I’ve recently had an article published in Missio Apostolica entitled, “Candy Machine God, or, Going to Church without Going to Church: Millennials and the Future of the Christian Faith.” In it, I discuss how millennials may not be going to church because the church might not be faithfully embodying its own identity as the church. That is, it might actually be preaching a message which is not its own. That message is a therapeutic one. In the article, I give a substantial amount of evidence to make my case. You can read it here for free.
There’s more to be said however. One thing in particular came up at a pastor’s conference where I presented the content of that paper. A recurring question to me went something like this:
I agree with your argument—in fact it’s quite convincing [full disclosure—I’m actually personally bothered by the argument I make…I wish I didn’t have to make it. So I’m not trying to wave my own banner here.]. What I don’t know how to answer for myself is this question: The Christian Gospel seems legitimately able to be called therapeutic. For it indeed does cure us from our greatest ailment, sin. The Gospel is a powerful healing force. But, your argument against therapeutic religion, therapeutic language, and the church’s psychological captivity [I encourage you to read the article, and then come back to this post], leaves me wondering how I can preach in a manner that doesn’t make the mistake you’ve clearly shown that the church is making, while at the same time preaching faithfully in a manner that performs the very living giving and healing—therapeutic even—work of the Gospel. Can you help me understand how to do that?
This is a very good question. And in my presentation, I really didn’t have time to answer it adequately. My article doesn’t answer this question clearly either. And frankly, none of the resources I cite within the article are helpful in this regard either. So, here I try to offer a little help.
Preaching the Gospel should be life-giving. Especially in the tradition of the Lutheran dogmaticians who used the language of the biblical narrative of killing and making alive (Deut. 32:39, Rom. 7:9), or of death leading to new life as the very means by which God made a human being a member of his people (Rom. 6)—this Gospel should be the center of our existence for it is the very narrative by which we orient ourselves as the church. Christ himself is the living embodiment of it. And our preaching (as well as our liturgy [in its various forms], our teaching, our discipling, and our evangelizing) should flow forth from this story as well as embody and carry it such that as a narrative it is continuously passed down as the tradition of the church itself in its own life of practices as well as the story by which it lives.
Preaching the Gospel that is therapeutic in a manner that is consistent with the sense of being life-giving is only possible when it is preached as a Gospel that raises dead people to life. But people have to die in order to be raised to new life. And God has chosen a specific means for that to happen. That particular means is the same means as that of bringing the life-giving word of the Gospel: the mouth of the preacher, and furthermore, the various modes of proclamation present in the practices of the church’s life (I mentioned them above: catechesis, evangelism, liturgy, etc.). Thus, the killing word of God’s confrontation with the sinner, his terrifying word which works death must also be proclaimed. Only then, can a therapeutic act be performed. Only then, can new life be created. Only then does God work also through the preacher, this time not to work death, but to work life.
So, allow me to say that I think we can say that the Gospel can be described as “therapeutic” if and only if we are understanding it within the framework of God’s transformative work of killing and making alive. But notice the “if and only if.”
Let me follow up with this warning. I’m wary of using the term “therapeutic” at all. It has too much baggage. In my article, I discussed the church’s captivity to psychological language, such that our imaginations are bent toward interpreting reality in a particular manner. We have come to expect our religion to be delivered a certain way; in fact, research seems to show we even demand it. That is, we look to religion to provide therapy for us. So words that are quite central to the biblical narrative like comfort (Isaiah 40:1), restoration (Psalm 23), and others end up being circumscribed within a different language game to which our ears are attuned. We listen instead for the therapeutic tone which promises relief, the ability to cope, some opportunity to get through the moment/day/week, or words of refreshment. Thus I cringe at even suggesting that “therapeutic” is an appropriate word for describing the Gospel in our time. Therapeutic religion is the enemy of the Gospel, of faithful Christian proclamation, and even subsists parasitically by feeding upon the church’s life (and that of other religious traditions) to proliferate itself because it cannot stand on its own. Through the church’s own use of the term and captivity to therapeutic culture, therapy rather than the transformative work of God is what is being performed by the church.
And so I argued in my article, more substantially of course, that that is why we are not seeing millennials in church. Millennials are not oblivious to what’s going on—they likely realize they can get better therapy elsewhere. Or if they are in church, they might not actually be at “church.” Rather, they might just be getting therapy instead.
So, I hope this brought some clarity to a question that might arise in reading the article. I also hope my warning is convincing enough to abandon the desire to “hold on” to the sense that the Gospel is “therapy.” Call it something else. We’re the church. We’ve been creative for 2 millennia. We don’t have to feel trapped into using this particular term. If we do feel so trapped, I’m concerned that such a feeling is more a symptom of our captivity than a lack of flexibility in the English language.