Part 4: When “Personally Feeling Good And Being Happy” Is Our Goal

A Cultural Laziness Which Has Evolved From An Attitude That Life’s Main Goal Is To Have Fun

20100911-_MG_0833 It seems that our culture has come to expect to be catered to – to have their needs (felt needs) met. It also seems that we have moved from living as pragmatic narcissists to that of entitlement-expecting narcissists with a hedonistic bent. In the secular realm, catering to those felt needs is simply a business transaction; but in matters related to the spiritual, such catering can have eternal consequences.

In discussing the general attitudes of the younger generation with a friend from work, she told me of an e-mail she received from one of the coaches from her son’s baseball team. It had to do with what this coach has seen with the kids he’s coached and how it is also reflected in the college grads he’s hired. He titled his e-mail The Coddled Generation. Here are some excerpts,

Last night I was watching a 60 Minutes program about motivation in the work place and the uniqueness of the generation entering careers in 2011.

The show was really interesting, both from the perspective of an employer as well as a baseball coach. On this particular show, the coaching professionals interviewed were motivators and trainers used by businesses – experts on the emerging generation of workers and how best to speak to and communicate with them. The show highlighted fun and wacky office cultures like Google and Zappos where strange outfits are commonplace, happy hours are frequent and workers can take turns in the “nap room.” This was designed to show how corporate structure has evolved to help make workers comfortable, keep them happy and engaged, and ultimately increase productivity.

At one point, one of the consultants interviewed described this generation as “The Coddled Generation,” and then went on to describe how their upbringing has led to a completely different worker. This expert referenced school environments where Mom calls to complain about a grade, where simply showing up is reason for celebration, and where trophies are awarded to each and every athlete.

I honestly believe that the culture has changed, and there are two main differences:

A lack of desire to be outstanding…

A need for coddling and hand-holding

How did we get here?

I would argue that the blessings of having won World War II, that of peace and prosperity, have since become anchors around our necks. When life is free from worry, then it seems reasonable for fun to become your aim. And in our haste to provide a safe and fun world for our children, we’ve conditioned them to expect to be catered to, to be entertained, and to expect that life’s main purpose is to be happy. Whereas in times past children skipped adolescence, became young adults and then entered the workforce, beginning their own families, we now see young adults attempting to extend their childhood well into their 20s and 30s.

While many in the homeschool movement have long recognized this problem, it is very interesting to see it start being addressed by those in the secular realm. In The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen, author Robert Epstein presents his case that the phenomenon we now accept as normal – that of adolescence – is, in fact, a byproduct of an industrial and technological age. From the book,

Adolescence is the creation of modern industrialization, which got into high gear in the United States between 1880 and 1920. For most of human history before the Industrial Era, young people worked side by side with adults as soon as they were able, and it was not uncommon for young people, and especially young females, to marry and establish independent households soon after puberty. It wasn’t until the turn of the twentieth century that adolescence was identified as a separate stage of life characterized by “storm and stress.” In what appears to be a vicious cycle of cause and effect, teen turmoil since the late 1800s has generated a large number of unique laws that restrict teen behavior in ways that adult behavior has never been restricted, and these laws in turn appear to have stimulated more extreme forms of “misbehavior” in teens. The rate at which such laws have been passed has increased substantially since the 1960s, with an increasingly wide range of new crimes being invented just for young people. The social reforms that created such laws were set in motion by some formidable individuals, not all of whom had benevolent motives. The extension of childhood past puberty has benefited a large number of new businesses and industries offering a wide range of products and services to the growing teen markets.[36]

Now, keep in mind that children over the last sixty years did not change on their own… I believe they were raised in a different manner than their parents were. And if responsibility for their current state is to be handed out, then it must be handed out to their parents.

A “Divinely Underwritten Personal Happiness”

This cultural laziness, coupled with an attitude of expecting to have fun in life, has dire consequences for the evangelical community. Instead of presenting a Christian answer to the selfishness of our society, we acquiesce and end up catering to the very wants that perpetuate the myth of happiness. Instead of speaking the truth, and expecting people to work, we capitulate to the very methodologies our secular counterparts employ.

20100717-_MG_9984 Consider the changes that have occurred to the program many churches have for children, formerly called “Children’s Church”, and now commonly referred to as Kidz, KidZone, KidsTown, etc. The emphasis is on generating high energy and having fun, albeit as we worship Jesus (and sometimes God). Whereas we used to expect the children to learn stories directly from the Bible, during their time at church, it is not uncommon to now find them engaged in playtime, snacktime, videotime, sing a few worship songs, listen to a short, uplifting story that has an analogous connection with a Biblical theme, and then a closing game. Throw in a Sunday where the kids wear pajamas to church and the cycle is complete. Think I’m exaggerating? Sit though the children’s church at your church some time. I recall one acquaintance telling me how exciting a certain megachurch’s children’s ministry was giving, as an example, the fact that after parents signed in their children, the kids slid down some chute into the room where their service was held. He even remarked that, “It makes it fun – kind of like you’re at Disneyland!”

One of the girls mid-week ministries, in the denomination of the church I attend, recently changed the slogan on their official t-shirts. Previously, their shirts had “I will follow Jesus!” across the front. Now, “The Fun Club!” adorns their shirts.

The evolutionary pattern in the young adult (aka teenager or student) groups has hardly been any different. Highly charged, frenetic events pepper the evangelical church realm, going by names such as Crossfire, Ignite, The Revolution, The Lounge, Engage, Converge, or WOW, all wooing an already over-stimulated demographic.

Note that simple name changes to groups which were formerly known as “Children’s Church” or “Youth Group” are hardly issues to be concerned about. Rather, one must address the cultural and mindset changes which may accompany such name changes (e.g., the rationalization given for the recent name change to “Cru”, for Campus Crusade for Christ, reeks with inconsistency). Also, such a shift in approach mimics, in my opinion, the types of marketing and worldview shifts now found in secular culture.

A society which deifies personal happiness cannot help but teach their children the same values. One of the conclusions that Smith & Denton came to, when compiling the data for their book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, was the realization of how important personal happiness was to teenagers in the United States. They write,

For comparison with these tallies on religious terms, we also counted the number of teens who made reference to the key therapeutic ideas of feeling happy, good, better, and fulfilled. What we found… is that U.S. teenagers were much more likely to talk in terms broadly related to therapeutic concerns than in… religious terms…

…In fact, our teenagers used the single, specific phrase to “feel happy” well more than 2,000 times. In short, our teen interview transcripts reveal clearly that the language that dominates U.S. adolescent interests and thinking about life, including religious and spiritual life, is primarily about personally feeling good and being happy. That is what defines the dominant epistemological framework and evaluative standard for most contemporary U.S. teenagers – and probably for most of their baby boomer parents. This, we think, has major implications for religious faiths seriously attempting to pass on the established beliefs and practices of their historical traditions.[37]

[italicized emphasis in original, bold emphasis mine]

_MG_9061 I would argue that when we turn the act of becoming a follower of Christ – the very process that includes making a disciple, that of baptizing and teaching someone (a disciple) the teachings of Christ – when we turn that act into one of simply making a decision we have replaced the term “disciple” with that of “proselyte.” When that becomes our pragmatic goal, combined with a society in which we enjoy peace and prosperity, and a progressive culture ever leaning towards pluralism, then it seems to follow that we will tend towards having congregants who rely on the phrase to “feel happy” when defining their purpose in life, especially when regarding faith issues. And it is no wonder that when the church turns to follow the secular notion of pursuing happiness, that her programs, her focus, her very emphasis hinges on this aspect of providing happiness (albeit via a relationship with Jesus).

Review the manner in which many churches advertise themselves to the public, typically via websites. Emphasis is placed on the fact that the church provides a “warm and friendly” environment, where the visitor can “come as you are” not having to worry about a “dress code”, and they’ll be able to “connect” with those seeking answers to any “questions” they may have through “relevant” (but short) messages or “conversations.” We make sure to note that our churches are places where parents can expect their children to be provided with a “creative, exciting and fun-filled” time where they’ll be sure to hear about Jesus.

Let me reiterate that most of these features are, not in and of themselves, wrong. However, if you are a follower of Christ, look back at how most churches will pitch these features in a way which promotes how the visitor will benefit. In other words, we tend to essentially portray Christianity as being able to make you, the individual, happy. Consider the various phrases and “corporate speak” we employ:

What good things has God been doing in your life?
What does this verse mean to you?
God gave me this verse.
My life verse is…
God is there for you.
Jesus wants to touch you.

Yet ask the typical churchgoer some basic questions about their faith and, despite their striving for happiness in their life, you will most likely get a fumbled response. Is this what discipleship is supposed to be about? Smith & Denton presented a portion of an interview with one teen regarding her faith. An excerpt,

Interviewer:  When you think of God, what image do you have of God?

Teen:  [yawning]

I:  What is God like?

T:  Um, good. Powerful.

I:  Okay, anything else?

T:  Tall.

I:  Tall?

T:  Big.

I:  Do you think God is active in people’s lives or not?

T:  Ah, I don’t know.

I:  You’re not sure?

T:  Different people have different views of him.

I:  What about your view?

T:  What do you mean?

I:  Do you think God is active in your life?

T:  In my life? Yeah.

I:  Yeah, hmm. Would you say you feel close to God or not really?

T:  Yeah, I feel close. [yawns]

I:  Where do you get your ideas about God?

T:  The Bible, my mom, church. Experience.

I:  What kind of experience?

T:  He’s just done a lot of good in my life, so.

I:  Like, what are examples of that?

T:  I don’t know.

I:  Well, I’d love to hear. What good has God done in your life?

T:  I, well, I have a house, parents, I have the Internet, I have a phone, I have cable.[38]

Is her attitude an anomaly, or does it reflect the general tenet of faith understanding within our community of believers in America? How well do you think the young adults in your church’s youth group would articulate their faith? Do you suppose that the general adult membership would do much better?

Brett Kunkle, a Christian apologist from Stand to Reason, will sometimes visit Christian high schools or church youth groups and role-play as an atheist college professor attempting to discredit Christianity.[39] The young-adults (and sometimes the staff) are unaware that he is acting and when faced with the arguments he presents they, many times, are unable to respond with cogent arguments for their faith. While the touchy-feely experiential faith they are comfortable with may make them feel happy, it leaves them empty-handed when facing a battle with secular culture.

We live in a culture which prizes – worships – self realization. We cherish our uniqueness (even if we rush to join the crowd to indulge in every capitalistic driven fad marketed to us). We prioritize our rights above our responsibility. Ever notice how comfort has become one of the deities we will not allow anyone to blaspheme? Except for limited areas of business, gone are the days where one dressed up for white-collar work (indeed, do 20-somethings know what the term “white-collar” means?). Instead, we laud the fact that we can wear flip-flops, shorts, t-shirts, sweats, etc., to events / activities which more formal attire was previously expected (by a strict and uptight culture of the past). This devolution of standards has also resulted in “casual” wear equating to “honesty”. Pastors who show up in shorts and flip-flops are real, honest, and authentic, while parishioners are reassured that there is “no dress code” so they can “show up as they please.” After all, we’re reminded, God “accepts you just as you are.”

However, beyond the trappings of mere cultural fashion slag, one of the biggest threats in which a culture of happiness, caught up within a touchy-feely-personal-relationship religion can produce, is that of pluralism in the church. Enter the pluralistic notions that find their way into a book such as Love Wins*, by Rob Bell. From his promotional video for the book,

Several years ago we had an art show at our church and people brought in all kinds of sculptures and paintings. And we put them on display and there was this one piece that had a quote from Ghandi in it. And lots of people found this piece compelling. They’d stop and sort of stare at it and take it in, and reflect on it. But not everybody found it that compelling. Somewhere in the course of the art show somebody attached a handwritten note to the piece. And on the note they had written, “Reality check. He’s in Hell.”

Ghandi’s in Hell? He is? And someone knows this for sure? And felt the need to let the rest of us know?

Will only a few select people make it to Heaven? And will billions and billions of people burn forever in Hell?

How does one become one of these… few?

And then there is the question behind the question. The real question: What is God like? Because millions and millions of people were taught that the primary message, the center of the Gospel of Jesus, is that God is going to send you to Hell unless you believe in Jesus. And so what gets subtly sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of God is that – that we would need to be rescued from this God? How could that God ever be good? How could that God ever be trusted? And how could that ever be … Good… News?

This is why lots of people want nothing to do with the Christian Faith. They see it as an endless list of absurdities and inconsistencies, and they say, “Why would I ever want to be a part of that?”[40]

Such anti-Biblical notions are not unexpected in a pluralistic culture. What is also unexpected, unfortunately, is that we now see such worldviews prevalent in our children. From Smith & Denton,

The majority of American teenagers appear to espouse rather inclusive, pluralistic, and individualistic views about religious truth, identity boundaries, and need for religious congregation… When it comes to their thinking about what is legitimate for other people, most affirm pluralism, religious inclusivity, and individual authority.[41]

“Individual authority.” Yes, after unpacking the fluff of pluralism and inclusivity, the result is a condition in which morality is self-determined. It is interesting to note what C.S. Lewis said about the notion of a “right to happiness,” and how it related to Christianity.

Which of the religions of the world gives to its followers the greatest happiness? While it lasts, the religion of worshipping oneself is the best.

…As you perhaps know, I haven’t always been a Christian. I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.[42]

What seems to have been lost on our culture is the very notion of objective truth. In a politically correct culture we elevate individual authority as the arbiter for ultimate moral questions. Immersed in a sea of pluralism we, as evangelicals, are in danger of drowning. Moral truths become moral opinions. We have subtly slid into the same secular pit which affirms that truth is determined solely by experience. Thus, questions about who God is, indeed, questions about the very existence of God become viewed as a matter of one’s opinion.

We need to understand who God is and who we are. We also need to understand that it doesn’t matter whether or not you like God. Truth is truth and it is not dependent on your comfort level. In What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, J. Budziszewski writes,

The [First] Commandment presupposes more than just the knowledge that God is real. It presupposes that we also understand that benefit incurs obligation, supreme benefit incurs supreme obligation, and we are indebted to God for benefits beyond all others. This in turn presupposes that we know the principle, “Give to each what is due to him,” what we owe God being loyalty, worship, and obedience. To deny Him is the deepest form of treason – much more serious than the ordinary sort.[43]

Is it possible, in a culture which considers having fun to be their purpose in life, to convey the notion that we owe God worship and He owes us nothing?

I once heard a preacher, after describing the love qualities of God state, “I wouldn’t want to serve a God who was unloving”. Well guess what? It doesn’t matter what kind of God you or I would want to serve. God is God, regardless of what we think. I’ve had debates with atheists who categorically state that they wouldn’t want to believe in a God who ordered various acts of “atrocity” as found in the Old Testament (ref. the destruction of the Canaanite women and children). How is their concern any different from the preacher’s I just mentioned?

The first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism is:

What is the chief end of man?[44]

Were we to ask that question to a typical evangelical churchgoer, what would the answer be? To have a personal relationship with Jesus? To be happy?

Yet, the catechism’s answer is:

Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and enjoy Him forever.

In an age of moral relativity, we now find that moral absolutes are called into question. In an age where “love wins” is there room for moral absolutes? Oh, wait, Barna already asked the question and, as I stated in Part 1, we find that only a dismal 9% of teenage born-again evangelicals consider there to be any moral absolutes. Truth, it seems, has become intertwined with emotional experience. Smith & Denton write,

However, it appears that only a minority of U.S. teenagers are naturally absorbing by osmosis the traditional substantive content and character of the religious traditions to which they claim to belong. For, it appears to us, another popular religious faith, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, is colonizing many historical religious traditions and, almost without anyone noticing, converting believers in the old faiths to its alternative religious vision of divinely underwritten personal happiness and interpersonal niceness[45]

[emphasis mine]

Is it our duty to cater to felt-needs that have been nurtured by a therapeutic individualism mindset?

Again, in 2005, I wrote a blog post titled, Evangelical Capitalism (part 3): Butter or not butter? From the post,

At what point do we consider catering to society’s wants tantamount to acquiescing to their demands? Are we really interested in cultural relevance? Or are we more concerned with being hip? I believe a society which over-emphasizes comfort is a society which is decadently self-indulgent. It used to be we spoke the Truth in love… now, however, it’s couched in an easy chair.[46]

Eventually, evangelicals will have to ask themselves whether they want to fill the pews or proclaim the Word.

Phil Steiger, a friend and pastor from Colorado, commented on the post referenced above. He said,

I was at a church planting seminar where the pastor of this church was flown in to talk about his philosophy of ministry and planting. He was a good enough and well meaning guy, but I worried that there was little to no critical engagement over the issue of the fine line between becoming the culture, and being relevant to the culture.[47]

Indeed, just how do we become relevant to culture?

* Note that I have not read the book.

– all photographs © A. R. Lopez

[36] Robert Epstein, Ph.D., The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen, (Sanger, CA: Quill Driver Books, 2007), 23.

[37] Christian Smith & Melinda Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 168.

[38] Smith & Denton, 135.

[39] Brett Kunkle, Atheist Role Play #3, STR Place blog, (June 29, 2011).

[40] Rob Bell, LOVE WINS promotional video, YouTube, (February 26, 2011).

[41] Smith & Denton, 115.

[42] C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock, “Answers to Questions on Christianity” 1944, ans. 11, 58-59.

[43] J. Budziszewksi, What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, (Dallas: Spence Publishing, 2003), 31.

[44] Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 1, Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics, (2011, last accessed on July 15, 2011).

[45] Smith & Denton, 171.

[46] Rusty Lopez, Evangelical Capitalism Part 3: Butter or not butter?, New Covenant blog, (February 7, 2005).

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