My policy has usually been to preach anywhere if given the opportunity. Why wouldn’t you bring the gospel anywhere you can? Still, I’m not sure if I would have accepted the invitation to preach at this church if I’d known ahead of time what kind of church it was. I do have some limits. But there I was and God made it work out in a surprising, almost funny, way.
It was 2008. The church I was serving in Canada had a couple of members who were working at an orphanage in Mexico. The elders had me go down there for a visit to see how these members were doing and provide some teaching/encouragement. Also, a neighbouring congregation was interested in doing mission work in Mexico and they asked me to scout out this particular city for opportunities to do Reformed church-planting. This wasn’t going to be a holiday at the beach – the city in question is in the dead-centre of Mexico, about as far away from a beach as you can possibly get.
Before leaving, I’d been told by one of the members that I might have the opportunity to preach at a church or two in Mexico. So I made sure that I took some sermon notes with me – just in case. Pastors often have their favourite sermons – we call them “sugar sticks.” Without thinking much about it, I just took one of my sugar sticks with me.
Towards the end of my stay in Mexico, sure enough, I was invited to preach at a church. It was just a small congregation located in one of the poorest suburbs of this city. As we pulled up to the building, it was hard to tell that it was even a church building. Actually, it wasn’t. It was just someone’s house and the church worshipped in a room at the back. The “house” was just a rough brick structure. By the time we arrived, the sun had gone down and a few electric light bulbs dimly lit the space. In the worship space, the walls were painted a gaudy pink and a large yellow poster dominated the front wall. At the center of the poster was a cross with the word “Cristo” running across the horizontal beam. At this point, I thought this was just your run-of-the-mill Mexican evangelical church.
After everyone was seated in the white plastic chairs, the pastor took his place behind the pulpit. Actually, if memory serves me correctly, he was the junior pastor, the son of the senior pastor. The pulpit was just a little lectern sitting on top of a table with a pink and yellow table-cloth (nicely matching the walls). That evening, the gringo contingent was not only me, but also a group from Manitoba volunteering at the orphanage. To ensure that all of us could understand, there was a translator who could do both Spanish-English and vice-versa. She’d also translate my preaching into Spanish.
The service started off with some singing in Spanish. There was no band, no musical instruments at all, so the singing was done a cappella. That’s how you know this was a super-poor church. After the singing, the pastor started speaking. Through the translator, we found out that there was about to be a collection. This is where it became obvious. The pastor said something like, “Do you want to know why you’re poor? Do you want to know why you live in this neighbourhood and we have to worship like this? It’s because you don’t have enough faith. You have to sow the seed of faith. You can do that now with the offering. If you give five pesos, God will give you ten pesos. If you give fifty pesos, God will give you one hundred pesos. You have to give in faith and then God will reward you.” Then I knew what kind of church this was. Even though it was in a poor neighbourhood, this was a prosperity-gospel church.
What is the prosperity-gospel? Though it started in the United States, it’s a global phenomenon. I’ve encountered it everywhere. It’s most well-known representatives are people like Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, Creflo Dollar, and Kenneth Copeland. They teach that the good news of the Bible is that God wants to make us prosper here on this earth. They teach that Jesus Christ is all about our prosperity here and now. If you suffer, it’s because you don’t have enough faith. If you trust God enough, you can name whatever blessing you want, and he’ll give it to you. This is a total perversion of the biblical gospel.
And there I was in a prosperity-gospel church in Mexico. The offering concluded and then Pastor Wes from Canada was invited to come up and share his message. I hadn’t planned on what I’d preach. I didn’t select the message ahead of time thinking that this would be appropriate for this particular church. But there I was and I asked everyone to open their Bibles to the text for my sermon: Psalm 73.
Psalm 73 has Asaph in a bind. He sees a problem that confounds him: the wicked prosper, while the righteous believer suffers. He can’t make sense of it and it threatens to undo his faith. After finally coming to the temple and seeing the sacrificial system in action with all its blood and death, he’s reminded that the wages of sin is ultimately death. The wicked may prosper here, the righteous may suffer, but God is just. The suffering believer can trust in him. You can read my sermon notes on this passage here.
Well, as you can imagine, afterwards the pastor wasn’t just a little awkward with me. He tried to be gracious, but my sermon had undermined what he said before the offering. I didn’t have to mention the prosperity-gospel. I didn’t have to mention the pastor’s error. I didn’t plan on that ahead of time and I didn’t. I just preached what I’d prepared and God’s Word spoke for itself. There’s a lovely word that describes what happened: serendipity. It was pure serendipity. Often that word is used for a “pleasant chance happening.” But this wasn’t by chance! God had it all marvelously planned out ahead of time.
Now I wish I could end the story by telling you that my sermon was the turning point for this little church being led down the garden path. Truth is, I don’t know. I often think about those poor people in that church. They weren’t just physically poor — they were getting stones for bread from their pastors. I pray that they heard something different from the Bible that night that made them think. Maybe the pastor had second thoughts too. Two things I know for sure: first, God is providentially in control of all things; second, if change is ever going to happen with people deceived by the prosperity “gospel,” it’ll happen through the Word of God.