Overcoming Moral Therapeutic Deism

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It should be of no secret to the 5 of you following this blog that I have spent the last few weeks studying, thinking and writing about why we bother with Sunday morning worship services.  It has been a fruitful journey for both my congregation and me (and I hope the 5 of you, including my mom).

One of my guiding presuppositions is that corporate worship results in our sanctification.  I am unashamed about being a Wesleyan-Holiness preacher and only a bit ashamed at my liturgical leanings, especially in such a free church, libertarian setting.  So I have been praying, reading Scripture and thinking about the elements of our worship and how God uses them to sanctify us.

I have sought to be as careful as possible in talking about sanctification.  I have clarified that sanctification is not necessarily for individuals but for the community who is “one body, worshiping one God with one faith.”  I have also defined “sanctification” as Christlikeness, which necessarily means more loving.  I have also reacted quite rigidly against the popular belief that when we sing praises, mobster god hears them and decides not to make us swim with concrete shoes.  But woe to us when we don’t praise Mobster god enough, especially if we do it reluctantly and with no joy and gladness.  I have also opposed the idea that the only thing God is up to in the world is getting people into heaven, because I always oppose that idea.

However, in all this tension another presupposition has been outed.  Somewhere over the past year I have begun to preach and believe that good religion is nothing but a self improvement project.  Certainly I have always clarified that we do not help ourselves but it is God improving us. Despite that I have been too fond of saying the only reason to worship God is so that God can make us nicer, more polite people.

I am very uncomfortable with that movement in my spirit.  It just sounds too much like, “Moral Therapeutic Deism” which is the belief that God is up in heaven working only to make us feel happy and help us become moral people, who maybe tip %16 instead of %15 and hold doors open for the elderly at the grocery store.

I think God does want us to be gracious and selfless and I certainly believe God aids us in that journey.  However, my sermons about worship and sanctification have become too reductionist.  In the spirit of rejecting “mobster god” and “low self esteem god” and “only powerful enough to let some people into heaven god” I had accidentally embraced, “helper god” who wanted nothing else but to “help” us.

This led to great and deep prayer and meditation.  I needed an alternative if I was to reject “helper god” and I eventually found that alternative in the glorious phrase, “mystical communion.”  

If the goal of worship is “mystical communion” this means we don’t get together on Sunday mornings to get help from God in our quests to become a happy, feel good, moralistic, nice guy (just like Jesus!).  Instead, we worship to become one with God.  The goal of worship is indeed sanctification but sanctification is not becoming a nicer person.  It is uniting with God.

God is the Spirit that hovers over the waters of all creation.  It is that same Spirit who at Pentecost was scattered to all the nations.  This means when our hearts align with God’s heart, they beat to the rhythm of all creation.  The goal of worship is unity.  We become one with a God who is reconciling all things to God’s self.  When we worship, we don’t just become a holier-than-thou community who is now able to stand above those less-than-thou sinners.  Instead our genuine worship is about humming along to the rhythm of God which reconciles us to all creation.  When that happens we do become nicer people.  We become a people at peace instead of at war and a people who love instead of hate.  We might even be a people who tip our waiters and waitresses a percent or two more and who patiently hold the door open for the elderly.  But when we speak of sanctification, we speak of nothing less than God reconciling us to all of creation.

It is fitting that I close with those wonderful words attributed to St. Francis of Assissi.  You can listen to them below.  The lyrics are below that.

All creatures of our God and King,
lift up your voices, let us sing:
Alleluia, alleluia!
Thou burning sun with golden beams,
thou silver moon that gently gleams,

O praise him, O praise him,
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

Thou rushing wind that art so strong,
ye clouds that sail in heaven along,
O praise him, Alleluia!
Thou rising morn, in praise rejoice,
ye lights of evening, find a voice,

Thou flowing water, pure and clear,
make music for thy Lord to hear,
Alleluia, alleluia!
Thou fire so masterful and bright,
that givest man both warmth and light, (R)

Dear mother earth, who day by day
unfoldest blessings on our way,
O praise him, Alleluia!
The flowers and fruits that in thee grow,
let them his glory also show:

And all ye men of tender heart,
forgiving others, take your part,
O sing ye Alleluia!
Ye who long pain and sorrow bear,
praise God and on him cast your care: (R)

And thou, most kind and gentle death,
waiting to hush our latest breath,
O praise him, Alleluia!
Thou leadest home the child of God,
and Christ our Lord the way hath trod:

Let all things their Creator bless,
and worship him in humbleness,
O praise him, Alleluia!
Praise, praise the Father, praise the Son,
and praise the Spirit, Three in One:

An Evangelistic Confession

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I have a very dear, older saint in my church who continually reminds me that every sermon must present the Romans Road Gospel.  She wants every sermon to end with new Christians confessing, “I have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God but I confess with my mouth Jesus is Lord and believe in my heart that God raised him from the dead so that I can live eternally in heaven.”  This prayer is sometimes called “The Sinner’s Prayer” and in her thinking, such sermons should always end with an altar call where people pray the prayer in front of the entire congregation.

I politely disagree with her but putting aside my theological convictions I do try to preach a more evangelistic sermon when the biblical text lends itself that direction.

Such is certainly the case with my text for next week, Acts 9, which narrates Saul Paul’s conversion on the way to Damascus.  It is a rich text that I have worked with for a few weeks (you can look at my early exegetical notes here) and certainly Saul meeting Jesus should lead to the congregation meeting Jesus.  Furthermore I have several new attendees for whom a “Damascus Road” moment would do a lot of good.

However, my shy congregation does not respond to altar calls, at least in the “going down to the altar” kind of way.  Furthermore, as I read other articles, books and blogs, I sense a growing conclusion that the altar has had its day and is on the way out.  After all the altar call is only 150 years old, which is pretty young when you consider Christianity is 2,000 years old.

So I have had to rethink the response time and do so in light of resurgence of the Lord’s Table, which was the universal Christian response to the sermon until the altar call replaced it in evangelical congregations.

So today as I put the finishing touch on my sermon I rather painfully rejected the typical altar call.  Instead I wrote a congregational call and response to follow the sermon and precede the Eucharist.  The confession is below.  It is intended to encourage the congregation to join Saul on the road to Damascus and to confess their wickedness in the light of God’s new-found grace.  It is also based off of a sermon of John Wesley’s where Wesley states, “For the Christian only 2 truths remain: I am a wretch but Christ has died.”

Feel free to add or subtract or use this in your own evangelistic sermons or private prayer and devotional times.

The regular type is the congregational confession.  The bold is the priest’s blessing.

I am a wretch.  I have sinned against God, my neighbor, myself and creation.

But Christ has died so receive forgiving grace.

I am a wretch.  I am walking death that causes death wherever I go.

But Christ has died so receive life giving grace.

I am a wretch.  I have hurt others and myself and continue to do so.

But Christ has died so receive healing grace.

I am a wretch.  I am helpless to save myself and all my self improvement projects end in disaster.  And all my them-improvement projects destroy the them’s I am trying to improve.

But Christ has died so receive transforming grace.

Church will you rise out of death?

We will.

Church do you receive the resurrecting power of God?

We do.

Do you hear the call of Christ to come and die and find you may truly live?

We come, we die.  Christ give us life.

Amen.