Jesus Christ, Therapist

Not long ago, I came across a blog called Apprising Ministries. The blogger had taken it upon himself to critique and criticize various ministries and their key personalities. As you might predict, the tone is often less than charitable, which (for me) makes anything the guy writes suspect. I took a look at what he had to say about Erwin McManus and the Mosaic church and I was unimpressed. I’ve been listening to the podcast from Mosaic for about a year or so and while I’ve often disagreed with Erwin’s take on various topics, I tend to believe that he’s a follower of Jesus and not a heretical, self-serving play-actor.

When I disagree, it tends to be along the lines of the call of God and purpose of life. He tends to be melodramatic and to speak like every one of us has a call in this life on the same order of the likes of Moses. Today, as I read the following, I began to see that this is the kind of message I tend to hear from Erwin:

THE CONTEMPORARY THERAPEUTIC GOSPEL

The most obvious, instinctual felt needs of twenty-first century, middle-class Americans are different from the felt needs that Dostoevsky tapped into. We take food supply and political stability for granted. We find our miracle-substitute in the wonders of technology. Middle-class felt needs are less primal. They express a more luxurious, more refined sense of self-interest:

  • I want to feel loved for who I am, to be pitied for what I’ve gone through, to feel intimately understood, to be accepted unconditionally;
  • I want to experience a sense of personal significance and meaningfulness, to be successful in my career, to know my life matters, to have an impact;
  • I want to gain self-esteem, to affirm that I am okay, to be able to assert my opinions and desires;
  • I want to be entertained, to feel pleasure in the endless stream of performances that delight my eyes and tickle my ears;
  • I want a sense of adventure, excitement, action, and passion so that I experience life as thrilling and moving.

The modern, middle-class version of therapeutic gospel takes its cues from this particular family of desires. We might say that the target audience consists of psychological felt needs, rather than the physical felt needs that typically arise in difficult social conditions. (The contemporary “health and wealth” gospel and obsession with “miracles” express something more like the Grand Inquisitor’s older version of therapeutic gospel.)

In this new gospel, the great “evils” to be redressed do not call for any fundamental change of direction in the human heart. Instead, the problem lies in my sense of rejection from others; in my corrosive experience of life’s vanity; in my nervous sense of self-condemnation and diffidence; in the imminent threat of boredom if my music is turned off; in my fussy complaints when a long, hard road lies ahead. These are today’s significant felt needs that the gospel is bent to serve. Jesus and the church exist to make you feel loved, significant, validated, entertained, and charged up. This gospel ameliorates distressing symptoms. It makes you feel better. The logic of this therapeutic gospel is a jesus-for-Me who meets individual desires and assuages psychic aches.

The therapeutic outlook is not a bad thing in its proper place. By definition, a medical-therapeutic gaze holds in view problems of physical suffering and breakdown. In literal medical intervention, a therapy treats an illness, trauma, or deficiency. You don’t call someone to repentance for their colon cancer, broken leg, or beriberi. You seek to heal. So far, so good.

But in today’s therapeutic gospel the medical way of looking at the world is metaphorically extended to these psychological desires. These are defined just like a medical problem. You feel bad; the therapy makes you feel better. The definition of the disease bypasses the sinful human heart. You are not the agent of your deepest problems, but merely a sufferer and victim of unmet needs. The offer of a cure skips over the sin-bearing Savior. Repentance from unbelief, willfulness, and wickedness is not the issue. Sinners are not called to a U-turn and to a new life that is life indeed. Such a gospel massages self-love. There is nothing in its inner logic to make you love God and love any other person besides yourself. This therapeutic gospel may often mention the word “Jesus,” but he has morphed into the meeter-of-your-needs, not the Savior from your sins. It corrects Jesus’ work. The therapeutic gospel unhinges the gospel. (full article)

The Mosaic community is overwhelmingly 20-something and single. I think that plays a part in the popularity of Erwin’s perspective on the Gospel and the Christian life. After all, it’s a very self-centered phase of life and it would appear that the “therapeutic gospel” is also self-centered. As the writer of this text says, there’s a legitimate time and place for therapy both physical and spiritual, but there is also a time to grow up and go on to maturity

…and I’m struggling with doing just that.

EPILOGUE: In his recent sermon The Conflict (part 3 in the series about leading an original life), Erwin departs from the above description of the therapeutic gospel by addressing sin….which supports what I said in refutation of the assessment of his ministry at that Apprising Ministries blog.  (Nov. 6, 2007)

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