A Hard Tune to Hear

Ecclesiastes 7:5-6

Let me play a song for you. Here are some of the lyrics:

We have to conceive it on the inside before we’re ever going to receive it on the outside. . . . You must conceive it in your heart before you can receive it. In other words, you must make increase in your own thinking, then God will bring those things to pass.

Okay, it’s hard to imagine those words to a tune, but they are a sort of song, mentioned in today’s text.

It is better to listen to rebuke from a wise person
than to listen to the song of fools,
for like the crackling of burning thorns under the pot,
so is the laughter of the fool.
This too is futile.

Ecclesiastes 7:5-6

Prosperity Foolishness

If you didn’t recognize the words of the “song of fools” above, they came from a book by Joel Osteen, a man who guides his church to pledge their allegiance to the Bible just before he preaches a message that directly contradicts the plain meaning of the Word.

Without belaboring the foolishness of the Osteen passage above, let’s just consider which of these biblical figures conceived in their heart what they later received: Abraham or Moses? Gideon or Samson? Peter or Paul? I could go on, but you get the picture. When we’re limited to receiving only what we can conceive, then we’ll never see the best from “him who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20).

What if Simon Peter had read a copy of Joel’s book before Jesus came strolling down the shores of Galilee? He might have envisioned himself as the greatest fisherman on the lake. He might have conceived piles of fish and a fleet of boats. He might have imagined scores of employees. And we would have never heard of him.

The Wise Rebuke

Do we think that Simon Peter ever sat there in a quiet moment in the boat and dreamed of helping to feed 5,000 people? Did he envision healing his mother-in-law? Did he conceive in his mind the Transfiguration or the vision on the rooftop or bringing the gospel–what gospel?–to Gentiles? These were all things that were “beyond all that we ask or think.”

But in the course of experiencing all those things, Simon had to hear some unwanted words:

  • Truly I tell you, a rooster will not crow until you have denied me three times.–John 13:38
  • So, couldn’t you stay awake with me one hour?–Matthew 26:40
  • Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me because you’re not thinking about God’s concerns but human concerns.–Matthew 16:23

If Simon had not opened himself to the things that were beyond all he could ask or think, if he had not gone beyond the song of fools, then he would have remained forever Simon and never Peter. The rebuke of the wise made him a rock on which Christ could establish his church.

Getting in Tune

And so the question that I need to ask myself today and that you should ask yourself is, what words to you heed most readily? Do you welcome the rebuke of the wise, or do you sing along to the song of fools.

The song of fools is much more pleasing to the ear. It will tell you that you should have all those possessions and liberties that you really want. It’ll assure you that you’re just great the way you are.

The rebuke of the wise hurts. It tells us that we aren’t “all that.” It points out our vanities and selfishness. It grates on the ear in a way that the smooth sound of the fool’s song doesn’t.

But only those rebukes will help us to grow to be more like Jesus. I surely don’t have to tell you what the song of the fool will help you grow toward.

More to Korea than Kia and Hyundai

What city has the third most megachurches, trailing only Dallas and Houston? If you paid attention to the title of this, you might guess correctly Seoul, South Korea. And, as a recent article at The Gospel Coalition, notes, the threshold for megachurches in South Korea is 5,000, two and a half times that in the U.S.

Since the close of the Korean War in the 1950s, Christianity in the south has experienced a meteoric rise to the point now that only the U.S. sends out more Christian missionaries than South Korea. However, as the article notes, all is not perfect south of the 38th parallel. Church growth has slowed and attendance has actually slumped.

I don’t want to rehash the very in-depth reporting of Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, instead suggesting that you follow the link and read until you know as much about the Korean church as you had ever hoped to know. What I would like to suggest is that we can learn a great deal about the way forward for the American church by looking at the triumphs and struggles in the Korean one.

One of the problems in Korea, I would suggest is that various politicians put on their MKGA hats and turned the nation from an exceptionally poor place to an economic juggernaut. South Korea’s GDP per capita is about 77% of that in Japan, but more than three times as great as in China. They’re not too far behind long-time established nations like France and find themselves between Italy and Spain in the rankings. In short, economically, South Korea would fit in quite well with the EU.

What happens when societies grow wealthy? Often, people find themselves ready to lean on their own understanding (and bank account), feeling that they don’t need anything as pointless as God. This tendency makes the religious participation in the U.S. even more remarkable, but also helps explain recent struggles.

That’s an aspect of church health that we can’t really control. But there are others that we can control. We can look at a place like Korea, seeing it from a distance, and perhaps learn lessons about how they did not respond to changes in their culture or how they allowed the lure of megachurch success to corrupt ministers and laypeople alike.

Zylstra quotes a Korean leader who offers a simple but profound answer:

There are signs of younger churches and church leaders who are leaving the megachurch, prosperity-gospel, gift-oriented ministry models and going back to the simple gospel message,

Could it be that the answer is that simple? Could it be that when set we aside “church growth” and “seeker sensitivity” and power struggles and name-it-claim-it and everything else that isn’t the gospel, we can actually attract people? Paul dealt with this challenge nearly 2,000 years ago when he wrote to the Galatians:

 I am amazed that you are so quickly turning away from him who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are troubling you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.–Galatians 1:6-7

There is no other gospel, but there are a thousand things that can tempt the hearts of believers to veer from the narrow way. We don’t have to be doing a Joel-Osteen-style detour to damage the power of the Word. Our adversary can use any of our weaknesses.