It’s All About Me: How a distortion of “sola scriptura” turned American evangelicals into junkies of the self

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(Apostolic Succession for Newbies, Episode One)

Have you noticed the creeping narcissism in the evangelical church?[1]

Perhaps you have noticed it in the architecture as churches have been remade into the image of the places the world gathers: Foyers into coffeehouses, sanctuaries into concert halls, altars into comedy club stages. Candles and incense replaced with light shows and fog machines borrowed from the nightclub scene.

 

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…and that actually is a nightclub.

Perhaps you have noticed it in the songs we sing. The self-referential lyrics (count how often “me” and “I” appear)…the way the act of our worshipping becomes the subject rather than God…how few of our songs are about the nature and glory of God.)

Perhaps you have noticed it in the felt-needs orientation of our preaching  – With topics chosen by focus group and slickly marketed: “Come for our series, ‘Awesome Christian Sex!’” Or the way the preaching of the word of God has been reduced to a mere interruption in the song service (joining announcements and the offering.)

Surely you couldn’t help but notice it in Victoria Osteen’s recent exhortation, “You don’t worship for God. You worship for yourself.Oh, she was criticized her for it, but is this not a message we too are subtly sending? Perhaps Ms. Osteen is just more honest about it?

 Where did this start?

 The great strength of evangelicalism is a desire to reach people where they are with the Good News of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, without a great deal of both self-awareness and self-discipline, our charisms tend to become our curses. As with most problems, our creeping narcissism is an unanticipated consequence – the end result in our culture of 5 centuries of the B-side of Reformers reclamation of the Bible from “ex cathedra” (infallible interpretation by the papacy).  “Sola scriptura” (the scriptures alone), was the rallying cry. Unfortunately, as “sola scriptura” is popularly articulated today, we no longer need a church at all, we are each capable, called even, to be our own sole interpreters of scripture – the Bible is “self-authenticating, clear to the rational reader, its own interpreter of itself, and sufficient of itself to be the final authority of doctrine.” [2] In other words, each individual’s head is the ultimate standard…and, just like that, the idea of the “priesthood of the believer” has been elevated to a de facto “papacy of the believer.” No wonder we have 40,000 denominations…and no wonder an increasing number people are choosing to stay home from them. After all, if I am my own pope, then I am my own church…which, come to think of it, comes pretty close to making me my own “god.”

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Regrettably, this is a wholesale corruption of what the Reformers actually taught. Calvin, Luther, and Cranmer each have notebooks filled with quotations from the early church fathers. Chris Armstrong, editor of Christian History Magazine, writes, “The Reformation is an argument not just about the Bible but about the early Christian fathers, whom the Protestants wanted to claim…you look and you see it everywhere. The Reformers use the Fathers all over the place…Calvin read Augustine…Luther read Jerome. The index of Calvin’s Institutes is filled with an enormous number of quotations from the Fathers. And in the first preface to that work Calvin did his best to show his teachings were in complete harmony with the Fathers. The Protestants…were keen to have ancestors. They knew that innovation was another word for heresy. ‘Ours is the ancient tradition,’ they said. ‘The innovations were introduced in the Middle Ages!’ They issued anthologies of the Fathers to show the Fathers had taught what the Reformers were teaching.”[3] You see, the magisterium, the gathered wisdom of bishops interpreting the scriptures under the lineage of the tradition was not their problem. In fact, they went to great lengths to prove specifically that their teaching was the Fathers!

But alas, we have jettisoned the Reformers’ actual belief in the wisdom of the church’s teachers, whose interpretation was expected to stand in the tradition of the early Fathers. The mess of pottage we have traded it for is a disembodied sound bit. Disengaged from the Reformers reliance on the Fathers, we have what can be cynically referred to as “solo scriptura” – my private interpretation. And when “solo scriptura” is combined with American individualism and allowed to simmer with post-modern “truthiness,” we get a toxic soup of the dystopic self. We then feed this soup to a generation reared as the centers of the universe, then wonder that they are consumed with self. How could they not be?

 …when “solo scriptura” is combined with American individualism and allowed to simmer with post-modern “truthiness,” we get a toxic soup of the dystopic self. We then feed this soup to a generation reared as the centers of the universe, then wonder that they are consumed with self. How could they not be?

The church has consumed “me” like a diet of high-fructose corn syrup. It tasted so good going down, that we did not notice that we grew both addicted to the taste and unable to roll over in our spiritual flabbiness. Worse, the poison has so clogged our synapses that we are unable even to remember what rigorous, healthy spiritual activity was once like.

Pastors have given up expecting meaningful commitment, service, or faithfulness from congregations. I remember suggesting to a pastor of a church of 3500 how transformative it would be to their community if they assembled 350 groups of 10 to meet and read and pray the Bible together in a year. I was stunned when the pastor said, “We have 3500 who attend, but we only have about 50 who are with us.

I am no longer stunned. I have watched how anything that smacks of commitment is sold on its potential to “bless.” This has now extended to our giving. Perry Noble’s church is offering a 90-day money back guarantee on tithing.  Seriously! Giving in order to get. It seems that every week contemporary mega-evangelicalism offers a new narcissistic low-water mark. And just like that, the commodification and monetization of the church is complete.

Where did we think “nothing but you and a Bible” was going to end? Where did we think that reshaping the church after our cultural preferences would lead?

Have you noticed the creeping narcissism? Do you have examples of your own? Do you see a way out?

 

Next Week: Part 2- Conciliarity: The Early Church’s balance between “rule by the man” (A secular idea adopted by Rome) and “rule by the book” (an Islamic idea adopted by Protestants).

 

[1] To be fair, mainliners have had this for years, but it plays out in different ways.

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sola_scriptura

[3] http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2004/januaryweb-only/1-12-52.0.html

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How we ruined worship: The church of me, for me, and about me.

 Not all change is good. 

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We humans are remarkably insular creatures. We tend to assume that our tiny slice of experience is the way things have always been and the way they should be. The here and now is the measure of our reality. Most high school seniors, for example, have never owned a non-smartphone. Yet before the iPhone was released in 2007, most of us survived with the internet bound to our desktop. Speaking of the internet, 97% of all telecommunicated information is moved over it. But twenty years ago, unless you had a government scientist in the family, you had never heard the word “internet.” When I grew up telephones were not only wired to the wall, you had to spin a rotary dial seven times and hope the person you were calling was home to answer. In elementary school a series of amazing inventions changed the way we lived: push buttons, the answering machine, and then, a couple of years later, the telephone company (there was only one) came out with Call Waiting. If you are under forty you cannot imagine what a hassle it was to call someone for days hoping they would answer. We take these things for granted and cannot remember life without them.

In a similar vein, we assume the way we worship is the way it always has been. And, as with smartphone technology, we often assume uncritically that we are better off now than before…

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Technology: “Can” doesn’t necessarily mean “should.”

Today it is common to hear the “song set” referred to as “worship” in the evangelical church. The four song and a sermon liturgy is not exactly like the iPhone – 7 years old. It is more like the internet: 40 years old, widely embraced 20 years ago, and now assumed. But is it biblical? Is this a formula found universally around the world? How does it play in say, Zimbabwe or Belarus? How does 4 songs and a sermon, fog and lights, and coffeehouse and workout rooms in the church stack up next to the unbroken witness of the worship of 2000 years of faithful Christ-followers? And, most importantly, does this help us form God’s people for the building of God’s Kingdom now and prepare us for eternity with our creator and redeemer?

The word worship comes from the Anglo Saxon “worth-ship” – the act of paying homage to God because God is worthy of being paid homage to. In scripture we see the people of God bowing before God in gratitude. In scripture worship is communal, God centered, and based in God’s glory (Ex. 12:27, 2 Chron. 29:29-31, Neh. 8:5-7, Ps. 29:1-3, Matt. 2:11, Matt. 28:17, Acts 2:42, Rev. 22:3).

Yet, far too often, what we call “worship” today is characterized by…

1. Individualism: Me and my experience

2. Narcissism: Me and my desires

3. Power: Me and my potential

And, 4. Entertainment: Me as spectator vs participant (1 Cor 14:26)

So what does Sunday morning look like at your church? Is it geared to you or to God? Look up the lyrics of the song set on your smartphone this Sunday. How often does the pronoun “I” appear versus “we”? Even more telling, how many songs could be sung unchanged if “she” was substituted for “he” and it became a love song to a girl rather than God? St. Augustine said, “He who sings prays twice.” And since, as the early Anglicans pointed out, our “praying shapes believing,” ask yourself a critical question, what exactly are we being shaped into in the church today through our sung and said prayers?

We sing songs that are, in their lyrical content, silly love songs to Jesus. Songs that not only could have been written by a secular band about a girl and the pronouns changed but, I’m told from a friend in the worship “industry,” sometimes actually were. How is it then, that…

…after teaching our young to think of Jesus in the same terms as a teen crush, we wonder why our young people’s faith has all the sustaining power of one.

We evaluate our worship by our warm feelings…feelings carefully created by melody line and key change. Bob Kauflin in his helpful book, “Worship Matters” talks about the worship leader who “spontaneously” fell to his knees in a song. Then Bob realized that the musician had preset a second microphone at knee level.

Health and wealth preachers promise us our “blessing” …if we give to their ministry, of course. I once watched a pastor justify his enormous new house to his congregation by lining up his staff on the stage behind him and telling his congregation, “Don’t hate me because I got mine. God gets me out of the way in order to bless ____” (the next one in the line). “God is going to bless ___ to get him out of the line so that he can keep blessing his way down the line…to you!” It is the God of the pyramid scheme. And we wonder why our young adults, with their BS meters attuned, tune out?

God is no longer the Lord of Creation redeeming and calling humans to join in His great mission to save a lost and dying world. He is a genie in a bottle to be rubbed in order to get more of whatever I want at that moment.

We have reversed the subject and object of our worship. The church has packaged us ourselves and is feeding it back to us. As a result, for most of the church, Sunday worship is: Of me. For me. About me.

If you want to see something sad, watch what happens when a technology is bypassed…like the film camera replaced by digital, or Western Union telegraph replaced by the ATM, or the American gas guzzler replaced by dependable Japanese imports. Sometimes the technology adapts – America now makes some really good cars. Sometimes it does not. You probably haven’t sent a telegram or dropped your film off at the Fotomat recently. What will happen in the American church? Will we continue to view the church as cruise ship?

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A sign at the Urban Youth Worker’s Institute conference this Spring. What does this tell us about what the church will look like in twenty years?

I do see a sign of hope. It is found in a new generation of church musicians – ones who want to know God deeply and to help others on that journey…to worship in Spirit and truth…who know the difference between a psalm, a hymn, and a spiritual song.  There is an emerging group of musicians who know that God-centered worship needs all three, and that worship is larger than just “singing.” It is a generation that understand the historic order of worship has the power to shape lives, and that the words we use in worship matter. They are not afraid of the vetted, historic words of the church. Make no mistake, they want passion…but they are not so naive as to think that emotion sustains. They long for more Scripture in sermons and more pastoring in their own lives from their pastors. They know that art gives power to the message, and that the liturgy gives a life-shaping container to both…but also that liturgy without artfulness and a clear Gospel message is like a lunch box without a meal inside.

Will this new generation of worship leaders refuse to play the good feelings game? If they do, will senior pastors adapt? Will we listen and add these young Turks critiques to what young adults are telling us with their attendance? Will we hold all of this up to the light of scripture and the great tradition? Or will we stay stuck in what we “know” from the outmoded models of the last 40 years-models that only work for a single aging and shrinking generation? If we do not, I fear evangelicalism will go the way of the Fotomat and the rotary phone.

Be your own God (in one easy lesson)

Or…What to do with a Bible that says hard things?

“Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against his people….” –Psalm 106:40

We hear a lot about  how “God loves the sinner, hates the sin.” Did you know that the Bible actually says (in 25 places no less) that God is angry with the people doing the sinning?[1] How many times does the Bible say, “Loves the sinner, hates the sin”? A quick search in Logos Bible software found…zero. None. Nada. Zip.

That’s right, according to the Bible, God is angry not just with “sin,” but with the people committing the sins.

So what do we do with a Bible that says hard things? Things that make us cringe when we read them. Or when someone else reads them and asks us about it.

My honest friends say, “I just ignore the stuff I don’t like.” But, unlike our teeth, ignoring Scripture does not make it go away.

We have two polarities: On one side are the uber-fundamentalists who use the Bible as a bat to bludgeon people with whom they disagree. This group tends to be fantastic at seeing past their own logs to other’s splinters. But I fear another extreme: One in which the Scriptures are dismissed outright. As a friend of mine said on facebook the other day, “When my idea of God and the Bible are in conflict, my concept of God wins…because I worship God not a book.

Huh?

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The last time I checked I have a finite 5”x 7” head, whereas God, by definition, is infinite intelligence.  God, dwelling outside of time and space, can only be known by those of us within time and space if he chooses to reveal himself to us. Luckily God has, through a Son, Jesus. (Heb 1) How do we know this Jesus? Well, the New Testament is not just our primary, but virtually our only source of information on Jesus, God with skin on. The eyewitnesses wrote the Scriptures to reveal that God-in-flesh to us. The Holy Spirit quickens those words in our hearts as faith. When I only believe that which makes sense to me, I am not only cutting myself off from the power of transformation present, but putting my own mind in the role of the definer of reality…i.e. I just gave myself the “god job.” That seems to me to be a place of significant terror.

Not to say that the Bible isn’t nuanced or difficult or complex. It is all of those things. I am not saying that we do not need to interpret what we read, we do. But shouldn’t our method of interpretation be more faithful and consistent than “I only believe what I like.”

Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179) taught that the revelation of Jesus Christ unified and made coherent all Scripture:  “In that same vision (of Christ) I understood the writings of the prophets, the Gospels….”

God gets to determine our reality, and God is revealed in Scripture. Anything else leads to the idolatry of self.

Or, I could just decide to be my own God…to let my 5″x 7″ determine my reality…and when the Bible disagrees with what I want God to be like, I can just go with whatever it is that I like…because, hey, I worship the most holy trinity of me, myself and I.