The Church Of The Self

That has a ring to it don’t you think: the church of the self. It is a phrase taken from a recent Mark Steyn article from April 4th in The Irish Times entitled The Pope’s Divisions. In it Steyn comments on what he sees as the problem with current secularist thought.

When Governor Jim McGreevey announced last year he was stepping down, he told the people of New Jersey something very modern. He said, “My truth is that I am a gay American.” That’s a very contemporary formulation: “my” truth. To John Paul II, there was only “the” truth. To the moral relativists, everyone’s entitled to his own – or, as the Governor continued, warming to his theme, “one has to look deeply into the mirror of one’s soul and decide one’s unique truth in the world.” That sappy narcissism is what the New York Times boilerplate boils down to: “abortion, homosexuality and contraception” is an alternative Holy Trinity for the church of the self.

This “church of self” problem is not restricted to the secularists who disdain all religious absolutes, since by definition these restrict their freedom of self expression. No, I see it also within the church of Jesus Christ. Last September, in response to musings of Michael Spencer, I wrote an article entitled Worship, Or Not!

Before I get into what I said, let me comment about Michael. He originally wrote on three sites: michaelspencer.us, The Boar’s Head Tavern, and The Internet Monk. It appears the michaelspencer.us site is closed and I cannot find the article that sparked my Wordship, Or Not! posting. Michael is a unique bird. He is well-thought and well spoken, combining his experience of teaching at a Christian boarding school with his pastoral insights; he doesn’t fit well into any specific Christian category, being somewhat this and somewhat that. He is eclectic (to which I can relate) and has a quirky sense of humor which can be seen from this quote describing himself (I am never sure what to make of people who talk about themselves in the third person…).

When his kids are out of the house, he would love to move to a little reformed church near a good pub and a minor league ball park, work with university students and cook Italian food for the mob.

While we share some similar views on worship, I credit a series of articles he did on the subject with sparking my posting on the matter. Let’s now look at my key thought in Wordship, Or Not! that applies to Mark Steyn’s premise.

…true Biblical worship is other-centered, God-centered, definitely not self-centered. It is never what you experience, but instead what you give to God. Worship is, or saying it another way, worship is being when that being is being in God in Christ. Only God says “I AM.” Worship is us saying, “You are.” Worship is not EROS, our own ecstatic experience of enjoying the other, even if that other is God, but AGAPE or the self-sacrificial giving of ourselves.

And now, I would add, thanks to that wonderful turn of phrase from Mark Steyn, Christian worship is not a function of the “church of the self” though one might get that impression from much of contemporary Christian worship. I have been in churches where the music minister (some male, some female, some the pastor’s wife), and I want to be careful here, acts almost like a carnival barker working up the crowd, trying to get them to buy into what is about to happen.

There is a fine line between promotion and encouragement but once it is crossed, it doesn’t take an exceptionally discerning eye to see it. Many a time I have seen what started out as encouragement cross over into promotion, just as I have seen how sermons of evangelism can cross over to into sermons of emotional manipulation, pushing buttons on cue like a movie director in a formulaic tear jerker.

I feel the need to add qualifiers saying that I don’t believe emotion within worship is in and of itself wrong, especially when it flows naturally from the heart of the worshiper. However, I do believe that trying to create an emotional mood can be dangerously destructive and easily can become manipulation and propaganda. This is probably one of the reasons I so love the historic liturgy, even in its modern forms, along with at least some traditional music to counterbalance the ever-present praise music, what some call a blended service. It is a difficult line for pastors and music ministers to walk, to preach and incorporate contemporary music within the life of their worship, but without allowing an emotional appeal to become the centerpiece of the worship moment.

However, wherever the “church of the self” is present, are we not on dangerous ground? While Paul did say

When I am with people whose faith is weak, I live as they do to win them. I do everything I can to win everyone I possibly can. I do all this for the good news, because I want to share in its blessings. 1 Corinthians 9:22-23

I do not believe Paul’s “I live as they do” and “I do everything” means manipulation and calculated appeals to emotion. He means he meets people where they are, on their level, using their language wherever possible. And in this passage he is not discussing worship but evangelism. Just before this he says

I am not anyone’s slave. But I have become a slave to everyone, so that I can win as many people as possible. When I am with the Jews, I live like a Jew to win Jews. They are ruled by the Law of Moses, and I am not. But I live by the Law to win them. And when I am with people who are not ruled by the Law, I forget about the Law to win them. Of course, I never really forget about the law of God. In fact, I am ruled by the law of Christ. 1 Corinthians 9:19-21

He does not want to be a stumbling block to those who see everything by lens of their current beliefs, as well as their cultural mindset. However once those people have been converted to Christ, the whole thrust of his preaching and teaching is that they are to lay aside the past and enter into a new way of living and understanding in Christ Jesus.

What I have seen in the modern, or maybe I should say post-modern churches, is a possible confusion between the needs of evangelism and the needs of the body, as if the body was in constant need of evangelism and the appeals to discipleship are instead like those being addressed to seekers not believers. We act as if we are still back in the “live like a Jew to win Jews” mode rather than live like a growing disciple of Christ. Should we not call all believers to what Paul calls the Ephesians to?

But you have not so learned Christ, if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus: that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.

So, what am I saying? Worship, Christian worship, is God-centered, not self-centered. It is focused on giving, not receiving. It is out, not in, to, not from. While it may be emotional, it is not emotion-centered. It cannot be manufactured for it flows from the heart of the believer to God, an expression of who we are in Christ and as Jesus said to the woman at the well in his primary statement on worship:

Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship.”

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” John 4:20-24

In spirit and in truth. That truth requires us never to deceive or manipulate or distort, but always proceed as if we were addressing God as if he were right in front of us, or as if we were in front of the throne of heaven. As Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 14:26b “Let all things be done for edification” and 14:40 “Let all things be done decently and in order.”

May God bless your time with him today and if anything I have had to say is of value, may it be for your edification and growth, in Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

Update 4/11: Mark Steyn is not the first to use this phrase. It is also the title of a track on the album Not Affected By The Pain by the heavy metal group For The Love Of Suffering. According to the Gizmotude Quotation Archives it is also from a quote by Glenn Kleier. Further research found that it comes from his novel The Last Day on page 602. His book is a potboiler about the appearance of a new female messiah in the last days (then seen as the approaching millenium) as well as, obvious from the quote, a bit of eastern “god is in me” nonsense.

God is easy to find because He’s everywhere. But mostly, Feldman realized, God is within. And that’s where it’s best to look for Him. In one’s own personal temple. The church of the self.

I believe that Kleier’s excerpt sums up my concern rather nicely.

See Also: If you liked this article, you might also want to read Worship, or Not! and The Church of Baal.

  3 comments for “The Church Of The Self

  1. Politickal Animal
    April 10, 2005 at 1:58 pm

    Excellent. Reformed. True. Thank you.

  2. April 13, 2005 at 6:22 pm

    Excellent. We cannot seem to work ourselves away from the need to honor self above all else. Maybe it’s because without the Holy Spirit we lack the power to do it and we hate to be reminded just how powerless we are.

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