In an essay in this month’s Harper’s Magazine (“The Christian Paradox: How a Faithful Nation Gets Jesus Wrong”—read an excerpt here), Bill McKibben offers an analysis of evangelical Christianity in America. McKibben is best known as an liberal environmentalist, and has been published in Mother Jones and environmental magazines a lot. He is also a follower of Jesus Christ, and has been published in The Christian Century, Sojourners, and Christianity Today.
This particular article in Harper’s is very good. While at times he concentrates too much on specific “end-timers” and lumps some good authors in with the self-centered writings of the likes of Joel Osteen, he has a number of excellent observations. One of his main points that I really appreciated was the wrong-headedness of how we evangelicals have practiced the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
“American churches, by and large, have done a pretty good job of loving the neighbor in the next pew. A pastor can spend all Sunday talking about the Rapture Index, but if his congregation is thriving you can be assured he’s spending the other six days visiting people in the hospital, counseling couples, and sitting up with grieving widows. All this human connection is important. But if the theology makes it harder to love the neighbor a little farther away—particularly the poor and the weak—then it’s a problem. And the dominant theologies of the moment do just that. They undercut Jesus, muffle his hard words, deaden his call, and in the end silence him. In fact, the soft-focus consumer gospel of the suburban mega-churches is a perfect match for the emergent conservative economic notions about personal responsibility instead of collective action.”
I have been blogging about this for some time: The syncretism of American individualism with Biblical Christianity makes for a truncated gospel. The contemporary theology of many evangelicals is an individualistic gospel (it’s mainly about me and Jesus, it’s about my personal well-being, it’s about my need for self-fulfillment). Many modern mega-churches (though not all) have grown large because they cater to the consumeristic tendencies of American evangelicals--offering more about making life good for ourselves than the difficult work of loving those other than ourselves. This focus on the individual often negates the doctrines of community and kingdom. This focus on individual solutions to problems often negates many collective approaches to systemic problems in our world.
The Christian Right has latched onto this individualistic gospel to the point that anybody who attempts to take Jesus’ teachings to heart—with systemic solutions to the problems like helping the poor, for example, are labeled “liberal” and scoffed at.
See Ron Sider’s book, Good News & Good Works: A Theology for the Whole Gospel for a more kingdom-based gospel.