Thinking Out Loud

January 6, 2020

Evangelicals in a Nation of Tax Loopholes

Note to readers in countries outside the United States: What follows is not fiction. What is described below is believed to be an accurate recounting of the statements issued by an Evangelical organization which has already been a trusted brand in ministry.

Wade Mullen is my new hero. His exposé on one of the charity sector’s most unusual accountability loopholes published as a Twitter thread last week. It took time and research to write. It took courage to print. But then I shouldn’t be surprised. As his “about” page on his website notes:

I earned a PhD researching the ways in which organizations seek to escape a scandal with their legitimacy in tact. My dissertation is titled: “Impression Management Strategies Used by Evangelical Organizations in the Wake of an Image-threatening Event.” You and can download it for free HERE.

(Warning: That dissertation is 279 pages!)

The gist of the thread is summed up thus:

Focus on the Family received approval from the IRS to be reclassified as a church in 2016.

For many of my readers here, that may seem a little strange, but it doesn’t appear to be a world-shaking observation. But as most of my American readers know, the difference is in the responsibility for transparency. The site The Balance Small Business notes:

In other words, churches, to be considered 501(c)(3) charities, must act like other charities. If they do so, they may qualify for tax-exemption.

But, unlike other charities, Churches do not have to register with the IRS by submitting Form 1023. However, many do file to make their status clear to their donors and supporters. Churches that do officially register as charitable organizations are included on the IRS list of registered charities.

Churches that do not register with the IRS do not have to file yearly 990s, the tax document that all other charities must submit yearly. If the church has registered as a 501(c)(3), it does have to file a 990.

Okay, so far so good. A church is a church is a church, right? Not exactly. In the years since the end of World War II, we’ve seen a massive explosion of we insiders call parachurch organizations. The website continues:

Religious groups [organizations] are not places of worship. They do not usually belong to a particular denomination. They often try to bridge particular belief systems, although they can also be groups that study or promote a particular religion.

To be considered tax-exempt, a religious organization must register as a 501(c)(3) charity. That means filing Form 1023 (groups with income below $5000 annually are not required to file although they may wish to). Once registered, the organization must file an annual 990.

The last few years have shown that the leadership of both churches and parachurch organizations is fallible. Have a sex scandal and the IRS isn’t particular interested, unless money changes hands. But be guilty of financial impropriety and donors, potential donors, watchdog organizations and the IRS will investigate. So if you can hide behind the idea of being a church you can escape many of those watching eyes.

Wade Mullen then went through each of the IRS criteria of Church, criterion by criterion and Focus on the Family’s response. I’m not going to reproduce each of the accompanying images here, but this is well documented; in fact, I would suggest if you have Twitter (and even if you don’t) skipping what follows and reading this starting with this Tweet. However, I’m reproducing the text here because Twitter and blogs are often an entirely different audience, and this deserves, in my humble opinion, wider exposure. [Note: Bold face type added.]

Wade Mullen
[photo: Lancaster Bible College]

A church needs an established congregation.
According to FoF, their personnel make up their 594-member congregation overseen by the elders (aka Board of Directors) and deacons/deaconesses (aka Executive Cabinet). Radio listeners are their mission field.

A church needs a place of worship.
According to FoF, their dining hall doubles as a worship auditorium. They call it a “chapelteria.”

A church needs a process for membership.
According to FoF, their “congregants” become members when they go through the employee or volunteer hiring process.

Churches give their members certain rights.
According to FoF, their “congregation” are encouraged to “participate in the religious functions of Focus on the Family,” like Monday prayer meetings and devotional opportunities.
As expected, this “congregation” does not vote.

Members of one local church typically don’t become members of another local church.
According to FoF, however, it’s normal for people to be members of more than one church.

Churches usually conduct baptisms, weddings, funerals, etc.
According to FoF, their “congregation” participates in communion every Easter during a chapel service. All other functions (baptisms, weddings, funerals) are supposedly conducted by the “congregant’s” other church.

Churches should have a school for the religious instruction of the young.
According to FoF, their radio programs, like Adventures in Odyssey, constitute their religious instruction for the young members of their “congregation.”

A church typically has ordained or licensed ministers.
According to FoF, they refer to the leadership team as deacons/deaconesses and the board of directors as elders. Jim Daly, President/CEO, is the head elder and they follow the “model of an elder-led church.”

Churches typically required their ministers to receive formal preparation culminating in ordination, licensing, or commissioning.
According to FoF, they do not find such requirements necessary for their “church.” Elders (BoD) are selected from the “congregation.”

Churches are sometimes affiliated with other churches.
According to FoF, the offices they have in 13 other countries are the “churches” they affiliate with.

A church should primarily function as a church, with most activity being religious.
According to FoF, their “daily work is worship.” This is one of their strongest claims throughout the application.
They view all employee activity as religious activity.

A church usually has a religious history.
According to FoF, their organization has been evolving into a church in the same way that John Wesley started his “Holy Club” that evolved into Methodism, and is beginning to resemble other churches as it continues to institutionalize.

A church usually has a creed.
According to FoF, their statement of faith and “Six Pillars” are their creed and one of their distinctive is the belief in “work as worship.”

Churches should have both an equipping and service role.
But according to FoF, they are one of two blades in a pair of scissors. FoF is the “service and mission” blade and the “congregant’s” other church is the “teaching and equipping” blade. Together they comprise the Church.

■ When the IRS brought up the fact their employees attend other churches on Sundays, FoF claimed not all churches have services on Sundays, like the Seventh-day Adventist, and that “it has been quite common for believers to be involved in more than one church body…concurrently.”

■ When the IRS asked about membership being tied to employment, FoF claimed that since they invite visitors and volunteers to join their “services,” then membership is not “in fact contingent on employment.”

■ When the IRS asked about religious leadership being the same as directing business operations, FoF claimed that “nearly all congregational churches…have a board of directors that doubles as a board of elders or board of deacons”

■ When the IRS suggested there was nothing distinctive that would cause “a group of believers to coalesce around you,” FoF chided them for their “ecclesiastical judgment” and argued their group of believers are among the largest in the world – 5.5 million nationwide.

■ When the IRS pointed out that these congregational activities appear to be incidental to the business operations, FoF argued their church activities are fundamental to their operations and that thinking of church as a building to gather to hear a sermon on Sundays is antiquated.

■ Finally, when the IRS questioned their real purpose for using facilities for “some religious activity in the course of their work day,” FoF chided them again for their “ecclesiastical judgment” and argued their members engage in “religious activity, all day, every day.”

My take:
This is an incredible twisting of the biblical view of the nature and purpose of a local church for the apparent purpose of forcing one’s ecclesiology into IRS codes.
Not surprisingly, others like BGEA, Samaritan’s Purse, and RZIM have followed.

■ If Focus on the Family truly believes it is a church, its employees and volunteers are its congregants, their executives are their pastors and elders, and their listeners are their mission field, then they should immediately stop requesting donations from their 6m+ listeners.

■ The lawyer offering these answers is Stuart Mendelsohn, legal counsel to the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (EFCA), a group that offers accreditation for ministries and churches.

■ Here is the letter FoF sent to the IRS requesting the reclassification from a 509(a)(2) to a 509(a)(1), stating “Focus on the Family was established and has been historically operated as a church.” [Attaches link to this 125-page .pdf file]

[end thread]

Here are some responses Wade received:

► From Rachel: “This is bananas. This is also why some people are anti-tax exemption for churches. It’s not because they want to blur the line between Church and State; it’s because of ethically dubious loopholes that religious orgs take advantage of.”

► Diane quoted N.T. Wright: “When you pretend evil is not there you merely give it more space to operate.”

► Albert noted: “…PLOT TWIST, they used the Seventh-day Adventist Church as a tiny part of their justification.”

► Bill wrote: “Focus on the Family is not a church. And claiming that it is for tax purposes is lying. A “Christian” ministry shouldn’t be lying for financial gain.”

► Julia asks: “It is such a tragedy that churches are becoming more secretive while secular non-profits are demonstrating transparency. Why are these “churches” considered Godly?”

► Hannah reasoned: “When anything with a vaguely religious cast can be a “church,” then nothing is.”

► Craig wrote: “I’m embarrassed reading the arguments. This is incredibly dishonest.”

► Rachel aptly notes: “I’m here thinking the fact that the IRS has a “church” designation in the first place is a bit unsettling.”

► Lucrezia wrote: “I look forward to FoF ceasing all political activity since it is apparently a church.”

[end responses]

And those are just the ones Wade retweeted. I’m sure there were hundreds more. To me this is every bit as scandalous as many of the other scandals of 2019. It brings me no pleasure to share this, but having discovered it, I felt there should be some additional recognition and highlighting of all these things that were made available to Twitter account holders last week.

Something is seriously wrong and as I said at the outset, Focus on the Family has long been a respected brand in Evangelicalism, and ought feel shamed by the responses it made to the IRS. 

Ask yourself, who benefits by all this?

 

November 18, 2019

Earning a Living from Child Sponsorships

I had a discussion on the weekend in which the name of particular regional music artist was mentioned in reference to the issue of high-profile charities having an outrageous percentage of their income going to fundraising and administration.

It was in some respects a continuation of a conversation we’d had in the summer concerning another singer who is largely in the same situation, but I’ll write the next paragraph as though it applies to the one, though it applies to many, many more than this, and possibly quite a few where you live if you’re in Canada or the U.S.

This artist has never written a popular song. Never had a hit album. Never toured much except in connection with the charity. Has only done television with ministries which tend to also invite (and perhaps only invite) musicians who do this same charity circuit.

But apparently he is able to make a comfortable living doing this. Heck, my wife and I, who have much more realistic expectations — we still have the same sofa set in our living room after 32+ years, sitting on the same worn-out carpeting — would have really appreciated the same level of performance and income opportunities back in the day.

This pastor said there is an army of people who either speak or sing who can earn $100 for just a passing mention of a certain charity.

“Can I mention [name of charity]?” he was asked.

His answer was skillful.

“Certainly, as long as you tell people you’re being paid to mention them.”

We looked at this issue before in terms of the commissions paid to these musicians for setting up a child sponsorship booth in the lobby outside their full concerts. It was the similar to the deal that Family Christian Stores had, as outlined in a 2015 article in the Detroit Free Press:

Family Christian has also benefited from customers who sign up to sponsor a third-party group called World Vision, which provides food, clothing and shelter to impoverished children throughout the world.

The chain solicits sponsorships from its customers and receives a $150 fee from World Vision for each customer who signs up and pays the monthly fee, according to records obtained by the Free Press. Family Christian receives another $35 if the customer signs up for automatic payments.

That prompted me to do some math:

The sponsor is paying World Vision $35 per month per child. That means that for the first 5.28 months, the organization has yet to break even. It’s really into the 6th month that the sponsor’s donation is free and clear, but of course there are also overhead costs in that $35 that we don’t know. 

The person I spoke with yesterday had different, perhaps older numbers in terms of the monthly donation, but shocking in terms of what happens beyond the artist being paid a bounty for each sponsorship brought in.

“Out of a $22 monthly fee;” he told me, “The child is seeing about $1.”

He also told me stories of being on a board for one such organization which thought nothing of flying everyone first class to Europe, staying in five star hotels, and eating at the most luxurious restaurants. When his eyes were opened, he quickly resigned. It’s seems almost sinful. No, delete the word ‘almost,’ there is a definite corruption associated with this, which only multiplies when you consider the socioeconomic level of some who are giving quite sacrificially.

If people only knew…

…I want to end this with something redemptive.

The context of our conversation wasn’t, ‘Let’s bash some major charities,’ but was about what I call the second tier of Christian organizations available to support. (Our recent series on four of Canada’s best charity secrets contained two which are able to issue receipts, and of the others, the orphanage is in such dire need I would hope some in the U.S. would want to give irrespective of tax advantages.)

These organizations are easily located by asking someone ‘in the know’ if they can help you find people who are doing effective ministry, either on the domestic front or overseas, who don’t have a lot of profile.

Your money doesn’t have to be squandered on opulent offices, insane overhead costs, and commissions to concert artists.

It can be given to meet real needs. One of the organizations I profiled has its entire staff working in a corner of another charity at second-hand workstations sitting on used office chairs. Another is based in someone’s house in middle class suburbia.

I have no less confidence in them because they don’t appear successful. Success in feeding and clothing and housing the poor has a much different metric.

Give wisely.


In an article from October, 2015, we looked at three indicators that can be warning signs of a charity which has grown too fat:

I’m not sure that people in the Early Church or especially the Persecuted Church would worry about the “Too Low” category; they would rejoice that you had a location to work from; that you had some paid staff. But that’s what I wrote at the time.


I attended a fund-raising event a week ago which had the same familiar-looking child pictures and profiles spread out on a table, but instead, they were asking you to take one and pray for the child in question.

How refreshing.


Can’t take the time to investigate which organizations would fit comfortably into that second-tier category I mentioned? There are foundations out there which exist to support these charities. They’ve already done due diligence. I have contact info for one in Canada, and I’m sure there are many in the U.S. I hope to write about this at some point in the future.


Here in Canada organizations must file a tax return for the organization. These are public and are posted online. In the U.S., some organizations are incorporated as “churches” and the same level of transparency is not required. While having these details doesn’t tell the whole story, it will give you an idea of the scope of the organization.

May 9, 2019

The Contagion of Mass Violence

Despite what these nuns may think, the gun issue in the United States is no laughing matter.

School shootings have now been with us for a generation; two decades. Or so some news media would have us think, preferring to use the Columbine (Littleton) event as a game changer. In fact, a look at the School Shootings List on Wikipedia shows that incidents so classified go back to the 1800s.

A close look at the list shows that Columbine had been preceded by just eleven months by an event in Springfield, Oregon where four people were killed but 25 were injured.

There are also two other significant outliers: In August, 1966, 18 people were killed at the University of Texas (Austin) tower shooting; and in May, 1986 there was an event in Cokeville, Wyoming involving a bomb which injured 79, though only one death, other than the perpetrators’, involved gunfire.

When you scroll through the whole list however, events since the year 2000 take up far more than half the page, so the Columbine thesis has some validity.

I’ve written about this subject before and it has often brought accusations that I, writing outside the United States, should not be meddling in the gun control issue, since that is a political issue that Americans need to work out on their own. So I won’t state the obvious here and suggest that maybe, just maybe, civilian access to the AR-15 is a bad idea.

But when I’ve written before, I’ve talked about the idea that the killer(s) had no regard for human life.

While I believe that there is a contagion of gun violence — not dissimilar to other things which have swept through U.S. culture, such as the contagion of divorce — I think we need to dig a little deeper and try to figure what has fostered the disregard for human life.

Hang on, this is going to sound very 1950-ish or 60-ish.

I believe American television has played a role. A big role.

Last week I was watching a situation comedy on a U.S. network. Lighthearted fare. Watched by families and children.

During the second commercial break, which included promotions for upcoming shows, I watched three people get killed.

I found it interesting that here was broadcast content advertising programs which probably aren’t allowed to be shown before 9:00 PM, and yet at 8:17 they can air scenes depicting the very violence which causes those programs to be designated for later viewing.

How many shootings have American kids watched on television compared to their UK counterparts?

I think the answer would be significant because UK adventures/suspense/mystery programs wouldn’t broadcast people pulling out guns and committing murder if in fact the weapons are not in the average citizen’s possession in real life.

Up to this very day, it is widely agreed that the focus of censorship in the U.S. has always been on sexual content not violent content, whereas in parts of Europe violence is censored and the treatment of sexual scenes is more liberal. Do American television networks have complicity in the gun violence we’ve been seeing since 1991? Or the actors themselves? When I wrote about this on Twitter, I received this comment “The irony is Hollywood actors who speak out about gun violence but make millions of dollars wielding and shooting guns in their movies.”

Do British children have a higher regard for human life?

I don’t think that television is the only factor at work; furthermore if there is a contagion of violence, those germs are capable of crossing the ocean through social media and the export of U.S. film industry products around the world.

Children are imitative. If that’s what we show them, that’s what they grow up thinking is normal behavior. We’re telling them that life is cheap.

So to my American friends, yes by all means look at gun control and even the Second Amendment itself.

But also look at media control, broadcast control, film industry control.

 

April 1, 2019

A Morning Devoted to Un-Truths

This weekend I’ve been cross-posting articles from Christianity 201, as that blog begins year ten today. It seemed only fitting to go back one last time for this article, appropriate to April Fool’s Day.

For much of the morning, in some parts of the world, people made (or are still making) outrageous, preposterous or untrue statements; waited a few seconds; followed by, “April Fools!” No doubt online there were false news stories, manipulated photos, and skillfully edited videos. In most cases, nobody gets hurt and everyone has enjoys having their gullibility quotient tested.

I don’t want to go so far as to say that Christians should never enjoy a good prank, but it’s important that this never defines us.

In Matthew 5:37 we read,

All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.

The context is about swearing oaths, but in The Message Bible, the definition is widened:

“And don’t say anything you don’t mean. This counsel is embedded deep in our traditions. You only make things worse when you lay down a smoke screen of pious talk, saying, ‘I’ll pray for you,’ and never doing it, or saying, ‘God be with you,’ and not meaning it. You don’t make your words true by embellishing them with religious lace. In making your speech sound more religious, it becomes less true. Just say ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ When you manipulate words to get your own way, you go wrong.

The entire passage is paralleled in James 5:12

Above all, my brothers and sisters, do not swear–not by heaven or by earth or by anything else. All you need to say is a simple “Yes” or “No.” Otherwise you will be condemned.

Wikipedia notes how these verses impacted one Christian sect:

Quakers place importance on being truthful at all times, so the testimony opposing oaths springs from a view that “taking legal oaths implies a double standard of truthfulness” suggesting that truthfulness in legal contexts is somehow more important than truthfulness in non-legal contexts and that truthfulness in those other contexts is therefore somehow less important.

But by refusing to take an oath, many were imprisoned. The article also noted some of the variances we encounter today:

  • I swear on my mother’s life
  • I swear on my grandmother’s grave

The idea is that we are promising something that is precious to us to demonstrate sincerity. I didn’t grow up around people who use these expressions, but to be honest (pun intended) I often wonder that people who feel the need to add this might be the ones most likely not telling the truth.

This passage also means more than just whether or not we can be trusted when we make a statement, it’s also about whether or not we can be trusted when we make a promise. My wife and I often joke that we’ve spent a measurable percentage of our lives waiting for people who said they would arrive somewhere at a certain time. Before we even got married, I noticed that my wife was extremely punctual, and I’ve always hated being late and keeping people waiting. But often others find it easy to say they will be somewhere at a certain time and then think nothing of arriving a half hour later (and we’re not talking about being fashionably late to a large party or gathering.)

For the Christian, decision-making can be extra-complicated, as we desire to submit everything, big and small, to God’s will. But if commit to something, if we agree to do something or be somewhere, then we need to honor our commitments and agreements.

Freelance writer Fiona Soltes writes,

There’s much to be said for being a person of integrity and doing what you say you’re going to do. There’s even more to be said, however, for being a person who carefully considers decisions with God’s input and sticks to those decisions once they’re made. God is, after all, the same yesterday, today and forever. If we are to be like Him, we must show ourselves faithful and dependable, as well.

Jered Bridges commented on this passage in the context of living in a world filled with hidden cameras. He noted our ultimate accountability is not to the people we make promises to, but rather…

Proverbs 5:21 warns that, “…a man’s ways are before the eyes of the LORD, and he ponders all his paths.” (ESV) Ultimately it matters not if there’s a hidden camera watching you —- the eyes of the Lord penetrate far further than a grainy twenty-frames-per-second camera could ever go. It is in the healthy fear of those eyes that we should accordingly adjust our conduct.


~PW (2014, C201)

 

March 19, 2019

Two Entirely Different Sets of Values and Virtues

Filed under: books, character, Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:07 am

I’m currently reading Your Future Self Will Thank You by Drew Dyck. Released just a few weeks ago, it’s already into its second printing and I had hoped to review it pre-publication, but it only showed up in the mail last week. Considering one of the things the book deals with is procrastination, I do promise a full review; but I’m only about 65% through the book at this stage so this isn’t it.

The book deals with self control. The subtitle is, Secrets to Self-Control from the Bible and Brain Science, but there’s also a tag line across the top of the cover that at least one vendor is using as the subtitle, A Guide for Sinners, Quitters, and Procrastinators. Either way, you get the idea.

But I want to look at something Drew noted early on, on paged 65-66. He references a 2015 work by journalist David Brooks titled The Road to Character which has been described as a book about humility, morality and ethics. Here’s Drew’s synopsis:

In his book The Road to Character, David Brooks argues that we live in a post-character culture. We care more about success and achievements (what Brooks calls “resumé virtues”) than we do about cultivating traits like honesty or faithfulness (what Brooks calls “eulogy virtues,” the kind of qualities that get mentioned at your funeral).

Part of the reason for this shift, Brooks writes, is that we have strayed from a school of thought that saw people, not as inherently good, but as fundamentally flawed. Brooks dubs this the “crooked timber” tradition, a phrase he borrowed from the philosopher Immanuel Kant: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” According to this older view of human nature, we are not inherently good creatures who simply need more freedom and affirmation. Rather, we are splendid but damaged. Like crooked timbers, we need to be straightened.

Brooks writes that the crooked timber tradition was “based on the awareness of sin and the confrontation with sin.” And here’s the surprising part. According to Brooks, it was this consciousness of sin that allowed people to cultivate virtue. That might seem like a strange argument. How could having a dim view of human nature enable people to become more virtuous? Because once they were conscious of their sinful nature, they could take steps to fight against it. “People in this ‘crooked timber’ school of humanity have an acute awareness of their own flaws and believe that character is built in the struggle against their own weaknesses,” Brooks writes. “Character is built in the course of your inner confrontation.” This inner confrontation is anything but easy, but the struggle is worth it.

I included a little extra in this excerpt, but it’s the contrast between resumé virtues and eulogy virtues which really got me thinking; in a way that it really was front of mind during much of the weekend. 

It’s so easy to get caught in the now and forget the eternal.

 

March 7, 2019

No Secrets in a Marriage?

Filed under: Christianity, marriage — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 10:00 am

Before I met her, my wife worked as a magician’s assistant. That’s not the set-up for a story, it’s really true.

Shortly after we were married, I asked her about the routine and she mentioned one particular illusion, and I asked her how they did it.

David & Kylie Knight are Christian magicians who would never sue me for using this photo image. Learn more about them here.

She wouldn’t tell me.

The ability to maintain a confidence is a great character trait to possess, but we were married, right? There’s no secrets in a marriage, right? Surely she could tell me, couldn’t she?

But she flatly refused. The more I kept grilling her, the more she stated that she had promised not to reveal the secret to anyone, and it was a promise she intended to keep.

And this was before the internet.

I was angry. I got up and went for a walk in the ravine. (Our apartment overlooked a beautiful river valley, but there was trouble in paradise that day!)

Fast forward 30 years…

…We were talking about magic acts somehow last night, and I asked her if the trick in question was one she would perform back in the day. It was.

So then I asked her how it’s done.

You guessed it; 30 years later we were having the same conversation and she still refused to tell me how the illusion is performed.

“You know that Penn and Teller probably have a video on this?” I reminded her.

But her loyalty to her promise, made back in the 1980s still held for her, and she wasn’t about to break that promise last night.

…I realize there are pastors who are told things in confidence that are told to them in the church office which cannot be shared. But I would think that a good percentage of these pastors use their spouse as a sounding board to either get an additional perspective or decompress from an intense counselling session. I would also equally recognize that it’s more in the DNA of some pastors to simply not burden their spouse with the information that would come with sharing.

I’ve been told things, and on occasion, before the words are out of the person’s mouth, I will say, “I will keep the confidence, but can I share it with my wife?” Most, some of whom know her, will say yes.

And as it turns out they don’t need to worry about information leaks from her, since apparently a secret with her is safe. For life. With everyone.

I still want to know how they do the trick, but more than that, I wish she would just tell me.

Magicians, eh?

I hear we’re having rabbit stew for dinner.

February 25, 2019

“Harvest Could Never Happen At Our Church”

 

Harvest Bible Chapel Elgin Campus

It’s easy to sit back and self-righteously congratulate ourselves on not attending a megachurch with a megalomaniacal pastor. If your weekly attendance runs 200, or 400 weekly and your pastor is a grandfatherly type trying to build God’s Kingdom and not a personal empire, it’s somewhat comforting to be able to relax and say, ‘That could never happen here.’

Harvest Bible Chapel – Elgin campus

But I would argue that on closer observation it can, and possibly does.

In the last six months, we’ve seen people at various levels of leadership at Harvest defend the institution and its pastor or both. While at least one former Harvest elder has stepped forward and apologized, there are no doubt others who will want to defend its decision-making processes, past and present.

I would suggest that this practice of putting spin on things is alive and well in many of our congregations. People get hurt because leaders have some agenda probably contrary to God’s, but are able to make it seem somehow correct and appropriate for the situation at hand.

A few days ago I re-ran something that Ruth wrote in which a church which is always telling people to know and employ their spiritual gifts pulled her aside and told her that this somehow didn’t apply to her and gave her a cease-and-desist order because she dared to demonstrate pastoral compassion in the face of a situation facing a particular family that a new pastor could not have articulated.

Years later, she asked if she could have a reprise of her former worship leadership role, not regularly, but just for a single Sunday; as an opportunity for healing all round. The elder she met with concocted the most foolish of all reasons for saying no, simply because otherwise he had no grounds for so doing. “We don’t have guest worship leaders.” Again, I gave opportunity for her to explain how this was both insulting to her and the congregation.

In my mind, it was a case of spiritual abuse; an example of an elder putting spin on a situation.

And guess what? Not three weeks later, they had a guest worship leader; a recording artist whose commercial success gave him a pass on their unofficial rule. In a postscript to her article, I wrote,

“At the center of this was one particular individual who is otherwise greatly admired and respected by the people of that church. In hindsight what he did at that meeting at night constituted spiritual abuse, not to mention certain aspects where we now know he was lying through his teeth. He continues in a leadership role that leaves me totally mystified.”

In her case, the woundedness was overshadowed by ministry opportunities elsewhere. The Bible states that a person’s gift will make a way for them. Just this weekend, I saw those gifts affirmed in her life on a level which is unprecedented. But the Harvest situation reminded me of the lengths that some in leadership will go to in order to fulfill a role they believe God gave them to keep things orderly. That reminded me of another article I wrote where I asked the questions below.

1. How long does a person attend your church before they are considered for service?

2. When someone who was a former member of your church returns, does their past experience count for anything?

3. Is someone who has only been part of a church for a short time truly fit to reprimand, discipline or judge someone whose history with that church goes back several decades?

4. Are the elders in your church really Biblically qualified to be called “elder,” or were they chosen by some other standard?

5. What about Church leaders who will look you right in the eye and lie through their teeth? Is that ever justified?

6. Is the elders’ board of a church even truly where the heart of ministry is taking place? Or even in touch with the real ministry happening?

7. Do people in your church get hurt or wounded or abused?

8. Can a church leader be doing “the Lord’s work” and at the same time be about “the Devil’s business?”

9. Why do we keep coming back?

10. Is it possible that it’s just time to step aside and let another generation have their turn?

Remember, I wrote this in a small-town context and long before we had the colossal present-day failures involving churches pastored by Perry Noble, Tullian Tchividijan, Mark Driscoll or James MacDonald. But the presence of spin is identical in both, until you reach the point where you just can’t keep pretending.

Unfortunately my wife never got to see such vindication in terms of that church, but was able to find it elsewhere.

 

January 17, 2019

Our Summer Church-Visit Holidays: The Pattern

We wanted to hear Rob Bell in person. The first time we travelled to Grand Rapids he was away, but we went back again to have the complete experience. Not long after, Rob was gone from Mars Hill Bible Church over his view of hell, among other things.

I had some history visiting Willow Creek to hear Bill Hybels, but my wife had not. We went several times to South Barrington to hear him. Last year, in the wake of #MeToo, Hybels was no longer at Willow nor were the people he had chosen as successors.

I had been captivated listening to James MacDonald’s preaching on radio while driving to work every morning. The first time we drove there we didn’t know that Elgin was just a new Harvest Bible Chapel campus so James wasn’t there. The second time we drove to Rolling Meadows and he was at Elgin. So technically, I’ve never heard him in person. This week he took — or was placed on — an indefinite leave of absence over issues involving money and control.

The moral of the story is we need to stop visiting churches…

…Actually, the moral of the story is something my father taught me several decades ago: Don’t invest your confidence or admiration in an individual preacher; they will invariably let you down at some point. The megachurches are always the biggest blips on our radar and many of them got there due to the charisma of a key personality.

Many of these Bible teachers are great communicators with a style that local church pastors may try to emulate though not always successfully. Often however, the character strength by which they are able to get up and speak to thousands of people each weekend also masks a character weakness in terms of how they handle that power and responsibility…

…There are a couple of churches I would still like to visit to hear the lead pastors speak in person, instead of on a small window of my computer screen. In the wake of all that’s transpired, I’m thinking it might be best not to. 


Sidebar: Both Hybels and MacDonald ministered in the area of greater Chicagoland called the ‘Northwest Suburbs.’ I wonder what the impact is there on both Christians and non-Christians alike in the wake of watching the fallout from leadership crises at two of the largest churches in the area. I can imagine doubters and skeptics saying, ‘See; I told you it was all a sham.’

While these two churches will continue to serve their congregations, no doubt some disillusioned people will take a step away from church, at least for a season. It may also be the case the smaller, local churches are left to pick up former members at Harvest and Willow who want to escape the megachurch environment.

The people — and pastors — in this part of Chicago really need our prayers.

July 21, 2018

No, Everybody’s NOT Doing It

Because we’re inundated with media that tells us that everybody is doing it, the other side should probably have equal time. If you’re on the fringes of the whole God scene, or maybe not even that close, here’s what I think some people I know would tell you…

Materialism

  • many of us are not going to a vacation resort this year
  • what you think is our ‘new’ car actually came off a three-year lease
  • I really don’t want a bigger house, in fact I’d like to downsize
  • those new appliances we ‘bought’ were free with credit card points
  • we think all those electronic gadgets are a waste of money

Boasting

  • yes, we paid off the bank loan, but then we took out another
  • many of us have kids that did not get straight A’s on their report card
  • Harry’s new job was a departmental move, not a promotion
  • the ten pounds I lost wasn’t exercise, they closed the local Krispy Kreme
  • the little league team we coach made the finals only because another team had to forfeit

Ethics

  • there are many people who do not embellish their resumé
  • no, actually I don’t cheat on my income tax
  • since you asked, not everybody looks at porn online
  • sorry, you’re wrong; not everybody tells lies to get ahead
  • if you look carefully, most of us really do drive the speed limit

Sexuality

  • the kids in my core youth group at church actually aren’t sexually active
  • the truth is, I haven’t thought about having an affair with the receptionist
  • I’m not that insecure that I need to flirt to prove I’ve still “got it.”
  • a lot of us women are not interested in reading the fantasy bestseller
  • there are many people who think inward qualities matter more than outward appeal

Anything you’d like to add?

February 20, 2018

The Parable of the Shopkeeper

Once there was a shopkeeper who sold very expensive widgets, some of the best widgets you could buy. While people came from all directions to purchase his widgets, he had only two customers who he would consider regulars and they would both arrive every other Friday.

One came in usually shivering in the cold. His cloth coat just wasn’t enough to keep the winter temperature from getting through. Fussing with a packages of tissues for a runny nose, he would usually buy two or three or sometimes four widgets, paying the price that was on the sign above the counter. Occasionally, he would say he was buying four, only to find himself short on cash, and have to put one back.

The other arrived in a luxury car, the car was obviously quite warm, because he never shivered. He would buy in multiples of ten; usually sixty, eighty or a hundred and he never paid the price on the sign. Instead, the shopkeeper would sell him product at a generous discount, or he would charge him for 60 but give him 20 free, for a total of 80.

Until one day.

The shopkeeper had been listening to the words of the one called The Master or sometimes called The Teacher. He had some interesting stories, but none about shopkeeping or widgets or retail pricing. But there was a tone or a tenor to his teaching that seemed to reach beyond the specific stories and have all manner of ethical ramifications.

So one of the alternate Fridays rolled around and the first customer came in and asked for four widgets. “This is your lucky day;” he told him. “You only need to pay for two and you get two free.” The customer was quite pleased. He asked if he could pay for three and get six. “Absolutely;” said the shopkeeper, adding with a wink; “Remember, I said today is your lucky day. But we have another lucky day coming up two weeks today!”

Then the second regular customer rolled up in his expensive car. “I’ll take a hundred widgets today;” he said; so the merchant went to the cash register and keyed in 100 at the price on the sign above the counter and told him the total.

“Wait, that’s not right;” said the wealthy customer, “That’s full price.”

“Today;” said the shopkeeper,  “We’re offering generous discounts to people who truly can barely afford to buy, but people of means like yourself, are able to pay full price and today are paying full price.”

The customer was in a state of shock and —

–and what do you think happened next?  …

Three days ago, we asked the question if offering certain bonuses to some customers but not other customers was the type of thing that Jesus had in mind when he gave the Sermon on the Mount and other teachings, inspiring James to write about what we call The Sin of Partiality.

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

The gospel is all about inclusion. Paul wrote to the Romans, “Accept the one whose faith is weak,”and while he was speaking to something specific, accepting the one whose pocketbook is weak is also a good fit.

The widget salesman’s decision to rethink who was getting preferential treatment in his shop was well founded; it was a very Jesus thing to do.

But the retail economy does that. It rewards volume buyers. The grocery store near our house offers “multi pricing;” giving those who buy two (or four) a much, much better price than those who buy one (or two). It’s unfair to those who live alone such as singles or seniors; or people on fixed income; or couples where one has a diet restriction that means they can’t share the same meal items or meal ingredients.

My wife and I automatically boycott “multi” offers, which is hard because they are many each week.

A couple of full disclosures are necessary here.

First, I own and manage a retail store and we do have a year-round “Buy 4, Get 1 Free” program that covers well over half the items in our store. It’s flexible, there are modifications throughout the year, and I don’t think it excludes people from the margins, but at the first sign of complaint, I would sit down and talk with them and work something out.

Second, we do have a situation from time to time involving one or two people who are like the second customer in today’s opening story. We appreciate being able to participate on volume deals. I think we are able to obtain competitive prices. They might feel they’re doing us a favor, or supporting us in an industry that is often in survival mode. We feel we’re helping them get pricing that is compatible with what they have already seen online. Sometimes there are complications in these orders, and then we have to eat some extra expenses. There are days I’m not sure who is blessing who, or if it’s totally mutual. But I often think about the principle behind the story above and wonder if we’re doing right. I don’t think saying, ‘Today you’re paying list price for all these items’ is a viable option in this case. But I fret these issues.

Also, we have a policy to never offer to one person a deal we’re not prepared to offer to anyone making a purchase at a similar quantity. Or even if they aren’t a similar quantity. The last such deal involved 40 units of an item, but I ordered 45 and sold the extra 5 to 3 different individuals for the same price as the larger customer had paid for the 40. It seemed like something right to do.

In the story, it’s pointed out that The Master aka The Teacher doesn’t say anything directly about retail marketplace ethics, though he wasn’t very charitable to some profiteers at the Temple. But the key word is directly. I think Jesus sets us up with other ethical teaching that asking the proverbial ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ question in a wide variety of situations isn’t usually a stretch…

…The story is all mine, as far as I know, so don’t go searching online for the ending. If you have one, feel free to leave a comment.

 

 

 

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