It was a beautiful summer evening last Thursday as Tom and I headed from our hotel to Family Harvest Church in Tinley Park, Illinois. The Inspiring Excellence Conference was underway, and after hearing that Ray Comfort was speaking there, we decided to travel the short distance from Milwaukee to see what was going on. We were initially told by the church that Ray was speaking Friday night, but we learned after we arrived that he had already spoken, twice, on Tuesday.
We were somewhat early so we looked around at the book and DVD tables in the foyer. We saw John Avanzini’s Millionaire University DVD’s and in the bookstore, we saw more books promising us every financial and physical benefit if we will only follow the blow-dried wonder on the cover. One book on fitness featured a highly endowed blond in a tight t-shirt, flaunting her astonishing figure because she’d learned how to exercise God’s way. Interspersed among the personal enhancement books were an assortment of Ray Comfort books which looked somewhat odd in the middle of it all.
We made our way to the auditorium where the stage was lit up with colored lights. An usher gave me a dirty look so I had to put the camera away. Another usher came up to us as we were looking for seats and directed us toward the front. He grabbed my arm and looked into my eyes. “It’s warmer down closer to the FIRE!” he said and then laughed uproariously.
The service began with the gospel choir and lead singers on stage kicking things into high gear. The band got people on their feet and the assemblage raised the roof as the colored gel lights flashed. After about 35-40 minutes of this, everyone was told to sit down. The main lights had been off until this point. Suddenly, heavy metal music was cranked and the lights all came on as the screens at the side of the stage began to flash the words “INCREASE INCREASE INCREASE”. Giant balloons fell from the ceiling onto our heads—these were enormous balloons–and ushers began to throw what appeared to be money at us in the seats and into the aisles. Children and adults made a mad scramble to collect what they could. They were actually throwing the fake million dollar bill tracts from Ray Comfort. No particular explanation was given for this exercise, and the service carried on with announcements.
John Avanzini was finally introduced by Pastor Robb Thompson who also made his first appearance at this juncture. I had never actually witnessed someone in an all white suit before, and Robb Thompson cut an impressive tanned figure on stage in his white suit and dark blue shirt underneath. Little patches of matching blue adorned his shiny black shoes. Health and wealth preachers seem to favor these kinds of flashy, flamboyant outfits that you would otherwise not see except on a Carnival cruise ship lounge singer or maybe in a club act at Caesar’s Palace. John Avanzini himself strolled out in a dark pinstripe suit and patent leather shoes, looking remarkably like an aging mafia don. A diamond ring glittered on his right hand and caught the lights throughout the evening.
You can hear the opening remarks of Avanzini here. Flattery is the first salvo of these guys, and he laid it on. The message began. One of the hallmarks of false prophet preachers is the constant use of joke telling. Jeremiah 23 describes prophets who “do err by their lightness”. There was certainly plenty of that Thursday night. Avanzini spent considerable time describing the difference between snoring and purring, and he had the audience howling with laughter.
After a rambling, free-ranging talk about the worsening economy and the price of gas, he told us that he would give us all two things to help us get through perilous times. The first was a list of 7 Bible promises, as he called them, that he had printed up on a card. The mixture of truth and error was very evident here.
The list, which is seen at left, gave the following “seven anchors for these perilous times”. Note that the word prosperity as he uses it is referring to material wealth. Spiritual wealth was never mentioned that night.
1. God has already made plans for your prosperity. Jeremiah 29:11
2. Everything you will need and want has already been provided for you by your great God. 2 Peter 1:3
3. God has already given you his best so there is no need to worry about him denying you anything else. Romans 8:32
4. God wants you to live with limitless supply. Judges 18:10
5. Your wealthy place is always on the other side of the perilous times you are facing.
6. It gives God great pleasure to prosper you in good times…in bad times..at all times. Psalms 35:27
7. In good times or in bad times, God is willing to make you rich. Proverbs 10:22
On the show today, I pointed out that there is truth and error mixed here. All of those Scripture verses given do talk about the prospering of God’s people. The idea that this is always referring to physical wealth is patently absurd. Avanzini and all of his huckster compatriots only use Scripture as proof texts for their own ridiculous claims that God wants everyone wearing Brioni suits and Rolex watches.
Avanzini told a story of how his grandchildren sometimes sit and watch him count money at the table. He described his stacks of 100’s, 50’s, 20’s and so on. He mocked at how his daughter told them, “don’t ask for anything, children.” He told us that she should have been teaching them to ask for money. He again mocked how she taught the children to say, “thank you” when he would give them money. He claimed that what they should have said instead was, “Can I have some more?” Avanzini apparently believes in training children early to be greedy and ungrateful.
The next thing Avanzini said he would give us to help us through “perilous times” was a stone. He went through several Bible references where stones “talked” in the Old Testament. Here Avanzini introduces the stone idea. He strolled down the aisles, his ring winking in the lights, and held out a shiny stone for a woman to hold. Avanzini told the assembled crowd of about 650 people that these stones should be rubbed whenever people faced rising prices or higher prices at the pump. The ushers went down the aisles with buckets of shiny, smooth stones and handed them out. (No, that’s not an unhappy face on the stone, just a weird stone we ended up with. Maybe someone could sell this stone-with-a-face on ebay.)
This moved him on to the seque phase of his message. He began transitioning to his real message by telling the story of Gideon’s sacrifice as recorded in the book of Judges. Repeatedly, Avanzini described the poverty of Gideon and how his offering of a goat was such a sacrifice for someone who lived in a cave. He described how the angel of the Lord IGNITED the offering on the rock. We, who were in possession of the lucky rubbing stones, would need to ignite ours. I’ll give you a guess how that should be done.
At this point, Avanzini turned to the pastor in the white suit, sitting in the audience and asks innocently, “Do I have a few more moments?” Well, not surprisingly, the pastor agreed. It’s a good thing, because as it turns out, Avanzini had a whole new doctrinal revelation to tell us about: the doctrine of reverse entrapment. If you’ve never heard of that before, that’s because God just showed it to him right there. Reverse entrapment is when you put a gift to Avanzoni on a credit card and outsmart the lenders who are trying to get rich off your debt. When you put a gift on a credit card, I quote, “something happens in the spirit world.” Here he tells everyone how to have a credit card breakthrough. Turns out Avanzini has a way for you to get rid of your mortgage debt. All you have to do is to give him a gift the size of your house payment and God will see that your mortgage gets paid off right away. If you don’t have a house, $500 will do nicely for future debt. Avanzini assured us that it worked for him.
Perhaps the man sensed a few hostile vibes from the audience (from our row in particular) because he warned us not to let the devil keep us back from getting free from debt by putting a gift for his ministry on our credit card. The credit card “invitation” began as the keyboardist began to noodle around with some mood music. Then Avazini warned everyone again not to let the devil keep us away. The people streamed down to the stage area and wrote out their credit card numbers and house payment gifts and left them at the expensively shod feet of the speaker. While the people came down to the front to divest themselves of their money, Avanzini appropriately chose to tell an Al Capone joke. I doubt if one other person in the house recognized the irony.
Avanzini then prayed an igniting prayer over the stones everyone was clutching. Presumably, we still have to ignite our own with a credit card gift, but maybe his igniting prayer was considered the first step.
In a strange twist at the end of the event, the white clad Robb Thompson came to the front of the church and began a bizarre, stream-of-consciousness ramble that seemed to go on for an eternity. It felt like the twilight zone as he mumbled on about leveraging things, and condos he had forgotten he had, and things that we needed to understand, but he forgot to tell us what they were. People began shifting in their seats. The man appeared to be under the influence of something mysterious, but it plainly wasn’t the Holy Spirit. Suddenly, mercifully, his wife appeared with a microphone. As she neared the platform, Robb Thompson mumbled in a thick voice, “marry me tonight, baby”, “marry me”. His wife appeared to ignore him, turned around to face the audience and announced the death of a church member and the time of his wake. Her husband apparently didn’t seem to think that seductive comments to his wife were at all out of place as a prelude to a death announcement. This was the conclusion of the “worship” service, and a more freakish display would be hard to come by. The music kicked in and everyone streamed out the door into the night clutching their lucky rubbing stones.
The entire thing was an unspeakable tragedy. These men target the poor in particular because they are the ones desperate enough to need a “breakthrough.” That is the evil in all of this. The rich aren’t stupid enough to give away their cash to the likes of Avanzini. It’s the poor and the needy, the hurting and the ill who desperately need help who are vulnerable to these sharks.
Ray Comfort emailed me yesterday in response to my detailing of what happened that night. He spoke on Tuesday morning and Tuesday night at that same church and did not give a warning word. He spoke the Gospel, he told them how to witness to a Jehovah’s Witness, he talked about how America needs to respect the Ten Commandments, but never once did he say, “the men who follow me will want your money, and will not point you to Christ.” Ray could not do that because he would be insulting his hosts. He was warned in advance about where he was speaking and has spoken in years past at this same church. He made a choice to go ahead. Now he says he will not preach again at a prosperity conference. This is good news.
I saw their faces. A woman I’ll call Pam came up to us just before the service started, thanked us for coming to her church and told us how she was enjoying the conference. She said she had heard Ray speak and was looking forward to Jesse Duplantis the following night. “Come early,” she said. “They’ll be lining up out the doors for him!” When the Apostle Paul left the church at Ephesus for what he thought would be the last time, he said this as recorded in Acts 20.
“I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears.”
He warned. He loved the church. Ray turned things around in his email to me yesterday and demanded to know whether my husband and I had gotten up and in effect interrupted the service like people sometimes do at a political rally to make a point. No, Ray. My husband and I did not start shouting out because the uniformed ushers less than three feet from us would have removed us within 30 seconds, and nobody would have heard anything. You, Ray, had the microphone. You had the speaker’s platform. You had the authority and name recognition and opportunity. That’s why we were so concerned in the first place. The names of the speakers at the church were flashed on a sign out front of the church; a sign that thousands of cars see every day on Interstate 80 that runs past the church. We can’t legitimize these men, no matter how godly our motives.
Bill Gothard is scheduled to speak at the church on Sunday, July 27. His staff has also been invited to accompany him there for the special service where they are promoting his ministry. I called Bill Gothard today before the program and told him what we had seen and heard from this “church”. Gothard claimed to be personal friends with the pastor, Robb Thompson, who wants to use Gothard’s materials. I told Mr. Gothard that I was sure he would agree: character matters a great deal, but without sound doctrine, we can’t even know what good character is. Gothard agreed and claimed he would be listening to the program today. The question is is this: What will he do with what he now knows? Will he still show up? Will his staff show up? What will he do?
For too long in this country, parachurch ministries have been trying to do the job of the local church which is in meltdown. The problem is that these ministries that are often single-issue become so narrow in focus that they lose sight of what’s going on in the rest of the evangelical world. “Don’t bother me with the details, I have a ministry to run. Why should I care about the emerging church, the seeker movement, postmodernism’s influence, contemplative spirituality, etc.? I have a ministry to fund and I only want one focus.” No responsible Christian leader can afford to have this kind of mindset. It leads to people like Ray Comfort and Bill Gothard putting a stamp of approval on men like John Avanzini, Robb Thompson, Mike Murdock, and a whole lot of others by their cooperation with them. Doctrine matters, and who we endorse, tacitly or openly matters.
Yes, Mr. Avanzini, we are living in perilous times. But your lucky rubbing stone is worthless, and your seven anchors that you put on your card are worthless. The only anchor that will hold fast in the winds that are blowing is the anchor of the Lord Jesus Christ. Thank the Lord that His Word never changes, and that despite all the chaos and spiritual confusion around us, His sheep can still hear the voice of that Good Shepherd. “Fear not, little flock; it is the father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” Luke 12:32.
CD’s of the conference are available from Family Harvest Church in Tinley Park, Illinois for those who would like to hear for themselves