The Narcissist Church

narcissus 1The Greek myth of Narcissus tells of an extraordinarily handsome young man who was a mighty hunter. One day he chanced to see his image in a quiet pool of water and he was enraptured and fascinated by what he saw. Not realizing it was just his reflection, he fell in love with the person he saw and could not pull himself away from the pool. Eventually he wasted away and died.

When living in Los Angeles a friend told me of a well-known Hollywood actor who, though approaching age 70, was obsessed with maintaining a tight physique and rock-hard, six-pack abs. This man had a rule that if any household servant (and he had many) or chauffeur made eye contact with him, that person was immediately terminated. I’m not sure if this is the classic narcissistic personality, but there seem to be strong elements of self worship here. Narcissism is tolerated among the famous, rich, and powerful, and there seems to be nothing to limit it.

There is no question but that the narcissistic impulse within us has grown and become strong in modern society. The great prophet and harbinger of postmodernity, Michel Foucault, told us that the greatest virtue was “care of self.” Here is a paragraph from an article I wrote about this some years ago:

The ultimate virtue for Foucault is “care of self.” Evil, then would seem to be anything that hindered one’s “care of self,” or the personal neglect of such. Foucault sees this as standing in opposition to Christianity on the one hand, but ultimately in harmony with Christianity. That is, “…in Christianity salvation is attained through the renunciation of self.” But the bottom line of Christianity, “… achieving one’s salvation is also a way of caring for oneself.”This is a strange twist. Foucault sees that the desire to be “saved” is an act of “care of self,” and therefore in line with his understanding of human virtue. The “self-denial” part of the Christianity is just noise, I guess. If we deconstruct the Christian message to understand the motives behind it, we will find selfishness. I don’t think Foucault got this right, but the preoccupation with self certainly has a comfortable home in our church today.The twenty-first century church exists in this narcissistic culture. We live in a land that celebrates self-gratifying materialism, and with social media such as Facebook and Twitter that can feed narcissism. How do we preach a lifestyle of self-denial, of dying to self, of living to serve Christ and others? Do we risk alienating potential church members if we stand against narcissism? Is it OK to have church leaders who display narcissistic personalities? Should our worship songs be focused on self, our needs, rather than God? Paul wrote:I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.That perspective, it would seem to me, is a cure for narcissism.Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Theological Mistakes: Worship Songs

your-love-never-failsI wrote a couple of weeks ago about the takeover of the Sunday morning service by the worship departments of most larger churches: Worship Domination and Theology in the Church. In that blog I said that much of the doctrine that we teach our church members now comes from the words of the worship songs we sing. I think this has always been somewhat true of the church. Paul’s writings contain such things as the “Philippian Hymn” (Philippians 2:5-11), recognized as an affirmation of faith in the origin, nature, and mission of Christ. This was likely used as some type of worship song in the early church. This may have been written by Paul himself (it feels like something he might write), or by another Christian. But such things point to the value of formulating doctrine in a lyric form so that it can be used by the congregation in unison, and thereby committed to the memory and the heart easily.

This is all good and well as long as these worship songs and hymns are teaching sound doctrine. Alas, that is not always the case. There are many examples of this in the older hymns, but lots of current examples, too. One that has become very popular is “Your Love Never Fails,” attributed to  Chris McClarney and Anthony Skinner, which recently received an award as the #1 Radio Hit of the Year. It has received a reported 11 million hits on YouTube, so we are talking about a song with a major impact. I cannot tell you exactly in how many different churches I have heard this song, but dozens at least.

What’s the problem? The song seems to be a restatement of Scripture drawn from Romans 8, one of the most inspiring and famous chapters in the Bible, labeled by one author as the “Mt. Everest of Scripture.” My problem comes with the final line of the song:

You make all things work together for my good.

As usually presented, this line is sung many times at the end of the song, a repetition that drives its words into the souls of the singers. Whether we admit it or not, this line is mesmerizing, leaving an impression that will spring to the consciousness of the singers many times after the worship service is over. That is the intent, and that is not bad. If we are using worship songs to teach doctrine and help us remember Scripture, they should be memorable.

The problem is this is not exactly Scripture. The songwriters have added a word here, “my.” This is Romans 8:28, and I will admit that there are differences of opinion on how it should be translated. The most straightforward translation I can offer would go like this:

But we know that for the ones who love God, all things work together for good.

Compare these two:

You make all things work together for my good.
All things work together for good.

There is a personalizing in the McClarney/Skinner interpretation that is not in the original, and this is common in worship songs. But here is the problem. I’m afraid this makes the singers think that God works for them. That God is on their side. That they are the center of the universe and that God is focused solely on their welfare.

Sorry, I know I am exaggerating. But there is a subtle shift here that I don’t think is healthy. God doesn’t work for me, I work for him. God is not on my side, I am on God’s side (I hope). I am not the focus of God’s attentions, God should be the focus of my attentions. In some mysterious way, God makes all things, all events, all circumstances, work together for his purposes, his good purposes. That includes me.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Women Serving: Traditions vs. Traditionalism

Traditions vs TraditionalismLast week at the North American Christian Convention, I attended a lecture given by my friend, Dr. John Castelein of Lincoln Christian University entitled, “Christian Universities: Academic Freedom and Confessional Boundaries.” It was a rich presentation, full of many things I am still pondering. John outlined twelve tensions he has encountered as a Christian Scholar working in higher education. These were very insightful, and I have experienced all of them myself on one level or another. Some of this has to do with the appalling ignorance of the Bible in the church vs. the rigorous study of the Bible in the academy, but there are other tensions, too. One of these is the tension between what John called Traditions vs. Traditionalism.

Why do we do the things we do in the church? Particularly, why do we repeat certain behaviors or rituals? Castelein outlined the difference between Traditions of the Church (what he calls the “living faith of the dead”) and the Traditionalism of the Church (“the dead faith of the living”). In other words, we continue Traditions if they still have a liveliness that contributes to the faith and worship of the church. We continue other practices without good reason, or without knowing why, and this is Traditionalism. A family Tradition might be that we always buy Buicks because our family has experienced them as durable, comfortable, reliable cars. Family Traditionalism says, “I’m buying a Buick because my Daddy had a Buick and his Daddy had a Buick and his Daddy had a Buick.”

If there is anything that is a regular feature of a church’s program and practices, there should be a ready answer to the question, “Why do we do this?” If there is no better answer than, “That’s just what we do,” that is Traditionalism. Traditionalism stifles the church and will kill a congregation eventually. We cannot support doing things that were favorites of folks long since departed simply out of respect or fear. We need to have a good reason to maintain any Tradition, and it should be something that adds to the life of the church in a positive way.

I could give many examples here, but let me offer one that I have been talking about this year: Women serving communion in a worship service. There is no biblical guideline here. There is no command, “Thus saith the Lord, Men only shall ye have pass the communion trays and offering plates.” It is highly doubtful that the early church did the Lord’s Supper anything like what we do in the modern church with tiny individual cups and chips of “bread.” But our way of doing it has become regularized and enshrined in some churches. Maybe it made sense fifty years ago to only have men serve, I don’t know, but it makes little sense to me now.

If you think this is unimportant, I disagree. This is the sort of thing that is noticed. While a particular church might be thinking, “We only have men serve communion,” it communicates, “We restrict women from serving communion.” Why give this message if it is unnecessary? I submit that this is not a Tradition, it is Traditionalism.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Cane Ridge Roots

With Mark Taylor at Cane RidgeCane Ridge, Kentucky. This is surely one of the top ten most important sites in American Religious history for the 19th century. It was here in 1801 that a young Presbyterian preacher, Barton W. Stone, held a revival meeting that grew to epic size. A military estimate at the time thought there were as many as 30,000 people in attendance, and this is when the entire state of Kentucky had maybe 200,000 people.

Yesterday, Susan and I were privileged to take an excursion from the North American Christian Convention in Louisville to visit the famous Cane Ridge Meeting House, the actual church building from Stone’s day that has been preserved as a shrine. The tour was led by my friend, Mark Taylor, the editor of Christian Standard (with me in the picture with the meeting house shrine in the background). The actual hewn log building of the meeting house is inside a beautiful stone shell building erected in the 1950s to protect it. We sat inside this for a worship time and also an appearance by my friend, Rick Cherok of Cincinnati Christian University who assumed the garb and persona of Barton Stone himself to give us an informative talk (Rick was a co-leader on the trip).

Knowing your roots is important. I have many circles of friends in the academic world and in the evangelical world and in the larger church world. But I am a Restoration Movement guy. I don’t agree with Barton Stone’s theology in several areas, particularly his Christology. But I think that he and I would be colleagues and could have been friends if we lived in the same era. He advocated a type of simple church, basic biblical Christianity. He didn’t want to be bogged down in theological controversy, but to follow Scriptures and seek unity intentionally. Now, 212 years later, we still need that irenic and powerful spirit. The Cane Ridge Revival propelled him into regional prominence, but all the converts of that great spiritual awakening have long passed from the scene. Unity in Christ is still in vogue. Deploring divisions in the church is still of value. Acceptance of other Christians without resolving every theological jot and tittle is still a way worth following. May we remember our roots.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Worship Domination and Theology in the Church

Celtic Cross ChurchThe past decade or so has seen a decided shift in larger, urban churches in many ways. Here are a few:

1. The decline or elimination of “Bible School” for adults on Sunday morning. This is actually a trend that has been ongoing for the last thirty years. As many of you know, I write adult Sunday School curriculum material for Standard Publishing, and they still sell 350-400,000 copies of the Standard Lesson Commentary each quarter, the largest such publication in the world. I often speak in churches that use this material and sometimes have the privilege of teaching a lesson for them that I wrote. But in my visits to several hundred churches I notice this: the larger the church (Christian Church or Church of Christ), the less likely it is to use Standard Publishing materials, and the more likely it is not to have adult Sunday School classes at all (or very few).

2. The decline of the sermon and the rise of “teaching from the pulpit.” Many larger churches no longer have a resident “preacher,” that person is called their “lead teacher” or “teaching pastor.” There is a lot of teaching that goes on from the stages of churches (many do not use pulpits any more), and much of it is good. But this is now the only teaching forum that church members participate with. Their biblical and theological education is limited to a 30 minute message (of which 15 minutes might be biblical teaching) for the one or two weeks a month they attend on Sunday morning. This places enormous pressure on the preacher/teacher. The messages must be broad enough to speak to everyone attending. There can be little depth or systematic exposition of Scripture. Messages must give everyone a practical “takeaway.” I cannot remember the last time I heard a message exploring the nature of God, the nature of Christ, or the nature of sin.

3. The rise of worship ministry and its takeover of the Sunday services. The content of what happens in a Sunday morning service is largely determined by the worship department of a church, not the preacher or senior minister. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it has led to some unfortunate things (in my opinion). One of these is the marginalization of the Lord’s Supper. I will write more about this in a future post, but I would guess that if you asked the worship leader at many churches why they celebrate the Lord’s Supper, you would not get a very good answer.

4. Worship songs as the primary way that theological content is delivered and personal theology is formed for individual believers. What do new Christians remember about the content of the Christian faith? How do they learn theological truth? My observation is that a great deal of this comes from the words of the worship songs they sing. This is not a new thing. The church has used hymns and spiritual songs to teach theology since the first century. But we should be aware that influential teachers of theology and doctrine in our churches are outsiders from the Christian music industry. I will say more about this, too, in a future post.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College