Redefining religion

How well I remember a dear Roman Catholic friend of mine saying to me, "you evangelicals are so caught up in your ‘personal relationship with Christ’ that sometimes you forget it’s not all about you!"

I’m guessing Michael Horton would agree. He’s the author of the new book, "Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church." (Baker books.) Horton, a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary in California, has written a distinctive critique of the American church ( the protestant church is his focus, but he suggests says much of what he writes would apply to the Catholic church as well.).

It’s provocative because he argues that it’s not a matter of whether a church is left, right, or center, part of a denomination or not — he’s pursuing them all in this treatise — but that across the board our churches in different ways are adopting a therapeutic, utilitarian, even narcissistic "all about me" Christian message. And leaving the Gospel behind.

Horton makes the case that this drift is distinctly, well, American.

Reflecting the predominant culture in the United States, he says, we protestants have come to believe not that we need a "Redeemer" — once at the center of the power of American protestantism — but rather, a "Life’s Coach." Horton defines our predominant religion today, even in many self described Bible believing churches, as essentially "moralistic, therapeutic, deism."

The huge missing piece in today’s religious puzzle, he says? The seriousness of sin (if it’s mentioned at all.) In this, he argues, the church is utterly reflecting the culture it marinades in.

"To Hell with Sin: When Being a Good Person Excuses Everything," Katherine Kersten titled an op-ed piece almost 10 years ago in the Wall Street Journal. Kersten chronicles those who decades ago saw a new trend in our churches, and decried it as "Christian man in need of salvation" being shouldered aside by "psychological man in need of consoling."

Horton shows that the trend has too often become the new normal.

The result? In the most extreme case the Christian life has become about having my best Life now, to paraphrase wildly best selling author and preacher Joel Osteen. To lesser extents but in too many churches, Horton shows, in quintessentially American fashion we no longer ask "what does God require of me," but rather, "what can God do for me?"

Most startling to me as a mom? Horton looks at studies of teens that reveal that a majority of those raised in evangelical churches and said their faith is very important to them were utterly unable to articulate even the basic doctrines of their faith.

That goes back to "doctrine" and "sin," or the seriousness of sin, being out-of-bounds in too many churches. While meeting "felt needs" is in.

But, Horton argues, if we don’t have a right understanding of the magnitude of our sin, we can’t possibly have a right view of the Savior who rescues us from it.

And so, the author says, in a worldly sense the power of the Gospel is too often rendered. … powerless in today’s churches and in our lives and culture.

Horton fully admits that we are not at a state of Christless Christianity in the U.S. yet, and that there are in fact many wonderful churches that do put the Gospel at the center of their service.

But, he makes the provocative case that a new spirit of resistance is called for in the American church. Not against liberals and secular humanism on the one hand, or fundamentalists and home-schoolers on the other — but rather against a Christian culture which seeks to define God on our terms, to bring God into our life’s story, versus asking us to put our own story aside and walk into God’s.

In the midst of today’s "culture wars," I found Horton’s critique to be a refreshingly unique call to arms.


(Betsy Hart hosts the "It Takes a Parent" radio show on WYLL-AM 1160 in Chicago. Reach her through


  1. Malibu

    I have no problem with religion until it gets into the Constitution. So why does the GOP insist that God be the focus of our elections? Could it be that American Christians do not know right from wrong?

    The GOP is first to line up prohibitions for all Americans. Don’t they know that abortions and gay marriages are prohibited in the Christian faith? Must they assume that all Americans are Christians. Do they not realize that 51% of their sanctified marriages fail? Do they not realize that Christians have abortions and many are gay?

    It is time Christians focus on their own lives and stay the hell out of the candidates who run for elected offices.

    All that is needed is for the majority of Americans to fully understand right from wrong and live by it. It went way too far in 2008 when the debates brought up whether a candidate believed in evolution. Rick Warren’s questions were illegal and diverted away from morals into how much do you love Jesus? No wonder the Republicans lost!!!

    We also learned that slandering the other side of the aisle is why the Republicans lost. Calling Obama a Muslim made total asses out of the GOP. They deserved to lose.

    It is time the American people realize that the Big Daddy in the sky is not the same as Big Daddy in the White House. I have tangled with Ms Hart in the past on this same subject. I don’t care who believes in any God, but I care when a litmus test is given prior to any election.

    Malcolm, the Secular