One reason why I believe that American Christianity is struggling to remain true to the historic Christian faith is because we have devoured the mentality of the “American Dream.” Prosperity, indulgence, and individualism are steadily consuming us, making American Christianity a consumer driven “market” rather than a distinctly different and eternally relevant message of hope and salvation.
While much could be said, and has been said by others, about this, I offer four examples of how the value system of American Christianity has tainted and damaged the historic Christian faith. I say these things, not merely as an indictment of “others” but also pointing the finger at myself. My value system must be adjusted just as much as any other person’s.
We value the emotional over the rational.
Humanity is inherently a complex being, made in the image of God. We have a material and immaterial part of our existence. Our spiritual “hearts” are basically comprised of our minds, our wills, and our emotions. Each of these things are gifts from God. Our minds are designed to think rationally, and to think God’s thoughts after Him. Our wills are designed to choose that which is honoring to the Lord. And our emotions are designed to support both the mind and the will. These emotions are perhaps better thought of as our affections, what we choose to love and not love.
What seems to have taken place over the course of time is that American Christianity has shifted away from primarily a cognitive, mind-based and rational emphasis and has become more of an emotionally-charged system. We emphasize our feelings, the exciting, and the warm-fuzzy feeling about God and Jesus Christ. We long for great experiences in our Christianity because that is what gets us excited. So church gatherings or conferences are, in some places, being called “worship experiences” rather than corporate worship gatherings. “Worship experiences” sounds so much more exciting than “Corporate worship” and tends to draw larger crowds of people.
Christianity should not emphasize the emotional over the rational. Our minds, wills, and emotions are meant to function in proper alignment, like a train. Jesus said in John 13:17, “If ye KNOW these things, HAPPY are ye if ye DO them” (emphasis obviously mine). This presents to us a train of ideas. Our minds come first – we must know certain things. Our wills follow our minds – we must do what we know we are to do. Proper emotions/affections are to follow naturally behind our minds and wills – we will be “happy.”
When we bypass the mind in order to indulge the emotions, we put the emotions at the front of the train; thus producing people who are emotional train wrecks. However, when we allow our minds to lead the train, and therefore feed our minds with biblical doctrine, our wills and emotions will more naturally fall in line.
Many Christians here in America value the emotional over the rational, and therefore live irrational Christian lives, are emotional “wrecks” and seek out the next thrilling Christian experience, much like a drug addict looking for his next “fix” in order to get him by. However, God honors and values our minds.
Strong minds deeply rooted in the rational truth of Scripture form strong Christian lives. Shallow minds that seek to be buttressed by emotionalism will find that their Christianity will be dull, weak, and lacking the kind of robust growth that God desires of all His children.
We value personal freedom over self-denial.
Americans love freedom. I love our freedom as a country which allows me to serve and worship God without fear of governmental intrusion. I am thankful to roam around the country freely and for so many other freedoms that we enjoy as Americans.
Yet we can – and have to some degree – allowed this mentality of freedom to invade our spiritual lives in an unhealthy way. We want the freedom to indulge in whatever behavior we desire. We want the freedom to say or do whatever we want, whenever we want, to whomever we want, and all without consequences.
In our pursuit of personal freedom, we believe that no one has a right to challenge our thinking or our behavior. We believe that all such challenges are “judgmental,” “legalistic,” or “holier-than-thou.” Self-denial is not even in our vocabulary. Why would we want to deny ourselves something that is going to make us happy or feel good?
Personal freedom is never at the expense of biblical truth. It is never a substitute for holiness. And it must never be used as a billy club against those who challenge the legitimacy of what we are doing.
Jesus emphasized self-denial. He said in Matthew 16:24, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Those are not words that we would think would recruit the masses to Christianity, yet that is what Christianity is all about.
We do not have, as Christians, a freedom to indulge our fleshly desires. As Christians, we must value what God values, which is self-denial under the leadership and authority of the Holy Spirit of God.
We value the immediate over the long term.
Everyone loves immediate results. People enjoy instant coffee, instant oatmeal, microwave popcorn, and instant pudding. We like the quick and easy fixes to problems. We enjoy the immediate results of something that we do. This is one reason why I like to paint. I can go into a room that has ugly or distressed looking walls, and in the matter of a couple hours enjoy the results of a freshly painted room. Immediate results.
However, when we put this in the realm of Christianity, we run into dangers. Christianity is not an “instant religion.” We do not often see immediate results from our preaching, from our ministry of the word, or from our evangelistic efforts. And yet ministries are often judged and critiqued by these kinds of criteria. How many “results” have been produced in a short period of time.
We also value immediate changes in our lives and get frustrated that we continue to struggle with our flesh. In this frustration we often quit, believing that there is no sense in even trying. We want instant spirituality, instant Christ-likeness, and instant sinlessness.
Rarely does something of value happen immediately. Things take time. It takes time to read through your Bible. It takes time to understand certain points of doctrine. It takes time to read a piece of good Christian literature. It takes time to build relationships with people and see them come to Jesus Christ. It takes time to build a healthy church for the glory of God. It takes time to grow our character to be in conformity to Jesus Christ. It takes time and effort to do anything of significance.
Personally, I struggle with this as a pastor. There is a pressure put on pastors, either internally in their own hearts, or externally by their people, to “produce results” in a short time. Very rarely do I get to visibly see the results of my preaching/teaching ministry. It is a long, and often difficult process. But God has been working in me to value the long term rather than the immediate in this way
We value the material over the spiritual.
I am not a dualist, believing that the material is evil and the spiritual is good. However, the spiritual has more value than the material. This earth is a God-given gift that we can enjoy. We are given the creation mandate to dominate the earth and rule over it, using it for the benefit of mankind while taking care of it as God’s creation.
But American Christianity has taken the material/temporal and placed it on a higher level than the spiritual/eternal. One simple evidence of this is how much time is spent each day feeding our minds with the Scripture, or scriptural truth in one way, shape or form vs. how much we indulge our flesh with the things of the world. For instance, I love sports and my sports teams (Seattle Seahawks and Washington Huskies especially ), but if I allow my love for them to interfere with my spiritual convictions, pursuits and responsibilities, I have sinned.
The value system of our American Christianity becomes skewed when we allow the things of this world (not all of which are evil) to interfere with and even overrule our spiritual pursuits. When God and corporate worship are viewed as non-essentials because something else more important is happening, then our values are wrong. When family gatherings take precedent over corporate worship, there is something off-kilter about our values and beliefs. When our time of private devotion to God is put on hold for days on end because of our busy schedules, something is wrong. The things that are of this earth are temporal; the things that are of God are eternal. American Christianity must get back to valuing the spiritual over the material and temporal.
To conclude, Christians must consider what God values and adopt God’s value system. Being a disciple of Christ is more than wearing the label of “Christian” and singing Christian music. Being a disciple of Christ means that we follow His teaching, adopt His values, and live our lives in accordance to those values. We must be discerning when it comes to interacting with the world, so as not to imbibe their faulty value system.
If American Christianity is truly going to glorify God, then we must reflect the excellencies and perfections of God in the 21st century in such a way that values what God values, and disdains what God disdains. What is important to God must be important to us.