CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Domesticating God and Losing Our Children

Aug 30, 2010

If modernism and secularisation have convinced pagans of God’s nonexistence, they have convinced many Christians of God’s manageability. That is, God has become less of a God; less mysterious, less wonderful, less majestic. Science and technology have become new sources of wonder, stripping the Christian God of his awesome transcendence and majesty. Instead God has become manageable and familiar.

A God who commands fear and trembling has been replaced by a God who exists to meet our needs and serve our desires. One can find many examples of this, but one representative case can be found in aspects of the “Health and Wealth Gospel” and parts of the Word of Faith Movement. These movements tend to suggest that God is under obligation to meet our every need, to prosper us, and to pamper us. We can have anything we want if we simply “name it and claim it”. Such a gospel is attractive to many because it puts few or no demands on believers, while it turns God into a celestial servant who exists to do our bidding.

Such developments in evangelical Christianity have a debilitating effect. As Donald McCullough puts it, “reverence and awe have often been replaced by a yawn of familiarity. The consuming fire has been domesticated into a candle flame, adding a bit of religious atmosphere, perhaps, but no heat, no blinding light, no power for purification”. He continues, the “worst sin at the end of the twentieth century has been the trivialization of God”.

This domestication of God is of course simply idolatry. The prophets warned about such dangers. When Jeremiah denounced the false idols of his day, he could just as well have been speaking about the contemporary church. “Jeremiah pictures a tame god, a user-friendly god, who exists by human manufacture, is at human disposal, and is under human control.” God has become for many believers a mate to hang around with instead of a sovereign Lord to be bowed down to. We have taken God for granted, lost sight of his holiness, and presumed upon his offer of fellowship.

Indeed, in many respects this trend in Christianity is a good reflection of our modern hedonistic “me-first” culture. But is a poor reflection of the gospel message. We are here to serve and worship our Lord, not to see what temporal and material benefits we can weasel out of Him. As Michael Horton reminds us, “We exist for his pleasure, not he for ours; we are on this earth to entertain him, to please him, to adore him, to bring him satisfaction, excitement, and joy. Any gospel which seeks to answer the question, ‘What’s in it for me?’ has it all backwards. The question is, ‘What’s in it for God?’”

Oral Roberts University professor Charles Farah echoes this idea, noting that this type of theology “represents an unwitting return to the old liberal theology that exalts man at the expense of God. A man-centered theology must ultimately fail, because truth finally triumphs; and the truth is, God is not here for our convenience, we are here for His purposes”.

The rise of ‘fake’ Christians

I mention all this because of a recent article describing how American teens are becoming pseudo-Christians, based on a pseudo-gospel, resulting in a generation of young people thinking they are followers of Jesus when they are nothing of the sort.

It all comes down to a spurious gospel which is selling us a manageable, domesticated God. This is how the CNN story begins: “If you’re the parent of a Christian teenager, Kenda Creasy Dean has this warning: Your child is following a ‘mutant’ form of Christianity, and you may be responsible. Dean says more American teenagers are embracing what she calls ‘moralistic therapeutic deism.’ Translation: It’s a watered-down faith that portrays God as a ‘divine therapist’ whose chief goal is to boost people’s self-esteem.

“Dean is a minister, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and the author of ‘Almost Christian,’ a new book that argues that many parents and pastors are unwittingly passing on this self-serving strain of Christianity. She says this ‘imposter’ faith is one reason teenagers abandon churches. ‘If this is the God they’re seeing in church, they are right to leave us in the dust,’ Dean says. ‘Churches don’t give them enough to be passionate about’.”

The article continues, “Dean drew her conclusions from what she calls one of the most depressing summers of her life. She interviewed teens about their faith after helping conduct research for a controversial study called the National Study of Youth and Religion.

“The study, which included in-depth interviews with at least 3,300 American teenagers between 13 and 17, found that most American teens who called themselves Christian were indifferent and inarticulate about their faith. The study included Christians of all stripes – from Catholics to Protestants of both conservative and liberal denominations.

“Though three out of four American teenagers claim to be Christian, fewer than half practice their faith, only half deem it important, and most can’t talk coherently about their beliefs, the study found. Many teenagers thought that God simply wanted them to feel good and do good – what the study’s researchers called ‘moralistic therapeutic deism’.”

That is not a bad phrase. The triumph of the therapeutic in Christian circles has been much commented on. As but one example, Os Guinness nailed it when he said, “The overall story of pastoral care in the United States has been summed up as the shift from salvation to self-realization, made up of smaller shifts from self-denial to self-love to self-mastery, and finally to self-realization. The victory of the therapeutic over theology is therefore nothing less than the secularization and replacement of salvation.”

And deism is a pretty accurate description of the God many believers – and not just teens – follow today. He is more like an absentee landlord or a celestial Jeeves, than the personal infinite God of the universe who makes demands of us, not least of which is to die to self and make Him lord.

We think God is simply there to meet our every beck and call. We treat him like a heavenly bellboy, always ready and eager to do our bidding. We have forgotten that our God is high and exalted, a consuming fire that we dare not trifle with.

That is why we so desperately need to reclaim a right understanding of who God is, and once again proclaim an uncorrupted gospel. As always, Tozer is worth quoting here: “The decline of the knowledge of the holy has brought on our troubles. A rediscovery of the majesty of God will go a long way toward curing them. It is impossible to keep our moral practices sound and our inward attitudes right while our idea of God is erroneous or inadequate. If we would bring back spiritual power to our lives, we must begin to think of God more nearly as He is.”

And again: “The Church has surrendered her once lofty concept of God and has substituted for it one so low, so ignoble, as to be utterly unworthy of thinking, worshiping men. This she has not done deliberately, but little by little and without her knowledge; and her very unawareness only makes her situation all the more tragic. The low view of God entertained almost universally among Christians is the cause of a hundred lesser evils everywhere among us.”

This trend of a manageable deity may be more significant than many other worrying recent trends. Until the church regains its respect for and awe of the creator of the heavens and the earth, it will present an anaemic and unimpressive deity to a god-starved world. Such a god will command no respect, and merit no worship and reverence. The need of the hour is for the church to reclaim its first love, and to denounce its careless and flippant version of true Christianity.

If not, we are at risk of losing a whole generation of young people who knew not Jesus.

edition.cnn.com/2010/LIVING/08/27/almost.christian/index.html?hpt=P1#fbid=um-MOPiMHwi&wom=false

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27 Responses to Domesticating God and Losing Our Children

  • Spot on!
    Jenny McCourt

  • I think one reason Western people have turned away from God and the church is that Christian belief has been intertwined with ancient pagan belief which has to do with fertility and celestial deities, for example Christmas and Easter, blurring the truth of the Christian gospel. Also the realisation in the Sixties in Western consciousness that God was not an old man in the sky and the propounding of the Darwinian survival of the fittest theory has left people disillusioned and somewhat depressed. Simon and Garfunkel’s lyrics sum up: “hello hello hello hello, goodbye goodbye goodbye goodbye, that’s all there is and the leaves that were green turn to brown.” But there is still mystery in the universe, 75% of which is calculated to be dark energy which scientists don’t understand. With the sense of the sacred being overshadowed by that of the profane we need to be delivered from evil. As Jesus said “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word of God” which is a serious mission.
    Rachel Smith

  • A good antidote for a small view of God:

    http://www.desiringgod.org/

    Jereth Kok

  • Thanks Jereth

    Yes John Piper is always good value.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest and Evolution in general definitely does not lend itself to a majestic God.
    Darrell Yip

  • Boy, doesn’t that sum it all up.
    It seems it is part of the human condition to make god in it’s own image and only the nuclear bomb of Gods judgment even subsequent to salvation can shake this.
    The fact is we love the fantasy and deliberately ignore Gods view of what we are.
    Pity is we have a church that thrives on catering to the flesh especially the religious flesh.
    The best ministry offends us. But who wants that?
    Rob Withall

  • Bill,

    Thanks for this illuminating article, which bears witness to what we have personally encountered in our various travels, both in Australia and overseas.

    God said to Moses “.. see.. that you make all things according to the pattern shown to you in the mountain.”

    God has patterns, which we need to follow, and when we don’t, why then we end up with things of our own doing. Jesus said “Thus have you made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition.” The Jewish religious leaders of the day had departed from the “pattern” of God, and had replaced the ways and the power of God with their own ineffective traditions.

    What a lesson for today for Christians!

    We need to choose – powerless, ineffective religious traditions and forms of godliness, but denying the power thereof, with God serving us, OR – fully embracing the Bible pattern, which includes preaching, teaching and living the full counsel of God. The fullness of the Gospel must be proclaimed – man’s sin nature still needs to be confronted and dealt with. The Holy Spirit needs to be embraced.

    In each Christian life, God The Father, God The Son and God The Holy Spirit must have their rightful place. We worship and serve God – He created us.

    Part of the decline may be expressed along the lines of… “I can’t give what I don’t have, and it is hard for me to lead someone beyond where I have gone myself, and it seems difficult to release people to be freer than I am.”

    We need to continually and continuously look to Jesus – acknowledging Him as our Lord, and allow and invite the Holy Spirit to come and manifest freely in our lives, and in our churches and gatherings, so that He may glorify Jesus, and perform the “surgery” required to transform each of us into Christians (in the full and proper meaning of what it is to be a Christian).

    David Alston

  • Too many settle for the flippant clamour of religion rather than walking carefully before the LORD in loving trepidation as we approach the Holy of Holies unshod, undeserving and undone… but by His grace.

    Thanks for reminding us.

    Glenn Christopherson

  • Bill, awesome article.

    We need to get back to the basics in our churches. Back to true Biblical discipleship. Back to preaching the gospel in public places. The Bible commands us all to go forth and make disciples. Not just those who “feel” that they are called. We are to follow God’s word despite our selfish feelings.

    We need to get accountable if we are struggling in sin rather than accept it and hope that God will just forgive us on the day of judgment.

    The church as a whole needs to tell it’s people to truly commit their lives to prayer and reading God’s word. There are far too many “Christians” who are trying to survive off two-minute prayers, a chapter a day of Word and second-hand revelations from preachers who are (in many cases, not all Praise Jesus) either not in the Word themselves or are living such compromised lives themselves that they would be too fearful to preach on topics where they haven’t removed the beam from their own eye.

    Mario Del Giudice

  • Thanks Mario

    Hey, I am with you all the way. One minor quibble however! I sometimes wonder if the majority of contemporary Christians can even manage to read one chapter a day of Scripture. This is among our biggest failures. If we read just three chapters a day, we can get through the entire Bible in one year. Worth checking out.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Great article again Bill
    The disciples even tried to trivialise Jesus and make Him their servant. Eg. Mary (as shown in John 12 , Mark 14, and Matthew 26) wanted to truly serve Him (when she anointed Him etc). Jesus corrected the disciples when they tried to dictate to him and agree with them that what she was doing was wrong, and a waste. They were being influenced by Judas Iscariot’s response. He instead said to them “Leave her alone”, and later also took it further when He said what she has done will be told as a memorial, wherever the gospel is preached. In other words the gospel must include how we are to respond – to respond as Mary did – which includes serving him in total submission and abandonment. In simple terms we are saved to serve. As scripture also says in Colossians, Revelations etc “All things are created by Him and for Him” and “we were created for His pleasure”. Paul on the Damascus road where he became a Christian and gave his allegiance to Christ said in total surrender in Acts 9 “Lord, what do you want me to do”. Both Paul and Mary realised, what we need to realise, and pass onto this generation, that fnowing the Lord, and following Him is not a casual love relationship but one that demands our all, as He has given us His all.
    Stephen Lewin

  • Yes Bill you have so nailed this. I just visited probably Brisbane’s most famous church on the weekend, and was amazed at the level of technological “bling.” Indeed someone told me that they have more techno-bling than the TV stations!!!.

    But of course this appalling level of idolatrous apostasy/witchcraft doe snot exist in isolation, but with the many other idolatrous anti-gospels and pseudo-gospels in our culture. I think particularly here is feminism.

    Imagine the impact of feminism and the false therapeutic counter-gospel combined. What would a likely outcome look like? Rampant female driven divorce for the most base and self-centred of motives???? Uncontrolled and uncontrollable female sexual behaviour and sexual aggression – where guys are hunted in nightclubs and elsewhere??? Unassailable women’s rights to rule their bodies in the matter of abortion, including sometimes “believing women”??? A gay rights movement led by dykes on bikes??? “Believing” women who aggressively defend their right to have a boyfriend, and attend church on Sunday??? A church which is ashamed of righteousness generically, and has thoroughly forgotten that sin and repentance and righteousness and judgement comprise the salvation message which the world will die for lack of and which men and women need to hear to be freed from the prison of their self-idolatries???

    Does any of this sound like the mess happening near you?

    In this sense the quote is completely correct that the failure to present the holiness of God, the need for repentance unto holiness and purity and salvation is the major need of the church and the hour, and the chief failure of our misrepresentations in His Name to the world.

    Until the church can get its head around the fact that people need holiness, innocence, purity and salvation from all of our inner spiritual death in the same way that a dying man in the desert needs a drink of water, all we have to offer our desperate culture are a mess of feel-good lies. It is the pure water of salvation which is needed, and we need to discover our and their urgent need for purity. To do less, or to continue to do as we have been, is simply to again betray the Lord of Glory and His Holiness, and the innocency without which “no one will see God.” The first cry of any preacher in the New Testament and the first cry of the preaching of the Lord Jesus was “Repent.” If it is not also our, then we have lost our way and are become worse than “blind guides of the blind,” hypocrites, and like white washed tombs which men walk over without realizing that corruption and stench lie beneath.” IN this context these are sobering and somber words indeed.

    Stuart Reece

  • Hi Bill, great article. This is why we get people saying ‘I’m Catholic, but I’m pro abortion.’ or ‘I’m Presbyterian and I’m pro gay marriage.’ They lay claim to Christianity for who knows what purpose yet translate it to suit themselves. A good way of counteracting this is to ask them to recite the creed and the ten commandments and ask them again if they see themselves as Christian.

    Catherine Dodd

  • Is it any wonder that so many within the church have lost their taste for Truth.
    Could I be so bold as to suggest that our Lord has left many to feast on that which tastes better to them.
    Should this mean we cater for their appetite….certainly not!!
    My prayer is that they would turn from their way and walk the narrow path which is not that comfortable at times so as to regain their ability to eat and swallow that which is on offer.
    He has never changed nor has His Word.
    Let us all be hearers and doers and in so become more hungry and obedient to John 8:31,32.

    Thanks again Bill!
    Sarah Rossic

  • A timely word Bill.

    I’ve been meditating on some of the words delivered by US Baptist Paul Washer over the last year or so.

    The absence of fear of God and coinciding lack of Godliness have infiltrated our churches to such an extent that the sobering warnings so clearly articulated by our Lord in Matt 7 “Many will come to me on that day”…. are in are own time being dangerously close to reality.

    We are God’s servants – not the other way around!

    It’s time to repent Church… For it IS appointed for man to die once and then JUDGEMENT!

    Amen Bill…
    Paul Evans

  • I sit and read these comments with a heavy heart because it is so easy to join the negative brigade. If we know the truth, make note of it but don’t stop there. We can use the knowledge that God has given us to help a generation that is being steered off track and not say oh well I saw them heading off the cliff but I didn’t try to stop them. Yes I agree with the way things are and I attend a large modern church, sometimes I struggle with what I see, but in the house, God is still at work. Why is spirit of the lord saying to me, If you see your brother in sin help to restore him gently. Get in there and help a generation Know the All Powerful Living God.
    Kevin Christensen

  • Thanks Bill,

    You have bring out a strong point to show us the real way to JESUS CHRIST, when i was sitting and reading this, my mind is bow down and crying out to God for His forgiveness because of not taking the lordship seriously and it was so easy to forgot who is the God of the universe and who is our master.

    Kevin Chai

  • Thanks very much for the article Bill.

    Servaas Hofmeyr, South Africa

  • Wow, this was excellent. I feel like I need to read it again and again. Thank you!
    I often think about the numbers credited to Christianity and it is amazing that the Body of Christ has survived and thrived through all the centuries of darkness to continue to be salt and light. But at times I wonder just how many of those numbers have made it to the narrow road that leads to life. It really grieves me and it must certainly grieve the heart of the Lord when people I know backstab, slander and claw their way to the ‘top’ of some fashionable city churches. It’s a sobering thought that we may soon face persecution that we thought could never happen to us here. I wonder if church as we know it could become illegal, when there are no more bright lights and designer labels and wide, perfect smiles greeting them at the door and instead perhaps they have to face hardship, mocking and other persecution from the world if they will have that intense passionate love for the Lord Jesus that will make them hold on no matter what. What we so desperately need is revelation leading to repentance and revival. We are only a prayer away from being filled with ‘wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him’. If only we could truly see Jesus then all this other temporal ‘stuff’ would seem so insignificant.
    Dee Graf

  • Thanks again Bill
    “Do you ever wonder just what God requires?
    Do you think He’s just an errand boy to satisfy your wandering desires?”
    …who said that?
    Terry Darmody

  • Thanks Terry

    Sounds like Dylan to me! (Although I did have to double check with a quick google!)

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Catherine Dodd,
    when did you ever hear a Presbyterian say “I’m Presbyterian and I’m pro gay marriage.”
    All Presbyterians base their knowledge on the word of God. When did the Bible ever say that we should be pro gay marriage?
    It comes down to a simple question, Did God create Adam and Steve or Adam and Eve?
    The whole world should know the answer to this.
    Duan Ziegelaar

  • Thanks Duan

    The whole world should, as should Presbyterians. But sadly there are all sorts of examples of Presbyterians caving in on this issue, especially in the US. See these articles for starters:
    http://www.upi.com/Top_News/US/2010/07/07/Presbyterians-move-toward-gay-marriage/UPI-95261278522401/
    http://www.christianpost.com/article/20100704/pcusa-elects-pro-gay-moderator/
    http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/294347
    http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2010/07/09/presbyterians-split-on-gay-friendly-measure/

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Thanks for those articles Bill.
    Very insightful. It brings great sadness to my heart though.
    I cannot believe that the Presbyterian Church in the U.S is in such a mess. Not just being soft on gay marriage but on many other things like having female elders and trying to redefine things their own way.
    I must say that it is like looking at the complete opposite when comparing the Presbyterian church in the USA to the Presbyterian church of Victoria.

    Duan Ziegelaar

  • Thanks Duan

    I hate to say it, but churches all over the place are caving in on this and other issues. Things are going downhill fast for so many churches throughout the Western world.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Bill, I don’t think you touched on the following points that could have been made:

    1. The institutionalized church across the board (Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox) far too often has developed a symbiotic relationship with the state, especially in Europe. The state provides patronage and financial support to the church, while the church “blesses” the state and those elites on whom the state relies. As a result, the church tends to lean toward those who are “paying their freight” as opposed to those whom they’re charged to serve: God and His people. As a result, they can ignore or abandon the Gospel w/o immediate consequence. I think that’s a major reason why Europe is in such a state of spiritual apathy (except for Muslim immigrants).

    This is why I believe that Christianity is far more vibrant in the United States than in Europe. The lack of an established church in the U.S. has forced churches not to rely on state power for their support.

    2. Too many Christian leaders view themselves far higher than they ought. I believe this is particularly true in the Catholic Church (in which I was raised). Bishops and archbishops encourage regal, monarchistic pretentions that they don’t want to give up. Those pretentions breed institutional arrogance and discourage accountability. To me, that was one of the major problems with the clerical sex-abuse crisis (besides the sexual sin, obviously). Bishops could shift predators to and from churches w/o the knowledge or consent of the pastors or their parishoners. “Dominion” theology seems to echo that sort of arrogance, though on a less hierarchical level.

    3. The pursuit of intellectual fashion has destroyed mainline Protestantism and threatens to do the same to Catholicism (I can’t speak for Eastern Orthodoxy on any of this because I’ve had no contacts with Eastern Orthodox).

    Would love to know your opinions, Bill, and fellow commentators.

    Joseph D’Hippolito

  • Great article Bill.

    We all seem to lack passion for our Lord, being a Christian is a bolt on extra. In this techo – tweeting, sms world, getting the younger generation to read a book let alone the Bible becomes such a challenge with information overload – so how will they ever know what truth is! If the church could just focus on equipping/mentoring and building community within and outside engaging the Holy Spirit through prayer then change would happen.

    Charles Northcote

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