April 6, 2020

Christianity In America: A Crisis, or, The Evangelical Emperor Has No Clothes (as found on your library shelf)

A few weeks—ok, months—ago I started writing on what I see in general when I look at today’s evangelical church in America. I called the series The Naked Emperor. I have been kept from revisiting this by work and illness and … oh, lots of things. I do plan to finish what I started, but now not until after the first of the year. Except for today.

Lisa Dye led us off today with a wonderful overview of David Augsburger’s Dissident Discipleship. And Chaplain Mike has a review of N.T. Wright’s Simply Jesus lined up for next week. So it’s my turn at the review stand. It just so happens this book articulates much of what I want to say in my series. The book I’m speaking of is Christianity In America: A Crisis by E.G. Homrighausen.

Homrighausen, a distinguished theologian and former professor of Christian education at Princeton Theological Seminary, doesn’t mince words when it comes to what he sees as wrong with Christianity in America. He gets right to it in his opening paragraph:

Sincere lovers of the Church are disturbed by the state of the churches in our country. Certain trends have developed within them to weaken their clear witness and their inner reality. In many local churches the undignified and chaotic nature of the work indicates a lack of true justification for their existence. It is hard to distinguish these churches as other than mere social or educational institutions. Cheap entertainments, petty programs, overactive organizations are in many cases a waste of time and energy and a travesty upon the honor of the Church. Quiet stability, dignified strength, and genuine respect for the holy things of God have flown, and the minister is often helplessly caught in the whirl of wasteful disintegration, or is himself so lacking in true theological vigilance and intellectual integrity, as to unconsciously further this tendency. There are few churches in our country that can escape this ubiquitous and subtle influence.

Wow, E.G., don’t mince words. Tell us just how you feel.

And he does. Homrighausen sees the modern church in America as a natural extension of the Reformation, which gave birth to individual expressions of faith, no longer connected to the history and tradition (and the authority) of the Church.

Therefore we lack historical perspective and balance. We do not see the Church as a persistent entity with a long and venerable tradition. Our sectarian idea of the Church as separatistic voluntary groups will need to be corrected by a conception of the Church as universal, traditional, and historical. Christianity did not begin with American sectarian life! It began long ago and has lived in varying expressions all over the world. All this is Church. There is something far more important in the Church than its human varieties.

On the whole, Homrighausen doesn’t see much that he likes among Christians and churches in the United States. Commenting on an article he read in a European theological journal, he recalls,

It stated that American theology is quite generally pretty thin, inclined to humanism and Socialism, that the gospel is largely identified with naturalism, and is a loose program of social betterment, a technique for spiritual development, a human value of the highest kind. Christianity here, it held, unlike that in Europe, begins usually with the human being’s needs and then works out to God’s satisfaction of those needs. This makes for humanism and religious pragmatism. In Europe, theology begins with God, and from that basis man is asked to adjust himself to that God, who is forever beyond man’s proof and beyond any man’s claim upon Him.

Wow. Are you hearing what he is saying? He is saying that in America the foundation of our faith is the self, and the needs of the self shape the way the church addresses faith. This self-faith is built on what are called “felt needs.” Churches all across the land meet on a regular basis to come up with ways to meet people’s “felt needs.” From the songs that are sung, to the length of those songs, to the instruments played during those songs, to the lights that are up (or down) during those songs, everything is geared to elicit an emotional response which will lead into the next segment of the service. That next segment will be geared toward felt needs, with emotional pleas to come forward to repent or be prayed for, or emotional pleas to give. (“Plant a seed so God can meet your need.”) Then comes the message, which is also tailored around the hearer’s needs.

I’ll just come out and say this square: I hate the phrase “felt needs.” I think it is the greatest profanity my ears can hear. What is so special about my needs and how I feel about those needs? Look, I taught marketing for fifteen years. I have been involved in media marketing for more than 38 years. I know how to manipulate people with words and images and sounds. I know that to get an emotional reaction usually means to get a financial reaction as well. To be able to get a consumer to think, “I have dingy teeth. And if I have dingy teeth, that stud walking by won’t be interested in me. So I’ll spend money and buy this toothpaste that promises me white, bright teeth, and by association, promises me that stud,” is magic. It means millions of dollars in sales. Meet someone’s felt needs and you have a vacuum cleaner hooked up to his or her wallet.

So tell me, what does this have to do with the Gospel? And why are churches so concerned with meeting one’s felt needs? Homrighausen says the answer lies not with us, but pointing us beyond ourselves to Jesus. Yet not the Jesus we often hear spoken of in church.

While there is much about Him that can be rationally understood, yet the most important thing about Him is His power to find man, to reach his real problem of existence, which is moral guilt; to face man with the qualitative character-reality of man, as well as of God. He is always intent upon revealing the real problem (crisis) of human life. No dispenser of wisdom is Jesus! No philosopher of the a priori is Jesus. He finds and redeems sinners.

What a great statement to build on: Jesus finds and redeems sinners! Yet that is not a felt need recognized by most churches today. And thus Homrighausen’s “crisis.” It’s not one of denominationalism or Catholic vs. Protestant. This is a crisis caused by taking our eyes off of the one thing that matters: the Gospel of Jesus. And this is also our hope to “recover” the church, to use Homrighausen’s words. His conclusion is that we must return to our one and only message: Jesus Christ.

This is a powerful and well-timed book. Or at least it would be if had been written in this year, or decade, or even century. But Homrighausen, who died in 1982,  published Christianity In America in 1936.

If only we had listened to him then.

At the time of this writing, there were four used copies of Christianity In America available through Amazon. I think it would hold a well-deserved place on most any bookshelf. (Read it before you put it on the shelf though, ok?)

Comments

  1. Nice (and damning) twist at the end there. 🙂

    Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

  2. ‘Free-will’ is the main problem.

    People have the wrong anthropology.

    Everything is off kilter from the git-go.

    • It’s kind of funny… I’ve been reading a book about church history by an Eastern Orthodox priest who has a PhD in history, and I think he would say almost the exact opposite of what you posit. The denial of free will as posited by Augustine is when western theology started to go down the tubes.

      Personally, I tend to agree with him. I think a denial free will inevitably leads to fatalism and a spiritually dead church.

  3. Yeah, that whole meeting needs thing is disgusting. I especially hate it when I find it in scripture:

    Ep 4:29 “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

    Sorry, but to me the article just sounds like another “Everyone is wrong except me and those who agree with me.”

    • Dave, I never said we are not to meet people’s needs. Go back and read it carefully. I said designing elements of a service around people’s “felt needs” is what I consider wrong. That is manipulation and control.

      Paul is talking about giving encouraging words, which is very needful (I need them a lot myself). Homrighausen and I are talking about exploiting people’s needs for the gain of others. That is very, very wrong.

      • How many times have people gone to churches seeking love, grace, hope, etc… and instead got a list, formula, how to fix it, what to do, etc… And at the same time got subtle messages of how to prop up the system.

        Yuck….

        One of the guys I am exploring faith with told me that many Christians arn’t honest. He’s started to see some perspectives from my POV. Mnay Christians are more interested in debating theology than in admititng their weakness. I could relete. I can’t tell you how many times I went to church service after church servcie and heard the “Good news” with instant transformation. Knowing my demons I’d walk out each Sunday more discouraged than the previous one. Each time I’d beat myself up saying, “What wrong…? Why isn’t my faith developing like the person giving their testimony?”

        Maybe you can understand why I became so enraged when I later on leanred that the person giving the testimoney was taking great liberty with the truth in order to show how “changed” he was. Double yuck and a puke!!!

        BTW… Did you see my email? I think I may have reoslved one of the spiritual questions that was tearing me apart. 🙂

        • The church is corrupted. Only by looking to Jesus Christ – who is the Almighty God – can a person be freed from sin. And only in this way can you be a true disciple of Jesus Christ. Churchgoing is a distraction to the practice of righteousness. If you love God, do what is right – beginning from your heart – and you will have His approval.

        • SO happy for you! You can find real faith…..keep struggling to get through the BS and to the Truth.

          • The above was a response to Eagle, for clarification.

          • I’m still working through it Pattie, and I have 100,000,000 doubts it seems. Here is what happened. After work on Tuesday I hung out with Terry. We’ve had multiple lunches, met at coffee houses, etc.. and discussed theology with lots of intensity. I’m reading the book “Knowing God” by JI Packer with him, and we discuss that as well. I’ve hung out with a couple of people in the Washington, D.C. area and engaged in quite colorful theological discussions.

            We were discussing prayer and then one of the gnawing issues of me in regards to sin.

            Here’s the question….

            Why are you or I held responsible for Adam’s sin? Why does Adam’s transgression affect us 6,000+ ( or whatever the age is….) down the road. Now for me being sinful makes sense. I mean when you look at what happens in the world today; terrorism, molestation, elderly abuse, abduction & murder, etc.. it makes sense why those actions happen. Now why God allows a 6 year old to be molested is a paradox and I’m still trying to figure out that part.

            So “Terry” and I were discussing Adam’s sin. He made the comment that since mankind is sinful if he were in the Garden of Eden he would have made the same choice and committed the first sin. So then catching on I said, “But most likely the sin would have been different, it would have related to whatever demon you deal with?” So then if that is the case as all mankind would have sin, you, me, Chaplin Mike, HUG, whoever, would have made that same choice regardless. Why are we responsible for Adam’s sin? We would have made that exact same choice if we were given the opportunity. So in the end in regards to this question that’s how we are connected.

            As “Terry” was cooking and I leaning on his counter, I felt like I was hit by a truck. Does this make sense Pattie/I Monastery? Am I correct? Is that how you look at it?

          • Eagle, I am brain dead from finals (giving and grading, not taking) but would love to toss this arround. I will be back at this same Bat-Channel with my thoughts, so don’t think i am ignoring the question, okay? I mean, I misspelled my NAME a few hours ago…..

          • Eagle, here is my take. This is NOT the official theology of anyone or anything else, so don’t damn the Catholics for MY mistakes.

            God is not bound by time, so yesterday, today, and tomorrow are the same to Him. Garden of Eden, Second Coming….all exist as equally real and present to Him in a dimension unburdened by the flow of time. This is sorta important later……

            God existed before what we think of as “time”, and made a choice to create this planet and the humans on it (He may have lots of other planets and “kids”, but let’s set that aside for another set of discussions.) For His own reasons, He wanted humans to be mostly like Him, and that involved the chance to make choices. He COULD have made us unable to make choices, but then we could not freely love Him or each other. He wanted people, not robots or Stepford-Humans.

            He knew, seeeing all of infinity in front of Him, the risk of some of His creatures would walk away. In fact, He saw it BEFORE He got to making people in the choices of His angels. But, He left in that free-will thing anyway. He was already co-existing then with the other two members of the Trinity, as all three are ONE God.

            So, He made Earth….and this is where I might shock, confuse, or scandlize you……He took His sweet time getting from swirling gases and ice through lots of minor creatures, very few or whom are still around (alligators, turtles, and bugs seem to have made it through the ages). After a while, He got around to adding human beings, the ones like Him, to the mix. At some point the primates and apes already here faded away, and a couple (or maybe even a clan, I wasn’t there) were created with souls and free will.

            They had it good, but like kids, wanted to the one thing they were told NOT to do. Original Sin seems to be rooted in “My way is better than Abba’s way, even if He is God and all that…” [Anyone who thinks children are pure and innocent has never raised one, btw. Small kids are selfish and often violent, and need love and rules to learn to look beyond themselves.]

            So,ever since, we all carry the “sin” of thinking we know more about ourselves than the Person who made us. Getting rid of this sin is facilitated by acknowledging it and joining with others, usually thorugh baptsism (as a personal choice or by those who will guide us as children) There is no more blame, for Adam’s sin or for our own selfish human nature. The rest is just learning more about how much God loves us and wants what is best for us. You are His Beloved. The prodigal son parable says all we need to know about how God feels about us!

  4. Interesting comparison between European and American spirituality (circa 1936). The critique of the American church is still appropriate today but I wonder if the praise of European spirituality is still fitting. I don’t know, but I do recall a report about a large number of Catholic churches that resembled ghost towns in the last few years. Maybe Martha would have some input there. Anyway, excellent stuff.

    • The Previous Dan says

      Chris – That was my first thought as I was reading this. Looking at the trajectory Christianity took in Europe during the 20th century; can anyone realistically make a case that they have the answer to the problems that plague American churches?

  5. Matt Purdum says

    You’d think that when God’s people meet on Sunday morning, the evildoers in our world — from the Wall Street war profiteers to the crack dealer on the corner — would seek cover and shake with fear. Instead, these same characters — the Gingriches and Gekkos, as well as the local thugs — are pleased to see us in church, because they know we won’t be bothering them. In fact, we’ll be told that’s just how things go and we should accept things as they are.

    (Jesus, of course, taught that a new Kingdom is now being established, and that we have a role in it. If we were really hearing that message, the war-mongers and the bankers wouldn’t smile so on church attendance.)

  6. If that was a fair description of European Christianity, why was it insufficient to counter fascism? Why is it now so minor as to be only remnants of a once majority faith in Europe?

    Could it be that the felt-needs basis of American Christianity actually can attract new folks because it is attractional? It does seem as though the bulk of growth in Christianity is headed toward the faith variants that are attractional, with decrease coming in the mainline old world eat your peas and spinach Christianity.

  7. By the way are we going to discuss Mark Driscoll’s new book with his wife about sex? I mean I know what CM has said about people talking too much about sex. And I agree….but given how much that comes out of Mars Hill and keeps coming out on this subject. Is this indicitive of the neo-reformed or just Driscoll?

    • To answer your first question: EGADS, I HOPE NOT!

    • Uh, Eagle, I think we’ll be passing on that one…

      • Thank you.

      • thank you

        GregR

      • Even if John MacArthur weighs in on it? I mean you know its coming…if its the topic of discussion at Tim Challis and other reformed blogs, as well as a couple post-evangelical blogs; you know the storm is on the horizon…. 😉 Just saying….. I’m not saying its good…but it is a part of the faith discussion today.

    • Allegedly, Mrs. Driscoll originally wanted the book to be titled: “Your Best Wife Now.”

      • In other blogs I’m hearing the phrase best mentioned by Buzz Lightyear… “To Uranus And Beyond!!” (I’ll leave it at that

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Maybe after that Song of Solomon series, Driscoll wore out one end of the digestive tract so now he’s moving to the other end?

          I mean, Driscoll strikes me more and more as a guy with a serious sexual obsession and possible male nymphomania, trying to self-medicate through his sermons and studies. (Besides having a serious problem with Hypermasculinity and Celebrity.) I think one day he’s going to flame out and crash, HARD, his celebrity preaching career ending in some sort of big-time sex scandal. And he doesn’t dare reach out for any help; he CAN’T without wrecking his position as Celebrity Pastor of a strongly autocratic megachurch. So he’s going to self-medicate and self-treat until one day his entire life and career blows sky-high.

  8. I would have to agree with you on this subject Jeff. It seems like society is trying to make the word Jesus politically incorrect. I would love to see more churches stand up and put Jesus back in sermons.

  9. Great and tragic article. We have great cause to weep for the church in America. Just curious when u mention the reformation are you thinking of anabaptist strain? I understand there could b an argument made about the historic reformed (opposed to neo reformed) and lutheran being individualistic expressions of faith, but in my study they both seem very interested historic christianity and the fathers. I could certainly see a much stronger argument being made from the anabaptist strain of the reformation and especially from the second great awakening (which is certainly too late to be considered reformation).

    • Yes, Homrighausen was Anabaptist. Sorry I didn’t make that clearer…

      • Thanks for making that clear! As a Lutheran I was surprised to hear such things said about Reformation churches ( that they’re non historical and such) since our tradition puts such great emphasis on the traditions, songs, liturgies, etc. of the ancient church insofar as they show Christ crucified and make God’s kingdom come on earth the way it is in heaven.

        • Richard Hershberger says

          It clarifies matters for me, too. Lutheranism certainly has some individualistic strains, but they exist is creative tension with a strong sense of historic Christianity. I think a good argument could be made that Evangelical Protestantism, particularly in it charismatic version, has eliminated that creative tension and fallen off the edge. But I don’t see this as inherent in the Reformation.

  10. I agree with everything from the book that you quoted, Jeff!

    I would argue that Americans have become 10,000 times MORE self focused since this book was written. In our short attention span and oh-so-politically-correct culture where the only “crime” is daring to “offend” anyone at anytime about anything, we have watered down the Gospel so much that it is unrecognizable. I do have to say that the evangelical churches led this movement to provide entertainment and fun to fill the seats ( not in pews, but in the auditorium with a stage, lights, and Jumbo-Tron) rather than inviting people into the fullness of life in Christ.

    Many see sacramental churches as “too restricitve” and “boring” because they have a set liturgy and expect members to learn the faith and be of service. Few of the megachurches seem to remember that the purpose of church is to WORSHIP GOD in fullness and truth, not chalk up numbers and launch the “pastor” to fame.

    Homrighuasen was ahead of his time. Can you imagine how he would feel if he could see the TV and web streaming of Sunday “Praise” services from someplace like Thomas Road Baptist Church (Falwell’s church) , or sign up in the commons for a class on tax prep or birdwatching while enjoying a nice expresso from the coffe shop? Last year, the focus was “Not I, but Christ”, and the stickers were on a fair number of cars here in Lynchburg. I always thought of them transposed, as the whole megachurch focus seems to be “Not Christ, but me, Me, ME!”

    • A religion that fails to chalk up numbers is not surviving though. Look at Catholicism in the States. RIght now, 10% of its adherents have left. One quarter of those become Evangelicals, one quarter more liberal forms of Christianity, one half non-adherents.

      And that’s for one of the winners in US religions. The reason Catholicism is growing here is because of immigration. But even among the immigrants, by the 3rd generation, about 12% are non-adherents.

      Look at the LDS, another winner of US religions. It turns out they also have a problem with retention (particularly among their converts) and if it wasn’t for a higher birth rate, they’d be declining too.

      To grow, a religion has to offer something to its adherents. Its worldview has to make sense, not just in general but be superior to all other worldviews that are available in the marketplace of ideas. Because if another woldview will serve just as well, and be easier for the person to accept (maybe it’s cheaper, less restrictive as far as taboos, or is simply more logical); then the person will choose it instead.

      It’s not like American Christianity got in the state it did because some people decided to intentionally dilute it, it got there as a reaction to other things. You can’t simply go back in time to a time when Christianity was more perfect because it would have developed as a result of pressures at the time and the pressures now are different.

      • I agree with some of what you say and sometimes I become cynical. If I was to generalize, I believe the typical American wants the following in a church experience:

        – Assurance of eternal life
        – Not to be judged by his or her actions – in effect no rules (God loves me no matter what and wants me to be happy)
        -entertained and fed (but mostly content that makes them feel good)
        – no true commitment (the freedom to come and go)

        So what I believe you are proposing is religous consumerism – the ability to pick and choose those facets of religion that appeals to me. I see no difference between this type of religion and materialism or secularism. It’s all about feeling good.

        I do agree with you that if churches don’t do this they probably won’t experience growth – why? – because we are too materialistic and self indulgent as a society.

        So what do I believe can cure this? Nothing short of a sustained world crisis or economic downturn.

        It is nothing I can change on a grand scale. I agree with going deeper in faith and will continue to follow that path and if I get the opportunity to influence others I have done my part. I will pray for a change away from the shallow cravings of religous consumerism that others would prefer.

        My thoughts…

        • “So what do I believe can cure this? Nothing short of a sustained world crisis or economic downturn.”

          That’s the problem with fear-based conversion; it only works when people are living in fear. Also, the sincerity of a fear-based conversion is suspect; most people can be scared into claiming anything. When the secular world prospers through solving the same fear-inspiring problems that used to win converts, what reason is there for religion?

          Although it is impossible to disprove the existence of god, the lives of many atheists disprove the necessity. With necessity disproved, the only way left to attract converts is through their wants or “felt needs,” resulting in today’s consumerism and marketing. There simply isn’t enough demand for messages of eternal damnation and seemingly-arbitrary morals for pure Christianity to remain economically viable.

          So the challenge to American Christianity becomes one of reconciling the Bible’s claims of us needing its specific God with the modern experience of the divine’s irrelevance. Thus far, the most successful (in terms of gaining new members) way of meeting this challenge seems to be diluting the Christian Gospel with feel-good marketing gimmicks, but this turns Christianity into just another flavor of consumerism.

          Perhaps there are better way than marketing and fear to convince people in today’s society of religion’s relevance, but I have yet to see such reasons.

  11. Wow, published in 1936…..2011….75 years, and will we even listen today? Not very encouraging. The powers-that-be are not very receptive to messages that need to be heard.

  12. Randy Thompson says

    So, this was written in 1936?

    I have long been struck by the fact that what we are reaping now was sowed decades before. I have long felt that the collapse of the mainline churches began at what looked like their peak–the baby-boomer-fueled 1950’s when people hadn’t yet lost the habit of going to church and didn’t realize that they were pretending to believe more than actually believing anything.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      …the baby-boomer-fueled 1950?s when people hadn’t yet lost the habit of going to church and didn’t realize that they were pretending to believe more than actually believing anything.

      You mean the Godly Golden Age of Our Christian (TM) Nation, the Utopian goal of Culture War Christians, to be Restored By Any Means Necessary?

      • Coming in late on this one, but yes, yes, yes! I had a conversation with a seminary student a few years ago about why people no longer attend, etc. My take was that in my youth (late 50s early 60s) it was simply what you did. Everybody did it, but nobody really considered why. You just did, and knew few who didn’t. Once people began questioning, the entertainment factor racheted up, because now the church needed to lure them in.
        I believe that led to having to bring them in through politics, which has been a disaster..

  13. Here’s a copy of Christianity in America, by the way: here.