Tuesday, November 14, 2006

TV Preachers and CPMs

Shortly after his release from prison and the release of his autobiography, I had the chance to sit down with Jim Bakker at a convention in Los Angeles. I was working for a radio station at the time and convinced the news crew to let me do the interview. I wanted to give Bakker the opportunity to tell his side of the story.

I told him how I’d seen his ministry change, from a simple, sincere morning interview program to a media extravaganza complete with Christian shopping malls and time-share condominiums. I opened with the obvious question: “WHAT HAPPENED?!!”

He told me that the ministry outgrew his capacity to keep up with it. That, by the end, they were having to raise 1 million dollars a week* just to keep it going. The pressure was tremendous. The focus shifted from the people being reached to the money needed to reach them.

I’ve seen ministers rationalize that type of thinking. “We stress X% growth and we count numbers because each number is a soul.”

My husband, Jeff, has been working for the past year to plant a network of house churches in the working class suburbs of Porto Alegre. The problem now is that the leaders want a church building. Never mind they don’t have but about 15 people to put in it. Never mind that no one has the funds to pay rent or mortgage, or even a power bill. They want to be “official”.

I don’t begrudge these folks a building, or respect in their community. I go to a church that meets in a building, always have. My fear of the building is that the focus will shift from those people who need to be reached to the need to fill up the building and pay the bills that come with it. It’s almost inevitable.

I had a surreal conversation with a fellow missionary (not IMB) the other day. I asked about their new church plant among the upper-class here in town. She described how they were moving the time of their weekly service to Sunday morning, from Sunday evening, because they thought people might find that more convenient. She continued to tell me who all they had talked to and how they were trying to attract them to this weekly service.

I just wanted to take her by the shoulders and shake her and say: YOU DID NOT GIVE UP YOUR LIFE AND MOVE TO BRAZIL TO GET PEOPLE TO ATTEND A ONE-HOUR WEEKLY CHURCH SERVICE!!!


There was a time when we equated church attendance and Christian growth. In the early years of our marriage, we spent HOURS strategizing on how to get young couples to attend church. We had events, we went to conferences, we lost sleep, we prayed.

I see now that the problem was likely that our focus was on the attendance, and not the people. We had no idea that was what we were doing.

I hope this group doesn’t lose their focus.

*My memory may be faulty here. It may have been per day or something like that.


Anonymous said...

...and sitting on my bookshelf, among my other books, is the copy of "I WAS WRONG" that Jim Bakker autographed for you at that very interview. One day I'll actually read it - I started to once, but that was years ago and I didn't get very far.

I completely agree with your observations about why churches exist, and why missionaries do what they do - I think that we can lose sight of that very easily and become focused inwardly because in our fallen nature, we are inherently selfish. Bakker's fall was just one very public example of something that often befalls churches. Not to disparage all large churches (and it is commonplace in churches of all sizes), but I think that the larger a church grows, the greater the danger that it will concentrate more on buildings and programs and various other things to attract more people, and lose sight of the true mission of the church - to preach the true gospel of repentance, faith, and redemption to the lost, and to make disciples and grow the body in its knowledge of and love for Christ.

The ultra-large suburban megachurch I attended for a couple of years in NOVA did do some outreach and sent many short-term mission teams out, but it still seemed to me that 98% of the work of the church was to attract big crowds and make them happy and comfy with the big building and the video screens and the cafeteria and the Starbucks and the bookstore and the cool music and the movie theater seats and the non-threatening shallow preaching. Even the mission trips appeared less to be about sharing the gospel with the lost and more about having really cool cultural experiences. Meanwhile, I didn't see very many people transformed by the gospel... and I wasn't growing as a Christian at all. CHBC, on the other hand, is about as radically non-pragmatic as a church could be - how many people think you can attract anyone with mostly old traditional hymns and hour-long expositional sermons? - but the gospel was proclaimed clearly in every sermon, the congregation was growing (in both numbers and maturity), and the pews were full, and with many more young couples and singles than one might expect at a very traditional church.

To make a long argument short, I think that in our desire to attract more people to church, we often forget that it is the simple Gospel itself that ultimatly transforms lives and brings people to the Cross; the other things we do may be nice, but if they cause us to lose our focus on the gospel then they are worth very little.

Sorry to be so verbose - as you can tell, I'm passionate about this! I will be praying that the leaders of the church plant will seek God's guidance for their future, whether they include a building yet or not. I hope and pray that their desire for "official-ness" (is that a word?) won't overtake the preaching and teaching of God's word as their main focus; that their desire will not be for the praise of men for having a building, but for the praise of God for their faithful ministry. I'll also continue to pray that God will grant Jeff wisdom as he works with the church.

As for your missionary friend, I would encourage you to tell her exactly what you wanted to say. Don't shake her by the shoulders, of course! (Unless she's choking or something... but that's another matter entirely.) But pray about ways that you might lovingly and gently encourage her to see her mission in a different light. I think that it is too important an issue to be left unsaid.

Can't wait to see y'all at Christmas!

Anonymous said...

I attended a Graham Cooke prophecy conference in columbia two years ago and he addressed the subject of numbers in the Western church. He illustrated from the ministry of Ezekiel that numbers are not what pleases God....obedience pleases God. God sent Ezekiel, a major prophet, to a group of people with a specific word of warning. At the same time he told Zeke that no one was ever going to listen to him. Sure 'nuff they didn't. Does that make Ezekiel's ministry a failure or a success?

from a human viewpoint, a failure. From God's viewpoint, a success.

Projects draw people away from their first love and, according to the warning in Revelation, result in great and awful loss spiritually.

Graham Cooke said that God created human beings, not human doings, and that our value lies in the quality of our relationship with God, not our performance. Paul's life's work was "that I might know him" not "that I might write the New Testament." In a similar fashion, my daughter's value to me lies in the fact that she is my daughter and I love her and not in how clean she keeps house or how many batches of cookies she bakes for children's activities.

Anonymous said...

Incidentally, seven years after his sentencing, Jim Bakker was pardoned by a Federal judge who reviewed his petition of cruel and unusual punishment and found no evidence of intent to defraud but rather abominable bookkeeping practices. But the newspapers carried only a small three-line filler on a back page for that news. God disciplines those he loves.