Monday, March 3, 2014

Cotton Candy for the Soul

If you can't tweet it in 140 characters or less, if it doesn't fit into a peppy sound-bite, if doesn't download in a matter of seconds, it isn't worth our time. Today it's all about the quick fix. We want immediate gratification. We want what we want and we want it now. Want to be thinner? There's a crash diet for that. Want to connect with friends? There's Facebook for that. Want to find something out? There's Google for that. In the Information Age, everything is one click away. But if the page takes too long to load, we soon lose interest. Our society is undergoing an A.D.D. epidemic in which the attention span of the collective conscious is shrinking by the second. And the same symptoms are affecting the spiritual health of Christianity in America.

We're living in a dumbed-down culture that values tidbits of superficial knowledge over intellectual rigor. And in this context, spiritual fluff has replaced solid biblical preaching in a rising number of our churches. Too many Christian preachers, books, and blogs these days are peddling cotton candy for the soul. It's sweet, it's pretty, it's easily consumed. Cotton candy for the soul is fed to us in lightweight bites that taste good, but melt away quickly. It's fast, it's convenient, but it's spiritual fluff that has no nutritional value. It's a sugar-rush that neither feeds the soul, nourishes the heart, nor sustains the mind for a faith that endures.

As a woman, I am especially aware of the problem of spiritual fluff in Christian books and blogs that target a female audience. Many of them present a touchy-feely portrayal of the Christian faith, relying on emotion-saturated content that lacks the solid substance of biblical truth and neglects Jesus's command to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds (Matt 22:37). Sadly, content like this is in heavy demand. Often, these books call themselves "Christian," but never mention the gospel, quote bible verses rarely, selectively, or out of context, and lack sound theology. They encourage Christians to base their relationship with God far more on their emotional response to Him than on their biblical knowledge of Him. But in actuality, the Christian faith isn't based on us and how we feel, it's about God and who He is.

In a culture that seeks to idolize humanity, the mega church-phenomenon has birthed the unfortunate by-product of celebrity pastors. In an effort to grab the waning attention of the over-stimulated masses, too many of these pastors turn to gimmicks and sound-bite theology for impact. A
udiences of spiritual consumers show up to stadium-style churches to get their weekly dose of positive thinking, practical advice, and pep talks. Don't feel down about yourself! You're important! You matter! In an increasing number of churches, it's a self-help ethos that's proclaimed from the pulpit (or the stage in most cases!) and one which often bares little or no relation to the true gospel. These messages cater to human feelings first, and attempt to cheer everyone up. But in doing so they trivialize sin and gloss over inconvenient truthsAs a result, they [albeit inadvertently] downplay our need for redemption and the atoning power of the cross. This is the epitome of cotton candy for the soul.

But in our sugar-addicted, self-centered culture, cotton candy for the soul sells. And the demand for it is being met in an increasing number of churches, as seen, for example, in various manifestations of the "emerging churches movement."[1] Many emerging churches tout a "post-evangelical" approach to the Christian faith and try to put a new spin on Christianity in response to the fact that the traditional model is failing to hold the attention of the younger generations. The tendency is to focus on what is wrong with how we've done church in the past and seeks, therefore, to repackage the Christian message to generate mass-appeal in a post-modern context. (Revisionists within this movement go as far as to question whether evangelical doctrine is appropriate for the postmodern world at all)But this approach fails to address the root causethe heart-problemthat is leading young people to walk away from their faith. Instead of addressing the heart-issue of sin, it starts with emotional heeling or behavior modification, which is like applying mere band-aids to expanding wounds in sinful hearts.

The emerging churches movement promotes a church culture that caters primarily to human needs and feelings. In this vein, emerging churches often preach an issues-driven message, not a gospel-driven message, forgetting that there is no area of human life to which the gospel does not speak directly. By focusing on human needs first, the transformative power of the gospel is marginalized. The tragedy of this is that it misses the fact that living a gospel-centered life is the only true solution to all our issues. 

Gospel-centered churches, on the other hand, endeavor to recenter the Christian faith on the atoning, heart-transforming love of Christ. The gospel-centered movement, which emerged with new terminology several years ago, is certainly one worth jumping on board with.[2] Tim Keller, for example, sums it up as follows: "the Christian life is a process of renewing every dimension of our lifespiritual, psychological, corporate, socialby thinking, hoping, and living out the 'lines' or ramifications of the gospel."[3] A gospel-centered life, then, is about "acting in line with the truth of the gospel" (Gal 2:14). It is a life that fosters a personal reliance on the gospel that protects the believer from depending on his or her own acts of righteousness or self-help efforts, or being seduced by idols in God's place. Leading a gospel-centered life involves authentic heart-transformation and sincere, daily submission to God. It involves a cognizant realization that our own efforts will never be good enough and that we need to rely fully on Christ not only as our Savior, but as the Lord of our lives. If Christ is truly our Lord, we will submit to Him in obedience because we have died with Him and He now lives in us (Gal 2:20). 

While the gospel-centered movement has gained substantial steam of late, it is paralleled by an increasing tendency within Christianity to focus on a personal feelings- and experience-based relationship with God, while downplaying the need for biblical doctrine to define who God actually is and what His Word actually teaches. In fact, the outright rejection of systematic theology, or even a statement of faith, is common in emerging churches. This approach assumes that absolute truth is revealed through experiencing God rather than through any mental comprehension of His Word. Interestingly, a similar concept has been promoted by Oprah Winfrey, who proclaimed, "God is a feeling-experience, not a believing-experience!

But undervaluing the conscious belief in biblical doctrine goes against Jesus' commission to teach others to obey His commands (Matt 28:20) and certainly opens up the flood-gates to a whole lot of false teaching. Perhaps this is why Paul urged believers to watch our doctrine closely (1 Tim 4:16). For example, inclusivism (the belief that everyone is saved) is prevalent in many emerging churches. And the emphasis on personal feelings as the basis for one's faith promotes self-indulgence while de-emphasizing the Lordship of Christ. In other words, the self is placed at the center of everything in place of Christ. Gospel-centrality, on the other hand, starts with the Gospel of Christ at the center from which everything else then stems, adhering firmly to the core truth that Jesus is the only way to the Father (John 14:6). 

In light of this, we need to exercise discernment when we pick up a Christian book, attend a Christian conference, or seek a new church home, and ask ourselves, is the teaching I am exposing myself to really edifying? Does it glorify God or something else? It is rooted in the gospel? Similarly, when we lead or get involved in a ministry, we need to be sure that it is God's ministry, not a product of human effort. We should be gospel-driven in serving othersnot humanitarian. 

We need to replace cotton candy for the soul with the bread of lifethe gospel of Jesus Christin all aspects of our lives. For it is the gospel alone that will transform our hearts and minds and prepare our souls for a faith that endures to the end. Satan cannot destroy the gospel, therefore, he will do all he can to distract us from it. So then, let's fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, feeding our souls on the bread of life, not on a cheap, fake-food substitute.

[1] The emerging churches movement is fluid and multifaceted in nature and is hard to nail down. However, certain traits can be identified that many of these churches share as is touched on above.
[2] Many books, sermons, and blogs have been written about gospel-centrality, and so the term, "gospel-centered," is in danger of becoming cliched in a way which threatens to dilute the hard-hitting truth behind it, through over-use and potential misapplication.
[3] Tim Keller, "The Centrality of the Gospel."


Rachel Cleveland said...

Could not have said it better if I tried. Well done!

truth seeker said...

Good stuff. Well said. The challenge now is to find a church that believes, and teaches this.

truth seeker said...

Good stuff. Well written. The challenge now is to try to find a church that believes and teaches the truth.