Last Sunday, John Oliver devoted his main segment on his HBO show, Last Week Tonight, to the excesses and predatory methods of some televangelists. His analysis focused specifically on those televangelists who espouse the “prosperity gospel,” often in order to convince desperate people that if they give the church large sums of money, that donation will act as a “seed” which they can reap for personal financial blessing in the future.
At their worst, such televangelists prey on people in dire financial or even health-related emergencies, endangering these people’s well-being. At their least harmful, they still profess a wealth-centric message that stands counter to Christ’s commandment to the rich man to sell his possession and give the money to the poor (Matt. 19:21) or Christ’s statement in the Sermon on the Mount that we cannot serve both God and money (Matt. 6:24).
Jesus is saying in both of these examples that we really can’t follow God if we occupy our time, energy, and spirits with pursuing money. How ironic, then, that we have found a way to employ even our faith as a way to build wealth.
Here’s the thing, though. While Oliver’s segment exposes a real and problematic issue in the larger Christian church, televangelists are hardly the only Christians guilty of loving money. I worry that we might watch Oliver’s segment and be tempted to feel good about ourselves because we’re not like those prosperity gospel Christians.
Instead, we should take Oliver’s segment as a challenge to ourselves: in what ways do we ignore God because we love money? When do we Christians leverage our financial and political power to gain special privileges in society?
Rather than scapegoat televangelists in order to absolve ourselves of any need to change our ways, we should take Oliver’s segment as an invitation to consider how we can better serve God with all we have, including our money, rather than expect our service to God to result in financial or political gain.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But I’ll just offer one thought to get the conversation going.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of televangelism is not just their focus on getting money, but what televangelists tend to do with the money once they get it. Oliver’s segment began by discussing how several televangelists very publicly asked for money to fund luxury private jets. Others took advantage of lax tax laws to build huge mansions that they called parsonages. Such expenses do nothing to advance the kingdom of heaven or serve God.
We do the same thing in our own churches. All too often, the money we raise in offerings or in capital campaigns is used to get new pews or a new organ or to fix our stain glassed windows. Simply put, we use the money we take in to enrich ourselves in non-essential ways. We make our buildings more aesthetically pleasing and comfortable, which seems to benefit the existing members of the church a lot more than it benefits the community.
Is it possible for us to simplify church, even a little bit, and use that money to serve others instead?
I’ll close with a scripture to emphasize my point: In his parable about the sheep and goats, Jesus says:
“I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'” (Matt. 25:35-40)
We serve God by serving others. We love God by loving others. I’m not saying that we ignore the needs of church facilities or members. But I am saying that we rearrange our priorities to meet the needs of the community before our own wants. If your church doesn’t have a program that serves the community, start one! Focus more on outreach than inreach. Let’s serve God with all our hearts, all our minds, and all our strength.
What are your ideas? How can we better serve God with all that we have?
Emmett Eldred is a junior Creative Writing; Professional Writing; and Ethics, History, and Public Policy Major at Carnegie Mellon University. His passions include reading about, writing about, and snuggling with pugs. Emmett is the founder of DunkerPunks.com, and he wants lots more people to contribute! Fill out a Dunker Punks profile, and join the conversation! Follow Emmett on twitter @emmetteldred and follow Dunker Punks on Twitter @DunkerPunks and on Facebook.
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