Three Sundays in April (Part 4)

If you had thirty minutes to say something to the most powerful man in the world, what would you say?

This is how I started our short series titled “Three Sundays in April.”

On April 19, 2020, the Sunday after Easter, Donald Trump watched the service at Jack Graham’s Prestonwood Baptist Church in West Plano, Texas.

What did he hear?

Jack Graham is sixty-nine-years-old and a life-long Southern Baptist. He has a Masters of Divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Doctor of Ministry from Southwestern in “Church and Proclamation.” After serving several Southern Baptist Churches in Texas, Oklahoma, and Florida, Graham came to Prestonwood, a prominent Dallas-area megachurch, in 1989. Today the church claims 45,000 members. Graham was president of the Southern Baptist Convention from 2002-2004.

Graham has strong court evangelical credentials. Here are some of his greatest hits:

  • Has has defended Trump’s immigration policies.
  • He is part of the Southern Baptist faction who opposed Russell Moore’s criticism of Donald Trump.
  • He has supported Trump’s handling of the coronavirus.
  • He believes that Trump is the “most pro life president” in his lifetime.
  • He rarely misses a photo-op with Trump.
  • He was one of the several evangelical leaders who prayed for Trump at the “Evangelicals for Trump” gathering in January 2020. (I wrote about this event at USA Today).
  • He signed a letter criticizing Christianity Today after former editor Mark Galli wrote an anti-Trump editorial. (He said the magazine was “increasingly liberal and out of step and out of touch with conservative Christians and churches”).
  • He defended Trump during impeachment, calling the proceedings against the president “ludicrous” and a “sham.”

When Donald Trump pointed his browser toward Prestonwood Baptist Church he watched a few praise songs and then saw Graham interviewing Texas governor Gregg Abbott. The Republican governor knew that his primary audience was not Graham or those sitting on their couches at home awaiting Graham’s sermon. Abbott was talking to the President of the United States. Abbott said that “Texas wants to lead the way” in opening the nation’s economy. He told Graham, “put your faith in God and Texas will once again rise-up to be the number one economy in the United States of America.”

Graham’s sermon was titled “We are Alive.” It was based on Acts 2, a passage chronicling the coming of the Holy Spirit and the first days of the early Christian church. Christians around the world celebrate these events on Pentecost Sunday. This year, May 31 is Pentecost Sunday. Since Southern Baptists do not follow the historic Christian calendar, Graham felt comfortable preaching on Acts 2 six weeks early.

Graham’s delivered a standard 3-point message. Based on the text, he exhorted his listeners to “exalt” Christ, “evangelize” the world, and “engage” the life of the church. Because several listeners had made professions of faith (by contacting the website on the screen) the week before–Easter Sunday–Graham wanted to make sure that these people got connected with a church characterized by these three practices. Those in the evangelical world call this “follow-up.” Billy Graham (no relation to Jack Graham as far as I know) would have new converts fill-out “decision cards” and the Graham organization would “follow-up” with them to make sure they got connected with a local congregation. This became very controversial during the 1957 Billy Graham New York Crusade when some of the decision cards were distributed to the “liberal” churches of the Protestant mainline. Jack Graham does not want this to happen to his new online converts.

In Graham’s first point, “exalt Christ,” he came closest to reminding Trump that because of the events of Holy Week there is another leader in charge. (Unlike Greg Laurie on Palm Sunday and Robert Jeffress on Easter Sunday, Graham never acknowledged the fact that Trump was watching). “Christ is King,” Graham said, and “there is no president or King above him.” I am not sure Graham meant this as a political statement addressed to the current President of the United States, but he said it nonetheless and it is true. But such a statement does not seem to match-up with Graham’s court evangelicalism. I don’t think he has teased out the full political implications of Christ kingship. He is not alone. Most evangelicals have not thought about the Kingdom of God in this way. As a minister, Graham represents an alternative Kingdom. Yet he wants to rely on the corrupt king of an inferior kingdom to advance the mission of the superior and victorious Kingdom to which he holds his higher loyalty. If you view the world through the eyes of faith, this does not make sense. It is also a form of idolatry.

Graham’s second point, “evangelize” the world, represent the classic evangelical understanding of the church’s mission. Christians should preach the “simple” message that Jesus died for the sins of the world, rose again on Easter Sunday, and offers eternal life to all those who believe. When Christians do this, Graham notes, they are following the Great Commission of Matthew 28:16-20. In that passage, Jesus tells his followers to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Italics mine). Jesus had a lot to say during his ministry about the ethics–including the political ethics–of His Kingdom. The Great Commission is not just about evangelism as Graham defines it. It is also a call to discipleship.

Graham calls himself a “gospel preacher” and subtly distinguishes this kind of preaching from the kind of preaching that helps Christians grow in their faith. “Gospel preachers” like Graham are always trying to ignite a revival. They want to get people saved in the way I described above.  Revival is thus a major theme in Graham’s April 19 message. Such an appeal to revival might even perk-up the ears of Donald Trump, especially since Graham talks about “revival” during this service in both spiritual and economic terms. The message is clear: President Trump and Governor Abbott will revive the American economy and spur a spiritual revival. People will return to church, preach the Gospel, and lead more people to salvation. We know that Trump already thinks his presidency is responsible for a great revival in the church. Now Graham, by inviting Abbott to his service, is implying that Trump will continue to be such a spiritual leader by opening the economy. These two ideas are inseparable in the mind of this president.

But again I ask, what might such a revival look like? Graham said that once the economy comes back, the church will “turn the world upside down.” If this is true, did Trump get the message? Does Graham understand the meaning of such a message?

Graham believes that a revival will come when people accept Christ as Savior, but “turning the world upside down” seems to be a revolutionary political act. I imagine that Graham thinks this means revived Christians will turn the world upside down by reclaiming it as a Christian nation characterized by conservative Supreme Court justices, the overthrow of Roe v. Wade, a restoration of biblical values related to marriage, the defense religious freedom, and the flourishing of a free-market economy. When the revival comes, America will be great again.

As I listened to Laurie, Jeffress, and now Graham talk about the large numbers of people making “decisions for Christ” after watching their coronavirus services, I thought about the mid-20th-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr‘s critique of this kind of evangelism. Writing in the context of Billy Graham’s New York crusade, Niebuhr said that Graham’s success depended on “oversimplifying every issue of life.” Evangelicals like Billy Graham, he added, failed to address “the social dimensions of the Gospel.” Billy Graham’s gospel, Niebuhr argued, “promises new life, not through painful religious experience, but merely by signing a decision card” (Life, July 1, 1957).

So I return to my question: What might Jack Graham’s revival look like? Will it announce the Kingdom of God by speaking truth to the corruption and immorality of this presidential administration? Will it cause Christians to address the structural problems of race in America? What will such a revival mean for the “least of these”–the poor, the immigrant, the unborn, the elderly? How might such a revival inspire Christians to care for the creation?  Or will this be a Christian nationalist and capitalist revival? Or perhaps it will be solely a pietistic revival, with little effect on sin-infested social institutions and practices.

N.T. Wright has been a lodestar for me during this series.  Here Wright in The Day the Revolution Began:

True, in recent years several thinkers have made a distinction between ‘mission’ (the broadest view of the church’s task in the world) and ‘evangelism’ (the more specific task of telling people about Jesus’s death and resurrection and what it means for them); but the word ‘mission’ is still used in the narrower sense as well, often referring to specific events such as weeklong ‘evangelistic rally.’  Part of my aim in this book has been to widen the scope of the ‘mission’ based on what Jesus did on the cross without losing its central and personal focus. I hope it is clear, in fact, that this task of telling people about Jesus remains vital. But I have also been arguing that the early Christian message is not well summarized by saying that Jesus died so that we can go to heaven  That way of looking at the gospel and mission both shrinks and distorts what the Bible actually teaches. It ignores Jesus’s claim to be launching God’s kingdom ‘on earth as in heaven’ and to be bringing that work to its climax precisely on the cross. It ignores the New Testament’s emphasis on the true human vocation, to be ‘image-bearers,’ reflecting God’s glory into the world and the praises of creation back to God.” (p.356-357)

According to Wright, the vocation of the image-bearing Christian extends beyond Christian Right talking points.

Finally, in point three of his message, “engage the church,” Graham talks about how the church grew in numbers, prayed together, and studied the scripture. This is good. But it is also a pretty selective view of Acts 2. For example, Graham fails to mention Acts  2:42-47:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.  Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.  All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts,  praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

What might this passage mean in the larger context of debates over the opening of a capitalist economy defined by individual accumulation of property and possessions? How might this passage in Acts relate to the “spiritual awakening” Graham believes is coming to America and the world?

I have been reading Eugene McCarraher‘s provocative book The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity. In his discussion of early 20th-century businessman Edward Filene, McCarraher writes, “‘The right and power to buy must lead to a great new religious awakening,’ Filene proclaimed, ‘a religious experience such as humanity has never had an opportunity to know before.”

If Trump managed to make it through the entire service, he learned that his attempts to open-up the economy will lead to a religious awakening that will make America great again and secure him the evangelical votes he needs in November.

Three Sundays in April (Part 3)

pastor-robert-jeffress

If you had thirty minutes to say something to the most powerful man in the world, what would you say?

This is how I started our short series titled “Three Sundays in April.”

On April 12, 2020, Donald Trump watched the Easter Sunday service at Robert Jeffress‘s First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas. What did he hear?

Jeffress, at age 64, is younger than Greg Laurie (the subject of Part 2 in our series), but he is much more traditional. I don’t think I have ever seen him without a suit and tie. His hair is cut short. He carries a big Bible. And his church has a robed choir.

While Jeffress has long-been a celebrity in Southern Baptist circles, I had never heard of him until he made national headlines during the 2012 presidential campaign. In October 2011, Jeffress was in Washington D.C. to introduce Texas governor Rick Perry at the annual Values Voters Summit. After he completed his introduction, Jeffress told reporters that Mitt Romney, one of Perry’s opponents in the GOP primaries and a practicing Mormon, did not deserve the votes of evangelical Christians because he was a member of a cult.

After a little research, I learned that this was not the first political stunt Jeffress has pulled. He has always loved the limelight. In May 1998, while serving as the pastor of the Wichita Falls (TX) Baptist Church, Jeffress led a protest against the Wichita Falls Public Library for acquiring books titled Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate. After a member of his congregation checked these books out of the library and showed them to Jeffress, the pastor wrote a check for $54.00, sent it to the library, and vowed never to return the books. According to the Associated Press, the plan backfired.

In December 2010, his third year at First Baptist-Dallas, Jeffress created a website–grinchalert.com–to shame local stores that advertised using “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” There was a place on the website where readers could add a store to the “naughty list.” Jeffress appeared on CNN to defend his antics.

Today, Jeffress can be seen regularly on Fox News and Fox Business News. If there is an opportunity for a Trump photo-op with evangelical leaders, Jeffress is on the first plane from Dallas Washington D.C.  We have covered him extensively here at the blog and I wrote about him in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. In addition to his role as a pastor of a large congregation, Jeffress is a culture warrior–a political operative who wants to restore the United States to its supposed Christian roots.

Jeffress grew-up in First Baptist Church-Dallas, a flagship congregation in the Southern Baptist Convention with a long history of racial segregation and Jim Crow. This history, it is worth noting, is absent in a series videos created for the church’s 150th anniversary in 2018. One of the videos extols former pastor W.A. Criswell, one of the most famous Southern Baptist preachers of the 20th century and a segregationist, as a “champion” of “race and family values.” Criswell led Jeffress to faith in Jesus when the current pastor was a five-year-old boy. Jeffress was baptized, married, and ordained in the church. First Baptist-Dallas was the site of his first sermon.

After graduating from Baylor University, Jeffress completed a Master of Theology degree at Dallas Theological Seminary, one of the bastions of dispensational theology in America. This was an unusual choice for a young Southern Baptist. Most aspiring ministerial candidates in Texas attended Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dallas Theological Seminary is non-denominational. In 2003, Jeffress said that his ordination council “grilled” him about his decision to attend this seminary. He claimed he went to Dallas Theological Seminary because he was attracted to the work of Christian Education professor and Bible teacher Howard Hendricks.

While at Dallas Theological Seminary, Jeffress imbibed the “end times” theology that has informed his numerous popular books, including Twilight’s Last Gleaming: How America’s Last Days Can Be Your Best Days, Countdown to Apocalypse: Why ISIS and Ebola are Only the Beginning, and A Place Called Heaven.  Like Greg Laurie, Jeffress thinks that believers will one day meet God in the air as part of an imminent rapture. Those remaining on earth after the rapture will live through seven years of tribulation before Jesus returns with his saints (the true believers raptured seven years earlier) to establish a millennial kingdom. According to this view of biblical prophecy, Jews will eventually return to Israel, rebuild the temple, and accept Jesus as their Messiah. This explains why Jeffress believes Donald Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was important. God is using Trump to advance His purposes and prepare the world for the last days through the president’s contribution to the restoration of His ancient “capital” city.

When Donald Trump pointed his web browser toward First Baptist-Dallas on Easter morning, he was met with a hearty welcome from Jeffress:

Today I’d like to say welcome to a very special guest visitor, a great friend of mine, our great president Donald Trump. Mr. President, we’re so honored that you would choose to worship with us today. And I know there are millions and millions of Christians all over this country who are not only grateful for you, but they are praying for you regularly for that continued wisdom that comes from God as you navigate us through this crisis we’re in. We are going to get through this, we are going to make it to the other side, but we want you to know we are praying for you.

After his message to Trump, Jeffress introduces the First Baptist choir and orchestra. He tells his listeners that these songs were recorded before social distancing guidelines went into place. The choir begins with the classic Easter hymn, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” I am not sure when this music was recorded because the sanctuary is full. Is this from last year’s Easter service? Did the church hold a mock Easter service sometime before the quarantine? I’m not going to try to figure this out. Whatever the case, the music sounded great and it is very appropriate and uplifting for Easter.

When Jeffress comes back on the feed, ready to preach, he offers yet another welcome to Trump. Before he starts his sermon, he says: “Mr. President, our church absolutely loves you.” He adds: “We appreciate your strong articulation of the Christian faith. I’ve never heard a stronger affirmation of faith than the one you gave Friday, Good Friday, in the Oval Office. We thank you for your commitment to religious liberty.”

I have no doubt that Robert Jeffress has preached a version of this sermon every Easter Sunday of his ministerial career. From the perspective of Christian orthodoxy, there was nothing controversial about it. Jeffress focused on the empty tomb, Jesus’s victory over death, and the future resurrection of believers. This is pretty basic Easter fare. He did not mention Trump and he did not talk about politics (although he did take a few shots at liberal theologians who deny Jesus’s bodily resurrection).

But like Laurie on Palm Sunday, Jeffress only got it half right. He failed to mention that Jesus’s resurrection initiated the Kingdom of God. He failed to note that those who embrace the Christian Gospel are citizens of this Kingdom and are thus called to practice a form of citizenship defined by New Testament ethics.

Recently, through my reading of the works of Oxford University New Testament scholar and theologian N.T. Wright, I have been reflecting on the political nature of the Kingdom of God. As I wrote in my last post in this series, the members of this Kingdom must speak truth to the principalities and powers of this world. Citizens of the Kingdom should respect government authority, but must also call the ruling powers to task when it is appropriate. As we read in the New Testament Book of Acts, the earliest Christians found the courage to challenge the authorities of their day through the power of Jesus’s resurrection and the conviction of the Holy Spirit.

Here is part of Wright’s commentary on on 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, a passage that directly connects the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ to the Kingdom that this resurrection initiated:

We should not ignore the political overtones of this, another letter to a Roman colony. The whole paragraph is about the Messiah through whose “kingdom” (basileia) the one true God will overthrow all other authorities and rulers. “Resurrection,” as in Pharisaic thought, belongs firmly within kingdom-of-god theology; and every first-century Jew knew that kingdom-of-God theology carried inescapable political meaning. The present “ordering” (tagma) of society places Caesar at the top, his agents in the middle, and ordinary people at the bottom; the creator’s new ordering will have himself at the top, the Messiah–and his people, as in [1 Corinthians] 6:2 and elsewhere!–in the middle, and the world as a whole underneath, not however exploited and oppressed but rescued and restored, given the freedom which comes with the wise rule of the creator, his Messiah, and his image-bearing subjects. This passage thus belongs with Romans 8, Philippians 2:6-11 and 3:20-21, as, simultaneously, a classic exposition of the creator God’s plan to rescue the creation, and a coded but powerful reminder to the young church, living in Caesar’s world, that Jesus was lord and that at his name every knee would bow. (N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 337-338).

Jeffress misses this dimension of the Easter story. For him, Easter is all about Christians getting to heaven. But the Easter message has both “on earth” and “as it is heaven” dimensions. And one day, as the hymn-writer says, “earth and Heav’n [will be] be one.

Jeffress’s theology leaves no place for the church to speak truth to power. This approach to Easter is pretty common among American evangelicalism. As we will see in our next post in this series, too many evangelical churches offer a kind of cheap grace that measures results in the “decisions” people make–decisions, they believe, that will secure a place for them in heaven.  As a result, the church does not connect the resurrection power of Jesus to the task of social, cultural, and political engagement beyond abortion, religious liberty, and other Christian Right favorites.

Yes, Donald Trump, the most powerful man in the world, needs to hear about saving faith and eternal life in Jesus. (Unless, as many court evangelicals have suggested, he is already “saved”). But Easter is also about the announcement of Jesus as a ruler who will one day topple all the empires of the world. It is time that the evangelical church, especially during Eastertide, reminds the president of this theological reality.

Three Sundays in April (Part Two)

Greg Laurie-01

If you had thirty minutes to say something to the most powerful man in the world, what would you say?

This is how I started our short series titled “Three Sundays in April.”

On April 5, 2020, Donald Trump announced that he would be watching the Palm Sunday service at Greg Laurie‘s Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California. What did he hear?

Laurie is 67-years old, but he still exudes California cool. He is always tan and he usually makes appearances in blue jeans, denim or leather jackets, sun glasses, and sneakers. (Imagine a member of Beach Boys getting “saved” and forming a megachurch!) In my early days as an evangelical Christian, I used to listen to Laurie on the radio. If I remember correctly, my local Christian station scheduled his program between John MacArthur’s “Grace to You” and James Dobson’s “Focus on the Family.” I liked Laurie because he seasoned his sermons with jokes and popular culture references. (He has written inspirational books about Johnny Cash and Steve McQueen). Over the years, Laurie has successfully cultivated his brand. According to one website, he has a net worth of $20 million. Preaching the Gospel has been good to him.

Laurie’s biography and spiritual journey is also a part of his appeal. He was born in Long Beach, California. As he wrote in his memoir, Lost Boy, he came from a very dysfunctional home. He was raised by a single mother who was married seven times. Laurie has described her as a “raging alcoholic” who looked like Marilyn Monroe. In high school, Laurie tried to satisfy his search for meaning with drugs until, at the age of 17, he found God through the controversial ministry of charismatic “hippie” preacher Lonnie Frisbee. This led Laurie into the Jesus People Movement and he quickly came under the influence of Calvary Chapel’s Chuck Smith, the balding middle-aged pastor often considered the leader of the movement in Southern California. Laurie led a Bible study at a local Episcopalian church that eventually grew into Harvest Christian Fellowship. Today the church reaches more than 15,000 people at four different campuses, including one in Maui, Hawaii.

Laurie speaks often of the religious revival he witnessed during the early years of Southern California’s Jesus People Movement. He wrote about it in his 2008 co-authored book Jesus Revolution: How God Transformed an Unlikely Generation and How He Can Do It Again Today. Led by Smith and Frisbee, California hippies were turning away from acid and sex and becoming followers of Jesus Christ. People were getting “saved” and Smith, Frisbee and others were holding massive baptisms in the Pacific Ocean. Influenced deeply by what he saw and experienced, Laurie would pursue a dual, but closely related, calling as a pastor and an evangelist.

With Smith’s guidance, Laurie began leading mass evangelistic events–Billy Graham-style crusades– in Anaheim Stadium. He called them “Harvest Crusades.” In 2016, The Los Angeles Times reported that over 500,000 people had made professions of faith during these events. These crusades also reveal the close connection between evangelical culture, spectacle, and consumerism. Laurie is a master marketer. In their book, Finding Faith: The Spiritual Quest of the Post-Boomer Generation, scholars Richard Flory and Donald Miller visited a Harvest crusade and noted the sale of Harvest-themed clothing, books, CDs, stickers, and pins, including a T-shirt modeled after the movie Napoleon Dynamite that said “Jesus Died for Pedro.” In 2018, the event included a freestyle motocross show.

Like most evangelical megachurches, Harvest Christian Fellowship is holding online services during the coronavirus pandemic. Laurie calls these services “Harvest at Home.”

On Palm Sunday, Laurie and his team appear on a carefully constructed set that includes a fake-brick facade covered with Laurie family photos and the revolutionary-era Pine Tree Flag inscribed with the words “An Appeal to Heaven.” (More on this below). Laurie sits front and center behind a fancy music stand. His worship band sits around him on couches and comfortable chairs. Everyone is social distancing in an appropriate fashion. On the couch to Laurie’s immediate right sits his wife Cathee and his son Jonathan. Those who designed Laurie’s set seem to be going for a look somewhere in-between a comfortable white suburban, middle-class living room and a hip urban coffeehouse. At one point Laurie refers to the set as the “front room.”

This is what Donald Trump saw when he live-streamed Laurie’s Palm Sunday service on April 5, 2020. Before the service began, Laurie welcomed Trump:

I want to welcome a very special guest to our service today and he happens to be the President of the United States. Mr. President, thank you for joining us. And thank you for talking about the importance of the church in your press conferences. I know had mentioned earlier [that] it was your hope that maybe we would be meeting in person on Easter and unfortunately that has not worked out. But the amazing thing is that we are able to reach a lot of people now online. Since we started this online experience we’ve seen our numbers explode and in the last few weeks we’ve had over a million people watch us. And I think that’s because Americans are looking for hope, they’re looking for answers, and their looking for truth. And I am so glad that you know how important that the church is. President Trump I want you to know that we are praying for you and for the Vice President as he heads up this COVID-19 Task Force. We’re praying that this coronavirus comes to an end and we’re able to get out again to our churches, and to our businesses, and into the wonderful life we all enjoy as Americans.

Laurie is right. People are looking for hope, answers, and truth during this pandemic. Indeed, the Gospel can provide hope, answers, and truth. But why did Laurie talk about how God can meet these needs in the context of a welcome message to a president who offers little hope, few answers, and endless lies? Why compromise the Gospel message on Palm Sunday in this way? I wonder how many people immediately checked-out at this point.

The service begins with Christian artist Phil Wickham leading an acoustic performance of the praise song “Hosanna.” This song, of course, points the audience to Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The Gospel of John describes Jesus riding into the city on a donkey in fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9. The “great crowd” that gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover festival waved palms and sang, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

After a prayer and several more songs, Laurie delivers his sermon. He begins by complaining about those who are not properly social distancing and others who are hoarding toilet paper. He encourages his online flock to be “selfless, not selfish.” We are off to a good start.

For Laurie, and for nearly all Christians, the story of Palm Sunday points us to Jesus’s death on the cross on Good Friday. This understanding of Christ’s sacrifice, according to the dominant evangelical view of the atonement, teaches that Jesus’s death satisfied the wrath of God. Someone needed to be punished for the sins of the world and God chose his own son to die in our place. It is now up to individual men and women to repent of their sin and accept God’s gift of salvation accomplished through Jesus’s death. When people accept Christ as Savior, and truly believe it, they will receive eternal life in heaven. It is this gospel message that drives Laurie’s entire ministry–both as a pastor and an evangelist.

It also drives Laurie’s eschatology, or his view of the “end times.” Like his mentor Chuck Smith, and like most of the Jesus Movement that surrounded Calvary Chapel in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Laurie believes that true Christians–those who have accepted Jesus as Savior–will one day be removed from the earth through an event known as the rapture. In this view, Palm Sunday points us to Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Those who believe in the atoning death of Jesus Christ and his bodily resurrection from the dead will one day be raptured and join God in heaven. Those left on earth still have an opportunity to accept Jesus as Savior, but they will need to endure seven years of “tribulation.” This will be a time when Satan will rule the earth through the Antichrist until Jesus comes back again (the so-called “Second Coming) with all those who were raptured earlier. Jesus will defeat the forces of evil and will reign on the earth for 1000 years before all true believers finally go to heaven where they will spend eternity with God. Theologians call this eschatological scheme dispensational premillennialism. According to American historian Larry Eskridge, our best interpreter of the Jesus People Movement,  Laurie’s generation was exposed to this teaching by reading Hal Lindsey’s best-selling book The Late Great Planet Earth.

Laurie’s view of the cross and eschatology explains the rhetorical move he makes six minutes into his Palm Sunday online sermon. He stops and invites those listening at home to accept Jesus as Savior:

Now I’m going to do something I don’t normally do. Usually, if you listen to me you know that at the end of my message I will extend an invitation for people to believe in Jesus. And I am going to do that at the end of the message, but I am gonna do it right now, and I’ll tell you why: cause I’m talking to somebody right now that is scared, somebody that is afraid of the afterlife, somebody who is not sure that their life is right with God. And I’m gonna tell you right now, if you want God to forgive you of your sin, if you want to know that you’ll go to heaven when you die, if you want to be sure Jesus is living inside of you, right now I’m gonna lead you in a prayer, and I’ll do it again at the end of the message because sometimes people tune out early and they tune in late….

Laurie knows Trump is watching. He knows that Trump has a short attention span. He also realizes that Trump’s announcement that he would be “attending” Laurie’s service on this day has put him and his message in front of more viewers than usual. Laurie wants to make sure those viewers, including Trump, are right with God. This, he believes, is the best message he could ever deliver to a President of the United States.

It is at this point in the sermon that Laurie merges his passion for evangelism and spiritual revival (forged during his “Jesus Revolution” days) with his Christian nationalism. He makes a few references to the “Kingdom of God.” For Laurie, the Kingdom of God is spiritual in nature. One day, sometime after the Great Tribulation, God will establish an earthly kingdom, but for now the Kingdom of God rests in the “hearts of men and women” who believe Jesus has died for them on the cross. This view of the Kingdom allows Laurie to move freely into a version of Christian nationalism. If the Kingdom of God is solely spiritual, then it is not the kind of kingdom that earthly powers should worry about. Its citizens, in other words, are tasked with preaching the Gospel and getting people into heaven. Christians, as members of God’s Kingdom, are not tasked with speaking truth to power. In this sense, Laurie’s Kingdom is not really a kingdom at all. It is not a rival or an alternative to the other kingdoms of the world, in this case, the United States of America.

Laurie says, “when God wants to send a spiritual awakening to a nation it starts first with his people.” He quotes 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people which are called by name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and forgive their sins, and heal their land.” There is nothing inherently wrong with preaching this verse, but for the past couple of decades the Christian Right has been applying it to the United States of America. Mike Pence has been making subtle references to this verse during the White House coronavirus press briefings when he ends his prepared remarks with the phrase “heal our land.” In 2016, Southern Baptist theologian Russell Moore addressed the Christian nationalist’s misuse of this verse. (It is worth noting here that Laurie’s church recently became a member of the Southern Baptist Convention).

Laurie connects his use of 2 Chronicles 7:14 with his desire for another Great Awakening. Evangelicals, of course, should all be praying for spiritual revival in the life of the churches. But when one tries to connect prayers for revival to American exceptionalism, or the idea that one day God will restore or reclaim America’s Christian roots and “heal” the country through such a revival, he is on shaky historical and theological ground. Laurie is already on record, in a talk at The White House, trying to connect the First Great Awakening of the 18th century to American nationalism, a lesson he seems to have learned straight from the Eric Metaxas playbook. (He also does it here). And now, in his Palm Sunday sermon, he links spiritual revival and American nationalism to the “Appeal to Heaven” flag hanging on the wall behind him. He says that George Washington, who commissioned the flag, understood that our only hope to become a nation was by the intervention of God.” Historically, as I have written about before, the relationship between Christianity and the American founding was a very complicated one. For Laurie, “heal our land” connects spiritual revival with a movement to return to some kind of Christian golden age in American history. But I am not sure such an age ever existed. Laurie’s use of “heal our land” is the evangelical version of “Make America Great Again.”

Should Laurie call for a spiritual revival in this time of anxiety? Yes. Should he use American history to do it? No.

Here is a thought: what if a spiritual awakening led Christians to take-up their Kingdom of God duties as related to justice and sacrificial love? What if such a revival called immoral political leaders to task? What if such a revival resulted in mass baptisms in the Pacific Ocean and a call to fight for the least of these (yes, this would include the unborn as well as the poor, the immigrant, and the suffering)? What if such an awakening resulted in persecution?

Laurie continues to move through the story of Holy Week by referencing Jesus overturning the tables of the money-changers in the Jewish temple. During this scene, we learn about God’s “righteous indignation” against the religious leaders who are using the temple for immoral and materialistic purposes. Laurie also takes this opportunity to teach us that Jesus was a “man’s man” who was strong enough to overturn tables. If the Kingdom of God is merely in our hearts, then the lesson we learn from Jesus clearing the temple has something to do with righteous anger and masculinity. But if Jesus was really inaugurating his Kingdom on Palm Sunday, then he must, in a now-but-not-yet sense, already be King. And we, as members of the kingdom by faith through the power of the Holy Spirit–followers of Jesus–should be carrying-out that kingdom through lives defined by love, mercy, and justice. Again, a kingdom is a political community.  Though Jesus’ Kingdom will not reach its fullness until His return, Christians, as citizens of this Kingdom, still have responsibilities to contribute to its advancement by living in accordance with Christian ethics (the Sermon on the Mount comes to mind) and speaking truth to the existing kingdoms of this world.

When Jesus entered the Temple during what today we call Holy Week he was challenging both the religious and political authorities of Israel. When he stood before Pilate in John 18-19 he told this imperial official that the Roman Empire is no longer in control. It has been defeated. Yes, God in his sovereignty will allow this empire to run its course (just like he will allow future empires to run their courses), but all man-made empires will one day be replaced by the Messiah’s Kingdom of justice, peace, and love. (This is the essence of Christian hope). Until then, it is the responsibility of citizens of this Kingdom to remind the leaders of the world that God is in control, not them. When the leaders of the world fail to advance policies that care for sick, help the poor, and alleviate suffering, citizens of the Kingdom must speak.

What if Laurie added this interpretation of Holy Week to his Palm Sunday message? What kind of message would such a sermon send to the most powerful man in the world and the millions listening online?

As a historian, when I listen to Laurie I am reminded of just how much the Jesus People Movement broke with the larger youth counterculture of the 1960s. Yes, the kids who flocked to Chuck Smith dressed like hippies and had long hair, but that seems to be where the comparison ends. None of the social commitments of the secular counterculture–the rejection of materialism, the opposition to war, the concern for justice–seem to have translated to this wing of the Jesus People Movement. Laurie’s “Jesus Revolution” was only revolutionary in a spiritual sense. Yes, the Gospel’s capacity to change and transform lives can be revolutionary, as it was for Laurie himself as a “lost” Southern California kid and as it was for me in the 1980s. Jesus died for our sins and we wait in expectant hope for what Revelation 20 and 21 describes as a “new heaven” and a “new earth.” But when we embrace Jesus’s saving work on the cross we are also signing-up as citizens of His Kingdom–a Kingdom that requires a sense of social and political responsibility that extends well beyond the fight for religious liberty and the overturning of Roe v. Wade. It requires us to speak truth to power in all its forms.

Lurie only got it half right on Palm Sunday. And because he only got it half right, our corrupt president, assuming he watched the entire service, never gained a full understanding of what Jesus was proclaiming during Holy Week and why such a message might cause him to tremble.

Three Sundays in April (Part 1)

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If you had thirty minutes to say something to the most powerful man in the world, what would you say?

Three evangelical ministers–Greg Laurie, Robert Jeffress, and Jack Graham–had this opportunity during the Easter season.

On Palm Sunday, Donald Trump, the President of the United States, tweeted that he would be tuning-in to religious services at Laurie’s Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California.  The following week, Trump said he would be watching Easter Sunday services at Jeffress’s First Baptist Church–Dallas. Finally, the Sunday following Easter, Trump said he would be watching Graham’s service at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas.

Presidents have visited churches for a long time.  In Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical IntroductionI told the story of George Washington’s regular visits to Christ Church in Philadelphia. Rev. James Abercrombie, the assistant rector of the church, was not happy about the fact that the first president was in the habit of leaving Sunday services before Communion was served. Abercrombie decided to preach a sermon , with Washington present, against those in “elevated stations who uniformly turned their backs upon the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.” Washington apparently acknowledged the rebuke, but never again attended services at Christ Church on Sundays when Communion was served.

Today we do not have to rely on Abercrombie’s memory.  In this age of the Internet and live-streaming, we get to watch the same service the president is watching and hear exactly what the preacher has to say to him.

Did Trump watch these services because he wanted to feed his soul during the Easter season? Perhaps. Did Trump want to show his support for his most loyal evangelical supporters during this time of coronavirus quarantining and social distancing? Probably.  Did Trump want to “attend” these services to solidify his evangelical base as the November election approaches?  Absolutely.

What did Trump hear during these services? Or more importantly for the series of posts I hope to write here over the next week, what did these ministers of the Gospel say to Trump? All three of these ministers had the chance to proclaim the message of Easter to the president. Though Trump has a short attention span, let’s just assume that he gave his full attention to these services.  How does what these ministers said in the (virtual) presence of their special guest provide us with insight into the current state of American evangelicalism?

Stay tuned.