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Posts Tagged ‘American Christians’

Our Divine Therapist Who Art In Heaven

It turns out that the secularization of America may unwittingly be the work of the Church itself.  Its abandonment of doctrine that comes with strong exegetical Biblical teaching and preaching has developed a religious population in American churches that know little if anything about the most basic tenets of the orthodox Christian faith.  This is the sad report given to us by the Barna Research Group in April 10, 2009, entitled “Most American Christians Do Not Believe that Satan or the Holy Spirit Exist.”

For several years now, the dominant religious “Christian” belief system in America has been identified as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.*  The fact of the matter is that it only on a very limited level can it be identified with orthodox Christian beliefs.  Nevertheless, it remains the predominant belief system of most American Christians, especially among its youth.  They cannot be faulted for this as one only needs to examine what has been taught in many American churches for the past 30 years.  The fault must lie at the feet of those responsible for the discipleship and education of their congregations.

The simplest way to break down what Moralistic Therapeutic Deism believes is that it asserts “God as Creator and Law Giver but largely uninvolved in daily life and presumes that all good people will go to heaven, regardless of religious beliefs.”  The authors identify a five-part “de-facto creed” of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism:

  1. A God exists who created and ordered 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 God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

The authors of the book go on to say, “Moralistic Therapeutic Design is about inculcating a moralistic approach to lifeIt teaches that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person.  That means being nice, kind, pleasant, respectful, responsible, at work on self-improvement, taking care of one’s health and doing one’s best to be successful.”

As such, then, “This is not a religion of repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering, of basking in God’s love and grace, of spending oneself in gratitude and love for the cause of social justice, etcetera…It is about attaining subjective well-being, being able to resolve problems and getting along amiably with other people.”

In this system of belief God is present in life like a life-coach or therapist.  He is there to help people succeed in life, to make them feel good, and to help them get along with others.  According to Bill White in his article, “Descent Into Darkness,” the belief statement that sums up this religion is: God helps those who help themselves.  “In fact, 75% of Americans are convinced that quote comes from the Bible.  It was actually Ben Franklin who said that, and he publicly acknowledged that he was a Deist.”

Why call it Moralistic Therapeutic Deism? Well, when one considers its central tenets as expressed above, it is very evident that it is moralistic because the primary teaching is to “be nice.”  And, it is therapeutic because, by focusing on pop psychology and self-help, the goal is to bring us comfort.  Finally, it is deism because the core belief is that there is a God who made the world, but he does n0t require much of us; he is generally nice but not too involved.

Some of the trouble lies in our attempts to make the Gospel “user friendly.” Most attempts only emasculate the Gospel so that it makes no demands.  Following Jesus is not supposed to be hard.  “The God of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is not demanding,” say Smith and Denton. “Actually, he can’t be because his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good.  In short, God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist.”  (Chanon Ross addresses this issue in youth ministry in his article “Jesus Isn’t Cool: Challenging youth ministry.”)

Columbia Gorge Above John Day Dam, Horse Thief Lake, Spring 2010

Columbia Gorge Above John Day Dam, Horse Thief Lake, Spring 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

This insipid form of Christian belief has been adequately addressed by more brilliant people than me.  For instance, Lane Chaplin handles it very well in his blog.  He identifies this system of belief of classical Pelagianism, which teaches that man is basically good apart from God’s grace.  That is an oversimplification of Pelagianism but makes its point.  Gene Edward Veith of World Magazine has an excellent critique of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism as well.  It is a part of the “Christless christianity” that Michael Horton fears is preached in most American pulpits today.  As Brian Kiley points out in his blog, Live Generously, no where do we hear the theology of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism more than at funerals, especially funerals of famous individuals like Michael Jackson.*

The remedy for this creeping spiritually destructive teaching, of course, is strong, exegetical teaching and preaching from the Bible.  A return to focusing upon the central doctrines of the Church in the education of our children and young people will help them develop a robust faith in God.  This does not demand dry, irrelevant teaching and preaching.  Application of beliefs to daily living is always important.

On the other hand, it may be just as easy to rework the Lord’s Pray a bit to accommodate our view of God:

Our Divine Therapist
Who art in heaven
Hallowed are our plans and convenience.
Thy goodness come,
Thy morality be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our peace and happiness.
Forgive us our mess-ups
And help us to overlook the mess-ups of others.
And lead us to become better people
By delivering us from our inner demons
For your distant watchfulness means our peace and contentment and joy forever.  Amen.

Now that God has been reduced to serving my need for comfort and convenience, I have a few things I need to let him know about that is really bugging me.  Where do I find his therapy couch?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

*CAUTION:  Here is one example where the Wikipedia information is mis-information.  First, it only identifies one of the authors in the study, Christian Smith.  The other author was Melinda Lundquist Denton.  Second, it has the wrong school!  It was not University of Notre Dame but instead University of North Carolina.  The study was a report to the National Study of Youth and Religion.  It was the basis for their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.
*CAUTION:  Apparently Brian Kiley followed the Wikipedia article and provides the same misinformation.  Be careful of using Wikipedia!
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Spiritual Stockholm Syndrome

Stockholm Syndrome, in short, is the psychological phenomenon in which people become enamored with those who enslave them and hold them captive.  Christian music artist Derek Webb made this a part of his new album by the same name.  In it he explores how people, particularly Christians, have fallen in love with things that ultimately destroy them.  This seems to be the reality of the human story throughout time.

This smart application of a psychological phenomenon to the human spiritual condition caught my attention.  Personally, I think Webb is on to something and has creatively pointed it out for us.  Of course, that is what artists are supposed to do, right?  I really appreciate artists that take us below the fluffy surface of life to get to the gritty reality of day-to-day living.  I like to think of them as prophetic artists.

Blue Heron on the Deschutes River, April 2010

Blue Heron on the Deschutes River, April 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Of course, it is easy to name the ways in which fallen humanity as a whole and our American society in particular has fallen in love and come to identify with those things that are destroying us.  It is quite another issue to look within each of our own hearts and find those places, people and things that we have become enamored with that are really destroying us spiritually albeit ever so slowly.  Our affinity to our self and our sin goes unnoticed most of the time.

Instead of keeping up an adversarial mentality towards our own spiritual enemies, we have learned to make peace with them.  Rather than staying in constant battle-mode, if we are honest with ourselves, we have taken off our armor, dropped our weapons and started enjoying the company of the enemy of our souls.  This goes against the message of the New Testament which is replete with pictures of saints as boxers training their bodies, athletes staying fit for the race and warriors constantly armored and at the ready to use their weapons.  We are to be always on our guard because our enemy, the devil, is always going around searching for an easy meal.

Spiritual Stockholm Syndrome is where American Christians in particular have become enamored with affluence, materialism, comfort, gluttony, convenience, pornography, anger, swearing, gambling, selfishness, personal rights, image and looks or the hundreds of others lures and sirens of our age calling us to our own destruction.  At best, these things merely make us spiritually impotent against the spiritual enemies of our age.  We are no longer poor and impoverished; but we no longer have spiritual authority or power when and where we need it either.  Collectively we have lost our prophetic voice and the right to speak to our culture because we have become just like the rest of our culture – enamored with the enemy.

What will it take for the evangelical churches in America to come out of their spiritual Stockholm Syndrome? I do not know.  We have experienced national crises and have soon afterward returned to what we were before.  Perhaps God in his goodness and grace will visit us by his Holy Spirit and awaken us from our slumber.

Meanwhile, there are many who, like bellwether sheep, are ringing the bell as loud as they can to call us back to where we belong.  I am not certain I agree with Derek Webb’s approach when in one song he chides those who “don’t give a s—” about thousands dying around the world daily.  Such shock treatments, reminiscent of Tony Compolo’s similar attempt more than two decades ago, rarely have the desired effect.  Nevertheless, I cannot denounce his attempt to do something to ring the alarm.  I just think there are more effective ways.

Treatment for spiritual Stockholm Syndrome will take time and commitment.  The Great Counselor is the only one who can give us the wisdom necessary to navigate out of this spiritual and moral dilemma.  The spiritual manual for living – the Scriptures – must be our map out of this spiritual wilderness.  Finally, recognition of our true spiritual condition must result in a cry for help from the Lord who is full of grace and mercy.  He will fulfill his promise to help when we cry out to him.  Only he has the power to break free those who are stuck in a spiritual Stockholm Syndrome.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Competing Orthodoxies

A simplified chart of historical developments ...

Image via Wikipedia

Let’s face it.  American Christians seem to be afraid of theological and philosophical competition in the market place.  Even among themselves, they demonize one another’s theological differences and trash each other’s denominations.  This is not a healthy environment for building the Kingdom of God.  Yet, when it comes to competing claims, they remain largely silent except in their huddles and clusters.

Evangelical Christians seem to be particularly afraid of competing against secularism.  Unrecognized by many of them, secularism itself has become a part of the American Christian thought and practice.  It is itself a type of dangerous syncretism that threatens the genuine message and power of the message of Jesus.

Except in missionary circles, the theological arenas of Bible schools or seminaries, or among expatriates overseas, any dialogue on American soil among Americans of different religious persuasions is almost nil.  This is due largely to American Christians buying into the secularist notion that religion is a personal and private matter and should not be discussed or carried into the market places.  It would seem that it is not a suitable topic for public discussion, we are taught.

When the Apostle Paul addressed the crowd on Mars Hill in Athens, Greece, it was in a public place.  Frequently, the Apostle Paul used the market place to introduce and speak to the spiritual questions and needs of the people of the culture.  It will be necessary for Christians to regain that missionary zeal and practice if we are to transform our culture by being salt and light in it.

Southeast Washington State, Palouse, Spring 2010

Southeast Washington State, Palouse, Spring 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

There are many believers and leaders in America who are raising their voices and modeling this for the church.  One such person is Hunter Baker who is the Houston Baptist University political science professor.  He voices his concern about the dangers of secularism in society and the church in his recently published book, “The End of Secularism.”  Online editor for Christianity Today , Sarah Pulliam, had an interview with Hunter Baker in the October 2009 issue.

Francis Schaeffer

Image via Wikipedia

Of course, the pioneer for this discussion was Francis A. Schaeffer.  His seminal book, “How Should We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture” addresses much of the same issues but more in-depth and with historical background.  The fact that it is still an issue largely unaddressed by the average evangelical American Christian is alarming.  It registers just how deep secularism has dug into the expressions and practices of American Christianity.

Secularism teaches Americans from an early age that religion and spiritual discussions, particularly of certain subjects, should be private and not a part of public life at all.  The ideal is a social harmony that is absent of God-talk.  One is reminded of the Beatles’ song, “Imagine.”  The secularist likes to “imagine if there was no religion.”  For the true Christian, however, to act as if God does not exist in any part of our life is not just dishonest, it is hypocritical.  It is also worthy of some of the strongest words of Jesus against disowning him before others.

Hunter Baker, in his 0nline interview with Sarah Pulliam of Christianity Today, also notes that to place this expectation upon Christians is unfair.  It is utterly mistaken to think that secularism is the center of our American culture, while the competing claims of Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Mormonism et al all revolve around it.  Secularism is not the objective umpire attempting to control or regulate the debate.  Instead, it is a completing orthodoxy in the market place of ideas.

For Christians to buy into the idea that their spiritual life should be “private and purely devotional” is a mistake.  Instead, our faith in God should be vocal and visible in the market place of ideas.  It can be a voice against the ills and abuses of our society.  It can provide hope and answers to society’s ills.

As such, American Christians should not be afraid to speak up and speak out – with grace and love – concerning the answers their faith has for today’s issues.  Granted, this means that we will need to be well informed concerning those issues and just how Scripture and the ways and words of Jesus address them.  But when all is said and done, I am confident that the message of God’s Kingdom can stand on its own two feet and compete with any other ideology in the public square of American ideas.

American Christians should not hide or stay silent just because the answers they hold for our country are spiritual.  Let’s let them compete against the competing orthodoxies that are already out there.  I am confident that the truth of the gospel and the power of truth will prevail.  As Hunter Baker points out in the CT interview, “It’s not unfair to have a religious point of view, and a religious point of view is not an inferior point of view.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Out of Reach, Out of Touch

I have heard the argument too many times from well meaning American Christians.  It concerns the mission of the Church.  They believe that churches that focus on missions endeavors overseas are out of balance.  They argue, instead, that we “have enough to do in our own backyard here in America to keep us busy.”  The idea is that we should reach the least, last, and lost around us first before we concentrate on foreign lands and their peoples.  However, I believe they are not only wrong biblically and theologically, but also in practice.

I remember a powerful illustration that displayed what all too often takes place in our missions efforts when we focus primarily on the needs in America.  The speaker had several small bags of M&M candies.  There were several hundred of us in the crowd.  He asked the crowd, “How many would like to have some M&M’s?”  Of course, almost everyone raised their hands.  There were a few non-takers, but the majority wanted to accept the free treat.

So, the speaker opened a bag of M&M’s as he began talking about missions and gave the bag to the first person on the right side in the front row.  He said, “Take a few and pass them on.”  Each person that wanted some of the candy took a few and passed the bag along.  After a few minutes, the speaker asked if everyone had a chance to get some M&M’s.  “No!” came the cry from the majority of the crowd.  It turns out that the bad did not even make it passed the first row.

So, the speaker apologized.  “Here, let me get another bag going.” Once again, he started at the first person on the right side of the front row.  He gave the same instructions, “Take a few and pass them on.”  Once again, the small bag of goodies began its journey down the front row.  This time a few people did not take any and the bag got further, but it barely started down the second row when it ran out.  I was sitting tw-thirds towards the back of the room and thought to myself, “At this rate, I will never get any M&M’s.”

A few moments later, the speaker once again asked the crowd, “So, how is it going?  Everyone get some M&M’s?” No!’ went up the shout, a little more intense this time.  “I am so sorry.  I know I brought enough M&M’s.  Here, let me give out some more.”  However, once again, he started with the first person on the right side of the front row.  A few people in front row turned around and looked at us in the back and snickered.  They were clearly enjoying this – and the M&M’s!  And, so, the small bag of M&M’s began its journey.  It made it a little farther this time, but was nowhere even close to reaching me, let alone the people behind me and in the balcony.

The speaker, after awhile, checked once again with the crowd, “Now has everyone had a chance to get some M&M’s?” This time the response was much more energized with frustration, “NO!” replied well over 90% of the crowd.  This is when the missions speaker turned the table upon us.  “That,” he said, “is how the rest of the world feels about the opportunity of receiving the Good News about Jesus.”  He went on to share with us how those who are the nearest to the gospel receive the majority of our missionaries efforts while those who are farthest from the gospel receive little or now effort or help from us.

I was reminded of this experience while attending a missions class entitled, “Perspectives on the World Christian Movement.”  While more than 20 years removed from my earlier experience of not getting M&M’s, the statistics of our missionary efforts still remain daunting.  In other words, the people in the front, closest to the speaker, still get all the M&M’s!  There remain many people still unserved with the message of God’s Kingdom.

Non-Christians who live in an area of the world where there is a vibrant, growing, self-reproducing Church receive the vast majority of our efforts. This blows out of the water the argument that we are not doing enough for those nearest to us!  In other words, statistics tell us that 97% of them personally know a Christian.  This does not include the fact that they have access to television, bibles, bookstores, churches, and other sources to the Christian message.  At any time, they can pick up the phone, visit a local church, talk to a Christian friend, listen to Christian TV or radio and receive answers to many of their questions and be introduced to Christ and his message.

Despite this, we still send 91% of our missionary efforts to these lost people living within easy reach and access to the gospel message. They are the front row people who choose to, or choose not to, take a free gift offered to them over and over again.  Of the vast majority of non-Christians in the world, they only represent 7% of that population.  The other 93% of non-Christians in the world do not have it so fortunate.

For example, of all the non-Christians in the world, Buddhist make up 8% of the population.  At best, 16% of them personally know a Christian.  Thus, 84% do not have access to a personal witness.  The vast majority of those do not have any access at all – witnessing churches, radio, TV, printed materials.  Yet, less than 1% of our missionary efforts go to reach them with the Good News of God’s Kingdom, while 91% go to people who have easy access to the gospel already.  Does that sound fair?

Another example is unreached Muslims.  They make up 28% of the non-Christian population in the world; almost 1 out of three!  About 15% of them personally know a Christian; 85% then do not have access to a personal witness.  For most of the people in this population, if they woke up tomorrow with spiritual questions about the God of the bible or Jesus Christ, they would have nowhere to turn – no radio, TV, or printed materials, let alone a church or pastor to turn to for help.  And still, less than 1% of our estimated 455,000 missionaries we send out go to these people.  Over one-quarter of the non-Christian population in the world has no access to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  To go back to my M&M demonstration, over one-third of the room will never get an M&M just between Buddhists and Muslims!

Of course, we need to consider, also, the Hindus.  They make up 25% of the 13,000 unreached people groups!  They are 22% of the world’s non-Christian population.  Perhaps 13% of them personally know a Christian.  Yet, only about 1% of our missionary efforts go to try and reach them with the gospel.  This means that, so far, less than 3% of our missionary efforts are going to reach 58% of the world’s non-Christian population while 91% of our missionary efforts continue to be doled out to 7% of the non-Christian population among the already-reached who have access to Gospel.  Anybody else feel like the “M&M’s” are not getting distributed fairly?  Who is missing out here?

I have not included the statistics of the people among the Chinese Folk Religions (8% of the world’s non-Christian population who receive less than 1% of our missionary efforts) or the Tribal Religions (5% of the world’s non-Christian population who receive about 3% of our missionary efforts) or the Secular/Non-religious Countries (19% of the world’s non-Christian population who receive about 3% of our missionary efforts).  Missiologists tell us that of the world’s 7 billion population approximately 4.4 billion are non-Christians.  This means the Church has a lot of work yet to do!  They also tell us that almost half – 1.9 billion – of those non-Christians have absolutely no access to the gospel by way of personal witness, church, pastor, or other means.  That is 1/3 of the world’s population.  Is that acceptable?

Yet, to the unreached one-third of the world’s population we send only about one-half of one percent (0.5%) of all of our Christian workers. Only about two-tenths of one percent (0.2%) of Christian evangelistic efforts are expended on their behalf.  Taking my M&M experience to heart, this means that one-third of the people in that room would have never even known about M&M’s or that there was an opportunity to receive some for free.  Not only that, they would not even be close to someone who could tell them about what was going on.  Not only that, they would remain in the dark about the existence of M&M’s and never know about them at all.  Thus, one-third of the people in that room would die without ever even knowing about M&M’s.

Those of us who love M&M’s and have easy access to them at just about any store we go to in our neighborhood cannot imagine never knowing about them or experiencing their wonderful taste.  This is a poor comparison to someone’s spiritually lost condition.  However, it makes the point.  This is the spiritual condition of one-third of the non-Christians in the world – approximately 1.9 billion people today.  They do not know about Jesus and, without someone going to them, will never know about him.  Meanwhile, we still pour over 90% of our efforts into those who are nearest to Christians and the gospel message.  When we will begin to lift our eyes and focus on those “in the back of room” – those farthest removed from the message and the hope given to us in Christ Jesus?  When will we bring light to those in the spiritually darkest places of our world?  How long must they wait?

Neskowin Beach, Oregon, Summer 2009

Neskowin Beach, Oregon, Summer 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Targeting those farthest from the gospel also means targeting those farthest from us. It will take someone to leave the comforts of their own culture, family and friends, and language and live among people of a different culture, family, and language.  Not everyone, I realize, is called to make that journey.  Nevertheless, everyone can pick up the cause of the last, least, and lost farthest from the Kingdom of God:

  • Missionary Prayer Teams can travel the globe through intercession to pray for the 13,000 unreached people groups.  There are many places to get their ethnic names, learn about their cultures, and barriers to the gospel through the local library or internet.  I, personally, like the use www.joshuaproject.net for such data.
  • Adopting missionaries and Christian workers who are already working among some of the unreached people groups to pray for them, encourage them via mail and email, and support them and their efforts.  There are many missions organizations that do this, but one of my personal favorites to keep abreast of is the Wycliffe Bible Translation work.
  • Focusing church missions efforts upon unreached people groups without abandoning those missions and ministries you already support.
  • Adopt an unreached people group as an intercessory prayer group, church, small group, family, or individual.  Pray for them regularly that God would raise up laborers for to go to them.  Use the library and internet to learn how to better pray for them.
  • Go on a short-term missions trip that reaches an unreached people group.  Or, support someone else’s efforts to go on a short-term missions trip to an unreached people group.

When I traveled to Andhra Pradesh province of India two years ago, I learned that there were over 1,000 villages in the area we were going into that have never had the gospel preached in them.  There is no church in these villages or even close to some of them.  Some of these villages have never seen a Caucasian person, let alone heard the Good News that Jesus came to set them free from the fear they have of their gods and the uncertainty of being caught in an endless cycle of reincarnation.

As I looked across the landscape, I could not even imagine such a place in America.  And, yet, there before us was a vast region of India that was untouched by the Kingdom of God.  Soon, I returned to an America that is rich in Christian heritage and spiritual opportunity; preaching in a community that has four pages of churches in the telephone book’s Yellow Pages.  Our local bible book store was busy.  The Christian television and radio stations hum with music, teaching, and preaching.  Churches and their leaders struggle with keeping up with other churches down the street.  And, yet, half a world away, there would be people who wake up tomorrow and not even know such a thing as a bible or a church existed.  They would not be aware that someone named Jesus came to set them free.  This got me to thinking: Are they so much as out of reach or unreachable as we, the Church, is out of touch with the need?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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