“Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God.” (1 John 4:1 NIV)
Recently God has again been challenging my thinking regarding the dangers in the Americanization of the gospel. In particular I have become increasingly aware of how a Christianized version of the human potential movement has subtly crept into pulpits of America. There is a tendency to take the teachings of Jesus and apply them in a way that justifies, and even furthers, the individualistic and self-actualizing lifestyle of the West.
Several weeks ago I listened to a sermon preached by a well-known pastor of a leading evangelical church in our country. It was a message challenging the listener to step out in faith, face his or her fears and do something they have never done before. It was a very motivating message, punctuated by numerous inspirational stories and some verses from the book of Joshua. At first blush it was the kind of message I wish I had preached.
But it didn’t take long before I realized that the message also irritated me. Why? Well for one thing I had done the things he talked about in the message but the results weren’t all they were cracked up to be. In fact, on a couple of occasions when I “stepped out in faith,” paid the price and reached my goal, I realized it wasn’t God’s goal for me. I was miserable and felt deceived. It was like working hard to climb a ladder that in the end was leaning on the wrong tree.
Thinking back on the message, the other thing that got to me was that I could not recall hearing anything about Jesus. Now maybe His name was mentioned, but more importantly there was not an emphasis on seeking Him and determining His will regarding the goals being set. I guess that is what really saddened me. Stepping out in faith is to be encouraged and so is facing ones fears, but if it is not done at Christ’s bidding with the power of the Holy Spirit, it is at best self satisfying and worse it is devoid of eternal glory and satisfaction.
Now I want to be quick to acknowledge, that to my chagrin, I have preached sermons just like that one. There is a strong temptation for preachers to deliver feel-good, self-help type messages because they characterize the cravings of the culture in which we live. But over the years God has dramatically opened my eyes and brought me to repentance in this regard. Years ago he spoke very clearly to me out of Psalm 138:2 that preaching must “exalt above all things His name and His word.”
Another way in which I have become aware of this incongruity between Jesus’ teachings and the unique way we apply them in the West is by meeting Christians from other cultures. In many ways, the lifestyles in other countries, particularly in Africa and Asia, stand in stark contrast to our own. They operate much more like the Biblical culture than we do with a concern for the corporate well-being versus the well-being of the individual. Our high value placed on freedom, prosperity and the accomplishment of the individual has a gravitational pull to preach messages focused on self-development.
As a result I have learned to counter that pull by living and preaching by this principle – if I can’t preach it in a remote village in Africa, I better not preach it here.
One last thing – a long time ago I realized that deception and truth often run parallel for a time. The strength of deception is that it is great at mimicking truth. It tries to get us to switch to its track but eventually it is going to veer off course and take us to a destructive end. Messages on personal growth and self-development, even when taught with Scriptural principles can lead to deception if they are not based in Jesus’ redemptive will and power.
The best way to test any sermon or teaching for an Americanized gospel is to apply the “test the spirits” verses from 1 John 4:1-2. If there is a deception to found, you’ll find it by asking two questions: 1.) Where is Jesus in the message? Is Jesus Christ being presented as the son of God and Lord of life? If not, someone or something else is at the center. 2) Where is the Holy Spirit working? Is the Holy Spirit being presented as the one who empowers the change? If not it is a self-help project at best, a demonic deception at its worst.
Please share any comments regarding your take on this topic.
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