A friend, Emmanuel Viray, who reads my work and sometimes writes to me, sent the following reflection on a sermon preached at the recent Moody Founder's Week just a few days ago. I think it is so good that I want to share it more widely. He writes:
I was listening to Rev. Billy Kim at this recent Founder’s week and have found one of his statements troubling. Rev. Kim mentioned Paul (David) Yonggi Cho (photo at right)
whose church boasts 700,000 members and he only has 20,000 members. The speaker was exhorting Christians to have a great prayer life. He said he asked Rev. Cho how he got a church that big and Rev. Cho answered that he prayed many hours of the day. Basically the message is, if you pray more you will get more results.
First I thank God for the things he has done in his life, bringing him to Christ and giving him his ministry. I want to commend Rev. Kim for his call for the American church to pray. Prayer is an act of reliance upon God and a lack of a prayer life can be a sign of self-reliance. The reality is we are always reliant upon God every second of the day for life, success, everything. Self-reliance is a denial of reality and an attitude that must be repented of. Rev. Kim is right to call the church to prayer. However, his presentation troubled me in two ways.
1. To commend Rev. Cho for his prayer life is troubling to me. Rev. Cho, by his response, seems to correlate his success to his praying a lot. Prayer should not be seen as a way to gain but a statement of the heart that says “I am dependent on God about everything, my life- my future, my relationships, everything is in his hands”. To use prayer as a means to manipulate God to make us successful in anything we do is tantamount to using God’s name in vain. Paul warned Timothy about some people using “godliness” as a means towards gain.
2. Prayer flows from a heart attitude. This means that setting up more prayer meetings or even setting up more personal time to pray does not really solve the problem of a lack of a prayer life. Without that proper heart attitude that says “I am dependent on God about everything, my life- my future, my relationships, the life of the world, everything is in his hands” a prayer life is just an outward trapping and should not be commended at all. It should be condemned as legalism and it is draining to the person. I think a better way is to cultivate an attitude of dependence towards God. The person who has completely grasped his and the world’s dependence on God will pray without ceasing. He will be connected to God whether he is spending time alone, with a group, or at work.
The Western church needs to be more like the third world church with its strong piety, its refusal to back down in the face of persecution, its zeal for proclaiming the gospel, and its strong stance on social issues (homosexuality, abortion). However, the third world church should not judge the western church as somehow wanting as Christians. They would be doing what the Donatists of old did, refusing to be in communion with those who succumbed to persecution but were later repentant. The church, East and West, must acknowledge sin and welcome into its midst all those who are repentant.
Well said my friend. While Cho is frequently attacked by various cult watching groups I have no dog in this fight personally. I am neither a fan nor a fierce critic. (I haven't studied him enough to even have a strong view either way.) I do know that what my friend Emmanuel writes above is quite correct, except for the debate about the actual size of Cho's congregation, which is variously reported and widely discussed by friends and foes.
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A very interesting post.
I would be hesitant to over-analyze Rev. Kim’s or Rev. Cho’s comments here. I doubt that either one was intended to be a thorough, correct or circumspect doctrinal statement about prayer. These comments were probably meant to encourage pastors to pray, and taken in that spirit, they are certainly useful and welcome. If we extrapolate someone’s statements beyond their intended context, we can always find something troubling or wrong. Even the words of Jesus, which are eternally true, are limited by their intended scope and context. For example, trying to build a comprehensive theology of salvation on the Parable of the Sheep and The Goats in Matthew 25 would be a very bad idea. One would have to weigh Kim’s and Cho’s statements by other things they have said and written to understand what they really meant.
Having said that, however, I do believe that there is a valid concern here. The churches of Kim and Cho are the fruit of a genuine work of the Holy Spirit that swept through South Korea in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. I’m sure that they did many things right. But they were also riding the wave of a revival. To attribute their success to particular practices (e.g. a rigorous schedule of prayer meetings) and suggest that, if the same things were done in the same way in 21st century America that the same kind of outcome would result, is not wise. Prayer is essential. But the mysterious winds of the Holy Spirit blow wherever they please. We can discern these winds and ride them, but I don’t think we can manipulate them.