Narcissistic Christianity: An American Epidemic

       A couple of weeks ago, a high school junior came to our guys’ Monday night Bible study. He and his entire immediate family are self-proclaimed agnostics, and have absolutely zero Christian influence in their lives. He had so many questions. Good questions! And it took some time to answer them all… but at the end of the Bible study, I had a very encouraging conversation with him.
       He said that his past experiences with Christians was one of great disappointment. He asked honest questions, and instead of taking the time to answer them, they (the Christians) would just tell him he had to “have faith.” In his mind, it created a dichotomy of sorts – this pitted faith against reason. It was either have blind faith in God and be saved or ask questions and stay lost.
       He went on to describe his experience at several churches in our area over the past few years. I paraphrase here, having asked his permission:

       “I would go in to church and it was like the youth weren’t really allowed with the adults. We had to stay separate. That was okay with me, but as the evenings progressed at these different churches, I noticed some trends… I was expected to hang out with my friends that were there, play some crazy games, listen to a band play some Christian music I had never heard before, and listen to a motivational speech that was ambiguous at best. I didn’t feel like I learned anything. I had the same questions when I left as I had when I went in. And I certainly didn’t feel like I had experienced the God that I came to church looking for. I was looking for something to change my life. Something big and meaningful. I stopped going to all of them because I knew of plenty of places I could hear a motivational speech, or hang out with my friends, and listen to music that I actually knew and liked.”

       You know why he came to our Bible study? Because of personal interaction and invitation from friends. He has not attended a church service of ours. He has not come to our youth group. He wants to study the claims of scripture and evaluate for himself the message of the gospel.

       “Isolated case,” you say. I beg to differ. In fact, I believe whole heartedly that people in our culture today are desperately seeking for a truth they can hold onto when their lives are broken and everything else in their world is shaken beyond recognition. I believe they ask difficult questions because they really want answers. I believe they try a church because they recognize a need for something they’re lacking. I believe that the only thing which will satisfy their longings is the unadulterated truth of the gospel message.

       I might take some heat for this one – but it seems to me that our churches (yes, our Southern Baptist ones) have spent much time, energy, and resources into developing the “come-and-see” model of ecclesiology. Catch-phrases like, “We have something for everyone,” “Come and experience the love of Jesus,” and “The best children and youth programs around” saturate our advertisements and dialogue. We have completely revamped our sanctuaries and musical styles/instrumentation to attract and “draw in” all that will come. After all, we want them to feel comfortable when they enter our doors.
       Not that there’s anything wrong with being comfortable. Or with dynamic music programs, technical savviness, or well-planned children and youth departments. But I fear we are creating a subculture of narcissistic Christians in our American churches. Allow me to explain.

       First of all, there’s the biblical problem with this ecclesiology: Namely, that the church was never meant to function as a “come-and-see” attraction. The church is a “go-and-tell” organism (Matthew 28:19-20, Acts 1:8, etc.). In the biblical model, believers were made OUTSIDE of the church walls and then assimilated into the body. We, however, have adopted the opposite as “ordinary” and “normal” – namely, that we invite the lost to church, and hope they accept Christ during the invitation time. Are invitations bad? No. Should we refrain from inviting the lost to our churches? No. But the primary methodology for evangelizing the lost and defending the faith should be done outside of the church walls. Every believer should be mission-minded. Every church member should be spreading the gospel message during the week. This is the primary method of cultural gospel saturation as prescribed in the New Testament scriptures.
       In the 19th century, Charles Finney and later, D.L. Moody, pioneered the concept and practice of an “altar call” or “invitation” at the end of every service. I know that the idea of giving the listener an opportunity to respond is present in scripture. But the actual invitation as we know it (at the end of a sermon in a worship service) was not widely used until Finney. Was the invitation/altar call an incredible innovation? Absolutely. Is it still a good idea to utilize this methodology in our churches today? You bet. But I believe that to some extent, our church members have subconsciously taken advantage of this innovation, and because of this, have become less and less likely to share the plan of salvation with their family, friends, and coworkers.
        I know many church members (and lets, be honest, you do too) who did not share the plan of salvation with even one person last year. I’ve encountered many church members who don’t even know how to present the plan of salvation. BUT – – – they invite their friends to church and that’s where they hear the gospel and are offered an opportunity to accept Christ. That’s good enough, isn’t it? No. God has given every Christian a circle of influence – a specific group of people, however small or large, and each are more likely to listen to and trust him or her than anyone else on the planet. A thousand sermons and invitations don’t measure up to one sincere presentation of the gospel message from someone you know intimately cares about you. We must reclaim the responsibility of personal evangelism.

       Secondly, there’s a psychological problem with our American ecclesiology. Again, we spend innumerable amounts of time, money, and resources developing an attraction model of church. The old phrase rings in my head right now, “The method changes, but the message remains the same.” As true as that may be, at what point can we determine if we are message-centered or method-centered? What kind of church members… what kind of Christianity are we creating?
       Those who come to church and accept Christ because the music is awesome, the people there are fun, or the pyrotechnics are “dynamite” – are they really accepting a Matthew 16:25 Christianity? Are they really being set up for a Romans 6 lifestyle? Will they be able to separate a preference-grounded faith from a faith-grounded worldview?
       The psychological difficulty with attractional ecclesiology is that it connects secular pleasure and unwavering preference with Christianity. It is almost as if to say that Christianity can be “cool” by the world’s standards. That I don’t have to change to become Christian. That my church can feel just like the culture – accepting, tolerant, and contemporary. But if someone has made this psychological connection and has been grounded in it, what will come of his faith when the popular culture changes? The answer – Narcissistic Christianity. And it is spreading like wildfire. It’s an epidemic.
       “Worship Wars.” That three syllable phrase makes me cringe every time I hear it. Why in the world would CHRISTIANS be “war-ing” over Worship???!!! I’ll tell you why. Because our “worship” has become more preference-centered than God-centered. Our preaching has become more method-centered than message-centered. Our churches have become more culture-centered than Bible-centered.
       The difficulty here is that preferences change with every generation. What we did to “draw people in” in the 50’s is different from what we did to “draw people in” in the 70’s. And neither of those approaches look like what will “draw people in” now. The solution?: Stop being so focused on drawing people in, and concentrate our energy on sending Christians out. Will this stop all controversy over preference? Nope. Will it fix every problem with the method of worship or gospel delivery? Probably not. But will it reach people at their place of personal need? Yes.

       My friend whom I paraphrased at the beginning of this post was visiting churches looking for something real. I am embarrassed for my sister churches (knowing that for some in our community, it has been our church that has failed in the same capacity) to say that he did not find what he was looking for. Tonight, I had the privilege of visiting with another young man who recently accepted Christ. He echoed the same sentiments. He had been in several churches over the past few years, but never found anything of substance.
       What won this young man over? Do you think it was the awesome music? No, that wasn’t it. The fancy lighting? Still not it. The dynamic programs and excursions in the youth group? No. You know what won him over? Truth. The need of a Savior, and the gift of a loving God. That is the gospel message. That is what will effectively change lives. That is what will transform our culture and our world. The good news. Maybe we should stop focussing so much on how we can draw people in, and start focussing a little more on how we can send our church members out to saturate their circle of influence with the truth of the gospel.

Grace and Peace,
Tony