In recent weeks I’ve been doing some preparation for my next semester of bible college. As part of getting prepared to get back into the swing of studying I’ve been looking into topics that relate to some of my units. One that is really interesting for me at the moment is my preaching unit. I’ve been giving it a lot of thought, wondering what kind of preacher I want to be, what type of messages I want to preach and the impact that I want to have by preaching the word of God. However, I began to realise that it’s not so much the way you preach that’s important, but rather what it is you’re preaching. In fact, we ourselves shouldn’t really be aiming to have an impact further than preaching God and His Word.
I see so many great preachers who can bring an amazing message that fires up a congregation. Messages that captivate their audience and make them laugh and cry. How can we help but want to do the same, but should this really be our goal? What’s more, whilst the messages might excite a congregation in the moment, do they actually bring change in people when they leave our churches, does the message truly reflect Christ?
Through watching a number of sermons online recently I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a new gospel on the horizon. You may have heard of the Prosperity Gospel with its health and wealth teaching creeping into modern churches, but I think there is another gospel that is slowly surpassing prosperity as the newest form of teaching. It’s seeker friendly, yet doesn’t deny our hardships are easy to solve, and it’s teaching enough truth that it is, in fact, convincingly Christian. So what is this new gospel? I call it the Self-Help gospel.
Now you might read ‘self-help’ and think, well that kind of sounds like the prosperity gospel. Well on balance the term probably does, but the prosperity gospel treats God like a genie who brings us material blessings if we invoke his name, or teaches us that Christ’s death means we have authority to “speak into existence” health and wealth. The self-help gospel is less like this and masquerades as quality theology because it focuses on making us better people, bringing us confidence, releasing us from fear, and helping us to achieve our God-given destiny.
All this sounds great if taken at face value, in fact, all of these things I’ve just listed are quite commendable. The problem is, the self-help gospel turns our church services into seminars, our pastors and teachers into self-help gurus and our theology into a ten-step guide to being a better you. It elevates your God-given dreams as the ultimate goal in life, as opposed to the knowledge of and relationship with God himself. It stresses overcoming fears and taking risks and not letting your ‘mindsets’ hold you back to make you a successful and better person, instead of enduring suffering and pain to be conformed to the image of Christ (see Romans 8). Ultimately, it focuses on the work we can do in our own lives, obscuring or completely detracting from the changes that God makes to us through His process of sanctifying us.
While the ‘Prosperity Gospel’ is often birthed out of a church’s lack of finances as a way to encourage people to tithe, the self-help gospel, in my opinion, is birthed from the social media age in which we now live. I say this because it’s messages and teachings provide snippets of a Christianity worthy of thousands of likes and millions of followers. It’s a Christianity that looks amazing and attractive on our social media accounts, but is, unfortunately, like the prosperity gospel before it, more centred around us than centred on God.
I recently watched the sermon of a preacher who, many years ago I thought was pretty cool. I had listened to a number of his messages in the past and definitely came away feeling inspired. How much of it did I really end up applying to my life? In hindsight, not a whole lot. But who cares I was able to quote it to my friends, and he used really cool visual illustrations. I still have great respect for this man and absolutely believe he, his church and the work they do is with the intent of glorifying God, and they do some great things.
However, this latest message I watched stumped me a bit, because I understood nothing. To me, it seemed like he had written up a list of things that would be really cool posted to Instagram, and he just recited them to make a message out of them. It made absolutely no sense. What’s more, while he mentioned God, what he was saying had little theological weight to it and, I guarantee, you would be able to find similar ideas in a self-improvement book on a shelf at your local bookstore.
It left me with a bit of a sense of despair because, of course, we want our churches to be filled with people who can approach life in its stride, who can persevere through adversity and take joy in the Lord, but we can’t overemphasise these things to the detriment of the Gospel message itself. We need to look at what it is we are teaching and ask ourselves what is the purpose behind this?
Are we trying to preach a message that focuses on God, or are we trying to preach a message with enough catchy quotes that if we turn it into a cool graphic and post it as a status it will get tonnes of likes on Instagram? Are we focused on letting people know about God, the sacrifice of Christ and His goodness, or turning the gospel into a means by which we can be successful in life? Are we going first and foremost to scripture for inspiration and direction for what to teach, or are we depending on our own ability to come up with a relevant topic? Are we more concerned about teaching the truth, or preaching a message that is satisfying the wants of, and is entertaining enough for our congregations?
If we start to elevate the Gospel of Self-Help, preaching success and mindfulness above the actual good news, are we not robbing people of such a deep and profound truth, which will lead them to depend on God Himself? He is the only person who can change our lives. Are we really robbing people of the ability to become more like Christ, the only standard of success we should ever look to? Let’s desire to help our fellow Christians become more confident and successful, but let’s do it by preaching Christ and Him crucified, this is the only thing that brings change to people’s lives, not our catchy sermons.