038 Whither Christ’s Church?

A recent (May 16, 1994) article by Robert Roberts in Christianity Today, entitled “Psychobabble,” blends “suspicion and appreciation” in examining the pervasive presence of psychology in the church, raising concerns about the minimization of sin and the maximization of self in reigning therapeutic prescriptions which pass for “theology” in many modern churches.

Adding substance to Roberts’ concern is an interview in The Latin Mass (special issue, n.d.) with Dr. William Coulson, a Catholic psychologist who now laments his role in helping wreck scores of religious communities by introducing them, in the late 1960’s, to the “nondirective” therapeutic techniques of Carl Rogers. The “sensitivity” or “encounter” groups Coulson encouraged prompted a process whereby 59 of the 60 schools run by the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary promptly closed! As the sisters “shared” and expressed themselves, they abandoned their vocations!

In Coulson’s opinion, “Humanistic psychotherapy, the kind that has virtually taken over the Church in America, and dominates so many forms of aberrant education like sex education, and drug education, holds that the most important source of authority is within you, that you must listen to yourself” (p. 16). This notion has invaded Roman Catholic schools and religious orders. Now Coulson, appalled at the devastation, has abandoned his psychotherapeutic practice and devotes himself to lecturing on the dangers of psychotherapy.

I cite these recent articles to indicate the importance of the books I’ll review in this issue. First, consider Lyle E. Schaller’s Innovations in Ministry: Models for the Twenty-first Century (Nashville: Abingdon Press, c. 1994). Unlike the Jeremiahs who lament the state of the church, Schaller, one of the most highly regarded experts on church growth, finds much good news to celebrate.

More people attend Protestant churches on “the typical week-end in 1993” (p. 12) than in the 40 previous years, more than keeping pace with population growth. Downtown churches thrive. Multicultural and multiracial congregations illustrate the success of the church in reaching and reconciling disparate peoples.

More young males now attend church than a generation ago. The “yuppie” generation is securely established in churches–though often attending different ones, generally independent or “nondenominational,” than those in which they were reared. Creative new forms of music and drama attract new audiences. The demand for higher quality ministries has prompted the churches to “upgrade the quality of their ministry to meet that demand” (p. 25). Such successes leave Schaller “convinced that congregational life in American Protestantism is healthier, stronger, and sounder than ever before in my lifetime” (p. 15).

Schaller’s celebration of Protestantism’s robust health deserves attention, though some would wonder at the “evidences” for such health. And his diagnoses of those churches which are losing adherents and declining into senility need attention. “Every institution that is designed to serve people must either win the allegiance of new generations or watch the clientele shrink in size” (p. 38). So true! Yet perhaps not the final truth!

Schaller then turns to strategies to gain such allegiance. One must, first, focus clearly on the community to be reached, as has the Willow Creek Community Church, which targets younger non-churched adults with “informality, drama, contemporary music, a thirty-five-minute sermon, theological conservatism, an exceptionally high-energy staff, an obsession with quality, an absence of traditional symbols, a low-pressure welcome to first-time worshipers, and an extensive range of outreach ministries” (p. 49). Lay-led AA-style recovery groups abound.

Other churches, such as the Saddleback Community Church in Orange County, California, follow somewhat different strategies. Pastor Rick Warren carefully interviewed residents, then designed a program to reach them which “included nonjudgmental love, warmth, beginning with the other person’s agenda, practical and positive sermons, a minimum of organizational structure, a strong emphasis on lay ministry, high quality and relevant advertising, openness, contemporary music, investing money in staff rather than in real estate in the early years, and a strong teaching ministry” (p. 51).

What Schaller emphasizes is that different strategies suit different constituencies. Different strokes for different folks! Church growth is a matter of finding the right approach, touching the right “need,” satisfying the most pressing desires of the people. It’s important to go to people, “meeting them on their turf, and beginning with their agenda” (p. 89).

The good thing about this book is its hopeful stance. Schaller points to churches which are doing well and even suggests ways to help the “wounded birds” which seem destined to die. What concerns me is the tacit assumption so prevalent in such books that numerical growth and financial strength are the marks whereby we should evaluate a church. Schaller, naturally, denies this, for he insists there are more important issues. But, when all is said and done, the final word seems to be the “bottom line” rather than the Word of God.

* * * * *

Growing churches, it seems, proclaim an attractive message which warms hearers’ hearts. That’s what Marsha G. Witten found in her recent study, All Is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, c. 1993). The “GOOD NEWS” announced in an invitational brochure from a new, nearby Baptist church, was the planting of “a new church designed to meet your needs in the 1990’s” (p. 3). The materials received imitated “the slick direct-mail solicitation of a credit card or insurance company” with appeals to “the social and psychological pleasures one might receive” from joining up (p. 4). Interested (as a sociologist, not as a believer, which she is not) in what was being preached in modern churches, Witten sent questionnaires to pastors in Presbyterian (USA) and Southern Baptist churches, asking for copies of sermons preached on the parable of the prodigal son. She analyzed 47 sermons, about equally balanced between the two churches.

Before proceeding further, it’s important to discount some of Witten’s conclusions on the basis of her methodology. To ask preachers for sermons on a distinctive text, rather than studying, for example, all the sermons preached in the course of a year, rather predetermines the emphases one will find. The truth found in the parable of the prodigal son is an important truth, not the sole truth of the Scripture! Had Witten asked for sermons based on the Sermon on the Mount or the Epistle of James she would have found significantly other truths being proclaimed from the same pulpits!

It’s also important to remember Witten’s non-Christian perspective. Certainly it gives her a certain detachment, a scholarly “objectivity” admired in the academy. But it also prevents her from fully understanding the theological nuances and hermeneutical principles which would place the sermons in a more balanced context. Those caveats aside, Witten’s book still makes an important point: the sermons she studied, to the extent they reflect what folks in America’s churches hear, portray a thoroughly secularized version of Christianity which bears little resemblance to the more demanding Gospel heard by our ancestors.

With a few exceptions, the sermons Witten studied reveal some fundamental accommodations to our secular society. God no longer appears as a high and holy “wholly other” Being; rather he tends to be portrayed as “Daddy, Sufferer, Lover.” In four-fifths of the sermons, “God is portrayed exclusively or predominantly in terms or the positive functions he serves for men and women. Chief among these functions is one that can be labeled ‘therapeutic'” (p. 35). God is described, rather routinely it seems, “as Significant Other, who provides comfort, counsel, and understanding for the individual’s psychological concerns” (pp. 130-131).

Thus God is routinely called a “Daddy” who suffers deep emotional distress when we err. Though only once in the New Testament did Jesus use the word “Abba” (and that not in the parable of the prodigal son!), the preachers routinely referred to the Father in the story as “Abba,” Daddy. This Daddy God loves us unconditionally, just as we are, and is saddened but not angry with our sinful behavior. He loves all of us “regardless of merit and in the same way–freely and equally” (p. 44). Now and then the sermons remind folks that God is also a “judge” who will punish unrepentant sinners. But by-and-large “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” (p. 53). God, mainly concerned with our everyday and internal worlds, “in his immanence and understanding, smiles benevolently on the age of psychology” (p. 132).

If God is seen as a non-judgmental, unconditional lover, the world is usually understood as an arena wherein believers find the best route to the good life. The prodigal son certainly went astray, getting lost, which was no treat, but in returning home he found the place which is rightly his, right where his Daddy wanted him, enjoying a party and celebrating his privileged status. Indeed, Witten concluded, “the world of choices” for modern Protestants, “poses no difficulty for Christian life. largely because the demands of spirituality are so bounded, so domesticated to concerns of daily middle-class existence, that they do not require abandoning secular pursuits” (p. 77).

When compared with earlier Protestant preaching, such as Jonathan Edwards, modern preachers fear to stress the reality and damning dimensions of sin. Some preachers, most all of them Southern Baptists, did dwell on the willfulness, the self-serving sinfulness of the prodigal’s rebellion. But in many sermons, the prodigal is portrayed as the vintage “victim”–more to be pitied than blamed–so central to modern American culture!

Witten particularly analyzes the “rhetorical strategies” devised by preachers to take the sting out of “sin.” Some of these include: “the device of depersonalization, which renders notions of sinfulness vague and abstract; the device of selectivity, exemplified in the omission of the foundational doctrine of original sin; the device of deflection, through which sin is projected off listeners and onto groups of outsiders; the device of mitigation, employed to modify the potential for audience identification with sinful characters; and the device of therapeutic tolerance, through which sin is translated as errant behavior, explanations for misdeeds are sought in social context rather than in the individual, and the response of judgment is replaced by that of empathy” (p. 101).

Rather than stressing the depravity of human nature, most sermons celebrated the possibilities of personal transformation. Earlier developments in American church history paved the way for applauding “self-love” and encouraging “self-realization.” Taking their key from psychologists like Carl Rogers, whose humanistic message struck responsive chords in vast numbers of people, Protestant preachers gradually began turning the Gospel of Jesus into the Gospel of Self-Acceptance.

In every person, the sermons suggest, there is an innately good self, created in God’s image, which needs deliverance from legalism and judgmental authority figures in order to find the freedom and joy designed for him. Certainly we need God to help us find our real selves, but He’s more a facilitator than redeemer! “Conversion,” Witten concludes, “is portrayed far less as the need to grapple with sin-nature than as a reorientation of one’s psychology toward the creation of a close interpersonal relationship with God” (p. 127).

Anyone looking for evidence that a “therapeutic gospel” has entered the sermonic mainstream will find this book full of documentation. So long as one understands the limitations of Witten’s methodology, this is a helpful study. And, to the degree that it illustrates what other studies, employing other methodologies and utilizing other data, suggest, it is most persuasive.

* * * * *

One reason Witten’s study resounds with a “ring of truth” is its demonstration of the central theme of a solid historical study by E. Brooks Holifield, A History of Pastoral Care in America: From Salvation to Self-Realization (Nashville: Abingdon, c. 1983). I was impressed when I read this book when it was first published a decade ago. Re-reading it for this issue I am still convinced that it is one of the most illuminating treatises on American religious history.

The book’s thesis is contained in its subtitle: “from salvation to self-realization.” In brief, “The story proceeds from the ideal of self-denial to one of self-love, from self-love to self-culture, from self-culture to self-mastery, from self-mastery to self-realization within a trustworthy culture, and finally to a later form of self-realization counterpoised against cultural mores and social institutions” (p. 12).

That process began, of course, in Colonial America, when “Self meant self-centeredness,” when “‘Selfhood’ was primarily a condition to be overcome, not a possibility to be realized. ‘Is not SELF the great idol which the whole world of unsanctified men doth worship?’ asked [Richard] Baxter. The goal of the Christian was therefore self-emptiness, self-trial, and self-denial–anything to conquer the ‘infection of self'” (p. 58).

Such antipathy to self-concern slowly slipped away during the First and Great Awakenings, which largely molded an emergent Evangelical Protestantism. Though vigorously contested, this shifting emphasis–from the character and concerns of God to the inner affections and aspirations and religious experience of men and women–meant that, by the end of the Colonial Era, “the lovable self was here to stay” (p. 99).

Between the Revolutionary and Civil wars, Holifield argues, evangelical Protestants increasingly stressed a message of “balance, gentility, self-culture.” To be a Christian, especially a minister of the gospel, was to be a gentlemen. That such was attainable was rooted in a growing confidence in the human willpower. This was especially evident in the preaching of Charles G. Finney, the leading light of the Second Great Awakening. To set one’s will on attaining the “happiness” God intends for us, to love one’s self in a healthy sense, became one of the primary means whereby one attained his end.

Following the Civil War, Holifield says, clergymen embraced “the natural style.” No longer interested in gentility, they stressed a “muscular Christianity” which celebrated military heroes and athletic prowess. A “cult of virility” celebrated the “vigorous life,” built hundreds of YMCA centers, and encouraged believers to find ways tap in to “power” for living. “Self-mastery” became a goal to pursue.

Strongly influencing such developments was the psychology of William James who thought actions shape ideas, habits shape character, and the will-to-believe shapes convictions. What works in one’s own experience is what’s true and good. Since liberal Protestants defined theology as an interpretation of religious experience, they welcomed the insights of psychologists like James.

Particularly in the hands of pastoral theologians, it became increasingly difficult to find traditional theology in the psychotherapy of that era. With great insight the philosopher “Josiah Royce identified the main problem when he observed that much of the debate over psychotherapy in America seemed to establish the health of the individual as a criterion of philosophical (and, by implication, theological) truth: ‘Whoever, in his own mind,’ wrote Royce, ‘makes the whole great world center about the fact that he, just this private individual, once was ill and now is well, is still a patient'” (p. 208-209).

The era following WWI, when psychology again revived, witnessed the movement from “adjustment to insight.” Freud, Watson, Dewey, all had their disciples. Amazingly, insofar as he was openly atheistic, “the man who did most to define the meaning of adjustment for the pastoral care writers of the early 1930’s was John Dewey. His Democracy and Education (1910) might even be described as a hidden classic of the pastoral care movement” (p. 223). So influential were such psychologists that one of the most popular preachers of that era, Harry Emerson Fosdick, “persuaded a large segment of the liberal Protestant clergy to refashion the sermon in the image of the counseling session” (p. 220).

Following WWII the “age of psychology” flourished as never before, and in pastoral theology, the thought of Carl Rogers exerted enormous influence. Non-directive, client-centered therapy dominated the field, complementing the “revolt against moralism” which permeated seminaries in that era. Following the lead of Soren Kierkegaard, Emile Brunner, Rudolph Bultmann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Karl Barth, American theologians celebrated the freedom of grace which releases believers from all forms of legalism.

Paul Tillich, especially popular in American circles, espoused a “transmoral conscience” which needs no structures, no pre-exiting boundaries. In every situation, we’re free to decide how to love and love liberates us “‘from the bondage to absolute ethical traditions, to conventional morals, and to authorities that claim to know the right decision perhaps without having listened to the demand of the unique moment'” (p. 288).

To theologians like Tillich, pastoral theologians grafted popular psychologists such as Erich Fromm, Carl Rogers, and Harry Stack Sullivan. The result was an emphasis on “acceptance”–and especially “self-acceptance.” In Tillich’s memorable formula: “Simply accept the fact that you are accepted. If that happens to us, we experience grace” (p. 330). From Tillich’s “acceptance” gospel it’s easy to shift to the celebration that “all is forgiven” Marsha Witten hears being preached in American pulpits. The Gospel of Jesus Christ (at least as it was understood by Ancient and Medieval Christians) has been replaced, in significant ways, by the cult of self-realization. And what’s troubling, when one reads church-growth studies such as Schaller’s, is this: the churches which “grow,” which reach people in the modern world, seem more centered on the “self-realization” of their members than the proclamation of Jesus the Christ!

Not all churches, however, should make numerical growth and larger facilities their main concern. Some churches feel called to a “mission” of starting smaller churches or off-campus ministries, planted in strategic locations. Since start-up congregations generally thrive better and reach the non-churched more effectively, the model of a “mother” church sending and sustaining “missionaries” to nearby areas may be exemplary. This “Key Church Strategy” appeals to Schaller and he devotes considerable attention to it.


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