I get to visit many different churches and hear a lot of good preaching. One of the commonalities in messages is how they begin. Most of us tell some kind of human interest story or share a common concern. This generates curiosity and identifies with the audience.
I begin many messages that way but I’m conscious that doing so often directs listeners attention to themselves, allowing their minds to focus on some personal concern or longing. As pastors, we must address topics like facing change, going through hard times, self-esteem, success, marriage, parenting, time management and stress. Issues such as guilt and forgiveness, emptiness and meaninglessness are important and should be talked about. But we face the challenge of doing so in a way that doesn’t emphasize the individual self, the Self principle.
The Lord God seeks to save and transform each one of us personally – salvation is individual but that transformation makes individuals members of a family, a household of faith. If we’re not careful, what begins as a personal decision to follow Christ can subtly become a selfish, individual orientation to spirituality.
Instead of asking. “how do we fit into God’s Salvation History story,” we have a great tendency to ask, “how does God fit into our individual personal stories?” If we’re not careful, the starting point of a message, the human interest story or our own personal experience, becomes the whole point, not only of the sermon, but spirituality. The truth is, God relates to me for my sake. I don’t relate to God for his sake. We can’t let spirituality become personal – about me instead of God.
When we allow this to happen the Bible becomes a collection of stories, principles, and steps that can be used by a creative speaker to inspire listeners. And the listeners come to hear such a speaker and feel comforted, challenged, up-lifted, and even, at times, to feel a little guilty. All the while the listener is in control of his or her spirituality. They measure out the dosage of how much they want to take in. Spirituality becomes a personal project; a quest full of deception which produces confusion and impotence.
Sermons and Bible studies oriented around the Self principle obscure the meaning of the Bible
by drawing out what meets immediate felt needs and disregarding the rest. Falling prey to this temptation ends up diluting the biblical influence in many believers’ lives. The result is an ever expanding influence of non-Biblical thinking, greed driven materialism, and individualistic morals. People end up doing whatever seems right to them at the time; a philosophy of, “if it feels good, do it” and “as long as no one else gets hurt, it must be OK.”
The church has contributed to this Self principle by our silence when people use the Bible for their individual spirituality. We are far too silent when good church people turn to the Bible to inspire their souls and to the world to inspire their success. They turn to the Bible to deal with guilt and look to the world for entertainment. They look to the Bible for comfort and to the world for excitement. Many like what 1 Corinthians 13 has to say about love, and then turn to the world to learn about sex. They quote the Bible passages on peace and then look to the world for political solutions. They want to know what the Bible says about forgiveness and then look to the world for freedom. It’s all to easy to quote Hebrews 10:25, “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together. . . “ but then demand that our churches be run according to democratic procedure.
Instead of the Word of God shaping the totality of life, the Self principle results in a spirituality that shapes one’s private world and a secularization that shapes one’s public world. This approach to the Bible accounts for seemingly spiritually minded believers being habitually self-centered rather than God-honoring in their daily lives. The evidence of this is easily seen in people’s business practices, sexual behavior, consumer lifestyle, pursuit of pleasure, and intellectual outlook.
I’m not suggesting we eliminate personal anecdotes and human interest stories – we need some of them to draw people into the truth. But let’s be careful to recognize the dangers of self-centered spirituality. Maybe this is a good reminder to make sure our own lives are committed to obeying God in everything, not just what seems convenient. We reject the Self principle and embrace the Body Life of the New Testament. We desperately practice the “living sacrifice” principle of Romans 12.