By John Pierce
Editor’s note: Due to extensive travel in September, this column is a reworking of one that first appeared Aug. 9, 2019.
A big question for us today is: How did so much of American Christianity today get so far from Jesus?
The answer can be traced to what pastor/author Ken Wytsma calls the “Salvation Industrial Complex.” And his personal experience mirrors mine.
“I grew up with the notion that to be saved we simply asked Jesus into our heart,” writes Wytsma in The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege (InterVarsity, 2017). “This was the most central thought in my mind regarding Jesus and Christianity.”
Through an honest reading of the Gospels, however, one can see that Jesus didn’t tell us to “accept” but to follow him. In fact, Jesus seemed much more intent on accepting those regarded as unacceptable, than being accepted himself.
“Accepting Jesus” was devised for manufacturing Christians through a discernible process. It’s easier to count those who have prayed “the sinner’s prayer” than those who keep on walking additional miles, caring for the least of these and loving their enemies.
So, these non-biblical constructs (like “accepting Jesus” and “the sinner’s prayer”) became the primary vocabulary for expressing (and concepts for defining) what it means to be Christian — which comes with a comforting guarantee of avoiding eternal damnation.
Institution-building needs membership requirements, stakeholders and recruiters. So, following Jesus goes from being a sacrificial, ongoing calling to a sure-step, definable formula.
Gradually, hearing and heeding Jesus’ call were replaced by a more mechanized process.
With “Follow me!” relegated to lesser status, however, one is then free to ignore all kinds of things Jesus said and did — and still claim to be Christian.
That is precisely how so much of American evangelicalism has reached the point in which it doesn’t even wince at amoral, racially offensive, compassion-less politics. In fact, it is the most dependably supportive bloc.
This is not to suggest that those who created the Salvation Industrial Complex did so in a menacing way. Revivalists and church leaders likely wanted to count their results — although Jesus was never known to hand out membership cards other than noting that his followers would be known by their love.
When the Christian faith becomes more transactional than relational, however, it becomes something other than what Jesus sought.
Wytsma, a pastor in Beaverton, Oregon, puts it this way: “The reduction of God’s good news in Jesus to a magic formula … allows for a highly personalized and consumer approach to salvation. Instead of requiring everything, it requires nothing.”
That’s why Religious Right operative Ralph Reed can say without shame that evangelicals’ devotion to a political leader with no semblance to Jesus is because “There has never been anyone who has defended us and fought for us…”
Manufactured Christianity can focus on “us” — what we get out of this. Indeed, that is a consumer approach.
Followers of Jesus, however, must listen for a different call — deny yourselves; do unto others; whoever wants to be first must be a servant to all; and seek first the kingdom of God.