by Ken Rowley
Reading the Ncandweni Christ Ambassadors story last Sunday, I discovered a subtext in Khayalethu Masuku’s remarks about how difficult it was for him to live the life advertised in his songs. In fact his remarks reminded me of the story about three pastors who regularly met to discuss what was happening in their churches and their lives. One time, one of the pastors suggested that the three each confessed their secret sins, knowing that as a group they could pray for each other and provide healing. The first pastor, who was a Roman Catholic, confessed that he’d become addicted to the communion wine in his church—so much so that on many Sundays he prayed that no-one would come to church so that he could drink all the wine himself. The other two pastors listened and said they would pray for him. The next pastor said that a young couple had just moved into the house next to his church house and that the lady was very pretty. One morning he had been at home and noticed that the young wife put the washing on the line whilst wearing only a negligee. The pastor had become so excited that now he organised his weekly schedule so that he was always at home to watch the lady when she put out the washing. The other two pastors listened and said they would pray for him. The third pastor now had his chance to confess, but to the others’ surprise he said he’d changed his mind and refused to say anything. The other two reasoned with him and argued why he should confess. ‘All right,’ he said, ‘I’ll tell you, but you won’t like it. I’m a terrible gossip, and I can’t wait to get out of here and tell everyone about you two!’
Just why did I remember that joke that isn’t really a joke? It’s because many churches are hotbeds of gossip and backbiting and many Christian families try to live up to an image that is only that—an image.
But anyone who reads the New Testament with even half an eye can see at once that the first Christians weren’t superhuman, super-rinsed, clean-as-clean believers. Paul wrote to the Corinthians because of their sexual escapades and blatant abuse of spiritual gifts; James wrote his letter because of the gossips and those who thought themselves holier than the rest; and the whole of the short letter of Jude is both a rebuke and a warning to the church about attitudes and lifestyles. (Interestingly, in the first letter to Timothy, in a famous passage about women’s beauty, the writer specifically attacks women’s expensively and elaborately braided hair.)
If it’s a truism that great minds discuss ideas, that average minds discuss things, and that shallow minds discuss only people, then we live in a very shallow world, for discussing people is the everyday game of the masses, who are addicted to television and radio soaps. One of the best soaps never made yet is the one centred on the intrigues and goings-on within a local church. Think The Bold and the Beautiful where the main characters are the preachers and their families; think Generations within a church choir or gospel group.
Part of the problem is that the gospel industry has drunk of the spirit of the world. I remember three stories that are pertinent here. In the early 1960s, three men got together in the UK to form a gospel group. They made great records and their songs were very influential. But they never allowed their pictures or even their names to appear on their records—‘It is God, not us,’ they said, ‘who deserves the glory.’ They donated all their profits to charity. Then there was a gifted Christian ‘rock’ artist who released a much-anticipated album (it even had Bob Dylan guesting on it) but decided that it shouldn’t be sold but given away ‘for whatever—if anything—people can afford’ because ‘the message of life should be free to all who need it.’ Lastly, I remember being with a gospel artist from the USA who turned down requests to sign records and give autographs, because he was ‘nobody special, just a servant whom God has been able to use’.
In the last fifteen or so years, especially with the explosion of Christian TV and radio, we’ve witnessed the mushrooming of church superstar personalities whose TV shows, CDs, videos, tapes and books are seemingly everywhere, advertised and sold just as routinely as toothpaste. These individuals are now household names, as is the man from Ncandweni.
We might have been shocked by last week’s story, but Jesus wouldn’t have been. He would have been full of compassion for a man going through difficult days; and Paul would no doubt have applauded Mr Masuku’s honesty.