American Syncretism

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

Syncretism is one of those topics that comes up frequently in missionary conversations but is usually about someone else and some other culture.  But it is not only Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam or some other non-Christian religion that can get mixed into Christianity.  

In this post, I want to look briefly at four ways in which American Christianity has absorbed the values and assumptions of its surrounding culture and thus become syncretistic, compromising the Biblical faith. Syncretism certainly needs to be talked about in places where the church grows up in the midst of other religions.  But it also needs to be addressed in supposedly Christian countries.  There is no one, and no church, that is immune to the unwitting absorption of non-Christian ways of thinking into its corporate life.

1. The Prosperity Gospel

There are far too many American preachers claiming that God’s will for all Christians is that they be healthy and wealthy.  They use Bible verses to prop up their theology but at the end of the day, they are really preaching the American dream rather than the biblical Gospel.

2. Attitude Toward the Demonic    

The American church often fails to take the demonic seriously.  The idea of a personal devil that not only deceives but also attacks people in the physical manner that we see in the New Testament seems preposterous to most people, even to Christians.  I personally have not seen demonic manifestations but I have heard stories from people whom I regard as reliable.  I am not charismatic but I think that we need to take the supernatural seriously.  The American church has, by and large, been overly influenced by an anti-supernatural understanding of the world.  Can God break into the world supernaturally?  Can he do so to combat demonic forces who can do the same?  While on the one hand, I think that accounts of direct demonic activity are sometimes over reported on the mission field, they may be under reported in the West.  Could demonic activity be the causation of more than we normally think?

3. Church as Business & Worshippers as Consumers

Americans love the business model of doing church.  The pastor is the CEO and it is his job, together with a large staff of specialized professionals, to develop products and services to meet the demands of consumers who are choosing from a vast spread of spiritual options.  Therefore, the church needs to deliver a better product than the church down the street.  They need to deliver a more exciting product than the shopping mall does, otherwise everyone will be at the mall instead of the church on Sunday morning.  Everything revolves around making the consumer happy.  And the consumers happily pay the company (i.e. the church) to meet their needs.  Is this really the model of church that we see in the New Testament?  Jesus said to Peter, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-18). Paul told the Ephesian elders to care for the flock that was entrusted to their care (Acts 20:28).  Pastors are shepherds, not high powered business executives.  Christians are members of the body of Christ who should be using their gifts to build one another up in love and faith.  It is not all about us and how the church can serve us.  It is about how we can serve one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.  If we feel like a church isn’t “working” for us, maybe that indicates something is wrong, not with the church, but with our expectations of church.

4. Individualism

For many American Christians, being a Christian is primarily about “Jesus and me.”  The church is an optional extra that is useful but not necessary.  But did God intend for the Christian to be primarily sustained in grace apart from the church?  We often think that each individual Christian needs to find spiritual practices that “work” for them and that the church is there to aid in that personal quest.  There is some truth to that but I think that Biblically, the church is absolutely necessary and that it is impossible to faithfully live the Christian life apart from the church.  It is through the teaching of the Word and through baptism and communion, and the fellowship of a local church body that God ministers his grace to us.  Yes, personal Bible reading is important.  But when Christ saved us, he saved us into something.  We are baptized into something.  That something is the church.  We are baptized in the body of Christ.  In order to have abundant life, we NEED to be connected to the body.  Too often, American Christians think that a formal regular commitment to the body of Christ, i.e. being an active church member, is optional.  When we are not part of the church, we are not only hurting ourselves by missing out on what the church can do for us, but we are also hurting others by failing to minister to them with what God has given to us.  Americans love free choice and options.  But when God saves us, being part of his church - being an active part of his church - is not optional.  It is required.  If church is not “working” for us, we may need to consider whether we have really understood that we are part of God’s family for life, and that we need to serve our brothers and sisters in Christ even if we feel like they may not be serving us as they should.


Photo credit: sciascia


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