Anti-Supernaturalism, Professionalization, and Affluenza

In the World and of the World: The Challenge of Western Culture for the Church

In the previous article, I discussed the impact of secularization on the church, both in its individualistic and highly personalized vision of salvation and in excessive allegiance to political parties and ideologies. If these were the only ways our culture influences us, it would be bad enough. Unfortunately, we have bought into a number of other ideas from the culture that have robbed the Gospel of much of its transforming power.

The idea that we teach a secularized Gospel will undoubtedly be a surprise to many; even more surprising, however, is the fact that we have largely bought into the pervasive anti-supernatural bias of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Western culture.

Anti-Supernaturalism

Anti-supernaturalism came to Western thought via materialism, a philosophy that argued that matter and energy are all that exists. From that premise came the idea that only empirically verifiable things (i.e. material objects and events) were “facts,” and anything else was not—including religion, ethics, morality, aesthetics, meaning, …. All those were matters of faith or opinion and did not qualify as real knowledge.

Although Christians are not materialists, since they believe in a God who is not a physical being, elements of an anti-supernatural mindset have crept into Christian thought. Remember, our worldview is revealed by what we do by default, when we are not consciously making choices, and thus the surest guide to our real worldview is our habitual actions. With that in mind, consider our prayer habits. Our theology says that with our prayers, we connect to the God who created and sustains the universe, who by some mysterious means uses our prayers in shaping history. Yet the average American Christian spends about five minutes per day praying, including grace at meals.

Why don’t we pray more? We usually reply that we’re too busy. In other words, the things we do are more important to us than prayer, including surfing the internet, listening to the radio while driving, watching sports, and relaxing in front of the TV.

Let’s drill down further: why are these higher priorities for us than prayer? If we really believed prayer moved God to act, wouldn’t we devote ourselves to it more than we do? If you look at the places where Christianity is exploding in the Global South, we see an incredible dedication to prayer and incredible answers to prayer. Why are our prayers so anemic? Disappointment at unanswered prayer or faith in our own resources may be part of it, but on a more fundamental level, many of us believe the materialist assumption that physical events must have physical causes. We accept that God could act, but we don’t really expect him to. Prayer is thus pro forma because we do not expect answers and especially not miracles.

Spiritual Warfare?

Another element of our pervasive anti-supernaturalism is our attitude toward spiritual warfare. Most of us think of this (if we think of it at all) in terms of temptation. We may acknowledge that demonization is possible because Jesus cast out demons; we may even accept stories from the mission field of demonization. But we don’t believe it happens much if at all in our modern world. We also don’t think that spiritual warfare could involve events in the physical world such as cars breaking down or people doing inexplicable things that interfere with our ministries.

And yet in our world, this is how Satan works most often, in subtle ways that do not overtly draw attention to him, relying on our defaults to prevent us from recognizing spiritual opposition to our work. While we don’t want to fall into the trap of seeing demons under every bush, we do need to recognize that we face spiritual opposition every day, and that Jesus gives us authority over it.

Technique

Yet another way anti-supernaturalism manifests itself is in our reliance on methods derived from our culture.

  • Jesus told the Twelve and the Seventy how to make disciples, but rather than follow His instructions, we rely on systems and approaches frequently developed from management, marketing, or media consultants or prepackaged programs. In the Global South, where Christianity is growing the fastest, they follow Jesus’ instructions adapted to their situation rather than using their own approaches to evangelism.
  • Our decision-making process consists of a short prayer, a long discussion, a conclusion based on that discussion, and then a prayer asking God to bless what we’ve decided. In the Global South, we see Christian leaders spending far more time in prayer and seeking discernment from the Holy Spirit, and only then sharing what they’ve heard in that time.
  • New church buildings often resemble theaters—communicating that the congregation are spectators—and “worship” services resemble concerts, sometimes complete with lights and smoke machines. How much of that approach to worship is more human-centered than God-centered? How much of it is based on techniques of emotional manipulation derived from the entertainment industry than on the Holy Spirit?

Professionalization

Another way the culture has influenced the church is through professionalization. We rely on experts to do everything for us. Most of us don’t even change our own oil in our cars. We do the same thing in church: we rely on the youth pastor to educate our children in the faith rather than taking responsibility for it as parents. We don’t engage in personal evangelism so much as we invite our unsaved friends to church to let the professional in the pulpit close the sale.

In contrast, Scripture tells us that we are all priests, and thus that we are all involved in sacred ministry. The leaders of the church, including pastors and teachers, are to perform a coaching and mentoring role for the laity, who are the ones that God calls to do the ministry (see Eph. 4). The rediscovery of the priesthood of all believers was one of the great achievements of the Protestant Reformation, but in many ways its implications have never been fully worked out or appreciated.

Once again, as we look to the Global South, where the church is growing the fastest we see the highest level of lay involvement. In many regions where smaller, simple churches are the rule, every church member knows what it takes to plant a church, and everyone sees themselves as potential church planters. As a result, there are regions in East Africa where there are 27 generations of churches planting churches planting churches.

One final area that is worth noting is the problem of affluenza. This shows up in several ways. The most obvious is our consistent reliance on our own resources rather than God’s. We have enough wealth that we can supply our own needs and resource our ministries through creative fundraising efforts from our consultants. Then we measure success not by looking at transformed lives, but at the ABCs of church growth: attendance, buildings, and cash, measurements derived from secular values and priorities. Spiritual depth and growing maturity is too difficult to measure, so we look at the things we can easily quantify and play to those, resulting in churches that are a mile wide and an inch deep.

The contrast with the regions where the church is growing are stark. They lack our wealth and resources, and so they have no choice but to rely on God. Their entire approach to growing the church is not to make converts but to make disciples who, in Jesus’ words, are taught to obey everything Jesus commanded. This results in churches full of people who are growing in spiritual depth and maturity. They may not have the theological knowledge and sophistication of many of our churches, but they are producing fruit that will last out of a worldview that is far more profoundly biblical than ours.

So how do we change this? Here are some steps we can take.

  • First, we need to recognize the problem. Our worldview as demonstrated by our actions is shaped more by our culture than Scripture. We need to reset the balance, giving Scripture higher priority.
  • Second, we need to look at Scripture with fresh eyes. Start with the Gospels and take it slowly. At every point ask questions like, what is Jesus telling his disciples to do? What would this look like in my setting? What do I need to do in light of this? Who do I need to talk to about this?
  • If your worldview is revealed by what you do by default, changing your defaults will result in changing your worldview. The only way you will change your defaults is by intentional actions applied consistently over time. For example, if you decide that you need to pray more, start doing it. It will feel awkward and you’ll run out of things to pray for. But as you do this regularly, you will learn how to pray longer and more effectively, you will see more answers to prayer, and eventually it will become part of your lifestyle. Once it is, your view of prayer is likely to have changed substantially.
  • Learn from believers in the Global South, where Christianity is growing the fastest. Did you know that the center of gravity of Christianity in the world today has moved away from Europe and America and is anchored firmly in the Global South, especially Africa? Did you know that more missionaries are being sent by the Global South than by the Global North? Although we have much to offer the church in the Global South, it is also true that we have much to learn from them, particularly since their strengths are our weaknesses. If we want to see our worldviews straightened out and the church flourish here as it is there, we need to swallow our pride and to learn from them the practices that God has blessed so abundantly elsewhere in the world.

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