Beyond Statistics: Alberta Evangelicals’ Critical Theological Condition
So in review: I’ve argued that Alberta’s evangelical reputation is a myth stemming from largely political factors. Last week I laid out some disturbing statistics that prove Alberta is actually one of the least Christian places in Canada. The problem, as I explained last week, is twofold. First, here in Alberta people in general aren’t particularly religious anymore. And second, we don’t have enough evangelical churches in our major cities of Calgary and Edmonton.
Sadly, it gets even worse. Not only do we not have enough evangelical Christians or enough churches, but many of the churches we do have are struggling. Furthermore, even many of the seemingly stable ones are theologically unhealthy.
It’s that last point that today’s article is about. I expect this post will likely be more controversial than others. However, if we care about the strength of Christ’s church in Alberta and Canada, we need to be honest about our problems, including our theological problems—and, boy, do we have some.
I’m going to provide three examples that illustrate the deep theological crisis Alberta’s churches are facing today.
GIVING A “HELLBOUND” HERESY A PLATFORM
An incident that occurred last year provides an instructive, though deeply saddening, example of the poor theological health of Calgary’s churches. A Christian theatre company in Calgary welcomed, promoted and screened Kevin Miller’s reprehensible film “Hellbound?” (a film I reviewed and responded to at our church blog). In this movie, the filmmaker not only commits heresy–as it denies the biblical teaching about eternal punishment for the wicked–but also commits slander, as the film goes out of its way to associate orthodox Christians with the nutcases at Westboro Baptist Church. Now, the mere fact that someone made a heretical film isn’t that surprising; after all, books that promote bad theology are written every day, and we’re bound to get some bad films as well. And the film wasn’t made here in Alberta. So why does it matter in this discussion? Well, what’s particularly disappointing is the fact that local evangelical Christians actually promoted and supported the film.
Even more worrying is what we learn when we take a brief look at the theatre company’s “About Us” page, which has information about the education and church involvement of its directors and staff. Note that (and this is critical) these are the people whose responsibility it is to oversee the theatre company’s content and uphold the Christian character of the organization–and under whose watch this movie was promoted and supported among the evangelical Christian community in Calgary.
The list includes leaders in several prominent and leading evangelical churches in the Calgary area–notably, the pastor of a significant Baptist church just outside Calgary, a worship leader at a prominent local multi-site megachurch, and a dramatic arts director at Calgary’s largest evangelical church. Represented among the directors and staff are graduates (and even some instructors!) from every evangelical Bible college in the Calgary area (including the very school I attended for seminary training!), not to mention arguably Alberta’s most famous Bible college in Three Hills and a major Baptist university college in Edmonton. Denominations represented on that list include the Christian & Missionary Alliance, the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada (Canada’s largest evangelical denomination), the Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada, and the North American Baptist Conference.
This is what’s so surprising and saddening: these are not fringe denominations, or diploma mills, or extremist churches. None of these churches or denominations teach universalism or deny the doctrine of hell, as far as I have been able to determine. So this theatre company’s directors and staff constitute as mainstream and representative a sample of Calgary’s evangelical community as one could hope to find. Therefore, the very fact that Miller’s heretical piece could be shown under the oversight of, and therefore the tacit approval of, such a group of Christian leaders, and thus by them be recommended to the average Christian as a profitable use of their time, is heartbreaking. Their failure to “test all things” not only fed theological poison to an untold number of Calgary evangelicals, but it also serves as a saddening indication of the utter failure of Alberta’s most influential evangelical churches, schools, seminaries, and denominations to teach and practice wisdom and discernment.
“TRINITY BROADCASTING NETWORK NORTH”
A small theatre company in Calgary may be a useful bellweather for evangelical theological discernment, but its actual impact on Alberta’s evangelical culture is no doubt limited. That isn’t the case with our next example.
A more extreme, but undoubtedly more influential, organization–based in Lethbridge, Alberta–is “The Miracle Channel,” touted as Canada’s “First Christian Television Station.” The Miracle Channel is the Canadian partner of America’s reprehensible and chintzy Trinity Broadcasting Network, whose late founder Paul Crouch labored long and hard to build the network’s seedy reputation as a home of charlatans, heretics, and fraudsters. (Interestingly, The Miracle Channel was its founders’ second attempt at importing TBN cheese into Canada; in 1986, they had attempted to set up a rebroadcasting transmitter for TBN, which Canada’s CRTC mercifully slapped down at the time).
Some of you may think my words harsh, but they are warranted. The Miracle Channel, like its American counterpart, is noted for its support and advocacy of dangerous false teaching—specifically, the so-called “prosperity gospel,” also known as “Word-Faith” or “name-it-and-claim-it” teaching. So it’s necessary, at this point, to spend some time explaining what “word-faith” theology is and just why it’s so dangerous.
Charismatic author D.R. McConnell, in his outstanding book, “A Different Gospel” (which I recommend heartily to everyone!) proves that the Word-Faith movement’s teaching is not actually Christian at all, but rather stems from the cultic teaching of E.W. Kenyon and is therefore more closely related to the religions of Religious Science and Christian Science than it is to the faith of the Bible. Word-Faith advocates teach that “we can write our own ticket with God if we decide what we want, believe that it’s ours, and confess it,” thereby redefining faith as the conviction you’ll get something you want—as opposed to the Bible’s definition of faith as an empty-handed, repentant belief and trust in the person and work of Jesus Christ for one’s salvation. Word-Faith advocates, in a disturbing correspondence to Mormon theology, diminish God and exalt man by teaching that human beings “are little gods,” teaching that by using the “substance of faith” we have the potential to do anything God does—while reducing God to merely a cosmic vending machine who spits out what we want if we plug in enough “faith.” One of the most ghastly aspects of Word-Faith teaching is their emphasis that physical healing in this life is guaranteed if you just believe strongly enough that you will be healed. This biblically false idea, not confined to Word-Faith circles by any means but certainly characteristic of them, has on more than one occasion prompted gullible parents to withhold medical treatment from sick children. The Word-Faith movement’s sick twist on faith healing results from combining that biblically false idea of healing with its unique teaching about “negative confession” (that is, you can deprive yourself of health and wealth if you doubt you might be healed or say something that questions the certainty of receiving such blessing), meaning that going to a doctor is then seen as such a “negative confession” and can actually thwart healing–a view that all too often has tragic results. Of course, leading Word-Faith advocates would deny a connection with such events, but they promote and advocate a view of faith, healing, and sickness that leads directly to such disasters.
Word-Faith teaching, then, is cultic, heretical, and unbiblical. It kills physically and spiritually, costing people their physical lives and sending souls to hell. Yet the Miracle Channel’s programming schedule reads like a “Who’s Who” of leading Word-Faith teachers. Streaming forth from their radio tower in Lethbridge are the flagship TV broadcasts of noted prosperity advocates like John Hagee, Paul Crouch, Kenneth Copeland (Believer’s Voice of Victory), Morris Cerullo (Victory Today), Joyce Meyer (Enjoying Everyday Life), Joel Osteen (who is not only shallow but heretical), and Creflo Dollar.
Sure, not everything in the Miracle Channel’s programming lineup is heretical; Way of the Master is a solid ministry, I’ve benefitted personally from Charles Stanley’s In Touch even though I wouldn’t agree with him on everything, and Dr. David Jeremiah is a mainstream evangelical teacher. There are other decent shows as well. But a few good shows does not a Christian TV network make; after all, mixing protein powder into a bottle of battery acid won’t make the final product worthy of human consumption! The fact remains that the Miracle Channel devotes no less than 20 hours a week to rank heresy, much of it in prime programming slots; Hagee is on in the 6/8 PM slot weekdays, and folks tuning into Miracle Sunday mornings for “TV Church” are very likely to run into Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Copeland, or Joel Osteen.
The money-obsessed nature of The Miracle Channel’s programming has been noted in even secular Canadian news, and has actually been the subject of a CBC expose. Needless to say, this black eye on Christianity’s reputation among unbelievers only increases the damage this organization was already doing theologically to the cause of Christ in Alberta. Nevertheless, The Miracle Channel could arguably (and sadly) be described as Alberta’s most significant evangelical export today, and even Canada’s national media has had to acknowledge its influence and strong base of support. Which, again, speaks volumes about the profound lack of theological health in Alberta’s Christian community.
QUESTIONABLE CONFERENCE HEADLINERS
Every year, Alberta’s capital city of Edmonton is the site of Break Forth, which bills itself as “North America’s Largest Equipping and Renewal Conference.” And it is certainly a landmark event in the local evangelical calendar. Break Forth meets in the Rexall Centre, home of the National Hockey League’s Edmonton Oilers. It draws around 15,000 people from more than 1,000 churches, many of them young people. I remember the posters in the student lunchroom at seminary.
Break Forth draws some of the biggest and most influential names in North American evangelicalism every year. Sadly, in recent years it has been drawing some of North America’s most dangerous teachers. 2010’s conference invited as a headliner William Paul Young, the author of the bestselling Christian book The Shack, which despite its popularity promotes badly misleading ideas about the Trinity, submission, forgiveness, and revelation. In 2011, Break Forth had as its headline speaker John Eldredge, author of several bestselling books—and advocate of the heresy known as “open theism,” a denial that God knows the future. Both 2007 and 2012’s iterations invited Tony Campolo, who after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 advocated Christians follow the teaching of Jewish Rabbi Harold Kushner and deny God’s omnipotence and control over natural disaster. Again, that’s not to say everyone they invite to speak is bad–but, yes, again, protein powder and battery acid and all that.
Given the popularity of Break Forth with Alberta’s young evangelicals, the lack of discernment shown by its organizers bodes ill for the future of Christ’s church in the province.
Alberta’s evangelical schools and Calgary’s largest churches are failing to teach Christians discernment, and their leaders are neglecting, at best, their responsibility to guard the flock from false teaching. The Christian airwaves in Alberta are dominated by cultic superstition disguised with a Christian veneer. Our largest youth conference introduces the next generation to some of the most dangerous writers of our time.
So not only are Albertans in general less religious, and not only do we not have enough churches, but Alberta’s evangelical community is desperately sick in a theological sense.
Next time, I hope to unpack the challenge that Alberta’s Christians face in the culture–in case anyone still thinks Alberta, while maybe not religious, is still a pretty strait-laced and moral place. (Spoiler: it isn’t).