“Precious Moments Christianity”

“Precious Moments Christianity”

Some years ago evangelical author and speaker Charles Colson decried what he called “Precious Moments Christianity.” If memory serves me correctly that was in his book The Body. He may have also talked about it in other writings.

After writing my blog post about “T.A.C.O.s” (Totalistic, Aberrational, Christian Organizations) I thought about whether there is an opposite danger to high-demand, abusive churches within evangelicalism. I believe there is. I’ll borrow Colson’s category of Precious Moments Christianity to label it.

First let me say I have nothing against Precious Moments figurines or paraphernalia; they bring joy to many collectors. They may not be my cup of tea, but I’m not critical of them as that—collectibles, folk art.

Precious Moments figurines and paraphernalia tend to evoke feelings of comfort and calm. In a complicated, high-stakes world of seeming chaos many people find them to have a calming and comforting effect.

John Wesley is supposed to have said that the purpose of gospel preaching is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I would say that is the purpose of all gospel ministry.

TACOs are those churches and religious organizations, some found among evangelicals, that specialize in afflicting the comfortable—often to the point of taking over their lives, obliterating their individuality, squashing all critical thinking, and turning them into clones of the leaders who have no ability to think their own thoughts or live spiritual lives apart from that particular group and its unique spiritual technology.

But there are also many, numerous evangelical churches (to say nothing of so-called “mainline churches”) that fall into the opposite error. They specialize so much in comforting the afflicted that they lose Christianity’s prophetic cutting edge. I call their brand of Christianity “Precious Moments Christianity” because they present the gospel as all comfort and calm, sweetness and light, with no conviction or accountability.

Some of the marks of Precious Moments Christianity are:

1) No or few expectations of members;

2) Promotion of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace;”

3) God, Jesus, portrayed as resource for feeling good about oneself and achieving success in life;

4) Church presented as support group whose primary purpose is therapy;

5) Doctrine shunned as too difficult and divisive;

6) Little or no emphasis on the cross—either Christ’s or his followers’;

7) Worship practiced as entertainment;

8) No church discipline;

9) Spiritual formation, discipleship, presented as optional and beneficial for feeling good;

10) Christianity treated as a warm blanket of comfort and/or as a platform for personal achievement.

Often, Precious Moments Christianity is a reaction to harsh, abusive fundamentalism. Escapees and exiles from TACOs crowd into such churches and often break out into hives with any mention of doctrine or discipline. A challenging sermon that brings conviction is treated as “hellfire and brimstone preaching” even if it is not. Pressure is put on pastors and teachers within the church to “tone it down” if they begin to emphasize accountability. Church members who ask for something deeper than pablum from the pulpit are punished.

I can understand this reactionary need among survivors of fundamentalism and TACOs, but a church that thrives on it, specializes in it, without seeking the balance between comfort and affliction, challenge and support, is falling short of its responsibility.

Let me be clear. I do not deny that there are times and places in church life when Precious Moments feelings of calm and comfort, sweetness and light are appropriately evoked. One church I know holds an annual service of consolation for those caught up in grief over loss. I believe the gospel does comfort the truly afflicted and the best of contemporary evangelical Christianity does offer hope and healing for the hurting. But that cannot be the whole of Christianity. Affliction and accountability, properly applied with pastoral care, are also necessary elements of a holistic, healthy approach to contemporary evangelical Christianity.

As a historian I’m curious about when what I am here calling Precious Moments Christianity really began. I don’t see it in church history before the 1960s. As all who have studied the history of modern culture and religion, the 1960s brought about numerous changes in Christianity and church life in general. Evangelicalism was as affected as any other movement and perhaps more.

I’m not assigning blame here, just pointing back to what I see as a turning point in American evangelical Christianity toward Precious Moments Christianity: the rise of “contemporary Christian music” with Ralph Carmichael, John W. Peterson, Audrey Meier and other evangelical songwriters. Sometime in the 1960s (perhaps beginning even earlier in the 1950s) Carmichael, Peterson, Meier and others began to introduce into evangelical music a new genre with, I would say, a new message. Typical was Meier’s popular song “I’ll Never Be Lonely Again” which presents Jesus as a friend who, when accepted, guarantees no negative feelings such as loneliness. One song, of course, does not a sea change make. It only illustrates it. Many of these songs (and they abounded in my home on LP records and on Christian radio) assumed a semi-Pelagian soteriology (“…turn to the Savior; he waits for you….”) and Jesus as comforter and companion without any hint of conviction or challenge. (On a side note—I met Audrey Meier when I was a child at a denominational convention where she was guest choir conductor. My aunt made a point of taking me “backstage” after an evening service to meet her. I don’t remember why.)

A few years ago I read with appreciation Mark Galli’s book Jesus, Mean and Wild and recognized it as a reaction to Precious Moments Christianity’s over emphasis on “sweet Jesus.” I recommend it as a starting point for conversation in Precious Moments churches. That doesn’t mean I agree with everything in it. (When do I ever agree with everything in any book?) But it provides a needed correction to Precious Moments Christianity.

 

  • J.E. Edwards

    Excellent post, Roger. Your marks of “Precious Moments” christianity are spot on. I’m still cleaning off the residue they have left in my own life. A challenge indeed.

  • http://cramercomments.blogspot.com/ DavidCramer

    I suspect the real problem is that TACOs afflict the afflicted, while PMC comforts the comfortable!

    • Roger Olson

      Exactly!

  • JennaDeWitt

    So well said, Dr. Olson. So many churches confuse Holy Spirit-led conviction (that propels us on toward Christlikeness) with fire-and-brimstone condemnation (which is not only unhealthy but counterproductive). A grace-based discipline is why I love Wesleyan theology so much… so much emphasis on God’s love that we are encouraged and uplifted toward His holy ways!

  • jhurshman

    Is PMC more or less congruent with Moralistic Therapeutic Deism?

    • Roger Olson

      I think it contributes to it.

  • Gregory Austin

    Are you familiar with the phrase “Moralistic therapeutic deism”? It sounds like what you’re describing is pretty much the same thing.

    • Roger Olson

      I’m familiar with it and would say they are related, overlap, contribute to each other. The prevalence of MTD is probably a result of PMC.

  • Dante Ting

    Have you read Thomas Bergler’s “Juvenilization of American Christianity”?

    • Roger Olson

      No. What’s its gist?

      • Gregory Austin

        I haven’t read that specific book, but I’ve seen some similar ones. The general idea is that the attempts to reach youth (via music, teaching style, theological focus, etc) replaced the previous style once those youth grew up and became the church leaders.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Roger, Thank you for another great post.

    I encountered this when I was a Bible teacher in Middle School. To myself, I called it “Fluffy Bunny Christianity with a Santa Christ”. One student I particularly remember had a very adverse reaction to the Book of Revelation, saying “Jesus is not like that”.

    But I’ve also encountered this while reading the “First Bible” genre books to my own kids. Everyone is smiling. Every story turns out happy. No evil involved, only simple mistakes. I want them to be familiar with the stories so when they can actually handle the content, it is not all brand new to them. On the other hand, I don’t want them to grow up being only a Fluffy Bunny Christian.

    Since you brought up CCM, Steve Camp was one I really appreciated in countering the “Precious Moments only” Christianity. Keith Green as well.

    • Roger Olson

      I think the whole Jesus Movement was a reaction to Precious Moments Christianity. I can remember my Jesus Freak friends making fun of their Christian parents’ music.

  • rvs

    Of the two, abusive fundamentalism and precious moments Christianity, I pick the latter, because it seems more capable of righteousness and harmony in a pluralistic society.

    • Roger Olson

      Oh, me, too. But it still needs correction.

    • labreuer

      I’m actually not so sure. Jesus wants us to be hot or cold, not lukewarm. Abusive fundamentalism is horrible, yes; a saving grace of it is that it teaches some of the abused how clearly wrong it is. I’m not sure precious moments Christianity provokes a clear response to its wrongness. One is left with a fuziness, a desire for more with no promise whatsoever that there is more—for the true ‘more’ is the workmanship God has prepared for us to walk in (Eph 2:10). That desire then gets met in a plethora of bad ways.

  • Mike Anderson

    In the church of my youth we often sang the hymn “In the Garden” by C Austin Miles. Perhaps you’d recognize the chorus: “And he walks with me and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own; and the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known.” Very comforting to the old ladies, but for me it goes too far in suggesting Jesus is my buddy, or even my lover. I think of Jesus’ disciples who fell asleep in the garden instead of swooning with rapt attention. The hymn was written in 1912, and I suspect I could find many other hymns of similar themes from the late Romantic era.

    • Roger Olson

      Yes, there were many romantically-inspired hymns that served as precursors to PMC. We sang them in the 1950s, but we balanced them with other hymns about sin and judgment and suffering for Christ and his kingdom. PMC, as I understand it, drops the negative or challenging entirely and focuses exclusively on Jesus as comforting friend.

  • http://relevancy22.blogspot.com/ Russ Slater

    Apparently the artist, Sam Butcher, made a commitment to follow his faith in Jesus and moved to Grand Rapids, MI, to join Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF). Starting as a shipping clerk CEF soon found his artwork useful and promoted him to their arts department. It was at this time that Sam’s son Tim produced in him the inspiration for the Precious Moments figurines couple with CEF’s ministries to children. He shortly thereafter met his future business partner Bill Biel and together they formed “Jonathan & David.” Our neighbor, having also moved to Grand Rapids, worked in marketing for Enesco which had approached Sam for a production line of figurines. Years later endured this same neighbor endured the murder of his mother (whom we knew well, including her killer).
    In 1981 Sam and Bill moved to the Philippines to continue J&D and while there helped to finance a Bible College. Soon after, Sam’s son was killed and it was this tragedy that he would later be unable to recover. His end story apparently bore all the hallmarks of a life that was anything but precious as he broke down and was unable to continue his artistry. His family soldiered on and at last report Sam’s son Tim also has died as of last year on October of 2012 though Sam lives on.

    • Roger Olson

      Sure. But I thought I made clear I have nothing against Precious Moments figurines, etc. My complain is about churches that focus exclusively on that comforting presence approach to the gospel to the neglect of the gospel’s call to accountability and sacrificial suffering for Christ (not personal suffering which is inevitable).

  • steve rogers

    The late Dr. Jack Hyles made essentially the same point in a little booklet he penned entitled Blue Denim and Lace (if I remember correctly). Of course, he was the quintessential fighting fundy and a TACO style leader if there ever was one. I don’t think the gospel can be too good news. But I do think ego-driven pastors too often use the pulpit to inflict their hang-ups and insecurities on their parishioners. I’ll take the “come unto me and I will give you rest” Jesus any day over the shaming disciplinarian distortion of many preachers.

    • Roger Olson

      Sure, me too. But notice the rest of the song: “Take my yoke upon you….” That’s what’s totally missing in PMC.

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    In my opinion too many churches, pastors and Christian authority figures take it upon themselves to preempt the ministry-assignment of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said of the Spirit, “When he comes he will convince the world of sin, righteousness and judgment.” The problem comes when the church leaders concoct a long list of religious rules, dogmas, bylaws, etc., and, then, demand conformity and “accountability” — or else! All humanity is hurting and needs to hear words of love, grace and affirmation. Enough of condemnation, guilt and works-based preaching!

  • TWM

    You state: One church I know holds an annual service of consolation for those caught up in grief over loss.

    Is this an example of Precious Moments Christianity? If so, why?

    • Roger Olson

      No; that’s not what I meant and the context should show it. I meant it as an example of how a church can incorporate comfort into its ministry without making everything comfortable.

  • Don Bryant

    Well said. It’s hard to overstate this. Our Evangelical “Precious Moment” inspirationalists who keep hiding the hard sayings of Jesus aren’t helping us!! Their denial of sober understanding keep the local church hostage to soft discipleship.

  • labreuer

    1) No or few expectations of members;

    This seems by far the worst aspect. It denies the truth of this powerful verse:

    Psalm 119:32 ESV I will run in the way of your commandments
        when you enlarge my heart!

    There is no enlarging of our hearts without expectations. There is no growth of our ways toward God’s ways and our thoughts toward God’s thoughts. There is no increasing knowledge of God’s will.

    People are awfully good at living up to or down to one’s expectation of them.

  • Jerry Lynch

    Sort of breaks down to “feel good” Christianity vs. “feel bad” Christianity. I see this dichotomy in most organizations I know, that polarity of “lite” vs. “heavy” and both believe they have The Way and disdain the other. But finding a balance is not anything that I, or any pastor, can achieve directly. We need to heal both from hardness and sentimentality, which is the work of the Holy Spirit in us. Balance is continually re-directing us to be centered in Christ, who gently or through mishap leads us to a balance in being other-centered, to love as he loved us. “Dying to self” is, to me, what needs greater and repeated emphasis in all churches. Directed study and support in how this is done is healing of any stripe.

  • http://www.austinbiblecollege.com/ Benjamin Craig

    I find this very true especially when I look at several churches that I have attended. They just want this perfect, comfortable atmosphere that doesn’t make anyone uncomfortable. It seems as if we also may have lost our focus as a church to grow numbers instead of people and that directly results in a “precious moments” church body. Well written and explained!

  • Dan

    Sadly I have experienced both the TACO stream and the Precious Moments stream. But it is not limited to “entertainment” worship. As one who has led congregational music off and on for some 30 years, the sentimentality of some old hymns has long bothered me just as much as the shallowness of much contemporary church music. I long avoided hymns like “He Lives” (“you ask me how I know he lives – he lives within my heart) for it’s experience oriented tag line and “The Garden” (“He walks with me and he talks with me…”) even though both are favorites of the WWII generation. Plenty of contemporary choruses focus too much on the experiential, the “nice” and devalue depth, the reality of the fall and the “rain falling on both the just and the wicked”.

    Happily, there are a good number of contemporary choruses that do not fall into that category, thanks to writers like Kieth and Kristen Getty and Brooke Fraser, among others. And a good number of contemporary offerings essentially take Psalms and older hymns and just set them to newer music.

    The problem is theological, not stylistic. It takes intentional effort to keep a focus on essential truth and not fall into the trap of letting felt needs and cultural relevance squeeze out those essentials. When everyone in the church including the staff refer to the music as “worship” and view the rest of the service as something different from “worship”, we’re already on the wrong path.

  • Jeff Weddle

    “God has been unconditionally loving since about 1965.”

    –T. M. Luhrmann, author of “When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God”

    • Roger Olson

      It would be interesting to know what her reason is for “1965.” I haven’t read her book, but I have heard about it and talked with Vineyard leaders about it. What happened about 1965?


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