It’s greatly concerning to learn that during the very period the church has most aggressively pursued a strategy that emphasizes growth in numbers, it has also seen continued and exponential decline in size.
In a previous post, I compared this situation with the American policy of relying on body counts during the Vietnam War. As Ken Burns’ recent documentary series points out, while the body count made it look as though the US was winning the war, they were in fact heading toward certain defeat. That was in part because of the American inability to win the hearts and minds of the people of South Vietnam.
Not that the USA didn’t know this at the time. They had instituted an operation called “Winning Hearts and Minds” (yep, the acronym is WHAM) to pacify the increasingly disillusioned South Vietnamese. After all, there was no point killing more North Vietnamese forces if the very people you’re fighting for – the South – despise you.
As we now know, that was exactly the situation.
American ignorance and arrogance put the South Vietnamese off-side from the beginning. So did their support for a corrupt and incompetent South Vietnamese government. But one of the greatest problems for Operation WHAM was the immorality of the American GIs.
Saigon was turned into a cesspool of prostitution and drug-taking. The South Vietnamese president begged the Americans to clean up the city and the US army responded with Operation MOOSE (Move Out Of Saigon Expeditiously), where soldiers were stationed in camps outside the city. It didn’t work. The Americans were telling the South they were there to help them build a better society while showing no evidence of it themselves.
Could it be that while the church is busy counting members or attendees, we are losing the hearts and minds of our nation?
Instead of counting butts on pews, maybe the church should start counting the cost of not embodying the values we are trying to promote to our broader society. Several recent stories could be submitted as evidence.
Sexual Abuse: Andy Savage and Highpoint Church
Twenty years ago, as a youth pastor, Andy Savage coerced a teenager under his care to participate in sexual activity with him. The victim Jules Woodson has said that Savage became remorseful immediately after the incident, apologizing and begging her to keep quiet about the whole thing. She claimed that the church also instructed her to say nothing.
Savage moved on. Today he is the teaching pastor at Highpoint Church, a megachurch in Memphis.
Woodson did not move on. Unable to live with her silence any longer, she recently reached out to Savage, triggering him to make a preemptive public confession of what he termed a “sexual incident” to his congregation. He didn’t deny any of the story, and expressed contrition for his behavior, and for this, his church gave him a standing ovation.
The standing ovation heard around the world, as Ed Stetzer called it.
How are we meant to win the hearts and minds of secular society when congregations of Christian people give abusers standing ovations. To quote Ed Stetzer again, “No one should ever receive a standing ovation when it comes to alleged abuse—unless it’s directed at a victim with the courage to speak out.”
Whatever you may think about Andy Savage’s behavior 20 years ago, or his treatment of Ms Woodson since, that congregational ovation just lost us a lot of hearts and minds.
Unreasonable force: Reggie Hilts
Reggie Hilts is a pastor at The Sanctuary of Worship church in Louisiana. He supplements his income by working as a sergeant with the Abbeville City Marshal’s Office. He was on duty recently during a heated school board meeting where English teacher Deyshia Hargrave was asking why the superintendent had received a raise when lowly paid teachers and support staff have not. The board clearly didn’t want to answer uncomfortable questions like that and asked her to sit down. But, as is her right, Ms Hargrave persisted in her questioning.
That’s when Pastor Reggie Hilts stepped in.
The video of him manhandling the English teacher from the meeting, slamming her into a wall, throwing her to the floor, handcuffing her, and marching her out of the building, went viral.
It has since come to light that Hilts was previously sued by a 62-year-old man who claimed Hilts slammed him head first onto the concrete, cutting his head and fracturing his ribs.
Deyshia Hargrave has stated that she holds no animosity toward Hilts and won’t be suing, and the school board didn’t press any charges against her for speaking out at the meeting (nor should they). However, it looks pretty bad when a man whose own church website speaks of him being filled with the Holy Spirit, and devoted to “much prayer and fasting,” behaves this way. Especially toward an award-winning teacher exercising her democratic right to free speech at a public meeting. What on earth got into him?
I’m not suggesting Christians can’t work in law enforcement, but it was totally unacceptable for Pastor Hilts to use such unreasonable force against a woman who was not resisting him.
More hearts and minds lost.
Xenophobia: Robert Jeffress
President Donald Trump has incurred a great deal of public criticism for his alleged reference to Haiti and certain African nations as “shithole countries” from which America should not accept immigrants. This follows his campaign statements that Mexico was sending criminals and rapists to America, his attempted Muslim travel ban, as well as his too-soft denunciation of neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, and his retweeting of libellous and racist videos from the Britain First group. Recently, his decision to end Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for 200,000 Salvadoran immigrants has created enormous anxiety across the country.
What is a man of God to do in light of this behavior?
Well, it seems the president can always count on the support of the pastor of First Baptist Dallas, Robert Jeffress. Right on cue, Jeffress has waded in to endorse Mr Trump’s views: “Apart from the vocabulary attributed to him, President Trump is right on target in his sentiment.” According to Jeffress, while Christians do have a duty to “place the needs of others above our own,” that doesn’t extend to the president.
When megachurch pastors stand alongside former Ku Klux Klan leaders, white supremacists and Alt-Right frontmen in praising Mr Trump for these statements, we can be sure people are questioning whether the church embodies the values of Christ anymore. As Howard Snyder has written, “Many Evangelicals have forgotten the meaning of apostasy, which means not heresy but departing from the Gospel in practice and/or belief. The opposite of apostleship and discipleship.”
I don’t know Andy Savage, Reggie Hilts or Robert Jeffress personally. They are my brothers in Christ. They might be great guys, for all I know. But when the church, or its representatives are in the news for incidents of sexual abuse, excessive force against a woman, or the endorsement of xenophobia, you know it’s been a bad week in the battle to win the hearts and minds of everyday people.
When US forces in Vietnam attempted operations like WHAM and MOOSE they failed miserably. The rot had set in. And once they lost the confidence of the South Vietnamese there was no way to win it back.
We can only pray the church in the West hasn’t passed the point of no return in winning the hearts and minds of their neighbors too.