Friday, February 21, 2014

Grooming Young Cult Members

This is a page from a children's coloring book compiled by Elevation Church in Charlotte, NC, pastored by the inexplicably charismatic Steven Furtick. At first I thought this must... yes, had to be... a joke, but I quickly learned it's real.

What is charisma?

To most people, it's the inscrutable X factor--a mystical, almost magical career booster. Not many people have charisma. But when you talk to those who do, you discover that it isn't such a mystery after all. Yes, it's charm and personal magnetism, but -- more important -- it's the remarkable ability to get others to endorse your vision and promote it passionately. Charisma makes you a leader.

If that's the mark of a leader, of someone with that uncanny ability, then I'm at a loss to explain people like Furtick, Perry Noble, Ed Young, and yes, Steve Gaines. Because I don't find any of these men (or the dozens like them) charming or possessing a shred of personal magnetism. Quite the contrary, I find their narcissism and ham-fisted bullying a total turnoff. But assuming, and this must be true because they have hundreds, even thousands, of staunch defenders, that someone out there must view them as possessing that magic thing called "charisma," then the question arises, why do some people view these men as "charismatic" and blindly and enthusiastically follow them while others, myself included, see them for the scary cult leaders they are? What turns seemingly discerning people into rabid cheerleaders for the self-appointed man-o-gawd and his "vision"?

Charisma is a tricky thing. Jack Kennedy oozed it -- but so did Hitler and Charles Manson. Con artists, charlatans, and megalomaniacs can make it their instrument as effectively as the best CEOs, entertainers, and presidents. Used wisely, it's a blessing. Indulged, it can be a curse. Charismatic visionaries lead people ahead -- and sometimes astray. They can be impetuous, unpredictable, and exasperating to work for....

Maybe that explains it. Like any "gift," it can be used for good or... dare I say... evil. But why do so many people seem blind to it? Is it because there's a certain amount of truth mixed in with the leader's "vision"? When preachers exclaim, "It's in da book!" who's going to argue with that? Is it because a lot of people don't study their bibles and think for themselves, so they can be easily manipulated?

A popular and frightening trend in churches today, especially the megachurch variety, is "vision-casting" by the "senior" pastor and the demand by the man-o-gawd and his minions that the sheeple pledge loyalty to the pastor and his "vision." One of the red-flag words they use is "unity." One of Steve Gaines' favorite themes which I've heard him repeat in dozens of sermons is the proof-text of Ephesians 4:3... "to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." And yet, he leaves out verse 2... "with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love."

Is that what we see here?

The following is an excerpt from the transcript of a Steve Gaines sermon from several years ago. See if you can find any sign of humility, gentleness, patience, tolerance, or love in his words.

Bellevue Baptist Church needs proactive peacemakers... to come against any... troublemaker... and I'm telling you this. This may sound a little too clear cut for you, but I'm telling you... you're on one side or the other in any church you're in, whether you go to Bellevue or not. You are either a peacemaker, or you are a troublemaker. There is no middle ground. Peacemakers support the church's leadership... as long as it's scriptural. Peacemakers squelch gossip. They don't listen to it, and they sure don't share it. Peacemakers discourage division. What is division? Two visions. Peacemakers... rebuke troublemakers. Peacemakers comfort and reassure troubled church members. They diligently preserve the unity of the spirit and the bond of peace. And all of us as members at Bellevue need... to be... such peacemakers. We cannot ever afford to allow Satan to divide us even just a little bit. WE CANNOT ALLOW TROUBLEMAKERS TO BE ALIVE AND WELL IN THIS FELLOWSHIP... in this church... to win the day! We must diligently be proactive and aggressively... be... peacemakers. That's the call for unity.

Steve Gaines and Steven Furtick are but two examples, albeit quite different examples, of what has been coined "the cult of personality." This is the situation where a man... or at least what a man says... becomes the focus of a church. Not all these characteristics apply to either of these men, but enough of them do that it should give pause to thinking Christians. How many of these do you recognize in these and other "senior" pastors you know?

The demand for special treatment, special honor, special recognition. In other words, there is an active cultivation of being treated differently than others.

"Spiritually-ordained authority," anyone?

No one is allowed to question the leader without retribution. There is a “thin skin” evident toward any and all critics, who are often written off as “haters” or simply those who are envious. There is a bubble that prevents constructive criticism.

"Troublemakers in the church"?

Hey haters!

There is no sense of team leadership, team teaching or team mentality. There is a single person or leader, and then there are implementers. No one is to question the leader’s vision. It is seen as God-given, sacrosanct, and thus anything the leader says or does in pursuit of that vision is never to be questioned.

"Our pastor's vision... "?

Sometimes they even invoke the law to keep the faithful loyal.

And whatever you do, don't question the man-o-gawd!

The person travels in an entourage, often with personal security, and is seldom accessible.

And, I would add, the person has a heightened sense of insecurity and paranoia.

Invoking the name of "Jesus" and saying that it's all about Him doesn't fool everyone into believing that's so.

In fact, with Elevation Church and their Code there's not much mention of Jesus or the gospel. The central figure seems to be "Pastor Steven."

Nowhere is this more evident than in this 2010 blog post in which the staff is given their marching orders.

We believe that God’s given Pastor Steven the vision of where he wants to take Elevation’s ministry. And the Lord’s called us all here to use our gifts and strengths corporately as a way of seeing that vision come to life.

Someone once asked (in response to one of Miss Higgy's flowery prayer letters) what is this thing called a vision? S/he then proceeded to define it.

Miss Higgy: "Pray for the commitment to the vision cast before us from the Lord through our pastor in sharing the love of Jesus with Memphis and all the surrounding areas in which we live."


Where has the Lord Jesus ever presented this doctrine? I mean, it's like Jesus is standing somewhere with a bow and arrow and attached to the arrow is this thing called a vision. Then Jesus releases the arrow and it zings through "our" Pastor and lands on the ground before us. As it lands we bow to it as a sacred "message from God". Do what?

Do what, indeed!

To indoctrinate susceptible adults in this "cult" mindset is one thing, but to do it to children is criminal. Wrap it up in as many proof-texts from the bible as you want. It's still spiritual abuse, and it's time for people to wake up and see it for what it is. It's this attitude of "do not question your spiritual authority figures" that is the root cause of much of the spiritual and sexual abuse in churches that we read about on a daily basis today. For pete's sake, wake up and smell the coffee before it's too late.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

An acquaintance of a friend of a lady told me...

While I don't listen to him very often anymore, every time I've heard Steve Gaines speak in recent years he's at least mentioned tithing and has devoted more than a few entire sermons to the subject. He seems obsessed with this one Old Testament law that, as many before me have noted and a contextual reading of Malachi 3 (the perennial proof text) reveals, was not in the form of money but crops brought to the storehouse (literally like a barn) to support the Levitical priests who were not allowed to own property and to help care for the poor and widows. There were two annual tithes and a third tithe every three years, thus making the total tithe 23 1/3%, but preachers today would have a much more difficult time convincing people to fork over that much of their income, so they have settled for the tithe (singular) with frequent appeals for "offerings" over and above the obligatory undesignated 10%. Plus it's easy to calculate your bill. Just take your gross income, move the decimal point to the left one position, and write a check to said preacher's 501(c)(3) for that amount.

Every year Bellevue has "Prove the Tithe" Sunday, the day where people are encouraged to tithe one week's income. Of course, that describes every Sunday at Bellevue now, but when it began it was a special Sunday dedicated to tithing. Every year each household receives a robo call from "Brother" Steve the Saturday evening before. I can almost quote one of these calls verbatim now. In fact, this was my best guess before I heard the recording:

Hi, this is Brother Steve inviting you to join us at Bellevue this Sunday. This week is "Prove the Tithe" Sunday at Bellevue, and even if you don't regularly tithe, I want to encourage you for just this week to tithe 10% of one week's income in an undesignated fashion to our church. In Malachi 3, God says, "Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house." The bible says we are to trust God in ALL things, and that includes our finances. For one week we want to see how God will bless Bellevue if everyone gives just 10% of their income. Won't you pray and ask God what He would have you to give? We have Life Group classes for all ages and encourage you to come be a part of a small group where you can get plugged in. You may bring your tithes and offerings to your Life Group, give during any of our worship services which begin at 9:20 a.m. and 11:00 a.m., or, as Donna and I prefer to do, you may give online any time by going to God says, "Test Me now in this if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows." Won't you put God to the test and see how much He will bless you? Donna and I look forward to seeing you tomorrow morning.

This was the actual script this year:

Hello. This is Pastor Steve Gaines. I'm calling to remind you that tomorrow, February 2nd, is "Prove the Tithe" Sunday. We're asking every member of Bellevue, whether you tithe or not, to bring an offering equal to 10% of your weekly income. Malachi 3:10 says, "Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in God's house, and test Me now in this," says the Lord of hosts, "if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out a blessing for you until it overflows." I really believe that 2014 will be a year [of] increase in your life and Bellevue and that God will pour out his blessings on all of us. It is such a joy to be your pastor. I sure look forward to seeing you tomorrow.

So am I to understand that Bellevue Baptist Church at 2000 Appling Road in Cordova, Tennessee is the "storehouse" and "God's house" and that they need food? And that if we "test God" and bring (or send or go online and give) money to the "storehouse" that miraculously the "windows of heaven" will open, and we'll be "blessed until it overflows"?

I know plenty of people who have been blessed both financially and in life ("blessing" does not always equate with "money") without giving money to a 501(c)(3) where it will be spent on exorbitant salaries and building programs. Those with the means often give to equally important, I would argue more important, causes than a for-profit business disguised as a church. I also know people who have let bills go unpaid so they could give to a church or TV preacher, and I know people who have dug into their savings to give to their church. I know because I used to be one of those people. No, I've never given to a TV preacher, but my parents and grandparents tithed to the Baptist church, and it was drilled into me from an early age. It was so ingrained I never questioned it. Now I'm embarrassed to admit that after giving to the church and paying the bills (yes, always cheerfully and in that order, Steve), we were having to dig into our savings to make ends meet, but I thought this was what God expected us to do.

And then one day I woke up and realized we were simply funding the lifestyles of the rich and wannabe famous. Don't tell me we were living above our means. We live a very modest lifestyle, never eat out (unless you count McDonald's once a month or so) or go to the movies, drive an 11-year-old car, and I wouldn't know what a vacation is as we've never taken one, but money just goes so far. Of course, this is something Steve and Donna Gaines will never have to worry about since the handful of men at Bellevue who make these decisions behind closed doors were willing to pay them what has been reported to be as much as half a million a year in salary and benefits. It wouldn't surprise me to learn it's even more than that.  Something is wrong with this picture.

If you truly believe in "storehouse tithing," that's your privilege, but if you have even a moderate amount of intelligence and don't unquestioningly believe everything you've always been taught, you need to ask yourself if the money you give is going to help advance the gospel because when "administrative" costs eat up a large portion of a 501(c)(3)'s budget, they're really no longer a non-profit, and the main focus is no longer, cannot possibly be, the advancement of the gospel. You also need to question why we should continue to observe the Old Testament law of tithing while we reject most of the others. People are profiting, some of them very handsomely, all the while beating and berating the rest of us to give, give, and give some more. Oh, and to never question how they use the money because, after all, it's not your money or my money, it's "God's" money. I suppose with their direct lines to God that we ordinary pew-warmers don't have access to, preachers just know how "God" wants "His money" to be used. And hey, if it's to build another shrine to the man-o-gawd or a big shiny fountain as "an architectural invitation to the gospel of Jesus Christ" (I feel sacrilegious even writing that, but I suppose churches have been doing the same thing in one form or another for years), then who are you and I to ask questions? We should hang our heads in shame for daring to think!

Preachers like Steve Gaines, Ronnie Floyd, Ed Young, Perry Noble, Robert Morris, Steven Furtick, Charles Stanley, the late Adrian Rogers, Mac Brunson, and a host of other lesser known preachers claim you cannot be "right" with God, you will not be blessed, and you might not even be saved if you don't fork over 10% of your gross income, in an undesignated fashion, to their 501(c)(3).  Can someone tell me where that is in the bible?  Because I've read the bible through several times, and I've never read that.  It's interesting how most of these men are CEOs of large "non-profit" organizations in addition to being "senior" pastors of their own churches.  Not only do they receive large compensation packages from their churches, most receive nice 6-figure salaries from their non-profits.  (The latter numbers are public record.)

In the 11:00 Sunday morning service at Bellevue we saw a blatant illustration of the lengths to which these men-o-gawd will go when Steve Gaines prodded his wife, Donna, into standing up and telling a story about an acquaintance whose friend had been "sharing" (one of my red-flag trigger words) with a lady about the lady's reluctance to tithe because she didn't think she'd have enough money left to pay her mortgage but how when she finally mustered up the "strength and courage" to tithe (using Bellevue's convenient online giving option), the very next day when she called her mortgage company to beg for an extension or deferred payment plan, an unexpected miracle happened. Watch the video, and then let's "unpack" (red flag!) this little story.

Note how he called Donna to tell the story and acted like it was a spontaneous thing and a big surprise to Donna who had kicked off her shoes. Does anyone not believe this was planned? I guess he thought people would come closer to believing some giddy woman who couldn't wait to tell Donna about "God" blessing her friend after the friend forked over 10% to the "storehouse." A friend of a woman Donna doesn't know from Adam. How this anonymous woman was convicted for several days and finally submitted and went online (bonus points for shameless plug for "online giving") and tithed, and voila! "God" turned on the showers of blessing only then because she obeyed.

Imagine having to call your mortgage company and ask for a reduced/extended payment plan because, well, you had the money, but you gave it to your church. Not that you had to pay bills or taxes or buy prescription medication or feed your family, but rather you voluntarily gave it to a 501(c)(3). Somehow I doubt she included that part of the story when she spoke with the representative.

Her mortgage had allegedly (I think this whole story is "alleged") been sold to another company, and it just so happened that her mortgage had been "flagged" (can I get an amen?) to get a lower interest rate. Now don't you think she would have been notified of this ahead of time so she would at least know where to send her payments? Having been through the refi process myself a couple of times and having had our mortgages sold 3 or 4 times over the years, I know mortgage companies and banks don't operate like this. If they sell your mortgage they notify you well in advance. They may offer you a lower rate, but you have to formally apply, be approved, and sign a boat load of paperwork to get it done, a process that takes weeks, sometimes months, to complete.

So what happened when this lady tithed? Her monthly payment, which needed to be reduced from $1400+ to $1000 for her to be able to make her payment after giving 10% to Steve, was... wait for it... reduced to $1069! Hmmm... I guess "God" wasn't that impressed because "He" didn't reduce it to the needed $1000. She's still going to have to come up with an extra $69 a month, but if she continues to tithe I'm sure she'll get a $69 a month raise to cover it. That is, if she doesn't tithe her way into bankruptcy or foreclosure.

As long as you're making your payments on time mortgage companies and banks do not do things like this, actually cannot legally do things like this, without you being aware of it and signing off on it FIRST. With the new HAMP and HARP programs, more people may qualify for refinancing, and by law people who were a certain number of payments delinquent on their mortgages had to be notified that they may be eligible to refinance (HAMP), and people who are not behind and aren't under water on their loans who want to refinance may be eligible through the HARP program, BUT... and this is important... there is an application and approval process you must go through. You don't just call up your mortgage company one day and get them to immediately lower your interest rate or monthly payment. They may tell you a lower rate is available, but the approval process takes at least a few days to a month or more. So either Donna is flat out... embellishing, misunderstood the circumstances, or she left out a lot of the story. Perhaps the woman had already applied to refinance and just happened to have already been approved when she called the next day. That I could believe, but the whole "flagged" thing and not knowing her mortgage had been sold (the surprise element) don't wash. Not at all.

FBC Jax Watchdog has also written an article about this story.

An anonymous commenter (so I can't give credit) analyzed it well:

... so the basic logic here is, this woman tithed, so God "rewarded" her by allowing her monthly mortgage payment to be $400 less per month. Assuming (as is almost certainly the case) that this was simply a mortgage restructure where the monthly payment is lowered but the term is extended, then that means she actually will pay more over the life of the mortgage as a result of the restructure.

I just have to ask what this woman's annual wages are. If she qualified for a mortgage that has a monthly payment of $1,000-$1,500 a month, she likely makes at least $40,000-$50,000 a year, or $3,333 to $4,167 per month. Do you see where I'm going with this? A tithe on that would be $333 to $417. Instead of forking it over to Bellevue, she could have paid that tithe money to the mortgage company to take care of that "400 less per month" that she said she needed her monthly payment to be.

Lady, I hate to break this to you, but God really screwed you over here.

An observant commenter named Mark says:

It's funny, all the stories that I ever hear preachers give about the blessings of tithing really don't come across as blessings. It's mostly zero sum gains. Someone gives their tithe to the church then fall behind in their finances and miraculously at the last minute they get "blessed" with money in the exact amount that they were behind.

That's blessing? Certainly doesn't sound like the floodgates of heaven are opened up.

Another anonymous commenter summed it up in two short sentences:

The CEO needs to increase revenue. It really is as simple as that.

Yes. Yes, it really is as simple as that. The money is drying up, and Baby Doll needs a new pair of shoes!