Now for an example of how this gold is mined: Overseas travel with a celebrity pastor, including the ever-popular "Holy Land Trips" to Israel, or Mediterranean cruises and even luxury European riverboat trips.
I'm not against nice vacations. I just can't stand the hypocrisy of pastors beating their sheep for more money, threatening them with calamity if they don't tithe, begging and beating the sheep for emergency funds for renovations to their auditorium, poor-mouthing that they just don't have enough money and have to cut ministry - yet at the same time they try to entice the church members to drop $4000 on a trip to Israel or a luxury cruise to the destinations of the Apostle Paul as a means of spiritual renewal.
The fact is there is an entire segment of the travel industry focused strictly on Christian overseas religious travel, mostly trips to the "Holy Land". Holy Land travel agencies offer special trips just for pastors to train them on how to lead their own trip (nice example of multi-level marketing). These "pastor only" trips, called "familiarization tours" (click here and here for two examples) are offered at a greatly reduced price, and some agencies offer to refund the cost of the entire trip if the pastor commits to mine the gold in their pews to get 15 or so noses and their nickels to return to the Holy Land in the next 18 months.
And really there is no limit to who is willing to tap the church "market" with these trips, and creative ways to use church resources in the process:
- SBC pastors like Mac Brunson and Herb Reavis here in Jacksonville lead these trips, and they market the trips using their church's websites and Internet resources. The Herb Reavis trip tracing the steps of the Apostle Paul is touted as "...more than a vacation, it is a spiritual pilgrimage".
- Some pastors will actually send church media ministry personnel and equipment to film portions of the trip, like sermons of the celeb-preacher preaching on a Galilean hillside. Nothing can help entice people to go next year, than to film and edit it and show pictures and video clips to the plebe back home who couldn't go on the trip.
- Televangelists like Benny Hinn are mining this gold as well.
- Even the evangelical Christian favorite politician Mike Huckabee is in on it, leading Christian excursions to the Holy Land.
And if you look at the websites hawking these trips, it is the same marketing cliches' over and over again: "walk with us where Jesus walked", or "let's follow in the footsteps of our Lord", or "your life will never be the same as you go back in time", or "your Bible will come alive after you visit the Holy Land". They are called "spiritual pilgrimages". Some Pastors will hawk them from the pulpit in their sermons "If you travel with me next year to Israel, you'll see what this verse means by...". It never ends.
There are 8-day trips, 10-day trips, 11-day trips. You can select trips where you "follow Jesus", or "footsteps of Paul." Some are land-based, some are cruises. Some focus on trips for Catholics, others for Methodists, even some for Mormons (trips to upstate New York to see the birthplace of Joseph Smith?). Some highlight history, like Danube River trips, sometimes including stops in Rome.
A whole menu of ways you can travel and rub elbows with your celebrity pastor - all in Jesus name of course.
The Watchdog has to ask pastors all over the country who annually use their influence to lead their followers on overseas trips:
Reports all over are that giving in churches is down during this recession. Churches are having to cut ministry. In Florida churches have had to decrease their giving to the Cooperative Program about 6%. Even the mighty FBC Jax is 13% behind in their giving and is 1/2 million short of cash for an on-going auditorium renovation. Mac Brunson even said FBC Jax is trying to maintain "some semblence of ministry" with the cash shortfalls. The money is not flowing fast enough.
Yet the advertising for Holy Land trips continues. If giving is down, and ministries are having to be cut, why then, are the rock-star celebrities in Christianity still pushing their high-priced "Holy Land Tours" on their church websites as though they are some sort of "ministry" of the church, during these times?
Or maybe I have it all wrong? Perhaps Holy Land excursions ARE ministries, and perhaps Christians SHOULD be encouraged to give sacrificially to the pastors' Holy Land Trips. After all, here is a quote from Debbie Brunson of FBC Jax, encouraging church members to go with her on their 2011 "Holy Land Trip with the Brunson Family":
Is that true, or is it a marketing ploy? The greatest impact on our Christian walk would be to go to the Holy Land and "follow the steps of our Lord"? News flash: by going to Israel you're not "following the steps of your Lord". Jesus is no longer walking over in the Holy Land. In fact, Jesus is over HERE, right now, in our country, walking here, in the lives of Christians who should be ministering to folks here.
“Nothing in your Christian walk will have a greater impact on your life than a trip to the Holy Land. Journey with us to Israel as we follow the steps of our Lord and see how the stories in the Bible come to life.”
People at FBC Jax must be incredibly confused by the mixed messages: should they increase their giving 1% to the budget as they are being encouraged to do, or should they give a sacrificial gift for the new carpet and pews, or should they save for a Holy Land trip with their pastor? Or dare they put new tires on their kids' car or buy a new washing machine? And If non-tithers are the cause of our nation's economic ills, is the church making sure non-tithers are NOT using God's money by going on this trip?
Maybe instead of pastors encouraging their people to travel with them and spend $4000 to "walk where Jesus walked" on a Holy Land trip, maybe they should encourage their people NOT to go on a trip the next few years, and invest that money IN WHERE JESUS IS WALKING TODAY: right here in our own community amongst the lost and weary and the downtrodden who are hurting.