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Jim Cymbala: Selling Testimonies For Souls Who Don’t Matter (To Him)

Guest Post

**Editor’s note: This story was originally published at The Author of My Faith blog, and sent to us by Steven Langella, a former deacon at Brooklyn Tabernacle, and brother of the spiritually abused victim.

“Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” – (Ephesians 5:11)

roberta-and-jimMy name is Steven Langella.  I am a former member and deacon of the Brooklyn Tabernacle.  I would like to share with you the story behind the story of my sister Roberta Langella. For the past 20 years, Roberta’s story has been told by Jim Cymbala, the pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle through his books Fresh Wind, Fresh FireYou Were Made For More, VHS Video He’s Been Faithful, and DVD When God’s People Pray .  Roberta also made an appearance on the ABC News Program Person of the Week – Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir on Friday, Apr 14, 1995.  It is not an exaggeration to say that Jim Cymbala made hundreds of thousands of dollars on Roberta’s story.

Sadly, Roberta passed away on October 2, 2016, due to an overdose of Percocet combined with alcohol.  She was struggling with severe pain due to pancreatitis and was overmedicated.  She will be greatly missed. Our family wants to thank all of those who showed up for her Memorial Service on October 2, 2016.  Your overflow of love and support for Roberta was overwhelming.  Thank you for loving Roberta and us at this very painful time. “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for a difficult time.” Proverbs 17:17.

The story of Roberta Langella that is being told in Jim Cymbala’s books and DVD is simply not true.  It is, at best, a half-truth that has been altered to give the appearance of a woman who is a “vibrant Christian”.  It is true that Roberta was extremely likable, funny, compassionate and artistic. Roberta could make a rock laugh.  But Roberta was struggling spiritually.  And this went on year after year. And it is for this reason that I am writing the truth about Roberta Langella.  Many of you who thought you knew Roberta might be surprised at what you read.  You might even be angry at me for telling the truth. But don’t let anger cloud your vision.  Instead, look at the facts stated and then come to your own conclusions. There is a great injustice being done in the name of the Gospel, and for that, I must speak the truth in love.

As we have seen in recent years, there is no shortage of exaggerated Christian testimonies that have been embraced and believed by the church at large.  One such testimony is that of Ergun Caner.  Ergun became an overnight Christian celebrity through his dramatic testimony regarding his conversion from Islam to Christianity.  Yet it was all a lie.  He stretched and fabricated his story for dramatic effect.  For more on this story see the article The Ergun Caner Affair – One Assembly of the Evidence on Dr. White’s website Alpha & Omega Ministries.

My desire is not to attack or condemn anyone here.  God will judge the motives of men’s heart and test their work.  What I desire to do is speak the truth about Roberta Langella. And I must do this because I know the truth about Roberta Langella.  And what has been put forth by Jim Cymbala’s books and DVDs is not the truth.  And to stand by quietly, while a lie is being told in the name of the Gospel,  would make me just as guilty as Ergun Caner.  Admittedly, I bear an added burden.  I’m not just talking about anyone.  I am talking about my sister. Hopefully, what I share will cause many to stop buying books and DVDs with fabricated testimonies.  Hopefully what I share will  help others to avoid using gimmicks and dramatic stories when it comes to preaching the gospel.

The Gospel is the power of God, not dramatic stories.  The Apostle Paul stated in Romans 1:16:

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”

The gospel is a message about the birth, life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is the Gospel that is the power of God unto salvation, not a person’s sordid past, or even a Christian testimony.  God’s means of bringing about salvation has always been, and will always be through the Gospel.  God doesn’t need our help, our gimmicks, and He especially doesn’t need our exaggerated stories.  As Charles Spurgeon once said,“The Gospel is like a caged lion; you don’t have to defend it – just let it out of the cage.”  In the same way, the Gospel does not need our embellished or exaggerated stories. Just preach it and results will happen. And it is for this very reason that I must share the truth about Roberta’s story.  Jim Cymbala has used Roberta’s story repeatedly over the past 20 years  to promote the truth of the Gospel. Yet ironically, the story is not completely true.  This is a great disservice both to the Lord and to His church.

It was also a great disservice to Roberta Langella.  Roberta could never live up to the image that was portrayed in Jim Cymbala’s books and DVD’s.  Although she desired to be the “vibrant Christian woman” that Jim Cymbala portrayed.  In reality, Roberta was a weak and struggling Christian who suffered from severe depression and loneliness.  Added to that was the daily weight of trying to live up to the false image that the books and DVDs depicted.  It was a recipe for disaster.

Roberta first came to the Brooklyn Tabernacle in 1989 where I was a member and kept inviting her to church.  One Tuesday night she showed up at the prayer meeting, sat down next to me, began to weep and said to me,  “Steven I need Jesus”.  She just came off of a crack binge and was a broken woman.  She started coming to church and attending a Monday Night Bible study.  I began to see growth in my sister but she still had a long way to go.  Within a year she was a member of the church and joined the choir.  It was then that she wrote out her testimony and gave it to Carol Cymbala, the choir director, who in turn gave it to her husband Jim Cymbala.  In retrospect, that was the worst day in Roberta Langella’s life.  For that day would catapult Roberta into the status of a celebrity-like Christian.  The last thing that Roberta needed was to be a celebrity.  What Roberta really needed discipleship. Sadly, that is something that Roberta would never receive from the leadership of the Brooklyn Tabernacle.  Instead, she was exploited and used as a trophy to promote books, videos, DVDs for the Brooklyn Tabernacle that brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars.  I know that this is really hard for those loyal to the Brooklyn Tabernacle to hear. I do not believe that they intentionally set out to exploit Roberta or place a heavy yoke around her neck that she could never bear. Nevertheless, that is exactly what happened.

And the reason why I believe this happened is due to the fact that  Jim Cymbala is a fan of Charles Finney.   If you know anything about Charles Finney, you know that he is the father of modern day pragmatism. Finney was driven by one thing and one thing only: numbers by any means necessary.  Since Finney believed that man basically could save himself by an action of the will, he initiated his “new measures” to get as many decisions for Christ as possible.   An article entitled Together Against Extrabiblical Methods on theGrace To You website states the following:

“Finney was a pragmatist driven solely by results. He held no strong allegiance to any theological framework. That’s why his preaching was such a mixed bag—he was only interested in refining his sales pitch.”

“But marketing and manipulation don’t make the gospel any more plausible or potent.”

“The truth is that the gospel doesn’t need to be cleverly packaged—it simply needs to be preached.”

What does this have to do with Roberta?  Everything!   You see, pragmatism is not concerned so much with content as it is with results.  The only thing that matters is, “Does it work?”  Can we use it to draw large crowds?  Will it meet a felt need of the people? If so, then let’s do it!  Sadly, “By any means necessary” has become the rallying cry for many Evangelicals in America today.    Pragmatism blinds the eyes to the fact that pastors are called to shepherd the sheep, not exploit them.

And this is exactly what happened to Roberta.  Instead of caring for Roberta’s soul,  “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them”  (1 Peter 5:1a), the leadership at the Brooklyn Tabernacle saw Roberta as a marketing ploy, an object to be used by the Brooklyn Tabernacle to proclaim the gospel. Soon Roberta became somewhat of a Christian celebrity who was known as the girl with the “amazing testimony”.  This was detrimental to Roberta on so many levels.   Roberta had always been preoccupied with seeking approval from those around her. She was extremely insecure and never felt like she fit in.  Now, all of the sudden, she was a Christian celebrity and it was like a drug for Roberta. Her identity had always been wrapped up in her acceptance of others and now she was on top of the world.  Everyone wanted to be around Roberta.  Soon she was traveling the country, speaking at churches, sharing her dramatic testimony.  Her story was featured in Jim’s book Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, in the choir’s video He’s Been Faithful, and in the DVD series When God’s People Pray and even on an ABC News Program. She had a short-lived appearance in Jim Cymbala’s book You Were Made For More which we will get into a bit later.   Roberta was at the peak of her celebrity status when it all came crashing down.

The story of Roberta that has been portrayed in Jim Cymbala’s books and DVDs are simply not true.  Yes, Roberta had a very sordid past.  Yes, Roberta sought mercy at the feet of Jesus Christ.  Yes, Roberta seemed to be making some real progress initially.  But it was all short-lived.  In reality, Roberta never learned how to walk in the grace of God.  Roberta’s life can be compared to the parable of the seed that fell on rocky ground:

“Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil,but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away.” (Matthew 13:5-6)

The bottom line is that Roberta struggled spiritually.  And that struggle began when she was leading the Brooklyn Tabernacle Homeless Ministry in 1994 and continued until she passed away on October 2, 2016.  Roberta was never the “vibrant Christian woman” that Jim Cymbala portrayed her to be in his books and DVDs. There were several occasions where Roberta went to Jim and told her that she was severely depressed and struggling spiritually, to which he responded, “Roberta suck it up, it’s not about you”.  His antidote was to send her out to other churches to give her testimony. The truth is that Roberta was a commodity, and her story was so dramatic and larger than life that it would sell books, DVDs and even “help” the cause of the Gospel.  She was not allowed to be a weak, depressed, struggling Christian.  Otherwise, she would have been a poor advertisement for Jesus Christ.

The bottom line is that  Jim Cymbala and the leadership of the Brooklyn Tabernacle knew about Roberta’s struggles as the below two emails clearly show.

[Written by Steven Langella]