Christless Christianity?

hortonI believe a troubling proportion of what passes as “Christianity” in contemporary American evangelicalism is at best sub-biblical, and at worst completely un-Christian. This isn’t necessarily true of the smaller churches scattered hither and yon throughout our fair land, amongst the amber waves of grain, in the shadow of purple mountain majesties. But, I believe it is generally true of the evangelical industrial complex in general, and celebrity ministers in particular.

To be sure, much of this pseudo-Christianity retains the same words, liturgies, creeds, confessions and outward form of orthodox Christianity. But, internally, it bears little resemblance to the true faith. Does this mean most pastors are wicked men, out to lead their flock to the flames of hell? Not necessarily; but make no mistake – such men do exist. I think this situation is more the result of a series of compounding problems:

  1. A drive to become “relevant” to the secular world will result in a subtle, then increasingly deliberate “softening” of the Christian message to avoid “offense.” Thus, the Gospel is increasingly buried under an avalanche of “love.” See my description of evangelism and “the church that’s ashamed of the gospel,” here.
  2. Our cultural climate is producing men in ministry who are timid. Such men are well-intentioned and quite pleasant people. But, they’re often weak, vacillating, hesitant, indecisive, and afraid.
  3. Our society is totally consumer-oriented, and this has filtered down to the churches. Many Christians shop for a church out of convenience and with a mercenary sense of entitlement. They view church like Wal-Mart, and they’ll hit the road or the Safeway down the street if you make them mad. This influences weak pastors to further round the rough edges off their ministries and Gospel presentations.

The end result of these (and other) problems is that you eventually end up with a “faith” that isn’t even Christian at all. God is somebody who just wants to bless. Jesus is the cosmic butler who lives to serve. The Spirit is there to make you feel warm and fuzzy inside. The church exists to fill your needs.

Nearly a decade ago, a sociologist named Christian Smith observed five defining factors which summed up the defacto “creed” of modern “religious” teenagers in the United States, from many different faiths:

  1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Basically, young people would take these propositions, and fit them into whichever faith system they happened to be associated with. The result, of course, is a syncretic stew of blasphemy which has no objective content whatsoever.

If you know somebody who is “religious,” and they’re not grounded and schooled in a very conservative version of their faith tradition, then I’m betting you right now that they’d sum up their religious outlook with some or all of these five propositions. You know somebody who is “religious,” but doesn’t take it seriously. You’re thinking of her right now, aren’t you? You know exactly who you can ask. Try it. You’ll see . . .

This isn’t a modern phenomenon, of course. The Israelites perfected this technique, and repeatedly gave God lip-service with empty cultic rituals, while worshipping pagan gods. They viewed Yahweh as a spiritual 911 operator; somebody they had in their back pocket for a rainy day, but didn’t want to chat with otherwise. For example, consider this (Jeremiah 2:26-28):

As a thief is shamed when caught,
so the house of Israel shall be shamed:
they, their kings, their princes,
their priests, and their prophets,
who say to a tree, ‘You are my father,’
and to a stone, ‘You gave me birth.’
For they have turned their back to me,
and not their face.
But in the time of their trouble they say,
‘Arise and save us!’
But where are your gods
that you made for yourself?
Let them arise, if they can save you,
in your time of trouble;
for as many as your cities
are your gods, O Judah.

 

I suggest you read the book Christless Christianity by Michael Horton. It’s about, well . . . a “Christianity” which has taken Christ off the cross and made Him a cosmic butler. He writes:[1]

My concern is that we are getting dangerously close to the place in everyday American church life where the Bible is mined for “relevant” quotes but is largely irrelevant on its own terms; God is used as a personal resource rather than known, worshiped, and trusted; Jesus Christ is a coach with a good game plan for our victory rather than a Savior who has already achieved it for us; salvation is more a matter of having our best life now than being saved from God’s judgment by God himself; and the Holy Spirit is an electrical outlet we can plug into for the power we need to be all that we can be.

As this new gospel becomes more obviously American than Christian, we all have to take a step back and ask ourselves whether evangelicalism is increasingly a cultural and political movement with a sentimental attachment to the image of Jesus more than a witness to “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). We have not shown in recent decades that we have much stomach for this message that the apostle Paul called “a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense,” “folly to Gentiles” (Rom. 9:33; 1 Cor. 1:23).

Far from clashing with the culture of consumerism, American religion appears to be not only at peace with our narcissism but gives it a spiritual legitimacy.

Harsh words. I think they’re warranted.

Notes

[1] This excerpt is from Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2008), 19-20.

2 thoughts on “Christless Christianity?

  1. I have had feelings about how Christian, churches are for some time now. I too have watched how churches operate and how the Bible is “preached”. I am a preachers son, a hell fire and brimstone father.

    Even today, when I go to church, I go to worship and fellowship, not to take verbatim what anyone says, including the minister. I read the Bible, pretty much daily. I work to read a chapter a day. I pray pretty much daily as well, sometimes multiple times a day, which in my opinion, we should.

    Now, I will throw a curve ball into the monkey works. In Revelation Chapter 22, verse 19, states:

    and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy. “God” shall take away his part from the Book of Life, from the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.

    In my opinion, over the centuries since the Bible was written, as a studier of history, I personally believe the Bible has been modified; however, I still believe God has ensured the main concept of the Bible stays intact, and that God keeps Christians in the proper frame of mind and soul through the concept of the Bible and faith in God overall.

    I hope all of that makes sense.

  2. Don’t worry, it makes sense! I’m always hesitant to broad brush “all” churches, and make sweeping statements. There are thousands of small and large churches, throughout our country, which try their best to preach a true Gospel, equip their people to know God more, and to be faithful evangelists in their communities. Most of these churches labor on in faithful anonymity, and we’ll never know who they are.

    I tried to distinguish between these churches and the larger “evangelical industrial complex,” and so many of the popular celebrity preachers today. Any trip to a local Christian bookstore (if they haven’t gone bankrupt in your neighborhood) will show you how far the rot has gone in “popular evangelicalism.” By and large, I think Michael Horton is correct in the book I cited, above.

    Regarding whether what we have now is what they wrote then, I have a few recommendation for you. You can find a good series of free video lectures on whether we can trust our Bibles (and, naturally, whether we can trust what we have now) here: https://www.biblicaltraining.org/why-i-trust-my-bible/bill-mounce

    If you want a book, I suggest “The King James Only Controversy,” by James White, here: goo.gl/9Dsxjq. It uses the issue of whether the KJV is the best English translation as a foil to discuss whether we can trust our Bibles, and how these books were transmitted down through the centuries. If you prefer, you can also watch a 90 minute presentation by James White here: goo.gl/2WjGPn

    Take care!

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