Excerpts from Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World
In fact, in America anything and everything can be “commmodified” and sold, from style to sex, from ideas to religion. In towns and cities are churches, mosques, and synagogues; in the Yellow Pages there are choices for worship on Sunday morning ranging from the Episcopalians to the Baptists to the Assemblies of God; at the local bookstore, shelf after shelf is filled with books on New Age, self-help, witchcraft, holism, and Buddhism. This is Western freedom and Western commercialized culture. Here, we have the ability to hope for what we want, shop where we want, buy what we want, study where we want, think what we want, believe what we want, and treat religion as just another commodity, a product to be consumed.
America is tuned in to spiritual matters but not to religious formulations. This makes it very easy to gain a hearing for what is spiritual but hard to maintain a genuinely biblical posture because that becomes a part of “religion.” It is very easy to build churches in which seekers congregate; it is very hard to build churches in which biblical faith is maturing into genuine discipleship. It is the difficulty of this task which has been lost in many seeker churches, which are meeting places for those who are searching spiritually but are not looking for that kind of faith which is spiritually tough and countercultural in a biblical way.
It is, rather, an attempt to exploit one side of Pauline paradox. The paradox is that Paul could say at the Areopagus in Athens that God rules in history so that people “should seek” him in the hope that they might “find him” (Acts 17:27) while also saying to the Romans that, as a result of the pervasiveness of sin, “no one understands, no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11). Here is the two-sided truth: we should seek God and yet no one seeks God. This paradox reflects our condition as those who, made in the image of God, are made to know him but who, nevertheless, are fallen and will not “honor him as God, or give thanks to him” (Rom. 1:21).
The seeker-sensitive approach typically emphasizes the one side of this paradox while significantly discounting the other, seeing sinners as more or less neutral in their disposition toward God and the gospel and therefore amenable to marketing techniques. It typically does not see sinners as those who are unable to submit to God, despite all the marketing techniques, without his intervention. IT is the degree to which these techniques are used, the degree to which the church arranges its life around the seeker impulse, that creates a scale of seeker sensitivity in these churches, from modest on the one end to “seeker-oriented” on the other. This, of course, makes generalizations difficult, but without them understanding is impossible.
Stronger family relationships…Greater satisfaction at work…And ever better sex…and you can get all these things through Church….Hey, we’re not making this stuff up. It’s happening every day, every week, all across America. Don’t get us wrong – you don’t walk through the doors of a church and suddenly your family likes you better and your allergies clear up. There are no magic potions to happiness. But a good church gives you a place to explore what God has to say about the kinds of everyday problems we all face: family relationships, stress, sex, ethics, work, health, romance, kids…well, you’re human – you know the list. Church should make a difference in you life Monday through Saturday, too…not just for an hour on Sunday.
Advertisement for Canyon Creek Community Church, Chandler, Arizona
Traditional churches have been “producer” churches; megachurches of the seeker-sensitive kind are succeeding because they are “consumer” churches. The one is all about prescription; the other allows the “patients” to define their own needs and seek their own remedies. The one might advertise itself in the Yellow Pages in terms of its location, perhaps denomination, and the hours when worship is held; the other might begin its advertisement with a question in bold print: “Need Help in Raising Your Children?” The one has worshipped on Sunday in the same way for decades; the other offers four different worship experiences, each with a different music style. Preaching in the one might follow the lectionary; preaching in the other will arise from the daily conversations held during the week, for this is what people want to hear. In short, in society and in the Church the consumer is now in the driver’s seat.
Seeker churches, then, represent a coalition bound together not by a theological vision of the world but by a common strategy for reaching particular segments of society and by a common methodology for accomplishing this. Interestingly, it is a methodology that can be hitched up equally as well to evangelical faith as to New Age belief, or to anything in between. Why is this so? The reason is that there is no theological truth upon which the methodology is predicated and upon which it insists, because theological truth, it is thought, is not what builds churches. What this approach is doing, Sargeant argues, is creating an institutional response “to today’s consumerist ethos.” The objective, therefore, is “to reduce or minimize any cognitive distance between the religious realm and the working and shopping world of suburban middle-class Americans.” The rhythms of this consumption, however, happen almost entirely within the privatized realm of interior spirituality. It is about offering choices for consumers to piece together for themselves some sort of meaning, a way to bring some sense into, and establish some order within, their lives. It is this acutely privatized dimension that explains why so few of these churches have any kind of social involvement. But it also explains why these churches are appealing to so many people who are looking for a spiritual dimension to life but who may want to distance themselves from religion. Here is spirituality without theology, spirituality which is privatized and therefore, to some extent, freed form the external rhythms and authority of a practiced faith. And that is producing many changes.
The fact that this line between commerce and belief is eroding makes it easy for people to think that there may be a market for religion even as there is for goods and services and that these two markets work in similar ways. This is not an entirely aberrant observation. Yet the parallels are now being pressed so injudiciously, so unwisely, that the promotion of (imperishable_ faith has come to be indistinguishable from the promotion of (perishable) products (1 Pet. 1:4-5, 18-19_ as if the dynamic of success in the one naturally duplicates itself in the other. Seekers become consumers, pastors become business tycoons, churches become marketing outlets, the gospel becomes a product, faith becomes its purchase, and increasingly the outcome in people’s lives is no different than if they had made any other purchase.
Given the kind of airy indifference to the place of biblical doctrine in the seeker methodologies, it is probably futile to suggest that there is, in fact, a doctrinal reason for this convergence between the seeker churches and the older liberalism. That explanation lie in the fact that there is a disconnect between the biblical orthodoxy which is progressed and the assumptions off which seeker churches are building themselves. Seeker methodology rests upon the Pelagian view that human beings are not inherently sinful, despite creedal affirmations to the contrary, that in their disposition to God and his Word postmoderns are neutral, that they can be seduced into making the purchase of faith even as they can into making any other kind of purchase. A majority of 52% of evangelicals, it was noted earlier, 52%, reject the idea of original sin. It would nevertheless be quite foolish to think that using what was once a dreaded word – Pelagian – to describe all of this would create dismay. It will not. The majority of evangelicals are deliberately undoctrinal. Their criterion of truth” by which seeker habits of church building should be tested is simply the pragmatic one. Is this working?
When the consumer is allowed to be sovereign in Church, the Church is abdicating from its responsibility because it is allowing truth to become displaced by spiritual and psychological desire. However, once the concession has been made, we then discover that satisfying needs becomes a frustrating undertaking. Needs, in the therapeutic society, multiply faster than fruit flies. No sooner is one nee met than two take its place. Coopting the needs to church is not the same things a seeing a sinner converted and brought into the Church.
“As sinful human being,” Os Guinness comments, “we have an instinctual, compulsive bias toward forms of religion that we ourselves can create and control” and that is precisely what consumer-driven religion invites us to do.
In these churches, Christian orthodoxy is not jettisoned, but it is tailored for the new consumer audience, which is one much given to spirituality shorn of theology, one stripped of much of its cognitive structure. Messages are preached with civility and they are more user-friendly than they used to be. Their effectiveness is judged by their “market value” (that is, their practical usefulness_. God is much friendlier, too. Gone are the notes of judgment, though these are more displaced then denied, and they are replaced by those of love and acceptance. God, in one such message, was presented as the one “who loves you, is proud of you, believes in you, and will give you strength to stand up to the forces of evil in the world.” Sin is preached but is presented more in terms of how it “harms the individual, rather than how it offends a hold God. Sin, in short, prevents us from realizing our full potential.” Conversion is insisted upon but then, paradoxically, it is the this-worldly benefits that are accentuated, the practical benefits of knowing Christ receiving all the attention with scarcely a look at what happens if we turn away from him. To turn away from him, Hybels says, leaves that person not so much under God’s judgment as unfulfilled. Thus the exclusive message of classical evangelicalism is maintained but parts of it are de-emphasized and parts are transformed to make the adjustment to this consumer-driven and therapeutically0defined culture. Evangelicalism is now presented “in the friendly guise of an egalitarian, fulfillment-enhancing, fun, religious encounter with God” And is this not sailing dangerously close to adapting the gospel to the postmodern disposition for the sake of success, adapting it to those yearning for the sacred without addressing what stands in the way to knowing God? When Paul wrote to the Galatians, whom he had to rebuke, he was painfully aware of the temptation to soften the gospel. He firmly rejected the desire to “please men” because, he said, if “I were still pealing men, I should not be a servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10).
Excerpts from Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World
In our postmodern world, every view has a place at the table but none has the final say. How should the church confess Christ in today’s cultural context? Above All Earthly Pow’rs, the fourth and final volume of the series that began in 1993 with No Place for Truth, portrays the West in all its complexity, brilliance, and emptiness. As David F. Wells masterfully depicts it, the postmodern ethos of the West is relativistic, individualistic, therapeutic, and yet remarkably spiritual. Wells shows how this postmodern ethos has incorporated into itself the new religious and cultural relativism, the fear and confusion, that began with the last century’s waves of immigration and have continued apace in recent decades.Wells’s book culminates in a critique of contemporary evangelicalism aimed at both unsettling and reinvigorating readers. Churches that market themselves as relevant and palatable to consumption-oriented postmoderns are indeed swelling in size. But they are doing so, Wells contends, at the expense of the truth of the gospel. By placing a premium on marketing rather than truth, the evangelical church is in danger of trading authentic engagement with culture for worldly success.
Welding extensive cultural analysis with serious theology, Above All Earthly Pow’rs issues a prophetic call that the evangelical church cannot afford to ignore.