In this difficult task of church planting, one of the things which drives and motivates me the most is my desire to see a return to biblical Christianity. By biblical Christianity, I mean, an expression of the Christian faith that is shaped by the Bible and not by the culture. Sadly, today in America, the church has been almost completely reshaped by the culture. The values of modern American culture have so pervaded American Christianity, that any local church which tries to be strictly biblical is mocked and ridiculed as being odd or extremist. In order to really see how the culture is influencing the church we must first be able to recognize the marks and characteristics of modern America. So, what are they?
Many books have been written by cultural critics and scholars describing American culture. One of the most prominent character traits that these scholars identify is narcissism. Narcissism is excessive self-love. It is self-centeredness. We modern Americans have the tendency of being obsessed with ourselves. We are a people entirely engrossed in pursuing our own comfort, pleasure and happiness, it’s in our DNA, it’s who we are. It goes all the way back to our country’s founding document, The Declaration of Independence, which states that our most basic right as people is to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” As Americans, we take much pride in having these rights and we boast of our rugged individualism. Unfortunately, this excessive preoccupation with rights and with individualism has had negative consequences on our national character.
Consumerism is the preoccupation of a society with acquiring consumer goods. While there is nothing wrong in and of itself with acquiring goods, in America, shopping and consuming goods have become an obsession. Shopping has become such an event in our society, that during the holiday season, Black Friday has become just as important as Thanksgiving or Christmas. Consumerism goes hand in hand with our narcissism. Stylish clothing, the latest I-phones, the slick car, etc. are oftentimes purchased in order to be flaunted as symbols of one’s self-importance. Many American consumers spend incredible amounts of money on products, not because they are useful, but, because they hope that possessing these products will make them admired by others. Our addiction to conspicuous consumption is also fueled by our capitalistic economy. Capitalism is the engine that drives America. As a result, we the American people are constantly bombarded with marketing schemes and advertising. Buying and selling products has become central to the American way of life.
Narcissism and consumerism is costly. Being self-absorbed and playing the “keeping up with the Jones” game is stressful. It is a great American paradox that although we have so much, we are yet so unhappy. We have more, money, more education and more possessions than any other people in the world. But, we also have more stress, more anxiety and more depression to go along with it. Therapy has to do with healing disease. In America our souls are diseased. Our society is overwhelming. We are extremely busy, always on the go. We are constantly jumping from one stressful situation to another one. Therefore, we need therapy. We need something to help us deal with the constant pressures of living in modern American society. This is why the cultural critics have labeled us the therapeutic society.
It is easy to see how these three traits have influenced and reshaped American Christianity. Just visit your typical mega-church, or read the latest Christian best seller. Or listen to any of today’s popular media preachers and you will find the influence of narcissism in the way they cater to the self. Even in church we are being taught to be absorbed with self. Rather than learning about God, we learn how to be preoccupied with our felt needs. Rather than being taught how to pursue the glory of God, we are taught how to pursue personal happiness and fulfillment in this world. The consumerism is evident also. In many of our churches today, the church goer is treated like a consumer. The church is a spiritual shopping mall and Jesus is treated like a product to be marketed. We are not made to feel like the Church is God’s house, where we must enter with reverence and fear. And where we receive His ordinances with child-like humility. But, sadly, we are treated like the almighty customer, and the customer is always right. You will also notice the influence of the therapeutic in the preaching and the teaching. Sermons that explain the Bible have been replaced with sentimental, feel good messages. If we are to see a return to biblical Christianity, we must purge our churches of this American self-centeredness and American individualism.
Christianity is about God
Biblical Christianity is the total opposite of American culture. In the Bible, man is not the center, God is. The Bible is not a self help book. It’s purpose is not to show us how to live the kind of life we want to live. The Bible is God’s revelation to mankind, teaching us what we are to believe about Him, and about the requirements He demands from us. This does not mean that God doesn’t care about our happiness, He does. However, our happiness is secondary to His glory. The primary purpose for all existence is for God to be glorified (Rom 11:36). We were made by God and for God. Our purpose in life is to know our creator. It is only through knowing our creator and having a relationship with Him that we experience real, genuine happiness and fulfillment. We can only know God through those ways He has chosen to reveal Himself, and He has revealed Himself through His Son Jesus Christ and through His Word, which is the Bible. For that reason, biblical Christianity is radically Christ-centered and Bible based. We go to church in order to sit before God and hear His Word proclaimed. As His Word is proclaimed to us, the goal is that we grow in our knowledge, understanding and faith in Jesus Christ. It is through this ongoing experience of knowing God through His living and written Word that our lives are transformed. The deeper we go in knowing God, learning Christ, and in searching Scripture, then, the deeper will be our worship, the more victorious will be our living, and the more full will be our joy and peace. Imitating the ways of American culture may draw a crowd, but it will never produce mature followers of Christ. Reducing the biblical message down to self help formulas only cheapens Christianity. It is only a God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible based focus that will return us to the type of Biblical Christianity that can change cities and transform the world.