Something Seriously Wrong with Much of American Christianity
Where to begin and where to go and where to end—in explaining all the things wrong with contemporary American Christianity? I don’t know. What I do know is that just about everyone will have a different answer. So this is just my answer for today.
Recently I have had the privilege and opportunity of traveling around this great country (the United States of America) and have seen numerous churches that puzzle me because there is no indication of their nature—other than “church” (if even that).
Case study: Very recently I stayed at a hotel within about half a mile of a very large, newish church. The building is impressive. But there is no sign visible from the highway or the road indicating what it is. By that I mean no sign indicating a name. The large cross on it indicated it is a church. So during my “downtime” in the hotel that evening I investigated the church online.
First I looked at it on Google Earth. Very impressive structure and campus The campus (main building, parking lots, playgrounds, out buildings) take up an entire city blog on the outskirts of the Midwestern city of about half a million. Second, I read the church’s web site exhaustively—every “inch” of it. The name was one word and gave no indication of its affiliation (if any). The impressive web site featured constantly changing pictures and videos of the church—the building inside and out, the pastor, the pastor and his family, the staff, the congregation, etc.
Under “About” there is a very brief, concise statement of faith that indicates it may be baptistic but nowhere did I see any indication of affiliation with any denomination, tradition or network of other churches. So, as always in these situations, I read the pastor’s biography. Not a word about his education. “He’s dynamic” pretty much sums up what it said about him.
The main emphasis of the web site seemed to be that this is a church for affluent white, suburban families. No mention of single people. Also, the web site very seriously attempted to portray the church as “contemporary.” Finally, in the numerous pictures of the church’s people there was not one non-white face.
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The deeper I dug into the website, though, I came up with one hint—a brief mention of another church in another large city about five hundred miles away. I know that church very well. It’s large, influential, suburban, “non-denominational,” has a nondescript one word name, and is famous for its “dynamic pastor” and upper middle class (to very affluent) white congregation.
One thing that bothers me about these new paradigm churches is that most of them say nothing on their web site about the pastors’ (or pastors’) educational backgrounds or denominational backgrounds. They are often (as in this case) presented merely as dynamic, caring, good-looking, well-dressed individuals who might be CEOs of tech corporations or motivational speakers.
This trend began, I assume, with the so-called “seeker sensitive movement” and the “church growth movement” of the 1980s. (Both have older roots but it was during that decade that both movements really “took off.”) The church growth movement emphasized homogeneous outreach (“birds of a feather flock together”) and the seeker sensitive movement emphasized discarding anything that might frighten away spiritual “seekers.”
In my humble opinion, for whatever it’s worth, the result has been a dumbed-down Christianity captive to suburban American values cut off from history and tradition.
I can’t help but feel and believe that this trend is one explanation why so many bright, evangelical people have defected from evangelicalism to either Eastern Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism or Anglicanism. I would probably prefer Anglicanism to this non-descript and dumbed down church life stripped of tradition, history, symbolism, language and very seriously accommodated to suburban, white, affluent, sensitivities and values.
Yes, I have visited many of these churches, attended “seeker sensitive church seminars,” “church growth weekend seminars,” etc., etc. So don’t accuse me of only pretending to know this trend and this phenomenon from the outside. And, Christianity Today devoted several issues to these trends back in the 1980s and 1990s. When it all began it was hugely controversial. Now it has virtually taken over white American church life—especially in the suburbs of major metropolitan areas.
In my experience, in these churches one almost never hears “a discouraging word.” The emphasis is on making congregants and visitors feel good about themselves or about who they can be if they attend to “discipleship” which rarely has anything to do with changing lifestyles or basic values.
When I was growing up in the “thick” of American evangelicalism pastors were expected to preach convicting sermons that challenged congregants to change in profound ways. For example, “Listen for God’s call to become a missionary” was a common sermon theme. I well remember my youth minister—a lay person with a secular job—responding to such a sermon, giving up everything, and going to New Guinea as a missionary. It was all very dramatic. I well remember a leading member our church publicly repenting of his racism and changing completely. Back then, evangelical sermons had “bite.” Not “beating up the congregation” but not just affirming them and their basic lifestyles.
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