How Preaching Reveals This Secularizing Trend: A Look at a Sociologist's Study

by Michael Horton

The Pelagian tendency of popular Christianity in our day-which Christian Smith called "moralistic, therapeutic deism"-can be further substantiated by the studies of sociologist Marsha Witten. In All Is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism, Witten revealed her results from studying the texts of 47 sermons on the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), delivered from 1986 to 1988 by various pastors in two denominations: the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Southern Baptist Convention. She begins the book by recounting an afternoon on Good Friday 1990. Listening to J. S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion, "with antiphonal choirs calling out sorrowfully to Jesus in his grave," the daily mail arrived and Witten opened the thickest envelope first. It was promotional material for a new Baptist church launching in her area with the following message:

Hi Neighbor!

At last! A new church for those who have given up on church services! Let's face it. Many people aren't active in church these days.
Too often
  • the sermons are boring and don't relate to daily living

  • many churches seem more interested in your wallet than in you

  • members are unfriendly to visitors

  • you wonder about the quality of the nursery care for your little ones

  • Do you think attending church should be enjoyable?
    Valley Church is a new church designed to meet your needs in the 1990's. At Valley Church you

  • meet new friends and get to know your neighbors

  • enjoy exciting music with a contemporary flavor

  • hear positive, practical messages which uplift you each week
  • How to feel good about yourself

  • How to overcome depression

  • How to have a full and successful life

  • Learning to handle your money without it
    handling you

  • The secrets of successful family living

  • How to overcome stress

  • trust your children to the care of dedicated nursery workers


Witten, who describes herself as a non-Christian, uses this anecdote-St. Matthew's Passion contrasted with the new church's promotional materials-to frame the conclusions she arrived at after extensive studies:

These two discourses seem to form an opposition: the spirituality, the struggle of faith, and the sublime image of God in the first message; and the optimistic, untroubled, purely mundane, communication of the second....Taken together, they tell us much about the state of Christianity, and specifically, its Protestant forms, within American culture in the late twentieth century. As we shall see, the seeming incongruity of these messages-the juxtaposition of the spiritual and the psychological, the transcendent and the pragmatic-paints an accurate portrait of contemporary faith and practice. (4)

According to Max Weber's once-popular "secularization thesis," the processes of modernity first push religion to the margins of public life until it is forced to retreat to a private island of subjectivity. Then, secularization even transforms that last refuge according to its norms until religion is finally extinguished entirely.

Like many sociologists, Witten recognizes that things have not turned out this way, at least in the United States. Where secularization smothered Christianity in Europe, for the most part, American evangelicalism thrives under such conditions. Why? Basically because the Christian faith is translated in private, subjective, and therapeutic terms. No longer is there a necessity for a communal interpretation of the Bible learned by each successive generation. Each person has a "personal relationship with Jesus." So, for example, "Many of the marks of its traditional denominational self-definition that have differentiated Presbyterianism from other Protestant groups in the United States have been lost in recent years" (5-6). (2)

Where older Christian traditions were threatened by the autonomy of the self, American revivalism has celebrated human-centered religion. God and his Word do not confront us as an external message of judgment and grace, but as a warm and friendly exhortation to self-improvement through a relationship with Jesus. Witten's findings confirm studies demonstrating that Americans-only one in ten of whom say that they've ever doubted God's existence-view God as "friend" rather than "king," and that "only a small minority say they have ever been afraid of him." Of course, this is not to deny the importance of Christ's friendship with sinners (which was part of the Pharisees' suspicion of Jesus). But that's just it: he's the friend of sinners, not of those who think they're basically good people who could be a little better. Apart from the sense that we are in ourselves enemies of God, the fact that he befriended us "even while we were enemies" (Rom. 5:8) has little value.

Witten also supports James D. Hunter's documentation of "the tendency of the popular evangelical literature he studied to stress God's therapeutic role, to downplay notions of sin," and to give central prominence to conversion as a relatively easy process of self-transformation (15). Transforming biblical concepts of sin and redemption into pragmatic concepts of steps, tools, principles, and formulas is part of the secularization of religion.

Secularization involves the privatization of faith, which is evident in the emphasis of religious speech on "practical rationality"-namely, "working out the routine affairs of everyday life in the most expedient manner."

Christian self-help books...arose in the 1940s and 1950s with the publication of Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking and Joshua Loth Liebman's Peace of Mind. The focus on inner states also invites speech oriented largely to the present-to 'natural' life, life on earth. Concern with the pragmatic business of life stands to diminish attention to affairs of the 'hereafter.' Coupled with cultural forces that deemphasize notions of divine punishment for wrongdoing, the 'now' orientation reduces the strength of talk about sin and its consequences....An extreme formulation is the case of 'Sheilaism,' a private religion invented by one of the interview subjects cited in Habits of the Heart: The tenets of Sheila's faith consist of the messages of 'her own little voice.' (20-21)

Privatization entails "the transfer of truth claims from the objective world to the subjectivity of the individual" (131). In other words, where previous generations-and our contemporaries in many other parts of the world today-are witnesses to Christ, even at the cost of their own lives, privatized and subjective religion offers Christ as a helpful resource. Our witness is to ourselves and our own changed lives. We feel awkward speaking of Jesus Christ as "the way, the truth, and the life," apart from whom there is no salvation. We would rather commend Christ as someone we have found personally helpful and meaningful as we encounter challenges in life.

Privatization leads to pluralization, which means not only that different religions and denominations are tolerated by the state, but that people come to believe that religion itself is a matter of personal commitments that one finds helpful, not of objective claims that can be argued in public. Once religion is reduced to a private matter, its beliefs are no longer objective claims about the real world, but subjective feelings about inner experience. The questions are no longer life-and-death, heaven-and-hell, but well-being here and now. This is exactly the shift that was accomplished explicitly by Protestant liberalism and now implicitly by contemporary evangelicalism (22). The motive for conversion must be practical or therapeutic usefulness in this life; thus, there is little to distinguish one denomination or religion from another.

Besides privatization and pluralization, a third process of modernity is rationalization. Once religious truth-claims have been reduced to personal usefulness, the only procedure left is to "calculate the efficiency or effectiveness of alternative means to a given end" (23). Witten's point can be easily recognized in the pragmatic criterion for truth-claims advanced by William James-namely, their "cash-value in experiential terms." Since we do not know yet which religion works best for the greatest number of individuals in the long run, James said, we have to postpone any final answer. For example, no longer is it a question of whether Jesus rose bodily on the third day in real history, but whether my belief that this happened gives me a sense of purpose and direction for a successful life. It does not require a lot of imagination to see how this kind of pragmatic rationalization easily adapts to a consumerist idiom; and when one is in the business of "transformation of the self," the product has to be cast in therapeutic terms.

Evangelicalism has thrived in this therapeutic culture by converting sin into dysfunction or negative behaviors that keep us from realizing our full potential and by converting redemption into recovery by following certain steps. "Families that pray together stay together," as one billboard campaign in the Bible belt advertised. There is a therapeutic cash-value to religious practices, regardless of whether there is an objective God to whom or Mediator through whom or Spirit by whom we bring our petitions.

Of course, no one has to deny any article of the Christian creed in order to shift the focus from the objective truth of Christ to the subjective, pragmatic, and therapeutic categories of "how-to" religion. Christ may still be called the Savior, but we really save ourselves by following certain steps. This "self-help" approach to conversion (evidenced by the title of one of Billy Graham's best-sellers, How to Be Born Again) spills over into the countless programs for moral and spiritual improvement that in many ways parallel the diet, exercise, and finance-management programs on the market. By following the most effective procedures, we can attain the desired "product." There are even personal testimonies to provide a "before" and "after" snapshot. Americans are constitutionally disposed to the idea that every problem has a pragmatic solution. In the age of therapy, this means that the "irrational" island of subjectivity that the Enlightenment awarded to religion (analogous to the "Indian reservations" in the United States) is now itself defined by the secular aims of personal well-being.

Christian discipleship is therefore conceived in terms similar to industry: a factory in which materials are shaped and packaged on the basis of a prototype, each following a standardized method of production. We even speak in evangelical circles about "reproducing disciples," with Christ as the prototype. The right methods will yield the anticipated results. The influence of such processes of modernization is apparent in the way evangelicals often talk about "steps," "principles," "methods," and "techniques" that, if followed, lead inevitably to the intended results.

Witten substantiates these observations, adding, "Taken to the extreme, this talk constitutes a 'do-it-yourself' guide for personal satisfaction, with a few mentions of God or faith or prayer tossed in to mark itself as 'religious'" (24). As a result of these processes, says Witten, "a religion's teachings no longer give meaning to their adherents' life in the world; their life in the world determines both the meanings and meaningfulness of their creed" (30).

As we can see, the process of secularization is far more pervasive than theological differences between conservatives and liberals. It is not "secular humanists" but we ourselves who are secularizing the faith by transforming its odd message into something less jarring to the American psyche. This may mean, however, that precisely the most numerically successful versions of religion will be the least tethered to the biblical drama of redemption centering on Christ.

Witten's studies revealed that there was little difference between mainline Presbyterian and Southern Baptist sermons that she sampled. "The Calvinist roots of religious practice in Colonial America" were gradually eaten away by "popular ideologies of voluntarism, democratism, and pragmatism," making the view that human beings cannot "contribute to their own salvation" seem less plausible (33).

While confessional Reformed and Presbyterian pastors and theologians in the mid-1800s challenged the emphasis on the self rather than God and human willing over God's gracious initiative, revivalism finally won the field. As a result, "the major categories of evangelical talk about God tend to emphasize one's personal experience of an immanent deity." Witten adds, "When God is seen in transcendent terms at all, his fearsome qualities are either deemphasized or banished from the discourse and replaced by portraits of a clear-thinking, well-organized 'super-administrator,' one of whose primary functions is to plan efficiently the affairs of the universe" (34).

This thinking, no doubt, contributes to the phenomenon that Smith characterizes as "moralistic, therapeutic deism." God is basically the ideal Secretary of Homeland Security, "Homeland" defined as my own personal happiness, or national health-whether defined by the political left or right. Of course, when "the affairs of the universe" center on me and my happiness, this generic deism becomes therapeutic, especially focusing on "'God as daddy' and 'God as sufferer'" (35).

In a therapeutic paradigm, not only the parishioner but even God is put on the couch, as we empathetically interpret his feelings. God is never angry or judgmental toward people; in fact, he is more anguished than we are since he knows how much our actions can harm us. He is simply waiting for us to come to our senses, like the father in the parable of the prodigal son (40-41). We might even be inclined to feel sorry for this deity. Witten points out how frequently in these sermons the preacher seems to know God's inner states and feelings and, again, even as a non-Christian, recognizes that this is at far remove from the Apostle Peter's faith in the invisible God "who sees all things; uncontained, who contains all things; without needs, of whom all are in need and because of whom they exist; incomprehensible, eternal, imperishable; unmade, who made all by the word of his power" (44).

By contrast, these sermon samples treated God exclusively as the "extravagant lover" (44-47). In fact, love overwhelms law; God sets aside any question of merit or duty or achievement and simply embraces the prodigal (45). God never really surprises us, because his behavior is always predictable: he would never do anything to offend us (135). Consequently, there is no suggestion that we need a mediator at all, according to these sermons. God's love need not be correlated with his holiness, righteousness, and justice. Everything is okay-without any mention of Christ's self-sacrifice as the only way of reconciliation (48). Since, as a rule, God's love apparently overwhelms his justice and holiness, the "good news" offered here eliminates any need for the actual story recorded in the Gospels. If God's love so easily ignores his justice, holiness, and righteousness, then Christ's death on the cross seems like a cruel waste.

Witten writes, "The relatively weak notion of God's fearsome capabilities regarding judgment is underscored by an almost complete lack of discursive construction of anxiety around one's future state." It is "negative feelings," not an objectively negative danger, that these sermons stress as solved by the gospel (50). "The transcendent, majestic, awesome God of Luther and Calvin-whose image informed early Protestant visions of the relationship between human beings and the divine-has undergone a softening of demeanor throughout the American experience of Protestantism, with only minor interruptions" (53).

Adopting a human-centered approach that assimilates God to one's own experience and happiness, the world is no longer God's creation; it too, like God, exists for our own personal well-being. Everything that exists is there for us to consume for our happiness. So, for example, drugs and sexual promiscuity are not wrong because they offend God, according to most of these sermons, but because they cannot compare with the joy and happiness of living God's way. They're not wrong as much as unfulfilling: they wear off (60-61). All the emphasis is on "celebration" and "happiness," as in one sermon's assertion, "It feels good to be a Christian" (63). When you are trying to sell a product like therapeutic transformation, there can be no ambiguity, no sense of anxiety, tension, or struggle.

In these sermons, another recurring emphasis is that human beings are victims, and being "lost" no longer means damned, but lacking direction in life (73-75). In the Southern Baptist sermons, the world is the "pigpen" in which the prodigal wasted his inheritance, with many sermons going into greater detail than Jesus on "cocktail parties, watching the vileness of Sodom in their living rooms, trying to escape reality with cocaine." Meanwhile, the church is the family (76).

The Southern Baptist sermons were far more likely to focus on the sins of the prodigal, centering on his rebellion against the home and its values, often going into great detail in order to make the wayward son as relevant to contemporary adolescents as possible (82-83). The most common summary of his fault in these sermons was that he rejected his own "dignity and self-respect" (84). "For Presbyterian speakers, on the other hand, it is the dutiful, religiously obedient, yet joyless older brother who is more likely to serve as the emblem of sin" (85).

When the pastors sampled in these sermons do talk about sin, Witten relates, they depersonalize and generalize it, and typically deflect it to outsiders (87-91). Without condoning their sin, says one Southern Baptist pastor, "We should go out to the poor, the blacks, the Hispanics, the beer drinkers, and the divorced" (92). The deflection of sin to "outsiders" could hardly be more obvious (95). The main Presbyterian strategy, however, was to resist offering evaluations, but to empathize with both brothers (98). None of the sermons talk about sin in theological terms, "exemplified in the omission of the foundational doctrine of original sin"; it is generalized, depersonalized, deflected to outsiders, or dismissed (101).

Finally, Witten takes up what seemed to be the main emphasis in these sermons: "the transformed self." While earlier preaching in America had an important place for transformation, she notes, it was "only through God's grace": the death of the "old man" and life of the "new man" in Christ. "This Augustinian vocabulary prevailed in Calvinist speech throughout the early years of American Protestantism," but quickly succumbed to "modification that continues to the present day." Where the earlier notions identified self-love as the root of original sin, revivalists appealed to it as the motivation for conversion (104).

Witten points out that Jonathan Edwards' famous sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," despite its title and popular caricatures, affirmed total depravity along with an equally strong emphasis on God's grace (79). This emphasis was "short-lived" however.

By the time of the Second Great Awakening, early in the nineteenth century, evangelists such as Charles Finney were preaching doctrines that emphasized a person's free will to seek salvation and the assurance of that salvation immediately upon repentance....The conversion event took on heightened importance, but it became transmuted in some quarters into a process partially under human control.

With rising confidence in human ability more generally and "an emphasis on Arminian doctrines of free will," sin became transformed "into notions of sin as mistakes in behavior, amenable to correction by appropriate moral education" (80). Like all behaviors, sin could be managed according to predictable principles.

Where the older views regarded the attempt to autonomously construct our own identities as part of the futility of being, in Augustine's words, "curved in on ourselves," Witten found that many of the sermons she evaluated assume the "self-crafted self" of secular culture (81). God helps in this endeavor, but the sense of the self as created for God's purposes-fallen in sin and redeemed and refashioned by God-is at least muted by the original (autonomous and therapeutic) assumption (83). Increasingly, Americans came to see the church with its appointed "means of grace" as secondary to "Bible classes, prayer meetings, and benevolent groups"-in other words, "parachurch organizations." Therefore, faith became increasingly privatized, with opportunities to express one's feelings, the language of faith "frequently laced with sentimentality" (104-105).

Political liberalism's optimism about the self and human progress merged with Arminian revivalism to radically alter the traditional Christian understanding, Witten observes. Liberals and revivalists both deemphasized God's transcendence and tended to see God's Word as something that welled up within a person rather than as something that came to a person from outside.

The key to salvation thus lies within the self; the charge to the individual person is to listen and be receptive to this inner voice. Also, since sin was regarded largely as error or ignorance (consonant with liberal beliefs in the essential goodness of humankind), the view prevailed that behavioral change can come about through education about ethical and moral concerns [emphasis added]. (105)

This opened the door to a psychologized understanding of faith in God "as a kind of therapy that would help men and women deal with the demands of the real world" (105). Conservatives and liberals may argue over specific questions related to integrating theology and psychology, but both assume significantly psychologized interpre-tations of their creed. Conversion is basically "self-fulfillment." The central narrative of the Baptist sermons was "transformation through conversion," but both spoke in therapeutic terms (106). Conversion is up to us, but it's relatively easy to attain. It only requires "emotional self-awareness, openness, and receptivity" of which, of course, all people are entirely capable. Conversion will bring about "bonding with God," meaningful relationships, and triumph over one's daily problems (107).

The emphasis on transformation rests on important theological shifts. First, an emphasis on free will: a recurring theme is that nothing is more essential to the self than free will (108). As one Southern Baptist preacher said, "In great love, God has set us free to become and to be, to take charge and be responsible for our own destinies" (109). A second emphasis of this shift is "innate human goodness." One Presbyterian puts it this way: "When Jesus says that [the prodigal son] came to himself, He pays us the highest of compliments, for He suggests that there is something within the human being which innately wants goodness and love, which wants to be at home and in harmony with the will of God" (110-111). A Southern Baptist includes the following quote:

When you get what you want in your struggle for wealth and the world makes you king for a day,
Then go the mirror and look at yourself and see what that guy (or gal) has to say.
For it isn't your father or mother or wife who judgment upon you must pass,
The fellow whose verdict counts most in your life is the guy staring back from the glass. (111)

Notice how "the fellow whose verdict counts most" is one's own rather than God's.

A further element in this emphasis on transformation is "the psychology of openness," "trust and self-disclosure," and "authenticity" (111-115). The focus is almost exclusively human-centered rather than God-centered, and the view of human beings is basically Pelagian or at least semi-Pelagian. "Thus far, the speech of these sermons has identified a fundamental human nature at the core of every person: innately good, open to self-understanding, and in need of release from the artifice hiding its true identity." Although this is identified as the Christian doctrine of conversion, Witten's verdict is difficult to challenge: there is nothing here that couldn't be found in secular alternatives (117). The consistent message running throughout these sermons is "reach out to God" and become "vulnerable" (119). But there is nothing here that would give a reason as to why "receiving God into the heart" is "the only possible recourse to realizing true selfhood" (120).

For this transforming process of conversion, there are always "effective procedures" that become routinized and standardized. In the Southern Baptist sermons especially, Witten pointed out that the speech itself "collapses into a technical appendix, into which preachers insert talk about the procedures of getting saved" (125). One pastor formalizes them from the parable: recognition, realization, responsibility, and restoration. Restoration is basically a human achievement of will and action. In fact, by the time they have stated the "effective procedures," which necessitate "human effort on a variety of fronts," conversion finally seems "not as easy as advertised" (126). Among the typical concluding remarks are the following: "Open yourself to the salvation that God wants to work in your life" (127).

So instead of introducing people to a majestic God who nevertheless condescended in mercy to save those who cannot save themselves, these sermons-even with the parable of the prodigal son as their text-proclaimed a message that can be summarized as "moralistic, therapeutic deism." As a product, the "God-experience" can be sold and purchased with confidence that the customer is still king. Therefore, statements that would have appalled previous generations of mainline Protestants, such as the following from George Barna, are assumed as a matter of course even among evangelicals today: "The chief principle of Christian communication is that the audience, not the message, is sovereign." (3)


1  All quotes, unless otherwise noted, from Marsha Witten, All Is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).
2  For Weber's own argument, see his essay, "Science as a Vocation," in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, eds. H. Gerth and C. W. Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), pp. 129-160. The literature on this question is vast, but two books are especially critical for getting a beat on contemporary sociological interpretations of Weber's theory: Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967), and Thomas Luckmann, The Invisible Religion (London: Collier-Macmillan, 1967).
3  George Barna, Marketing the Church: What They Never Taught You About Church Growth (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1988).

By Topic


By Scripture

Old Testament









1 Samuel

2 Samuel

1 Kings

2 Kings

1 Chronicles

2 Chronicles








Song of Solomon


















New Testament







1 Corinthians

2 Corinthians





1 Thessalonians

2 Thessalonians

1 Timothy

2 Timothy





1 Peter

2 Peter

1 John

2 John

3 John



By Author

Latest Links