Has Evangelicalism Become Therapy?

Rachel Held Evans and Roger Olson at George Fox Evangelical Seminary

I’m envious of Chad Lakies. He got to attend the conversation between Rachel Held Evans and Roger Olson on the “Future of Evangelicalism” recently at George Fox Evangelical Seminary. Sounds like it was a great conversation. But, as much as Chad resonated with what he heard, he also found something missing in the conversation:

Has evangelicalism, emerging as it has out of its originary concerns for the practical, been complicit in the emergence of therapeutic religion? Indeed, yes. But, but, but….not just evangelicalism. The problem of therapeutic religion is much bigger than evangelicalism. It has affected all of American religion. It goes even beyond Christianity.

Perhaps then, a better question, since it is a more pressing concern, and was not addressed in the conversation today, is this: how will the future of evangelicalism face the contemporary challenge of therapeutic religion? How will the Gospel be preached faithfully in a world where the hearers’ ears are already tuned to hear things a certain way, who already desire a certain kind of religion? This is as significant an issue as the one about the disentanglement with politics, if not bigger, because it runs deeper in our social imaginary and has been there longer.

Yet, this is not just a question for evangelicals. This is a question for Catholics, confessionals, and all Christian leaders. This is indeed a question for all of us. As we forge ahead into the postmodern future, we might not end up with religion without religion (whatever that is), but if we don’t face the issue of therapeutic religion, we might end up with “church” without church.

via Reflections on “The Future of Evangelicalism” : the church and postmodern culture.

If Chad’s final question interests you, I suggest you join me next month at Subverting the Norm II.

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  • Craig

    What exactly is the problem with therapeutic religion?

  • Maybe a quick overview and critique of “therapeutic religion” would be helpful. My understanding is that therapeutic religion refers to religion that is presented as only being motivated by personal health. However, I see much in progressive evangelism that focuses much more on community building, simple living, and social justice. In short, moving toward a denial of self and awareness of and bonding with others, so I don’t see the therapeutic religion problem as being widespread in more progressive Christian circles. But maybe I am misunderstanding the concept?

  • sofia

    If religion isn’t therapeutic, I don’t see the point in it. A healthier person creates a healthier community.

  • I asked the same question on the original post earlier today: I’m not sure exactly what therapeutic religion is, or what the problem with it is.

  • Mike Horn

    I agree with Sofia. Transformed people transform communities

  • I think the problem lies in people who practice religion form the perspective of “What’s in it for me?” I know of plenty of comfortable, middle-class families who attend church because it keeps their kids off of drugs and sex, and it helps build their professional network. In short, church, for them, is part of their middle-class wealth accumulation strategy, along with all of the other self-help and professional development seminars they attend.

    I’m not exactly sure what the goal of religion is But I don’t think religion is to focus solely on our health. That is what health-clubs are for.

  • Dan Hauge

    I love this. It has been so reflexive to use ‘therapeutic religion’ as pejorative, we’ve forgotten why it’s been criticized in the first place.
    I take Craig’s point–‘therapeutic religion’ has been seen as too self-centered–a narcissistic approach to faith that diverts us from the more important work of ‘community building, simple living, and social justice’.
    But ultimately I agree with Sofia–how do we expect to actually sustain and do all these important justice-y things if we neglect our own emotional and spiritual well-being? I think there has been an overreaction. ‘Jesus loves me, this I know’ is not antithetical to broader work for shalom-building throughout the world–it is part and parcel of being whole, loving people who are better equipped to do it. (Or if that’s too theistic for you, the same can be said for therapeutic practices we do for ourselves and each other)

  • Ric Shewell

    I agree that religion can and should be therapeutic, and that Jesus clearly offers rest to the weary.

    However, it looks like Chad is borrowing a page out of Christian Smith’s work and the understanding of Moralistic Therapeutic Diesm. In that case, the church community and services are just a means to seek individual fulfillment.

    So in a therapeutic religion, my personal wellness is my ultimate concern, so I’ll reject anything that says I have to give or sacrifice or die. My concern is myself, so I’ll cling to the parts where God offers healing, and ignore or reject parts where God challenges or asks me to change.

    Many churches just play into the therapeutic desires of people, make good feelings and heaven central to the experience of seekers, but it’s difficult to get these people to serve or give. The big reason why 80% percent of the work and budget is taken care of by 20% of the people.

    Anyway, yes transformed people transform community, but I don’t think therapeutic religions that simply tell people what they want to hear actual transform people.

    • Ric,

      I think many Christians create a false implication here:

      the church community and services are just a means to seek individual fulfillment. So in a therapeutic religion, my personal wellness is my ultimate concern, so I’ll reject anything that says I have to give or sacrifice or die. My concern is myself, so I’ll cling to the parts where God offers healing, and ignore or reject parts where God challenges or asks me to change.

      Related to this, Tillich literally changed my life. He helped me transition from “living FOR others” to “being myself WITH others” (along with a lot of therapy that helped me work this out).

      There is honestly no way in hell that I will ever return to an existence where my self is completely lost, to the point where I just become another brick in the wall. I did that for most of my life, and I was depressed almost to the point of suicide because of it.

      I wouldn’t wish that kind of life on anyone.

      This is why I think a sustainable Christianity will be non-committal. (And, no, I’m not being sarcastic or hyperbolic.)

      • Ric Shewell

        I agree that I may have made it too simplistic there. I like your post as well. I think that kind of health movement of people in and out and between communities can be a wonderful thing to celebrate.

        I think we come from very different worlds too. I wasn’t raised evangelical. My churches rarely asked people to give up their weeknights and weekends for the church’s goals and purposes. Many sermons or discipleship programs would avoid anything that would seem meddlesome, or directing people to stay away from this or do that. We mostly focus on the love of God, and it always makes people feel better. But then we have a tiny percentage of people get involved in service/justice projects.

        I’m not describing any particular church, but kinda painting with a broad brush some of the issues I see in mainline denominations. I miss some of the passion of the evangelicals, but I see alot of baggage that comes with that branch of the family tree. I think we can have passion, seek fulfillment, and be called to change the world, even through sacrifice. It’s a little idealistc.

        • I guess I would see the lack of participation in “service/justice projects” as a sign that a church should just quit trying to do those things. I’m a huge proponent of recognizing who is actually a part of something, and focusing on helping each other fulfill his or her “calling,” rather than dictating some events or projects “from the top.” Which I’m sure sounds like hell to a more structured thing.

          • Ric Shewell

            There are two families in our church that have started a foundation for a newly developing pediatric cancer treatment… in all our staff meetings, I am wondering why we are trying to push our projects and not lifting up stories like this and encouraging them…

            Thanks for your thoughts, they are right on.

  • Matt Moorman

    I think maybe the issue here is what do we mean when we use the term “therapeutic”? It has been my experience that a good therapist will “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” (Where have we heard that before?) The point, of course, is neither comfort nor distress, but HEALTH and WHOLENESS.

    That said, mainline liberals need to be disturbed and recovering evangelicals need to be comforted. And I believe God is participating in both of those activities and many others as well.

  • Bill

    For this century, I have no doubt that this is and will be a critical question facing all of religion in the West. What we should do to avoid devolving into a therapeutic message with a therapeutic mission… What a question! I happen to be an educator and business developer for an organization that goes into high schools to talk to teenagers about virtue, morality, and human identity. The very first lesson our teenagers get is a lesson on human identity, because we know they can’t discuss topics such as self-esteem, choosing between good and evil, or controlling their impulses if they don’t first know who they are. I don’t know how Evangelicals can “deal” with the therapy threat without first defining who they are. The worst thing that many Evangelicals did at the end of the last century was embrace relativism, instead of addressing the question of relativism… as if the “rest of the world” had already embraced it. And the rest of the world DIDN’T embrace it. One thing I have learned about teenagers is that they’re not relativists, as much as we try to convince ourselves that they are … They only see the world with those lenses, and they use the relativist language that we unwittingly give to them. The problematic of relativism and postmodernism has simply fallen into their lap. We are essentially fighting our own language games that have tricked us into thinking that we MUST be relativists. But we are only postmodern in that we deal with the hot mess of modernism’s aftermath – “God is dead. What now?” “God is dead” is only an assertion we must learn to address with objective answers. Even Richard Dawkins knows that. It doesn’t have to be accepted as a conclusion. Evangelicalism lost its identity when it gave up on giving an objective answer and stopped calling Christianity a religion. It was all of a sudden reduced to this weird fantasy land called “just a relationship” (without any sensible definition). Following Christ became entirely subjectivized to the point of not being anything identifiable. And you couldn’t criticize it. You couldn’t tell some other denomination they were right or wrong. Kierkegaard, who no self-honest person really understands, was used as the 1990’s Christian poster boy for level headed discussions about faith being nothing more than a decision. That was the death of evangelicalism… not therapy. Therapy is only a threat, because Christians forgot who they are. You go to therapy when you’re suffering from an identity crisis. Evangelicals abolished their own identity, and now they want it back. They stopped calling themselves Christians, and now they’re looking for a “cure for Christianity”. Perhaps therapy is the best thing for them. I hope Evangelical Christians discover, once again, who they are.

  • Rob

    Well, one understanding of religion is an interpretation of its Latin root, and that is to tie together, to bind, to reconnect. If we think of religion as a means to tie together, bind, reconnect our splintered selves into a more integrated self, that sounds pretty therapeutic and healing to me. And lest one thinks that is “self serving” and easy, inner work that is authentic is painful, but fruitful. Evangelicalism, in my opinion, travels a lot in “spiritual bypassing”, i.e. the (mis)-use of spiritual practice as a means to avoid facing the painful emotions and wounds that reside in our psyches, so my experience of evangelicalism was that it was not very healing or therapeutic at all for me.

    • Rob

      My point above was that authentic religion for me that was healing was religion that was not afraid of mystery, doubt, dark nights, inner work, symbols, myths. The doctrines,literalism, absolutism that I experienced in Evangelicalism were all means to spiritually bypass the healing that needed to happen inside. I don’t propose that leaders intentionally teach people to bypass, but discipleship that I experienced was exactly that.

  • One etymology of “religion” links the word to “re-ligio”, to “re-link”, to re-join what was separated, into a full wholeness.

    Therapy’s purpose is to heal, to make whole.

    Religion and therapy are, truly, one and same. False religion leads to self-division and world-division. True religion leads to self-wholeness and world-wholeness.

    • Matt Moorman


    • Right. As long as self-wholeness includes connection with others (which covers the religion / re-link thing)j

      To many Americans, self-wholeness translates into me-wholeness. Which is not what religion is for.

  • Chad (the author of the original post) responded to some of the questions raised here:

  • A couple thoughts contrasting Jesus to popular notions of therapy:

    Jesus calls people to experience all of life, including the suffering. Jesus calls us into suffering. A good therapist might do this too, but popular notions of therapy hold that the goal of therapy is to “feel good” all the time. The popular therapy myth is that we should live life avoiding suffering. Jesus does not teach this. Jesus teaches us that the only way to life is through suffering. Jesus tells us to follow him to and through crucifixion and suffering and on to life. We enter life through suffering.

    Popular notions of therapy teach us that we are the agent of our own change and self-improvement. Jesus teaches us that the agent of our change is beyond us, is greater than us.

    When the church becomes therapy, in the popular sense, it is no longer following Jesus.