For the past two months, CL has been visiting churches ranging from mega to mini, metro to suburban, conservative to liberal, to find out what's going on within the Christian faith -- that almighty force that's credited with smiting evil, swinging elections, and engaging in never-ending debates over which denomination hears the word of God most clearly.
It's fair to say most Georgians these days seek greater religious influence over the public domain. For instance, 79 percent of Georgia residents approve of prayer in schools; 72 percent approve of displaying the Ten Commandments in government buildings; and 58 percent want to see religious values have a greater influence on politics, according to a 2004 poll conducted by the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute of Government.
In an unscientific survey of the many incarnations of Christianity in Atlanta, CL visited churches across the metro area, from the fire-and-brimstone pulpit of Trinity Chapel in Powder Springs to the televised broadcasts of prosperity preacher Creflo Dollar in College Park. We heard warnings about the sins of homosexuality in Cumming's Chalcedon Presbyterian Church, encountered reflections on loss at Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur, and caught a lesson on integrity and deception at the First Baptist Church of Atlanta (where Dr. Charles Stanley, incidentally, is spiritual adviser to President George W. Bush).
Here, in their own words, are excerpts from the sermons of some of the most (and least) influential church leaders in metro Atlanta.
"I have no idea how I got off on that"
Bishop Jim Bolin is the dynamic and passionate senior pastor of Trinity Chapel in Powder Springs. He and his wife, Robin, lead a congregation of more than 7,000 people. The following is from a sermon that he and his wife delivered in November.
Bishop Bolin: "Have you ever seen so much happen in one year's time on this Earth? Have you seen such extremes go on all over the Earth, with the rain and the storms and the typhoons and the hurricanes and the earthquakes? I mean, over and over. It's breaking out in France right now. They are getting crazy over there. They are fed up with it in western Europe. They are fed up with it down in South America.
"We are fed up with it here in the U.S. I'm telling you, I'm fed up with the Democrat, and I'm fed up with the Republican. I'm so sick and tired of the games they are playing, the accusations that they keep making. They need to shut up and get back up there to Washington, D.C., and do what we elected them to do -- quit bellyaching and moaning and groaning. We need some men and women who are adults and will conduct themselves in the best interest of this nation.
"[They are] acting like a bunch of nuts up there, tearing down the president. I know he didn't do everything right, but the Bible says to pray for the one in authority over you. Last time I checked, this nation is founded upon the word of God. We are one nation under God, indivisible.
"Raising taxes doesn't solve problems. Hey, the government didn't birth you to raise you. They will mess with you every time. They will use you and abuse you and drop you. Let Him be your source. As long as Uncle Sam is your source, they're gonna control you and manipulate you and use you.
"It's time [for] the church [to] stand up. It's time [for] the church [to] say, 'Hey, come follow us. We got a way out of poverty. In fact, we're not going to give you a handout, we're going to give you a hand up. We're not just going to give you some fish, we're going to teach you how to fish. And if you don't want to learn how to fish, all you're going to get is a fish sandwich, because this boat is going on down the road.
"Amen. I have no idea how I got off on that.
"Now, please listen to Pastor Robin for a few minutes."
Pastor Robin: "Let me first of all, men, say to you, would you please let me stand in the gap for the women of this church? And I want to ask you to forgive us if we have put our own desires in, [if] we have beat you down, and made you feel like you're scum, or you can't take care of your family.
"Will you forgive us women for making you feel like you cannot be the leader and the warrior of the home? Would you forgive us women for being controlling and manipulative? Would you please let me stand in the gap for the women today?
"Women, let me just address you a minute. God is calling you to shut up. Women, we think [we] always gotta say something. We think we always gotta do our little manipulation to get the man to do what he was supposed to do.
"Lord, I bless the men of this house. And Lord, I thank you for them. I thank you for the value they add to the families and the homes and this house."
"I want you to take it and put it in the box"
Hillside Chapel and Truth Center, founded and ministered by the Rev. Barbara King, has a congregation of about 10,000 and sits on a 12-acre complex on Cascade Road in Atlanta. Hillside has a rotating schedule of reverends and pulpit assistants. The pulpit assistant Dec. 11 was the Rev. Angela Harrington-Rice, who led the congregation through the following exercises.
"Thank you. And let's extend our love, as we do each time we come together, by enclosing our arms around us and loving ourselves. For some of you it might be just a little squeeze. For others it might be an -- OH! -- a big squeeze.
"Just hold yourself and feel that love within you, feel that love that's bubbling up. And just allow it to fill all that you are, and just to feed your spirit. And when I say my name three times and I love you, you say yours three times.
"Angela, I love you. Angela, I love you. Angela, I love you. And we know that love is healing.
"Now I want you to get everything off your lap, and I want you to put your feet flat on the ground. I want you to close your eyes and imagine that there's a white light directly in front of you.
"Imagine that this white light comes from infinite intelligence, so you see that white light. That white light is there for your benefit. And what I want you to do is imagine, imagine that there is a box and this box can be as big as you need it to be or as small as you need [it] to be.
"You are creating this just to give away, never to see it again. And in this box I want you to put your fears, your worries, your concerns, your thoughts of limitation, your mental conditions that have not allowed you to move on to the next level in your life, and anything that is troubling you right now. Fill your box. I want you to take everything that has been holding you down, taking your joy -- I want you to take each and every thing and put it in the box. [If] you're having financial challenges, I want you to place it in the box. Or [if] you're feeling guilty about something that happened 20 years ago, I want you to take it and put it in the box.
"When you have everything in the box, I want you to take that beautiful giftwrap, and I want you to wrap it up. And I want you to place a beautiful bow on it. And I want you to lift it, and I want you to place it in that light that's right in front of you. Give this gift into this light that represents God, because he asked us to do that."
"Any form of deception is a lie"
Dr. Charles Stanley is senior pastor of the 6,000-seat First Baptist Church of Atlanta and founder of InTouch Ministries, which broadcasts around the world. Stanley is the author of more than 45 books, including Living the Extraordinary Life: 9 Principles to Discover It, and a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. He delivered this sermon, "Integrity in the Life of the Believer," on Nov. 27.
"Do the people who really know you see you as a person of integrity? That is, when they think about you, [do] they think of honesty, truthfulness, uprightness, reliability, trustworthiness?
"Everybody thinks something about all of us. Do they see you as person of integrity?
"Because, you see, you and I live in a society where truthfulness, for the most part, doesn't seem to matter anymore. For example, we all talk about listening to the media and saying, 'Well, I heard what they said. Did they tell the truth?' Well, we don't know if they did or not. Because so often, we find out that it's not the truth. It's partial knowledge.
"When you listen to the politicians talk, do you have a real confidence that they are men and women of integrity? Because so much of what we hear is compromised here or compromised there.
"And when you read the newspapers or the magazines, can you even believe what you read? Because you see, truthfulness doesn't seem to matter in many people's hearts anymore. And as one reporter said, 'Truth is what I said it is.' Well, truth isn't necessarily what somebody says it is.
"The Scripture says in the Ten commandments, listen, 'Thou shall not bear false witness.' That is, it's a sin against God to deliberately, willfully bear false witness. Now, you can bear false witness in several ways. You can insinuate something that is not true. You can manipulate a circumstance that you know is not the right thing. You can leave impressions, deliberately and willfully, that cause someone else hurt. You can say things with your mouth. You can say them with your actions. That is, there are all different kinds of ways to be deceptive. Any form of deception is a lie."
"They thought they had peace, but they didn't"
Senior Pastor David C. Cooper leads Atlanta's Mount Paran Church of God, which has a weekly attendance of about 2,000. Cooper is the author of several books, including For Better, Not Worse: Transforming Your Marriage from a Contract to a Covenant, Apocalypse! A New Look at the Book of Revelation, and Faith Under Fire: How Christians Respond to Islam and Other Religions. He delivered the following sermon, "Disturbing the Peace," on Nov. 27.
"You ever notice when you read the New Testament that every now and again, you read two statements by Jesus that seem to be completely contradictory? For example, in Matthew 10, verse 34, Jesus says, 'Do not suppose I have come to bring peace, but a sword.'
"Now, that is a strange statement for the prince of peace to make. But the last night before his Crucifixion, at the Last Supper, he says in John 14:27, 'Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you.'
"How can Jesus say, 'Don't think I've come to bring peace, but a sword,' and then turn around and say, 'Peace I leave with you.'
"[Jesus meant] 'I've come to wage war against everything that threatens real peace, because sometimes you have to disturb the peace in order to establish real peace.'
"He tells us our mission in the world is to be a peacemaker.
"Blessed are the peacemakers. They shall be called the sons of God. The word 'peace' probably best describes the Christian life more than any word.
"See, to have real peace, sometimes you have to cut through to the real root problem. And that's what he meant when he said, 'I've not come to bring some superficial, false peace.'
"We can manufacture false peace. It's gonna happen in the last days.
"Did you know before World War II, in 1939, that Chamberlain, the prime minister of England, sat at a peace negotiations table with Adolph Hitler and signed a peace treaty between those European countries?
"And while Adolf Hitler was at the tables signing the treaty, his generals were in Berlin mapping out the Panzer tank invasion of Poland. And all of Europe thought they had peace with Nazi Germany, and the Polish people wake up one morning in September of 1939 with hundreds and hundreds of tanks. And within a couple of weeks, all of Poland was decimated by the German blitzkrieg, and we know the millions that died in Eastern Europe.
"Six million Jews died. But did you know that of all the concentration camps, the Jews only constituted 40 percent? The other 60 percent were non-Jewish people in those death camps.
"Millions and millions of people died at a time when world leaders were signing a peace treaty. They thought they had peace, but they didn't.
"You see, real peacemakers get to the root of the problem, not just smooth things over, not just offer political platitudes. You have to have truth in order to have peace.
"You want to be a peacemaker today? Do you want to be known as a son, a daughter, a mature, grown-up child of God? Live in the presence of God. He's the only one who can settle your heart, quiet your fears, calm your anxiety."
"We are in the Sunday of happiness"
Saint Benedict Catholic Church in Duluth offers six masses each Sunday, including an evening mass in Spanish. The Rev. Abel Guerrero-Orta, Saint Benedict's parochial vicar, marked the third Sunday of Advent, a part of the celebration of the Christmas season, with the following Mass, delivered Dec. 11. (Reported and translated by CL staffer Alejandro Leal.)
"Many of us have come to the United States to try and achieve a better life. So what happens then when we don't have a job? We are saddened. What happens when we don't have money? We feel uninspired because we believe that happiness lays only in material things. It is true that we use them to feed ourselves, to feed our body and our families. But everything cannot be based upon that.
"A Christian's joy should be found in God. Like the joy saints must feel now that they have their time and place in heaven. Like the joy the Virgin Mary felt to know that she had Jesus in her womb, to accept that and to know that she is the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ.
"Today, this Sunday invites us to be joyous as well, and to do so truly at heart. Because we are close to celebrating Christmas, we are close to celebrating the birth of Christ. A happiness which should be for all human beings, not for a particular person, or for a particular religion, but rather for the world in general. For everyone.
"We are in the Sunday of happiness, and thus we must be happy and give thanks to God for all that we have. For the children that God has given you, and who at times may sadden us. But then we must think why they sadden us.
"Sometimes we believe that school and the church must educate that child, and we forget that the first school is the family, where we must educate our children with our human, Christian, and civic values.
"But now is not a time for lament, now is a time for joy, happiness that we find in the Lord."
"Commit random acts of affection towards your wife"
Joe Morecraft III has been minister of Chalcedon Presbyterian Church in Cumming since its inception in 1974. In 1986, Morecraft was an unsuccessful candidate in Georgia's 7th Congressional District. He's currently chairman of the United States Taxpayers Party of Georgia. The following is from his Oct. 30 sermon, "Godly Marriage 1: What God Wants Your Marriage to Be."
"The basic reason for this series of sermons on marriage is the pressure Christian marriages are experiencing from both outside and from inside the marriage. The outside, the anti-Christian American culture that surrounds us, is constantly pressuring us to compromise with this world's standards and expectations.
"Let me give you one little bit of advice: Commit random acts of affection and tenderness towards your wife. Now, how do you show affection to your wife? Now, I don't mean just kiss her and be sweet just so you can go further that evening. I'm not talking about that. That's not affection, that's manipulation. Here's some ways to show affection towards your wife.
"Prefer her over yourself. Show interest in her interests. 'How's your sewing machine working today?'
"Encourage her with words of appreciation. They don't have to be something profound, just little things. Always thank her for the meal she fixed for you, and just lavish her with words of appreciation.
"Third, brighten her day with an unexpected card, flower, or gift when you're not guilty of anything at all.
"Marriage is to be between one man and one woman. Monogamous, heterosexual unions, wherein two people bow before God to love and to serve each other till death do us part. That's the very nature of marriage. You can't cave in on it.
"Two people living together to learn whether they should marry, we condemn it. Homosexuals marrying, we condemn it. Child marriages, we condemn it. Why? Because it's contrary to the norm, it's contrary to the revealed standard.
"A gender-neutral, unisex look, fashion or lifestyle is a perversion of God's moral and social order for the human race. One verse that is very repugnant to our world -- both church and outside -- is Deuteronomy 22:5, which says a woman shall not wear man's clothing, nor shall a man put on woman's clothing, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God.
"'Abomination' -- I mean, that is as bad as you can get, something that is abominable, disgusting, wicked to the nth degree in God's sight. Homosexuality is an abomination.
"The point is that a woman should not take onto herself a man's vocation. She should not dress like a man, act like a man, relate as a man. And the man should not take onto himself a woman's vocation, and act like a woman, and be effeminate, and dress like a woman. The two lifestyles must be kept distinct.
"That's why the Bible forbids women to be in the military, for example. That's why the Bible forbids women to be in place of civil authority and church authority. Not because they are less or inferior, but because their superiorities are elsewhere."
"Life is fair. Sooner or later, it breaks everyone's heart."
Lanny Peters is the pastor of Decatur's Oakhurst Baptist Church, which openly welcomes worshippers of all ages, races and sexual orientations. Peters' following sermon, "The Glorious Inheritance of the Saints," was delivered Nov. 6.
"Many years ago, I heard Frank Tupper, who was then professor of Christian theology at Southern Baptist Seminary, preach a sermon in which he reflected on his wife's death after two years of enormous suffering with cancer, and his own struggles in being left as a single parent of 9- and 13-year-old children. Tupper said, 'Life is fair. Sooner or later, it breaks everyone's heart.'
"From his experience, Tupper said that he also learned that God's grace comes in different forms. One form could be called healing or deliverance grace. Healing grace is what we experience when we look death in the eye and live to tell about it. It is what Lynne Mouchet described to us last week when she spoke about her bone marrow transplant. It is what our family has experienced with Karen's sister Pamela who, after years of battling breast and liver cancer, is now living in remission with hopes of continuing cancer-free.
"This is the form of grace seen in the Gospels when Jesus heals people, sometimes miraculously. But that is not the only kind of grace we need from God. Some time after his wife's death, Tupper's young daughter heard a sermon about God healing a dying person. Later, she asked her dad, 'Why didn't that work for us?'
"After a long silence, he replied, 'If it could have worked for us, it would have. God always does the most that God can do, at least for this life. Sometimes the wine runs out, the music runs out, the celebration stops.'
"Tupper said they had hoped and prayed for healing grace, but it did not come. What did come, and maybe was just as unexpected, was another form of grace, which he called sustaining grace. Sustaining grace comes in many forms but allows you to hold on -- sometimes just by your fingernails. But hopefully, in time, [you get] on solid footing again."
"She came to me with tears in her eyes."
Creflo Dollar is the founder of World Changers Church International, headquartered on an 81-acre campus in College Park with 10 buildings and a sanctuary that seats 8,500. "Changing Your World," Dollar's television show, reaches 1 billion homes "on a vast network of stations in practically every country in the world," according to Dollar's website. The following is excerpted from his Nov. 27 sermon, "Fresh Fruit Analysis."
Dollar, reading from Deuteronomy 18: "'And this shall be the priest's due from the people, from them that offer a sacrifice, whether it be ox or sheep; and they shall give unto the priest the shoulder, and the two cheeks, and the maw. The first fruit also of thy corn, of thy wine, and of thine oil, and the first of the fleece of thy sheep, shalt thou give him.'
"Now, it doesn't sound to me like people were having such a real hard time of honoring the priests with their first fruit.
"Ho, but now you talk about today. And that's why a lot of people wanted to be priests, because they were one of the wealthiest around in their community.
"But ah, now look at what the media has done. You got that guy who misused that, you got that guy who got caught in that, and you got that devilish slogan that's out that says, 'All that preachers want is your money.'
"And so, to say the least, there may be, understandably so, a lot of guys who say 'Naw, forget this. I don't want to have nothing to do with this. I don't want to be accused of this, or misunderstood of this.'
"And I was the same way until I experienced something that absolutely blew my mind. This woman came to me, and she was a single parent. She came to me with tears in her eyes.
"And I said, 'How can I help you?'
"And she said, 'I've been praying about how to get my house paid off and how to get a new car. The Lord told me to go and to take my money out of my savings and before I use any of that money to do anything, to bring it to you and that you would bless it. And things would work.'
"I said, 'Oh, what are you talking about?'
"She said, 'Here's my check, here's this," and I took it very seriously. I said, 'Oh Lord, have mercy.' And I wouldn't even deposit it or do nothing with it. I took it home and put it on my bed in my prayer room and I got on my knees and I said, 'Oh Jesus. This lady has given all. She says because she believes in this.'
"Jesus help me. So I figure I'm gonna kinda hold on to it. Then God got me. He said, 'If you don't receive it, then she won't get that blessing that you can impart on her life.'
"And I'm like, boy, if the news media heard that. I can hear that right now: 'Priest takes widow woman's last amount of money. Details at 6 o'clock tomorrow.' And especially a guy with the last name of Dollar.
"So I started meditating in the Scriptures, and I said, 'Lord, I receive it.' And three weeks later, that lady came by. She was just a-jumping and a-leaping and crying. I said, 'What's going on?' She said, 'My house is paid off.'
"And I said, 'Congratulations.' She said, 'No, you don't understand. And I'm driving a debt-free Mercedes.' I said, 'Aw, shoot.' You gotta understand, I was so glad. I said, 'Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, thank you, thank you, whew, thank you, Jesus.'
"And it got me to wondering. I know there's a reason Satan wants to attack ministries. I know there's a reason he wants to take the ones that mess up and blow them up on the news to get everybody, [to show] that every minister is just like the one who just blew up on the news.
"I know there's a reason he had a sense of humor. He had a sense of humor when he allowed me to be born in a family with the last name of Dollar, then called me to preach, and then said, 'Preach on financing.' That is a sense of humor. That is a sense of humor."
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