Why did you join your church? Perhaps because the preacher or priest has a particularly compelling speaking style the really reaches you.
Maybe the church has a High or Low Church feel that you appreciate and thrive in. Or maybe you joined because you want cash prizes, free cars, flat screen televisions, guitars, or even furniture.
As the saying goes, “One of these is not like the other.”
Bay Area Fellowship in Corpus Christi, Texas, projects a doubling in church attendance in the coming year after hosting an Easter giveaway in which all of the “not like the other” items were given away to congregants as part of their Easter celebration. All of the items given away were donated or bought with funds raised by the church.
One thing I am particularly disdainful of is when outsiders of a church criticize the way a church or denomination spends its money. The Catholic Church, of which I am a member, is often criticized for having large, marble and stone churches that often come at a great financial expense. Other churches and denominations, are ridiculed for having large, ornate, high-tech, or lavish buildings. In most cases, the senior pastor, local priest or bishop, or church elders are best fit to decide how money should be spent in order to best serve God and His people.
But I am going to step beyond my usual tight-lipped approach to church expenditures, and assert that this was a colossal mistake and a misguided way to draw in congregants.
Never a good time for confusion
In a time when people are losing their homes, homelessness rates are high, and many are without health insurance, that money could have been used more wisely to serve the needs of the community, rather than the wants. Projecting the Church as glitzy and focused on acquiring wealth will draw in the financially needy, not the spiritually hungry. This glamorized gospel is not only a perversion of the Gospel, but it supports selfish, material desires. We are told to feed, clothe, and care for the needy—not give them a BMW and big screen TV.
Bil Cornelius, pastor of Bay Area Fellowship, has cloaked this giveaway as a way to demonstrate the “Ultimate Free Gift” of God allowing Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. His theology is admirable. But it isn’t why the pastor acted that has me in a bit of a twist; rather it is his methods, since the end result should be focusing on God—not on a bicycle, TV, or car.
The Associated Press video covering the giveaway shows a woman running down the aisle, ecstatic about winning a new car. She waves her hands, screams, and gives others high fives as she runs up to the stage. Who could blame her? Yet her eyes are not focused on a cross or crucifix, but her new ride. What did she tell her friends and family when she called to tell them the big news? Did she say, “You’ll never guess what happened. Jesus died on the cross to save me from the squalor of my own sins”? Or did she say, “I won a brand new car in a giveaway!”?
The Inevitable Criticism
Cornelius responded to criticism on his website, by saying,
Most of the people who are criticizing our Easter plans are not the kind of people we are trying to reach, so no worries. Although it certainly is not my desire to anger people, as long as the unchurched are being reached in a God-honoring way, then just pray for God's best and stay above the fray (the negativity)...Free gifts draw people to malls and stores, so why not God's House? In fact, the Ultimate Free Gift is what Easter is all about!
Three things struck me about his response. First, anyone who criticizes his misguided teaching and celebration are “not the kind of people” he is trying to reach? But God calls all people to Himself. Why are people like me left out of His church’s mission? Perhaps it is because we know better than to be lured by the hope of luxury and material pleasure.
Second, he wants to reach the unchurched in a God-honoring way. Though the desire is laudable, he goes about it like Oprah Winfrey on her “Christian” day (I can just imagine her yelling, “You get Jesus, you get salvation, and you get a big screen TV!”).
Lastly, he identifies Christ’s death and resurrection as the ultimate gift of Easter. How unfortunate that Pastor Cornelius has spent more time publicly defending his methods than teaching the truth of the immeasurable gift of Christ’s death and resurrection—but that’s the consequence of his style and method.
Only part of the problem
But this approach is not isolated to this Texas church. Other churches around the country are buying into a false philosophy of “whatever it takes to get them there, do it!” In responding to the criticism of Pastor Cornelius, an anonymous comment reads, “Whatever it takes to get people to come to His house, then He will do the rest.” Yet only the truth and a yearning for something deeper should draw one into His house.
Keep in mind that this church is not practicing the ever-popular “prosperity Gospel,” which teaches that God will bless His favored children with material wealth. One of the dangers of the prosperity gospel is that it suggests we can judge the condition of a person’s soul by looking at their wealth or bank account. Thus we possess the measuring rod of faith.
Pastor Cornelius is teaching something different. He is saying—though perhaps inadvertently—that there are reasons other than holiness that one should come to the Lord. There are benefits to a Christian life that we experience when we are at the altar, but if our motivation to come before the Lord is not out of a yearning for something more than the depravity of sin, then we have come before Him selfishly. One of the most difficult virtues of the Christian life is humility, which is required to come before the Lord not expecting to be temporally satisfied.
Pastor Cornelius wants people to come before the Lord, for which he should be commended. But he is teaching in a way that misleads his congregation and likely confuses newcomers, whether he realizes it or not.
It’s about growing disciples
Using unbiblical, controversial methods to draw larger church attendance compromises the integrity of the Scripture. People, like the woman running fanatically to her new car, lose sight of the Gospel message and instead turn to the church to serve the all-important “me.” Chuck Colson refers to this misleading presentation of the Gospel as a way to just bankroll believers in his book Loving God: “Tragically, this attitude pervades the church not only because we’re afraid the truth will scare newcomers, but because it might also drive a number of the nodding regulars right out of their comfortable pews.”
The chief goal of any church should not be to grow the congregation. If it is, then almost any method will become acceptable. Pastor Cornelius has fallen into this trap. Every church’s principle goal should be to teach the truth winsomely. A natural byproduct of the truth is that people will be drawn to it because it connects with the human experience and the deep desires of the heart. We can’t help but love truth.
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