Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?


Written by Mark E. Reynolds

Mark E. Reynolds is currently the senior pastor at Shepherd’s Community United Methodist Church in Lakeland, FL, but will be moving to First UMC Cocoa Beach, FL, in June 2016. The author of New Life in Christ: Understanding Your Decision to Follow Jesus and Finding Your Next Steps, Reynolds holds graduate degrees from Emory University and Vanderbilt University and teaches as part of the course of study at Candler School of Theology at Emory University.


crossIntroduction: What Did Jesus Really Say and Can We Hear Him Today?

I recently attended a lecture given by John Dominic Crossan[1] on the violence of God in the Christian Bible.[2] His central thesis was clear: “If the biblical Christ is the norm, criterion, and discriminant of the Christian Bible, then the historical Jesus is the norm, criterion, and discriminant of the biblical Christ.” After making some cursory remarks about how to distinguish between the words of the historical Jesus (or the earliest oral tradition attributed to Jesus) and the words of the early church placed on his lips, Crossan developed an argument for the historical Jesus as a non-violent Jewish revolutionary who cast a radical vision of peace through (distributive) justice.

As the lecture drew to a close, what stood out as most interesting to me were the sayings that Crossan, in some sense, attributed to the historical Jesus:

  • Bless those who persecute you.
  • Don’t return evil for evil, but overcome evil with good.
  • Be kind to your enemies.
  • Give away your possessions.

It occurred to me that although there is rigorous debate about the authenticity of other sayings (much of which revolves around whether or not Jesus’ message was apocalyptic), the vast majority of historical Jesus scholars, whether liberal or conservative, agree that Jesus said these kinds of things. What is even more striking is that these sayings that have garnered scholarly consensus in the Twenty-First Century are precisely the ones that are most problematic for the American church today.

When thinking about why this might be the case, I have a nagging suspicion that it has something to do with our preoccupation with success. In what follows, I simply try to voice some of my informal reflections in hopes of generating a discussion. Although I have been trained as an academic theologian, this is not a scholarly article. I mean no offense to academics, but after leaving the academy almost ten years ago to devote my life to pastoral ministry, I am not interested in crafting an airtight argument supported by long footnotes that can withstand the rigorous critique of people who are much smarter than me. This qualifying statement is my way of asking for grace from those who serve the world well in an academic setting. Rather than seeing yourself as a respondent on a panel at the American Academy of Religion (and hence seeking to refute my claims), my hope is that you will read as a friend (and try to help me, as a pastor, to wrestle with a problem that is very real in the church).

money-bagsSuccess: Trying to Understand the Problem

As I serve in the local church, I get the feeling that Christianity is being co-opted by a preoccupation with success. Many pastors (including myself at times) want to be more like Steven Furtick than like Jesus, and to lead churches that look more like Fortune 500 companies than the ecclesia described in the book of Acts. In terms of the laity, instead of renouncing their quest for worldly success, many convert to Christianity in hopes that it will provide them with more effective strategies for achieving such worldly acclaim!

I have come to believe that the success culture in America has its own vision and prescription for salvation, and one of the biggest challenges for pastors is figuring out exactly what this looks like. My hunch is that the logic of the success culture is driven by a notion of power construed as willful and controlling, even manipulative and coercive. It takes many forms, including wealth, fame, charisma, intelligence, and sex appeal. To be successful means to possess and effectively leverage power to achieve a series of goals that are themselves designed to increase power, expand freedom, and merit the praise of others who have already joined the club. Inherent in all of this is the ability to control oneself and others, to effectively manipulate resources, and to manage external circumstances.

Successful people exercise the power to control their thoughts. They cultivate the “power of positive thinking,” which not only helps them manage their outlook but can even bring external circumstances into alignment with internal desires. Don’t you know The Secret of how we can leverage the “law of attraction” by the power of positive thinking to create life-changing results of increased happiness, health, and wealth? Successful people also control their emotions and exhibit an internal strength that precludes neediness, vulnerability, and anything else that can be perceived as weakness. Winners are of sound mental health, evidenced by the power to manage and eradicate anxiety, guilt, depression, and other undesirable feelings. In the parlance of much that passes for women’s ministry today, strong people “choose joy.” They don’t really need anyone else to be happy, but create their own happiness and then design relationships in ways that enhance and protect it. Successful people also possess the personal power to transform a “normal body” (which is an entry-level requirement for the school of success) into a beautiful body, which always increases one’s power! Even in the church, people are encouraged to follow biblical diets like The Daniel Plan and commit to exercise as a fifth spiritual discipline. If you can leverage personal power to control your thoughts, emotions, and appearance, then you are well on your way to managing the perceptions of others (in both real and virtual environments), thereby gaining greater influence over people who can advance your quest for success. (Who cares about people who lack the power to promote, or derail, your agenda?)

Although I am no Clifford Geertz, it seems to me that all of this has generated a powerful cultural stream in America that exercises a gravitational pull on the church. To shift metaphors, it creates a pair of glasses through which we see all of life, including the life of faith. Read through these glasses, the Gospel is not seen as a call to abandon the quest for worldly success, but a new and improved strategy for successfully completing the quest! In the most concrete terms, when I preach on Sunday mornings that we should fully surrender our lives to Jesus as Lord and Savior, which includes allowing him radically to redefine our values and goals in light of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, I fear that many hear, “Jesus can empower me to return to work tomorrow and be more effective at what I am already doing in pursuit of goals I’ve already set.” Our “personal relationship” with Jesus can easily become another way to access the power needed to become successful, admired, and well-respected.

One symptom of this problem is the way some clergy preach the Bible and, consequently, how many lay people interpret it. Instead of the biblical Christ (perhaps normed in important ways by the Jesus of history) serving as our guide for the faithful interpretation of scripture, those breathing the air of the success culture tend to give hermeneutical priority to passages that support the logic and value system of hard won success. The clearest example is found in the “prosperity gospel” with its focus on Deuteronomic theology, but there are subtler forms that infect the American church in innumerable ways.

When confronted with the sayings of Jesus that contradict the logic and value system of the success culture, many find ways to reinterpret those passages to marginalize the intended message. For example, when confronted with Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek, some say, “Well, what he really meant was that violence should be a last resort and only in self-defense. If someone hits me rather softly and doesn’t draw back for a second blow, then maybe I should exercise the power of self-control and suggest a non-violent solution. But if someone hits me hard and keeps coming at me, then surely Jesus would not object to me defending myself. To turn the cheek in a real fight would simply be crazy!” If pressed harder on this issue with a clear presentation of Jesus’ direct command, some are honest enough to say something like, “Well Jesus was the Son of God, and I’m only a sinful human being. So if someone hits me, I don’t care what Jesus said, I’m fighting back and asking for forgiveness later.” Only a loser would allow himself to be assaulted without some kind of retaliation.

The problem, of course, is that the passages being ignored or reinterpreted in service to the success culture are not merely ornamental, but rather absolutely essential to Christian faith and practice. More precisely, the logic and value system of the success culture is antithetical to the logic of the gospel. Indeed, even a cursory reading of the Sermon on the Mountain shows Jesus completely reversing the logic and value system of the success culture, effectively saying, “This is not only wrong—its wrongheaded! This will not only fail to deliver happiness but it will prevent you from seeing the true way of salvation and accelerate your journey down the highway to hell.” The success culture is all about acquiring, consolidating, and leveraging personal power to achieve self-determined goals (not least, security), and to do it in a way that will merit the praise, admiration, and respect of others perceived to be more powerful and successful than we—thereby increasing our power and positioning us for even more success. In stark contrast, the logic of the gospel can be found in Matthew 16:24-26: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” In our efforts to acquire and consolidate power to secure our interests and accomplish our self-determined goals, we lose our lives (even more so, not by failing but by accomplishing those goals) and become powerless to do anything about it. The only way to truly be saved is to completely abandon the quest for worldly success and totally surrender our lives to Jesus as Lord and Savior, a surrender that is so complete that it leads Paul to confess, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2: 19a-20b).

The power of success is characterized by willful grasping, while the power of the gospel is characterized as willing surrender.[3] The former is the way of conquest; the latter is the way of the cross. The former focuses on predetermined outcomes; the latter focuses on faithfulness. The former is self-defeating, self-destructive, and self-condemning; the latter—according to Jesus—is the way of salvation and abundant life.

I want to make this point as strongly as possible. Jesus does not say, “If you do all that I have commanded then you will be successful” (and in several passages he suggested the opposite). To assume this is absolutely to misunderstand his message. Everything Jesus teaches—the logic of his gospel—runs contrary to the vision of salvation promised by the success culture and the concomitant strategies that supposedly make it possible. But this logic and this culture are exactly what we are up against in the American church, and this raises a critical question: Is a Christianity that is co-opted and reinterpreted by the value system and logic of the success culture still rightly described as Christian at all? If not, then what is the way forward?

Conclusion: Questions for Conversation

I want to end my reflections by posing a few questions to academics and pastors alike.

In your research and experience, how is success defined in American culture? How does our pursuit of success shape and reinforce American culture? Does success have its own logic and value system?

To what extent has the American church been influenced or coopted by the culture of success? Does this lead to a reinterpretation of the vision and way of salvation as proclaimed by Jesus, and does it go so far as to undermine the logic of the gospel? What is the difference between success and abundant life?

What resources would help us clarify the problem, gain a more faithful understanding of the gospel, and deepen our relationship with Christ?

As we seek answers to these questions, let us remember the words of Paul: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)


[1] Bible Symposium, “Reading Between the Lines: Recent Research on the Gospels and the Quest for the Historical Jesus,” Florida Southern College, 14 April 2016.

[2] The arguments in his lecture are more fully developed in John Dominic Crossan, How to Read the Bible the Bible & Still Be a Christian: Struggling with Divine Violence from Genesis to Revelation (HarperOne 2015).

[3] I first discovered this distinction between willful and willing ways-of-being-in-the-world in Gerald G. May, Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology (HarperSanFrancisco 1982). However, it is assumed and taught by all contemplative Christian traditions.

14 thoughts on “Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?

  1. Kate

    This is one of the main reasons I’ve been disillusioned by the church in my 21 years living in the bible belt. I am compelled by the words of Christ himself, and look around and see people twisting them and taking them as something that they merely are not.

    If the church were operating soundly, wouldn’t it be entirely counter-cultural to the capitalistic model of economy that has infiltrated our conceptions of how things “should” be done? In which case the church would not be able to be “successful” in the way of the mega churches and big shows.

    There’s a Key and Peele sketch where a bible study is in progress and they are praying to God, asking that they speak to them. When God suddenly appears and they get on their knees begging for guidance and what to do. The voice speaks clearly for them to sell all of their belongings and work in ministry to the poor. At which point the bible study screams that the house is haunted and run from the voice.

    In truth, we’re afraid of not being successful. We’re afraid of these things because they are hard – and so the church shies away from them because they don’t want Christianity to seem hard. The Church wants Christianity to seem “easy” to prospective newcomers (e.g. John 3:16 is all you need to know and you’re set!) so that the Church can grow and be successful – ministry these days is more about quantity than quality.

    Or maybe I’m just jaded.


  2. Paul Richards-Kuan

    In my ministry context, success is quite closely tied to size. Serving in suburban Houston, Texas will do that to you.

    Many of my congregants desire our church to be larger merely because that projects success. They also need bigger houses, cars, jewelry. This all boils down to one of the main issues of the suburbs and many suburban churches: they desire to project success at all costs. One of my major challenges is helping the church see vulnerability, confession, and humility as necessary aspects of faith. A faith that calls us to life lived out for the community around us and ultimately God.

    Christians in the US have so many different needs at any given time. One person may be looking to be inspired for a challenging week at work ahead while another is performing family loyalty or family tradition by going to church. One may be struggling with grief while another is trying to figure out their bad marriage. Thankfully in my context, I see few desiring to gain wealth through spiritual practices.

    The most disheartening part of my context are committees and councils that talk about the goals of the church coldly in terms of growth. All we want is to be a big and growing church. We want to compete with those other churches around.

    Instead, I wish the church would use words like “faithfulness” to describe ministry goals. I want them to see being a blessing to the rapidly changing neighborhoods around us more than having a bigger children’s ministry/ youth group/college ministry/ young adult ministry/ young family ministry.

    So to reorient us toward the logic of the gospel, I see hope in the incarnated Christ who lived among us and had familial bonds with the broken and lost and calls us to be family with the broken and lost as we realize how similar we are.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for you comments, Paul. You state that you “see few desiring to gain wealth through spiritual practices,” but do you think people are evaluating their faith, seeing their faith, or interpreting their faith through the assumption that we should all try to be successful (as the world typically defines it)? In my context, I fear that people listen to sermons to find tools that will help them do better (be more successful) in their work-a-day world. Jesus seems to be calling for something more radical. What do you think?


  3. John Koyles

    At the risk of raising issues in an “academic” way, I wondered about a few things. First, I think these comments speak directly to a serious concern for the Christian tradition. I liken the themes here to comments recently made by Bono regarding the Christian music industry. In fact, when I listen to Christian radio I detect a very serious effort to uphold particular forms of success as the norm for Christian experience – something I like to call “the tyranny of joy.” Still, I wonder if this sets up a choice between success and failure or between two different types of success (I figure it is the latter); if it is the latter, I wonder as to how best to determine or describe the proper form of success (in order to reorient the tradition toward its “truer ((said with great care and hesitation))” end) – should we read more Derrida, Crossan, Witherington, or Jesus? Although you rightly noted the place of agreement between such disparate thinkers, I wonder as to how each side of divided American Christianity will come to see their negative relationship to success – Crossan and Witherington always strike me as unlikely to see the limitations of their points of view. I worry that it will be too easy to place the bulk of the blame of this onto forms of Christianity which lean more conservative (to be sure, they do deserve blame – this is not an effort to rescue them, but it is also a worry not to bury them either).


    1. These are good questions and insights, John. I think you are right to raise the question about the alternative to success, and think that the answer lies in how we define success and what our motives are when acting. I find it helpful to ask: What is the difference between Jesus’ promise of abundant life and the promise of the success culture. My hunch is that it hinges on how we understand Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God, especially as articulated in the Sermon on the Mount. Also, I think you are right to resist placing all the blame on our more conservative brothers and sisters. The “prosperity gospel” is the most obvious example (and easiest target), but I think it is rampant in more progressive circles as well. It seems like all of us want to be successful! One tradition that offers explicit safeguards against the problem described in the article is the Christian contemplative tradition. I’m thinking of people like Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton. Thanks for your contribution to the discussion!


  4. Seth Cain

    Well put, Mark. American Christianity is without a doubt in captivity to the wrong metrics – in bondage to the Western prosperity / marketing paradigm. It seems revivalism in the last 2 centuries, which had much to commend it as a renewal movement, became an impetus for schism (also an unbridled American phenomenon) instead of being embraced with patient discernment by historic Protestant churches. So they (we) threw out the baby of liturgical rhythms, catechism and the best of tradition with the bath water of a purely rote ceremonialism. In every era, something always seems to replace disciple-making and authentic community. In the revivalism that still haunts us, the replacements were “conversions” and “programs.”

    Much more could be said about how an Enlightenment framework reduced church to songs and, most importantly, a sermon, which are easily adapted to a concert and a keynote for the masses in less intellectually inclined settings. Evangelism does not always equate to making followers of Jesus, but it sure looks great on a bar chart (and a bank statement).

    James K.A. Smith of Calvin College writes at length about cultural liturgies of consumption that have been adopted by the church. Dovetails well with what you’ve posited here. Just tonight I passed a new church being built near the campus of Clemson University that promises to look like an IKEA. I’ve heard they also have a money-back guarantee for benevolent giving and a sort of “trial period” for baptism. They say they are “outsider-focused, event-based.” Welcome, shoppers.


    1. Seth, these comments are really helpful. I am offer to give a final but will continue to reflect on your feedback. What is the title of Smith’s book/article that you referenced? Aaron has mentioned him many times before. Thanks again!


      1. Seth Cain

        He has written a two part Cultural Liturgies series called “Desiring the Kingdom” and “Imagining the Kingdom.” The two books have been recently conflated and abridged into a popular version called “You Are What You Love,” which is great as well, but leaves out some of the detail I found very helpful in the series.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity? | Pastor Mark Reynolds

  6. Pingback: How the Devil Directs a Pastor’s Prayer: Careerism and the Corruption of Our Calling – Philosophy Goes to Church

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