Feb 1 2011

Good News for Anxious Christians pt 4

The church, when it’s not seduced by consumerist spirituality, is in the business of cultivating ordinary Christians.

This is perhaps my favorite quote in the book I’ve been reviewing, Good News for Anxious Christians. This is not, however, the focus of contemporary evangelicalism. Who wants to be ordinary? “Come join us—be ordinary!” is not something you’re going to find on many (or any) church signs or websites.

In the remaining 1/2 of the book, Cary addresses cultural elements which have found their way into evangelicalism, such as emphasizing our motivations rather than our actions, separating “head” from “heart,” and especially consumerism. In adopting a marketing approach to spirituality—which is based on creating a need to fit in, or even be special—the church has lost any sense of true spirituality (becoming “ordinary” Christians).

The point of consumerism is to make you feel like you’re missing something, so you keep coming back. This requires that you stop thinking, and respond emotionally to the message. As Cary writes,

The new evangelical theology, like all forms of consumerist religion, really does need to keep you from thinking too much. It requires you to be afraid of engaging in critical thought, so that you’re easily manipulated and easily pressured into wanting to feel what everyone else feels.

Cary includes a chapter on why practical sermons are so boring (as we all know they are). The need to be practical and “relevant” shifts the focus from the Gospel (what Christ has done for us) to what we can do for ourselves (or for the church).

The last couple of chapters are perhaps the most important in the book, as he explains how this shift from a focus on external truth to one of internal experience is a step away from orthodox Christianity, and which will lead to a post-Christian future.

In closing, he tells us why the gospel is simply good for us, and why it should be preached as often as possible.

As I mentioned at the outset of this series, Good News for Anxious Christians is a great companion to my book The Gospel Uncensored, as it deals with many of the same attitudes, however from a different perspective. If church makes you feel anxious in the least, I highly recommend reading both of these (mind first, of course…).

Jan 17 2011

Good News for Anxious Christians

I am almost finished with Phillip Cary’s book, Good News for Anxious Christians—10 Practical Things You Don’t Have to Do. When my brother-in-law gave it to me at Christmas, he remarked that it seemed like a good companion to my book, and he was absolutely right. For example, on the first page of the preface, Cary writes:

Some folks may find it odd when I say Christians need the gospel, but this is something I firmly believe. I don’t think you just accept Christ once in life, and then move on to figure out how to make real changes in your life that transform you. It’s hearing the gospel of Christ and receiving him in faith, over and over again, that makes the real transformation in our lives. We become new people in Christ by faith alone, not by our good works or efforts or even our attempts to let God work in our lives.

Good stuff.

Cary teaches philosophy at Eastern University, where he has dealt with countless students plagued by various teachings prevalent in today’s evangelical church that are meant to provide practical ways to transform our lives, but as he says, “They’re ideas that promise practical transformation, but in real life they mainly have the effect of making people anxious, not to mention encouraging self-deception, undermining their sense of moral responsibility, and weakening their faith in Christ.” (Cary also has a few courses available at The Teaching Company, which I highly recommend.)

I think Cary’s background in philosophy—and especially the history of philosophy and religious thought—gives him a unique perspective from which to view the present. He  paints a very clear picture of the contemporary evangelical church, emphasizing first that it is a contemporary phenomenon—the thinking behind many of the ideas he discusses would have been completely foreign a couple of generations ago.

While he deals with ten specific “things you don’t have to do,” there are three key themes that appear. First is the trend toward an individualistic spirituality (something about which I’ve blogged about in the past). Next is the related theme of looking inside oneself to find God.

The third theme—which I found most interesting—is the consumerist aspect of the contemporary evangelical church. I’ve heard a lot of about “consumer Christians” over the years, but nothing with the depth that Cary presents. He describes the various characteristics of consumerism and shows how it perverts teaching and evangelism in the church, hiding the gospel and creating anxiety-ridden Christians.

It occurred to me as I was reading, that the consumerist approach to church is actually necessitated by the first 2 themes. If Christians turn individualist and self-centered, they no longer have a need for the church. Therefore, the pastors need to present their church as a commodity the consumer needs, in order to get them coming to church. More on this in a future post.

I already liked Cary from his Great Courses series, but really appreciated his thinking in this book.  I plan to write 2 or 3 follow up posts dealing with a few things in more detail, mainly for my own edification, but also to solicit some thoughts from others.