Author Archives: Mark Hughes

THE DEMISE OF DEMOCRACY

There are many Christian leaders today that would not see democracy as being important for the gospel. I mean after all, the world in which Christianity was born was anything but democratic. Jesus came in to a culture that was under the military occupation of Rome. As a Jew in Israel, He and his disciples had little to no democratic rights.  Caesar ruled the region in a violent, bloody and ruthless manner. Roman crucifixion itself was used as a deterrent; that insubordination in any form would not be tolerated and was punishable by death. Jesus’ trial was a sham and there was was really no ‘earthly’ way He was going to avoid conviction as the powers that be had conspired against Him and were going to make sure that an example would be made of Him. God, brilliantly, just weaved the inevitable into his grand plan. The apostles that carried on His work after Him lived under constant threat of imprisonment or death, and yet, the gospel flourished in the midst of overt persecution. There are dozens of historical examples of how sometimes persecution is actually good for the gospel. China during the Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong is a good example. The missionaries were expelled, the pastors were imprisoned, the bibles were burned and in those same years the church silently grew from some 50,000 believers to some 50 million.  Today it remains the country where Christianity is growing faster than any nation on earth.

There is nothing inherently biblical about democracy. The bible doesn’t teach it, endorse it or really even mention it. When God was in charge, He used a theocracy (Moses). When the people cried out for a monarchy he gave them one but warned that a king would likely abuse them… which they did. One thing is clear, regardless of the political model, God has little patience for tyranny.

Then Jehoahaz prayed for the LORD’s help, and the LORD heard his prayer. The LORD could see how terribly the king of Aram was oppressing Israel. So the LORD raised up a deliverer to rescue the Israelites from the tyranny of the Arameans. Then Israel lived in safety again as they had in former days. 2 Kings 13:4-5 (NLT)

Our challenge today is that we certainly do not live in any kind of theocracy where God is directing the affairs of man and we won’t until Christ returns to set up His Millennial reign. In the meantime democracy still seems to be our best bet for peace, good government and the harmony of life.  History has proven time and again that once we lose what little democracy we have, we steer headlong into tyranny.  Most of us do not realize how fragile democracy is.  In 1941 at the start of the second world war there were only 11 functioning democracies left in the world.  (Today that number is 25 full democracies and 51 flawed democracies) Europe had fallen into the grip of tyrants like Hitler of Germany, Mussolini of Italy and Franco of Spain to name only a few.  The resulting violence and chaos saw the loss of most civil liberties, immense hardship, destroyed economies and infrastructure and the death of 60 million young men in the space of only 4 years.

The simple definition of democracy is letting the people rule themselves.  By far my favourite quote on the subject is from one of history’s great champions of freedom Thomas Jefferson.

I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them but to inform their discretion.

When the Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall fell in the late 80′s early 90′s it looked like democracy was set to take the world by storm and that a new dawn of peace was going to settle upon the globe. The season was very short lived. There are more tyrants in the world than ever. Russia’s fledgling democracy has already retracted into a one man dictatorship under ‘Czar’ Vladimir Putin.  The former KGB head has cracked down on dissidents, jailed political rivals and clearly has his sights set on restoring Russian to the ‘superpower’ it once was as the former USSR.

Earlier this year Crimea held a referendum to secede from the Ukraine and join Russia instead.  96% voted in favour. Commentators argued whether the vote was legitimate or coerced or what. Almost everybody missed the irony of this story. By voting to join Russia, the Crimeans voted away their democracy in what might end up being the last free vote of their generation.

Let’s bring this closer to home. We are losing democratic freedoms everyday in Canada and most of us don’t even notice. In May of this year Justin Trudeau announced that his party would not allow any pro-life candidates to run in the next federal election. Pro-choicers (as they call themselves) lauded the move as a great progressive step forward for the party. My question is, regardless of one’s view of abortion, how can limiting the religious or moral views of a candidate be progressive? Would that not be by definition regressive, or even oppressive?  Would not disallowing pro-life candidates be unconstitutional in that it would restrict one’s rights of freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of religion and the democratic right to hold political office? Was it not Justin Trudeau’s father Pierre, when he was Prime Minister of Canada, that entrenched those very rights in his Charter of Rights and Freedoms? Ironic isn’t it?

After the announcement Cardinal Thomas Collins, Toronto’s Roman Catholic archbishop, wrote an open letter to Trudeau urging him to reverse his position.  He argued that, ”Political authority is not limitless: it does not extend to matters of conscience and religious faith. It does not govern all aspects of life.” He further challenged the Liberal leader,  ”Political leaders in our day should not exclude such people of integrity, no matter how challenging they find their views,” he wrote. “I urge you to reconsider your position”

Trudeau responded by saying, “I had an extraordinary example in a father who had deeply, deeply held personal views that were informed by the fact that he went to church every Sunday, read the Bible regularly to us, and raised us very, very religious, very Catholic,” said Trudeau. “But at the same time he had no problem legalizing divorce, decriminalizing homosexuality and moving in ways that recognized the basic rights of the people. He held his personal views very, very strongly. But he understood that as leaders, as political figures, as representatives of a larger community, our utmost responsibility is to stand up for peoples’ rights.”  What a minute, let me get this straight; he was very, very religious, read his bible every day and went to church every week but did not let any of that in any way influence his policy making? I was trying to think of a definition of hypocrisy but it’s  just not coming to me at the moment

There is no question that the Cardinal’s words have fallen on deaf ears, but I still have to give him full marks on a number of levels. What most Canadians do not know is that religious leaders are no longer allowed to publicly oppose the positions of political candidates.  Canada Revenue Agency has been slowly rewriting the rules for religious charities to essentially restrict them from participating in the democratic process. Cardinal Collins was taking a considerable risk by addressing Trudeau’s position directly. For the record, that is not something I would ever do. I wouldn’t even bring it up. I would never criticize the young, inexperienced and gaffe prone Trudeau. If he wants to suspend the fundamental democratic freedoms of his potential candidates, that is clearly none of my business and I need to just keep my big mouth shut. If he wants to smoke pot and encourage other Canadians to do so by legalizing it then that his prerogative. I am not allowed to have an opinion. The demise of democracy is upon us, but my biggest fear is that most of us won’t notice, and those of us who do care are not allowed to speak.

 

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GOD’S NOT DEAD BUT THE CLICHÉS SHOULD BE

The latest Christian film to hit theaters has done so with a flourish of great success. God’s Not Dead sat in the top 5 for a month and grossed over $40 million before it almost literally ran out of steam and dropped off the flat edge of the earth. During the first 3 weeks they had lineups at the theaters and had to turn people away. By the time I got to the theater, five weeks after the release, it was playing to thinly filled movie houses. Apparently the ‘target audience’(Christians) had all seen the picture. It was great to see that the Christian community came out en masse to support it. This alone should ensure that more Christian films will be made and will survive in a universe filled with mostly ‘live’cartoon superhero action movies.

By half way through Kathy could see me fidgeting, and as we walked out of the theater after the credits she turned to me and said, “Now don’t say anything negative to anybody about this movie and ruin it for them.” She knew right away what was going through my mind. Now don’t get me wrong, there are lots of things to applaud here. The production values were excellent, much better than others I’ve seen from the bible belt Christian producers. (Mark Burnett’s The Bible and Son of God are in a different category altogether.) And personally, I got a huge kick out of Duck Dynasty’s Willie Robertson’s ridiculous and random cameo. When a reporter accuses him of luring ducks to ‘maim and eat them’, he claims that ‘that’ would be cruel to eat them while they were still alive and so he makes sure he kills them first. Very funny… although I may have actually been the only one in the theater laughing. Kevin Sorbo did a great job playing the atheist Professor Radisson (he was Hercules in Xena the Princess Warrior) until the last 15 minutes when the writers had him fall completely out of character. Shane Harper did a stand up job as the uncompromising Christian freshman Josh Wheaton that was unwilling to deny his faith.

For the record, I really wanted to like the film and I do not want to come across as one of those overly critical people that I am always complaining about. But here is where I need to disagree with some of the rave reviews I have been hearing from many of my friends and peers. For me, the script writing threatened to kill an otherwise great idea for a story line. Before you write me off as just a grump, let me tell you what I mean because I think it is important for the cause of the gospel. The portrayal of every single non-Christian as a horrible human being was embarrassingly overdone. They were cruel, selfish, angry, bitter or all of the above. Actor Dean Cain’s character was depicted as downright sub-human and didn’t look like anyone I have ever met. The lone Muslim man in the script was portrayed as violent and abusive. The Christians on the other hand were for the most part principled and virtuous. The contrast was so stark as to be sure to offend any and every non-Christian sitting in the audience. It is impossible for me to even describe how exclusively they reinforced the unhelpful Christian stereotypes that make our job of presenting the gospel to skeptics even more difficult. The very thing the writers were trying to accomplish, answering the objections to the Christian faith, they successfully undermined by including the Christian cliches that make our message entirely unpalatable to those who would hold a non-christian worldview. They ran the entire length of front pew from the right wing politics, to Christian dating, to the notion of being the persecuted underclass, to the gross overuse of campy Christian slogans. “I am beginning to think we are unequally yoked.” and “God is good. All the time. All the time. God is good”… over and over again. Seriously as the producers employed one bible belt cliche after another I began to hope there was actually no non-christians in the theater watching it.

Perhaps the biggest misstep of all was the main premise of a philosophy professor requiring every student to sign a statement that ‘God is dead’. It was incredulous at best and the fact that 79 of 80 signed it was ridiculous. And then after Josh’s presentation, all remaining 79 changed their minds and were willing to publicly rebuff and embarrass their professor by declaring that ‘God’s not dead’. I felt this hyperbole insulted the intelligence of every viewer and took away from Josh’s actual presentation which was easily the best part of the movie. He did an inspiring job of arguing some well-reasoned apologetics. But again the producers dropped the ball by presenting Sorbo’s character as defeated and speechless, when anyone in his position would have come back with a volley of reasonable rebuttals. If you haven’t seen the movie I won’t ruin the ending for you but for me it was just another cliché.

To say this movie was preaching to the choir would be an understatement. Among Christians I asked what they thought of the movie, their responses ranged from ‘really good’ to ‘the best movie ever’. I think the most revealing exercise is to go on the IMDb website. The disparity between Christian viewers and non-christians was more than slightly disconcerting. Believers tended to rate the movie a 9 or 10 whereas non-christian viewers almost exclusively gave it a 1 out of 10 with comments like, “worst movie ever”. I guess the big question is; what are Christian movies trying to accomplish? If they are just trying to reinforce (arguably unhelpful) existing stereotypes to the Christian population then they are succeeding. If they are trying to reach the non-christian segment of the population and try to get them to rethink the possibility of finding faith then they are failing miserably. I feel we need to do better. God’s not dead but the clichés should be.

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ISN’T JESUS ENOUGH?

I am sure by now most of you have heard about our Star Wars Easter. Even though we have been doing these thematic services on Easter for a decade or more people still seem to see them as something of a novelty. The Winnipeg Free Press did a half page story on the service as they did our Batman Easter a couple of years ago. When we did Star Trek a few years ago we were the lead story on the Global National TV news.

What some of you may not know is that we are the subject to some very vicious criticism. There are entire websites that become obsessed with thrashing me as a non-biblical and compromised seeker sensitive pastor. Others produce videos accusing me of blasphemy and heresy. I am not going to post any of these links because I don’t think these mean-spirited, modern day pharisees need any more traffic than they already have. The easiest thing in the world is to hide behind a computer screen, do nothing productive at all for the kingdom of God yourself, and to throw rocks at others who actually are. To be honest I don’t even read them myself as nobody needs to subject themselves to that kind of abuse. You risk either being hurt or developing a hard heart instead of a thick skin which is just as bad. However, it is never good to entirely ignore your critics as your enemies actually keep you sharp. I have staff that are more than willing to share the highlights with me. Remember Jesus said “Woe to you when all men speak well of you.” If you never hear any criticism that is again a good indication that you maybe you have become too uninspired in your approach.

There is one major criticism that I think is worth discussion.  Again and again I hear this; “Isn’t Jesus enough? Does the gospel really need Elvis or Batman or Luke Skywalker? Is the gospel story too boring for you?  Why don’t you just preach the gospel of Jesus instead of dragging the world into the church?”  And so it goes.  These questions seem very noble and righteous on the surface but they are  missing the context of what we are trying to do entirely.  First off, of course I think Jesus is enough.  As an evangelist at heart everything I do is designed to bring people to the place where they would see that Jesus is not only enough, He is everything.  The harder question is this; how am I going to get them in the door to hear that?  If I spent a million dollars advertising ‘This Easter come and hear how Jesus is enough… the Old Rugged Cross will be performed by the choir’… the only people that would come are those that already believe that Jesus is enough.  Unfortunately our world has tuned out the gospel.  They think they already know it, which of course they don’t!

What non-christian people do know is Pop culture. Star Wars in particular is wildly popular and Disney has just paid $4B for franchise. This Easter we had somewhere over 6000 attend one of our 5 services.  That is over double what we would have had without the theme.  That is 3000 new people that heard that ‘Jesus is enough’ because they were intrigued enough to come and check us out. Dozens of them came to faith in Christ and filled out decision cards.  They have been invited to a 4 week course that teaches them how ‘Jesus is enough’. These people were lost for all eternity last week and now they have discovered the gift of eternal life… but instead of rejoicing the modern-day pharisees become like those of old who objected, “It is not lawful to heal on the Sabbath”.

Perhaps the most ironic thing of all is that even Jesus resorted to the same approach. He did not walk through the streets shouting, “Don’t you people know that I am enough?” Instead he told parables about fishing and farming and ranching and sheep and goats and seeds and vineyards etc. What was that all about? Why did He have to drag the world into his preaching? Because He lived in an agricultural society He was using the cultural metaphors that his hearers understood to communicate the complexities of the Kingdom of God. In fact almost all of Jesus’ preaching was the use of stories and illustrations of the world in which He came to reach.

I believe it is the single most effective way to preach the gospel. We do exactly the same thing in world missions.  We study the culture to discover the redemptive analogies that most easily relate the gospel and then use them to point the people to Christ. In Muslim countries the most effective evangelists actually use the Koran to introduce Arabs to Jesus. Some well-meaning Christians find that offensive. I say, unless they can do a better job, they need to keep their mouths shut and go find something better to do.

On Easter morning I admit that I did start my message with an elaborate reference to Star Wars and I was dressed up as a Jedi Knight.  I do understand that could look goofy.  (John the Baptist may have looked goofy in camel skin and I don’t even want to know what people thought of Isaiah as he walked around barefoot and naked for three years – Isa 20) But for the remainder, my message included 15 scriptural references, dealt with the history and origin or Satan, his fall from heaven; the creation and purpose of man, the fall of man, the consequences of the fall and finally the plan of salvation to restore man to his rightful place with God through the work of the cross and the resurrection. That would seem like a lot of biblical ground to cover in just 30 minutes and hardly qualifies as a watered down gospel. At the end of the day scores of people young and old made a commitment to follow Christ. If criticism is the price I have to pay to see people rescued from a fate worse than death, then bring it on!

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GOD AND MAMMON

“No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”  (Matt 6:24)

In our Western affluent culture you don’t hear too many pastors preaching on this verse. It is among what I would call an ‘untouchable sin’… meaning that pastors won’t touch it because it is so widespread they fear offending the guilty.  There are several of these untouchable sins in our culture, like gluttony for example.  We may hear sermons railing against the evils of ‘drunkenness’ but almost never on its biblical companion ‘gluttony’.  Why not?  Too close to home!  Overeating is as much a part of our culture as breathing.  Not to mention the fact that many of my contemporaries would have no personal credibility on the issue … if you know what I mean.

Mammon is an Aramaic word, that I believe Jesus carefully choose for this verse, because of its specific meaning.  It does not mean ‘money’ per se but would be better translated ‘riches’ or ‘wealth’.  However the translators choose not to translate it at all since it really means more than that.  It is a personification of wealth to the level of something you could actually worship.  The best example we have in English language is when someone would accuse another of “worshipping the almighty dollar”.  They don’t worship it in the traditional sense, but because they have allowed wealth to get such a powerful hold over them, money has become the master and they have become the slave.  We all know people like this.  The desire for greater wealth and possessions seems to drive every decision and nothing is too big a price to pay to achieve more.  They sacrifice their marriages and families, friends and employees, and often eventually their morals and ideals.  Bernie Madoff comes to mind.  He defrauded every person he ever met out of some $65 billion in the world’s largest Ponzi scheme.  In 2009 he was sentenced to 150 years in prison for his efforts.  The good news is that he is eligible for early release in 2139 and can spend some of the money he hid abroad… assuming he lives to 201.

Madoff is an extreme secular example of course, but there was a story coming out of South Korea last month that should alarm us all.  David Yonggi Cho the pastor of the Yoido Full Gospel, the world’s largest church, was sentenced to 3 years in jail for his part in embezzling $12 million from his congregation.  Cho, 79 founded the church 56 years ago in Seoul, South Korea and today boasts some 800,000+ members.  Over the last couple of years 28 of his elders have been accusing the iconic pastor of misappropriating close to $500 million from the church.  The allegations include privatizing church assets, borrowing money for other projects and not returning it, and electing to pay himself a $18 million severance package when he officially stepped down as senior pastor.  Last year at this time the 28 elders were all expelled from the church for not withdrawing the allegations.  Last month the Korean court agreed with Cho’s accusers on at least one count; that of selling the church shares of a stock for 4 times their actual value.  Cho claimed his miscreant son Hee-jun Cho, the church’s former CEO, had him sign to approve the purchase but he neglected to read the 1000 page document.  The court did not accept the ignorance plea but in the end gave the senior Cho a lenient 5 year suspended sentence and required that he repay $4.6 million.  Meanwhile Junior got sent up the creek for 3 years.  Cho’s defense was weak in that Hee-jun has a bad track record of 4 failed marriages, affairs with national celebrities and has already served prison time for similar crimes.  These facts alone proved that, at the very least, David Cho used extremely poor judgment in trusting his son.  It still doesn’t explain the whereabouts of the other millions of dollars the elders claim is missing. The story is far more complicated than I care to take time to explain but you can get most of the sordid details from this news report.  http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_national/611326.html

When the news broke I read in sheer disbelief at astounding amounts of money involved in this scandal. I had an opportunity to meet Cho briefly once at a conference and heard him preach in person. I have read many of his books and it is impossible not to admire what the man has accomplished in the church world. The whole thing is very disappointing. This wasn’t a mistaken entry in his automobile mileage expense… it was millions and millions of dollars that belongs to God ultimately and not the church, and certainly not him and his family. Power corrupts, but apparently so does mammon.

The untouchable sin of mammon in the church today is most insidious because instead of preaching against it, we often hear preaching in favour of it.  In the Western church we have taken the American dream and woven it seamlessly into the gospel.  We take the scriptures that deal with prosperity and elevate them to a disproportional level.

“The blessing of the Lord makes one rich and He adds no sorrow to it. (Prov 10:22)

“Beloved I pray that you would prosper and be in good health just as your soul prospers” (3 John 1:2 ) 

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor 8:9) 

All true and valuable promises of God, if kept in the proper context of their counterbalances like:

“A faithful man will abound with blessings, But he who hastens to be rich will not go unpunished.”  (Prov 28:20)  

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:25)

“But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition.”  (1 Tim 6:9)

Scripture presents money as both a blessing and a curse.  It is a blessing when restricted to a means to an end… to buy food and shelter, pay the bills, advance the Kingdom of God and care for the poor.  It is a curse when it becomes an end to itself.  When it turns into the ‘love of money’ the desire for the things of this world begins to consume us so that we no longer have money, money has us.  We in North America have become accustomed to listening to some highly gifted and articulate preachers with oratory skills that surpass any speakers in any field, secular or otherwise.  They have built mega-churches, written best-selling books and in the process have amassed enormous sums of money.  Some of them have adopted lavish lifestyles, living in gated mansions, driving Rolls Royces and flying Lear jets.  What message does that send the faithful?  How about, that you can serve both God and Mammon?

This is supposed to be the home of one of your favourite female preachers.  Which one belongs to her?  Apparently, all of them.  I wouldn’t know for certain as I have not been invited for tea.

This is reported to be the home of the man sometimes known as the Prophet of Prosperity.

A 34 year old preacher was shocked when he was criticized for building this 16,000 square foot home.  His initial defense was, “It’s not that great a house.”

I realize that it is easy to criticize when you are in a place where you do not have to deal with the burden of great wealth.  Fortunately there are still good examples out there of preachers that actually figured out that you cannot serve both God and Mammon.  When Rick Warren pastor of Saddleback Church in California wrote The Purpose Driven Life he was surprised that it became the second best-selling non-fiction book in history next to the bible itself.  Instantly he was a multimillionaire and needed to figure out what to do with the money.  He started a charitable foundation with a focus of helping some of the biggest social problems on earth including poverty and AIDS.  He gives over 90% of his income away, lives in the same house as before and drives a 12 year old truck.  He also paid back his salary for the first 25 years and works as a volunteer pastor now since he really doesn’t need the additional income.  The contrast to many other uber-successful preachers was significant enough that Forbes (the money magazine of the rich and famous) ran an article on it.  http://www.forbes.com/sites/robertlaura/2013/03/21/pastor-rick-warren-is-practicing-what-he-preaches-and-getting-ready-for-retirement/

The interesting thing about mammon is that you do not need a lot of it for it to get a hold of us.  The love of money is never restricted to the rich.  I have seen 10 year olds that have already fallen prey and have developed a greedy spirit.  They then go through life as takers and not givers.  The antidote to greed is generosity.  If we cannot give it away when we have a little… we will never be able to give it away when we have a lot.  You simply cannot serve both God and Mammon.

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