“My church is a safe place.”
“Safe” is popular in the American church. But “safe” is not popular in the Bible. It’s not part of historic Christianity. In fact, “safe” is a siren song. Sailors drawn to siren songs are not safe. They risk shipwreck. “Safe” churches run the same risk.
“Safe” is symptomatic of the de facto dominant American religion, what University of Notre Dame professor Christian Smith calls “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”1 In 2005, Smith led a research team that interviewed U.S. teenagers associated with various faith traditions, not just Christianity. The teenagers didn’t describe themselves as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deists.” But when you sift through discussions about religion, what emerges is the siren song of “safe” from the shores of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
The siren song of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is heard in its moralistic approach to life. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism believes that central to living a good and happy life is being a nice, kind, positive person, working on self-improvement. It is about feeling good about yourself—a siren song that Flannery O’Connor warned against almost 50 years ago. O’Connor noted a “prevailing heresy” in American religion—the relentlessness of keeping things “positive.” She feared “positive” would cause Christians to forget “the price of restoration.” Those drawn to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism risk shipwreck because they tend to forget the cost of truth.
In fact, there are no costs for those drawn to Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Its songs are about the individual self. It’s sermons about therapy and how you feel and “meeting your needs.” It’s God cast in consumer language and experience.
The siren song of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is also heard in its therapeutic approach. It risks shipwreck because it’s about feeling special. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is not a religion of repentance from sin or public confession. James Nolan writes, “Where once the self was to be surrendered, denied, sacrificed, and died to, now the self is to be esteemed, actualized, affirmed and unfettered.”2 Faith is not about cultivating conscience or of spending oneself in the cause of shalom. Rather, church is a “safe haven” where people can be “authentic” and “in community.” It’s a cocoon religion. Such notions are farcical. God is not safe. Remember when Mr. Beaver was asked by one of the children if Aslan was safe? “‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver… ‘Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.’”3 A holy God is not safe. Santa Claus is safe, but he is not the God of the Bible. Seeking therapeutic benefits risks shipwreck, since it’s not the point of faith. In fact, it’s not all about you, but loving God and neighbor. The wreckage from this therapeutic approach is narcissism.
Narcissism has become endemic in American culture. Its analog is obesity: inflated egos, engorged bodies. Psychologist Jean Twenge writes, “American culture’s focus on self-admiration has caused a flight from reality to the land of grandiose fantasy. We have phony rich people (with interest-only mortgages and piles of debt), phony beauty (with plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures), phony athletes (with performance-enhancing drugs), phony celebrities (via reality TV and YouTube), phony genius students (with grade inflation), a phony national economy (with $11 trillion of government debt), phony feelings of being special among children (with parenting and education focused on self-esteem), and phony friends (with social networking explosion). All this fantasy might feel good, but, unfortunately, reality always wins.”4
And yet the epidemic is real and dangerous. Using the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, University of South Alabama psychology professor Joshua Foster asks subjects to rate the accuracy of various narcissistic statements, such as “I can live my life any way I want to” and “If I ruled the world, it would be a better place.” Foster says no group anywhere in the world has ever scored higher in narcissism than the American teenager. It’s the siren song of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism shipwrecking young lives. When reality catches up, there will be hell to pay.
Finally, the siren song of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is heard in its deistic approach to life. It assumes God does not need to be particularly involved in my life—I am quite capable of carving out my own life. Christians don’t say it this bluntly, but the gist of deism is a smug sense of self-sufficiency. This is particularly true in the U.S., where rugged individualism rules. One is left feeling in control. God becomes a personal cosmic vending machine. Religion is on my terms, not God’s. This is one reason followers of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism are suspicious of organized religion preferring instead a self-defined spirituality. This way, individuals can allegedly get all the benefits of religion without its demands. In the end, it’s important to feel good, affirmed, and empowered. It’s the narcissist’s religion.
“Religion has traditionally put the brakes on narcissistic behavior,” Twenge notes. “Many religious beliefs directly promote the reduction of narcissism (or related concepts like pride and selfishness), teaching the belief in something larger than the self.”5 Unfortunately, the modern American church disdains being traditional. Shalom is traditionally a belief in something larger than self. It is not about feeling good (Moralistic), feeling special (Therapeutic), or feeling in control (Deism). It is not about being “safe.”
The result is a church more drawn to fantasy than reality, to the psychiatrist’s couch than being a faithful presence within culture. This is hard for Moralistic Therapeutic Deistic faith communities to face. In the Old Testament, prophets played a critical role in warning people away from siren songs. Unfortunately, “safe” churches are typically non-prophet organizations, immune from “Thus sayeth the Lord,” which means we’ll likely see many more shipwrecks before churches resist the seductive song of “safe.”
1 Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005)
2 James Nolan, The Therapeutic State (New York, NY: New York University Press, 1998), p. 3.
3 C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (New York, NY: First Collier Edition, 1970), pp.75-76
4 Jean Twenge, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2009), p. 4.
5 Twenge, The Narcissism Epidemic, pages 244-255.
Narcissm is prevalent in today’s society. At least it gets more press. It reminds me of the Health Care reform which just passed. Who knows whether it will be good for all or is it just a ” safe ” notion to making everyone feel they are ” covered” for whatever ails them.
People have become more entitlement mentality oriented than ever before, or so it seems. It’s the love thy neighbor as thyself that’s missing. Our entitlement mentality is leaving loving thy neighbor up to the government. Individual sacrifice might be on the downswing as people get delusional about the government taking care of everybody. Of course we know that that notion will soon come home to roost as we not only will have to pay for all that is given away, but also the compounded interest in the inefficient government overseeing the program.
People are replacing following God with beleiving the government will do it all. Wait until all those unsuspecting entitlement oriented folks realize that they are the ones who will pay. If only we could do what ought to be done from the outset. You wouldn’t need the expensive middle man that adds nothing to Shalom.
timely, provocative, spot on. many thanks!
So what are church leaders to DO? How do they lead people to a different reality?
Experiences, C.S. Lewis said. But not the kind of experiences that faith communities afford, but experiencing a different reality in businesses, schools, etc. Read my seven-week series posted last summer: “Why Institutions Matter.” Your question is actually: what do faith communities measure. Shalom says, start in T. Rowe Price, for example – if you live in Baltimore.
This discussion is all about why I am a chaplain – because I get to be with the ones who have all that ‘safety’ and self-sufficiency stripped away, and some of them are ready to look for Good. Painful, refreshing . . . painfully refreshing.
This post reminded me of a story:
Erwin McManus says that one summer, his son, Aaron, went to a youth camp. He was just a little guy, and I was kind of glad because it was a church camp. I figured he wasn’t going to hear all those ghost stories, because ghost stories can really cause a kid to have nightmares. But unfortunately, since it was a Christian camp and they didn’t tell ghost stories, because we don’t believe in ghosts, they told demon and Satan stories instead. And so when Aaron got home, he was terrified.
“Dad, don’t turn off the light!” he said before going to bed. “No, Daddy, could you stay here with me? Daddy, I’m afraid. They told all these stories about demons.”
And I wanted to say, “They’re not real.”
He goes, “Daddy, Daddy, would you pray for me that I would be safe?” I could feel it. I could feel warm-blanket Christianity beginning to wrap around him, a life of safety, safety, safety.
I said, “Aaron, I will not pray for you to be safe. I will pray that God will make you dangerous, so dangerous that demons will flee when you enter the room.”
And he goes, “All right. But pray I would be really, really dangerous, Daddy.”
How can we encourage faith communities to avoid the “safe” mentality? Encourage them to be dangerous against the distortion of reality. How is one dangerous? By getting in touch with reality and knowing that power (the ability to be dangerous) is derived from the power of the cross and the ultimate hope and restoration of the world.
One more thought: Ivan Illich was once asked if the way to societal change was best through [radical] revolution or through [violent] reform. He explained it was neither—at least if you wanted long term change. Instead, he said we need to tell an “alternative story” that is so compelling it draws others to the story.
Mike, thanks for telling the story!
Another great post, Mike. Excellent. Thanks for your efforts. As an additional thought to Brody Bond’s question about what church leaders should do, I would say that an equally significant question is what parents should do. The primary responsibility for raising teens is not churches, but parents. And parents who attempt to raise kids outside the narcissistic box soon find that their kids are faced with everything from outright opposition to subtle exclusion. This is not a “safe” experience by any means, but, as Aslan might have said, it can be a good experience if parents know how to guide, encourage, support and love them as they grow.
Thanks for another provocative piece daring us to go make culture outside the safety net! I agree with the younger generation comments and think it is up to us to mentor them and help them stop looking in the mirror!
‘Religion’ has slain more people and destoyed more societies than any other force in the world (man made or natural).
This is my own (and easily minority) opinion but the LAST thing we need to do is fall back on Pharisee-like religion to bring shalom.
On one side you have the problem of narcissism. On the other jihad.
I’ve never before heard of “MTD”, but Mr. Metzger has perhaps supplied a tag for the malady Rick Warren diagnosed in ‘The Purpose Driven Life’; hey – “It’s not about you!” How many in your church are focused on (obsessed with?) their health, jobs, money, social problems, future, depression, divorce? People whose lives move from one crises to the next? Of course. We are not saved to spiritual maturity but to a position where sanctification BEGINS to take place. Having a friend in Jesus sounds comforting, but surrender, obedience, and service to Him do not. Our “safe” churches embrace the former, give lip service to the latter, and end up as big spiritual nurseries. I say let’s be done with verse-sprinkled, Christian philosophical pontification from the pulpit and replace it with a (the?)reality series; the Expository Preaching of Scripture. Disciple people. Show them that The Way is discovered through daily Scripture study, prayer, and OBEDIENCE (I think that’s referred to as ‘building a relationship with Christ’?) Show them that by availing ourselves to God for those good works He has prepared in advance for us to do(Eph 2:10)we find purpose for living. Teach them to assume an eternal perspective, so they can see reality and focus on their mission, confident in conscience and soul all their needs will be supplied by our Lord Jesus Christ. Then be prepared for an exodus from the church as many discover there’s (gasp!) discipline, accountability, and responsibility involved…
Roger – great comment on a great article.
Too often do we try to make the truths of Christ applicable to us. It doesn’t matter if we FEEL like they are…THEY ARE! WE are the ones who need to change. This is why its so “unsafe.” Too much of culture is about expressing ourselves, being ourselves, finding ourselves, loving ourselves, nurturing our gifts, fulfilling our goals, blah blah blah…life is not about US.
What does YWHW say to Job when his friends try to convince him that his problems are all his fault and that the solution to those problems are within himself? Job 38:4-7 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone- while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?”
How great it is that we don’t need to be the center of attention, or to have the ultimate knowledge. I love the last verse of Richard Baxter’s poem turned hymn “Lord, it belongs not to my care.”
My knowledge of that life is small,
The eye of faith is dim;
But ’tis enough that Christ knows all,
And I shall be with Him.
Why is Christ no longer ENOUGH for Christians?
Roger, I am with you on the costly, dangerous Christ-life. It seems difficult to infuse discipleship in a people conditioned by consumer church perspectives and the false hope of entitlements. Do you believe the predictable “exodus from the church as many discover there’s (gasp!) discipline, accountability, and responsibility involved…” would be a healthy option? Recently, I read Hugh Halter’s “Tangible Kingdom.” In his ministry, he recognizes the value of so many heroic pastors who struggle with the issues under discussion. At the same time, he encourages those coming to his ministry from traditional churches to move on if they expect “to be fed,” or to be hand-held. Those who discover faith in Christ in the context of his ministry, Adullam communities, are doing so because they have seen the dangerous Christ-life, and want to become a part of it.