Sunday, May 9, 2010

More Than Self-Help

A couple posts ago, I wrote about how I have a difficult time formulating good titles for my blog posts. This is an important facet of such writing because in the vast ocean of information on the internet, I only have a few words of a title to grab your attention, get you to continue reading, and persuade you to contribute to A Chicken in a Cage with a Ferret financially. A eye-catching title can therefore either make or break a piece of writing. Recently a read a book by Michael Horton entitled Christless Christianity. Apparent paradoxes make for good titles. If I were to read this book around campus and someone asked what I was reading, they would say something like "Hm....that's sounds interesting" when I showed them the cover. The title did not disappoint, either. The book was very good and made me think about a few things, the fruit of which I now share with you, my faithful minions. I mean faithful readers.

The subtitle of this book is "The Alternative Gospel of the American Church." Horton's main point is that, in contemporary American churches, we often remove Christ from his position as the focal point of the faith and replace him with what Horton calls "moralistic therapeutic deism." What this basically means is that most religious Americans think that God created the world and wants us all to be nice and polite so that he can make us happy until we die and go to heaven (41). When such a belief system is put in place, only a shell of true Christianity remains. Horton writes, "My argument in this book is not that evangelicalism is becoming theologically liberal but that it is becoming theologically vacuous" (23). The result? Christianity is relegated to a place among the numerous other self-help options of culture instead of standing above all paradigms as the external gospel that Jesus died and rose from the dead to save mankind from sin. The mission of the church is no longer to proclaim this good news and to make known the offer of salvation but rather to help people feel better about themselves, boost self-esteem, and take care of all the day-to-day problems people bring upon themselves when they fail to live up to their full potential.

Horton's thesis certainly has a great deal of truth in it. Granted, he may generalize at times, but a glance at the religious landscape of our country reveals that, in many instances, Christianity has been watered down, fluffed up, and packaged in books with pictures of sharply-dressed authors with beaming smiles on the cover. Horton spends many pages critiquing some of the things that such figures as Joel Osteen and Brian McLaren have said, and I'm all for such evaluation. Horton claims that these voices promote a works-righteousness, but one that is not all that hard to attain. Sin is not portrayed as a despicable violation against God, but as a simple failure in self-actualization. When the gravity of sin is so downplayed, salvation comes by trying harder and living better. After all, who needs a messy sacrifice on a cross when all we have to do is apply five easy steps and emerge as spiritually complete individuals? In this system, Christianity is not about what Jesus has done for us, but it's about us being good people in order to win God's favor, which he is so quick to give us in spite of our sin-stained hearts. "This is what we might call the false of gospel of 'God Loves You Anyway'" (71).

When I started reading Christless Christianity, it was easy for me to point my finger at the problems Horton identifies and think, "Yeah, that's right! These people do need to fix this. If only they knew how Christianity should be preached, like I do!" But the more I read, the more I wondered if I am necessarily all that different in the way I teach God's Word. I certainly hope that we do not discount the magnitude of the gospel for the sake of "good advice," but what if the tone of our preaching/teaching betrays the correct stance?

One of the problems with moralistic therapeutic deism is that is overemphasizes what we do and does not place enough focus on what God has done. The message is that if we just keep hacking away at a holy life, God will be happy with us and everything will be okay. But Scripture teaches that even when we try our hardest and do our best, we still fall far short of God's standard (Isa. 64:6). This is why God gave his Son to die in our place. That's the central message of Scripture; that's the gospel. Jesus came to earth as a man and died to save us from the penalty of our sin. My fear , however, is that our preaching too often shines the spotlight on our own conduct and fails to point to Christ's completed work. Our sermons and lessons contain a lot of imperatives (do this, do that) and not so many indicatives (God did this).

In a way, this is what we have been taught to do. In my preaching and teaching classes, I have learned that every message must have three different categories of objectives. First, there must be a cognitive objective--what you want your hearers to learn and understand. Second, there is an affective objective--what you want them to feel. And third, there is a behavioral objective--what you want them to do. This behavioral objective is key. Congregants supposedly need to always have a few application points that they can take home and put into practice that very week. Such practical nuggets must be specific, too. Especially in my teaching class, we were taught to formulate very specific behavioral objectives, something like: to invite two different people to church next week and to pray for five unbelieving friends every day.

What if every sermon or lesson doesn't need a behavioral objective? What if we don't always provide hearers with something they need to do that week? What if, every once in a while, we simply retold what Jesus did for us and left it at that? Maybe Christians would think that Christianity is a lot less about what they do to make God happy and a lot more about what he has done out of his love for us. The message would cease to be "do, do, do" and would become "receive, receive, receive." That's what preaching (kerusso) is, after all. Proclaiming the good message as a herald. Not being a life-coach that teaching people how to have their best lives now.

Please don't misunderstand me, however. I am not advocating that we no longer teach people about how their behavior is affected by the truth of Christ's sacrifice. The truth is that the Bible does include a lot of imperatives. It tells us something about how we are to live. But we do need to realize that this is not the center of the message. We do not live out the gospel, because the gospel is about what Jesus did. But we do live in light of it, all the while remembering that it is all about Jesus. When this is done, maybe we and others will be able to say along with Horton: "I am a Christian not because I think that I can walk in Jesus's footsteps but because he is the only one who can carry me" (117).

And now for something that has nothing to do with any of that. As you are hopefully aware, spring is in full force. And with spring comes blossoming love. This phenomenon has even affected me, as I have fallen for my bank teller. Here's a sampling of one of our recent interactions:

Me: "Hi, I need to deposit this into my checking account."
Her: "Ok." [Looking at the back of my paycheck] "Oh, look at you. You already endorsed it."
Me: "Yep. I finally learned how to use the bank."
Her: "Haha, that's good. I don't really know how to use the bank."
Me: "Well, that makes me pretty nervous about whatever is going to happen with my money."
Her: [Offering a polite laugh while hoping that I ask for her number] "Ok, here's your receipt."
Me: [Failing to ask for said number] "Thanks, have a good day."

Yes, ladies and gentlemen. I am just that smooth.

One final note: I also recently read two books by E.M. Bounds--The Essentials of Prayer and Power Through Prayer. If you are a Christian at all, I would highly recommend The Essentials of Prayer, and if you are going into or are in ministry, you should also read Power Through Prayer. I don't plan on writing any blog posts about these books, but I thought I would at least share a few quotations:

"The world judges religion not by what the Bible says, but by how Christians live. Christians are the Bible which sinners read." (Essentials, 61. Wish I knew that quote when I wrote this.)

"The character of our praying will determine the character of our preaching. Light praying will make light preaching." (Power, 27)

"Air is not more necessary to the lungs than prayer is to the preacher." (Power, 75)

Thanks for reading; I know this is a long one. Check out the other blogs on the sidebar. I'm going to put a link up in my facebook status, which I always feel like is very narcissistic, but I also feel like people forget this is here if I don't do so. So forgive me for that. But read, and then go tell your friends, coworkers, and grandmothers to also read. And have a fantastic May 10th, May 25th, or November 3rd--whenever you happen to read this.

1 comment:

Caitlyn said...

I like it when people rag on that class about lesson writing.

I think you make a good point, that our lessons are highly egocentric. We are always seeking what we can do and how to make ourselves better rather than on the redemptive work of Christ. I think you could have a powerful message if you just told people the story of Jesus.

But I think you're catching on with my whole concept of meeting people in the real world. One more step, and you could have had that teller's number, then you could go on late-night IHOP dates.