The Oprah-ization of American Evangelicalism


A little more than ten years ago I sat in the plush seats of Willow Creek Community Church, the Sunday pageantry unfolding before my eyes as I took copious notes for a college class: slick, professional music; non-threatening setting lacking any controversial religious symbolism; an (unknown to me) Christian “celebrity” telling how she saved her faltering marriage; a dramatic presentation on why men and women just can’t get along; and a message from founding pastor Bill Hybels talking about the unmet psychological and physical needs of marriage partners. There was something for everyone and the crowds seemed to leave happy. Little did I know that I was watching would become the norm of evangelical church programming in years to come.

Later, as I tried to analyze the information I had compiled after almost eight months of charting Willow Creek’s programming style, I was left wondering. Where was the cross of Christ (not the one that hangs in the sanctuary, but the one that asks all men to die to self)? Why was everything so calculatingly planned out? Why the lack of Bible exposition during the message and the overt reliance on psychology to explain our condition? But most disturbing of all, given the emphasis on reaching “seekers”, what were people being saved from and just whom were they being saved by?

A few years later, I talked with the pastor of the rapidly growing Midwest church I had attended for several years. My wife and I were moving to Silicon Valley and wanted to have a nice transition. In that time, I said to him, “Please, don’t let this church become just another Willow Creek.”

California didn’t pan out in the long run, so we eventually returned to find that my almost prophetic warning had gone unheeded. Not only that, but the church was firmly under the auspices of The Willow Creek Association, a rather nebulous organization that continues to draw evangelical churches into its fold. Along the way, the same ministry mentality had permeated many aspects of my old church. Cultural relevancy was the mantra and the message was less about the person of Jesus and more about how He can meet my felt needs. The messages were more structured along the lines of three points and a conclusion. Much of the charismatic emphasis that had brought me to the church in the first place had been toned down, perhaps to keep from scaring away seekers.

Having settled more than an hour from that church, we started looking around our area only to find ourselves startled by the sameness of different denominational churches that all were trying to be a clone of the church we were thinking about leaving, itself more of a clone of Willow Creek. In a bit more than a decade, what started in Barrington, IL had successfully permeated throughout a variety of different Christian traditions.

I’ve never really understood the fascination with Oprah’s TV show. And yet, I find evangelical churches today to be transitioning into something that increasingly resembles the Oprah cult. Truth is subject to feeling. Empathy reigns – how deeply someone feels about someone else’s pain is the principle measure of their spiritual depth. The Bible is just one source of wisdom. Anything that attempts to help us grow in religious knowledge is unquestionably assimilated. Reliance on psychological methods of dealing with reality is a given. Like John Lennon sang, “Whatever gets you through the night, it’s alright….”

Francis Schaeffer warned that the evangelical church’s fascination with philosophies outside of the ring of God’s truth would eventually drive it into error. He particularly cites the wholesale incorporation of psychological theory as one of the harbingers of disaster. We are living that warning every Sunday across America.

So even as pastors claim that their teaching is getting better and better – and 90% rate themselves as Good/Excellent in this regard according to pollster George Barna – biblical knowledge among those in the pews is reaching all-time lows. It is a curious thing that the unction of the Holy Spirit seems to be yielding a flock of “three points and a conclusion” messages that are falling on largely deaf ears. Perhaps we are entering a second fulfillment of Amos 8:11 – “The days are coming,” declares the Sovereign LORD , “when I will send a famine through the land- not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD .” Our sanctuaries are filled with costly, state-of-the-art sound systems, but there appears to be nothing worth hearing coming out of the speakers.

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