The Idolatry of Christian Impact

One of our primary intentions here at Hope Discipleship is to attempt to clear away thoughts and ideas that often cloud or adulterate the Gospel of King Jesus. I don’t suppose for a moment that I have a corner on this market so I look to friends, authors, thinkers, and theologians to help me along the road. John Piper, Tim Keller, Eugene Peterson, NT Wright, Nancy Guthrie, Dan Allender, and Michael Reeves are some of my biggest allies in this regard. I also read a few dead guys like Edwards, Calvin, and CS Lewis. However, as I observe our modern evangelical cultural trends, it seems that some of those who currently defend the Gospel most heartily – folks like John Piper, Frances Chan, David Platt, and John McArthur – often get a little too zealous in their collective emphasis on missiology.

As a result, I have to be honest in saying that I believe these folks often exhibit an underdeveloped sense of ‘joyful play’ in their Theology. I don’t say this as a ’slam’ against them. I praise God for these guys. So, I point this out more as a gentle critique. Sometimes, in the current evangelical economy, I get the feeling that unless you are ’setting yourself on fire for God’ or ‘burning out for Jesus’, then you are suspect as a second-rate believer.

We see this perspective displayed most dramatically in David Platt’s book ‘Radical’. I get what he’s saying and what he speaking to. I get it. But what I don’t hear him saying is “Hey, It’s good to watch football and be with friends.” I don’t hear him saying that this too can be done as an act of worship that is pleasing to God.

John Piper echoes Platt’s amped-up missological view. Piper often seems to paint a picture of worship as something that must have an overt and overbearing impact for the Kingdom. On the whole, I think this emphasis can easily foster ‘Impact Idolatry’ – where ‘Impact for God’ is a term used to validate the idols of power, reputation, busyness, and workaholism. A good theology of play balances this tendency. We must understand that ‘eating a steak dinner with friends to the glory of God’ can be just as important as ‘preaching the Gospel in New Guinea to the glory of God’. I would love to hear Piper say something like, “Hey guys. Go prepare a steak dinner, invite some friends over, and enjoy a meal together. Heck, watch some football and enjoy a beverage. And do that to the Glory of God!”

Somehow, I don’t think Piper would ever say something like that. I don’t think he gets this aspect. I have often heard Piper say that he “hates the word ‘fun’”. I’ve listened to a number of his sermons. I’ve read almost all of his books, and this aversion against play and recreation seems to ‘eek’ out again and again. In fact, he has often attacked fellow Pastors and Preachers for using humor or being too playful in their sermons. Take a look at the following video and I think you may pick up on what I’m talking about.

Did you sense what I’m driving at? I don’t disagree with a single thing Piper says here, but it’s the feel…it’s the way things are said. You get the feel that there is a false dichotomy being drawn here. Piper seems to place football, sex, money, power, play, toys, and pornography all together in one big lump on one side of the equation while placing Christ on the other side. The sense is that there is no difference between pornography and football and play. Jesus is on one side. Everything else is on the other side. Piper isn’t directly saying this, but, again, this is the ‘feel’ that one gets.

So, if we’re not careful, we might draw the conclusion that watching a football game is somehow opposed to worship of Christ. He speaks about ‘jostling’ our assurance as if watching a football game should cause us to doubt our salvation. I’m sorry. As much as I respect John Piper, I can’t go there. Why are we placing football on the same plane as pornography? I agree, Jesus is opposed to porn. I’m with you. But is he also opposed to football? Is he opposed to sex? Is he opposed to recreation? Is Jesus opposed to fun?

Furthermore – and this is where I can get a bit riled up – I don’t believe that simply enjoying life with our family and friends should cause us to doubt whether we are in the faith. That’s just silly. In fact, I don’t believe that we can be a balanced Christian unless we enjoy life with our family and friends…and enjoy it as an act of worship.

Again, I feel that this over-emphasis on ‘mission‘ and ‘impact‘ almost entirely negates a healthy theology of play. Of course, Piper isn’t the only one who is guilty of this. It seems that this ‘radicalized impact’ mentality is embedded in almost every corner of evangelicalism. The indictment seems to be, “Unless you do something great for God, then you are not delighting in Him, not glorifying Him, not seeking Him, not savoring Him; and Jesus is less than happy with you until you go out and do something to impact the world.”  In this theological economy, Impact becomes everything.  And, in my opinion, Impact becomes an idol.

Over my years in ministry, I have interacted with numerous college students, seminarians, pastors, and missionaries who are addicted to the glory of ‘impact’. We use Biblical mandates like Matthew 28:19 and Acts 1:8 to justify our thinly veiled lust for significance. We have to stop. If we are really serious about glorifying God, then we must willing to look at our hearts. We must be honest with ourselves. We have to ask ourselves a few questions:

  • Are we ‘impact’ driven people?
  • Do we evangelicals have an underdeveloped theology of play?
  • Do we view “Delightful Recreation for God’s Glory” as a legitimate act of worship?
  • Or, is play simply seen as a waste of time…as something we do in between the really important stuff?

As we strive to develop a balanced theological perspective, especially in regard to Christian refreshment, imagination, creativity, and play, I feel that we must turn to other theologians for help…people like C.S. Lewis (Surprised by Joy), G.K. Chesterton (Everlasting Man), Peter Kreeft (Heaven the Hearts Deepest Longing), Eugene Peterson (Contemplative Pastor), Michael Reeves (Delighting in the Trinity), and Robert K. Johnston (The Christian at Play).

I believe that the honest pursuit of balance in this regard is crucial to the proclamation of the Gospel, for the Gospel does not enslave us. It frees us. The Gospel doesn’t drive us, it draws us. It invites us. It sings over us. The Gospel drenches us with a spirit of Sonship that cries out “Abba Father”. The Gospel gives us reason to celebrate and to enjoy life. This gives context to our worship and meaning to our work. And it is this aspect of the Gospel, Christian Play – more than Mission – that creates a hunger and a longing for that day when our joy will most surely be made full.

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