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keeping watch part four: a series for leaders

Updated: May 30

Editor's Note: This is the last of a 4-part series, designed to help anyone in a position of leadership navigate these times faithfully and Biblically. Specifically, ministry staff these days need training, teamwork and support from church elders in order to faithfully equip God's people for works of service. Click to read PART THREE,PART TWO, PART ONE,


meet sean

As we begin to wrap this series up, and since we are speaking about attending to the spiritual health of Christians and the congregation, I would like to suggest that while postmodernism, critical theory and progressive theology have some value as a way of looking at life, they fall woefully short in helping Christians maintain a healthy, godly identity.  Anything that diminishes who we are in Christ or elevates the wisdom of the world too high is dangerous for spiritual maturity.

 

Sean St. Jean is a devout Christian and friend of mine who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.  He is also a licensed counselor and college professor, specializing in the important area of fatigue, burnout and vicarious trauma.  A few years ago, I asked him to join our newly formed Minsters Health Committee, and have found his training and outlook on spiritual health to be so incredibly helpful for me.  His greatest concern is that people view themselves, as much as possible, in a spiritually healthy way.  In his experience, nothing short of divine wisdom is satisfactory for humans as a way of grounding their identity, and since the development and maturity of Christians is our main goal, I asked him to write a short excerpt.

 

here is what he has to say

 

As a general statement, I am concerned about any and all human systems, "isms", theories, or models getting in the way of God's message. This is because human beings are woefully bound by our own lenses and perspectives. Humans are always wrong, at least to some degree. What sets the Scriptures apart is their transcendence; they represent Divine inputs from outside our human echo chambers. 

 

What makes progressive theology so dangerous is what makes any human system dangerous: it comes close enough to biblical truth that it can be uncritically accepted by Jesus followers, and yet over time it decimates biblical concepts of grace, justice, truth, and the nature of God himself. Perhaps even more concerning, progressive theology displaces God-ordained moral imperatives with an impoverished gospel, which is really not the gospel at all. 

 

As a therapist, I can say that progressivism is antithetical to mental health. Counsellors use therapeutic modalities such as cognitive behavioral therapy to help people to identify "cognitive distortions". These are misbeliefs that give rise to or worsen unhelpful and even paralyzing emotions. Examples of cognitive distortions include things like catastrophizing (thinking in terms of worst case scenarios), dichotomous thinking (seeing things in "black and white"), labelling (applying universal traits to things/situations), and discounting positives. Therapists work to identify and help people to confront these kinds of distortions. Yet progressivism relies on and even promotes this kind of thinking. The result in those who are consumed by extreme progressivism is emotional regression and fragility.

 

Progressive theology falls short of God’s desire that we truly know him, on his terms and according to his word.  It needs to be understood better and resisted strongly as we seek to help people have accurate views of God, themselves and their place in this world.

 

Sean

 

I could not agree more with Sean.  Spiritual identity is everything, and what kinds of things we allow to influence it matters greatly. 


how can this look in the church today?

 

After reading this excerpt from a therapist warning us to pay attention to the identity formation aspects of theology, it would be natural for leaders at any level (especially lay leaders, volunteers) to get slightly overwhelmed!  I would like to caution us not to give into that temptation, but instead to have discussions around how we can practically notice the presence of unhealthy postmodern thinking in church conversations.  For instance, using Sean’s cautions about common cognitive distortions, pay attention to the following:

  • Catastrophizing: When Christians see darkness or terrible news in the world, do they lament and grieve, but default to a deep trust in God?  Or, do they insist on communicating worst case scenarios?  Our fallen world is full of sin and darkness, but there is still a powerful God who sees it.  The God who sees it calls us to faithfulness, not despair.  We can still be full of hope.

  • Dichotomous thinking:  When Christians communicate in either/or, black or white terms; when answers to complicated problems are conveyed as simple or obvious, we should take pause.  Many secular theories have been worked out in intellectual “think tanks,” and seem like avenues to easily solve the world’s problems.  The only issue with that?  Humanity possesses nuance, layers of emotions and understanding, and distorted patterns of thinking.  Easy human solutions to difficult human problems ignore the presence of an Almighty God, who asks us to trust his instincts about what will make a dent in societal issues.  Often that demands trust, patience and humble curiosity from us.

  • Labeling:  As we’ve discussed, societal problems involve a lot of labeling of people and groups.  As such, it can assume knowledge of peoples’ hearts and motives, a dangerous thing for humans to get involved in.  Let’s be careful not to label, but to lean into each other, seeking to exercise biblical curiosity about one another’s viewpoints.

  • Discounting positives:  As a leader, I have noticed a glaring flaw in today’s church: we are not very good at disagreeing with each other!  One reason has to do with the fact that we can feel so strongly about our own viewpoint that we effectively discount any positive aspect of another one that disagrees with us.  One wise counselor I heard suggested this good piece of advice – instead of instantly disagreeing with another viewpoint, look for anything positive in what they are trying to say. It is there, trust me.  The more we acknowledge it, the more we will trust each other.

 

In The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt discuss how this kind of thinking around life’s tough problems is essentially making us worse, not better.  They have taken a look at how today’s young people are being trained, mostly in colleges and universities, to think and act in a cognitively distorted way.  They believe we are teaching people into cognitive distortions.  Wow, that is frightening.

 

Their examples agree with what we know about truth and reality: our feelings are not always to be trusted; life is not simply a battle between the good and bad people; it is okay to go through hardship…you will live, and probably be better.  Their premise is that we are assuming everyone is fragile, essentially deepening our societal problems, and ironically making the solutions more difficult for them.  We are “coddling” people into being worse off.  Here is how they explain the premise:

 

“To repeat, we are not saying that the problems facing students, and young people more generally, are minor or “all in their heads.” We are saying that what people choose to do in their heads will determine how those real problems affect them. Our argument is ultimately pragmatic, not moralistic: Whatever your identity, background, or political ideology, you will be happier, healthier, stronger, and more likely to succeed in pursuing your own goals if you do the opposite of what Misoponos advised. That means seeking out challenges (rather than eliminating or avoiding everything that “feels unsafe”), freeing yourself from cognitive distortions (rather than always trusting your initial feelings), and taking a generous view of other people, and looking for nuance (rather than assuming the worst about people within a simplistic us-versus-them morality).”[1]

 

Here is the point: the impulses of progressive theory all too often peddle in the very cognitive distortions that therapists believe make us less emotionally healthy.  It assumes fragility, assigns blame, oversimplifies solutions, and puts the wrong time tables on making things right.  Often, God’s solutions include patience, waiting, trust, surrender, assuming the best in others, and unfortunately going through some really hard stuff.  There is not enough room in this book to discuss this at length, but my hope is that anyone who shepherds other people in the fellowship can have their eyes open to healthy or unhealthy ways of thinking, often coming from progressive theology.

 

As we prepare to end this discussion, I pray that I have been able to help you understand, in a basic way, the complex thoughts and ideas that are currently making their way into the church.  In many ways, my goal has been to start a crucial conversation.  As I’ve said before, this is a difficult conversation to have, because the issues and hot topics that reside at the heart of these discussions are personal and passionate; people really want to have an impact on our world. 

 

However, it takes wisdom and discernment to discover where impact is located and also where trouble is lurking.  Often it is hard to tell the difference.  Today, it speaks to the need for us to ground ourselves in God’s word more than ever, to initiate important discussions within the body about what is truly a biblical way to approach a variety of worldly topics, and trust that God’s Word holds the power to accomplish more than we can even ask or imagine.  It takes a deep faith.

 

I pray this series has helped you understand the serious nature of progressive theology, and the different ways it can enter the church. Mostly I hope you feel confident that none of this is really new, and all of it can be resisted by standing firm in the deep truths of God's eternal word.


Daren


Daren Overstreet is a Senior Leader at

Anchor Point Church in Tampa, Florida.  He has been in ministry for nearly 30 years, and holds a Master’s Degree in Missional Theology

You can contact him at


[1] Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure (Penguin Books, 2019), 13, Kindle edition.

 

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