My elders had granted me a Sunday off, so it was therefore a perfect day to go
spy on experience other churches. Maybe covet come back with a fresh idea or two.
The first church we visited was large, not mega, but large, and had a reputation in the community for shady finances and concomitantly “prosperous” personalities and distortions of the gospel. But I wanted to know for myself. We were greeted as family in the Lord and the praise songs kept Jesus in focus, but my younger daughter, age five, quickly got my attention to state, “This is like a commercial, the ones with flashy lights.” She hadn’t seen anything yet.
Later ads included giving an offering in order to receive more in return from the Lord (echoes of TV’s “Buy now and we’ll double your order… Absolutely free!”), making sure the pastor had the best of everything (During the sermon, he said, “The Old Testament priests had the have the best, and God commanded it! So these people who criticize pastors who…”), and certainty that one’s faith, sufficiently earnest, would gain the materially bigger and the shinier life we all supposedly want.
There was nary a whisper of the call to deny oneself, take up one’s cross, and follow Jesus, let alone that the Son of Man Himself experienced regular privation during His earthly ministry (Matthew 16:24, Luke 9:58).
I don’t doubt that many, perhaps even most, of the attenders there are genuine believers in Christ, but they are not being led along a Biblical path toward Christian maturity.
That night, we went to El Pacto de Gracia, a Spanish-language United Reformed church plant a couple towns over where we knew a few people. Rev. Sernas preached from Psalm 1, where it says (NIV):
“Blessed is the
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers…”
Prosperity again! “Whatever they do prospers”? But, said the Reverend, this is a spiritual prosperity, rooted in the spiritual truths of God’s Word. Blessings are many, but they are deeply connected to a life lived in and for Christ. Forgiveness of sins! Grace to transform our broken lives! The promise of life eternal with God! Ah, that’s the stuff.
In the van on the way home, we theologized with our daughters.
“Girls, did you hear how both preachers talked about prosperity?”
“Like when things are going well for you, and you have even more than what you need.”
“Yeah. Um, I think the big question is why everybody was always talking about ‘blessings.’”
“And what is blessing? Is it a big house and a fancy car?”
“No, I don’t think so. Blessings come from God.”
“So they’re all things in heaven?”
“No… I feel like God gives us spiritual dones (gifts) and they kind of, um, you’re supposed to use them here.”
God has blessed my young saplings. May their leaf never wither.
I was still pondering all this when I passed through New Hope Church’s sanctuary. Lord, yes, prosper the work of our hands (Psalm 90:17), but not to us, not to us in the eyes of a materialistic world, but to you be the glory (Psalm 115:1). What kind of life do I live in the most prosperous country in the history of the world? Do I theoretically deny the prosperity non-gospel, but gloss over the incredible gaps of access in this world with “my” money, the churning of this economic machine, and the buying of almost any product I want? Have I let first-world living drug me into unthinking forgetfulness that my wants are not my needs, and that, in any case, needs will be provided when the priority is the Kingdom?
I look up. There are two new fabric banners hanging in the front of the sanctuary.
The earthy green one reads, “I am the Vine. You are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.” (John 15:5)
The other, in purples, “Love joy peace patience kindness goodness faithfulness gentleness self-control. Bear Fruit!” (Galatians 5:22-23)