Christless Christianity (The Alternative Gospel of the American Church) by Michael Horton
Horton comes out with both guns blazing in this critical analysis of the church in America. As the title suggests, he is accusing the church of being nothing less than “Christless.” That is, the church has become so distracted by everything from false teaching (examples given include Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer) to energy-sapping programs, to faulty understanding of the purpose and mission of the church, that it has lost Christ Himself in the mix. Christianity need not explicitly deny any key foundational teaching to become Christless; it merely needs to buy into a “series of subtle distortions and not-so-subtle distractions” (p. 20). “My argument in this book,” Horton writes, “is not that evangelicalism is becoming theologically liberal but that it is becoming theologically vacuous” (p. 23). It is for this reason that “precisely the most numerically successful versions of religion will be the least tethered to the biblical drama of redemption centering on Christ” (pp. 54-55). In Horton’s view “we are living out our creed, but that creed is closer to the American dream than it is to the Christian faith” (p. 21).
These are damning critiques of the American church. If true, Christians have misplaced Christ in the midst of our service for Him and are dangerously close to losing Him altogether. Have we, like the Pharisees of the first century, marginalized the Lord out of the faith even as we passionately pursue Him? Does Horton present evidence that proves his case? I have to say, he does a pretty good job. Still, to me he seemed a bit long on generalities and short on specifics.
For example, Horton is on target when he writes, “I think that the church in America today is so obsessed with being practical, relevant, helpful, successful, and perhaps even well-liked that it nearly mirrors the world itself. Aside from the packaging, there is nothing that cannot be found in most churches today that could not be satisfied by any number of secular programs and self-help groups” (pp. 16-17). Horton is on to something here, but he paints with a broad brush and he is skimpy on details. He does, in fact, devote considerable attention to the teaching of Joel Osteen (pp. 67-100), although strangely he does not footnote a single statement from Osteen’s writings. But Osteen is hardly an evangelical and not particularly germane to the argument of this book, in my opinion. Osteen and other prosperity gospel leaders, along with theological liberals (see p. 167) and cults, have surely distorted the gospel and the church but this is neither news nor representative of the evangelical mainstream. While the information is helpful (although limited without documentation) it does not address the “sins” of those Horton is trying to convince. For that he would need to turn to Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Christianity Today, James Dobson and the like. If he is to prove his case Horton would have to do so in the solidly evangelical arena represented by such as these. This he does not do, although he does take random shots at George Barna (p. 61), emergent leader Brian McLaren (p. 114), Willow Creek (pp. 192-194), and Dan Kimball (p. 117).
Because Horton did not connect the dots from his thesis (that we are living in the day of Christless Christianity) to specific evangelical leaders and organizations, I found myself frustrated. While my own research would resonate with Horton’s indictment, I found little in this volume that provides proof he is correct. One specific piece of evidence Horton does offer is a study taken from 47 sermons on the Prodigal Son delivered in Southern Baptist and Presbyterian Churches (USA) from 1986-1988 (pp. 48-61). This study, while obviously dated, suggests that these sermons present a therapeutic message rather than a Christ-centered one. This is a good point, but Horton himself is in danger of importing the gospel message of reconciliation through the cross into the Prodigal Son account, even though it is not there (p. 56). This is no doubt due to Horton’s view, commonly held, that the whole Bible is about Jesus (pp. 143). With this approach to Scripture the meaning of the biblical texts cannot stand on their own—they must somehow always directly point to Christ. This leads to allegorizing and excessive typology (pp. 148-152). I am not disagreeing that in the big picture all of Scripture is framed by Christ and the gospel, but we must be careful not to press each detail so hard that we distort the authorial meaning of individual texts.
I appreciate how Horton clearly shows the works-based theology of Joel Osteen and other prosperity teachers (pp. 78, 79, 87, 134). Yet, I am less certain about Horton’s views on other matters such as these:
• Horton is covenantal in his theology but he seems to go beyond the covenantal system in attributing saving power to the sacraments (pp. 178, 218-224).
• What should be the actual content of our sermons? Is the gospel the only legitimate message? What exactly does Horton mean by “the gospel?”
• Does he not over-emphasize the role of pastors and elders at the expense of the ministries of the body (pp. 184, 199, 223)?
• Is he correct that the purpose of worship is to receive, not give to, God (p. 198)?
• What does he mean, “The church is the creation of the Word” (p.220)?
On the positive side, however, while he is short on specifics Horton is right in general. He shows from church history, especially the revivalism of Finney and company, that the roots of Christless Christianity run deep (pp. 44-52, 173, 159-187). Liberalism started by downplaying doctrine in favor of moralism and experience (p. 24). Today, therefore, “Across the entire spectrum from conservative to liberal, we are being told that we need to focus on deeds, not creeds” (p. 121). In addition, Christianity today draws from pietism and romanticism as it locates ultimate authority in experience rather than Scripture (pp. 221, 227, 232, 240). And Horton is right on the money when he warns that the church’s mission is not to fix the planet but to call people to Christ (pp. 141, 208, 217). It does not matter if the “drumbeat is abortion and gay marriage or global warming and famine if our programs and activities subtly replace Christ’s” (p. 207). Nor are we called to focus on “What would Jesus do?” Rather our attention should be on what has Jesus done (pp. 25-26, 110, 117). Horton is again correct when he states, “Once you make your peace of mind rather than peace with God the main problem to be solved, the whole gospel becomes radically redefined” (p. 39).
Even with the issues I have raised, Christless Christianity is nevertheless a book well worth reading. I believe Horton is correct in his general thesis—the church is losing sight of Christ even as it seeks to serve Him. I think the book would be far more valuable if Horton would address more specifics within evangelicalism and if he would clarify some of his statements. But the overall assessment of Christianity in America is on the mark. We can only hope that many evangelical leaders will take notice.