The Death of a Personal Savior

I've been thinking about this topic for a while, but this recent essay from Laura Turner, daughter of megachurch pastor and author John Ortberg, crystallized things for me - uniting together what I had seen traveling the country last year interviewing primarily conservative Christians for my book, Red State Christians, witnessing the death and destruction of so many Evangelical giants, and feeling inside myself that something was deeply amiss in American Christianity and also that something new was rising in its place.

I am Turner's age, 34, and while I share some of her remembrances of Evangelical teenage culture (yes I did attend a day-long purity retreat that was an excused absence from public school) I've also spent much of my time on the sidelines of Evangelical culture. After all, I went to seminary and was ordained in a mainline denomination (Lutheran). Unlike many of my fellow female Christian writers, my dad wasn't a pastor. Actually, he kind of hated the church - though he tolerated our weekly services and even briefly taught Lutheran Sunday school for the sake of the family.

My dad, far from the realm of Promise Keepers and overprotective Christian dads of lore, was instead a lapsed Catholic, who watched his mom devote her life to the Church only to suffer tragedy after tragedy; a man who attended an overcrowded and sometimes violent Catholic grade school only to learn later that his priest had been among those on a list of abusers in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minn.

My grandpa, my mom's dad, had been a Lutheran pastor, but unlike the Evangelical success stories of the late 20th Century, my grandpa toiled in the relative salt mines of the mainline Lutheran Church during the 60s and 70s. Divorcing when his children were high schoolers, in the midst of Civil Rights and Vietnam, my grandpa was forced to leave his church and never quite regained his footing as a Lutheran pastor, even up until his death earlier this year.

My grandpa's faith, mighty as it was, could not be rooted in his personal salvation story, because his personal story was one of great promise and great loss, of high expectations and disappointment and poverty and broken relationships and familial mental illness and competition and familial addiction and a Savior who was willing to walk into the murk of it all.

The triumphalist faith of Willow Creek and its late-20th Century counterparts never quite worked for my family of Lutherans and Catholics. We held within us too many stories of tragedy and poverty, of struggle and loss - fighting in wars and losing homes to fires and children born with special needs.

When I was 11, I attended a Baptist Bible camp rich in the theology that made so many American churches great in the 1990s and early 2000s.

"Are you ready to pray the prayer and ask Jesus into your heart?" my blonde, gregarious, open-hearted camp counselor asked me.

I took a deep breath.

"No," I said. "Because I know he's already there."


Deeply rooted inside of me, at war with the popular Evangelical theology of the day, was a more orthodox church teaching that relied not on my own desire for God but on God's desire and love for me. Asking Jesus into my heart was anathema to the ancient theology of God's sovereignty and power that tethered my Lutheran Church, reaching its steeple into the sky, to more banal religious traditions.

In high school I longed for the comparable fervor of my more conservative Christian friends, who gathered at the flagpole and protested the creation of a Straight-Gay Alliance at my suburban Midwestern high school.

Their conviction for their own rightness was both alluring and scary.

In her essay, Turner talks about "an urgency to faith when we were young, a need to get it right that made everything else feel unimportant ... This is a story about what happens when you - when I - lose that urgency."

Turner's story is a personal one, rooted in specific details of one of America's largest megachurches and its eventual downturn, but the phenomenon she talks about is rooted in a theological heresy that has devastated popular American Christianity for decades.

Americans have long vested too much of salvation into human hands, foisting a can-do independence that served the frontier well onto a faith that insists upon a God who loved and acted first, prior to human action and individuality.

Turner's aforementioned urgency came because she and her friends believed that they, ordinary human beings, had immense power to affect salvation, not only their own but others' as well. They had to pray a prayer, they had to be pure, they had to convince others to pray the same prayer - and maybe also to listen to the same music and embrace the same sexual ethics as them, ethics rooted in human patriarchy more than Biblical witness.

But a world ruled by sin and death can not long sustain a theology based on human power. To grow up is to learn that you are but a grain of sand in a world wracked by earthquakes, floods, and a human propensity to violence and greed. No prayer or virtuous desire can save this world, not even a band of teenagers united by confidence in their own self-righteousness or that of their church, and bolstered by a background that's white, suburban and middle to upper-middle class.

The popularization of a salvation earned by prayer and human righteousness was damaging to all Americans, not just Turner and her friends. In its focus on the individual, it perpetuated a Christianity that could ignore your African-American neighbor, except to encourage him to pray and repent personally, to accept Jesus Christ as his personal lord and savior, even as the structures of a so-called Christian government conspired against his race.

Rooting salvation in the individual absolved the church catholic (the broader church, not the Roman Catholic Church) of responsibility for establishing and sustaining communities of believers, the raison d'ĂȘtre of the church for millennia. The cult of the individual savior seeped even into the traditionally communal Roman Catholic Church, investing vast sums of money into individually charismatic Catholic leaders, making them invulnerable to accusations of sexual abuse and putting them into an elitist tier in which their sinful actions went unquestioned, so focused was the church on individual sin and individual repentance, as well as a personality cult built on financial power and influence.

Meanwhile, churches who had long insisted on God's sovereignty and the health of the community wondered why their churches didn't have stadium seating like those of the individual salvation personal gospel. Bill Hybels, founding pastor of Willow Creek, and Rick Warren, founding pastor of Saddleback, made millions selling "church growth" principles to tiny congregations across America. They had some good ideas, like implementing technology and stripping congregations of irrelevant or unexplained ritual, but their principal product was not Jesus but themselves.

Was it any surprise that churches raised up on an ethic of individual salvation became churches that were vulnerable to overtake by personality cults? Was it any surprise that those same churches became vulnerable to abuses of power, financial or sexual misconduct, by those same leaders who created their own personality cults?

The community structure that held individuals accountable in traditional churches was weak in the churches of the personal salvation gospel. In a faith undergirded by a personal ethic of salvation, the ultimate good was the individual and his salvation. What was the need, after all, for a church, anyway, except to bolster the individual?

Lost in the wreckage were those for whom a personal salvation gospel declared they were sin itself, rather than redeemed sinner. Women, like Turner, who grew up in the heyday of mass American Evangelical culture, were taught that they themselves were the temptation and the sin standing in the way of the ultimate salvation story, the triumph of the individual man. Female salvation was a byproduct of male individual salvation, and the female was always a threat to the promise of male individual salvation.

When abuses occurred in this highly individualistic culture, women were forced to wear the scarlet letters and bear the community's sin, as was anyone considered deviant: people who identified as LGBTQ, people of color, anyone who challenged the status quo established by the leader of the personality cult, who was almost always a straight white man.

Now, grown-up Evangelical Americans, like those in Turner's essay, can only wander the wreckage of popular Evangelical Christianity. The tide has turned in America, even as formerly disgraced Evangelical pastor Mark Driscoll still auctions off his sermon notes in exchange for newsletter signups online.

Still, as America does, we have outsourced our poisonous personal ethic of Christian salvation. Personality cult Christian churches have popped up around the world, especially in the burgeoning Christianity of the Global South. Perhaps our siblings there will be more discerning, will dwell more in a Bible that insists it is God who chooses, God who redeems, God alone who is worthy of worship - not us, no matter how many times we accept Jesus into our hearts.

As for us apostate cultural Christians, American Christianity is a hollowed-out shell in search of a center, a void longing again for meaning. Bewildered Americans, lurching from Trump tweet to CNN pundits and flying accusations of racism, sometimes turned to Ex-Evangelicals like Turner and writer Rachel Held Evans, who held a generation of former Evangelicals in the palm of her hand and deep in her empathetic heart, before dying too young this May after an infection caused by an allergic reaction to a medication.

Held Evans, and Turner, and other ex-Evangelical writers, many of them LGBTQ people or heterosexual women, carried a weight perhaps too heavy for themselves to hold. Refugees from a personal salvation gospel that dehumanized women and made them the bearers of sexual sin, as Turner puts it: "if you occupied a female body ... you often came away from a talk about sex feeling bad about yourself," -- these ex-Evangelicals do not hold within themselves the hope for a wandering and depressed American body Christian, though their honest stories help us to pinpoint where exactly the church went so wrong.

Instead, I look for hope in unexpected places.

Two Sundays ago I preached in a Lutheran congregation that has worshiped on a corner in South Minneapolis for more than 125 years. The sanctuary doesn't have air conditioning, so I wore only a stole and a clip-on microphone that worked better in some spots than others.

Attendees strolled in lackadaisically, among them decades-long members, people in wheelchairs, 20somethings visiting for the first time, and a baby who cried during the sermon. There was no child care, no announcement on the screen for parents to leave discreetly and attend to their baby in the nursery, as I'd experienced at Willow Creek and other megachurches.

Our liturgical singing was clumsy and the hymns plodded. We could have used more technology, more A/C, more of the trappings of successful American Christian culture.

Still, that day I preached from Luke's Gospel, Chapter 10, verse 2. Jesus is sending out disciples into the surrounding area, 70 of them, to basically go door-to-door and share the Good News.

"The harvest is plentiful," Jesus tells the 70. "But the laborers are few."

As one who loves large churches, loves preaching in stadium-style sanctuaries on Christmas Eve to thousands while using a screen, these words can be hard to swallow. But if Christians have learned anything in an era where 87 percent of white Evangelicals voted for a President who promised to deny humanitarian need to migrants and American citizens alike, we might know that the Gospel of Jesus and the Good Samaritan is not always fit for the majority.

Rather than the personal salvation gospel of Willow Creek and Turner's story, which enabled American Christians to ignore the destruction of mutually beneficial communities, this new era encourages us to embrace a salvation ethic that promises redemption reliant on God and on one another - more so than ourselves.

In that small, stifling sanctuary in Minneapolis, with few laborers, I saw a faith that has endured - not on the basis of a personal prayer or savior but on the sacrifice of God and of ourselves to support one another.

I remember, finally, worshiping with the Middle Eastern Christians of Houston at the Arabic Christian Church last year, after leaving worship at Joel Osteen's megachurch just up the road.

These men and women and children had come to America from Lebanon and Syria and Jordan, the original Palestinian Christians from the homeland of Jesus. They had been persecuted and taxed and beaten for their beliefs. They called themselves Evangelicals, melding their homeland's ethic of hospitality and community with an American hope in the value of the individual. They had learned, it seemed, to embrace individuals and support their needs while not confusing individual affirmation with individual salvation. They could be unique Christians, connected individually to Jesus, without neglecting the needs of one another and forgetting that salvation comes to us from beyond ourselves.

When I asked these Middle Eastern Christians about the future of American Christianity and American politics, many of them shrugged. They took the long view. They had to, because that was how their faith had survived more than 2,000 years, and what had brought them here to the so-called Promised Land, together, in the shadow of their Savior.

Photo taken from the Facebook page of the Arabic Christian Church


  1. Poor Arabic Christian Church, so far from Heaven so close to Joel Osteen's Mega Church.

    1. They are closer to Heaven than most in this world think even closer than Joel Osteen's congregation, for Jesus said blessed are the poor, for the kingdom shall be theirs.


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