A friend of mine asked my opinion yesterday about another man’s ministry. This preacher has a gigantic church. He writes books. His services are broadcast on radio and television. What right do I have to critique his ministry? What criteria should I use to evaluate him?
By all outward signs, the world would judge this man as successful. In a consumer culture, however, popularity almost always equates with success. This standard would render most pastors in America as less than successful, since statistics cluster between 70% and 80% for churches in the U.S. with attendance of 100 or less.
Most of these churches serve communities with small populations, so one could hardly expect them to achieve a list of the 100 largest churches in America. The next benchmark for success in these cases would be growth. Is the church growing? How fast is it growing? Once again, numbers determine the measure of the church’s (and pastor’s) success.
God gave specific instructions to Israel for sizing up those who claimed to be God’s prophets. He warned them that a man might predict a sign or wonder and it may come to pass, but the sign or wonder did not finally constitute a prophet of the true God. If that prophet encouraged Israel to follow any god other than the God of Israel, the people should reject the prophet. He was not sent by the true God. (Deuteronomy 13:1-3)
Of course, if someone who professed prophetic status predicted some event in the future that did not occur, he clearly failed the test. God told Israel that when such a man or woman made a false prediction while claiming to have spoken for God, the people should execute the false prophet. (Deuteronomy 18:20-22)
Verification for true prophets depended upon their message. The message should point people towards the one true God only. Whatever that prophet spoke in the name of God would be consistent with what God had already revealed to his people. It would not contradict his previous words or his character as he had revealed himself.
In the New Testament, the apostle Paul gave one test for determining a true messenger of Christ. He told the Galatians, “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” (Gal. 1:9) Paul claimed to have received the gospel he preached from Christ. That gospel is consistently revealed throughout his letters, particularly in Romans. It is consistent with the teachings of Jesus in the gospel accounts.
Numbers, like signs and wonders, might be an indicator that God has directed His Spirit to work mightily through the ministry of a preacher or a church. But just as miracles can be produced by the power of darkness, so can numbers be inflated for many reasons other than a response to the gospel of Scriptures.
Gifted communicators have the ability to attract large crowds. If people have any spiritual interest, they will most likely go to hear someone preach who engages them or entertains them. The message only has to incorporate spiritual themes to satisfy their curiosity.
Other speakers can achieve popularity through messages that subtly inflate the listener’s ego. Their messages center around personal happiness or success and target the inner feelings about the self. The listener will almost always feel good after listening to these preachers.
Both of these approaches can use Scriptures in their messages – plenty of Scriptures. That does not mean that their message aligns with the gospel that Jesus or Paul preached. Jesus told his followers that they had to deny themselves, become servants and be prepared to forfeit every other relationship in the world in order to follow him. Paul warned that the Christian life would be marked by hardship and suffering in order to live for Christ. These themes will never find their way into the pulpits of those preachers who only want to expand their auditoriums.
Examining the preacher really means examining his message. Does he proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus as an atonement for human sin? Does he call people to repentance and faith in the gospel alone for God’s forgiveness of sins? Does he warn people to count the cost of following Christ, because the Scriptures warn that discipleship will produce inevitable suffering? Does he consistently teach the doctrines of God rather than popular advice that appeals to the consumer psyche?
You may be squeamish about evaluating preachers, especially popular ones. Yet, you must take care that you do not find your belief system deformed by preaching that deviates from the gospel. The apostle John warned, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1) Not everyone who stands in a pulpit, who holds a Bible, who speaks with charisma, who fills his auditoriums, preaches in the Spirit of God. Test the preachers to see if they preach the gospel.