In an earlier column (part of a series on expressive individualism as a challenge facing the church today), I mentioned what happens to the notion of sin in a culture like ours. When “Be true to yourself” is the greatest commandment, the failure to be yourself becomes the biggest sin, with the rejection of someone else’s self-expression following close behind.

This redefinition of sin away from a God-centered vision and toward a moralistic or therapeutic understanding of personal fulfillment does not necessarily decrease the sense among people that they are “spiritual” or even “religious.” One can recast much of Christianity, and even churchgoing, in terms that are friendly to the expressive individualism of our society. The result is that the historic truths of Christianity and the moral claims of the church get pushed to the periphery of one’s religious experience, while the center gets pulled toward a more generic kind of “inspiration.”

I liken this pull to a riptide. That’s the strong current that can catch someone unaware and draw them out into the ocean. In an expressive individualist society, we’re all susceptible to the riptide of mere inspiration, of pushing the moral authority of Jesus and his Word to the periphery of our life as the currents of inspiration pull us under and away from the shore.

Mere Inspiration

Here’s what I mean by “mere inspiration.” It’s a positive and “feel good” message intended to lift us up and restore our sense of self so we can continue on in the journey we’ve determined for ourselves. Some inspiration is drawn from explicitly biblical sources—New Testament words of encouragement or exhortation, or psalms of lament or prophecies of restoration. But divorced from their historical setting or divested of their biblical context, the words no longer have the power to challenge us about the path we may be on. They are marshaled in support of the path we’ve chosen.

In other words, church attendance, devotionals, Christian songs—all of these become ways of helping us along in the life we envision for ourselves (a life of seeking to find and express our best selves), rather than powerful words to radically reorient and shift our self-understanding. We can mount up on wings like eagles, run and not grow weary, be strong and courageous, and bask in God’s plans to prosper us as we walk life’s road. These words and images are drawn from the Bible, but they’ve been caught in the riptide of mere inspiration.

You see this happen on Christian radio. I’ve used this column before to chide critics of contemporary Christian music who believe there’s nothing but fluff on Christian radio. That’s not the case. Many of today’s most popular songs are rich in theology. Still, even the songs with theological substance—when set within an overall atmosphere of positive and encouraging inspiration—get redirected toward the purpose of life as determined by expressive individualism. (“I was so discouraged, but I found this station, and it made me feel like I can move forward and never give up.”) Even worship songs with lyrics that exalt God can be redirected, to the point we judge their effectiveness by how much they move or inspire us.

The same could be said of a number of Christian books. Many are positive, uplifting, and encouraging, with a smattering of biblical texts and references throughout their pages. They may have nothing doctrinally problematic in them at all, and so they pass the cut of being “safe” theologically. And yet, in an expressive individualist society, even the biblically faithful book gets caught in the riptide of mere inspiration. It’s judged by how well it encourages people on the journey they’re already on, not by bringing the Bible into conflict with the reader, so that he or she may question the quest for self-fulfillment that animates so many of us these days.

Preaching and the Riptide

Dare we say that preachers can get caught in the riptide of inspiration? Yes. Here’s an example I used earlier this year. Let’s say you’re in the New Testament preaching about the “abundant life” that Jesus promised his followers, or the power of the Spirit that can help us overcome obstacles in our lives. In order to encourage people going through difficult times, we can trot out all sorts of inspiring Bible verses about how God is with us, beside us, in us, and for us. Everything we say may be theologically and biblically accurate.

But in the context of North America, people will inevitably interpret these truths through a therapeutic framework. They will assume the purpose of religion is to present God as a helper, who provides them with abundance and happiness, perhaps through material possessions, a promotion at work, or inner peace and tranquility. You can be heard as a preacher of the prosperity gospel and never say anything theologically inaccurate. You can be heard as a promoter of moralistic therapeutic deism even though you never stray from biblical statements.

Unless we define what the abundant life is according to Scripture, people will define abundant life according to the world. They will say “Amen” to your teaching all day long, when in reality, you and your audience are speaking two different languages. You’re working from two different frameworks. Your idea of abundance is about the God-centered flourishing life that belongs to every Christian and would even include the martyr who holds on to hope after witnessing his wife and children slaughtered before his eyes. Their idea of abundance is about the American Dream with a veneer of Christian spirituality.

Gospel-Centered Inspiration?

Even gospel-centered preachers who push against moralistic excess and champion the goodness of grace and the personal love of God for each individual can be interpreted in a way that reinforces expressive individualism rather than challenges it. Some of Tim Keller’s quotes can be reduced to sound bites of mere inspiration meant to encourage you in your daily walk. If Keller’s work can be reworked in this way (and Keller is one of the most astute observers of how the expressive individualist mindset needs to be challenged), then virtually all of us who preach—even those of us who seek to preach in a gospel-centered way—need to recognize just how easily our congregations can be caught up in the riptide of inspiration.

To be clear, I am not against inspiring sermons, books, and songs. I’m not a crotchety critic of any “feel good” movie or music. Mere inspiration isn’t the worst thing out there, but it can lead us into dangerous waters whenever it becomes a substitute for the life-transforming, world-upside-down-turning news of the gospel. It can keep entire spheres of our lives (our sexuality, our political positions, our racial biases, our consumerist habits) safely out of reach of the gospel’s influence. When those of us who should be grounded and steadfast in our commitment to proclaiming the death and resurrection of our living Lord get caught in the riptide of mere inspiration or vague spirituality, the Church becomes more like the world.

So what’s to be done in resisting expressive individualism? How can church leaders respond effectively? More on that in a future column . . .