Once again, conversation in Singapore is awash with perspectives on the leaders from City Harvest Church (CHC, a megachurch in Singapore), who had been found guilty of criminal breach of trust, but have submitted appeals. Apparently, they had diverted church funds to support a project which attempted to reach the ‘unchurched’ through secular media. This controversy has gone on for around a decade now.
Although the troubles of a church which follows one form of the prosperity gospel may have little to do with most Christians, I think we must consider that the average non-christian makes little distinction. That a big church got in trouble with the law may even reinforce the belief of some that religion is a corrupt institution. Thus for us, it is to our sorrow when we see the name of Christ sullied through the actions of those who claim to be Christian.
Yet at the same time, we recognise that there is a peculiar motivation behind the leaders of CHC. The corrupt businessman or politician usually has a selfish agenda, and aims to profit only himself and those close to him. But not the leaders of CHC. Here, it seems that the CHC leaders sincerely believe that they serve God in repurposing funds for the ‘Crossover Project’ (which I would describe as an attempt at gaining secular influence for the purpose of evangelism). I think a majority of the congregation agreed with their leaders’ motives too. It is truly difficult for some Christians to accept that these folks with such an honourable intent could have committed crimes. Even if the handling of funds by the CHC was legally wrong, was it morally and theologically wrong? Would God vindicate them, as many in the church believe?
Now I am aware that the courts and the prosecution have decided not to make an issue out of the ‘theological legitimacy’ that the CHC leaders are confident about. Which is proper for them, since this is a secular court case. But for us to be able to answer the question of whether God approves of leaders’ actions regarding the Crossover Project, we must delve into the theological.
I therefore suggest to ask in the first place, is it biblically correct to evangelise that way? We cannot assume that their ‘good’ intentions are accepted by God, if they lead to actions which run contrary to what scripture teaches. So this is important! If you’re a Christian observer praying for the repentance of CHC’s leaders, what exactly do you pray they repent from? Offending the laws of the state through illegal channelling of funds, perhaps, but I would also pray that they recognize that they have misrepresented the gospel.
A Misapplied Cultural Mandate
Allow me to explain how the supposedly evangelical Crossover Project is reflective of the prosperity gospel ideals which characterise this megachurch. Their belief system includes a ‘Cultural Mandate’ which demanded they cross over into secular culture and exercise Christ’s dominion in it. In practice, the church leaders had attempted to further the singing career of their present lady pastor, to make her into a successful Christian in pop culture so that non-christians would be impressed and listen to her witness. Their website boldly claims, “Gaining success in the U.S. would allow the Crossover Project to gain influence, to grow from a regional to a global level and touch many more people.”
Such a method of evangelism would have been unthinkable a century ago, that a whole church could support their pastor’s wife to become an international pop star. Though this action is consistent with their theology, we must discern if their theology is consistent with scripture. Did Christ save us so that we may become “successful, model citizens”, respected by the world? Or are we sojourners and exiles, called to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against our souls (1Peter 2:11)?
Using CHC as a Mirror
Now I do not only want to address CHC. The desire to strive for secular influence is one which could tempt any church leader – or indeed any human; only, church leaders who succumb may attempt to justify the endeavour as glorifying God.
Yet, is God to be glorified in the way the world glorifies man?
It is clear that what God is pleased with is not usually what man is pleased with. Can you recall what the world finds pleasing? The desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and the pride of life – that’s how the Bible puts it in 1 John 2:16. In a bid to get the attention of the world, churches have often stooped to pandering to the carnal desires of non-christians. I submit that CHC may have attempted to do so in an extravagant way, but how often do we publicise our activities with the promise of a free meal? Or do missions through giving non-essential gifts and services? Churches have also spent much to build awe-inspiring cathedrals (or fully-equipped auditoriums in this age). Preachers and worship leaders are respected if they can inspire the audience to laugh, feel moved, or make decisions for Christ.
I wonder if the reason why our Lord Jesus sent forth disciples with nothing but a staff was not just to teach them to trust in God, but also to convey to the listeners that what the disciples really brought was the gospel word. Sure, they did work miracles, especially for the needy, but that is a divine gift, not a human one, and glorifies the true Giver.
Is that wrong then? To become a pop star, to be a wealthy church, or to serve through giving, when they give you opportunity to talk about Jesus Christ? In themselves these things may not be wrong, but it could give non-christians mixed signals. What exactly do Christians value? Are you giving out of love to a fellow human in need of righteousness, or because you want to be a successful, model Christian – achieving worldly status while obeying the command to evangelise? Are you truly evangelising out of love?
If we’re not honest about our motivations, skeptical non-christians may perceive our generosity as the church attempting to bait for converts, as though we were first presenting something more desirable (gifts, concerts, etc.) so that people would accept something less desirable (the gospel). Absurd, really, but do we act that way? Even though we do well, evil is spoken of us. While this is not always avoidable (because Jesus said that believers can expect to be falsely accused), we should make it clear that we do seek a person’s conversion because we sincerely desire them to find what people cannot find in themselves: divine righteousness, peace, and joy.
Do you remember when Jesus fed 5000 men? Which did he do first, work a grand miracle or speak about the kingdom of God? Well, Jesus preached first to fill their spiritual hunger, before attending to their physical hunger (Mark 6:34,41). His motivations there were in the right order, but the people then wanted to make him king. Then what did Jesus do? He went away quietly (John 6:15). Why would he do that? That was his big chance to gain the attention of the world, even of Caesar. He could easily justify himself – we know that Jesus deserves all glory. But Jesus rejected it. His kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36).
Therefore, the church shouldn’t be interested in secular influence either. If a local church member happens to be influential, then it is for him to acknowledge all he has comes from God, and then decide how he would use it for God’s glory. But the church shouldn’t actively pursue that which the world pursues, lest it hinders us from following Christ.
Before I conclude, here is a warning from C.H. Spurgeon, “That very church which the world likes best is sure to be that which God abhors.” Let churches therefore not seek to be popular, lest God judge, or the world eventually turn against that church to mock the attempt.
A True Gospel Opportunity
Now Christians in Singapore have most likely experienced the impact of the CHC saga as a meal time conversation topic. It is my hope that they will be able to speak with wisdom, and to show through their behaviour that their own lives are not about wealth or status. It is a great opportunity to ask what non-believers think about how churches ought to use their money, and talk about what Jesus thought of earthly riches. After all, Jesus spoke a lot about it.
Finally, how should we react when we hear of church leaders messing up? People, Christians and non-christians alike, are quick to think, ‘you are so unlike Jesus’. Some might say in scorn, “God wouldn’t forgive you criminals”. But this is exactly the topic which must be raised in evangelism: Christ Jesus came into this world to save sinners – criminals before God. (1Timothy 1:15) And Jesus chose to die on the behalf of all those who look to him in faith. So God is willing to forgive their mistakes if they repent. Christians aren’t perfect, but who they trust is perfect, and will make them perfect in the Resurrection. The gospel calls people not to believe in church leaders (to our relief), but in Jesus Christ. God invites believers then to work together as faithful churches, so that each may grow, not to become “successful, model citizens”, but to become more like Jesus.