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It's Not Just the Prosperity Gospel That's the Problem - The Dangers of the Therapeutic Gospel

The Prosperity Gospel

As Baptists and Bible-believing evangelicals, the lies of the prosperity gospel are easily identified. This "name it and claim it" theological version of the gospel that lives somewhere at the far-end of DirecTV and on late-night television has been gathered funds from less-than-discerning followers for years. Years ago John Piper took a moment at a conference where he was speaking to share about his feeling regarding the prosperity gospel. It went viral and a few versions of that brief message are available on YouTube. I've linked one below:

For the most part, pastors and church leaders in the Baptist and evangelical world discount the false promises of the prosperity gospel and distance themselves from such. 

However, there is another false gospel that exists and it seems to be gaining traction, even within the framework of biblically-centered Gospel-focused churches. Sometimes, it sneaks in as a "short-term small group study" and sometimes in sermons or Sunday School classes.

The Therapeutic Gospel

We live in an age where therapy is not only accepted but marketed as needful for all. When it comes to therapy, I do not discount the need for such. I believe in counseling as a help for those in need. As a pastor, I offer counseling as well. Biblical counseling (not to be confused with what is often marketed under the broad term "Christian Counseling") is a powerful use of offering help and hope to those in need through the inerrant truth revealed in Scripture.

It's the focus on "felt needs" that drives this.

David Powlinson, author, teacher, and counselor shared these distinctions regarding the contemporary therapeutic gospel back in 2010. Not much has changed (full article here).

The most obvious, instinctual felt needs of twenty-first century, middle-class Americans are different from the felt needs that Dostoevsky tapped into (in his book The Brothers Karamazov). We take food supply and political stability for granted. We find our miracle-substitute in the wonders of technology. Middle-class felt needs are less primal. They express a more luxurious, more refined sense of self-interest:

  1. I want to feel loved for who I am, to be pitied for what I’ve gone through, to feel intimately understood, to be accepted unconditionally;
  2. I want to experience a sense of personal significance and meaningfulness, to be successful in my career, to know my life matters, to have an impact;
  3. I want to gain self-esteem, to affirm that I am okay, to be able to assert my opinions and desires;
  4. I want to be entertained, to feel pleasure in the endless stream of performances that delight my eyes and tickle my ears;
  5. I want a sense of adventure, excitement, action, and passion so that I experience life as thrilling and moving.

The modern, middle-class version of therapeutic gospel takes its cues from this particular family of desires. We might say that the target audience consists of psychological felt needs, rather than the physical felt needs that typically arise in difficult social conditions. (The contemporary “health and wealth” gospel and obsession with “miracles” express something more like the Grand Inquisitor’s older version of therapeutic gospel.)

In this new gospel, the great “evils” to be redressed do not call for any fundamental change of direction in the human heart. Instead, the problem lies in my sense of rejection from others; in my corrosive experience of life’s vanity; in my nervous sense of self-condemnation and diffidence; in the imminent threat of boredom if my music is turned off; in my fussy complaints when a long, hard road lies ahead. These are today’s significant felt needs that the gospel is bent to serve. Jesus and the church exist to make you feel loved, significant, validated, entertained, and charged up. This gospel ameliorates distressing symptoms. It makes you feel better. The logic of this therapeutic gospel is a jesus-for-Me who meets individual desires and assuages psychic aches.

Pastors lament the consumer mentality of many in the world today and yet, sometimes that which is complained about is propped up unknowingly by a version of the gospel that is less than complete. A less-than-complete gospel is a false gospel.

Signs That Your Church Members Just Want Therapy, Not the Gospel

Tweet: Every pastor, at some point in time, will hear church members state that they're looking for a new church. https://ctt.ec/KqG2f+Every pastor, at some point in time, will hear church members state that they're looking for a new church.

Most often the church members and friends do not state these directly, but just fade away in attendance and participation and eventually share that phrase with mutual friends or other church members. Then, over time, that phrase hits the ears of leadership.Sometimes God actually calls members of a local body of believers to unite elsewhere. However, unless that calling leads to missional engagement and missionary living, it all to often seems to be based on a desire for a new version of church, and sometimes is fueled by disagreement with pastoral leadership, theology, or programming.In all candor, it has been my experience that theological differences rarely are the tipping point. This proves to be the case when members join another local church that holds to the very same theological understandings. 

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Photo credit: Chicago Running Tours & more via Visualhunt.com / CC BY

Those who have itchy ears for the therapeutic gospel (which, in case it's not clear, is a false gospel) tend to offer one of the popular statements such as...

  • "I'm not being fed"
  • "I need...something from someone"
  • "I'm not being discipled"
  • "We need a better group for our kids"

...or other such phrase. 

Acquiescence to the therapeutic gospel is often identifiable through the overuse of "I" or "we" statements when it comes to what the church offers or does not offer. 

The church and pastoral leadership do not get a pass here. Poor leadership leads to ineffective discipleship. Inwardly focused churches are not disciple-makers. Therefore, they are prone to offer therapeutic philosophy disguised as biblical truth. Pastors and leaders must continually push against the drive (even within themselves) to build small kingdoms, keep the tithers happy, and bow to the false god of self-preservation and self-worship.

Powlinson addresses the five elements of the therapeutic gospel biblically this way:

  1. “Need for love”? It is surely a good thing to know that you are both known and loved. God who searches the thoughts and intentions of our hearts also sets his steadfast love upon us. However all this is radically different from the instinctual craving to be accepted for who I am. Christ’s love comes pointedly and personally despite who I am. You are accepted for who Christ is, because of what he did, does, and will do. God truly accepts you, and if God is for you, who can be against you? But in doing this, he does not affirm and endorse what you are like. Rather, he sets about changing you into a fundamentally different kind of person. In the real gospel you feel deeply known and loved, but your relentless “need for love” has been overthrown.
  2. “Need for significance”? It is surely a good thing for the works of your hands to be established forever: gold, silver, and precious stones, not wood, hay, and straw. It is good when what you do with your life truly counts, and when your works follow you into eternity. Vanity, futility, and ultimate insignificance register the curse upon our work life – even midcourse, not just when we retire, or when we die, or on the Day of Judgment. But the real gospel inverts the order of things presupposed by the therapeutic gospel. The craving for impact and significance – one of the typical “youthful lusts” that boil up within us – is merely idolatrous when it acts as Director of Operations in the human heart. God does not meet your need for significance; he meets your need for mercy and deliverance from your obsession with personal significance. When you turn from your enslavement and turn to God, then your works do start to count for good. The gospel of Jesus and the fruit of faith are not tailored to “meet your needs.” He frees from the tyranny of felt needs, remakes you to fear God and keep his commandments (Eccl. 12:13). In the divine irony of grace, that alone makes what you do with your life of lasting value.
  3. “Need for self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-assertion”? To gain a confident sense of your identity is a great good. Ephesians is strewn with several dozen “identity statements,” because by this the Spirit motivates a life of courageous faith and love. You are God’s – among the saints, chosen ones, adopted sons, beloved children, citizens, slaves, soldiers; part of the workmanship, wife and dwelling place – every one of these in Christ. No aspect of your identity is self-referential, feeding your “self-esteem.” Your opinion of yourself is far less important than God’s opinion of you, and accurate self-assessment is derivative of God’s assessment. True identity is God-referential. True awareness of yourself connects to high esteem for Christ. Great confidence in Christ correlates to a vote of fundamental no confidence in and about yourself. God nowhere replaces diffidence and people-pleasing by self-assertiveness. In fact, to assert your opinions and desires, as is, marks you as a fool. Only as you are freed from the tyranny of your opinions and desires are you free to assess them accurately, and then to express them appropriately.
  4. “Need for pleasure”? In fact, the true gospel promises endlessly joyous experience, drinking from the river of delights (Ps. 36). This describes God’s presence. But as we have seen in each case, this is keyed to the reversal of our instinctive cravings, not to their direct satisfaction. The way of joy is the way of suffering, endurance, small obediences, willingness to identify with human misery, willingness to overthrow your most persuasive desires and instincts. I don’t need to be entertained. But I absolutely NEED to learn to worship with all my heart.
  5. “Need for excitement and adventure”? To participate in Christ’s kingdom is to play a part within the Greatest Action-Adventure Story Ever Told. But the paradox of redemption again turns the whole world upside down. The real adventure takes the path of weakness, struggle, endurance, patience, small kindnesses done well. The road to excellence in wisdom is unglamorous. Other people might take better vacations and have a more thrilling marriage than yours. The path of Jesus calls forth more grit than thrill. He needed endurance far more than he needed excitement. His kingdom might not cater to our cravings for derring-do and thrill-seeking, but “solid joys and lasting treasures none but Zion’s children know.”

May we diligently focus on the truth of the Gospel and not settle for less than God truly offers. When our theology centers on self, and ultimately becomes a "me-ology" the church ceases to be church. This may be one of the greatest challenges we face nowadays, especially as the generations of church members and attenders dwindles. The natural response from many church leaders is to "offer what the audience wants" while sacrificing what we truly need.

What is needed? The Gospel.

The true Gospel.

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