then that will motivate us in a good way,” says Craig Keener, professor of New Testament Studies at Palmer Seminary and author of the NIV Application Commentary: Revelation. “The problem is that some people have used eschatology the way the world uses horoscopes, just to satisfy our curiosity about the future.” Paul Maier is professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University and author of More Than a Skeleton, a book that gently pokes fun at traditional dispensational eschatology and explores the possible reaction of the evangelical community if someone claiming to be Jesus suddenly appeared on earth. Maier discourages the use of eschatology for purposes of proselytizing.
“I think the core message is misplaced if we're constantly using the apocalyptic messages of the Bible for evangelical purposes,” he told Ministries Today.
Data suggest that apocalyptic events do have an impact, at least in the short term, on the public's sensitivity toward spiritual things. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Christian leaders celebrated a rise in church attendance, with Pat Robertson predicting, “one of the greatest revivals in the history of America.” The Gallup Organization chronicled a 6 percent rise in church attendance in the months following the attacks … which quickly dropped 5 percent.
Sigmund Brouwer, who co-authored the end-times themed The Last Disciple with Hank Hanegraaff, points to damage done by emotional end-times evangelism.
“Some Christians are happy to overlook false predictions made by church leaders who continuously revise the time-line of end-time prophecies,” Brouwer says.
“Again and again I hear of people who converted to Christianity a decade ago because they were told the end of the world was upon us, and who now doubt the entire Christian message because of specific failed prophecies made by church leaders.”
It doesn't help, argues Maier, when these stark visions of a wrathful God are juxtaposed with more tolerant portrayals that have recently become popular in mainstream entertainment.
“Let's say you have a seeker-someone who is now being affirmed in their unbelief by books like The Da Vinci Code,” Maier offers. “Is this person going to give any credibility to a God of the Left Behind series who zaps a Christian crew out of a plane and lets the plane crash?”
Jason Boyett is the author of the tongue-in-cheek Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse, a book aimed at helping 20-somethings understand the nuances of eschatology. Boyett argues that a pre-tribulation, rapture-focused Christianity is primarily numbers-focused in its evangelistic technique.
“It tends to place getting decisions for Christ above everything else,” he says. “The rapture can come at any moment, so the foremost duty of all Christians becomes an urgent commitment to evangelism. There is less focus on spiritual formation, discipleship, meeting the needs of the poor, being good stewards of the environment or concern about generations to come.”
But others argue that this imbalance is not a natural byproduct of a premillennial, pre-tribulation view of the end times.
“A believer on the lookout for Christ doesn't have to ignore the world,” says Greg Laurie, senior pastor of Riverside, California's, Harvest Christian Fellowship and author of the newly released Are We Living in the Last Days?
“It's been said a person could be so heavenly minded you're no earthly good, but, you can be so heavenly minded you can be earthly good,” he suggests. “If you really understand what the Scripture teaches about the imminence of the Lord's return, it isn't telling us to abandon our jobs and sit on rooftops but to be faithfully using the gifts God has given us.”
Laurie, who's been studying Bible prophecy for 30 years, says his end-times message is by far his “most responded to” message, prompting him to offer his views in the book.
“The Left Behind series opened the door to a whole new generation of people to look at what's going on in the world,” he says. “The authors would be the first to point out that they're taking certain liberties, but the core message is the same that Hal Lindsey wrote about years ago: The Lord could come back at any moment, there are signs of the times that have been fulfilled, and we need to be ready.”
Various interpretations of Scripture and prophecies have yielded several heightened moments of end-times focus. In 1988, Edgar Whisenant predicted Jesus' return during the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashana in his booklet 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Is in 1988. More than 3.2 million copies of the booklet were distributed, bringing eschatological discussion into the national spotlight.
Subsequent prophecies have followed, revolving around the dawn of the 21st century and the feared Y2K computer meltdown. Even in the midst of natural disasters and global terrorism, the question could be asked: Is the church still seeing “the signs of the times”?
“A perceived uptick in catastrophic occurrences tends to set everyone's rapture-meter buzzing,” Boyett explains. “Of course, there have always been wars, famines, earthquakes, tsunamis. These days, we're infinitely more aware of them because of the Internet and the immediacy of the global media. Whether or not these things have actually increased in recent years, the perception is that they have.”
Looking for signs is yet another possible distraction for the church, says Keener, who believes some of those signs aren't as clear as believers may think.
“The things we see as signs are in Matthew 24, but it's very ironic that we're using that passage,” he says. “Jesus specifically refers to them and then says, 'You'll see these things, but the end is not yet.' In verse 14, He says, 'When the good news of the kingdom has been preached to all nations … and then the end will come.' Instead of fixing on the signs, we should be fixing on the mission. It's not to say these things aren't indications of God's working, but they're not the point that Jesus calls us to focus on.”
Jill Austin, prophetic minister and author of the Master Potter book series, does feel the signs are everywhere and should engage the church to a greater awareness of Jesus' return.
“I feel the signs of the times, the birth pains, are getting closer,” Austin states. “We are in war, we're in global shakings. The church is in a radical transition right now. Different dictators are being taken out. There are holy alliances, and we are moving into an escalation of a real shaking. Everyone knows, even in the world, that the Lord is returning soon.”
But for Austin, these signs are not an impetus toward eschatological speculation or an escape clause, but a call toward spiritual warfare.
“I feel like if you want to be a history changer, you need to have a radical God encounter,” she says. “He gives you the power to change cities and strategies. It's having this living radical encounter with your life.”
Like Austin's call to prayer, there are points of agreement prophecy scholars can reach, giving some common ground to the end-times discussion.
“I believe all Christians should believe we are living in the last days,” Maier says. “When the church loses sight of Jesus' return, it gets lazy.”
Laurie is quick to address the potential divisiveness of the issue and his hope for a healthy discourse: “I don't think we as Christians should break fellowship over our views on this topic. A healthy discussion and debate is good, but I think most evangelical believers believe Christ is coming soon.”
The timing of Christ's second coming is the main point of disagreement for many evangelicals, who hold views as divergent as premillennialism (the belief that Jesus will return before a literal 1,000-year reign) and preterism (the belief that all Bible prophecies-including those concerning the second coming-were fulfilled before A.D. 70). With such diversity, what is there to agree on?
“As Christians holding different views, we all can agree on some of the insights of each of these views,” Keener says. “Christ reigns now and helps us to make a big difference in this world. In this world we have tribulation, and we must be ready to lay down our lives for our Lord. Our glorious hope is our Lord's return, and we must live our lives in expectation of that return.”
The view of a pre-tribulation rapture of believers is one that some scholars point out is virtually still “new” and only took hold with the non-mainline Protestant churches in the 19th and 20th centuries. If the emerging church continues to examine and study its beliefs in light of Scripture and not necessarily tradition, Keener says another theological shift might be in order.
“I was taught the 'pre-trib' view, and it was probably the most decisive issue that turned me toward reading and studying Scripture,” he says. “I was told that you have to believe this because all the great men of God believed it, but then I found out a few months later, nobody in church history, Luther, Calvin, John Wesley, nobody believed in that doctrine until 1830. I can't just say this is what everybody believes. I needed to find out for myself.”
There is some indication that this tendency toward self-study is a characteristic of younger evangelicals, many of whom resist both end-times speculation and adopting any one view of eschatology.
“Fueled by postmodernism, open-mindedness and the more conversational, less dogmatic theology of the emergent church-I believe the next generation will be much less apocalyptic in tone,” Boyett argues. “Less interested in reading Revelation as a scriptural play-by-play of the last days and more concerned with understanding it in terms of its place in the culture.”
There's nothing like unfulfilled end-times predictions to teach us that no one knows the day or the hour of Christ's return.
SOURCE: Pocket Guide to the Apocalypse, by Jason Boyett (RelevantBooks) read more
The first African American, the first military chaplain and the first Seventh-day Adventist to serve in his position, Black is well aware of the uniqueness of his role. But he's more convinced than ever that it is God-not the Constitution-that has created a place for him in Washington, D.C.
While she was pregnant with Barry, his mother was baptized and asked God for a special anointing on her unborn child. The results were tangible. “I have never had another rival in my affections as far as my vocation,” Black explains. “I have always wanted to be a minister.”
Being reared in an impoverished-and virtually fatherless-family in a Baltimore ghetto, Black's chances for vocational ministry seemed slim to none. But his mother daily wove Scripture into the lives of Black and his siblings, offering them a nickel for every Bible verse they memorized. One of these verses may have saved his life.
Black vividly recalls the day his mother assigned him Proverbs 1:10: “My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not.” Hours later, two neighborhood friends invited the 14-year-old Black to join them in “getting back at” a mutual acquaintance. Remembering the verse, Black declined, and the boys left. Later, he learned that the boys were involved in a murder, and both went to prison for life.
In retrospect, one could say that many events in Black's life have pointed to his most recent assignment. When he was only 8 years old, his mother gave him a recording of Senate Chaplain Peter Marshall's message “Were You There?” He listened to it until he could recite it from memory. Even now, nearly five decades later, he is able to deliver the sermon, complete with a convincing version of Marshall's Scottish brogue.
After college and seminary, Black pastored several churches and was commissioned as a Navy chaplain in 1976. He had been promoted to the rank of rear admiral, was serving as chief of the Navy chaplains and was preparing for retirement in 2003 when he was invited to interview for the Senate chaplaincy.
Dressed in a crisp civilian suit and a studious bow tie, Black's demeanor still reflects the military precision of his Navy days. He rises at 5 a.m., works out, spends time in devotions and uses his 45-minute commute to listen to Scripture on CD. The average week is a whirlwind of invocations, counseling sessions, Bible studies and speaking engagements.
Black serves not only the 100 senators and their families but also the 16,000 staff members that work on the Senate side of Capitol Hill. His daily responsibilities rival that of a megachurch pastor-with one notable exception.
“I have the opportunity of being involved with my members at a level that the average pastor cannot,” he says. “I see people on their jobs.”
This level of engagement has given Black a bird's-eye view of the spiritual climate in the nation's capital-a perspective that tends to be overlooked by the mainstream media. Recently, Chaplain Black sat down with Ministries Today to tell us how God is bringing spiritual renewal to the most unlikely of places-and what values should shape the church's involvement in national transformation.
Ministries Today: How does your role fit into the constitutional understanding of “separation of church and state”?
Senate Chaplain Barry Black: The Senate chaplaincy is a nonpartisan responsibility. The congressional chaplaincies were created in 1789 and were established three days before the establishment clause of the Constitution. We know that by the very fact that there was a chaplaincy when that was written, the intention of our founders was not to pull religion completely outside of government activities.
I like to say there's a separation of church and state-a phrase that does not occur in the Constitution-but not a separation of God and state. So, I'm very, very comfortable being who I am as a spiritual person and meeting the spiritual needs of people on Capitol Hill, as best I can, bringing something of the transcendent into this very important environment. Capitol Hill is one place where you need God.
Ministries Today: What are some signs of spiritual interest that you are seeing in the Capitol?
Black: I've seen evidence of what Paul called “saints in Caesar's household.” We can get as many as 200 people at our plenary Bible studies. That's an amazing number of people who regularly gather to study the Word of God.
This study has an amazing level of biblical literacy. I can start in any verse and these so-called ordinary people can tell me chapter and verse. A significant number of senators attend the prayer breakfast-as well as the Bible study. A significant number of spouses and chiefs of staff attend the Bible studies I lead for them.
Ministries Today: What do you think is behind this interest?
Black: These are challenging times. We've had to evacuate the Capitol a couple of times just in the last three months because of airplanes entering prohibited airspace. The news we hear from around the world is enough to make people more vulnerable to the things of the Spirit-to seek answers from someone bigger than any human being.
Ministries Today: What are some misperceptions people have about the spirituality of their elected officials?
Black: One misperception is that people who debate certain issues inside the chamber cannot be friends and spiritual brothers and sisters outside the chamber. People here are seeking after God in the same way that people outside of Capitol Hill are seeking God. Also, very few would know about the people who come into this office, and seek me out because they are wrestling with spiritual and theological issues.
Ministries Today: It sounds like your role is something of an ethical coach to our lawmakers?
Black: Well, I talk to them about ethical conundrums-a “right versus right” challenge. It is what the apostle Paul talked about when he referred to proving “what is excellent”-choosing better over good. They involve decisions of truth versus loyalty, the individual versus the community, long term versus short term and justice versus mercy. And the reasons may differ, but I encourage them to have an ethical foundation to reach their decisions. Former Senate Chaplain Lloyd John Ogilvie used to tell the senators: “You have one constituency: God. If you please Him, everything else works out.”
Ministries Today: So, you would argue that the gospel-and your role-is not out of place on Capitol Hill?
Black: Good news is as needed on Capitol Hill as anywhere. Moreover, many of the challenges we face today are analogous to those faced by Nebuchadnezzar. There's a sense of foreboding, but we can't remember the dream. There are many wise men who can give you the interpretation of a dream that you can remember, but who are powerless when revelatory knowledge is needed.
I think we face challenges as a nation-and as a planet-that create this sense of foreboding. We need supernatural wisdom, supernatural guidance. Our leaders need a wisdom the world can't give them. It's time for people who know the Lord to connect with Him in such a way that He can impart the desperately needed wisdom that can make the difference for a nation.
Ministries Today: You use the word “revelatory.” Do you see God speaking through people today-not just through His Word?
Black: The Scriptures are not some static verbiage encased in the cannon. They're alive, as 2 Timothy 3:16 says. So, we do not so much search the Scriptures, as the Scriptures search us. Not a day goes by that I do not receive a rhema word from God. If I depend on what I read a couple of days ago, that's like trying to save the manna. It just doesn't work that way.
I believe God speaks in the here and now. Joel prophesied, “And it shall come to pass afterward that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.” I think we're in that time.
Ministries Today: Speaking of prophecy, Ugandan pastor Jackson Senyonga prophesied over you about renewal in Washington, D.C. Can you tell us about that?
Black: The week before he came, the Lord had laid on my heart Psalm 2:8, “Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.” Jackson came and said, “God sent me here with a word for you, and He told me to tell you to ask Him for the nations.”
It was a validation of the rhema word God had laid on my heart. It kept reverberating in the corridors of my spirit, and he and I discussed how this could happen based on what had happened in Uganda. He laid out a step-by-step blueprint of a necessary process of the realization of the vision. It was one of a number of prophetic visits I've received.
Ministries Today: So, would you consider yourself a charismatic?
Black: I would call myself a theological eclectic. I read through the Bible three or four times a year, and I listen to CDs of Scripture. I deliberately drive to work in an hour-and-a-half round trip where I'm in the Word just hearing it and letting it move through me.
What happens when you immerse yourself in the Word is that you break out of labels, you become a moving target. There's a flexibility and a breadth and a lack of strictures to the religion of Jesus Christ. That same freedom manifests itself in terms of our theological stances. The moment you can put something in concrete, you're headed for a problem. You need to always be open to a move of God, a fresh word from the Lord.
Ministries Today: Is there any hope of the Christian “right” and the Christian “left” coming together?
Black: The focus of left and right should be to get back to basics. We've become too smart for our own good. When the Magi came to Herod, they called in the theologians. They came in extremely knowledgeable. They knew where He was to be born, but they did not have the spiritual wisdom to walk the five miles and worship Him. You need more than information. The wise men did not have the information, they had an experience. They were following a star. The ones with the cerebral advantage did not take advantage of it.
My feeling is that what's up here [pointing to head] is minor compared to what's down here [pointing to his heart]. I'll take a rough Elijah who's looking about the political scene and saying: “God, now they're saying that Baal is the one who sends the rain. Show Yourself strong. Stand up and do something.”
James 5 says, “One man, just like us, shut up the heavens for three-and-one-half years.” That's what we need in our pulpits. That's what we need in our churches. That's what we need in our legislative and executive branch.
Ministries Today: So, you would argue that our problems are primarily spiritual, not political?
Black: More will be accomplished by wielding spiritual weapons and practicing the disciplines of fasting, praying and falling on our faces before the Lord than will ever be achieved by working behind the scenes to see if this or that will happen.
The heart of the king is in the Lord's hands. He turns it whichever way He wants to. So, to become preoccupied with who's in the executive branch, who's in the judicial branch, who's in the legislative branch is majoring on minors. There is a power beyond anything that these folk can do. God can have Nebuchadnezzar eating grass tomorrow.
Then, in 1971, while pastoring First Assembly of God in Spartanburg, South Carolina, a revival disturbed his Pentecostal sensibilities, and he found himself ministering with (and to) Baptists, Presbyterians and Methodists. Although Miles' church grew like a weed, he soon attracted the suspicion of fellow AG pastors, who frowned upon his ecumenical tendencies, openness to the charismatic movement and interest in new models of ministry.
“I became a black sheep in the AG,” he recalls. “Because we had such large numbers of people, they thought we were compromising with the world.” Miles found himself avoiding his jealous colleagues, and soon the affiliation with the AG became “on paper only.” Not too long after, he resigned his credentials. In the years since, relationships have been mended, apologies have been exchanged and the denomination has invited Miles to return whenever he wishes. But he has no plans to do so.
After his departure from the AG, Miles founded Evangel Fellowship International (EFI), a network of more than 600 churches in the United States, 672 in Russia and 35 missionaries overseas. EFI's doctrinal statement is essentially Pentecostal, but local assemblies are autonomous, and pastors appoint their own boards and leadership from within the congregation.
Fast forward three decades ...
Another pastor, Ron Johnson, leads Bethel Temple (AG), a megachurch in Hampton, Virginia. He is loyal to the Assemblies of God, but Johnson's style of ministry is decidedly apostolic. He personally leads a network of more than 800 churches, plants an average of two new congregations per year and has pastors nationwide who look to him for oversight-all activities that have historically caused tension in some denominations that require approval to plant churches and credential ministers. Although he says he would jettison his affiliation with the denomination if it ever began to hamper his mission, Johnson has no plans of doing so and has been refreshed by signs of reform within the AG.
Sure, Johnson's independence may seem incompatible with denominational structure, and some of his friends in the apostolic movement may suggest he should have abandoned the “old wineskins” of the AG long ago. But he's not going anywhere. And the denomination is just fine with that.
Johnson admits that his relationship with AG colleagues has been tense at times, but a humble attitude combined with the common goals of church planting and leadership training have served to bring the two parties together when there's been a potential for discord.
“I believe it is my responsibility to do the best I can to work with them,” he explains. “But if we reach a point that we no longer have the grace to walk together and we're going to be at war, it's better for me to graciously-with dignity-step out of the denomination rather than create strife.”
Conventional wisdom suggests that institutional structures grow more rigid with time. But in recent years some of the most innovative pastors in America have decided to stay in their denominations. Ministries Today sat down with a few of these leaders, and others who have left, in an attempt to explore what factors are bringing about denominational transformation-and where reform is still needed.
Few dynamics are changing the face of denominations more dramatically than the prevalence of megachurches. The visionary-and often independent-style of ministry common among megachurch pastors sometimes runs counter to the conformity common in denominations.
“Megachurches are more often than not the product of one highly gifted spiritual leader,” writes megachurch expert Scott Thumma in “Exploring the Megachurch Phenomenon,” an article adapted from his doctoral dissertation on the subject. “The majority of contemporary megachurches were either founded by or achieved mega-status within the tenure of a single senior minister.”
With the growth of the megachurch phenomenon (In 1994, researcher John Vaughan estimated that the number of megachurches increases by 5 percent per year), it is only natural that denominations will feel the pressure from highly successful leaders within their ranks. While some megachurch pastors have left denominations, others have decided to stay and use their influence to effect institutional change.
Ron Carpenter was not even 30 years old, and he was already frustrated with the size of his church. In the seven years since its founding, Redemption World Outreach Center (RWOC) in Greenville, South Carolina, had grown to 400 members. By 1998, it had reached a plateau, but the International Pentecostal Holiness Church (IPHC) pastor knew God had bigger things in mind.
After a yearlong study of the New Testament church, Carpenter dismantled every committee and stripped every leader's title, rebuilding the structure of the church from the ground up and exchanging the congregation's democratic system of government for “apostolic protocol.” Within six months, the church's attendance had tripled to 1,200 … and it has not stopped since.
Now, with 5,000 members, RWOC is the largest congregation in the denomination, and Carpenter leads some 600 ministers who call him “apostle” and have no formal affiliation with the IPHC.
Carpenter rejects the notion that God is through using denominations. He encourages other visionary pastors to humble themselves and dialogue with denominational leaders-but ultimately listen to the voice of God. While it's not without its tension, this pattern appears to be slowly bringing reform to some denominational structures.
“I have gone all over the IPHC speaking on this topic and have been met with far more passion to change than with resistance,” he says. “Denominations have tremendous resources, so I struggle with some peoples' suggestion that none of it is beneficial. If there's a possibility of change, why go back and recreate all these resources when they could be channeled?”
Ron Johnson agrees, noting that many pastors who feel they've outgrown their denomination tend to foster an internal prejudice toward institutional structures and assume that denominational leaders do not share their drive for evangelism and church planting.
“Many times denominational leaders are perceived as wanting to build the denomination as opposed to advancing the cause of Christ,” Johnson explains. “But from what I've experienced, the passion of our general superintendent is to embrace the work of the Spirit. He will do anything in his power to see men hear God and obey Him.”
Johnson recognizes that some visionary leaders may never fit into a denomination-and that this may be God's will. But overall, he urges those contemplating leaving their denominations to exercise caution.
“Move slowly. Stay as long as you can, but no longer than you have the grace to do so,” he says. “When you leave, don't trash your denomination; bless them.”
Most denominations are led by people who were elected to their positions by their constituency. Critics argue that a democratic style of government reflects Western political styles, but has little to do with the way authority and responsibility are apportioned in the kingdom of God. As a result, emerging leaders are pushing denominations toward allowing more local autonomy and allowing visionary pastors to lead their congregations based on the direction they feel God has given them for their churches.
“The democratic system has bred distrust of people,” Ron Carpenter explains. “Democracy has worked for America with some measure of success, but the church was never meant to be a people-controlled movement.”
Instead, Carpenter advocates church leadership based on the authority of apostles and prophets who receive mandates directly from the Spirit. This view runs counter to many denominational structures, in which the pastor functions as an employee of the local church-subject to the whims of the elder board and the congregation.
New apostolic styles of church government reverse the model held by many denominations: Power within the church is taken from congregations and placed in the hands of pastors. Additionally, regional church authority is taken out of the hands of centralized denominations and placed in the hands of apostles who oversee networks of pastors.
This flexibility and autonomy is what led Joseph Thompson to avoid denominational affiliation in the first place. After serving as teaching pastor under Ted Haggard at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Thompson is planting a new congregation (Church at the Well) in the Orlando, Florida, area.
Before he made plans to relocate to Florida, Thompson was invited to pastor a denominational church but grew concerned by what he saw as the restrictive leadership structure in the local congregation.
“The bylaws said that the pastor is an employee of the board,” Thompson recalls. “That's strange to me. That means if two-thirds of them suddenly decide they don't like the way the pastor has preached for the last two Sundays, they can kick him out. I don't think that's healthy. I don't think it gives the pastor liberty to hear the voice of God and be honest.”
While this dynamic may be common in denominations operating with a congregational form of church government, for those with episcopal bylaws, this is less of a challenge. For instance, the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel (ICFG) fills vacant pulpits, and pastors are allowed to appoint their own elders.
Twenty-one years ago, Daniel Brown planted The Coastlands, a Foursquare church in Aptos, California. Since then, he has pioneered 34 daughter churches and supplied five pulpits with ministers raised up in the church. Brown goes so far as to call the Foursquare a “pastors denomination,” stressing the liberty and autonomy that the fellowship offers its pastors.
Some denominations are making adjustments to ensure that this is the exception, not the rule. ICFG president Jack Hayford points out that three years ago, the denomination revised its structure, placing more authority in the hands of leading pastors rather than denominationally structured regional offices. Leadership was distributed among 75 supervisors, whereas before the shift there had only been 9. Although he refers to the new structure as “apostolic,” Hayford is careful in describing the motivation that initiated it.
“This was not done as an attempt to answer the criticisms of some who seem impassioned with identifying and investing apostles and prophets as a crusade of sorts,” he explains. “Rather, it was simply done in response to the Holy Spirit's work in fashioning a movement to serve its expanding future.”
But for some, changes such as these are too little, too late. Some say the problems with denominations are irreparable; they are deeply embedded in the DNA of institutionalized religion in America.
Church-growth expert C. Peter Wagner was optimistic as he observed the charismatic renewal of the '60s and '70s. The wind of the Holy Spirit began to blow through the dusty halls of mainline denominations that were already experiencing symptoms of irrelevance and decay.
But by 2000, as Wagner writes in his 2004 book Changing Church, “not one of the U.S. denominations had experienced the spiritual reformation that leaders had been praying for. … Yes, many individuals and some congregations had been spiritually transformed, but the structures at best had remained the same, and in some cases they had deteriorated even more.”
Wagner blames this phenomenon not on people, but on structures-structures that worked 300 years ago when denominations became independent of state control but that have become almost as rigid as the institutions they replaced.
For him, the solution is no longer renewal, but reformation. As early as his 2000 book, The New Apostolic Churches, Wagner noted that the most thriving churches worldwide are not denominational in structure-even if they are affiliated with one. They are apostolic, structured around the Spirit-led leadership of one man or woman. As a result, Wagner argues that those truly wanting to participate in the next move of God will need to leave their denominations.
“The old wineskins were once bright shining new wineskins,” Wagner explained in a recent interview with Ministries Today. “But they have come under a spell or domination of the spirit of religion-a spell that causes them to think that maintaining the status quo is the will of God. Those who stay in denominations will not receive new wine.”
Many, like Houston Miles, suggest that accountability has become obsolete within denominations, that they have grown beyond their capacity to relationally connect leaders with grass-roots ministers.
“In the AG, the superintendent was more of an administrator than a pastor,” he notes. “The only time you'd hear from him is if you got behind on your tithe.” As this yawning relational gap is becoming more pronounced, alternative organizations are arising to provide networking and resources for leaders inside and outside denominations.
Joseph Thompson affiliates with several networks-Association of Life-Giving Churches, founded by Ted Haggard, and Association of Related Churches, an organization of pastors committed to church planting. Like many of their nondenominational counterparts, both are organized around a function (healthy congregational ministry and church planting) rather than a doctrinal statement or a structure of leadership and control.
As a result, neither organization exerts any control over its members in regard to accountability. Instead, they assume a certain level of pre-existent accountability of their members-many of whom are already affiliated with denominations and apostolic networks-Thompson says.
“They recognize the need to have people over you,” he explains. “But that's not what they exist for. They provide a context for horizontal accountability-an opportunity to voluntarily submit yourself to accountability with your peers.”
Some of these networks are even being launched by denominational pastors who wish to combine the resources offered by their denominations with the flexibility and specialization offered by a smaller organization.
Scott Hagan resigned in May as pastor of First Assembly of God in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Known for his passion for racial reconciliation, Hagan recently launched the Blended Church Network, an organization dedicated to training and connecting leaders to plant multiethnic churches.
Although Hagan's new network carries the enthusiastic blessing of AG officials, it is intended to be a cross-denominational effort that will train leaders of any stripe. The 42-year-old pastor believes that efforts such as his reflect a growing openness in his denomination toward entrepreneurial churchplanting, apostolic leadership and the cultivation of relationships outside denominational boundaries.
“Any time we begin acquiring land, building buildings, creating salaries and careers, there will come a time for reinvention,” Hagan explains. “I believe that this is a journey back to the simplicity of our purpose.”
For many, peer-level networks such as Hagan's hold an advantage to denominations. They are not centered on a doctrinal distinctive, nor do they have top-heavy infrastructures that demand financial support. They are primarily relational in nature-and led by people who have ministries of their own.
Although he is encouraged by the various networks-apostolic and otherwise-that are sprouting for the purpose of church planting, evangelism, and so on, C. Peter Wagner is concerned that people leaving denominations will find camaraderie but ultimately avoid authentic accountability to a spiritual father or mother.
“There are still too many people out there doing their own thing,” he says. “Everyone needs apostolic oversight. But accountability is voluntary, and you can avoid it whether you're in a denomination or an apostolic network.”
He also contends that even the most flexible and forward-thinking apostolic network of today can become a denomination tomorrow, if policies are not put in place to prevent institutionalism.
“What we want to avoid is apostles who are 'pre-denominational,'” he explains. “Sociologists of religion tell us that this is not only possible, it is inevitable. But I want to be a history changer. History does not have to repeat itself.”
Denominations tend to be led by those who have proven themselves in ministry. While this lends stability and credibility, it creates an environment for generational tension between emerging and established leaders.
As Ron Johnson notes, it's increasingly problematic when a younger generation comes on the scene with new ideas-and a completely different view of institutional loyalty. Postmodern leaders sometimes have little tolerance for what they perceive as the faceless reality of 20th-century denominations.
“We're dealing in the AG with leaders that are 60-plus years of age at the top level of leadership,” Johnson explains. “When these older leaders and their postmodern counterparts talk about 'relationship,' they're not talking about the same thing.”
Johnson points out that-ironically-a younger generation craves fatherly mentoring. Isolation and independence are not in their vocabulary, but they question whether denominational structures can provide the relational guidance that they desire. Unlike their forbears, they have nothing against leaving a denomination to find it. Ron Carpenter agrees.
“My daddy's generation would be loyal to the church if God died,” he says jokingly. “In contrast, my generation will not be faithful to a denomination … but they will die for a man.”
Stenneth Powell, pastor of Abundant Life Christian Center Church of God in Christ (COGIC), in Raleigh, North Carolina, has raised up 49 ministers-many of whom hold credentials with COGIC, but look to him for spiritual oversight. Powell notes that younger pastors are not only looking for leadership, they also want resources-church-growth advice, leadership mentoring and church-management skills. The growth of large churches has provided opportunities for young leaders to connect with successful models-outside the confines of denominational institutions.
“This frustration with denominations is cyclical. Pastors get successful-too big for their own denominations-so they start their own organization. Essentially that too becomes a denomination,” he explains. “If a big church can offer a young guy who's just starting out the same resources as a denomination, he'll join that organization.”
Many, like Scott Hagan, believe that these generational shifts may ultimately seal denominations' survival-if leaders take the opportunity to harness enthusiasm and listen to the concerns of their younger colleagues.
“Our AG colleges are packed with students-black, white, brown, male female-whom the denomination has to keep if we have any hope,” he explains. “We can't draw in these kids and slam them with old-school thinking. The spirit that these young people have must start permeating the entire movement.”
This challenge is not exclusive to denominations.
Senior pastor of Covenant Centre International in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, Norman Benz left the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) in 1991. He explains that he heard God say, “What I want to do with you I can't do with you in this denomination.”
Since then he joined International Coalition of Apostles (ICA), founded by C. Peter Wagner. But he points out that the apostolic movement is in danger of being largely a “baby boomer” movement and stresses the importance of incorporating younger leaders. One of the priorities of his own organization, Covenant Apostolic Network, is to intentionally release the next generation.
“When we look at scripture, apostles and elders were not necessarily chosen because of their age, but because of the favor of the Spirit on them,” he explains. “We have to be careful that we don't become stalemated and segmented into becoming a certain kind of a movement because of the age of our leaders.”
A Return to Pentecost
Although these tensions would appear to chip away at denominational foundations, many argue that such shifts actually indicate a return to the values that launched the Pentecostal and charismatic movements nearly a century ago. Ron Carpenter points out that Pentecostals and charismatics should-by nature-be more ready for denominational reform, noting that he has encountered extensive openness among leaders and laity in his own denomination.
“We tend to be spontaneous and flexible,” he explains. “Also, most Pentecostals are biblically rooted enough that if you open the Word and explain these new ideas, they will accept them.”
Ron Johnson argues that many denominations were specifically formed for the purpose of church planting, world missions and raising up new leaders, but that a desire to preserve institutional identity and enforce conformity has sometimes trumped these concerns.
“Denominations serve a purpose in building the kingdom,” he says. “But if they lose the dynamic life of their inception, they automatically default to some other reason for existence-usually self-preservation.”
While denominational leaders have often recognized this problem, Johnson notes that they have not always been quick to offer a solution. But as he looks at the landscape of the church, two factors bring him hope: a rebirth in a commitment to missions and church planting and the rise of a generation that values relationships over structure.
“Contrary to the perception that all they want to do is build their denomination, most leaders want to build the kingdom,” he explains. “As long as denominations will effectively communicate that they are releasing and empowering people to do this as well, they will grow.”
This is not “The Fred Price Show,” however. No organ or choir back him up. No theatrics accompany his exposition. There’s no one on the platform to stand and wave a hanky when he waxes especially eloquent. Located in the heart of Los Angeles, CCC has its share of celebrities—TV announcer Ed McMahon, R & B artist Mary J. Blige, Tae Bo creator Billy Blanks. But nobody expects “the celebrity treatment” at Price’s church.
“If you’re a celebrity and you just want to be seen on the front pew in a church,” he explained in a recent interview with Ministries Today, “the best thing to do is not to come here.”
After more than 50 years of ministry, Price’s method and message are essentially the same they were nearly 35 years ago, when he was introduced to the baptism with the Holy Spirit and came to embrace the teachings of the Word-Faith movement. Still, Price has an inquisitive nature that leads him to implement new models of ministry and risk his staid reputation for the sake of reaching people different from himself.
In fact, every fifth Sunday morning, he trades in his jacket and tie for a baggy warm-up suit and joins his son Frederick Jr. on the stage for Hip-Hop Sunday, an event targeting young people and featuring rap music and high-energy preaching—all aimed at reaching unchurched youth and bridging the cultural gap between parents and their kids.
When Price enters a room full of people, he tends to attract attention, walking with a lively gait that belies his age. In his spacious office, photos of CCC in its various stages of growth cover the walls, along with mementos from friends and family. From the books neatly filed on the bookcase, to the folders orderly arranged on his credenza, it is clear that Fred Price is a man who appreciates discipline, structure and attention to detail.
“When I read the first chapter of Genesis, I see that God is a God of order,” he explains as he sits down in the chair behind his mammoth desk. “That’s what I’ve tried to emulate in my ministry—in everything we do here.”
Today he may look like the picture of success, but Price always begins his life story describing the humble circumstances of his childhood in a segregated community and early years in ministry characterized by debt, illness and professional frustration.
FROM STRUGGLE TO SUCCESS
Born in Santa Monica, California, in 1932, Price was reared in a nominal Jehovah’s Witnesses family and accepted Christ in 1953. When he and his wife, Betty, joined a local Baptist church, it was the custom of the minister to ask each person who came forward for membership what they wanted to “do for the Lord.” Before the pastor reached him, Price heard the audible voice of God speak into his left ear, “You are to preach My gospel.”
His first years in ministry were anything but glamorous, as he performed menial tasks for the minister and only seldom had an opportunity to preach. During these years Price supported himself and his growing family by selling magazines and working in a paper factory and a Coca-Cola bottling plant—always “owing his soul to the company store.”
In the years that followed his call to ministry, Price served churches in several denominations—Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal and Presbyterian. In 1965, he became pastor of a Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) church that had shriveled to nine members. Four years later, the church had grown to 125, and Price was able to quit his secular employment.
Although he was convinced of his call to ministry, he grew increasingly frustrated with an anemic version of Christianity in which prayers weren’t answered, believers suffered from illness and poverty … and nobody seemed to have a problem with it.
Then, a friend gave Price several books by charismatic authors who awakened him to the “missing ingredient” in his life, and Price subsequently received the baptism with the Holy Spirit in 1970. But it was Authority of the Believer, by Kenneth Hagin Sr., that revolutionized this 38-year-old pastor and introduced him to the principles that have become the core of his ministry.
Soon after, his fledgling congregation of 125 ballooned to 300, and the church became independent of the CMA, purchasing a 1,200-seat sanctuary for $750,000.
“In 1973 God began to deal with me about leaving the denomination and forming an independent-dependent work,” Price says, describing the departure from the denomination. “Independent of man and dependent on God.”
With the move, the church changed its name to Crenshaw Christian Center, and by 1977, the congregation had outgrown the facility (with two services every Sunday) and was looking for land on which to build.
Now celebrating more than 50 years of ministry, Price leads a still-growing congregation based on the 32-acre campus in south central L.A.—land that CCC bought from Pepperdine University in 1981 when the school moved to Malibu. The $14-million property and the $10-million sanctuary the church built there were paid off within six years of moving in.
Price heads a staff of 11 pastors and 235 employees that work in the church’s diverse ministries: a preschool, elementary, middle and high school; 16 helps ministries with approximately 2,500 volunteers; and Ever Increasing Faith, the TV outreach Price founded in 1978 that now reaches more than 15 million households.
In 1990, Price launched the Fellowship of Inner-City Word of Faith Ministries (FICWFM), a ministerial network connecting nearly 500 pastors globally.
In 2001, CCC planted a satellite campus in midtown Manhattan (Crenshaw Christian Center East), now led by Allen Landry, a former assistant pastor at CCC. Price still travels one weekend a month to preach and teach at the church, which now runs more than 1,000 people.
His congregants aren’t the only ones drawn to Price’s success. His accolades include honorary degrees from Rhema Bible Training Center and Oral Roberts University, the prestigious Horatio Alger Award and the Kelly Miller Smith Interfaith Award, presented by the Southern Leadership Conference.
But Price traces his success not to gimmicks or pop theology, but to a strict obedience to the “assignment” God gave him.
“Most ministers just want to carbon-copy what somebody else is doing,” he observes. “My real definition of success is fulfilling what God called me to do—fulfilling my assignment.”
THE FAMILY MAN
Now grown, all four of Fred Price’s children are on staff at the ministry: Angela Evans is the chief operating officer of CCC and Ever Increasing Faith; Cheryl Price serves on the staff of FICWFM; and Stephanie Buchanan is on staff at CCC. The youngest child, Frederick K. Price Jr., serves as an assistant pastor and is the heir-apparent to the CCC pulpit.
Known as a family man, Price often reminds his congregation, “God created the family before He created the church—so family is always going to be more important to me.” The Price children have warm memories of family vacations and trips to the nearby ocean and mountains—and his constant presence in the home.
“He’s an awesome role model,” says Angela, 48, who is self-described as “the rebellious one in my teens” but who has now worked closely with her father for 30 years. “What you see on-screen and his public persona is the same as what he is at home—the integrity of the man is intact at all times.”
She describes the unshakable faith her father modeled when her older brother was hit by a car and killed in 1962. After Price embraced Word-Faith teachings, he began to see God restore what Satan had stolen from him early in his life. But even he was surprised when Betty became pregnant at the age of 45, and Kenneth Hagin Sr. prophesied that the child would be a boy—God’s restoration of the son that had been lost nearly two decades earlier.
Now 26, Frederick K. Price Jr. is being groomed to lead the church when his father retires. However, “Pastor Freddy,” as he is known, says that his was a call from God—not from Mom and Dad.
“Even though Kenneth Hagin told my parents that I would follow my dad in ministry, they allowed me to hear the call for myself,” he explains. “They never once put pressure on me—or even mentioned it.”
The younger Price says he got his imagination, competitiveness and curiosity from his father—a man who relishes sci-fi movies, reads at least one book a week and is always up for a game of Scrabble or Uno.
“People get the idea that my father’s all buttoned-down and doesn’t have any fun,” Fred Jr. says. “But he loves to have fun; he’s got a great imagination—and that’s what helped me become the person I am today.”
In recent years—and since the death of Kenneth Hagin Sr. in 2003—Price has become a major spokesperson for the Word-Faith movement.
Price’s critics (e.g. Christianity in Crisis author Hank Hanegraaff and A Different Gospel author D.R. McConnell) accuse him of propagating a doctrine of health and wealth. But he has remained firm in his belief that Christians should be physically whole, financially blessed and free of suffering—a theology some opponents say doesn’t ring true in a world in which the most vibrant sectors of Christendom are often its most impoverished and persecuted.
Pentecostals and charismatics have sometimes been reluctant to embrace the core of Word-Faith teachings—in spite of the fact that its key leaders often came from traditional Pentecostal denominations. However, Price argues that the renewal provided a fertile ground for what he believes is a deeper revelation of something that God intended for the church all along.
“The Holy Spirit brought this teaching to the fore—out from under the denominationalism, traditionalism and theology,” he explains. “And we realized that it was the key to everything.”
He says that those who considered the Word-Faith a mere movement, rather than “a revelation of the way the system works,” have long since left for greener pastures.
“They got caught up in the illustrations that we used to apply its principles,” he explains. “They tried it for a season, and when they didn’t get the big car, yacht and jewelry, they gave up.”
Prosperity, Price contends, is just the natural byproduct of a life of faith—and its purpose is not primarily for personal benefit. “A lot of teachers have been teaching prosperity for prosperity’s sake,” he notes. “It’s not wrong, but it’s not enough. Deuteronomy 8:18 reveals the true purpose of prosperity: ‘Remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth, that He may establish His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day.’”
Price is transparent about his own affluence-—the Bentley parked outside his office, his ministry’s private jet. “Wealth is for the purpose of establishing His covenant,” he says. “Now in the process of doing that … the crumbs that fall from the table will be the yacht, the clothes, the jewelry and the cars—I don’t have to seek after these things.”
What Price is less likely to talk about is his generosity. His son, Fred Jr., notes that his father gave away more than $1 million of his own money in 2004. “I wish the guys that criticize him could see that side of him,” he says. “I’ve seen what he sows into the kingdom.”
For Price, money is not an end in itself, but a means. His financial success is proof that the message he preaches can be applied in the real world. Price believes that it is especially important for blacks to see that the principles of prosperity transcend economic and racial differences.
“I want them to know that this works,” he explains. “It works for someone black and in the ghetto. So don’t let that any longer be your excuse for not succeeding.”
And what if he doesn’t see people in the pews prospering financially and enjoying health?
“That would be a problem of monumental proportions, but I haven’t seen that,” he says, citing the peace of mind, family stability and prosperity that he contends results from a lifestyle of faith.
Eldrena Hanna was a single mother, when she moved to Los Angeles from Florida in 1985. An unsaved friend recommended she visit CCC. “The preacher’s comical—you’ll enjoy listening to him,” her friend said. Hanna began attending, became a member and within two years was serving in the helps ministry at the church.
After applying the principles she learned from Price, she overcame the trials of a major surgery, bought a home—in Southern California, no less—and was promoted in her job. Currently, a stock broker for Merrill Lynch, Hanna credits her success and spiritual maturity to the consistent teaching of the Word she has received at CCC.
“Dr. Price taught me that it’s not just about monetary prosperity. It’s about studying the Word and applying it every day,” she explains. “He is a role model—but these principles don’t just work for him—they work for everybody.”
FAITH IS A VERB
While critics quibble over hermeneutical nuances, at the core of Price’s theology is a view of Scripture itself that accepts the text on its face value.
“Scriptures in the Bible on healing and prosperity require no interpretation—they are what they are,” he argues. “You don’t have to interpret them.”
This confidence is what is appealing to many of Price’s followers. In fact, he is convinced that belief in the Word, verbal confession of its promises and obedience to its commands constitute a legitimate formula for prosperity and health that “works like a charm.”
“Like money in the secular world, faith is the currency that makes everything work in the kingdom of God,” he explains. “Faith is what drives it. The more faith you have, the more things you can do—good things for people.”
Word-Faith critics have often claimed that the movement’s adherents view faith as a “force” that a believer can tap into to receive whatever he or she desires. Price says this couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Faith is acting on the known will of God,” he explains. “I believe I can pick up the phone and talk to anyone, but it won’t happen if I don’t pick up the phone. Faith is following through with what you believe.”
This perspective shapes every decision in Price’s life. He’s not a man of contemplation, but of action, frequently describing instances in which God told him to do something—and he obeyed. From the location and name of the church to the cities in which his TV ministry was first broadcast, every major decision Price has made has been a result of following through with an “assignment” he believes God has given him.
“Learn how to walk by faith, not by sight,” he says. “That’s the motto of my life.”
For Price, it’s all about saying what God wants him to say—the way God wants him to say it. “God said to me: ‘Don’t preach. Teach what I’ve taught you,’” he recalls. “One of these days, when nobody shows up for church, I’ll know it’s time for me to go golfing. Until then, I’m gonna keep on doing what I’m doing the way I’m doing it.”
For years, Price has been busy doing just that. In fact, his policy has been not to respond to his critics’ offensive statements—even when he’s misrepresented.
“Most of the time I am misrepresented,” he says with a smile. “But I don’t engage them. I can’t change their minds anyway.”
Not that he’s afraid to take a stand. One incident in the 1990s—when a prominent white leader advised against interracial marriage and dating—caused Price to speak out, and it reshaped his ministry.
Several years ago, he was given a cassette containing a message given by a pastor who recounted an incident in which he found one of his children playing with a black friend. The pastor told his child: “We play. We go together as a group, but we do not date one another.”
Although horrified by what he heard, Price says he decided “not to rock the boat” out of concern for his relationship with the leader’s ministry.
“The Spirit of God began to deal with me about it,” he recalls. “When you put it all together, it was racial and ethnic prejudice involved.”
He confronted the leader, and, although an apology was issued, Price believed the apology should have been a retraction.
“Bottom line,” he says. “Since then, there has been no resolution to the problem.”
This event prompted Price to engage in an intensive study on racism in America and the church—culminating in a yearlong series that he preached at CCC and a three-volume book titled Race, Religion & Racism. Price contends that the church is still suffering from a subtle prejudice that says, Whites are the leaders and blacks are the followers.
Although Price is highly concerned by racism, in his trademark level-headed demeanor and passion for getting to the root of the problem, he’s more irritated by the church climate that allows such behavior than he is the individuals who perpetrate it. In an April 1998 article in Charisma magazine, Price is quoted as saying: “I’m not angry at any individual, and I’m not angry at any group of people. I’m angry that the church hasn’t done anything about the situation of racism.”
NO DEFENSE NECESSARY
Price doesn’t have much time for the term Word-Faith “movement”: “That’s the terminology critics use,” he contends. “This has been around since the apostle Paul—there’s nothing new about it.”
This stubborn stability is what was so attractive to Price’s right hand man, administrative pastor Craig Hays. He joined CCC in 1976, became a deacon and then came on staff at the church in 1987. Hays was called to ministry when he was a child, but never entered the pastorate because he was discouraged by what he saw as contradictions in the lives of church leaders.
“When I met Dr. Price, I found a man that stayed steadfast,” he explains. “He doesn’t have a church face and a home face—he is the one who taught me how to be consistent.”
These same sentiments are echoed by FICWFM member and El Paso, Texas, pastor Charles Nieman, who first heard Price’s teachings in the mid 1970s. For the last 28 years, he has led Abundant Living Faith Center, a congregation that has grown to 12,000—success Nieman has largely attributed to Price’s teachings. But what the Texas pastor most admires about his mentor is his consistency.
“With Dr. Price, what you see is what you get,” he says. “Their marriage is, was and continues to be an example to those in ministry. Many of his spiritual sons have said that they learned how to treat their wives by watching how he treats Betty—in fact, I’ve seen their wives stand up and thank Fred for that!”
Price recently stood with Betty through a bout with cancer that threatened her life. Some observers seized upon this misfortune as an opportunity to question Price’s theology. Price says that this wasn’t a failure of faith, but a case of cause and effect.
“I don’t believe in accidents. Everything is a result of something we either do, don’t do or do incorrectly,” he says.
Price teaches that choices and words play heavy in a person’s health and prosperity. Any negative situation can ultimately be traced to a misspoken word, misplaced belief or misapplied principle.
“My wife abused her body all of her life without knowing it,” he explains. “She was raised on eating certain types of food. She changed her lifestyle, but the tumor had already developed.”
The family stood firm together, believing that the cancer would not take Betty’s life, and she is alive and healthy today.
Price doesn’t have much time for people who blame their misfortunes on God … or the devil. In his theology, Satan is virtually powerless—but he uses instances of sin and ignorance to undermine the health, prosperity and spiritual growth of believers. “Satan can’t do anything on his own,” Price explains. “He’s an opportunist. He can only deal with what we give him.”
This personal responsibility is at the core of Price’s theology—a belief that God is limited or released by the words of His human creation. “The devil can’t do anything on his own any more than God the Father can do anything without our help,” Price teaches.
To some evangelicals who believe in the sovereignty of God, these are inflammatory words. But Price is careful to explain that he does not believe God is objectively limited. Instead, He limits Himself to interact with His creation—to authentically answer prayer.
“It’s not because He doesn’t have the power, but because He’s designed the system to work at the behest of our free wills,” Price explains. “People think that God does whatever He wants to arbitrarily. If that were true—we know God wants everybody saved—why doesn’t He save everybody? He can’t, unless we believe.”
When Price explains it this way, it sounds no different than the convictions of a large portion of Wesleyan evangelicals and traditional Pentecostals. Why doesn’t he rephrase his views to be more acceptable to his critics?
“I don’t respond to them,” Price says. “Truth will come out. Since I’m a channel, what I’ve been sharing is not my personal philosophy, but what I’ve learned from the Word of God and what I’ve applied in my own life. So I don’t have to defend it.”
Instead of defending himself, Price is too busy teaching his flock to stay on the offensive when it comes to the problems that other Christians tend to tolerate—whether they be sickness, poverty, racism or suffering.
“We suffer these things because we don’t know we don’t have to,” he says. “We accept them as part of life. We don’t resist it; we expect it.”
That might be true in some churches, but not at Crenshaw Christian Center—not if Fred Price has any say in the matter.
Clearly, the modern understanding of the First Amendment would never have given them birth. Yet the religious nature of their nation’s enemy, the moral crises of America’s soldiers, and the spiritual passions of the new generation at war may make them more essential to America’s military efforts today than ever before.
The inconsistencies do not stop there. They wear a uniform but cannot carry a weapon. They receive a check from the state to do the work of the church in a society deathly afraid of the mixture of church and state. They can preach God’s will for the individual soul but may not preach God’s will for the war. They are ordained by a single religious denomination to preach its truth but as chaplains must tend every possible religious persuasion.
The religious nature of their calling often works against them. If a chaplain is deployed with his National Guard unit, every man he serves is guaranteed a job to come home to. Yet if that chaplain was a pastor in a church when he was sent off to war, he is not guaranteed he can return to his job. The government he serves cannot pressure a church to employ that chaplain again. It is a violation of the separation of church and state.
He is supposed to tend to the needs of soldiers at war. Yet he is not supposed to get too close to the fighting. The military is concerned that if a chaplain accompanies soldiers into battle, the soldiers will be distracted from their mission out of concern for the safety of the chaplain, whom they often love and who is required to be unarmed. Yet the biggest complaint about chaplains from soldiers in the field is that they “don’t cross the wire with us, and so they don’t know how we feel.”
Then there is the chain of command. Pastors fighting with deacons and church boards is such a common occurrence back home that there are courses on the subject in seminaries. Yet a chaplain in the military can end up working for a commander who thinks all faith is silly or who views the particular religion of the chaplain as heresy.
One battalion commander was disciplined for calling his Catholic chaplain, a Major Pappas, by the nickname “Major Papist,” a denigrating reference to the myth that Catholics worship the pope. Another chaplain was told by his executive officer, “Be as religious as you want to be, but stay away from me and my troops.” Church fights at home pale in comparison to these pressures.
Adding to these contradictions and challenges are the “knuckleheads in clerical garb” who taint the image of the role. There is the overheated evangelist who offends more than he wins, the office rat who does ministry only behind a desk, the one the troops call “Captain Kangaroo” who hands out candy but nothing more as men go off to battle, the “cheerleader” whose every sermon sounds like a pitch from an Army recruiter, and the bulbous gourmand who couldn’t pass the Army physical fitness test unless he hired someone to take it for him. Each of these leaves legacies for other chaplains to live down.
Yet despite the oddities and obstacles of their role, chaplains are often among the noblest figures in the field. There is the stunning bravery of a chaplain risking enemy fire to give last rites to a dying man. There are the highly decorated fighting men who have then gone on to seminary so they can return to the service and minister to men in arms. And there are the noble dead among the chaplains’ corps who lost their lives tending the warrior soul.
In fact, many of these chaplains are models of toughness. Colonel Gene Fowler was the head chaplain in Iraq through 2003, serving in the 3rd Corps. A slight, bespectacled man, Chaplain Fowler has nevertheless proven his steel on more than one occasion. While serving as a chaplain at a stateside post, a grizzled master sergeant once approached him, looked him up and down, and said, “Sir, if you ain’t Airborne, you ain’t nothing.”
Refusing to let the challenge go unanswered and hating the thought that, once again, a clergyman should be viewed as a wimp, Chaplain Fowler went to Ranger school and became an honored member of the Airborne fraternity. Now he wears the Ranger tab and Airborne wings on his uniform, yet when he jumps from a plane, he does so without a weapon. He is there to fight battles of the spirit.
Chaplain Fowler and the hundreds of other chaplains who serve with him today stand in an honored tradition that reaches back through the centuries. The literature of the ancient world is filled with stories of priests leading the way in battle. It was a time when war was understood as a contest of gods. Sometimes the actual fighting would have to wait until each tribe’s priest had adequately insulted the other tribe’s god, for only then was it proper to attack.
Today, the American chaplains’ corps is as fine as the nation has ever put in the field. Each chaplain has joined the military voluntarily. Each is well educated. Most are deeply devoted to those they serve and now see their ministry in a post-9/11 world as a vital service to their nation and their God. In Afghanistan and Iraq, hundreds of chaplains subject themselves to life-threatening dangers.
Yet the military chaplain serves in a world that is religiously very different from the one that first defined his role. His job was conceived in an age of faith, at a time when the United States was largely Christian and understood its mission in religious terms.
Chaplains were charged with making sure that fighting men were pious and conducted themselves so as to assure God’s blessing on their efforts at war. A chaplain served his troops by defining their fight in spiritual terms, calling them to deeper faith, teaching them a valiant warrior code and tending their souls in moments of distress.
Today, the chaplain’s role is defined only in terms of the personal, the spiritual and the ceremonial. “I want to talk about how to fight like men and women of God,” one chaplain stationed in Iraq said, “but I feel like I can only pray at ceremonies, lead chapel services and counsel soldiers about their problems. Our nation is in a fight for its life, but I can’t stand as the priests did in the Bible and speak to the fight. It’s like I can only pray ‘Now I lay me down to sleep’ prayers, when I want to pray, ‘Lord rise up against Your enemies’ prayers.”
This “separation of faith and fight,” as one chaplain styled it, is due to a number of factors. The first is military policy. In the Army regulations that define a chaplain’s role, it is clear that the personal spiritual life of a soldier is in view and not the spirituality of his life as a warrior. The chaplain is charged with meeting the “religious, spiritual, moral and ethical needs of the Army.”
Yet the chaplain is also described as a “noncombatant.” He is not allowed to carry arms, and it is clear that his job is essentially that of a civilian pastor in uniform. In fact, he is not even supposed to go near the fighting. Many chaplains strain at these restrictions and feel that they keep them from doing their jobs.
During the Coalition’s assault on Fallujah in 2004, one bold chaplain accompanied squads of Marines as they went door to door looking for insurgents. Though the chaplain was unarmed, he entered suspect homes with the Marines and constantly urged courage in their task by quoting scriptures and praying aloud. The warriors he tended loved him for putting himself in harm’s way and for sharing the dangers they endured.
When this story was reported in the newspapers back home, the chaplain was celebrated as a hero. Pastors mentioned his courageous faith in their sermons, and religious talk-show hosts lauded him on the air. Yet this chaplain was disciplined by his superiors for exposing himself to danger and potentially distracting the men he accompanied from their mission. He was “showboating,” his commanders said, and failing to do his job.
Privately, this chaplain said, “I was doing my job. What they want is religious window dressing and someone to keep the ceremonial circus up and running. I want to be a prophet to my Marines in the crucible of their lives. I’m no good to them if I don’t face what they face when they face it.” This forced distance from the fighting only compromises chaplains in the eyes of the young warriors they serve.
The generation fighting today’s wars are the youngest children of the generation that fought in Vietnam, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who fought in World War II. Most of them were born in the early 1980s, which means that the only wars they can remember outside of movies and books are the conflict in Kosovo and America’s brief but tragic involvement in Somalia made popular by the film Black Hawk Down. Called everything from Generation X to Millennials to Echo Boomers, they are as difficult to define as they are to name.
Millennial faith is already distrustful of tradition, authority and structure. This is primarily because all three of these seem irrelevant to spirituality as the typical Millennial perceives it. For Millennials at war, the fact that their chaplains cannot “cross the wire,” cannot know what they know about being under fire, only makes them even less trustworthy.
The 1544th Transportation Company is a unique example of Millennial faith because while their captain, Brandon Tackett, says he stays out of his soldier’s spiritual lives, many under his command are deeply religious. There is Jodi Rund, for example. Corporal Rund is blond, fresh faced and not hard to imagine as a campus head-turner.
Not long ago, she was a sociology major at the University of Illinois. She was called up when she had only one semester left and now finds herself in the thick of the Iraq war. And she is a good soldier. One of her colleagues described her as “Osama bin Laden’s worst nightmare: a pretty woman who prays to Jesus and fights as well as any man.”
Jodi was raised Catholic and found a new interest in faith when she learned she was fighting for her country in the land of ancient Babylon. She yearned to know more about biblical history, and this brought her to Web sites that fed her spirit. She began to e-mail Christian friends at home about her faith. Soon she met other Christians in her company.
There was David Wetherell, for example, another University of Illinois student who was working on a finance degree when he was called up. Wetherell had “fallen away” from his Christian faith when he was first deployed, but the death of his sergeant on the first day he arrived, and his realization that he might die, moved him to “give my life to Jesus.”
Both Rund and Wetherell have nurtured vibrant spiritual lives in the face of war, but all without the aid of chaplains. Asked about the chaplains he knows, Wetherell replied, “Some are great and some stink, but none of them understand what soldiers go through in the field.” Rund reports that chaplains may have their place, but since they aren’t involved in the crux of battle, they are not really relevant.
“Services don’t help,” she insists. “Conventional, organized religion doesn’t meet our needs. I find that e-mails keep me strong and the psalms I put on my walls. Some of us get together before going out and pray. This is what keeps me going spiritually. Praying and surviving is the heart of my faith. But there isn’t a chaplain around at those times.”
Chaplains, then, are hindered by the policies that keep them from experiencing the stresses of soldiers, and by the distrust of authority and structure inherent in Millennial faith. They are also hindered by their own doubts about their roles, and this is often due to the shifting tides of respect for religion in American culture.
One chaplain, who asked not to be identified, explained that this uncertainty among the chaplains’ corps often arises because of the military’s response to legal pressures:
“Most of us want to talk about the things soldiers need to discuss: Is this war just? Is God on our side? Is killing in this war moral? Is Islam evil? Yet every time one of these legal cases comes along, everyone gets scared that if we do anything more than pray at ceremonies and hold chapel services, we will end up in trouble. I want to serve fighting men and women while they fight. I don’t want to make the sign of the cross from a safe distance. Something’s got to change.”
The legal cases this chaplain alludes to have indeed moved many to reconsider the chaplain’s role. The simple problem is that the military chaplaincy is caught in a time warp between modern forces of secularism and the faith of the founding era. Though it is clear that early Americans were largely Christian and wanted faith at the core of society, later generations have moved away from that founding faith and have begun to interpret the Constitution accordingly.
In 1971, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971), that there are three conditions the government must meet in order not to violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits an enforcement of religion by the state. The government’s action must: “(1) reflect a clearly secular purpose; (2) have a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion; and (3) avoid excessive government entanglement with religion.” Obviously, the military chaplaincy violates each one of these requirements.
This was a point not lost on two Harvard University law students in 1979. Building on the reasoning of Lemon v. Kurtzman, Joel Katcoff and Allen Wieder filed a lawsuit designed to challenge the constitutionality of the military chaplaincy. The suit claimed that state-financed chaplains are an establishment of religion and in violation of the First Amendment.
The case dragged on until January of 1986, and was finally dropped when Katcoff and Wieder ran out of money to fund an appeal. In Katcoff v. Marsh, 755 F.2d 223 (2d Cir. 1985), the court ruled that the military chaplaincy should remain in place to fulfill the constitutional guarantee that soldiers have freedom to exercise their religion.
The case raised serious fears, though. If two law students could nearly eradicate the military chaplaincy, the constitutional basis for the chaplains’ corps must be tenuous indeed. Moreover, the majority opinion in the case admitted that the chaplaincy was inconsistent with the three requirements in Lemon v. Kurtzman. How long would it be before judges in another case found the chaplaincy in violation of the law?
These matters loom large for military chaplains today. What they are deployed to do is under constant legal scrutiny. In 1972, a small number of cadets and midshipmen from the nation’s military academies joined together for a class action suit intended to ban compulsory chapel attendance. The effort was successful, and the resulting case, Anderson v. Laird, 466 F.2d 283 (D.C. Cir. 1972), has stood as a warning in the minds of many chaplains that the connection between religious faith and the military may one day be severed.
These same fears were awakened in 2001 when the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the Virginia Military Institute on behalf of two former cadets who opposed a mandatory prayer before meals. The ACLU won the suit and immediately sent a letter warning the United States Naval Academy that it also must change its tradition of a mandatory prayer before lunch.
These efforts by the ACLU have moved several congressmen to propose a bill designed to protect prayer at the nation’s military academies. Representative Walter Jones of North Carolina and Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas have determined that the connection between faith and the training of warriors must not be severed.
“I find it incredibly ironic that liberal organizations like the ACLU are attempting to take away the very freedoms that these students are willing to go to war to protect,” Rep. Jones said.
Legal cases such as these leave many chaplains with the sense that they are living on borrowed time. “You have the ACLU and the military academy cases on the one hand,” a chaplain, who did not want to be named, complained, “and you have the fascination with faith that is thriving in American culture, particularly among the young, on the other hand.
“Chaplains are in the middle. What do you think they are going to do? They are going to do their job, but sometimes we aren’t sure where the First Amendment line is. This makes many of us hesitate to do the job we want to do: speak like prophets to men and women of God in a fight.”
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.
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.”
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.
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?”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
After an ugly argument, Smith threw a phone at Crane’s chest and finally left for good.
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.