A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Dr. Arthur M. Suggs
On Sunday, April 6, 2014
I have attended church all my life. As a kid, my parents took me to St. Andrews Presbyterian on the northwest side of Indianapolis. Then as a college student, the first thing I did was to look for a church, found one a few miles outside of town, and attended that for the seven years I was there. After that, off I went to seminary, where I served two different churches while there, one of which was fascinating, the chapel at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Then I entered the ministry.
The Decline of the Church Universal
One of the great sadnesses of my life, after fifty to sixty years of being involved with churches, is that the reputation of the Church, not any particular one but the Church universal, has declined over those decades. Among the causes have been the drop in the number of people who come to church, the scandals that have plagued the church over those years, and the impaired reputation it now has.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been at a cocktail party, meeting new people, and they’ll ask, “What do you do?” When I reply, “I’m the pastor of a church,” they’ll say, “Oh.” It’s like they stop themselves before they can say, “I’m so sorry.” They feel as though they need to send me a card or something. It’s sad that over the years the reputation has continued to decline.
I was ordained in 1984, and the middle of the 80’s was sort of a formative time for me as a brand-new minister. I was enthusiastic, idealistic, and optimistic as all get-out. I was also clueless, with no idea what I was getting into. And one of the things that has affected me deeply came in 1986, when I’d been a brand-new minister for only two years at that point.
Infidelities in the Church
In 1986 televangelist Jimmy Swaggart began making on-air accusations denigrating other televangelists, notably Marvin Gorman and Jim Bakker. You might not have heard of Gorman, but he was well-known, and you all remember Jimmy Bakker and Tammy Faye. I’m not sure how he did this, but Swaggart had uncovered the fact that Gorman had been having an affair with a woman in his congregation. Swaggart decided to tell about it on his television show. He also helped to expose Bakker’s infidelity, which actually was arranged by a colleague. It was a sting operation when Bakker was out of town. These exposures, you will remember, received unbelievable media attention.
Gorman retaliated in kind – now these are Christian ministers, mind you –by hiring a private investigator to look at Swaggart’s life and found out that he had been using prostitutes. Swaggart was subsequently forced to step down from his pulpit, only for a year, and he made a tearful televised apology in February 1988. And I quote; it’s a great quote. This guy’s good. “I have sinned against you, my Lord, and I would ask that your precious blood would wash and cleanse every stain until it is in the seas of God’s forgiveness.” Gosh, what I wouldn’t give to have that kind of talent. Forgiveness comes when you apologize, I suppose.
Swaggart was caught again by California police in 1991, only three years later, with another prostitute. Her name was Rosemary Garcia, riding with him in the car when they got pulled over because they were going the wrong way down a one-way road. The cop asked why she was with Jimmy Swaggart, and she replied, “He asked me for sex. I mean that’s why he stopped me. That’s what I do. I’m a prostitute.” So this happened during my formative years, and I guess I’ve been damaged ever since.
Abuses of Charitable Funds
All this came bubbling back up for me last week, when I heard a story on the radio. NPR was telling about a ministry, which it called a “church” in quotation marks. I’m not sure if it really is a church or not. But it is some type of ministry that over the last two to two-and-a-half years has brought in $210,000,000 in donations and out of that has given away $30,000,000 to all sorts of ministries, relief efforts, and various projects.
This ministry has nonprofit status because it is technically a “church.” But bear in mind, it has no sanctuary, no congregation that fills it up, no weddings, no funerals, and no baptisms. There’s no fellowship dinner, no popcorn for the local parades, no hospital calls, no nursing-home visits. Just a studio that promotes beautifully what this ministry has done with the $30,000,000. No doubt it can do a lot of good with $30,000,000, but you’re never told about the full $210,000,000 and how, with generous contributions, it could do so much more.
I’m so mad about this abuse of charitable funds that I can hardly stand it. I can scarcely see straight, and I almost have to pull to the side of the road because I’m so upset. I’m thinking the same thing you’re thinking. What about the $180,000,000 remainder? What happened to that?
Searching for God in the High and Low Places
Sometimes I skip church completely when on vacation. It’s as though I’ve had it with church. But other times I attend to different religious needs that I have. I like the way we do church here. But there’s a twin impulse that I like to satisfy when on vacation. One is that I often go to an Anglican church, an Episcopal church, where there’s a procession and every single word said from the pulpit is being read. It’s been preprinted, the sermon is read, the liturgy is read, and it’s all very well organized. Very high-church. I like that now and then, once a year.
And then I’ll also go to the other extreme by attending an Assembly of God church, a Pentacostal sect. I wave my hand, praise Jesus, and get that kind of thing out of my system.
The Hidden Secret of Megachurches
Once, while on vacation, I went to a megachurch. It was a smallish megachurch, with only 700 or 800 people, but still a megachurch. And what an experience that was! The music was awesome – somewhere between 40 and 50 voices, good voices, and they sang beautiful anthems. On multiple screens, the words of the anthems showed up in video. Along with beautiful scenery, panoramic views, and with the words of the anthem came the experience of not just listening to and seeing the choir but also beautiful images and highlighted words.
Then came what we would call a Minute for Mission. It was an extremely professional Power Point presentation about one of the ministries that this church promotes. Once again there were different images that went with this very proficient talk that the Minute for Mission person put on.
Finally came the sermon. Now I care about sermons. I pay attention to them. They’re part of my business. So I listened to this sermon very closely and found it almost perfect technically. Never a misspoken word, never an “uh” anywhere in it. The theology was exactly what you would expect – 100 percent orthodox evangelical Christianity, which is that you are going to Hell. But there’s Jesus. If you believe in Jesus as your lord and savior, you’re in luck. You don’t go to Hell, and you can then have a better life. So the minister highly recommends calling Jesus into your life as lord and savior.
So that was the gospel message, but I detected something vaguely unsettling in the sermon. It occurred to me there was nothing in it that had to do with this particular congregation and nothing that had to do with this particular minister. I noticed it but didn’t go down that road. So I left the service with an overriding feeling of envy. Good grief! The time it takes to put together and rehearse a technically perfect sermon, the time it takes to put together a Minute for Mission, the time it takes to integrate the anthem music and several other pieces of music with the message. All this must be a prodigious undertaking, so I felt envious.
How do they pull it off? It was later that I found out how, and boy, did I feel stupid. Many megachurches subscribe to a DVD service. They are part of a franchise. You pay a fee to a company that provides music for the anthem a month or two ahead of time. You get the music to the choir. It comes with the text for the Minute for Mission and the Power Point to accompany it, so all you have to do is play that and find a well-spoken person to deliver the text in a compelling way while the video shows.
Exactly the same thing for the sermon. The sermon is there in the DVD. Print it, and the minister reads it ten, twenty times, and practices the text three, six, nine times until the sermon is down pat, almost memorized. The minister is then able to deliver it convincingly without having to write it, research it, or integrate it with the Minute for Mission or the music. The megachurch is thus a franchise. It is told what to say.
Now, why have I told you this? These are some of the big, successful church stories that are going on in our world right now.
Searching for God in Our Home Church
So I thought you’d like to know what you get here at our church. This is where it’s important. What you get is crystal-clear finances. There is not a dime hidden anywhere in this church, unless it’s underneath one of those pew cushions. You want to know where your money goes? Just ask. All the money that comes in and where it goes is significant. Every single facet of our church’s finances is available 100 percent to every single person in this church. We don’t always print it up for everybody because we’re trying to save a few trees, but it’s all available. As to your Mission dollars, when you give a dollar, one dollar goes where you want it to go. Not 99 cents, not 95 cents, not 50 cents. A dollar.
Because the church pays for all of the overhead, your donations follow your wishes. Have we made mistakes before? Yes, but they have been corrected, and your intended beneficiary receives all of your allocation to it.
The sermons you get here – some are good; some are not so good. I’ve seen yawns like you wouldn’t believe. Big, contagious yawns! But the sermons are real, they are born out of the life of this congregation and this minister, integrated into the gospel of Jesus Christ and the news of our day.
Another thing you get in this church is that, should you decide to kick the bucket, you will be buried by somebody who knows you and will strive mightily to say something good about you. And your friends and family who attend your service will not have to endure an evangelistic message to a captive audience, which is one of the most immoral things that churches can do.
The last accounting of what you get here is not 100 percent true, but it’s mostly true. And that is “Cheers.” Like the TV show, this is a place where everybody knows your name. It’s an extended family such that, when something really bad happens in your life, there are others who are there for you, like a deep bench, waiting to cry with you. And if something really good happens in your life, they’re there to rejoice with you.
Fallacies and New Understandings About God
So that’s what you get, but actually that’s what anybody gets if they’re part of a reasonably healthy church. And here’s something else you get, a kind of value added in addition to all the other stuff. And that is you get a “God is still speaking” message. What God is saying lately, integrated with what God has been saying in the past. Part of what bothers me about the standard evangelical communication that you sometimes get at funerals is that the megachurch message is based upon suppositions that aren’t true. Let me air a little dirty laundry here. There are five fallacies about God:
- God needs something, as in God needs your obedience and your worship.
2. God can fail to get what he/she needs. So if you’re not obedient and you don’t worship right, God is sort of upset.
3. God has separated you from God’s self because you haven’t given what God wants. The Deity can’t tolerate sin, can’t be in the presence of sin, so God has separated himself/herself from the sinner.
4. God still needs what God needed so badly all along, your obedience and your worship.
5. God still requires obedience and worship from your separated position and will destroy you if you don’t provide it.
All five on this list are false. All five are the basis of negative messages from many pulpits.
Reexamining Old Beliefs in the 21st Century
Let me give you another example of the kind of thing that God is saying of late: God has been encouraging people all across the globe to reexamine some of our old beliefs, to entertain the notion, to permit ourselves to think that maybe what we have believed about God and life isn’t working and may not even be right. God may be asking us to explore the possibility that there might be something we haven’t understood about the Deity. Maybe we got something wrong about God and life, the understanding of which could really change things.
And then we must be willing to accept a new understanding of God and life to be brought forth, reluctantly and with much criticism, but nevertheless an understanding that could produce a new way of life on this planet without wars and intrareligion hatred. We must be courageous enough to explore and examine new understandings. If they align with our inner truth, our inner understanding, our inner knowing, we must have the fortitude to enlarge our belief system to include these new understandings.
Finally we must choose to live life as a demonstration of our highest and grandest beliefs rather than being in denial of them.
This, my friends, is new. It’s of this century. The Book of Hebrews says, “Forsake not the assembling of yourselves.” Ministers have used that exhortation for centuries to encourage people to come to church. Here’s why: In the assembly, in the community, when you gather together, that’s where the healing takes place, that’s where the growth takes place. We believe the image is so compelling that you can take all these rough stones, every single one of us, put them in a tumbler, and they come out polished.