Friday, November 25, 2016

The Reformation Project: Analyzing my Visit to The Potter's House

In my previous post, I wrote about my visit to The Potter's House. Because this post reflects on that visit, the reader should read that account prior to proceeding with this one.

The Potter's House is listed by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research as the third largest church in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, with an average weekly attendance of more than 16,000. Its pastor, T.D. Jakes, is a nationally known figure in large part due to his bestselling books which can be found at both religious and nonreligious bookstores. He has been the subject of controversy, both because of his promotion of the prosperity gospel and also because of his past denials of trinitarian theology (he was ordained in a oneness Pentecostal church that believes a form of modalism). The controversy became heated in 2012 when Rev. Jakes was invited to speak at a conference along with a number of prominent pastors such as James McDonald and Mark Driscoll who had been associated with The Gospel Coalition. Prior to that, Jakes had indicated that he was moving away from "Oneness" theology, and during the conference in question he submitted to an interview with the aforementioned pastors. Pastor Jakes used the interview to affirm trinitarian theology, but no one seemed satisfied. Those prone to defend his invitation to speak at the conference were satisfied with his answers, while others argued that even in a contrived interview Rev. Jakes gave answers that were lacking and that evangelical leaders cared more for celebrity pastors of large churches than for adherence even to basics for Christian leaders. It is outside the scope of this post to resolve that controversy; however, I will note that The Potter's House, in its doctrinal statement, maintains a preference for describing God as existing in three "manifestations" rather than the more traditional language of "persons." The pastor claims that "manifestations" is both biblical and trinitarian.

That said, because much of this analysis will be negative, I thought I would begin my discussion of my actual visit to the church with a positive word. Of the three churches that I had visited to this point, Rev. Jakes was the first preacher that I heard include the Gospel in his sermon. Preaching from Numbers 20, a passage in which Moses struck a rock in order to receive water from it, although God had commanded Moses to speak to the rock instead, Rev. Jakes correctly described the typological relationship between the rock and Christ, pulled in Scripture from Isaiah 53 about Christ being "wounded for our transgressions," and used the term "justification," with a reasonably good definition, in order to describe the benefit of Christ's death received through faith. This was the sort of reflection on Scripture in light of the Gospel that I had not heard the previous two weeks. I would note that all three ministers had preached sermons that might be regarded as pragmatic about the Christian life, but only Jakes followed the New Testament pattern of making the Gospel foundational to orthopraxis.

While I am glad for that, I wonder that this Gospel message for many was lost in a cloud of confusion. The three hour church service -- though a fair percentage of the congregation came late and left early, so they had a somewhat briefer service -- largely took the form of a variety show. Opening songs using the imagery of slavery were moving and connected the predominately black church with its history, but the combination of such imagery with a prosperity gospel message felt strange. Most of the music was performed by capable singers and musicians to whom the congregation listened. Other than a bit of congregational singing, most of the participation in the pews came from emotional reactions to what was happening onstage, as well as multiple requests to hug our neighbors -- my neighbor to my right was my son, who had no interest in hugging,but the neighbor to my left was an attractive woman who seemed to relish following her pastor's instructions, making it a positive experience for this blogger, though perhaps not one that encouraged worship. Besides the performance oriented music we were treated to a 40 minute play. While the message related to domestic violence is one of importance in our culture, I am not sure that a lengthy play devoted to the topic could be described an appropriate use of worship time, and the use of the play to hawk one of the minister's books -- while less offensive than the pastor at Fellowship Church using the sermon to promote one of his books -- was also problematic. The lengthy offering collection was blatantly manipulative, with a message that giving more would result in receiving more blessings.

I was gratified to hear that Pastor Jakes had changed his mind about proper counsel to those suffering domestic abuse (he now says to "have faith," but do it from a safe place). The willingness to change his mind -- and to say so publicly -- is a sign of humility and strength, and advising people in dangerous, abusive situations to remove themselves from them is wise, but I wondered about his definition of "faith" in that statement.

As mentioned previously, the sermon included a solid statement of the Gospel early on; however, the message as a whole concerned the topic of how to deal with frustration, and it reduced Moses to a sort of Aesop's fable designed to make points about how we should react when life becomes frustrating. Of course, this sermonic theme went along with the theme of domestic violence in the play, and the pastor concluded his sermon with an invitation for those that needed healing with regard to frustration and anger problems. As was stated previously in my post about Gateway Church, this is problematic pastoral counsel. Does God sometimes instantaneously heal us of besetting sins? Undoubtedly, he does, and we should be grateful when he does. However, dealing with stubborn indwelling sin often involves life long struggle as we make use of God's means of grace, through which gradually the Spirit teaches and enables us to die more to sin and live more righteously. Those being told that God will give instantly at the point of repentance what in fact he does gradually may well end up disappointed.

In my next post I will describe my visit to Prestonwood Baptist.

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