Media experts agree. It was a PR disaster.
When a spokesperson from a Houston-area megachurch said their church building—a massive former sports arena—was not available to be used as a shelter for people fleeing from the late August flood, the congregation leaders suffered an immediate backlash. Both inside and outside Christian circles, many rushed to criticize what they called “a double standard,” “a clear example of hypocrisy,” “a shameless example,” and countless other accusations.
While the church in question swiftly mounted a PR campaign to explain and extricate itself from the fallout, many felt it was too late. Going into damage control mode did not seem to solve the issue. And it took many explanations and mea culpas to get the topic finally out of newspapers and newscasts.
What most outlets did not discuss—at least not the ones I happened to check out—is how the mega-church’s first reaction might have been related to its theology, or how theology, indeed, influences our Christian praxis.
In the case of the Houston-area mega-church, after years of preaching the “prosperity gospel”—simply put, the belief that financial blessings and physical well-being are always God’s will for His children—how can you acknowledge that, in fact, Christians can also suffer loss, distress, and sorrow? How to restore your relationship with a God that—you expected—would make you nothing short of a millionaire as a reward for your faithfulness? How to explain away an ordeal which was not even a possibility in your handbook of Christian living options?
For the sake of your sanity, cognitive dissonance demands you become blind to the realities around you. It is either that or recantation.
Yes, for better or worse, theology impacts our actions. Theological presuppositions mold all that we are and wish to become. Theology drives behavior, and Adventist theology drives Adventist behavior.
Why Do We Do It?
When we see Seventh-day Adventist community services and relief ministries dashing to provide shelter, food, and comfort to people in distress around the world, we might, at times, feel a confident sense of ill-concealed superiority. The ability of our denomination to mobilize church volunteers in the aftermath of natural or human-made disasters is simply astonishing! And we feel gratified when media and governments give us at least part of the credit we think we deserve.
But again, what drives us to do it?
In her award-winning volume El mal samaritano [The Bad Samaritan], Spanish sociologist Helena Béjar dissects the rationale behind numerous charities and humanitarian enterprises. Béjar claims that deep down, most seemingly selfless undertakings hide a selfish motive—a desire for recognition, love of money, a longing for adventure, you name it.
Breaking news everywhere seem to agree with Béjar’s assessment. It is not strange to read about charity presidents who have become millionaires as they claim to serve people struggling to survive, or dubious accounting practices in organizations whose raison d’être is said to be the uplifting of humanity. Some do see charity work—in practice, if not in theory—as a means for social mobility and recognition.
As Christians and Seventh-day Adventists, we are not immune to such traps.
Unless we remember.
Following the Model
Seventh-day Adventist charity and development work stems from one encompassing principle—to advance God’s kingdom by following the example of our Lord Jesus Christ. Only against Jesus’ perfect life our often trial-and-error enterprises avoid becoming an end in themselves as we provide food, shelter, and disaster relief to the least of these.
The Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), the humanitarian arm of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, resorts to paraphrasing Jesus’ words to explain its rationale for service. “Every day, we task ourselves with finding new ways to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, and take in the stranger,” reads ADRA’s history and mission page. “As needs arise and challenges grow, we strive to realize our mission, reflecting God’s love through compassionate acts of humanitarian service.”
It is against Jesus’ selfless service that we are to measure our charitable endeavors. It is against His ultimate sacrifice that we are to assess our best-laid plans to lift humanity up.
From the start, we know that we will never measure up to the One who gave it all. And yet, there is something inherently rewarding in following Jesus’ footsteps. Because as we run to curb starvation, improve water access, and fight underdevelopment and disease, there is a 100 percent chance that we may be serving the Lord Himself.
No prosperity gospel blabber and no charity work shenanigans can give you so much for so little.