“I am a friend of God…He calls me friend.”
“He took the fall, and thought of me above all.”
There’s nothing wrong with experiential religion. As Wesleyans, we celebrate John Wesley’s “heartwarming” experience on Aldersgate Street in London 24 May 1738 when he received the assurance of his sins forgiven and reconciliation with God. God loves and cares for us and wants to enter into relationship with us. Still, I wonder: Does God exist for my sake, or do I exist for God’s?
Researchers Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton set out in 2005 to understand the religious worldview of American teenagers. What they discovered was a truncated Christian understanding that they dubbed MTD – Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism. MTD gives little thought to historic beliefs like resurrection, incarnation, sin, justification, or sanctification. Instead, what matters most is “being nice,” acting like a good, moral person – the “M.” Heaven exists and good people one day will get to go there. Further, God is someone to whom we can turn in times of trouble, but most days God doesn’t enter our consciousness – the “T.” But if skyscrapers start falling as on September 11, 2001, we run to God to comfort us. Finally, God is like the remote deity of 18th century deism, the Creator who is far away, uninvolved in our lives on a daily basis – the “D.”
How did we get to the place where God is nothing more than our lucky charm, a grandfatherly, non-demanding life coach to help us succeed? Albert Mohler places much of the blame at the feet of grown-ups:
All this means is that teenagers have been listening carefully. They have been observing their parents in the larger culture with diligence and insight. They understand just how little their parents really believe and just how much many of their churches and Christian institutions have accommodated themselves to the dominant culture. They sense the degree to which theological conviction has been sacrificed on the altar of individualism and a relativistic understanding of truth. They have learned from their elders that self-improvement is the one great moral imperative to which all are accountable, and they have observed the fact that the highest aspiration of those who shape this culture is to find happiness, security, and meaning in life.
Mohler doesn’t criticize evangelism plans, so I’ll do it for him. For years, the 4 Spiritual Laws was the default method for presenting the Gospel. That presentation begins with the affirmation that “God has a wonderful plan for your life.” Notice who is at the center of that message? It’s YOU! You’re the one that counts. You’re so important that the God of the universe’s reason for being is you and this supposed tailor-made plan. You are the sun, and God is merely Jupiter, the largest planet revolving around you.
I don’t buy it. The Bible lays out principles for living that don’t put us at the center, but God. There are general guidelines for living — “Love God, love your neighbor.” There are the 10 Commandments and the Beatitudes. If we live those out, then we are accomplishing God’s will for our lives. It’s all about God, not about us. Find out where God is at work, and join God’s mission. You don’t need a special invitation. We already received one in Scripture.
But let’s go back to those choruses cited above. They fail because they place the individual at the center rather than God. I’m not interested in fighting the so-called “worship wars” all over again, but you have to admit that some of the old hymns got it right. They exalted the Divine, God’s glorious attributes, effacing us and praising the Lord:
Immortal, invisible, God only wise!
In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes.
Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days
Almighty, victorious, Thy great name we praise.
Bring back the theological debates. Let’s discuss predestination, free grace, sovereignty, salvation and providence. At least these weighty topics are worthy of our time and point us away from ourselves and self-interest to the character of God and how we can bring God glory. The only antidote for those infected with MTD is to get our eyes off ourselves and our own petty interests, to put God back at the center where God belongs, in both our lives and our worship.
Image credit: Technorati