Last week I wrote an article about solar powered Bibles that are being sent to Haiti as aid. As a former Evangelical, I was trying to explain the psychology that turns a tragedy into a marketing opportunity for religions that need recruits. On a whim, I pulled up the website for Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Ok, it wasn’t a whim, it was a hunch based on past experience. At the time of the 2004 Asian Tsunami, I was researching local mega churches and ran across Mars Hill for the first time. I was appalled to see their home page recommendations for members: pray for the people in the disaster zone, give to Mars Hill church, give to our church building efforts in India. (Why wasn’t it “Pray for Mars Hill Church, give to the people in the disaster zone . . . ?)
There is little more sacred to me than compassion – the part of us that feels someone else’s pain as our own and seeks to alleviate it. My deepest spiritual values were violated by what Mars Hill was doing; I would say that the moral heart of humanity was violated.
The solar Bibles project struck a similar note, which is why it occurred to me to see what Mars Hill is up to now. To my dismay, they were once again channeling the compassionate impulse into what is best described as self-promotion : promotion of the church, it’s pastor, Mark Driscoll, and the viral fundamentalist ideology that both serve.
The Mars Hill website directs people to one of Driscoll’s side projects – a website (churcheshelpingchurches) seeking to direct aid money into church reconstruction. By filtering and selecting Bible verses, Driscoll makes the case that God never meant for Christians to take care of poor, suffering people but rather poor suffering Christian people (and potential converts.) “ I challenge all thoughtful, biblically-minded Christians to find a single instance of the New Testament church filling the plates of the ‘general population’ poor.” Cofounder of the site, James MacDonald of Harvest Bible Chapel penned these words: “Children are crouching in shivering fear as people stand stunned and staring in disbelief at the remains of what they once called their home. The world is racing to help these people in unimaginable crisis, but who will help the church?”
This explicit co-opting of the charitable impulse may be characteristic of successful mega-churches. In The Purpose Driven Life, Rick Warren hops among 15(!) Bible translations to back up his points, one of which is right in line with Driscoll. Warren chooses the New Revised Standard Version to ensure that readers don’t think God is talking about “general population poor” when Jesus says “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these . . . you did it to me.” (In place of the elipses, the NRSV says “who are members of my family”, which Warren has already defined as the tribe of born again believers. p. 126.) Later in the book, Warren comments, “Notice that God says the needs of your church family are to be given preference . . .. ” (p.259). And for Warren, becoming a “World Class Citizen” means this:
If you ask me, I will give you the nations; all the people on earth will be yours.(Psalm 2:8 NCV) Prayer is the most important tool for your mission in the world. People may refuse our love or reject our message, but they are defenseless against our prayers. Like an intercontinental missile, you can aim a prayer at a person’s heart whether you are ten feet away or 10,000 miles away. What should you pray for? The Bible tells us to pray for opportunities to witness, for courage to speak up, for those who will believe, for the rapid spread of the message, and for more workers. Prayer makes you a partner with others around the world. You should also pray for missionaries and everyone involved in the global harvest.
(Note: If you didn’t fully appreciate the name of “Harvest Bible Chapel” you have the context now.)
After I wrote about solar Bibles and Churches Helping Churches, one Huffington Post reader (and, I presume, Mars Hill Member) pushed back: “While it is true that Mars Hill Church is encouraging efforts to rebuild churches in Haiti, it shouldn’t be overlooked that the congregation donated over $429,000 to general relief efforts (not including the church rebuilding project).” As evidence, he or she provided a link, to the church blog, so I went there. Perhaps their ratio of aid to recruiting was higher than I thought. But were the Mars Hill members donating to general relief efforts or the church general fund? The blog seemed to suggest the latter. (And wasn’t Driscoll explicitly teaching against the former?) Here was Pastor Jamie Munson’s advice to people who want to actually do something in response to Haiti.
- Start giving to the church.
- Quit living on your own and join a community group.
- Pursue church membership and align formally with your church family.
- Confess to your community group about lack of giving or participation in Jesus’ mission.
- Consider financial coaching: get help building a budget so that you can align your finances with right priorities.
In my experience visiting Mars Hill, this is in keeping with the church’s general philosophy. At my last visit, the church newspaper Pop Vox made the case that God (not Mark Driscoll, but God) wants Christians to give first and foremost to their home church—and to do it regularly and to do it till it hurts. Perhaps one of the secrets to mega-growth is making sure to capture community resources and channel them in the service of that growth.
I am not saying that the Mars Hill effort is ill intended, and I have no doubt that at some level it will involve providing food, shelter and medical care to people in dire need. In a place where people are dying of trauma and hunger, Bibles and church buildings are likely to be much better received if they are paired with goods and services that meet people’s basic needs. Also, it must be remembered that congregation members who are opening their checkbooks are genuinely compassionate people, seeking to do good – or they wouldn’t be susceptible to the appeal.
But at what cost?
Because Bible believing Christians perceive themselves as a light shining in darkness, a moral beacon to the world, they often don’t understand that much of the critique written about their religion, like this article, is prompted by moral distress. For Evangelicals the diversion of energy into recruiting activities seems to be in the service of a higher good. From the outside, it seems opportunistic, just like Scientology’s high-profile relief flight to Haiti. It is morally distressing, with a high opportunity cost and, consequently, a high human cost. Genuinely decent, loving people who seek to serve Goodness are having their precious empathy and compassion channeled into activities that range from exploitative to merely inefficient or insensitive. A young Christian friend of mine caught sight of the Solar Bibles headline. “Really?” she asked (with that inflection that only teenagers can conjure). “It seems so elitist. You really have to be not hungry and not in pain to think—Hmm. What would comfort me is a Bible. I think that’s what I’ll send.”