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A God who commands fear and trembling has been replaced by a God who exists to meet our needs and serve our desires.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 As Donald McCullough puts it, “reverence and awe have often been replaced by a yawn of familiarity.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.