faith

[OPINION] The problem with feel-good Christianity

Jayeel Cornelio
[OPINION] The problem with feel-good Christianity
'When it comes to corruption, inequality, and injustice, many Christians would prefer to be silent'

At the center of contemporary Christianity is the self. We have enough evidence to show that this is the case.

Around the Philippines, fellowships and congregations echo the same mantra: “I’m blessed,” “I’m favored,” “I’m loved,” and “I’m saved.” Even the claim that “I have a purpose” can only make sense in relation to the self.

These familiar words are evident too in the very names of congregations and fellowships. It doesn’t matter if they’re evangelical, Catholic, or charismatic. I’m sure many of you can readily identify some of them. 

Worship songs, the most efficient conduit of theological thought, are all about the self as well. Those of us exposed to compositions from Hillsong and other Western churches know that many of them lyricize the triumph of the self over personal troubles.

One way or another, these religious expressions speak of personal breakthrough, happiness, and success, all couched in a theological language. 

In fact, so pervasive have they become that they are now taken for granted even in non-religious settings. We find so much inspiration listening to motivational speakers (often with Christian backgrounds) who tell us that it’s good to find your meaning and happiness in life.

To feel good and be fulfilled. That’s what much of Christianity is all about now in our society.

So, what’s the problem?

Dismissive of suffering and hardships, feel-good Christianity makes individual well-being the end goal of Christian life.

Theologians have long debated the merits of feel-good Christianity. They don’t dismiss prosperity. In fact, they tell us that prosperity is multidimensional in the Scriptures, perhaps close to the idea of human flourishing.

In feel-good Christianity, however, prosperity is typically a material concern alone. And that’s what bothers them.

In the Philippine context, my colleague, Erron Medina, and I documented the transformation of the prosperity gospel from the time of Brother Mike Velarde to the contemporary period. Much of it now rests on self-help, what we call the prosperity ethic. (For those who are interested, our scholarly article is downloadable for free here.)

And yet the consequence of feel-good Christianity is even more far-reaching. Many of those who consider themselves “spiritual” are unable to make the link between their convictions and the needs of society.

To be sure they are willing to help when called upon. This is why local churches are effective in responding to humanitarian needs in their communities.

But when it comes to corruption, inequality, and injustice, many Christians would prefer to be silent.

Years ago an evangelical friend reprimanded me on social media for my critical statements on political matters. He argued that Christians should instead maintain their “peace” with themselves and other people.

That was when I began realizing the profound consequences of feel-good Christianity.

His remark saddened me then. And it continues to trouble me.

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In feel-good Christianity, one loses sight of faith’s relevance in the hardcore issues affecting our society. Glen Berteau calls it “Christianity Lite.” It focuses only on the “friendly, pleasant, fun, accepting, and exciting aspects of Jesus’s life and message, but it ignores the parts that make us feel uncomfortable.”

Enough

Lately I noticed that influential religious figures are rediscovering the political relevance of their ministry. I feel that many of them have had enough of feel-good Christianity. 

And rightly so.

“I will never use the pulpit to campaign,” tweeted Fr. Myke. “But I will use it to preach the non-negotiables of the Gospel and of the Faith! Kung triggered ka sa hustisya, katotohanan, karapatang-pantao, kapayapaan, at responsibilidad, aba eh sino mag-aadjust? Ang Ebanghelyo? Si Lord?”

Lately, even megachurch pastors are becoming increasingly vocal, too. This to me is a welcome development. Historically speaking, Filipino evangelicals have been generally apolitical, preferring to convert souls as their way of changing society.

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On social media, one pastor, for example, posted that he hates it “when people whitewash their pick, excuse evil done, and exaggerate qualifications.” He went on to say that “I especially hate it when they use verses to do these things.” I think he was referring to recent political developments.  

These ministers are using their influence to help shape conversations about the elections and the role of the People of God. They do so without deliberately endorsing specific candidates.

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Witnessing

To be sure, many of their followers will be turned off. The laity, after all, are in church for reasons other than politics.

But this very attitude among many Christians is what perhaps needs conversion. 

That many separate their Christian life from the affairs of society is in itself a symptom of feel-good Christianity. Though quoting the Bible, they forget that God opposes the unjust.

In the run-up to the elections, Christians of all stripes — especially the laity — must begin embracing their prophetic calling. They have, for one, a big role in exposing lies, especially those that captivate the public. 

But bigger is their role to show that there is a better, but not necessarily easier, path for all of us. 

This, I believe, is what Christians in the long history of the faith refer to as witnessing. To do so, however, will not always feel good. – Rappler.com

Jayeel Cornelio, PhD is a sociologist of religion at the Ateneo de Manila University where he holds the Oscar R. Ledesma Professorial Chair, and a Fellow of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture. Follow him on Twitter @jayeel_cornelio.