In our belief, there was no god, no praying, no heaven, no hell–none of the things people generally associate with religion. It was a philosophy and a self-help program that promised greater self-awareness and the possibility of achieving one’s full potential.
[Be warned this is not a devotional this week but a rant for pastor types]
The above quote comes from a ex-member of Scientology. This cult was founded on very simple and pure motives that quickly were derailed. In a way, it is not surprising that it would attract an unlikely amount of celebrities (when best estimate is that only 45,000 people practice this belief). For celebrities their basic needs have been met, so they are seeking the higher order of Maslow’s needs.
And as I read that line in her memoir, I wondered how true this has become for American Christianity. Now that we have propagated the world with hospitals, orphanages, universities, food banks, and homeless shelters (by the way, notice how we have also abdicated their oversight to secular powers), the church has become obsessed with self-help, self-awareness and potential.
In a way it’s because we have reverse flowed her initial comment: the diminishment of belief in hell (and evil) within the church has reduced any challenge to our faith. In doing so, it makes eschatological hope (aka heaven) and conversion unnecessary. This leads to a dormant prayer life, lackadaisical church attendance and ultimately the lack of belief in a god who is engaged in our lives: no community. This 3Cs are what I have described as essential for spiritual thriving: challenge, conversion and community.
Instead the church has promoted self-awareness, self-love and self-acceptance.
Therefore, undercutting these core beliefs, the church really has just become a self-help mechanism inundated with programs to create better self-awareness and opportunities for feeling useful.
Notice how a church spends it time and its money, look at the announcements, look at the cap-ends of Barnes and Noble’s Christianity section, look at the upcoming sermon series, or a church’s staffing structure.
If we look at our messaging are we not just peddling the same promises as Scientology, Dr. Phil, Oprah and Tony Robbins?
- Joel Osteen promises our best life now;
- Rob Bell is bantering with Oprah about his insights on successful marriage;
- Youth groups are about how to stop bullying, sexting, avoiding drugs, etc.
- Church foyers hang the overused poster: “Where your life’s greatest passion and the world’s greatest need overlap.”
- Rick Warren has built an empire around purpose-driven life;
- All the church startups (yes I write this mostly to challenge myself) seek to attract young adults with promises of fulfillment, purpose and meaning.
- The church word du jour is “meaning” or “purpose.”
Ultimately the challenge for the church is that these things actually are good and true–sociologically and psychologically: as creatures this is how we are hard-wired. Victor Frankl’s experience in the concentration camp and book Man’s Search for Meaning demonstrate our basic human need for meaning and purpose, self-awareness and self-improvement. The problem for the church is that we have stopped short of the Gospel in order to settle for being a Self-Help-Industry, Vocation-Placement-Office, Social-Worker-Agency and Purpose-Driven-Center.
We have sidelined conversations about heaven/hell, evil, sin, prayer, God, forgiveness, repentance, and belief for attractive talks on application, finding your innerself, and how to have impact.
Recently, I have been challenged by a comment of Tim Keller’s regarding his preaching style. While he seeks to provide practical applications to scripture, the power of the Gospel is found after the application. It is once we have built up our tremendously long and difficult list of self-improvements (daily quiet time, praying without ceasing, tithing, avoiding sexual immorality, loving your enemy, not looking lustfully at a woman, avoiding greed, humility, etc.) and have challenged them to aspire to these ideals that we need to introduce Christ’s story, for otherwise people will leave burdened and hopeless. It is precisely at the moment they feel guilty, wretched, worthless, incapable, ill-prepared, hopeless, despair, and incapable of meeting one’s full potential, we must release that tension with the promise of the good news of Jesus Christ.
This is what sets the church apart from Scientology, Dr. Phil and your local social agency.
Our message begins because it is precisely due to our incapability of achieving the purpose, meaning, “best life now” that is being peddled by our culture–and most American churches–that Jesus Christ died for us. He died, went to hell, and rose to a new life, precisely so we would not have to earn our way out of it or so that we would not have to go through hell ourselves.
Its that message that the church is founded on but has stopped short of proclaiming.