The Failure of American Christianity in Two Pictures


I was at my local bookstore recently and was struck by the juxtaposition above.  It is significant that even a book retailer knows that “Christian Life” and “Self-Transformation” are not the same sorts of activities.  But in how many of our pulpits is this distinction denied? How many churches are built on the bait-and-switch of marketing self-transformation while sneaking in Jesus?

The Christian life and “self-transformation” or “self-help” are not living from the same narrative or drawing from the same source of power.  To cite a few distinctions:

  • Christianity is about what God has done in Christ; self-transformation is about how I can better myself.
  • Following Jesus means denying ourselves, taking up a cross, so that we decrease and Christ increases within us; self-transformation is about determining on our own what our lives should look like.
  • The Christian life invites us to follow saints, apostles, martyrs, and monks; self-transformation is the clarion call of a thousand different spiritual hucksters, false prophets, seminar stars, and warmed-over pagan gurus.
  • Sanctification is the name we give to becoming more like God, through the power of God; self-transformation is the impoverished secular version of trying to become more without God. (See also: the Tower of Babel.)
  • The baptized life is lived in community and with a sacred canon compiled in the Bible, bequeathed to us by the Spirit and the Church; self-transformation is a lonely project in which progress is a marketing ploy and the only canon is the latest publisher’s list.
  • Living as Christians is made possible by the Eucharist (or Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper), a sacrament in which we feed on Christ by faith; self-transformation is a project enabled only by our own feeble resources.

The truly sad part?  American Christianity – Protestantism, in particular – has reached a place where we are unable to differentiate between Christian life and self-transformation.  As a pastor, many of the most “successful” preachers whom I’m expected to mimic constantly blur, if not explode, the distinction between Christian faith and self-help.  We have traded the gospel, God’s transformative, free gift of grace to the world, into just another way to make our lives better.

This is Caesar’s religion, not Christ’s.

The proof is in one other photo I took that happened to be at the end of the “Christian Life” aisle.  The tag line: Find inspiration to claim your destiny.


There must be more to Christianity than “inspiration.”  Inspiration can come from anywhere: a Hallmark movie, a Nicholas Sparks novel, a Zen expression, a cup of coffee, or a shot of vodka.  To be fair, authors don’t always have control over how their work is marketed.  Still, it is difficult to see how this might be an inaccurate representation of Joel’s version of Christianity.  It’s no accident that there is no mention of Jesus or the Godhead.  The mild code language of “inspiration” gives one the impression that this is vaguely spiritual but not overly sectarian.  And, potential Calvinism aside, the talk of “destiny” offers the promise that this book will be a key to unlocking a hitherto secret future that a beneficent (but unnamed) universe is simply waiting to hand you.

But the Christian life is not something we find; Christ came to us while we were yet sinners.  The incarnation was God’s idea, not ours. It was a rescue mission for which we did not ask.

Followers of Jesus don’t claim a destiny, we are given a calling in our baptism.

The Christian life isn’t about bettering our life, it’s about the life of Jesus, who alone is the way, the truth and the life.  Why is it that a book retailer can get this but millions of Christians in America can’t see just how counter-gospel the self-help message is?

John Wesley once, famously, wrote that “sour godliness is the devil’s religion.” But Satan himself could conceive of no more pernicious, twisted version of the Christian life than this self-help thinly disguised as Christian wisdom.

We’ll let St. Paul have the last word. He seemed to know, in the 1st century, that the Joels of this world would sneak in, wolves in sheep’s clothing, to devour the flock:

 For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires,  and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. (2 Tim. 4:3-4)

Comments ( 11 )

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  2. ReplyRevDennisShaw
    Worth a read or five. Thank you for the regular dose of grist which you impart.
    • ReplyDrew
      Thanks for reading, Dennis!
  3. ReplyRachael
    Great post! I absolutely agree with you on all points. Gone are the days when preachers preach the Gospel. Now, it's almost like listening to a politician on his platform telling you how he can help you better yourself... oh, and it's with the help of Jesus. The Joel Olsteens of this world completely take away from the necessary spiritual relationship we are to have with our Father, and they use the idea of Faith as a way to gain followers by advertising success and "happiness" through religion. When clearly the spirit and actual Faith are lacking... anyway, I really appreciate your honesty.
  4. ReplyMatt
    Great post but I'd add a caveat (or cliche)...don't throw out the baby with the bath water. I'm not defending the watered down theology out there. But I think self-help is the religion of our culture, with Oprah, Dr. Phil, etc as its main prophets. I also think we could draw a parallel between today's therapists and priest of old. Self-help is the language of many outside the church. This is simply where many people are today. That's where they perceive their brokenness. We engage the language, and even its principles, to point people to the true Good News of what God has done in Jesus. I don't think the tragedy is that pastors use the self-help avenue...but that many stop short of leading others all the way to The Way. Could the picture above be the cutting edge of mass evangelism today? Just a thought.
  5. ReplyJim Lung
    Amen, and Amen, but with one caveat: It depends on the bookstore. As a victorious evangelical saint looking for insight into the word, I used to religiously avoid the self-help or similarly titled section of Logos Bookstore in Friendly Center, circa 1987. While looking for something to give a friend, who had his struggles, my eye caught Leanne Payne's CRISIS IN MASCULINITY. This looks like something my friend could use, I told myself. I started reading the book in the car, and returned to the store to purchase a second copy. The book changed my life.
  6. ReplyTom
    Good article! As humans we often try to earn our own way or our own salvation. We want to feel of great value and worth. In doing this we often forget that the beginning of salvation belongs to God and that we are to rely on God to guide and direct our every step in this life on earth. God will guide us by His Holy Spirit into living a better life for Him, but it is His doing it by His power in and through us. Often we do not like to change what God wants to change in us, that is when we look towards self-help books. It will tell us things we like, not necessarily what God is doing or wants. Thanks for sharing.
  7. Reply"Rusty"
    What is your bookstore schedule? Like to meet and converse with you.
    • ReplyDrew
      Rusty, email me at dmcintyre (at) wnccumc dot net
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