This is the second of my blog posts which I am writing seeking to address false beliefs that people living in the culture of Eureka tend to drift toward. Yes, I made up another word. A regular George Bush I am. As we talk about philosophical and religious ideas that tend to creep into the church, one of the most dangerous, while at the same time seeming so innocent is the self-centered approach to theology that is very prevalent in Christianity. By “me-ism”, I am referring to a subtle shift in thought that makes the gospel about self-improvement and self-esteem. Walk into just about any Christian bookstore and you will find shelves of books with self-help formulas that lead a person to “become a better you,” or “fulfill your greatest potential.” This sounds so enticing, yet, if those teaching these ideas are not careful, they will communicate concepts that ultimately withdraw from the Gospel the primary problem, the utter sinfulness and need of man. The reason, I believe, me-ism can be so dangerous is because there is a very subtle shift in thinking between a God-centered Gospel and theology and one that is humanity-centered.
I’ve mentioned that our goal is to hold firmly to the Gospel as revealed in the Scriptures, while at the same time seeking to answer the questions raised in the culture. Most of the time, the drift toward a false doctrine comes as spiritual people seek to deal with the questions from a given cultural framework. I believe the drift to me-ism in the church occurs in our culture because the church often is genuinely seeking to meet people where they are, and deal with their life struggles and issues. The human centered approach to theology is appealing because it addresses a number of issues prevalent in Eureka. First, this area is driven by success and the pursuit of achievement. From the earliest age, kids in our culture are taught that they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, whatever they believe they can achieve, and if they just have a good self-image, self-belief will carry them to whatever heights they hope to attain. People in West St. Louis County culture will either base their value on their level of achievement (grades in school, size of home, cool cars, etc.), or will reject the status quo by having a anti-establishment anger. The idea of a God that will improve the self and help a person achieve their own dreams is embraced easily. Another reason me-ism can be compelling for people in our culture is because people are searching for significance and meaning. People in this community have busy lives, but they want to have something significant to believe in, and something significant for which to live. When people teach and preach about a God whose primary function is to build self-worth, affirm a person’s meaning, and help them achieve significance, people seeking significance will be drawn to this church.
I mentioned that there is a fine line in this discussion. The Bible does affirm a good work ethic, and encourages people to achieve. The issue is not that people are pursuing achievement, or that they desire significance. The problem is that self worth and achievement become a replacement for the gospel. For us, we need to determine how the Gospel answers these questions. The approach that I am calling me-ism presents a Gospel that exalts people, telling them that they are basically good people with problems. Jesus came primarily to make good people a little better, and build their self-concept. The ideas of sin and depravity can be offensive, and therefore are underplayed. Repentance is replaced with the pursuit of building stronger relationships and improving one’s self, with God’s help, of course. Me-ism, at the core, is flawed because it seeks to make much of humans, to exalt them, and place them at the center of reality. I’ve heard it this way, that Jesus died because God was in some way incomplete without people, and that his death affirms our value. The gospel becomes a sort of therapy offered to fix life’s problems rather than a surrender of self by faith and repentance.
While it may not be popular, we must be careful to point to what the Bible teaches about humanity. Men and women are created in the image of God. Any value we have comes from Him to begin with. But we are sinful, broken, beings who have fallen farther than we can ever imagine (Romans 3:9-18). As long people present any level of their own goodness, their own achievement, their own worth as something to offer for salvation, they will not experience Jesus. It’s only when a person is confronted with the depth of their need that they will turn to Jesus as the only solution.
Only a Gospel that makes much of God, that leads a person to the all consuming glory of His grace and goodness can ultimately bring significance, value, and hope. Jesus died, not to make much of us, but “that in everything he might be preeminent.” (Colossians 1:18). The death of Jesus Christ does not demonstrate our value, rather it is proof of the depth of our sin and the absolute helplessness of our efforts to save ourselves (Romans 5:8-11). The Gospel then, is an exchange of life and death, we are dead in our sins (Ephesians 2:1), but God gives new life, because Jesus, who is life, died in our place. Me-ism silently teaches that Jesus came so that I could increase. The Gospel echoes the words of John the Baptizer, “He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:30).
So how do we, as a church answer the questions and address the cultural issues the doctrine I’ve called me-ism speaks toward? First, we need to do an honest evaluation of ourselves, because every one of us have embraced me-ism on some level. You can find the ways that me-ism attacks you by asking a couple questions. First, what is it that I do that makes me feel accepted by God? Second, what areas of failure lead me to depression and loss of self-worth? The second thing we need to do is attack the temptation to accept the world’s doctrine of self-esteem. The value of humanity comes from God because of creation, and can only be redeemed by the cross. Third, we should be living examples of a people who are pursuing the call of God. The teaching of me-ism is confronted by people who are pursuing God and willing to lay ambitions and dreams down for that pursuit. When we push our children to graduate college so they can get a great job, have a huge house, drive incredible cars, and gain prestige, we subtly promote this false gospel. But when we lead our children to abandon all and follow the call of God (to Africa, or even to martyrdom), the real Gospel of Jesus shines. Finally, we must be people who proclaim with our words and with our lives that value and significance comes only through a relationship with our Creator because of the death and resurrection of Jesus.