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How Preaching Reveals This Secularizing Trend

A Look at a Sociologist's Study

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The Pelagian tendency of popular Christianity in our day-which Christian Smith called "moralistic, therapeutic deism"-can be further substantiated by the studies of sociologist Marsha Witten. In All Is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism, Witten revealed her results from studying the texts of 47 sermons on the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32), delivered from 1986 to 1988 by various pastors in two denominations: the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Southern Baptist Convention. She begins the book by recounting an afternoon on Good Friday 1990. Listening to J. S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion, "with antiphonal choirs calling out sorrowfully to Jesus in his grave," the daily mail arrived and Witten opened the thickest envelope first. It was promotional material for a new Baptist church launching in her area with the following message:

Hi Neighbor!

At last! A new church for those who have given up on church services! Let's face it. Many people aren't active in church these days.
Too often
  • the sermons are boring and don't relate to daily living

  • many churches seem more interested in your wallet than in you

  • members are unfriendly to visitors

  • you wonder about the quality of the nursery care for your little ones

  • Do you think attending church should be enjoyable?
    Valley Church is a new church designed to meet your needs in the 1990's. At Valley Church you
  • meet new friends and get to know your neighbors

  • enjoy exciting music with a contemporary flavor

  • hear positive, practical messages which uplift you each week
  • How to feel good about yourself

  • How to overcome depression

  • How to have a full and successful life

  • Learning to handle your money without it
    handling you

  • The secrets of successful family living

  • How to overcome stress

  • trust your children to the care of dedicated nursery workers

    Witten, who describes herself as a non-Christian, uses this anecdote-St. Matthew's Passion contrasted with the new church's promotional materials-to frame the conclusions she arrived at after extensive studies:

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    1 [ Back ] All quotes, unless otherwise noted, from Marsha Witten, All Is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).
    2 [ Back ] For Weber's own argument, see his essay, "Science as a Vocation," in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, eds. H. Gerth and C. W. Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1946), pp. 129-160. The literature on this question is vast, but two books are especially critical for getting a beat on contemporary sociological interpretations of Weber's theory: Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967), and Thomas Luckmann, The Invisible Religion (London: Collier-Macmillan, 1967).
    3 [ Back ] George Barna, Marketing the Church: What They Never Taught You About Church Growth (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1988).

    Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, The Christian Faith, and For Calvinism.

    Issue: "The New Atheism" March/April 2008 Vol. 17 No. 2 Page number(s): 48-52

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