From Jerusalem to Timbuktu - A Review

If you read the right commentary on the state of Christianity, it will seem like doom is coming and we are well into the waning days of the faith, well past the point of no return. Those discussions of the present and future of Christianity tend to rely on data from the developed world, particularly the Northern Hemisphere that has been strongly influenced by the European colonialism.

In From Jerusalem to Timbuktu: A World Tour of the Spread of Christianity, Brian Stiller offers a much different picture. Stiller words as global ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance and has previously served as president of Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto. The reality he describes is generally more reassuring than the darkest of predictions, but disconcerting to those who have concerns about recent innovations in Christian doctrine. There is much to celebrate about the spread of the gospel, but much work to do, as well.

Stiller offers a number of reasons for the spread of Christianity. He cites the spread of Charismatic theology as a contributor to the spread of Christianity. (More on that later.) He also notes that the increase in the number of Bible translations in the heart languages of more people have advanced the cause of Christ. There is little doubt that the proliferation of God’s word has done a great deal to advance the spread of Christianity as a local movement.

Another reason for the spread of the gospel is the willingness of missionaries, particularly those from the West, to allow Christianity to take local forms by not constraining converts by Western clothing and music. This conversation is helpful, though Stiller seems to be uncritical of some forms of contextualization that appear to be closer to syncretism than authentic Christianity. Additionally, Stiller cites the efforts of Christians to engage in the public square for the common good as Christians. Corollary to engagement in the public square is the recovery of an emphasis on the implications of the gospel—in other words, seeking reconciliation in more than just the spiritual dimension—among Christians.

There is a great deal to celebrate about the growth of Christianity and Stiller’s book is encouraging in that general sense. On the whole, however, Stiller spends too much time arguing for recent theological innovations instead of simply reporting the facts. In particular, Stiller attempts to justify the rise of female pastors and Charismatic theology as normative and consistent with Christian tradition. It is clear from his argument that he believes these movements, largely unknown in the Christian church until the 19th century, are causes to be celebrated regardless of their differences with the historical practices of the church. It would have been a better book if Stiller had reported the facts instead of trying to push a theological agenda. His arguments on this front rely on pragmatic justification: these recent theological developments appear to be working, therefore they must be good.

Both with the rise of Charismatic versions of Christianity and excessive contextualization, the book fails to consider sufficiently the detrimental nature of the syncretism of pagan spirit worship with Christianity that he notes on several occasions. Similarly, he is insufficiently critical of the Prosperity Gospel movement, focusing on the abuses of its leaders rather than the theological poverty of the entire system. That critique is necessarily buried, since the Prosperity Gospel movement is a direct theological child of the revisionist Charismatic and Pentecostal movements—the Prosperity Gospel spreads most rapidly among those who seek ongoing special revelation as a special gift from God.

It is exciting that the gospel is spreading, but not all movements that claim to be gospel may accurately reflect authentic Christianity. In that sense, Stiller’s book should raise concern among orthodox believers.

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Setting aside those critiques, this is a largely encouraging volume. Although there is much handwringing in the West about the rise of Nones and the secularization of our Christian heritage, the Gospel of Christ is on the move. Stiller’s book pulls the reader’s focus from cable news stories about US Supreme Court cases, concerns over student aid for those who choose to attend a Christian university, and the minor persecutions that seem to highlight some media channels.

Most importantly, and the thing that makes this book worth reading, is that it offers reassurance that in Christ we are more than conquerors. It calls the reader to recognize the great need for evangelization, the opportunities for evangelism, and the possibility that each of us can participate in the spread of the gospel if we simply obey the command to do so.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this book with no expectation of a positive review.

The Myth of Big Church Success

There was recently a flap in the Evangelical world over a mega-church pastor castigating parents who attend small churches. Although he has since apologized for his baseless and offensive rant, he is not alone in holding the idea that bigger is better. This is, in fact, a common misconception particularly in the American life, and it isn’t a new fault.

In many ways a prophet, Francis Schaeffer was not silent on the temptation to believe that bigger is better:

Nowhere more than in America are Christians caught in the twentieth-century syndrome of size. Size will show success. If I am consecrated, there will necessarily be large quantities of people, dollars, etc. This is not so. Not only does God not say that size and spiritual power go together, but He even reverses this (especially in the teaching of Jesus) and tells us to be deliberately careful not to choose a place too big for us. We all tend to emphasize big works and big places, but all such emphasis is of the flesh. To think in such terms is simply to hearken back to the old, unconverted, egoist, self-centered Me. This attitude, taken from the world, is more dangerous to the Christian than fleshly amusement or practice. It is the flesh. 

This is a failure that many churches and Christian institutions fall into. Sometimes we believe that if we are doing things right, then our organization will grow.

There are times that is a helpful perspective to have. If right doctrine is well preached, healthy community outreach happens, and personal evangelism is faithfully practiced, then it stands to reason that in many cases a church will grow. However, that may not be the case at all times.

The Future Winnowing

In fact, it may be that in the very near future there will be little the local church can do to grow, humanly speaking. The Holy Spirit may move through churches for revival. May it be so! Shy of that, many churches will likely continue to see declines in attendance as nominal Christians fade away. Although we are certainly a long way away from straight out persecution, the social advantages of being Christian are fading and will continue to fade for the foreseeable future.

As that reality takes hold, pastors who have founded their self-worth on the size of their congregation will find themselves in despair. That fleshly part of their heart, which was so fed by continued growth, may be pinched when numbers dwindle due to a changing society.

It is at this point that the temptation to view bigger as better is most dangerous. Facing the discouragement of shrinking crowds with an internal pressure to grow, then one of the options may be to make the “church experience” more palatable. This may occur through doctrinal compromise in some cases. More often, it will likely be reflected by adding more lights, widgets, and other attractions to entertain folks away from more docile worship services. This is a sort of competition between local outposts of the Kingdom of God that can be decidedly unhealthy.

The Bigger Pond Mentality

A second way that the desire to seek a bigger crowd demonstrates itself is the progression of churches that some pastors go through in their careers. They start small in an entry level church and work their way up toward a bigger church with a larger facility, more services, and a bigger paycheck.

Of course, it does not help that many congregations presently foster this unhealthy progression by requiring years experienced with demonstrable success in a previous pastorate for their pastoral candidates. There is little doubt that in the end, larger congregations will get better, more practiced preaching, but the downside is that it treats smaller churches as a minor league system to feed the staffs of larger churches.

In this sense, recent criticism of small churches has a point. Many smaller churches may indeed have poorer preaching with pastors who are just doing their time until they can move to a bigger field of service. However, having been to seminary with many small church pastors, I believe that most of them, even the ones hoping to move to a congregation that can pay their bills, are doing the best they can with the skills they have in the situation they are in.

It’s not the men that I find fault in, it’s the system that is flawed. The most recent critic is just a man giving voice to what so many believed anyway, but weren’t saying.

The Prosperity Problem

What Schaeffer doesn’t call out in his quote, however, is the connection between the Prosperity Gospel and the attitude that spiritual success results in more dollars, people, and whatever.

Of course, there isn’t really so much a connection as a unity.

This is what makes the “bigger is better” attitude so dangerous for the contemporary minister. It is the Prosperity Gospel. This means that setting out to simply get bigger because you believe that it means God is blessing can be an indicator of practical heresy. The doctrine preached from the pulpit may be sound and not reflect the egregious errors of the prosperity preachers, but the staff meeting may reflect a flawed celebration of growth for its own sake.

This leads to the simple caveat, which I won’t elaborate on, that small is not necessarily better, either. I’m partial to a smaller congregation, but the practical heresy of small church asceticism is no less deadly.

A Possible Solution

The best solution for the problem is to seek to do ministry better by the power of the Holy Spirit. That’s a truism but worth pondering.

Instead of worrying about doing ministry with numerical growth goals, it will be more practical to do them with the hope of growing the depth of the disciples. That and being true to the context that God has placed the ministry in. That seems like a trite solution, but it is the best general solution that there is.

God may well grow your ministry, but if your goal is for the size of your ministry to grow, then you may need to check your heart. Of course, that should be a regular practice for all of us.

The Prosperity Gospel: A Constant Danger

Last weekend I heard the prosperity gospel, in a soft version, preached from the pulpit. We were visiting a church and the pastor declared (I paraphrase), "If you follow God's plan, you will prosper." It was toward the end of the sermon, when he was tacking on some duties that the congregation should perform (pray more, witness more, etc.). He certainly wasn't going full prosperity gospel, but it reflected the notion that if you do the right things, then God's got your back and will make everything work out.

That formula is an easy one to slip into, but it is so very dangerous. 

God doesn't usually make it easy for his most faithful servants, at least not according to what Scripture tells us. In fact, there is a regular pattern in Scripture that those whom God uses most suffer the most deeply.

Our hearts long for ease, but our usefulness to God requires a constant striving, which inevitably entails struggle. There is danger of a soft prosperity gospel in our lives each day because, in reality, we all want it to be true.

The problem with the prosperity gospel is that it teaches us that only when we are comfortable are we being blessed by God. That teaching can lead to despair when things aren't going our way.

The Hardcore Prosperity Gospel

The soft prosperity gospel is a constant danger to most believers, particularly American Christians, but there is a bigger, darker problem that has arisen in the heart of the wealth of America. That problem is the full-fledged, all-out prosperity gospel.

Most proponents of the prosperity gospel have learned to mask their message carefully, at least in public forums, since there has been a tendency among orthodox theologians and pastors to call them out. However, recently Creflo Dollar made the mistake of being open about his understanding of Christianity on Twitter.

He, or someone who has the keys to his account, posted a Tweet that read, "Jesus bled and died for us so that we can lay claim to the promise of financial prosperity. #ProsperityInChrist #WealthyLiving"

Dollar deleted the Tweet after being bombarded by negative comments. This screen capture was taken in anticipation of that on 8 Oct 2015.

Dollar deleted the Tweet after being bombarded by negative comments. This screen capture was taken in anticipation of that on 8 Oct 2015.

The tweet was retweeted by many, responded to by numerous critics, and generally drew a negative reaction from orthodox Christians on Twitter. As a result, Dollar deleted the tweet. Thankfully screen captures last forever. (Which is a warning for those who use social media to vent.)

Sometimes people delete tweets because they are ambiguous and can be misinterpreted. Sometimes they are deleted because of typos or because they have a dead link in them.

Dollar, or someone on his team, deleted this tweet because it was not sufficiently ambiguous. The veil was drawn back on the prosperity gospel. The message was made more clear than simply a promise of living "your best life now" and the true belief system was brought to the surface.

Deleting this tweet was an admission of guilt on the part of Creflo Dollar.

The purpose of this post is to point out the potential error and to point toward some resources for understanding and dealing with the theology of the prosperity gospel. The prosperity gospel, in many forms, is alive and well; we need to kill it in our hearts and help others to see what it really is.

Resources for combatting the prosperity gospel

Here are some helpful resources for understanding and confronting the prosperity gospel in your own heart and in the world around you.

What is the Prosperity Gospel, by Andrew Spencer.

Is the Prosperity Gospel Biblically Sound, by Andrew Spencer.

The Importance of Rejecting the Prosperity Gospel, by Andrew Spencer.

Errors of the Prosperity Gospel, by David W. Jones.

The Prosperity Gospel in My Own Heart, by David W. Jones.

The Poverty of the Prosperity Gospel, by Vaneetha Rendall.

Six Keys to Detecting the Prosperity Gospel, by John Piper.

The Prosperity Gospel: Decietful and Deadly, by John Piper.

Why I Abominate the Prosperity Gospel, by John Piper. (Video)

How to Help Friends Escape the Prosperity Gospel, by John Piper.

Confronting the Prosperity Gospel

Whenever someone writes a blog in opposition to the prosperity gospel (assuming anyone reads it), a backlash always comes from supporters of the individual criticized or the movement as a whole. Accusations are launched something to the effect that "Christians shouldn't attack other Christians," or "Have you followed Matthew 18?" The irony of commenters on blogs posting questions about Matthew 18 is often overlooked.

True enough, I haven't approached Creflo Dollar in person to confront him with his sin. However, he posted it on Twitter, which means that he put his thoughts out there for public critique.

For the first point, Christians should critique other people who claim to be Christians when they preach false doctrines. And when they do so publicly, that critique needs to be public. Paul (who was way more sanctified than I am) seems to have done just that to Peter when he was in error (Gal 2:11-13) with the hope of helping Peter and the believers that were caught in the theological error.

Frankly, this latest tweet by Dollar is only a recent proclamation of what he has previously clearly stated in his sermons and books. In other words, this tweet isn't the issue; it's the broader theological movement. (A more sustained critique of Dollar and the prosperity gospel movement can be found in David W. Jones' book, Health, Wealth, and Happiness.).

The move toward defensiveness of a person or a movement is natural for those deceived by the prosperity gospel (or any other false teaching). Dollar is a charismatic preacher and he offers hope of wealth to many that strongly desire it. But it is a hope built on false doctrine, so it isn't a true hope.

However, maintaining doctrinal orthodoxy is vital to the health of the church. There is a reason that liberal denominations a dying. It's because their theology lacks the nutrients necessary to sustain them. Unfortunately, the prosperity gospel continues to flourish because of continued spiritual blindness by its adherents and much more careful (except with this tweet) presentation of the true nature of their message.  However, it remains a mushroom religion--kept in the dark and fed on manure--that can't survive when trials come.

Ultimately, the reason we should confront the prosperity gospel movement is not to win points on the internet, but because it is a false gospel. It presents the idea that Jesus came to make us wealthy. In reality, he came so that we could become holy. To lose that message is to lose the essence of God's gracious hope for the world.

This is all the reason we should need to publicly and openly oppose this movement of false teaching. It reflects true neighbor love to those trapped in the movement or susceptible to its clutches.