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When Giants of the Faith Fall: Why It Matters

“Not again!” I thought when I read that the founder and CEO of Relevant Media Group, Cameron Strang, has come under fire for creating a racially insensitive work environment.

The 43-year-old was alleged to be a toxic boss who exhibited “various levels of high-handedness, shouting fits and racially insensitive slights”.

These accusations come on the heels of a spate of news headlined by Christian influencers in respected roles who have either left the faith or fallen short of living the Christian life that they claimed to represent.

In July, author Joshua Harris denounced his faith, and a month later, Hillsong songwriter and worship leader Marty Sampson said that his faith was on shaky grounds. Earlier this month, news of Harvest Christian Fellowship Church pastor Jarrid Wilson taking his own life rattled the Christian community around the world.

And now, criticisms of Cameron’s leadership skills have emerged after former employee, Andre Henry, an African-American writer, and Relevant’s managing editor from October 2017 to July 2018, posted the following on social media about a podcast episode the publication had put out on race and the church:

Several experiences & stories from my time @RELEVANT….convince me the org is not committed at all to creating an antiracist culture internally to produce a race podcast with integrity.

Cameron has since stepped down from his role, and said he will be taking a leave of absence in order to “grow and better understand important issues, especially about race and equality”.

While I do not consider myself a Joshua Harris fan, I enjoyed reading Relevant’s articles, and had looked up to Marty Sampson. So, seeing the succession of influential Christian leaders fall like a pack of dominoes is somewhat depressing.

To add to that list, the former pastor at a church I used to attend in my home country, New Zealand, was recently charged for sexually assaulting female congregants. The offences allegedly involved three female complainants, and spanned between January 2012 and April 2019. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges, and his case is still before the courts.

While I was not close friends with the pastor, we have chatted a few times, and connected on social media. He was like any charismatic pastor—warm, friendly, and welcoming. I remember thinking how wholesome he and his wife were. I was particularly blown away at my second visit to the church, when the pastor was on stage welcoming new visitors, and mentioned how good it was to see me back at their church.

So, imagine my disappointment and sense of betrayal when I read the news about his alleged assaults. Here was a pastor who preached about Jesus and was encouraging us to live a life worthy of Christ, but was living a double life behind closed doors.

While the news didn’t leave me disillusioned with God or the gospel, I did feel jaded to read of these giants of faith failing to live up to Christ-likeness.

 

Why We Look Up to Human Leaders

We often look up to human leaders because we crave to see Christians living out their faith in the 21st century, especially in a world where Christianity is increasingly being seen as outdated and irrelevant.

This is why I love seeing or hearing young and hip Christians like Cameron and Marty dominating the world stage or standing up against cultural norms. To me, they are proof that Christians can be in this world, but not of the world (John 18:36)—leaders I can point others to as evidence that Christians can be hip, modern, and relevant.

As a result, it’s easy to gravitate towards these cool personalities and put them on a pedestal without realizing how easily it could also lead to disappointment whenever a leader or influencer fails us.

As former Relevant editorial director, Aaron Hanbury, told The Washington Post, “We evangelicals have been far, far too quick to [equate] apparent financial-organizational success and aspirational personalities with faith leadership.”

Given the string of failures that we’ve witnessed in the past few months, perhaps it’s time for us to re-evaluate who we’re following—and why.

 

Follow the Ultimate Human Leader

As I write this, it dawned on me that regardless of how cool a leader is, or how impeccable their character might seem, or even how influential they may have been in our spiritual journey (perhaps even leading us to faith), ultimately, we cannot look to a human role model because he or she is bound to fail us at some point.

Theologian Albert Mohler, in response to Joshua Harris’ divorce and deconversion from the faith, wrote that the news was “deeply humbling to American evangelicalism”, and the “heartbreaking headlines reminds us that we can place our trust in no sinful human being, but in Christ alone, the One who alone is worthy of our trust”.

While we’re looking to hip, cool Christians to lead the world stage, what we often don’t realize is that we already have the ultimate leader to follow—in the form of Jesus, who lived 2,000 years ago, and changed the system and the beliefs of the ancient world. He walked among humans, experienced fatigue, hunger, and was tempted just like the rest of us (Matthew 4:1-11), and eventually suffered the most agonizing death mankind could ever think of.

Because of this, Scripture says we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin (Hebrews 4:15). Instead of desperately searching for the next big leader to look up to, we should all be focusing on following Jesus.

Of course, it isn’t always as easy as it sounds. In fact, the Apostle Paul likens the Christian walk to running a race, and exhorts believers to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” (Hebrews 12:1). This verse reminds me of how easy it is for me—or for any of us, whether or not we’re in a place of influence like Marty Sampson and Cameron Strang—to go off track in my own race.

It’s so much easier for us to criticize those in the spotlight, pointing out their missteps, and shaking our heads at them. But knowing how prone all of us are to falling and occasionally going off-track should cause us to reflect on our own personal lives and examine our hearts. Just because we don’t constantly live under the scrutiny of the public eye, it doesn’t make our sins or failings any less real than theirs.

And when we do so, we’re reminded to continually fix our eyes on Jesus, who is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). To “fix our eyes on Jesus” is to see him as our leader, king, and inspiration, the one who has gone before us, and is calling us to follow in His footsteps.

While it can be tempting to magnify the mistakes of these faith leaders, let’s also not forget the incredible work they have done. Cameron Strang created a media space for Christian young adults, giving us a platform to read and reflect on articles relevant to our lives. In his years serving as a worship leader, I’m sure Marty Sampson has helped countless people worship God at a deeper level. In our shortsightedness, we might write them off or disqualify them from the “race”, but I have no doubt that Jesus can redeem their stories for His glory.

If you’re like me, and finding yourself a little disillusioned and jaded by the recent news of these high-profile Christian leaders, can I encourage you to look to Jesus, who is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8)—and to entrust all our failings to Him?

Hong Kong Protests: When the Streets I Knew Turned to Turmoil

Photo By Studio Incendo

Written By Cecilia Leung

A couple Sundays ago, my husband, son, and I found ourselves in the vicinity of a protest march. It was in the neighborhood I had grown up in, and I was amused watching crowds of people dressed in black peacefully wind their way through the streets.

But soon, people up front started making motions of some sort. The motions rippled through the crowd to where we were at. Protestors up ahead were asking for umbrellas and helmets—protection against pepper spray and police batons.

By now, most people in Hong Kong know that there are two types of protests—the organized, peaceful, and uneventful marches pre-approved by the police, and the almost spontaneous gathering of young people who build barricades and face off against the police, convinced that peaceful protests accomplish nothing. But this was a peaceful march. Even if it were to turn into face-off with the police, it wouldn’t be till the evening. How could people ask for umbrellas so soon?

For a moment, I froze—wondering if there was really pepper spray and tear gas up ahead. Then I came to my senses. My young son was with us. We needed to leave in case things escalated.

We picked up our son and quickly worked our way out of the crowd. As we left, we saw waves of police vans going past with sirens screaming. Was this really happening?

The rest of the evening, we sat glued to the television. Protestors lingered even after the march was over, not knowing what to expect, but ready to help their fellow protestors. The riot police pressed forward, and the protestors eventually retreated to the mall complex on their way to the adjacent subway.

The mall that I had spent so many summers wandering through became a battleground. Protestors threw helmets, water bottles, umbrellas, and whatever they could get their hands on, at the police. In turn, the police wielded their batons and pepper spray without restraint.

Over 20 people were sent to the hospital that night, some of them seriously wounded.

 

How It All Started . . .

I’ve lost count of how many protests Hong Kong has seen this summer.

It is largely believed that this started when a piece of legislation was introduced that would simplify extradition between Hong Kong and China. Many people were worried about its potential implications, and close to a million people took to the streets to protest the bill on June 9.

When it was not withdrawn, many young people decided to surround the Legislative Council Complex on June 12 in order to prevent the second reading of the bill. The police used pepper spray, tear gas, and brute force to dispel the protestors on that day.

Since then, there have been protests every week. The protestors demand that the bill be officially withdrawn, and that an independent commission of inquiry be established to investigate police action throughout the various clashes.

It’s been a long summer.

 

God Is Still Here

It’s been emotionally wearying watching the news every day. People on both sides are so angry at each other. We hear of families who no longer talk to one another because of difference in opinion. We know of people who have not shown up in church since the beginning of June, worried about their reception because of their role in recent events.

And we read in the news about four men or women who despaired so deeply at the current events and the future of Hong Kong, that they chose to take their own lives.

It’s hard to live in a place when there seems to be so little hope for the future.

But it’s in moments like these that I need to remind myself: God is still in charge.

I think of God’s chosen people and all the difficult political situations they’ve faced in the Bible. Some were slaves in Egypt. Some were exiles in Assyria. The early church was oppressed by Rome. All these were complicated political circumstances, and I imagine the Israelites were probably as pessimistic about their future as I now feel about Hong Kong’s.

But God reminded the Israelites again and again that He was in control. He was not caught by surprise. He was working behind the scenes. Take the Israelite sojourn in Egypt, for example. Generations before, God had already told Abraham, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there” (Genesis 15:13).

And when God spoke to Moses at the end of those 400 years, He said, “I have surely seen the oppression of My people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows” (Exodus 3:7, NKJV).

God was not caught by surprise when the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt. And God did not forget about them.

Of course, Hong Kong is in a very different situation than ancient Israel. But God is the same. God was not caught by surprise by the protests or pepper spray and tear gas. Unlike me, He did not need to ask, “Is this really happening?”

And God will work through the current situation. I do not know what He is doing. I do not know His plans or what His timing is. But I do know He is here. He is watching us. Just as He did not forget the Israelites, He will not forget His children in Hong Kong.

 

The Way Forward

In the meantime, I think we each need to pray, and pray, and pray for this city. And we need to pray for wisdom and love and a yearning for justice in these troubling times (1 Corinthians 16:14).

Right now, emotions are high. We are so deeply invested in our own side and in our own views that we struggle to begin to understand how the other side thinks. I need to be reminded, over and over again, that each individual involved in the events this past month, from the top politicians down to the very last protestor—each person is made in the image of God. I might completely disagree with someone’s views or their actions, but I am still called to love them.

As Paul reminds the Ephesians, we are to “walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2).

This means standing up and sacrificing for something even if it is not popular. This means speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), even if the other person doesn’t want to hear it. This means texting someone who hasn’t been to church in a while, and asking simply, how can I be praying for you? This means reaching out to distant friends offering to talk. This means a simple hug when words fail and opinions continue to differ.

Hong Kong has been my home for so long. I love the city. I love the people I get to share the city with. But something has changed this summer. . .

But I know that God is in control. God is still here. And because of that, I can trust Him with Hong Kong’s future, and keep loving those around me (1 John 4:19).

Jesus Doesn’t Celebrate the 4th of July

When my plane touched down at my port of entry to the United States after four months of studying abroad, I made my way with the crowds to the customs and immigration line. Right away, my eyes fell on the label for a special, dedicated line that read, “US CITIZENS”.

Anticipation and delight swelled up inside of me. I was home! This was my country! There was familiarity here . . . and predictability! I could speak my own language, use my cultural references, and finally be free from working so hard to communicate every moment of every day. Right then, I embraced my identity as a US citizen with enthusiasm, walking with my head held high through the special line, labeled just for me.

In recounting my travel experience, I’ve often joked that this moment was the time I’ve felt most patriotic in my entire life. While my appreciation for my country that day had more to do with the fact that “America” and “home” were synonymous in my mind than any sort of extreme patriotism, it does still cause me to think about what I value about my citizenship, and more importantly, how much I’m valuing it.

I live in a country where sometimes, Christianity and our national identity are so tightly wound, the two seem to conflate. In church, we celebrate military holidays, and we hang American flags. In school, children recite a pledge that declares the US as a “nation under God.” The declaration—the very document that marks our annual 4th of July celebration of independence—mentions God as man’s Creator.

When the line between faith and nation gets too blurry, it’s easy to (intentionally or not), begin to place faith in institutions, principles, or political parties that are imperfect and can distract us from the ultimate kingdom we owe our allegiance to—God’s!

So, as I consider my country and all that it means to me, I’ve found that it’s helpful to constantly check my loyalty—whether it’s to a country, people group, celebrity, sports team, or the like—against two standards that can help us focus our delight and satisfaction where it belongs.

 

1. Thankfulness that leads to humility, not pride

A big part of the 4th of July celebration for me has always been to think of all that is great about being a citizen of the US. I’m thankful that we have freedom of speech to protect the right to voice unpopular opinions. I never want to take for granted the religious liberties I’m afforded, or the heroic sacrifices that have been made by servicemen, women, and their families that allow me to live and work in peace. I owe a deep sense of respect to those who have fought for the freedoms I enjoy.

But as I revel in the blessings that God has poured out, I remind myself that none of them are mine to claim. When we experience blessings, it’s easy to start convincing ourselves that we actually deserve them, and begin to expect more of them. Expecting blessings can make us feel entitled to them when, in reality, we’re not.

So as I think about my country, I want thankfulness to lead me to humility instead of pride, remembering that I don’t earn or deserve any of these blessings. James 1:17 reminds us where good gifts (including blessings) come from:

“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”

I pray that my thankfulness—not just about my country, but in all things—turns my eyes to the One who gives perfect gifts. I will direct my thanks to God because of the great mercy He has given me. Every single good thing that I experience is from God. He is the only one worthy of my heart’s praise.

 

2. Assurance of where our truest allegiance lies

Even in the midst of decking out in red, white, and blue every year and celebrating how far our nation has come, I can’t help but acknowledge that there remain great injustices. Especially in 2019, marriage, sex, and life—which should be held in a sacred light—have been marred and contorted by society’s modern ideals. Centuries of institutionalized racism means that the impact of discrimination based on race is still active, causing all sorts of injustices and undue burdens.

These sobering realities are a stark reminder that my country, and every single human-built entity, is so broken—plagued by the curse of sin in this world. No country, institution, or political party can address our needs and heal our wounds fully—only God can. And this means that my full allegiance and hope should be in God alone. Paul reminds us in Philippians that our true citizenship—the one we should be most focused on—is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). After all, the gospel story is all about how God saved us so that we could be a part of His heavenly kingdom—the kingdom of light and of His Son (Colossians 1:12-13)!

So this 4th of July, as many of us take time off from work, travel to attend parades and celebrate being an American, let us remember our identity in Christ first and foremost. May it keep our national identity from becoming an idol, and inspire us to adopt God’s global-minded concern for loving and serving others. And every day for everyone, may all of our other loyalties fall into their rightful place, paling in comparison and leading us into thankfulness and assurance of our place in God’s global body.

 

Lord, let Christians’ identity as members of Your eternal kingdom drive them to seek Your will in loving and serving their neighbors both near and across the globe, always holding their heavenly citizenship before any other loyalty.

When Social Media Determined A Teen’s Death

Written By Shu Huan, Malaysia

On 13 May 2019, 16-year-old Davia Emilia from Sarawak, Malaysia posted on social media expressing her weariness at life. Via an Instagram story, she requested that her followers vote on whether she should continue living or die: “Very important. Help me choose D/L”. Sadly, 69 per cent of those who responded voted for “D” and as a result, she jumped from the third floor of a building, bringing her short life to a heartbreaking end.

When I saw this news, my heart tightened. In addition to grieving the tragedy of this young girl taking her own life, my heart also went out to the followers who participated in the poll. How would they respond after finding out the girl actually committed suicide? Perhaps they had treated the poll as a joke, thinking that the girl was simply one of many youths seeking attention—that “choosing life or death” was simply a ploy. And yet, irrespective of intentions on either side, the painful conclusion was that her young life ended.

It’s a heart-wrenching situation that convicted me to reconsider how very powerful our words are. James 3:5 says:

Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.

Indeed, a small spark can set on fire a great forest. It’s terrifying to think that a simple tap on the phone might be able to determine whether another person lives or dies. In this verse, the apostle James reminds believers to watch our words—because a single sentence can build up or destroy a person’s life. What if the followers had chosen instead to encourage the girl with words such as, “How can I help you?”, “I am here to chat”, or, “You are not alone”? Perhaps then there would have been a chance of re-writing the tragic ending to this story.

Of course, the votes from her Instagram followers likely wouldn’t have had the same tragic impact if she didn’t already feel trapped and suffocated by the circumstances of her life, so much so that she had no hope for the future and entertained thoughts of bringing her life to an end. Ultimately, it was her decision to take her own life.

In some ways, I can relate to how she felt. When I was a young teen myself, I also struggled with suicidal thoughts. I felt suffocated by the pressures of life and everything felt meaningless. I was also upset at my family for not giving me the wealth and happiness I desired. Yet every time I thought of suicide, I could not work up the courage to do it, and so I never followed through. Looking back, I am so thankful for that.

In retrospect, I realize that it was all the grace of God. If I had chosen to give up my life then, not only would I have caused immense sadness to my family and friends, but I know now that I would have regretted it myself. Although there are seasons of life that are disappointing, discouraging or hopeless, I’ve learned that life is also full of seasons and experiences that can be exciting and joyful, and these are worth exploring and cherishing. Having experienced both the highs and lows in life, I now know that life is a gift from God.

I have been married for many years, and my husband and I have always hoped for a child. Although we have gone for physical check-ups and are both very healthy, we have  experienced disappointment over and over again. We are left mystified as to why we are unable to conceive.

This struggle with infertility has helped me further realize how precious each life is, and to not take it for granted. If not for God granting us life, we wouldn’t be able to exist on this earth for even just one more second. He has breathed life into mankind, and it is in Him that we live and move and exist (Acts 17:28). Life is God’s grace to us.

As Psalm 139:13-14 says:

For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.

May we cherish our time on earth. After all, it was not in vain that God brought us to this earth. He has beautiful plans for each of us. We are children beloved by God, and we exist with value and purpose. If we chose to obey God and remain in His love, then we will experience true joy in life (John 15:9-11).

I pray that as we enjoy the pleasures of life on this earth, we will also courageously face the difficulties and challenges that may come our way—learning to appreciate our gift of life, and may we use our words well to love those beside us so that we may be a blessing to the world.

 

Editor’s Note: If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts, we encourage you to reach out to a church leader or look up your local suicide helpline to seek professional help.