Psychologist Phil McGraw, “Dr. Phil,” made a name for himself in television interviews with advice seekers. His famous question was, “So how’s that working for you?” The usual answer is not very well. Hence the need for advice.
“How’s it working for you” is the major touchpoint for relating to others in our modern American culture. An increasingly large proportion of Americans don’t walk around thinking about their relationship with a God who is seldom talked about seriously in daily life. Our culture shouts that what really counts is what can be counted in dollars and possessions. The purpose in life is to have More. Yet studies repeatedly show that getting “More” does not bring lasting satisfaction. So how’s that working for people who have more possessions and accomplishments than were ever had by any nation in world history? Not very well. Most still feel something is missing.
Traditional Christian preaching was good at addressing people who felt a sense of guilt toward God. We lived under a sacred canopy where life could be integrated around responsibilities to God and to others. But that sacred canopy is gone for many and shaky for many more. Without that canopy, guilt is not a widespread condition. Most hearing the message would conclude that “sin and salvation” are for somebody else, but not me.
So what is the touchpoint for presenting the Gospel to people who don’t have a sense of guilt?
“Malaise” is a fancy word academics use to describe a general feeling of discomfort, illness, or uneasiness whose exact cause is difficult to identify. Lack of fulfillment is a good description. Feeling lost and alone is another angle. The lead issue for many is “There’s got to be more to life than what I am experiencing.” The word “spirituality” can describe the search for something beyond the material world. For Bible-based Christians, some approaches to that elusive spirituality are bizarre. But recognize the underlying condition of hunger for a better life. That current hunger is the touchpoint for Christian witness today.
If the hunger today is for “spirituality,” then answer it with true Spirituality, the quality of life believers can have under the power of Christ’s Spirit.
The world today is different from the one Paul faced. They worshipped gods, and their gods could get angry and mess up their lives. Theirs was a religion based on guilt and fear of not sufficiently appeasing the gods. Even the educated elite on the Areopagus wanted to be sure they covered all bases by acknowledging an unknown god. If those pagans did not show enough reverence, especially to the local gods, they believed bad things could happen to them, their families, and their city.
In contrast, Paul offered the God who demonstrated his love by granting his favor through the appeasement his Son earned. This New Testament God offered love, grace, and fellowship in his Spirit.
So, what is our message today when there aren’t any gods that moderns fear and when guilt is not a motivator?
When I began my concentrated study of the Third Person of the Trinity about ten years ago, one of the first books I read was When God Talks Back, by T. M. Luhrmann from her anthropologist perspective of the social sciences. Anthropologists’ favorite research approach is to embed themselves in a culture and participate as an observer. She did this in a Vineyard Christian fellowship for several years at the elite University of Chicago and then in another Vineyard group at the even more elite Stanford University.
This is the question that intrigued her. “How are rational, sensible people of faith able to experience the presence of a powerful yet invisible being and sustain that belief in an environment of overwhelming skepticism?” Here is what she observed: “For those who have trained themselves to concentrate on their inner experiences, God is experienced in the brain as an actual social relationship: his voice was identified, and that identification was trusted and regarded as real and interactive.”
Let this new kind of relationship with God and other believers be the touchpoint today. Help lonely moderns, hungering for more in life, learn to experience the empowering presence of the Spirit. Then teach them about the love of the Father and the grace of his Son Jesus Christ.
Do you think many young adults today walk about with a sense of guilt over a Superior Being? How’s that working for them?