Putting the “You” In Church

One of the fascinating things to think about in this self-involved culture we love to call our own is the current situation in the churches. They live on the edge of a contradiction that is fascinating in its way.

As we all know, the traditional churches are losing parishioners at a rapid pace. After all, self-absorbed people don’t want to be told what to do and cajoled into making sacrifices when they are used to being stroked and entertained. Both Protestant and Catholic Churches have lost large numbers of members in recent years as many people raised in traditional churches either drop out of church altogether or transfer to other, more “friendly” churches that will give them what they want. What they want is to be entertained and this is what the mega-churches promise. And they deliver.

The Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas is the largest church in the United States. It is so big that they now hold their services in a renovated sports arena.Their services come complete with expensive coffee and doughnuts, lounge chairs, TVs, and a bookstore they can visit during or after the service as parishioners are welcomed in with messages designed to assure them that absolutely nothing will be asked of them (except for a small contribution); their need to be stroked as they were when young and in school will be continued and kneeling is optional; they may sit where they want and take in a service that is sure to thrill and delight them.

These devout people are assured that winning is a good thing and that God wants them to be wealthy. Three of the four largest churches in this country practice what is called “prosperity Christianity” which tells parishioners that God wants them to be rich.The self-esteem mantra is repeated steadily that assures them that they are special and that they will be successful if they really want to be successful — because God would never let them desire something they couldn’t achieve. As pastor Joel Osteen of the Lakewood Church says “God would not have put the dream in your heart if He had not already given you everything you need to fulfill it.”

The contradiction to all this comes once they are lured into the mega-church and they are then told that they really should love their fellow-man (except homosexuals, of course) — though they must love themselves first (repeating the false cliché that insists that self-adoration leads to healthy relationships with others). They are also told that God doesn’t want them to sin, even though He does want them to prosper. So under all the hype there is a trace of the traditional message of Christianity as Osteen and others of his ilk tell the gathered throng stories about St. Paul and Jesus that warm their hearts. He also admonishes his parishioners that they must “take time for people [most people]. . .learn to appreciate them. When you go to the grocery store, encourage the cashier. Be friendly.” There are also rules: no adultery, no idols, go to church, don’t lie, don’t steal, and don’t covet your neighbor’s stuff — faint echoes of the Ten Commandments. And this from a man who has been telling these people that first and foremost is their love of self and that God wants them to be successful and prosper.

The contradiction between self-adoration and the friendliness they are supposed to show toward [some of] their fellow humans (which frequently demands that they actually pay attention to others) is passed over lightly as people flock to the services and go home feeling good about themselves, assured that as long as they are pleasant to the cashier at the local grocery store they are living the good life and that while they must keep one eye on their weaknesses and make sure they don’t fall too deeply into sin, they are on the right track and doing just fine. And meanwhile the traditional churches where God comes first and parishioners are reminded to be humble and care about others see their pews slowly empty, their doors close, and the buildings turned into homes, apartments, or public houses.

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11 thoughts on “Putting the “You” In Church

  1. As a very active member in my “frozen chosen” Presbyterian Church, I can appreciate your view. We are not glitzy, but we strive to love our neighbors, and read, study, and ponder the Bible, together often. Thanks for this post. I’m heading off to church! Ilene

  2. Twenty years ago Jim Bakker was lampooned for saying the Lord wanted him to have nice things. This is from a minister who bilked his followers. Now, Joel Osteen who is wealthier beyond Bakker’s dreams has made a huge amount of money on telling people what they want to hear. God did put the dream in our heart, but he asked us to love thy neighbor as ourselves. He also gave us a brain, so that we could think and question things especially when my fellow Christians are trying ignore science. I see wondrous things happening in churches when they include and reach out to those in need. Yet, when I see churches that pat you on the back and say it is OK to be selfish, as you point out, that is a concern. We humans don’t need any encouragement to be selfish. Maybe we should look at the “u” in church to mean others, as their is no “I” in church. Well done, BTG

    • Thanks, BTG. The churches are doing what the schools are doing: telling people what they want to hear in order to keep them interested. Welcome to the age of entitlement! Sad business. And you are right: there are good people out there doing good things. They’re not all like Joel Osteen!

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  3. Well-said, Hugh and BTG. It’s an interesting thing. All-around church attendance is way down in the U.S. from where it was in the hey-day of the Fifties. And even some of the megachurches are now experiencing some issues (the New Yorker had a nice piece a couple weeks ago about a Michigan pastor who started one of the largest churches in the country, then became disillusioned with its mission and message, and left for quieter pastures in California. He’s now written a couple books really hammering the megachurch philosophy). One of my concerns: A lot of those who go to seek the gospel of prosperity are those who jump from place to place, idea to idea, trend to trend — religious or otherwise. Where will they turn when they become disillusioned with this kind of church? It’s sad the prosperity churches gloss over the core messages of the New Testament. One of the most stirring passages in the NT is the appearance of John the Baptist on the scene. Luke captures it well, but look — really look — at the advice John gives those who come:

    7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
    10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
    11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

    The Gospel of Sharing.

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