The Church is Not a Self-Help Group

Oprah Winfrey has the Midas touch when it comes to books; anytime she recommends a book it jumps to the top of sales lists. Plenty of her book selections can be classified as “Self-Help”—the generic category which includes psychological, philosophical, and quasi-religious tomes. All books in this category offer the reader a chance to change: to improve relationships, to tune out fear, to slim waistlines, and to bring out the inner you.

Books like these cater to the self-help mindset, which says you can become a better you. When held within Christian circles, this thinking teaches that God will give you what you need to become a better you. He can help you live your best life now.

In his book Soul Searching, sociologist Christian Smith coined a term to describe this mindset, as demonstrated in adolescent Christian, calling it Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism teaches that the ultimate purpose of life is to be good, enjoy life, and be happy. God is not too involved in one’s life unless that person has a problem; only then will God steps in to help the person resolve the problem.

Entire books have been written concerning the myriad problems of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism; I only want to focus on three issues here:

  • God is seen only as a commodity
  • Focus on behavioral modification
  • Church is reduced to a support group

God as a Commodity

In Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, God becomes a commodity—something to be obtained and used for your own benefit. This makes the Creator submit and serve the created. God’s value is determined by what he does for you. People don’t want Jesus anymore, only what Jesus does for them.

In this mindset, the death of Christ is not as important as the life of Christ. Jesus lived a perfect moral life, and he serves as a role model for each of us. When we are having trouble living a good and moral life, ask Jesus and he will help you overcome so you can live the good life.

Focus on Behavioral Modification

This type of mindset focuses the believer on correcting external, superficial behaviors, rather than dealing with the underlying sins causing those behaviors. Even the motivations for change are superficial: people want to be seen as good and moral people, instead of changing as a response to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

So a wife wants to argue less with her husband because it would make her life easier, instead of seeing their marriage as a microcosm of the relationship between Christ and the Church. A father wants his kids to obey him in public because it is embarrassing, rather than embracing his identity as spiritual leader and chief disciple-maker in the family. A college student wants to break her addiction, but fails to deal with the underlying sins at the root of that addiction.

Church Reduced to a Support Group

In Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, the church becomes a means to the end of a person’s self-help goal. People start looking at the church for what it can provide them and what needs it meets. Like with God, the church is viewed for what it provides. They are not looking for the Bible to be preached, unless it can help them get more money or move up the corporate ladder or have a better spouse and kids.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of churches willing to fill this role. Their sermons are motivational or inspirational talks, with a few verses sprinkled in as prooftexts. The ministries revolve around a focus of improving the quality of life, instead of rooting people more in their relationship with Christ. Lessons given in the children’s and youth ministries could—with little modification—be given in a public school assembly without offending anyone. These type of churches are reinforcing and strengthening Moralistic Therapeutic Deism to their members, helping them focus on improving themselves.

Pilgrims on a Journey

Perhaps a more helpful way to view the church is as a gathering of pilgrims. The Christian life is a journey, a movement from where we once were towards what God has called us to become. The church’s role in that journey is to be a gathering place where we can fellowship, encourage, and equip each other on this journey. It is where we can carry out all the “one another” commands. Finally, it is where we can worship our King, the cause and source behind any change. It is in His image we are being shaped, only through His power.

The church is where we are constantly reminded that this life isn’t about us, and that our successes and works are gracious gifts from the Father. In the church we see that Christ is the primary change agent, and that he often moves in spite of us.


Series on False Church Self-Identity:


Brandon Schmidt

I am Brandon Schmidt: writer, husband, father, brother, reader, and laugher.

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