Well that was interesting. If you’ve been following the God52 journey this week, you’ll have read some fantastic, stretching, honest guest blog posts, and if you’ve been taking the challenge yourself, I’d wager you’ve enjoyed a surprising, if not revelatory experience.
The challenge was -as ever – simple: identify a voice (most people interpreted this as a Christian teacher) which you had previously written off, engage with it, and ask God to speak to you through it. The slight downside with this was it gave everyone permission to publicly air their pet peeves; the stronger upside was that many of us enjoyed a week of being a little more open minded. So on this blog you’ll have read about Calum, who caught something beautiful from prosperity teacher Joel Osteen; Mark, who was forced to wrestle a bit with his preconceptions as a Conservative Evangelical, and Helen and Zoe, both of whom found wisdom or grace they didn’t expect among complementarians. Elsewhere on other blogs, we noticed a number of other people on similar journeys.
For each of these people, the lesson was slightly different, but in every case there seemed to be a lesson. It’s perhaps too easy to refer to Paul’s analogy of one body with many parts, but it would seem that God chooses to work through every flavour, every stream of the Christian church, and he doesn’t seem to be put off by how we feel about them, or how theologically errant we might think they are. Which leads me on to my own experience this week. I decided to confront the thing about which I am perhaps most cynical in the church. I don’t usually talk about this, and I realise that in committing these words to the Internet I am forever writing myself out of a lucrative speaking gig but… I really struggle with Hillsong. I have great difficulties with this church movement, which grew out of what is now a Sydney megachurch, with plants in major cities across the world and a whole industry of music, teaching and conferences now bearing the famous logo.
My issue in a nutshell – that in my opinion, they (and I’m really talking about their leaders here) tend towards a warped understanding of discipleship, which focuses on earthly purpose and success of the individual, rather than the cost of following Jesus.
Since I’ve read it a lot in Hillsong circles, it’s fair to say they’re fond of Jesus’ words in Luke 6:38: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” They seem to talk less about Paul’s words in Philippians 1:21 – “for to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain”, or Jesus’ own in Mark 8: 34 – “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” The path of discipleship has a cost – for some of our brothers and sisters in the persecuted church, it still has the ultimate cost attached. So I’ve always found the Hillsong approach slightly grating.
But perhaps that says more about me than it does about them. Perhaps it’s my Englishness, my left-of-centredness or my increasing Anglican-ness that finds the idea of God pouring grace abundantly into my lap difficult. Is it for me to decide whom God should bless, and to what degree? That’s a misunderstanding of grace on my part.
So, with that in mind, I downloaded some podcasts, subscribed to a few unlikely twitter feeds, and waited for God to show me how wrong I’d been about Hillsong. And do you know what? He didn’t. I don’t need to go into great detail here, but pretty much everything I read and heard only served to confirm my prejudice. Not what I expected to be writing. Ouch.
Instead I read about pastors Brian and Bobbi Houston and their $600 three day leaders retreat in Hawaii. I listened to Brian preach, linger on Proverbs 11 v 4: ‘Wealth is worthless in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death’, and completely ignore the first half of the verse. I even met a graduate from Hillsong’s leadership training who only seemed to reconfirm my worst feelings again. I found myself asking God if my heart was so hard that I’d become cynical beyond repair.
Feeling particularly downbeat about my apparent failure, I went for a walk. I found myself praying, and as I did so, my words somehow meandered to a statement along these lines: “God, I don’t really feel like I deserve it, but if you want to pour out your abundant blessings on my life, then please do. If you want to ‘pour a good measure, pressed down and running over into my lap’, then don’t let me stop you. ” I was almost joking.
That was noon. By four o’clock, so many unusual and even extraordinary things had happened to me – all of them fitting into the ‘abundant blessing’ category – that I was being forced to rethink some things. And I’ll be honest – I still can’t get my head around it. I don’t understand why God would want to help my finances, when so many people have nothing. I don’t get why my career should be advanced, or opportunities should be given to me, when I know how fallen and sinful I am.
Do I still think there’s stuff wrong with Hillsong’s theology? Yes. Do I believe that God moves even through that teaching? Absolutely. I am left simply to reflect on this: God is bigger even that I imagined; bigger than my preconceptions; bigger than imperfect teaching. This week I’ve not learned that God speaks through every part of the body, but rather that God is sovereign. He is King. He is greater; his grace and love more perfect than I could possibly imagine.
Not a bad learning point. And all because I listened to a voice with which I still don’t agree. Pick the bones out of that.