Friday, March 18, 2005


SuperSize Me...and My Church (Take 2)

“It’s not about you.”

Think about those words for a minute. It is, of course, the exact opposite of nearly everything we’ve ever been taught to think. It’s all about us. It’s about success, money, fame, the car we drive, the house we live in, and having lots of stuff. Image is everything, right?

But yet those are the first four words of Rick Warren’s smashingly successful book, The Purpose-Driven Life, and they turn the essence of our entire culture on its head. To be honest, I’m no fan of the book. I tried reading it, but could not maintain any real interest.

But then, of course, it’s not about me or what I think. It’s about the 8 million people that bought it. And if only 8 of them really got the message of its opening line, then it may just be an essential book. (UPDATE: Not to get off point, but there is a case to be made for some legitimate theological problems with the book as pointed out by David at Jollyblogger.)

Peggy Noonan posts the transcript of Ashley’s Smith’s amazing story about someone now on his way to prison who seemingly just got something out of that book. In it, Peggy suggests,
Maybe we should be thinking: God loves all of us, every one of us most tenderly, even convicts, maybe especially convicts, who know what they are and hang their heads and one of whom, so long ago, looked up, and cried out to the man on the other cross, and received from him a promise of forgiveness and a promise that soon, very soon, they would stand together in a place without pain.
That’s the message of grace, and that is what Christianity is all about. What I’m wrestling with here is the classic question of whether the ends justify the means. Is it acceptable to initially subjugate the primary message of grace with a message of prosperity and self-improvement if that is merely a marketing tool to get back to grace? That is, afterall, what’s going on now in a whole lot of churches.

But then it strikes me that this is a false choice. Jesus proclaimed “I am the way, the truth, and the life”. Focus on that first part for a moment. Jesus states that he is THE way, not simply a way. According to Christ’s own words, there is no other way to get to where we need to be spiritually, and that would necessarily preclude the gospel of self-help. In fact, that is the polar opposite of how we are to get there, which is accomplished only by "dying" to one’s self.

Now, juxtapose Jesus’ famous self-description above with this remark from the pastor of the largest church in America as he is speaking of his church…

We don't have crosses up there. We believe in all that, but I like to take the barriers down that have kept people from coming.
He also said his goal is to "give people a boost for the week." (More detail over at Exultate Justi) Now, personally, I like Joel Osteen, the pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston who spoke those words. He seems to me to be a genuine and good-hearted man of God. But, alas, it’s not about me. Nor is it about Joel Osteen for that matter. It’s about God. And even people with their hearts in the right place can still get it wrong. And in this case, I can’t reconcile his words with Jesus being the way. It's the cross he doesn't have up there that is the way. (Hat tip: Evangelical Outpost)

Of course, the point is not to single out one pastor, but rather to consider this one example as a representation of a growing and increasingly influential movement endemic to the mega-churches in particular.

In this article, Philip Yancey discusses how the best preachers have challenged earth to be more like heaven. He fears that the opposite is happening now, "Famous preachers of modern times, especially those who speak on radio and television, emphasize success and 'health and wealth'."

In an interview for Christianity Today, pastor Eugene Peterson elaborates on this theme:

The minute we start advertising the faith in terms of benefits, we're just exacerbating the self problem. "With Christ, you're better, stronger, more likeable, you enjoy some ecstasy." But it's just more self. Instead, we want to get people bored with themselves so they can start looking at Jesus.
In The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis observes,

There remains some lingering idea of our own, our very own attractiveness. It is easy to acknowledge, but almost impossible to realize for long, that we are mirrors whose brightness, if we are bright, is wholly derived from the sun that shines upon us.

I am trying to reprogram my own thought process in order to reduce the self-absorbed mentality. I just hope that my church will help me in that endeavor and not hinder it. There's a need to make a conscious decision whether to kneel at the altar of God or Self. We can't have it both ways.

Well said.

I like Joel Osteen also, and he isn't saying anything that Willow Creek hasn't said before (in fact, I just reread a sermon by John Ortberg--now at Menlo in CA-- called "Why the Cross" that said much the same thing.) And I really like Willow.

But it is hard to escape the fact, as your title alludes, that the same culture that produced McDonalds and WalMart is the same culture that is producing these churches...
Right. I think it's important for the church to spend less time trying to emulate the culture and more time trying to distinguish itself from the culture.
There are legitimate reasons for not having crosses. For one thing, it might violate the command not to have graven images. It certainly becomes an idol for some people, anyway. It was introduced by a pagan anyway. It's not as if the early Christians even recognized it as a symbol for Christianity. The cross is crucial, but it's not the cross itself that we delight in. It's what Jesus accomplished on it through its role in his death, which is only part of the picture anyway if you don't also have a symbol of the resurrection and ascension. John's gospel makes much more of the latter two than of the former, even if some of the biblical authors at times (and only at times for some, e.g. Paul) will focus on the cross.
The argument JollyBlogger quotes from MacArthur seems to assume something Jesus denied. It assumes that fulfillment can't come from self-denial, but Jesus says that's entirely where it comes from. Besides, Warren pretty clearly emphasizes this anyway. The passage Ashley Smith has made famous because she read it to her captor shows exactly that.
Jeremy: Regarding the cross, you make a valid point that the cross itself does not necessarily need to be displayed and that there are legitimate reasons for not displaying it. The problem I have is in Osteen's rationale as to why it's not up there.

He simply states that it's not there because he wants to "take the barriers down". This seems dangerous to me, since it appears that he may be willing to sell out the central tenant of the Christian message in order not to offend. It's great to get as many new people interested as possible, but we need to not shy away from core principles in the process.
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