I ended my Monday-Tuesday blogs last week, December 17-18, by saying that the American church needs true revival. I sought to qualify this term by explaining what I meant by it. Now I would like to expand on this idea that the American church needs real revival. If you do not believe this to be true then I submit that you are in a deep spiritual coma, or willfully blind to what is happening to the churches of America, at best. My purpose is to bring you out of this coma and then to feed your faith with profound hope.
The End of Self-Help Philosophy
The gospel we have become accustomed to in popular American church culture is a message of self-help. We believe the good news is about us when it is first about Jesus. The reason why our sins can be forgiven is because Jesus died for us and rose for our justification. This has little or nothing to do with “self help” philosophy, a deeply American phenomenon.
Scores of books and articles have been written to demonstrate that my concern is not ill-founded. This point has been made again and again by writers like Christian Smith, Rodney Stark and Ross Douthat. Christian Smith wrote a few years ago that the youth groups of America’s churches worshipped a god of “moral, therapeutic deism.”
Self-help gospel messages have no room for holiness. In a time when Christians generally display little difference in values and lifestyle–think divorce, sexual morality and attitudes toward money and the poor–the missing ingredient is clearly biblical holiness. Image has been substituted for character and giftedness trumps godliness. The rise and fall of super-pastors underscores this point all too clearly.
A decade or so ago there was a much-ballyhooed revival in Florida. Millions visited and books were written praising this as God’s new wave in our time. While many were clearly blessed and helped a large number of people were left confused and deeply hurt. The greatest problem was the disillusionment that was left because of the lack of holiness and discernment among leaders. Such movements have actually created new “burned over” pockets of the church where revival is no longer taken seriously.
In addition to these self-help related problems we have embraced a form of Christian faith that is openly syncretistic. Syncretism is the amalgamation, or attempted amalgamation, of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought. Christianity has always opposed syncretism throughout history. When it has failed to do this the salt and light of the gospel is lost. We are clearly living in a time when our saltiness has been lost and our light is very dim. Sadly, some equate this loss with politics. If we were bolder for the right moral position in public we would regain our saltiness in the culture. But nothing is further from the truth. As someone wrote many years ago, “I looked for the church in the world and did not find it. I looked for the world and found it in the church.”
Our American Christian syncretism blends true biblical doctrines into a toxic mix of hyper-individualism, consumeristic materialism, moral relativism and nationalistic pride. We are argumentative, angry and aggressive. Combined with our lifestyle this has created a public expression of our faith that makes the church, and its message, most unattractive. Many conservatives believe the answer to this is to preach more law and judgment. The real answer is to recover Jesus and the gospel.
A Pick-and-Choose Christianity
The most obvious fact is that we have failed to make disciples. We have brought many to the church and baptized them. We have led many more through prayers of faith. But we have failed to “teach them everything [Jesus] commanded.” We have failed to live with people in communities where the gospel truly transforms lives with freedom and joy.
What we have created is called by one “pick-and-choose spirituality.” We have inconsistently applied Jesus’ teachings, leaving out parts that we do not understand or like. We have forgotten the poor, trampled over the weak and built super-sized churches with huge debt. While we moan about the federal debt we have bankrupted much of the future of the church. It does make you wonder if you think about it at all.
Somehow the disconnect between how Christians live and what the Bible tells us about following Jesus has been severed rather profoundly. Pastors run corporate structures, with boards to hold them accountable (in some instances). People attend meetings and give their money. They invite the church to teach their children and serve their emotional needs. A full-service church became the norm in the 1980s but in 2012 a growing number of people are finally questioning this model. This is especially true of the millennials.