December 2, 2020

American Idolatry: Success

richyoungman.jpg“In the United States culture has transformed Christ, as well as all other religions found within these shores. In every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture” and American culture has triumphed.” -Alan Wolfe (HT to Glenn Lucke)

There’s little need for me to prove the point that American evangelicals have deeply identified themselves with the culture’s unflinching belief in success as the point of human life. Even with a constant stream of counter-rhetoric reminding all of us that success isn’t everything, success is the defining value of American life. It provides more definitions, directions and meaning than any single value in this culture.

Evangelicals, as a group, do not even flinch at devotion to this idol within their own house. The largest Christian television networks are dominated by “churches,” “ministries” and “pastors” who almost never mention Jesus and the Gospel because they are constantly teaching their congregations principles of success, how to discover financial success and how to be a “champion,” i.e. a healthy, wealthy, successful example of Christian affluence. Segments of evangelicalism decry this, but with little effectiveness. Such cultic idolatry is now appearing in evangelicalism in Africa and Latin America, often in more virulent forms.

I remember an incident from my childhood. I was at a men’s breakfast at our church, and the speaker was a local businessman. I knew little of the Bible, but I had the basic impressions of a child as to what the Gospel meant. This speaker gave a riveting testimony of conversion, but the point of the story was something I’d never heard before: his new financial success that came about as a result of God blessing his business.

I have never forgotten this story, not because it was such a glaring example of heath and wealth heresy, but because it was an example of the subtle shift that takes place in this kind of idolatry. Under the sign of the cross, lives are changed, the lost hear of the savior, and Christians are financially, personally blessed with success. Christ is savior, but his Lordship is expressed in success in American culture, which we can all “amen” with genuine gratitude.

This idolatry has wrapped itself around our thinking and affections to the point that, instead of seeing the distance this puts between ourselves and Jesus, we constantly are presented with connections between success of various kinds and Jesus. It is assumed that Jesus wants us promoted, wants us to have a bigger facility, wants the budget to double, wants us to have more so we can do more, etc.

I am an unabashed fan of one Christian financial consultant who movingly speaks of all a person can do when they are financially successful. I would never disagree with this. It’s logical and true. American offers many possibilities of financial success that can lead to funding and supporting much needed ministry. I do not condemn or even disagree. What I want to point out, however, is the new and subtly made connection between this kind of wisdom and being a follower of Jesus, who will lead us to work and be responsible, but who also consistently challenges our notions of success with the Gospel of the Kingdom.

There is simply no way- none- to be successful in the American sense and be comfortable with Jesus blessing and approving all that means in our culture. If God grants financial success- and he does- then we are called to submit all of those resources, and the very notion of success itself, to Jesus on a continuing basis. We read of Warren Buffet giving away billions to help solve global problems. If evangelicals have billions, we can be certain they are not disposing of them in a way that makes the papers. In many cases, they are using those resources to further the idea of success within the church.

Success becomes more than a goal. It is a set of values that affects the way we think about everything. In its advanced stages, this idol creates an atmosphere where those who are not successful are shamed for being poor, unemployed, uneducated, and disadvantaged. The idols of success demand an ever-growing set of illusions to make sure all their adherents feel approved and comfortable.

Scripture not only challenges us at the point of this idolatry, but in our community practice as Christians in fellowship. These passages from the New Testament remind us that as the Gospel reached more and more people in the middle and upper classes, the issue of the influence of the culture of success within the church became a focus of strong pastoral admonitions.

1 Corinthians 11:18-22 For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, (19) for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. (20) When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. (21) For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. (22) What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not…1 Corinthians 11:31-34 But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. (32) But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. (33) So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another– (34) if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home–so that when you come together it will not be for judgment. About the other things I will give directions when I come.

James 2:1-9 My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. (2) For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, (3) and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” (4) have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (5) Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? (6) But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? (7) Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called? (8) If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. (9) But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

Can you imagine what would be the effect in most evangelical churches if the wealthiest ten families were brought into a room and given similar admonitions? The ensuing chaos in the life of the congregation would likely result in the exit of the pastor for failing to act in a “Christian” manner. Is it any surprise to an observant person that I never- never even once- heard a sermon or an application on justice from the prophets during my entire life as a young Christian? When I encountered Amos and Hosea in a Minor Prophets class in college, I was stunned at what I was reading. I thought these books were all about the Late, Great Planet Earth.

I also wonder if the application of these passages to the GLOBAL church will ever be proclaimed? We are the wealthy members of the global church who have arranged the table to suit ourselves. We use our wealth on our buildings, beach retreats, multiple staffs and recreation centers. We demand the best of everything and see no problem with the conditions in third-world churches that could multiply the usefulness of our wealth over and over. We have “dishonored” the poor as American Christians because we believe God wants us to have a $300k light and sound show every Sunday.

The idols of success are real. Their worship is poisonous. Their sacrifices are wasteful and hurtful. Why can’t we see these idols? How do we imagine that Jesus would not overturn all our tables, and that many from the global church would applaud as he did so?

A word to younger pastors and younger leaders, especially in the SBC. With all the emphasis on evangelism and church growth, there is an increasing lust for success among young ministers. Our churches look as if they are dedicated to reaching the middle and upper classes. While many younger leaders have started ministries to ethnic groups, shared resources with the poor and started new churches, our churches increasingly are enclaves of the white upper and middle classes. We do not look like the poor, and we do not seem willingly to sacrifice approval by the suburban classes to be truly missional Christians in communities made up of all kinds of people.

A final word to those who will work in the visual and communicative arts. One of the great ministries that is most needed to the church itself is to break the visual hold of the idolatry of success. As scripture says in 1 John 2:16 Everything that belongs to the world—what the sinful self desires, what people see and want, and everything in this world that people are so proud of—none of this comes from the Father; it all comes from the world. This visual, sensual aspect of idolatry can be attacked with a commitment to the values of Jesus and his Kingdom in the visual arts. Much evil has been done by those who have used the ability to create visual communication in the subtle service of the idolatry of success. I hope that younger communicators will realize that we can begin to see God’s Kingdom differently if we can see the world that God loves differently.

When the church is willing to be UNsuccessful, to lose status in the eyes of the priesthood of success and be judged irrelevant by those who continually spin the images and essentials of success, we will continue to be deeply influenced by the idols of success we have allowed into the very center of the house of God.


  1. deadbaptist says

    My family is below the poverty line income (under $13,000 a year for a family of 5). I try to tell my sons that we are filthy rich compared to most of the world and we are drowning in creature comforts that previous generations could have never imagined. I’m sure they think I’m full of it and just telling them this to try and compensate for my being a failure. (To me success would be to *KNOW* Christ will fulfill what he requires)I’m messed up and my tryin to make things better tends to make things worse for those I love most. I hope to succeed by learning a vocation that will allow me to work to give to those who do (Love In Action)Right now though I lose all benefits if I try to succeed-I CAN’T DO THAT TO MY KIDS JUST BECAUSE I WANT TO QUIT BEING A BUMB (Guilty as Charged) Bruce

  2. Oh this is really hitting close to home. I struggle with this issue.
    George MacDonald said somthing to this effect, that it is not only those who love money but also those who are unhappy for want of it, that are missing the mark. I think we can use the word ‘success’ here as well.


  3. “You cannot serve God and money. Either you will love the one and hate the other or you will cling to the one and despise the other.”

    Not to say that financial success is wrong. But it is a weight, it is something that makes it harder to enter the kingdom of God. Note that Jesus did not say it “may” be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. He said it is hard – period. I suspect many people will find that they have to lay aside their slavery to the American dream of financial “success” and be satisfied with “poverty” in order to truly enter into the kingdom of God. Strangely, it seems less like poverty once one’s priorities have been aligned with heaven’s.

  4. What other topics do you plan to discuss in “American Idolatry?” How about “Heaven.”

    Yesterday one of my pastors did a fabulous exegesis of Psalm 84 and the songs of ascent–I was very moved–until he concluded by saying, “We’re just pilgrims passing through on our way to our ultimate destination. We just have to hang in there and trust God long enough to make it through this hard life until we can be with God in heaven. Our purpose is to be united with God in eternity…”

    Am I off-base to believe our purpose is to make disciples and grow the kingdom of God until Christ returns to establish the fulness of his reign, give us our glorified bodies, and make heaven and earth new?

  5. Actually, I want to do one on eschatology in general.

  6. Looking forward to it. Thanks for adding the link to the text. I’m partial to the ESV.

  7. Rikinator says

    Ok, I have a few questions.
    I believe the main points of what you are saying. In fact, they definetly hit home with some things God has been working on my heart about. The question I have though, is how does this all balance with the book of Proverbs which to me, often talks about the success of the wiseman.
    As a youth pastor, I talk sometime about grades and report cards. I have heard many national youth speakers talk about Christians don’t necesarrily get good grades. We are talking about spiritual things and there are things which are more important than school grades. I agree with that. But if kids are doing there best as for the Lord and not for man (Col 3:20), are they not going to get at least decent grades for the most part. Maybe not all A’s, but still most would probably do better than average with that mentality.
    Is success the same way? We do our best for God, not man. Most people with a good work ethic or going to be relatively successful. Will we be poverty level? Maybe. But if we spend our money wisely, it is pretty easy to thrive at the poverty level. I know, I’m a youth pastor. I live at the poverty level. My kids friends think we are rich. LOL. It is all about being wise.
    Am I overthinking this? or is there a balance?
    Any thoughts would be helpful.

    PS Thanks Michael. I read all the time and your ministry here has been a great encouragement to me. I am learning so much.

  8. Rikinator says

    I apologize. The scripture I reference is Col. 3:17 not 3:20. Thank you.

  9. This comment raises a lot of issues. Maybe a good podcast discussion.

    1. I think we have to learn to read Proverbs in a Christ centered way or we will run into a lot of ethical issues. Proverb’s view of success has to be brought UNDER the hermeneutic of Jesus’ Kingdom ethics, and not be seen as describing those Kingdom ethics. The Gospel is almost NOWHERE in Proverbs, and studying Proverbs outside of a heavy dose of Gospel is a problem. Christ died for all those fools in Proverbs, and God offers them mercy in his Kingdom.

    2. “Success” as an idol and “doing good” as a virtue are not the same thing. There is nothing wrong with success. There is something wrong with success as an idol, i.e. replacing the person and truth of Christ with being a “winner” in our subcultures.

    3. Academic success is a good example. It can be a good thing or it can be idolatry. That is for the Christian to sort out. I can see both possibilities in my own life and in how I have stressed academics to my children. I’ve learned this year that all my stress on college for one of my children was a mistake. I should have been more like Jesus, who would not have staked so much on college.

    4. Jesus is a true revolutionary. Many of us in youth ministry are asked by our churches to produce well behaved, academically successful, “Model” kids for the church to brag about. Jesus is producing disciples willing to cross cultures and plant churches, or to stay here and live a Kingdom lifestyle in Christian communuity to make that possible. We are a witness to Jesus Christ, not middle class values, even the good ones.

    If God grants success due to good character, Amen. If a person bypasses some of those things to serve Christ, can we give a louder AMEN?

    My son wasn’t considered for many awards at our school because he relates to people like Jesus more than he pursues academic or “subcultural” success as defined by adults here. I am prouder of him than if he had straight A’s. That being said, I haven’t accepted C’s from him when I knew it was because he was LAZY.

    It’s a line to walk. Good question

  10. caucazhin says

    Americas GOLDEN CALF,Kaching Kaching $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$
    Exodus 32
    3 And all the people brake off the golden rings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron.
    4 And he received it at their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool, and made it a molten calf: and they said, These are thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt.
    35 And Jehovah smote the people, because they made the calf, which Aaron made.