My oldest son recently emailed me this LINK asking for my thoughts. It’s a video from John Oliver’s HBO comedy show, Last Week Tonight, exposing the shenanigans of some high-profile televangelists. (WARNING: there is foul language that has been bleeped out). In my response to my son, I did not spare words on condemning the greedy practices of religious charlatans who claim their prayers can make midgets grow and cure lupus – but only if you give a donation to their ministries.
Oliver opened his segment by acknowledging that most churches do great work in feeding the hungry and clothing the poor – then spent the majority of his time ripping such notorious TV preachers as Robert Tilton, Creflo Dollar and Mike Murdock. So allow me to linger on the “great work” only hinted at in Oliver’s satirical tirade, because I fear such sensational exposés taint the yeoman work of most churches, especially among those who are cynical toward “organized religion.”
Churches are made up of human beings, so no congregation is perfect. Some have driven people away with harsh judgmentalism and others have dropped the ball on fulfilling God’s purpose for them. But Christians who energetically adopt the ministry of Jesus to “bring good news to the afflicted, proclaim liberty to the captives and bind up the brokenhearted” make an incalculable difference in the lives of so many.
Just last week, I taught Sunday school at St. Barnabas United Methodist Church in Arlington, TX, where I pastored in the early 90s. This church has a sterling congregational care ministry that reaches out to the bereaved, the military, college students and others in need. They recently opened a free medical clinic, participate in Habitat for Humanity and are involved in ministry around the country and world.
Last month, I brought a worship drama to a church where the pastor had just returned from a mission trip to Belize, where he and members of a church in Ft. Worth, TX helped build a school. Speaking of school, I brought clowning and magical entertainment to two churches in August that gave away school supplies and backpacks to hundreds of children. Of course, when you have a big church party for kids, you have to serve food! Participants gobbled up a ton of ice pops, hot dogs and pizza – at no cost to them.
I know churches that plant community gardens on their properties so families can raise their own produce. I visited a church where teenagers and adult sponsors faithfully visit the homeless under a bridge in Austin every month, giving out food, water, clothing and blankets. Several Christmases ago, visiting a church near Corpus Christi, I asked the pastor why teddy bears of all shapes, sizes and colors were sitting on the pews. “Those are hand-made by some women in our church,” he explained. “Anyone can take one for free and send it to someone who needs a little cheer and encouragement. They end up in children’s hospitals and nursing homes — they’ve even been shipped to soldiers overseas.”
By the way, the pastors I know (and I know plenty of them) are a far cry from avaricious TV preachers. Not a few gave up lucrative secular careers to follow their call. They usually start their ministries in small-town churches, living in a parsonages that were built in the 60s or 70s. They keep a careful eye on the church budget and worry when it falls behind, because that means a salary has to be cut, an employee laid off, a repair forestalled, a ministry need unmet.
John Oliver’s snarky exposé may be needed. The pressure is now on the IRS, who has relaxed audits on churches since 2013 while televangelists continue to rake in millions by dangling outrageous promises in front of their viewers. In my opinion, there are few people worse than preachers who prey on people’s gullibility and desperate needs. They get a lion’s-share of attention in our media-driven culture. The Christians I know don’t want the attention. They work tirelessly to hear these words from the One they work for: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”