John Piper’s most-viewed sermon clip of all time was an afterthought.
In fact, it was an off-the-cuff tangent to an afterthought, unusual for a man whose sermons are well-prepared and meticulously researched.
“I don’t know what you feel about the prosperity gospel—the health, wealth and prosperity gospel—but I’ll tell you what I feel about it,” Piper told a gathering of more than 1,000 college students in November 2005. “Hatred.”
The founder of Desiring God and then-pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church continued:
It is not the gospel, and it’s being exported from this country to Africa and Asia, selling a bill of goods to the poorest of the poor: “Believe this message, and your pigs won’t die and your wife won’t have miscarriages, and you’ll have rings on your fingers and coats on your back.” That’s coming out of America—the people that ought to be giving our money and our time and our lives, instead selling them a bunch of crap called “gospel.”
The sanctuary at Mountain Brook Community Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was so full “it felt like college students were hanging from the rafters,” recalled David Mathis, who accompanied Piper on the trip.
But “you could hear a pin drop that night,” said Bryan Johnson, who was helping lead the University Christian Fellowship (UCF) campus ministry.
“I’ll tell you what makes Jesus look beautiful,” Piper told them. “It’s when you smash your car, and your little girl goes flying through the windshield, and lands dead on the street . . . and you say through the deepest possible pain, ‘God is enough.’”
The nearly three-minute clip taken from the hour-long sermon was posted to YouTube in 2007; since then, more than 1 million have viewed it, more than any other solo Piper video.
“There was a gospel plea there, and a rawness that really resonated,” said Joel Brooks, who headed UCF at the time. “I’ve never heard Piper say ‘crap’ in a sermon before. Even his illustration about a child going through the windshield is over-the-top in a way that showed Piper was caught in the moment. It was really engaging for college students.”
The reach has been remarkable, especially for a three-minute segment thrown in on the fly. (Piper himself has “zero recollection” of it.) Its popularity helps illustrate how proponents of Reformed theology and the prosperity gospel have contended with one another as each view has gained followers during the last decade.
Piper’s reason for traveling from his home base in Minneapolis to Birmingham that week was to deliver a Reformation Day lecture at Beeson Divinity School, remembered Mathis, who is now the executive editor for desiringGod.org but was then a volunteer assistant to Piper.
Speaking at UCF was “tacked on,” a favor to Brooks, who was a student in a four-person missions class at Beeson that Piper occasionally taught.
The sermon wasn’t even new.
“Typically, when John went on the road while he was a full-time pastor, he would take something he’d already done for the church and warm it back up,” Mathis said. “The message John took was something he had prepared for the anniversary of 9/11, which fell on a Sunday that year.”
Titled “Where Is God?,” the message was about grappling with suffering and God’s sovereignty—particularly poignant barely two months after Hurricane Katrina emptied New Orleans, just five hours down the road from Birmingham.
Then, 47 minutes in, Piper went off-script.
“He is very much a preparation guy,” Mathis said. “He rarely does purely extemporaneous speaking. But sometimes the little extemp moments in an otherwise scripted message are some of the most golden things he says.”
Mathis called them a “combination of heat and light,” as Piper’s emotions boil up over the truth he’s been researching and preparing.
In this case, the remarks were also a second favor to Brooks.
“Out of the blue, we started getting this little bit of prosperity gospel coming in,” Brooks said of his campus ministry, which had rocketed to 1,000 students in the six years since he founded it. “One guy had just become a believer, and he was a gifted in evangelism and started to bring people in with him. But his doctrine got off.”
Brooks didn’t then know how large the sect would grow. Within several years, Matt Pitt would take several hundred students from UCF and start his own ministry called The Basement. High energy and enormously popular, The Basement at one time drew crowds of 7,000 before Pitt was arrested twice in 18 months for impersonating police officers. (Pitt pled guilty the first time, and was acquitted the second with the help of his attorney, who has also represented Creflo Dollar.)
“The crazy part is that right before Piper came, I was going to my office, and standing outside of our student center was a Cree Native American,” Brooks said. “His name was Reggie Rabbit.”
Rabbit, a Canadian in his early 20s, was in town to speak at a mission conference at Briarwood Presbyterian Church. He told Brooks he was highly favored by the Lord.
“Honestly, that ticked me off,” Brooks said. “I said, ‘We’re all highly favored by the Lord.’”
“I have a prophetic word for you,” Rabbit responded.
Still irritated, Brooks shot back, “Lord, if what this man says is not true, let it come on his head as a double curse.”
Looking back, he concedes, “That was rude.”
Undeterred, Rabbit told him that “a serpent is coming, and this serpent is prosperity. It’s coming to Birmingham.”
He was right. In fact, it was already there.
Over dinner at Brooks’s house before the event, Piper explained what he planned to speak on.
“I was like, ‘That’s great, but can you talk about prosperity?’” Brooks said.
It wasn’t a topic Piper had addressed much—if at all—before, Mathis said. Two years later, Piper would ask Mathis to research the topic for a 2008 sermon; since then, Piper’s opposition to the prosperity gospel has become known as one his key contributions to the wider church.
Piper went straight from Brooks’s table to speaking at the church (the music had already started when he arrived), so there was no time to look anything up or to plan the addition.
“It was an unprepared, unresearched, extemporary addition,” Mathis said.
At the time, the afterthought seemed small and fleeting.
Not so in the more than 11 years since that night.
“I still meet college students who are very familiar with it,” Brooks said.
Most of them weren’t in the room at Mountain Brook Community Church. Instead, they ran across the sermon jam—a brief sermon clip laid on top of music—that Marc Sikma put on YouTube.
Sikma and Jason Zellmer, affiliated with the Acts 29 church-planting network, had started a church in St. Charles, Missouri, three months before Piper spoke.
In early December, Zellmer wanted to show a short video on the prosperity gospel during his evening sermon. Fans of Piper, the two searched his archived talks.
“We were able to capture those couple of powerful moments in that sermon and put it together, then eventually used it in our worship gathering,” Sikma said. “Then we decided to upload it. We certainly weren’t expecting any traction, but we wanted to share it so our body could go back and look at it again.”
A year or so later, Sikma looked back and was surprised to see how many times it had been viewed. “Between the first and fourth years it was up, it was growing by the tens of thousands of views, sometimes every month,” he said.
Friends started asking Sikma if he’d seen it; once, it was shown at a conference he attended. It’s garnered 1,054,726 views online; in 2012, another version went up that’s been seen more than 200,000 times. For thousands, it was a way to learn about Piper’s theology not through books like Desiring God or messages delivered on the main stage of Passion conferences, but through this short clip about one of the world’s fastest-growing heresies.
One of those viewers was Spencer Cary. “My first introduction to Piper was as the figurehead of the Calvinist movement,” he said. “I thought he was the worst.”
Cary was introduced to prosperity theology as a freshman at Presbyterian College in South Carolina, and he was horrified by it.
The sermon jam “was the first time I’d heard [Piper] say something that I was completely on board with.”
Those few minutes served as Cary’s first toe-dip into Reformed theology; today, he’s working with Brooks and planting a Reformed Baptist church in Lexington, South Carolina.
Cary remembers Piper’s anger, being horrified at the idea of America exporting prosperity gospel theology, and the vivid picture of the father losing his daughter. “Realizing that the gospel is beautiful in the midst of suffering—that had never been put into words for me before,” he said.
Johnson, now an elder at Brooks’s Redeemer Community Church, keeps the entire message on his phone. So does Brent Fuhrman, a former Mountain Brook Community Church member who listens at least once a quarter. Church planter Aaron Lentz, who first saw the YouTube clip his freshman year in college, has shown it to people dozens of times since.
“I don’t think I’d ever heard the gospel through that lens,” said Lentz, who remembers almost all the phrases in the clip verbatim. “It was a radically different message than I’d been hearing most of my life. God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him—not in prosperity, but in the midst of loss.”
The clip’s enormous success points to the pervasiveness of prosperity gospel. Piper’s second most-viewed solo YouTube video is a 10-minute feature on why he “abominates” that theology.
“I don’t necessarily hear people saying, ‘If you believe in Jesus, you’re going to get a BMW or you aren’t going to get sick,’” Lentz said. “It’s more hidden or subtle.”
But even unconsciously, it underpins much of American Christianity, he said. Think #blessed.
“I still watch [the clip] every couple of months as a reminder of the power of the gospel and what God’s doing,” Sikma said. “The message is very poignant to an American culture that finds itself wanting much and giving little.”
- How John Piper’s Seashells Swept Over a Generation (Sarah Zylstra)