Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Gospel of Nice

There is a new book entitled “Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church” by Kenda Creasy Dean, a Methodist minister and a professor of youth and church culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. It is based on the National Study of Youth and Religion, which conducted in-depth interviews with 3,300 American teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17.

She says that teen Christians have bought into a form of Christianity she calls "moralistic therapeutic deism," a watered-down faith that portrays God as a "divine therapist" whose chief goal is to boost people's self-esteem.

Another book, “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers” by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Dentonis, is based on the same research. It says that teens’ faith is a hodgepodge of banal, self-serving, feel-good beliefs that bears little resemblance to traditional Christianity.

It is not the kids’ fault, they say. This “mutant” form of Christianity (as Dean calls it) is not a result of youth culture; it is the religious product now being taught by churches to adults as well as children. It has been produced by the economic need to fill pews and offering plates.

Traditional Christianity is too scandalous and controversial to boost attendance, so a watered down version has taken its place, one that will offend no one. Part of this new form of Christianity is what Dean calls a "gospel of niceness," where faith is simply doing good and not ruffling feathers.

Being Christian has become equivalent to being nice. Christians are nice people with big smiles and happy words. I watched a television interview with a Texas pastor and his wife recently. They were advocating a one-day “fast” from Facebook. I thought the idea was interesting, although a bit trivial in the light of what is happening in the world these days.

But I could barely watch the whole interview because of the goony smiles on their faces. Ugh! Every once in a while the façade fell away to reveal the vacant expressions beneath. But quickly the wide grins would return, accompanied with smiley words. I felt like I was watching a comedic caricature of Christians from Saturday Night Live rather than a real pastor and his wife.

I’m sorry if it seems like I am not being nice to say such things. I am sure this pastor is a very nice man, and that his wife is very nice, and that his church is filled with nice people who do lots of nice things. I am sure he preaches nice sermons and that his church building is very, very nice. But if this is the face of contemporary Christianity, please count me out.

Do you think Jesus walked around with a smiley face all the time? I don’t think so! There are no smiley words recorded in the gospels.  He challenged people, and he made people angry enough to crucify him. Jesus was not nice! Did you hear that? The cross was not nice! The Christian gospel is not a gospel of niceness.

It is a tough teaching filled with “difficult sayings” that clever exegesis cannot completely explain away. Jesus regularly offended people. That is how he saved them. Nice words and smiles may make you feel good and fill churches, but they cannot bring about repentance, salvation or justice. Only truth does that. Christianity can be either nice or true, but not both.

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