Life is a learning experience – the more I learn the more I realize what I do not know! The Creflo Dollar ‘experience’ has taught me a great deal, not least as I set that in contrast to where I have just been this past couple of days – speaking at the Independent Methodist ministers and church leaders conference in the beautiful Lake District town of Windermere.
In a sense Creflo and the Independent Methodists are at opposite ends of the ‘Christian’ spectrum. Whereas Creflo has a church with tens of thousands, millions of dollars and a massive profile, the Independent Methodists are a small group of 1500 members mainly scattered throughout small churches in the post-industrial and rural areas of Northern England, whom very few have heard of. Creflo has a ‘world changers’ ministry. The Independent Methodists would struggle to see themselves as changing Chorley, Croxton or Crosby.
I have been reflecting on the contrast between the two and what I learned from the IM’s. It seems to me that whilst the majority of evangelicals will not go as far as the prosperity gospel heresy of Dollar, we do have a kind of prosperity version gospel of our own. I fear that we have adopted a kind of spiritual version of the Thatcherite economic ‘trickle down’ theory – the idea that if you give the wealthy more money, that will trickle down to the poor and so everyone will be lifted. In spiritual terms this means that we think if we go to the city centres, get the bankers, leaders, professionals, educators – i.e. the gatekeepers of society, then that will trickle down/out to the suburbs, rural areas and the poor. As worldly strategic goes it makes perfect sense. The trouble is that it is worldly thinking and not the thinking of the Bible –which seems more like ‘trickle up’. Of course we want and need churches in the wealthy and influential centres, but not as a means of reaching the majority of the country – spiritual economics just does not work like that.
And yet can anyone explain to me why it is that if we want to get people to plant churches in central London, Edinburgh, St Andrews, or Oxford, we have no problem; but if we suggest Kilmarnock, Cowdenbeath, Wigan or Hull, there is largely a deafening silence? The belief seems to be that of course God wants to reach the poor, but he wants us first of all to reach the influential and rich so that we can then reach the poor. One potential church planter came to Dundee and asked for support because he felt that God was calling him to church plant here. We said yes as long as he went to one of the urban housing estates where there was little church involvement. But he disagreed with the suggestion, because he had been taught that you reach the city centres first and then go out to the poorer areas. In other words he was going to come to the centre, compete with the existing evangelical churches there by having his own distinctives, grow the church by getting people to come from other churches and then reach out beyond. I don’t doubt that his motives were good but his methodology was unbiblical and whilst it might have worked in terms of creating another church, it was not going to work in terms of extending the kingdom.
Again – I realise that for many people this is a really touchy subject. It’s incredible how sensitive Christians can be. Reading between the lines they will think I am opposed to church planting, or that I don’t think we should have big city centre churches. Please don’t read between the lines – for a start I am involved in church planting and I am in a city centre church! Why do people feel a need to justify themselves by attacking others? My point is not about whether we should be supporting rural, town, Northern, industrial or posh city centre churches – as though they are in competition. My point is that we should be doing the lot – and NOT telling the Lord how he should be working. A small rural congregation can be as worldly in thinking and methodology as a large city centre one. Smallness does not guarantee spirituality, and largeness does not mean you have sold out to the devil!
I suspect that there are those in the evangelical world who would despise or at least disparage the Independent Methodists I was with this weekend. A good number of older people, from working class backgrounds, living and working in what some would call deprived communities. Doubtless some would perceive it as the ‘its grim up North’ mentality. They belong to small churches. They have no paid clergy, an independent ecclesiology and what they called ‘Quaker’ worship. Their ministers/church leaders were a mixture of men and women, largely middle-aged and older. I don’t think they could be called ‘cutting edge’. I loved them. I thought their praise was lively and heart felt and distinctively Northern English (what in missiological circles is called ‘contextual and authentic’!), and their warmth and love for the Lord and his people palpable. As I shared with them I felt so privileged to be part of them, and that we are all part of the same church. Of course they have problems, and unless they are renewed and revived they will die, but for me I suspect that our strategy for reaching all the towns, villages and cities of Britain should depend more on brothers and sisters like them, than all the church planting gurus, conferences and theories we can fashion. (Note – I am not saying that such conferences, theories and teachers are not good or helpful, I am however suggesting that it is all about people – and without real ordinary, faithful Christians on the ground, nothing will work. Generals are useless without foot soldiers!).
The Independent Methodists are descendants of the Primitive Methodists, who in turn came out the Methodist revivals of the 18th and 19th Centuries. During the 19th century, the denomination grew, largely in the North of England. They were usually located in industrial and mining areas amongst the poorest of the population. My impression is that they grew during a time of spiritual renewal and revival and that they are in decline during a time of spiritual declension. They are in need of renewal and revival, as we all are, it’s just that they don’t have the middle class Churchianity to act as a cover for the decline.
We met in a beautiful URC church in Windermere. It was gorgeously restored and perfect for our conference. But I wonder what the real church is like. Does the pub across the road (photo above) have more customers on a Sunday than the church has worshippers? It seems to me that we have many dead and dying churches in the UK who are living of the wealth of the past, doing up their buildings (the ones they are not selling off), setting up new ‘ministries’ and yet its just clothing. The spiritual heart and biblical backbone is missing. It was not so much the beautiful building the IM’s loaned for their conference that impressed me, but rather the beautiful people within!
It may not fit the current fashions in evangelicalism but what if God were to renew and revive the church in the UK, not in the leafy suburbs of Oxford, London and Edinburgh, but the urban housing estates of Bolton, Dundee and Wrexham or the oft forgotten rural villages and towns? As I grow older I am becoming increasingly wary of telling the Lord how he should be working! But as I observe history and read scripture it seems to me that that this is often the way God works. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:
26 Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no-one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”
My fear is that in the UK most of the resources of the evangelical church are being concentrated in a few areas and that whilst we can point to dozens of thriving churches, we are unmoved by the thousands of dying ones. When you are in a church that is prospering it is so easy to become proud and complacent and to think that if only everyone followed your model and lead, then the whole church would be renewed.
Reflecting on this and also thinking about Dollar, and the sadly large number of messages I have received from Christians defending his heresy, I once again have been helped by my pastor, John Flavel, who ‘being dead, yet speaketh’.
I read the following this morning:
To see a man humble under prosperity is one of the rarest things in the world.
I should wonder if any of the rulers be saved, says Chrysostom. O how many have been coached to hell in the chariots of earthly pleasures, while others have been whipped to heaven by the rod of affliction! How few. Like the daughter of Tyre, come to Christ with a gift! How few among the rich intreat his favour!”
The heart may be kept humble, by considering of what a clogging nature earthly things are to a soul heartily engaged in the way to heaven; they shut out much of heaven from us at present, though they may not shut us out of heaven at last. If you consider yourself under of the notion of a stranger in this world, travelling for heaven and seeking a better country, then you have as much reason to be taken and delighted with these things, as a weary horse has with a heavy cloth bag”
As I see more and more how the evangelical church is operating in the US and the UK, I ask myself, is this biblical? Where is the humility? Do we really want a situation where we go cap in hand to the few wealthy Christians/trust funds who then determine what we should be doing and how we should be doing it? Are we in danger of relying on money and the methods of this world in order to achieve spiritual goals? What if we too choose the weak, the despised things of this world and the things that are not, to nullify the things that are? Yes – of course the Lord grants riches, and the rich are to use their wealth to help advance the gospel, and we gratefully receive whatever we can. But do we really value the widow’s mite as much as the millionaires tithe? It may not buy us a jet to ‘advance our ministry’ but that widow may do more to advance the kingdom than anything we may achieve. It is the widow that matters not the mite. It is the millionaire that matters, not his millions. I think we are far too concerned about prestige and what people do, than we are about their heart. Flavel again…
But as one said, when dying, I shall not appear before God as a doctor, but as a man. So much every man is, and no more, as he is in the judgement of God.
For those who gave me a row for not contacting Dollar first (playing the Matthew 18 card), I took your advice and contacted him. An Open Letter to Creflo Dollar Have I heard anything? Not a peep. It’s just a game. This is about commerce, power and political games. It’s not about the kingdom. In Dollar’s world I am an insignificant nothing – a ‘wee flea’. And I don’t care. What bothers me more is whether the saints from Bolton, Sunderland and places I had never heard of, accepted and allowed me to share in their work. May God richly bless them, because if he does, then all of the rest of us will be blessed as well.