August 5, 2020

American Idolatry: The Good Life

goodlife.jpgAnyone interested in this series of posts would want to read The Great Giveaway by David Fitch.

I want to begin in what will seem an odd direction, but it is important to remember some basic characteristics of the church if we are going to see the effect of idolatry on it.

Christianity is a movement; it is a cross-cultural, church planting movement. That movement is an outflowing of the truth we call the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a movement that teaches, proclaims, ministers, worships, congregationalizes, missionalizes and evangelizes the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

This movement is a counter-culture that exists within the cultures and institutions of history. While it takes on the characteristics of the cultures where it lives, it is called to belong to the Kingdom of God more than any of the “kingdoms” of the world.

When we stand “in the midst” of Christianity- for example, in the midst of a prominent evangelical church- these are things that we should see around us:

-the centrality of Christ and the Gospel.
-the priority of the missional calling of every Christian.
-the goal of the movement to evangelize and congregationalize cross-culturally.
-the teaching of the Bible to create this kind of counter culture.

Now, what would idolatry do to this movement? Depending on the particular kind of idolatry, the results would vary. The “God and Country” idolatry challenge the church’s identity as a counter-culture, and tempt the church towards secular, political agendas and means.

The idolatry of entertainment dilutes the church’s devotion to Christ, and devalues the power of its story. At the root, however, entertainment moves from a God-centeredness in the life of the Christian community to a kind “market-driven” approach that measures the “success” of the Christian movement in the satisfaction of an audience.

This moves us closer to a kind of idolatry whose consequences are devastating to every aspect of Christianity. This idolatry, once it has taken hold as a way of looking at the totality of Christian life and experience, de-centers the entire Christian movement and will quickly transform the purpose and character of Christianity into something unrecognizable.

This idolatry is of what I will call “The Good Life”. I realize this is a dangerous appellation because I certainly affirm that life is full of God’s good gifts and it is not sinful to enjoy those gifts. It is not wrong to lawfully pursue those gifts and it is not inappropriate to celebrate, enjoy and live in a thankful reception of those good gifts.

The idolatry of “The Good Life” is, instead, the reshaping of the Christian movement into a particularly American religion where God becomes the means to provide us with the comforts, material blessings, experiences and “necessities” of a prosperous American lifestyle as defined by American culture.

Coming to terms with this idolatry necessitates that the Christian confess the presence and power of American culture as it defines the good life. This is a daunting task, for it has the potential to shake the typical American to his/her foundations. This “Good Life” worldview holds forth standards for what we “should” have that include specifics in all these areas and more:

Health, finance, housing, technology, clothing, jobs, transportation, personal appearance, fashion, leisure, freedom from pain, education, personal comfort, food, use of the environment, activities/sports, achievement, medical care, freedom, sex, relationships, emotional states, access to information, communities, possessions, security and a hundred other personal preferences.

Americans are told in their founding documents that they are entitled to the “pursuit of happiness”. This has particular meaning in American culture and history, as the overall direction of our nation is the expansion of access to these components of “the good life”. Now entire industries- like advertising and communication- exist to enculturate a set of values regarding “the Good Life” into every American.

The issue of how much the pursuit of this kind of life is seen as essential to an American’s perceived sense well-being is an essay for another person. What is crucial is to understand that Jesus is not the guarantor of this life. God is not the means to the acquisition of this life. The church does not exist to provide, justify or accept this life. The values of the Kingdom of God in every one of these areas is radically, distinctly different than the values of the culture.

Yet, should we go to a typical successful American evangelical church, listen to the sermons, read the educational offerings, observe what is printed and projected, look at how money is spent, observe the activities the church sponsors, we will see that the idolatry of the “the Good Life”, not the values of a cross-cultural, Gospel centered, church planting movement, are what increasingly prevails.

Evangelicals in America are creating a religion that tells them how to be happy, how to be financially secure, how to be successful, fulfilled and healthy. Evangelical Christianity in America has pushed missional values to the fringes and brought “the Good Life” so close to the center that sermons themselves are calmly titled “How to Discover the Champion In You”. To which everyone applauds.

The most popular pastors in America preside over this idolatrous affair with the glib assumption that the purpose of the church is to make us beautiful, prosperous and fully secure in American culture, but, of course, thankful to God for making sure we have all these blessings.

One of the clearest indicators of this idolatry is the insistence of evangelicals that their pastors not challenge the definition of “the Good Life”. Catholics have a priest who lives in simplicity and poverty as an example of sacrifice and a reminder of what discipleship should mean. Yet millions of evangelicals want their pastors visibly living as high up the scale of American success as possible, precisely because this baptizes these values and insures that their leaders are, like themselves, swimming in the pool of “the Good Life”.

It is a common compliment to contemporary pastors that they are “just a regular person”. With all due respect, shouldn’t we admit what is really being endorsed? We do not want leaders who live the Christian life so seriously that they make us uncomfortable with their example, and challenge our lifestyles with their own.

This is not the overt “prosperity” or “health and wealth” message of the Word-Faith movement. It is simply an acceptance of the engines that drive the culture, and allowing those energies to exist, unchallenged, as the normal lifestyle of those supposedly loyal to Jesus Christ.

Ironically, it is evangelicalism’s devotion to this idolatry that allows much of its material prosperity, large churches and devotion to the values of entertainment and fashion. The thought of choosing to be simple, deliberate and even poor is unthinkable. Where would God be seen in such a church? In the glory of the Gospel perhaps?

I do not pretend it is always clear what is the right thing to do. I do not believe we are meant to be an Amish colony, but I also do not believe we can allow a pervasive American culture to turn the church into a chapel service for the fashions, fads and toys of the new gilded age.

For example, I have often observed churches making the construction of a “Family Life Center”, i.e. a gymnasium/recreation complex, a priority in their plans. In general, I have not been very supportive of these kinds of projects. Why? My reasons are often found inconsistent. There is a significant difference between building a facility to use in ministering to the community and building a facility for the attraction of suburban families looking for recreation. The resources and decisions that go along with a commitment to serve a community with programs using such a facility are serious, long-term commitments. This differs enormously from the decision to provide a place where church families can enjoy recreation.

This is not an obvious or easy choice. In the current atmosphere of idolizing “the Good Life”, evangelicals are well acquainted with how to build what they want while talking as if they plan to serve the community. So it is with many things that are part of evangelical churches: pageants, programs, technology, staff, music, etc. The rhetoric of ministry is well-rehearsed. The fact of serving ourselves is the reality. The idolatry of “the Good Life” is our true religion.

At the end of the day, do evangelicals want to be disciples of Jesus? Do they want to be a missional force in this culture? Are their priorities evangelizing and congregationalizing in other cultures? Are they a movement communicating the gospel across barriers? Or are they pursuing “the Good Life” in America with the blessing of God? Do they want God to pay off their credit card bills, make their children beautiful and popular, and insure their security in their suburban neighborhoods? Is our passion for the mission of the church or the comfort and profitability of our own enterprises? Do we see the world through the values of Jesus and his Kingdom, or do we see the world- and ourselves- through the values of advertising, prosperity and fashion?

Imagine that you are a missionary who must return to America every five years and stand in the midst of Southern Baptist churches Sunday after Sunday, asking for the prayers and support of these supposedly missions-loving evangelicals. Look at what they spend on themselves. Look at their personal lifestyles. Look at their actual commitments to Christianity as a cross-cultural missions movement.

Are you convinced that these churches share your commitment to the evangelization and congregationalizing of the nations? Does their missions giving and mission involvement compare to their commitment to “the Good Life”? Or are they politely listening, certain to give generously out of their extra funds, and then return to lives that usually never give a thought to the cross-cultural mission of the church and their place in it?

Are you in the midst of idolatry?


  1. GOD IS SO COOL! I love it when He confirms what you hear from Him in the mouths (or blogs) of others.

    Idolatry is rampant in our society, and Monday was the second time God led me to write about it during my devotional time. That post is here:

    Bless you in your faith and may His name be praised.

  2. Dang. I just got back from a mission trip/conference in the Dominican Republic. While there, I was challenged by the affluence we enjoy in America. Now I read this, and am reminded again.

    There are people in this world who are content with little more that a house over their heads, food on the table, and clothes to wear, and here I am frustrated that Cingular just started offering their 3G data network in my area, and my phone doesn’t support it.

    Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

  3. CaldoniaSun says

    Once again, IM, I am amazed at your ability score a bull’s eye! I have so much I’d love to say on this topic, but I will keep it to a quick example.

    The non-denom church I went to for many years recently built their family life center. They also decided to install a new sound system (not needed) which included not one, but TWO motorized, mounted screens for their PP: one for the congregation and one for the choir so they wouldn’t have to hold music. The sound system alone went into tens of thousands of $$.Everything about the worship ministry in this church was patterned (idolized) after a particular internationally-known ministry.

    Maybe this would not bother me so, except that a family that had been attending for a few years fell into hard times and asked for help with their mortgage and was turned down. This was not an isolated case. People were rarely ever helped monetarily in this church. How do I know this? I was on staff for a time.

    Sad, but wiser.

  4. Good post, Michael!

  5. I couldn’t put my finger on what was bothering me about our churches, but I think you’ve done it.

  6. caucazhin says

    MONK you’ve been reading my mail.This is one of the best things I’ve read.VERY VERY insightful.Heres my Americas Golden Calf again,sorry it didn’t print right on the last post.

  7. caucazhin says

    YOU SAID:Catholics have a priest who lives in simplicity and poverty as an example of sacrifice and a reminder of what discipleship should mean. Yet millions of evangelicals want their pastors visibly living as high up the scale of American success as possible, precisely because this baptizes these values and insures that their leaders are, like themselves, swimming in the pool of “the Good Life.”

    I agree with what your saying here but only to a point.The Catholic church controls most of the worlds religious manuscripts and art wich is valued at priceless.Why don’t they sell it all and give it to the poor?The pope rides around in a bullet proof LIMO and they have their own city.A far cry from the Apostles life.And here in LA they built a new(monument)cathedral when the catholic workers program in downtown is completely underfunded and understaffed.So don’t beat the drums of truth just on Protestantism because Catholicism is just as guilty if not more.

  8. Just found this via Cerulean Sanctum. Right on.

    Did a little post on it, not sure my trackback to you worked….(never have figured out how those things work).

  9. IM, I am doing a series on Matthew 6:19-34, and I find much of what you say to be very helpful. I am lifting some of your words to incorporate into the series. Thank you.

  10. I just left two megachurches here in Central FL and I thought I was the confused one not being able to find a church home. This is exactly what was bothering me that makes me question if these megachurches are true churches of Christ. I always thought that the true church is the persecuted church – the ones who are literally dying for their faith. History has repeated itself, isn’t the American Christian church just like the hypocritical Pharisees and Sadduccees in Jesus’ time? Look at the parellels of these 4 groups of people – nothing has changed.