Yesterday, I sort of got an answer to the question I asked back last month (the “prosperity gospel” thing) . . . in another Jean Twenge book, haha. I forget her coauthor’s name, but the book is called The Narcisissim Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. I was waiting for a friend who I was supposed to catch a movie with, and Chapters was right there, so why not? I read through the first few chapters, and then had the thought that maybe this book addressed my question of whether the GenMe culture has affected the church’s self-perception of its role in the world–specifically, the swell in recent years to “do great things for God.” Are we setting out to do great things for God because that’s what Scripture calls us to do, or are we setting out to do great things for God because we want our names associated with something big and seen, and if it helps God’s kingdom, it’s a bonus? Or, at least, as I found examples of both extremes and the in betweens in the Bible, are we majorly overemphasizing one extreme at the expense of the other?
Well, the authors implied an answer in Chapter 15 of this book, and the answer is yes: we want something great, but for ourselves more than God. One interesting–and disturbing–observation they made was that of the top 5 largest churches in America (as of 08), 4 have somehow adopted the “me culture.” The largest church, and therefore the example they spent a few moments on, was Joel Osteen’s church. Osteen is known for messages basically along the lines of, “If you have the faith/desire that God will give you stuff, God will give you stuff,” and “God wants you to have the best things in life [usually stuff].” (Ironically, a few years back, his wife was fined for being rude to a flight attendant, so I guess all the stuff doesn’t bring about the character stuff that God seems to find important.) People have flocked to his message; their church is so big, they use a stadium now. The authors mention that the stadium walls are covered with “perfectly airbrushed” photos of Joel Osteen, and quotes from him as well. I think I just threw up in my mouth a little. And I gotta say, how much can you be committed to God and His word when the walls of your church are covered with photos and quotes, not of God or Scripture, but of yourself and your words? I suddenly remembered the line in the Bible that says in the last days, people will be lovers of themselves rather than lovers of God. You may be asking, “Well, what about the churches that don’t give in to ‘Me Culture’? What about the churches that don’t offer rewards up front?” According to the authors, these churches are dying. The churches that have adapted to “Me Culture” thrive, while the other churches are struggling to stay afloat. After all, as we all know, church has become a shoppable commodity, like anything else, so why would one stay with a “boring church” when they can go to a church with fancy programming and high quality coffee? (I say this sarcastically, but also humbly, because I recognize that pull in myself to be a part of something new and different and affirming to my life.) To be fair, to be a lone ranger standing against the torrent of cultural downpour is an exhausting and uphill battle. For every person who hears one “be selfless” voice, that person will also hear millions of “be selfish” voices coming from every angle. It’s much easier to go with the torrent–even if it means selling out–than to go against it. However, the more that decide to just “go with it,” the more selfishness will go accepted and unchecked. We need every “selfless voice” we can get.
The authors go on to widen the scope a bit from culture in religion to culture in volunteering. More people are volunteering now than before. However, volunteering has also become a graduation requirement in many high schools, and kids (I don’t remember whether it was the majority or just some) admit that if it weren’t required, they would probably not do it. The authors point out that marketing volunteerism also plays into the culture of selfishness. I did a quick Google search for “volunteering poster” for some examples, and I saw catch phrases like: “Make a Difference,” “Let Your Voice Be Heard,” and “Take Action.” The “hook” idea is that you are being heard, making a difference, taking action, changing the world, etc. Yeah, other people benefit, too, which is great, but don’t you want to have an impact and change the world? Here’s the ticket! You can make yourself known for something, but unlike everyone else who wants to be known for something, you can make yourself known for doing something good! Again, a hint of sarcasm, pardon me. I honestly hadn’t noticed that even calls to volunteer are laced with cultural selfishness. In fact, the understood subject of all of those phrases above is You! Granted, the proof is probably more the phrasing than the grammatical structure–I tried to think of a volunteer ad that wouldn’t include “you,” and I couldn’t. These catch phrases are operating more from the basis that volunteering is fulfilling to you. In fact, how many of us have heard, “You get so much more than you give”? It’s almost being painted as this circle where you give your time/money/etc., and it all comes back to you somehow, whether via thanks, memories, etc. I wonder if we would still volunteer if there were no benefit to us. If, for instance, you paid your own way to Haiti, volunteered for a week, and then had your memory erased when you came back, would it still be worth it to go? Okay, now I know I’m rambling and getting a little sci-fi, so I’ll leave it at that. My conclusion ultimately has become, I think, that we should do what God asks us to do. He chooses what we do, and we follow Him; we don’t choose for ourselves. If we choose how we will serve, we will be much more likely to fall prey to the desire to be seen and known, rather than the desire to be told, “Well done” by the One Who matters most.
All this is to say, though, that the call to selflessness–the call of the cross–seems to be increasingly drowned out, even by believers. As a whole, we are seeking justification rather than conviction, and I am included. Thinking on these things brings tears to my eyes.
Every Tuesday, some men from my church have a Bible study, and the leader sometimes lets me in on what passage they were looking at. This was today’s–harrowing, but appropriate to close with, I believe:
1Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
5“Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’
8“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. 9And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.
13“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.
15“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.
16“Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ 17You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? 18You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but if anyone swears by the gift on it, he is bound by his oath.’ 19You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20Therefore, he who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21And he who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. 22And he who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.
23“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. 24You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
25“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.
27“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. 28In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
29“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 30And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers!
33“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? 34Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. 35And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36I tell you the truth, all this will come upon this generation.
37“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. 38Look, your house is left to you desolate. 39For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'” -Jesus in Matt. 23