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.