The Gospel of ‘you’re incredible’: more cultural selfism, or a clever evangelistic hook?

OK. So in the last post we underscored some theological problems with the ‘To God you’re Big Stuff’ approach to evangelism and sketched out some of the ways it panders to modern entitlement culture.

But might there be something in it? In their book ‘The Narcissism Epidemic’, Psychologists Jennifer Twenge and Keith Campbell make an eye-catching point. They argue that, with services that offer optimal choice and demand nothing, today’s most successful churches have adapted cleverly to our self-orientated culture by front-ending their appeal with what people want.

They cite Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, the largest church in the United States, led by the successful author and pastor, Joel Osteen:

Lakewood is clearly giving the people what they want. ‘God didn’t create you to be average,’ … ‘You were made to excel. You were made to leave your mark on this generation … Start [believing] ‘I’ve been chosen, set apart, destined to live in victory,’ writes Osteen in his book Become a Better You.

Twenge and Campbell suggest that Osteen ‘clearly practices the self-admiration he preaches; the walls of Lakewood Church are covered with perfectly airbrushed pictures of Osteen and plaques quoting his words.’

‘Some of his advice verges on narcissistic acquisitiveness, such as when he suggests that we should all be expressing our wants, as his son was when he received the new guitar he wanted and immediately asked, “when do you think we can get my new keyboard?”!’

But Twenge and Campbell also argue that there’s a flip side to Osteen’s message that is ‘almost a course in anti-narcissism’. ‘The second half of Become a Better You [says], “Praise people as much as you can, swallow your pride and apologise, let strife out of your life, build better relationships.’

Their central point is that successful churches ‘connect’ with people’s narcissism, but then attempt to draw them into something larger than themselves. In other words, once they have got people through the front door, they begin to draw them back into a religious worldview:

‘This odd bit of alchemy – taking narcissism and trying to turn it into altruism – is at the heart of much modern religion.’

I think there may be something in this argument but it’s still a very high-risk strategy. Why?

Well, in a scholarly and far-reaching analysis of the highly successful Willow Creek ‘seeker’ model in the US, Greg Pritchard warns that, while adopting the psychological language of popular culture may well enable our churches to identify with the un-churched, if we conduct our church discourse in ‘psychological categories’ there’s a danger we end up with churches full of people with ‘psychological identities’. As a consequence, ‘the goals and means of one’s ethics change from a God-centred to a human-centred orientation.’

In other words, says Pritchard, when you talk like a pop psychologist, you begin to think like one.

There are risks here for leaders too, especially those who lack the wisdom and peer support to detect the intoxicating effects of celebrity culture that also gets imbibed with ‘you’re incredible’ approach. And once church-goers have become accustomed to a weekly Sunday service that plays to their natural inclination towards self-admiration, it’s all too easy for altruistic messages to get lost.

It’s certainly going to make it harder if we want to impact on selfish ‘habits of the heart’ that have been constructed and rehearsed for the remaining six days and twenty-three hours. So I reckon we need a more open, honest and challenging debate about narcissism and the cult of self in modern church life, and pastors do us few favours by simply aping, and playing to, our heart’s desires.

Getting the balance

But isn’t there an important balance to maintain here too?  The Gospel IS profoundly, wonderfully about human flourishing. Against all the odds, to the graceful heart of God, we ARE indeed ‘big stuff’. Not because, we are intrinsically worthy but because…well, he just loves us. He loves us because He loves us, and that’s grace.

True, we are called to repentance and a full recognition of our sin and the desperate nature of our condition outside of Christ. But when viewed in Him we become creatures of destiny with a future beyond human imagining.

And this surely is at the heart of our evangelistic message. It’s not THE heart, but it’s at the heart. The heart, surely, is that in the death of his son and the salvation of sinners, God Himself is glorified. Our own glory is experienced almost as a ‘bi-product’ of lifting our sights beyond ourselves and entering into his glory. But the call to human flourishing in Christ is there at the heart of the message too.

Indeed, at times Jesus did ‘front end’ his message with an appeal to our human desire to flourish:

‘He has sent me to announce freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’. (Luke 4:18-19) 

But here is the crucial difference with modern entitlement culture: whilst he graciously called us into the glory of the fully human, it was always by way of the cross. Life comes through death. Flourishing, it seems, is always a bi-product of doing something else. And so, it’s when we seek the Kingdom of God, and his glory, that we discover that ‘all these things’ become ours as well. Seek God’s kingdom, submit yourself to his will, and you get the world thrown in, as well as ‘yourself’. Those who lose their lives are the one’s who find them.

And so it seems to me that we are being ‘gospel’ people when we offer glory, but it’s glory that comes by way of repentance and self-denial. We can surely offer our friends life and life eternal, but we do no favours if we short-sell the reality that we only find ourselves when we are prepared to lose ourselves.

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