Early on in Michael Horton’s 2008 look at the state of Evangelical Christianity in America he states his case clearly by saying “My argument in this book is not that evangelicalism is becoming theologically liberal but that it is becoming theologically vacuous.” From this beginning he takes the reader on a journey through mainstream evangelicalism and shows where Christ has not been explicitly denied but simply ignored.
The first stop is to look at what has replaced Christ-centred Christianity, namely Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism. This is essentially the belief that there is a god who wants us to be good people and wants for us to be happy. While this is an attractive belief system – after all who doesn’t want a god who just wants us to be happy – Horton shows that it is a belief system that doesn’t have Jesus as its focal point. Instead the focus is the consumer.
So instead of introducing people to a majestic God who nevertheless condescended in mercy to save those who cannot save themselves, these sermons— even with the parable of the prodigal son as their text— proclaim a message that can be summarized as moralistic, therapeutic deism. As a product, the God experience can be sold and purchased with confidence that the customer is still king. Therefore, statements that would have appalled previous generations of mainline Protestants are assumed as a matter of course even among evangelicals today, such as George Barna’s defence of “a fundamental principle of Christian communication: the audience, not the message is sovereign.”
Having identified the problem we are now led through an in-depth look at a few specific examples. We see the gospel of Joel Osteen where we are essentially good people who just need to do the best we can, but “Who needs Christ if this is the gospel: ‘You’re not perfect, but you are trying to live better, and God looks at your heart. He sees the inside, and He is changing you little by little’?” We see the message of Joyce Meyer where we “live the gospel” by loving people but “love is actually the summary of the law. God’s commands stipulate what love of God and neighbour means. In the Bible, the law simply nails down what it means to love God and our neighbour.” Finally we look at the message that Willow Creek sent by their response to a survey on the health of the church which found that a large number of members described themselves as stalled spiritually. As Horton says “What I find remarkable is that those who identified themselves as “stalled” said, “I believe in Christ, but I haven’t grown much lately,” and the dissatisfied said, “My faith is central to my life and I’m trying to grow, but my church is letting me down.” These highly committed respondents even said they “desire much more challenge and depth from the services” and “60 percent would like to see ‘more in- depth Bible teaching.’” The take- away for the authors, however, was not that Willow Creek should provide a richer ministry but that the sheep must learn to fend for themselves— to become “self- feeders” who need to be more engaged in private spiritual practices.
Fortunately we are not shown the problem without an answer being provided. The answer is simple: we can never outgrow the gospel. We should never assume that everybody knows it and we can move beyond it.
“When our churches assume the gospel, reduce it to slogans, or confuse it with moralism and hype, it is not surprising that the type of spirituality we fall back on is moralistic, therapeutic deism. In a therapeutic worldview, the self is always sovereign. Accommodating this false religion is not love— either of God or neighbour— but sloth, depriving human beings of genuine liberation and depriving God of the glory that is his due. The self must be dethroned. That’s the only way out.”
This isn’t a book that all church-goers are going to enjoy. The people that it looks at are admired by many but unfortunately that is the point. It has been nearly a decade since the book was published and if anything the problem is now worse. I’m convinced that this should be required reading for anyone in the western church. “As heretical as it sounds today, it is probably worth telling Americans [and Australians] that you don’t need Jesus to have better families, finances, health, or even morality.” If that is true then we need to understand why we need Jesus and that’s not something that’s talked about enough these days.