“I don’t get the hype,” my friend said about the new restaurant opening in our city.
“Seriously?” I asked. I’d been unofficially counting down the days until opening, waiting for the renowned barbeque joint to open its Tallahassee outpost. We were getting hometown access to the Tom Brady of ribs and my buddy didn’t “get the hype.” As former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden would say, “Goodness gracious sakes alive.”
On the drive back from our inaugural lunch, I asked my friend what he thought about the food itself and he casually said, “It was fine. I just don’t really get the appeal.”
In this instance, my friend was beginning with a severe skepticism that even delicious barbeque couldn’t overcome. On the other hand, I was beginning with high expectations, which were bound to either lead to extreme disappointment or a biased impression of what was put onto my plate. In either case, we were both in for a confrontation between expectation and reality. But the sort of excited optimism I had comes close to what we’re seeing amongst antsy, searching people and a prosperity gospel that promises a God whose chief goal is to facilitate your personal happiness. It’s not hard to find the appeal.
We all feel pressure to pursue peace with God, whether that means reasoning away His existence or seeking to appease whatever version of Him we think exists. That’s part of the issue with the new prosperity gospel. Whereas the Bible teaches that peace with God comes via death (to Christ and also to self), this newer message implies that peace with God is settled, and we can now return to the preeminent goal of self-fulfillment. The ultimate appeal is that you can pursue the earthly carrots dangling in front of you in the name of Christianity.
As author Jen Pollock Michel rightly noted, our society believes that “happiness is our only duty today, self-betrayal our only sin.” This version of Christianity functionally gives a hearty “amen.” In a therapeutic society, the achievement of self-fulfillment with God’s apparent stamp of approval is the perfect recipe for Christians to desire the things of this world while still feeling as if they are close to Jesus and He is very pleased. It appeases our need to know God isn’t mad at us while giving license to continue on making much of ourselves.
But the Scriptures give a condition to following Jesus that is the complete opposite of self-pursuit: self-denial. Jesus said, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). My mentor puts it this way: “Salvation is free, but following Jesus isn’t cheap.” Being part of God’s kingdom means I am not the one in charge, and sometimes the boss and I are going to have different ideas. Imagine following Jesus without having to renounce yourself? This version of Jesus would always want for me exactly what I want for myself – in the same manner I want it for myself but with supernatural powers to make it happen. Unfortunately, that’s just not who the Bible portrays Jesus to be. As Mark Sayers said, the “heresy hidden under the surface is our belief that God would not ask Western people to deny themselves.”
I’m not implying that new prosperity gospel churches are flooded with raging egomaniacs. In fact, many of the people in these churches are passionate about social justice issues, generous with their time and resources, and truly bought-in to their local churches. My use of the term “me-centered” refers to the focus of the theological teaching. Think of the solar system. Humans once believed the earth was at the center of the universe with the sun and stars orbiting around it. We now understand that is not true in the slightest. (At least I hope everyone reading this understands that.) The primary error of the new prosperity theology is that it places the individual in the center of every situation and places God in orbit as a sort of powerful yet controllable satellite.
One popular pastor has written, “If the size of your vision for your life isn’t intimidating to you, there’s a good chance it’s insulting to God.” This pastor claims God “intends to uproot you from the tyranny of the familiar, shatter the monotonous life you’ve had, and take you on an adventure.” I can hear the cheers of thousands at the MLM national conference, giving each other a high-five and wanting more. This same pastor wrote, “The greater life hasn’t ended for you. It’s only out of sight under the waters of the ordinary. And God can resurface it, supernaturally, as many times as it takes. As many times as you’re willing.” For a society living in chronic discontent, it’s easy to see why this attracts people like the “Hot Now” sign at Krispy Kreme. How can you not stop in for the hot donut?
Perhaps one of the most alarming characteristics of this movement is the genuine and seemingly powerful emotional buy-in of the people involved. “God showing up” to a gathering means people were really into the music and responded with excitement to the pastor’s message about overcoming whatever obstacle is in the way of one’s dream. In new prosperity gatherings, conviction is usually not tied to realizing one’s sin, but rather to realizing you’re not being as proactive in pursuing self-care, positive thinking, or ambition as those on stage.
Congregants are made to believe they have to “listen to [them]selves, to behave authentically, in tune with what [their] intuition dictates,” which is apparently God Himself calling them to something greater. Be careful what drives your emotion and in which direction! In pop-Christianity, people claim they are elevating God; they just functionally believe that is done by emoting passionately during the service to “give everything to Him.” Me-centered Christianity is very expressive, but we must take great care as to the content of the worship, because “quite possibly, the worst judgment on this side of heaven is to be under the delusion that you are worshipping God, when in reality you are only worshipping a god you created.”
Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from Getting Over Yourself: Trading Believe-in-Yourself Religion for Christ-Centered Christianity by Dean Inserra and is used with permission. Learn more about this and other Moody Publishers/For the Church imprint titles here.