The Attraction of Experience: The Subtle and Disturbing Trend of American Christianity

Dust off your Bibles, and open them to Galatians 1; a passage whose appropriateness in modern America cannot be understated. As to why, let me set some context first:

With over 16 million sales, the 2004 bestseller Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in his Presence, by Sarah Young, is still generating vast sales and spawning an entire product line of MANY books for all ages and the newly launched Jesus Calling podcast too. Check out this picture I snapped recently of a display right in front of the entrance to my local Lifeway:

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The crux of the devotional is built into the opening sentence of the introduction, where Sarah Young states: “I first experienced the Presence of God in a setting of exquisite beauty.. in a tiny Alpine village in France.” By all indications, because Young’s foundation was based on experience, she began to find scripture alone to be too dry, and not dripping with the emotional connection she desired out of her relationship with God. In her own words, Young remarked “I began to wonder if I… could receive messages during my times of communing with God…. I knew that God communicated with me through the Bible, but I yearned for more… I decided to listen to God with pen in hand, writing down whatever I believe He was saying.” Thus, the book is a list of daily devotions written in the voice and language of Jesus, as if He himself were speaking to you face-to-face.

The bestseller is simply a premiere example in a long list of recent products that many American Christians have bought, hook, line, and sinker. In several places, the Bible warns we should not add or detract from His word, and those that do will surely face harsh judgement. (See Prov. 30:6, Rev. 22:18-19, Deut. 12:32 to point out a few). We know the Bible instructs us in this way, but too many Christians have pushed this aside for the warm fuzzy feeling of a religious experience.

Likewise, March of next year is the release date for the movie version of The Shack by William Young, which outpaced Jesus Calling to the tune of 20+ million copies sold, as of 2015 estimates. Just read this tagline from Amazon: “Millions have found their spiritual hunger satisfied by William P. Young’s #1 New York Timesbestseller, The Shack.” A plot line where a distraught man meets the three personalities of God four years after a traumatic event. At a shack, the main character spends time with God the Father, who takes the form of an African-American Woman, God the Son, who is a middle-Eastern carpenter, and God the Spirit, who is an Asian woman. In truth, God is not sifted down into a few quirky, but lovable characters in human flesh that espouse fortune-cookie philosophies. The Bible however describes God the father as spirit, and God the Son as the only incarnate member of the trinity. (John 4:24 – a verse which will be relevant  very soon). Though the characters are obviously meant as an allegory to explain the three persons of the Godhead, the clear misrepresentation of God is a pill too big to swallow. This all before addressing that William Young’s God the Father figure says “I don’t need to punish people for sin,” with disregard to the penal theology of Romans 6:23; Or that his God the Son figure claims to be “the best way” to God, instead of the only way as seen in John 14:6. We know the Bible instructs us in this way, but too many Christians have pushed this aside for the simplicity of a religious experience.

If you are still with me at this point, I fear I would lose the rest of you all by taking the time to address The Message version of the Bible, or the trendy mega-churches with dim lights, soft-rock worship, fog machines, and sermon series entitled after popular movies.

The books, the movies, the churches of these experience-driven Christian trends simply boil down to a bait and switch. Do you want to feel good about praying without actually praying? Follow Jesus Calling by Sarah Young. Do you want to feel good about reading the Bible without reading the Bible? The Message by Eugene Peterson is the Bible for you. Do you want to feel good about going to church without actually going to church? Try mega-churches pastored by Perry Noble, Andy Stanley, Rick Warren, or scores of other vision-casting leaders. Do you want to feel good about knowing the person of God without the hassles of building and maturing a real relationship? Just dwell on the odd but friendly Godhead portrayed in The Shack. Movie or book version will do.

As John 4:24 states, true worship of God is done in spirit AND in truth. You may not realize it, but sitting in the pews, listening and learning intently from a Christ-centered pastor is just as much of a part of worship as singing hymns or contemporary songs. Unfortunately it’s easy to over-emphasize the experience of song-worship, by basing a good worship service upon how you feel when its over. In charismatic denominations though, experience can just as easily creep into the sermon portion too, so that the church members lose control to the Holy Spirit if the pastor’s statements become particularly  shouty. (Never mind that Galatians 5:22-23, says a fruit of the spirit is self-control, not losing control). When emotion runs high – it can catch you from either direction.

I hope you found Galatians 1 in your Bibles by now. Take some time to read and think upon verses 6-10. For those without Bibles handy, I’ll post the text in a block quote here:

I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!

10 For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ.

Galatians 1:6-10, NASB

Here are three simple observations I realize from this passage:

1. Experience-based religion distorts the gospel. (See vs. 6-7)

For reasons that I will mention in the next two points, the gospel is not a desired product in seeker-driven churches. The gospel replaces the warm fuzzies of experience with the tough self-examinations about our relationship with Christ. The Bible is clear, those who have a relationship with God have already acknowledged that their sin is offensive to God and they have fallen short of God’s perfect standards. Moreover, they realize there is nothing they can do to make themselves perfect again in God’s sight. The only way this torn relationship is mended is through the cross and the humility to have faith in what it means. The gospel simply and clearly states that God’s son, Jesus, came into this world and lived a sinless life, but chose to suffer the sin and punishment of others  on the cross.

Getting people to admit their sin and humbly accept the offer of Christ goes against human nature, and is simply not an option for experience-based religion which relies on drawing people in.

2. Experience-based religion leads to false religion. ( See vs. 8-9)

Paul warns that even if you have a religious experience as powerful as having an angel visit you, you cannot trust that experience unless the message of the gospel is there. We are to subject all religious experience to the authority of scripture. The argument Paul uses isn’t necessarily an argument from exaggeration either.

It may sound crazy, that an angel could appear, and give you “extra” revelation outside of the Bible. It sounds far too supernatural to be a regular occurrence, as if it could happen to anybody! Let’s just take step back though and look at some examples. Did you know Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, claimed to have been given extra information, inscribed on golden tablets by an angel named Moroni? That practically hits the nail of Galatians 1 on the head. Or how about the “Night Journey” that Muhammad claimed to have happened, where he was transported to Jerusalem and then up into heaven where he met many Old Testament prophets and God too? Or that Ellen G. White, the pioneer of the Seventh-Day Adventists, claimed to have over 2000 visions and dreams that led her to write extra revelations to supplement the Bible? How many Catholics still deify Mary, claim visions from her, and believe her to be the intercessor between God and men? How many false religions can be boiled down to reading an “extra” book, or listening to an extra-biblical revelation/dream/vision someone had? Even though Sarah Young’s web page claims she is a”conservative Christian,” the truth remains that at best she is watering down the words of God in the Bible and promoting the extra-revelation practices of false religion.

3. Experience-based religion focuses on man rather than God. (See vs. 10)

Movements within experience-based religion are scared to offend people. After all, for most who fall into the experience trap, the success of a church is grounded in attendance numbers and the success of a book is grounded in sales. Do you want to feel special, as if God were talking to you directly? Sarah Young wanted to feel that, because the Bible left her “yearning for more.” As far as seeker-driven churches go, it would be unwise to offend someone, or else the popularity of the preacher/church could drop. So the theology gets watered down, and the pastors of these churches dodge any controversial issues: Is homosexuality wrong? Is Jesus the only way to God? Will God judge sin? Very often, in their lack of discernment, seeker-driven churches misunderstand the gospel. The largest megachurch in the nation is led by Joel Osteen, who entitled a book Your Best Life Now. That title is very attractive, but just think of the theological implications that it’s more desirable to live a rich, happy life in the present, than to be a martyr with the paradise of a new heaven and earth with God in the afterlife. The local megachurch in my area  recently amended their doctrinal statements after recent criticism over their claims that baptism is necessary for salvation. The church changed the position itself very little, but the words written down changed so as to not draw too much attention anymore. I attended there recently for a Christmas presentation. In addition to revamping their auditorium to be more “hip,” I also noticed an addition to rooms labeled “prayer rooms” with televisions mounted on the wall inside. I’m still trying to wrap my head around that one.

Just replace the issues of good doctrine and controversial beliefs with low-lit, soft-rock worship services and feel good messages about prosperity. The pastor opens with a calm but funny story, reads a couple verses from The Message, explains the quirky sermon-series title, and goes back to the humorous stories, all without serious prayer or reflection of the scriptures. The church members can skip on over from the trendy-named café to the book store inside the church once the service is over. The people leave the church building pleased, but the house of God, where the focus should be, goes neglected.

__________

For those wanting to know more, I will include a multiplicity of links to do in-depth examinations of the books I listed above. For those wishing to dwell more on the gospel, read 1 Corinthians 15:1-8.

Articles on Jesus Calling:

Articles on The Shack:

Articles on The Message:

Links about seeker-driven churches:

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