The problem with this notion, however, is that ethics and life in Christ is of a piece with salvation. The essence of eternal life is the presence of God. The purpose of life is to live in intimacy with Christ and in ever-greater conformity with the image of God, and that journey is a single journey, begun in this life and continued in the next. That American Protestantism has failed to make that clear and has been embarrassed to assert that it is necessary has only made it seem that the two could be separated.
The fact that the work of God and our lives in God can't be separated that way is clear from the teaching of Jesus who embraces and heals anyone and everyone, but also tells people "go and sin no more." It's clear in Paul who relentlessly labors over descriptions of God's saving work, then inserts the Greek for "therefore" and outlines the implications for life. And it's clear in Francis' work, who (so we think) speaks endearingly about animals, wrote a really fine prayer that can be used in recovery groups (devoted to a nameless "higher power"), but also says "Live always in truth, that you may die in obedience."
Truth without love can be cruel, harsh, and unapproachable. But love without truth is enabling, sloppy sentimentality. Don't let the pictures of Jesus meek and mild, or Francis with birds mislead you. The kind of love that John's Gospel describes is not the kind of love that will cuddle you into dissolution. This is the kind of bear-hug love that grabs you at your worst, reminds you of just how deep and unassailable that love really is—then dusts you off and invites you to climb. And that climb up the mountain is not "The Magical Mystery Tour." It is an ascent into God and for that, you will need more than love.
It is this holistic and theocentric understanding of the Christian faith that is not at liberty to separate theology from practice, liturgy from theology, and life from faith. But once the Gospel is all about us and we treat the demands of discipleship as something separate from God's redemptive work in our lives, then it is not hard to think of worship, the way we live, and our spiritual lives as three distinct things. And once they are separated from one another, we are freed to define them to suit ourselves.
The redemptive work of God becomes a private, cozy experience of the divine. Worship becomes a shared act of finding the experience that makes us all feel welcome. And demands of the Christian life can be redefined to accommodate our needs.
It's not surprising that the world wants this. It is the debate over the differences between what we want and what God wants for our lives that lies at the heart of all great spiritual struggles. Think, for example, of Ignatius of Loyola who—until he was injured in combat—ran as hard as he could from God, but afterward spent the rest of his life bowing at night to the King of Heaven.
But once the church has been cowed into lifting a mirror up to the culture in order to ingratiate itself to the world, asking "tell us what you need," that conversation is finished. Protestantism's priesthood of all believers and America's over-blown obsession with the pursuit of happiness have become indistinguishable and all that is left is the echo of our own words.
Predictably, of course, asking that question hasn't worked. Why would it? To offer the culture what it already has with the inconvenience of God is a lousy marketing strategy. It's like being offered the car you already own, but being required to sleep in the garage with it.
As mainline Protestantism attempts to staunch the loss of members and money this summer, it might want to stop looking around for ways to win approval long enough to spend some time doing that old-fashioned thing of looking up in prayer. Strictly speaking, that's not where God is, but we can't seem to get our eyes off the mirror. This isn't "the magical mystery tour"; it is a journey into the divine mystery that is communion with the living God.