Monday, May 20, 2019

Do Preachers Promise Too Much?

In the last few years, Fred Heeren has become a good friend of mine, although we don’t spend a lot of time together. When we do have time to talk, though--as we did during lunch after church on April 28--we always have interesting, meaningful talks. This article was sparked by a comment Fred made during that 4/28 lunchtime chat.
Introducing Fred
Fred grew up in and initially embraced the theology of conservative evangelical churches--just as I did. Perhaps he was in that camp for a little longer than I was, but he and I have both grown into a much broader understanding of God and of what it means to be a Christian in the contemporary world.
Fred is especially interested in the relationship between belief in God and science. On his website, he introduces himself as a science journalist. He is currently working hard on another book about science and religion. The revised edition of his Show Me God: What the Message from Space Is Telling Us About God was published in 2004.
Fred is the president of Day Star Ministries (see here), whose first purpose is “Breaking down barriers — especially those that keep un-churched people and the gospel message apart.”
That clear concern for Christian apologetics is one reason Fred and I have enjoyed having deep discussions, for that has been a life-long concern of mine.
Quoting Fred
As we were talking on April 28, Fred said, “You know, I think sometimes we promise too much.”
When I wrote him an email asking about that comment, Fred responded, “Seems to me there’s a great gap between what most preachers (and Sunday School teachers) lead us to expect and what the Christian life actually entails. Some of my friends became atheists when their prayers seemed ineffective.”
Fred’s statement is an accurate one, I think.  
The main promise is of eternal life, of course--and that is surely a legitimate promise. But what about the promise of “health and wealth” in the world now? What about the “name it and claim it” emphasis of some churches, which has spawned the growth of “prosperity gospel” churches in this country and especially in Africa and South America?

Sharing Fred’s Concerns 
Promising health, wealth, and happiness is, quite surely, one reason for the flourishing of many conservative evangelical and/or Pentecostal churches. But those promises have also caused many people to leave not just those churches but Christianity altogether.
It is easy to measure the attendance or membership of large, thriving churches. It is not so easy to ascertain the number of people who have ceased attending and who have no connection to those churches even though their names may still be on the church membership rolls.
Fred is the main leader of a “Meetup” group known as “Provocateurs and Peacemakers.” The vast majority of those who attend their regular meetings are now agnostics or atheists. Many of them, though, grew up attending church services and hearing sermons regularly.
Many of them, also, likely felt a problem when heartfelt prayers were not answered. Some were likely told they didn’t have enough faith. For various reasons they experienced doubt and disillusionment--and then departure from the church.
In this connection, I recommend reading “If you’re sad about Rachel Held Evans (and other un-answered prayers),” a recent article by Mike Morrell (and found here).
Mike quotes a friend, who wrote after Rachel’s death: “. . . whatever faith I had left in prayer is gone. She had so many people praying for her. What’s the f#$%ing [sic] point?”
Mike’s friend, as well as many of Fred’s friends, likely heard preachers, and other Christians, who promised too much.


  1. Thanks, Leroy for the provocative blog. It's way too expansive to treat in a single response, but, nevertheless (your version of "where angels fear to tread..."). I wish I knew how to speak with certainty to what seem to me to be the self-delusions Christianity and religious faith, generally, perpetuates. One idea comes with the necessary beginning assumption that faith is a discipline to help transcend the self/ego (I'm paraphrasing John Hick, "The Fifth Dimension") rather than an institution mostly aiming to perpetuate itself and its cultural context. If that's true, then a lot of the delusional stuff (e.g., "eternal life," "heaven," "resurrection," "miracles," "answered prayer on a whim," etc.) is simply there to perpetuate an imagined reality rather than reality itself.

    1. (I am confused about the time given for this, for it was not here when I post the comments from Eric below.)

      Thanks for your challenging comments, Milton. As you know, I (following Wilfred Cantwell Smith, among many others) make a distinction between religion and faith. Unfortunately, religion has perhaps often been "an institution mostly aiming to perpetuate itself and its cultural context." That cannot be accurately said about faith.

      I have read most of John Hick's books, but not "The Fifth Dimension" for some reason. I need to take a look at it.

      I also wonder it you have given consideration to Fr. Richard Rohr and his new book, which was the subject of my previous article. He seems clearly one who strongly emphases faith rather than religion--and as a mystic he would, I'm sure, confidently say that he is in contact with "reality itself" rather than an advocate of "delusional stuff."

  2. The first comments received this morning were from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago. I appreciate him sharing this.

    "Thanks, Leroy, for sharing your observations about preacher promises.

    "I have known Fred Heeren for about ten years, ever since he started Peacemakers and Provocateurs, although I have not chatted with him since we moved to Chicago. His meetup group has been very successful with many interesting topics and speakers.

    "As for preachers promising too much, I must commend Jason Glombicki, the pastor at Wicker Park Lutheran Church, where I am a member. Jason does not promise much aside from eternal life; instead, he usually challenges us. Yesterday he preached about love, something that should not be privatized or confined to just those with whom we agree or identify. Jesus, he said, taught us that love should extend to the entire human community--it is not just a personal virtue; it is a communal virtue. Our challenge is to love those who are different.

    "His specific point was about the appalling way our government treats immigrants and he cited Pastor Betty Rendon, a Lutheran pastor who serves a congregation in Racine, WI. Betty is a native of Colombia whose presence, since 2004, in the U S is not fully documented despite many efforts on her part. Last week, ICE broke into her home and arrested her and her family members. She and her family are now facing deportation. She had been working on her D.Div at the Lutheran School of Theology here in Chicago. Jason once again challenged us to contact our Congressional representatives about Betty's case and immigration reform in general.

    "So instead of making promises, preachers should be challenging us to live and act on our faith by extending our love to all of humanity."

    1. Thanks for your comments, Eric. I am glad you have a good pastor (as I do). And while I don't know that I would go so far as to say that pastors shouldn't ever promise anything, I think you are certainly correct in what you wrote in the main part of your last paragraph.

    2. Hi Eric (not sure you’ll see this if you don’t use the site, but:) – Wanted to say I’ve missed you and the discussions you led in your home when you were in KC; I’d like to think that, since those days, I’m making some headway toward grasping the heart of Jesus’ challenge, as you express it: “to love those who are different,” and so “act on our faith,” rather than confine ourselves “to just those with whom we agree or identify.” Well put!

  3. Here are comments from local Thinking Friend, and Disciples of Christ pastor, Rob Carr. I appreciate him taking time on this Monday morning to write and for his giving me permission to post his comments here.

    "Good Morning, Friend---this piece prompts a modest response. The general theme of the piece suggests that there has been incomplete teaching about prayer in the church for a very long time. Intercession for ourselves and others is just a slice of the magnificent cake that is prayer. We ask God to act--and God either acts or does not act. As long as our prayers are properly answered, we continue to be enthusiastically faithful. Christianity 'works.' It gets 'results.'

    "But the cake is bigger than this. The cake of prayer and of the Gospel, the primary PROMISE of the Gospel, is deep intimacy and union with the Triune God. Intercessory prayer is but a slice of this. Contemplative surrender toward 'I no longer live but Christ lives in me' is, in my view, a piece of the cake that has been 'under preached' for most of the church's history I dare say."

    1. Thanks for your significant comments, Rob.

      Perhaps you are familiar with Mark Thibodeaux's book "Armchair Mystic: Easing Into Contemplative Prayer" (2001). (I introduce that book in the 26th chapter of my new book "Thirty True Things Everyone Needs to Know Now.") Thibodeaux writes that there are four stages of prayer: talking at God, talking to God, listening to God, and being with God."

      That fourth stage is what you are referring to, I think, and certainly I believe that that is the most important stage of prayer.

  4. Here is part of the even lengthier comments received by email this morning from Thinking Friend Tom Nowlin in Arkansas.

    "I enjoyed the deconstruction you and Morrell walk us through. I think deconstruction of sacrosanct ways of thinking is such a healthy exercise, albeit difficult, because it requires great energy for us to rise above the safety and comfort zones we’ve worked so hard to manufacture and create for ourselves. It is not just that it is easier to simply fall in line with the common thinking, but something about the human makeup likes 'shorthand' and easy remedies and understandings of all things.

    . . . .

    "Oversimplification gets us off the hook, requiring little is any effort. Doing nothing can be and often is the worst enemy of the good. Simplicity greases “the skids of life,” so to speak, and helps us glide through days of mediocrity, that is, until we hit a 'speed bump' like the one you’ve presented. Thus, for me, humility is such an important virtue when it comes to understanding the Divine and religious teaching. With this in mind, yes, we too often claim and 'promise too much.' It is such a human thing to oversimplify and suppress the unpleasant and inconvenient truths that are more in keeping with reality.

    . . . .

    "As a process theologian, I agree with Morrell. God is not all powerful, and it thus contingent on humanity. Although powerful, God himself is in process, and not always in control. This means that humanity is in control, certainly more than pure Calvinists would ever admit. There are forces at work in the creation over which we do not have control, our genetic makeup being one. 'Bad' things do happen to 'good' people. Contingency is life. So much the more the reason and need for human humility and compassion toward one another.

    "And, yes, I still pray. Prayer is my best wish for other people. It is my highest aspiration for the success of other human beings, and for the full weight of human Divine (however conceptualized) and human power and partnership to be brought to bear upon others."

    1. Thanks, Tom, for your lengthy and significant comments.

      At this point I will make only one brief response: in your third paragraph you mention "pure Calvinists," and I am in basic agreement with you on that point. But interestingly, just this morning I was reading again what Serene Jones has recently published (in "Call It Grace," 2019) about Calvinism (and about which I may refer to in my May 30 blog article), and what you say in your next sentence is part of her point about why she thinks Calvin emphasis on original sin is correct and important: we are all intertwined with bad things over which we do not have control. That is, in fact, why we need "humility and compassion toward one another"--and why we need to know and accept the grace of God.

  5. Religion is a interesting thing - not just Christianity. Each has weakness in practice. I remember a freshman class called "Problems of Philosophy", which also covered some Problems of Religion. American "Relevantism" is one problem of Christianity.

    But I have observed enough in my lifetime to lead to my faith in Christ. Thankfully, I have studied enough to be able to question some "facts" of the scientific community. Cynicism is not bad. But there is also a need for some truly solid foundations, and a viable faith with viable religious framework, and a little love.

  6. This is Patrick. It appears I'm signed in, so I'll attempt a comment. Back in the days of my Christian youth, I became depressed because I wasn't obtaining and experiencing the life of "holiness." which was identified in my church context as the life of if not perfect, or close to it, obedience to the will and laws of God. There were a lot of devotional books available promising the paths or methods one should take to live the sinless life. None of it worked for me.

    Since the teaching of the denomination of which I was a member was that if I did not meet the holy standard of God's Law and the Bible, my name would be stricken from the Book of Life, all meaning drained out of my life. I broke free of the depression when I realized that it wasn't about my obedience to God's Law, but my acceptance that I was in the Grace and Love of God. God's will for me then was that I live in and by that Grace, extending the same mercy and compassion to others that I found in the Divine.

    I know this sounds a bit trite. After all, isn't it preached from nearly every pulpit? Yet somehow so many Christians make legalism the follow up. They forget that the Holiness of the Divine is Kindness, Mercy, and Compassion and get discouraged and depressed because they aren't living the "holy" life. That they also aren't experiencing the good life materially, they feel it's because they aren't obedient enough. And then come those wretched devotionals promising a "Sanctified" life that's really just a manipulative lie.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Patrick.

      Although the promises I wrote about were primarily physical ones, you are right in pointing out how in some religious circles the promises are primarily "spiritual" ones and how failure to experience the spiritual things some preacher promises can be as discouraging and disillusioning as other people failing to receive the physical/material things other preachers promise.

  7. Here are thoughtful comments from local Thinking Friend Thomas Howell, and I post them with his permission:

    "Your article and one you referred to hit hard into a recent situation on a smaller scale here. The husband of a couple who were our friends had complications following a hernia operation and suddenly the situation turned serious. The wife asked for prayer and a considerable number of people myself included prayed repeatedly. Things took a turn for the better and she wrote out a testimonial to the marvelous power of prayer. A week later, in spite of or because of the doctors’ treatment, he was dead. She is stunned and disillusioned.

    "I for one are not going to tell her 'it’s all part of God’s plan.' God’s plan for what? To better the universe? Maybe, but I can’t see how nor, I suspect, can she. Perhaps a stoic 'death happens' might do just as well.

    "Is a god who created and governs billions of galaxies concerned with the fate of one human however deserving? Does He prevent a rotten tree from crashing into our house during a recent storm, something I earnestly prayed for? The tree didn’t crash but several houses in my neighborhood were destroyed. I thanked God sincerely but wondered about the people who lived in the crushed houses. They didn’t get around to praying? Sometimes I think deism should make a comeback.

    "I continue to pray for my family, myself, others, the world. That’s not hard because often it is all I can do. But it’s harder to believe that it makes any difference."

    1. Thanks for your honest sharing about the problem of prayer, Thomas.

      I guess the main thing I want to say is in response to what you said about deism and about your last paragraph. Yes, I think that, for good reason, it is often hard to believe that prayer makes any difference objectively. But I believe it can, and does, make a lot of difference subjectively for those who have a good understanding of prayer.

      So, I cannot agree that a deistic view would be a good thing. According to deism, God doesn't have any direct relationship to the world and us humans in any way other than as the Creator who got everything started. I do not believe that God often intervenes in the physical world--that is, even though I believe that sometimes miracles occur, they are very rare and never due to humans praying or doing something else in the right way. But I do firmly believe that prayer means communion with God, and that through prayer we can experience God's Presence, which is comforting, sustaining, and encouraging. So while prayer may not bring about changes in our own or other people's health, it can make a very positive change, I believe, in how we react to and/or accept health issues, and losses, for ourselves and others.

  8. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky shares these comments:

    "A thoughtful blog, Leroy. Showing how faith means something in a world dependent on science is surely a major challenge for a thoughtful Christian. I’m thankful that my college study at Washington University force me to do that from that time on. It precipitated a crisis for me that led to my call to ministry."

  9. And then there is this from Thinking Friend Charles Kiker in Texas:

    "Several years ago there was a report of a Southern Baptist preacher (with whom I happened to be acquainted) preaching the Malachi promise of the tithe. If you tithe, he reportedly claimed, you will get more back. One of his parishioners took him up on the promise, did not prosper, and sued the preacher. I didn't hear or don't remember the outcome. I'm not going to name the preacher lest he sue me!"

  10. Yesterday, local Thinking Friend Bill Ryan sent an email with these comments:

    "Whenever I read about or talk with someone who once lived with one interpretation of faith and then, when that didn't work for them, they abandon the faith journey altogether (eg. becoming an agnostic, etc.), not realizing that they can move on to a new stage that has meaning to them, I'm reminded of the insights of the careful sociological study of people at various stages of faith, by James W. Fowler, "Stages of Faith -- The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning." I've frequently found this to be a helpful model for me to use when listening to or reading someone who is either stuck at one stage or has abandoned the journey altogether."

    1. Thanks for your helpful comments Bill. I mentioned Fowler's book to someone just a few days ago, and I think it is a book that needs to be widely read (as it has been, I guess) and considered. Yes, it is sad when people jettison their faith rather than using the problems they face as the stimulus to grow into a more adequate understanding of faith.

  11. Just over an hour ago I received the following comments from local Thinking Friend Debra Sapp-Yarwood. I much appreciate her sharing such significant comments about the central subject of my blog article.

    "Just now getting around to responding. This post points toward the MOST vexing part of my job as a hospital chaplain. Patients ask me to pray for a miracle, because their pastors have promised that prayer produces them. Or they say they follow a particular TV evangelist whose name nearly rhymes with Goal Holstein. I recall one patient, on hospice, but refusing to tie up financial loose ends or make any special effort to mend relationships, etc., because that would be a sign that he lacked faith. He insisted he had plenty of time, because he had the same cancer that Goal Holstein's mother was miraculously cured of and he had faith a miracle would happen, since he had amassed a vast network of prayer warriors. Of course, he died, leaving behind a confusing mess of an estate for his family and his heart-sick, disillusioned fiancé to figure out.

    "When people will listen, I tell them (and this is true) that I see miracles all the time in the hospital, but only sometimes is that miracle the reversal of terminal illness and the purchase of more time in this mortal body. More often the miracle is a change in someone's spirit (lower-case s) when she or he experiences something mystical, Wise and eternal that brings a sense of ineffable peace. They touch the Holy Spirit (upper-case S) in this lifetime. That's a miracle too. And it's rare because people don't value or pursue it. They're too preoccupied with 'fighting' their medical demons and putting on a good show of positive thinking."

  12. I am late in posting these thoughtful comments from Thinking Friend Frank Shope:

    "I must say preachers promise too much. We over commit God like he is some type of institution to be brokered into pleasure and prosperity. Congregations seldom hear a sermon about a God who wants to work in the mundane.

    "Preaching presents a God who will never give more than an individual can withstand (B.S.). What about the God who never heals, does not save in time, or love the little girl who just watched mommy kill daddy on the day of her baptism?

    "Preaching all to often is unwilling to address the realities of marginalization, poverty, bigotry and a God who seems to sit on his hands while suffering and pain grows and chaos rules every moment in modern day life.

    "Some would see my writing as being anger at God. But, not so...I am angry at preachers who present a Christ in the image government and Christ that trivializes the pain and wounds while their congregation walks into church seeking a simple salve for their hearts."

  13. I have seen enough "answered prayer" including the "impossible", that I am not going to hang up prayer or fasting. This is part of the sojourn which brought me to Christ. I realize that other religions also make claims to this end (I have heard them) so in the end, it was a leap of faith for me based on my observation. Thank you God for faith, and answered prayers. (PS - this is not Word/Faith theology, it's a God Who is alive and does here and answer according to His own will.)

    1. Here is part of an email I sent to a Thinking Friend this morning:

      I don't deny in the least that there are many examples of divine healing. But I do deny--and oppose preachers who promise--that healing can always be experienced if a person just prays enough or in the right way or with enough others praying for that person to be healed.