From the Shepherd’s Nook: John Frye

Pastors, I’m Just Saying, by John Frye

If I take a dry, yellow sponge and dip it in water tinted with blue food coloring, the sponge will emerge the color of pale green. The sponge is no longer yellow and it is not completely blue. Yet, the sponge has changed. The USAmerican evangelical church has been dipped into and soaking in the tinted waters of commercialism, consumerism, imperial therapeutism (is that a word?),  individualism and me-ism. Our culture’s prevailing values of the academic atheism of naturalism and the pervasive energies of free market capitalism have soaked deep into the fibers of the church. (Jacques Ellul would not be surprised.) There were (and are) spurts of resistance especially to naturalistic atheism, yet unwitting and enduring acquiescence to the other “-isms” of the age.

Somewhere in the last three or four decades in the USA, the Christian faith became a market. The altar became a stage and worship became a show, a “program.” Personal testimonies became advertisements, commercials for the gospel “product.” Christian music began to sound like jingles on TV that aroused interest in people to make a decision to “buy” in on the good news. “Jesus, O Jesus, do you know him today? Please don’t turn him away…” The Gospel became a marketing tool and all the dynamics of good salesmanship were rallied to its advancement. In this clever environment, the church and “the gospel” actually and tragically became separate entities. This new gospel preceded and had priority over the church. Based on their “signing of the dotted line” through a prescribed prayer, people were adamantly assured of heaven, come hell or high water.

The church became in USAmerican evangelism a secondary appendage to this marketable gospel. Once the packaged gospel did its trick, the most important, amazing and everlasting trick—getting people into heaven when they died—all else about the faith was good, but basically unessential. This new gospel was the thing; the magic bullet. The church had nothing at all to do with getting a person to heaven. The new American gospel triumphed. Like everything in a free market economy, the church and its life became utilitarian accessories to the newly saved people. The newly saved person drove out of the show room headed for glory and churches became available maintenance centers. “Newly saved person, you need to grow. Go to church to grow.” “Newly saved person, you need to pray. Go to church. They will teach you to pray.” Christian publishers raced to put out the latest “how to” books. Let’s keep that newly saved person tuned up! What if some of the newly saved people didn’t want to grow or pray? Too bad really, but at least they know they are going to heaven when they die. They were given the assurance of salvation: the grand warranty on this shiny gospel product. Perseverance in a Christ-oriented, transforming life became an obsolete concept.

This new gospel had nothing to do with the life of a new humanity called the church. The gospel had become sui genersis. It had no story. It needed no story. This new gospel existed outside the church and supposedly created the church, but had nothing really to do with the church. This new gospel was all about a person’s dazzling, future destination. We laughed about it being called “fire insurance,” but our laughter was always a little uneasy. The new gospel became a mere barcode that allowed God to scan you into heaven.  The new gospel said minimally about current meaningful and vulnerable relationships.  Documented evidence surfaced showing that the lives and values of the “converted” were no different than the lives and values of the unconverted.   Churches became terminals where one hopefully could catch that heavenly train to the Promised Land. People were exuberantly told and happily surprised to know that Jesus had already purchased their tickets. They just needed to get on board. Pastors became tickets masters.

“Tickets please! Did you pray the prayer?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Let me punch that ticket for you. You’ll need to make your way at some point to the baptism car, ah, when you’re ready.”

I thank God that I have lived long enough to see that a new generation of perceptive pastoral leaders are squeezing the dye, best they can, out of the sponge. Scholars like N. T. Wright, Scot McKnight, and Gordon Fee to name a few, lend their support in rescuing the robust, kingdom-of-God Gospel from the strings of the American puppet-master, the market place.

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  • Jamie

    Amen and AMEN!!!!!

  • Rick

    Was just reading Oden’s Justification Reader where he expressed concern that he would get pushback from some in the publishing industry that make money off promoting certain views.

  • Ray Befus

    Thanks John. It’s disturbing to to see how deeply I’ve been influenced by the popular pastors and mega-marketing church leaders of the last 30 years. I too have been looking to the three men you cite as mentors for the rest of my journey.

  • Aaron T

    Very well written and filled my mind with imagery. Thanks for sharing.

  • Tom Harrison

    Eugene Peterson has been writing about this subject since the early 80’s…but I didn’t get it until just the last few years after being out of the pastorate for 16 years…smile.
    Thanks for the article…the three men listed have written well pointing us all back to The Word.

  • John W. Frye

    Ray #2,
    So many of us, including me, were duped by the sheer functionality of the sales pitch for heaven called “the gospel”. Thank God the Spirit overrode the shallow reduction and drew people into the kingdom. 🙂

  • John W. Frye

    Tom #5,
    I recall EHP’s critique and warnings about the reduced gospel and what is was doing to create a mutant ‘church.’ He took a lot of heat from the evangelical shallow establishment. Thank God EHP stayed “lashed to the mast.”

  • When I was in seminary 12 years ago (At Nazarene Theological Seminary in KC) I read “Selling Out the Church” by Kennison and Street. It changed my whole perspective… They had this problem nailed at that point. The challenge for young pastors (like me, maybe) who wish to reside within their parent denominations is the *significant* pushback we receive when we proclaim a different ecclesiology and soteriology than that promoted by the American church growth movement. Proclaiming Kingdom in the midst of a market- and ticket punch-based system is an easy way to get creamed.

    “The Matrix is a system, Neo… Most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And most of them are so inert, so hopelessly dependent upon the system that they will fight to protect it.”

    But of course, protecting ourselves from getting creamed is not a good enough reason *not* to proclaim Kingdom anyway…

  • Dianne P

    There are so many layers of sadness in this story, but one of them that jumps out at me is the widespread arrogance with which this brand of USAmerican evangelism convinces itself and its followers that it is THE mega-brand of Christianity. The only brand=Christianity. And all others are misguided fools. If they are mainline church-goers, then they are attending a church that is not teaching “the truth”. If they have not said the sinner’s prayer, then they are destined for hell.

    This would be sad enough on the face of it, but what breaks my heart and angers my mind is that so many of these followers are convinced that their friends and family who are not part of this brand are somehow destined for hell. Or if they’ve already passed, that they are writhing in hell atm because they didn’t say the sinner’s prayer. That they didn’t follow this (mis)brand of Christianity.

  • Dianne #9,
    I remember being sad about this reduced gospel in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but so many entrenched in the “soterian gospel” (as Scot McKnight dubs it) either got angry or disappointed with me because I pushed against so blatant a syncretizing the “gospel” with USAmerican consumerism. We’ve yet to lament as a national evangelical church for this ghastly, verging on blasphemous, reduction of the robust kingdom gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

  • “Perseverance in a Christ-oriented, transforming life became an obsolete concept.”

    I have been on the “perseverance” bandwagon these last several months, letting everyone know if the conversation warranted it, that it isn’t perfection that God desires from each of us, but perseverance. (Thank you Joan Chittister in The Rule of Benedict)

    It is refreshing to know that there are Christians out there who haven’t bought in to drinking the evangelical Kool-Aid that has been so generously poured out for as many who will drink it as if it were indeed the sacrificial blood of our Lord Jesus Christ!

    May God continue to work on the hearts and minds of us all that we may return to Him seeking forgiveness for having “marketed” Him, making Him a commodity, and item for purchase. Weren’t we “purchased” or ransomed by Him?