“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.