Syncretism is a technical term used to describe the mixing of two distinct religions into a single hybrid faith. Historically, within the Christian community, syncretism has been applied primarily to new believers in the developing world who retain a portion of their traditional religion and layer elements of Christianity onto it. Examples of this include the continued practice of voodoo and witchcraft while proclaiming Jesus as Lord.
Of equal concern to the church in this area has been the retention of social practices that, though not rooted in traditional religion, nevertheless violate clear biblical principles. Examples include ostracizing widows from the community and the practice of polygamy.
Curiously, the American church rarely examines itself internally for evidence of syncretism. When it does, the focus has been primarily on the most egregious and easily dismissed transgressions. Examples include universalism, the introduction of new age beliefs (such as the power of positive thinking), and theological flexibility on issues of personal holiness.
Meanwhile the most widespread syncretic practice within the American church flourishes, and is largely ignored and unaddressed by Christian leaders. It is a blind spot that threatens more than the health of the local church body and its ability to transform society. It risks leading millions, if not tens of millions, of churchgoers down a perilous path of spiritual destruction.
The blind spot is the grafting of Christianity onto the foundation of the American Dream (defined by Merriam-Webster as “a life marked by material wealth and comfort”). The result is a faux faith whose adherents are nearly indistinguishable from unbelievers on matters of prime importance to the American Dream: allocation of financial resources, investment of time, self-determination, and an emphasis on comfort, safety, and leisure.
What makes this expression of syncretism so dangerous is that it sounds so good. And we, the church, have been at it for so long that we have become adept at framing our pursuit of the American Dream in spiritual terms. In an effort to vindicate our lifestyles, we distort and misuse Scripture in grotesque ways – often embracing as truth the exact opposite meaning of whatever message Jesus taught on the subject.
But Scripture is unambiguous on the matter. The call of Christ and the American Dream are contrary to one another. Each advocates principles categorically opposed by the other. To pursue one necessarily requires rejection of the other. They cannot co-exist. Any attempt to splice the two together into a harmonious hybrid that balances Jesus’ teachings with the world’s lifestyle always fails. Jesus refuses to compromise or sanitize His truth so we can satisfy our infatuation with the world.
For the American church this dichotomy is too difficult to digest. Preaching such a position not only risks losing current confessors of the Christian faith, it complicates the conversion of new practitioners. Worst of all, preaching such a message would require living the message first. And that is perhaps the greatest barrier.
Few Americans steeped in the benefits and pleasures of the American Dream are able to renounce that worldview – certainly not without great difficulty. The world’s clutches go too deeply into our flesh. Its lures are too appealing and hypnotic. Its indulgences are too satisfying.
At the same time the church is committed to propagating the Christian faith. It wants to proclaim Jesus the Lord of all. It wants to gain adherents and grow the size of Christ’s bride. And it wants to remain faithful until His return.
So how do you reconcile the contradictory teachings of these rival worldviews: the American Dream on the one hand and the call of Christ on the other? If you are the American church you graft them together. This, of course, requires ignoring or distorting significant sections of Scripture. But it is a small price to pay for the opportunity to chase the American Dream while professing fidelity to Jesus.
A deep and comprehensive discussion of this issue would fill enough pages to complete a multi-volume manuscript, which far exceeds the limitations of this blog. Instead, I’ll highlight several themes integral to the Gospel that the American church ignores or distorts because they undermine the message of the American Dream.
These are not tangential matters referenced obscurely in Scripture. They are fundamental truths that Jesus emphasized over and over in His teaching, and that the apostles reinforced throughout the epistles. They provide believers the proper understanding of what it means to place one’s faith in Christ and commit oneself to Him as a disciple. In short, they apprise would-be Christians of the expectations Jesus has for them so they can make an informed decision of whether to follow Him or not.
1] Near the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount He shared this truth with His audience. “You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14, NLT).
Notice Jesus’ emphasis on the size of the gate that leads to eternal life. It is incredibly narrow. That narrowness speaks not just of the fact that Christ alone is “the way, the truth, and the life,” and that “no one can come to the Father except through [Christ]” (see John 14:6), but also of what it means to place one’s faith in Christ. Authentic faith leads down a long and difficult road, as Jesus asserts unambiguously in the above verse.
This difficulty arises not from our own efforts to seek out pain, suffering, and misery in some vain attempt to warrant God’s mercy. Such misplaced struggles fail to grasp that God’s mercy and grace are never earned. Nor is salvation.
Nor is this difficulty reflected in the garden-variety trials experienced by all people, regardless of faith. Jesus is not referring to health issues, a job loss, or relationship problems.
Instead, the difficulty arises simply by following Christ’s example, keeping His commandments, and pursuing a real relationship with Him – all of which is basic foundational Christianity. However, in living out our faith in these ways we incite remarkable resistance from several sources.
First, our flesh fights us. The desperately depraved heart that resides in each of us before we come to Christ refuses to die easily. It does anything and everything necessary to prevent us from unseating it as the sole authority in our lives. This includes deceiving us into believing that God wants us to enjoy the American Dream as part of His blessing and to savor the comfort and pleasure of the good life. Our flesh persuades many of us to profess Christ as Lord in name only, allowing it to retain actual control of our lives. We must battle the flesh every day to keep it crucified and prevent it from securing a foothold in our lives.
Second, our culture mocks us. American society despises biblical Christianity (though it is willing to tolerate most apostate forms of the religion). They find offensive our belief in the power of prayer, our insistence that Jesus alone offers salvation, our embrace of biblical morality, and our unwillingness to compromise truth. Steadfast Christians offer a daily reminder to secular society that God does exist and He holds accountable all those who refuse to repent. This drives many of them to antagonize those who faithfully follow Christ.
Third, the world tempts us. We are bombarded daily with messages informing us of our need for the latest technology, apparel, treasure, or invention. Advertisers hound us with false promises that ring true because they’re packaged in slick Madison Avenue marketing campaigns. If only we buy their product we will become cooler, healthier, better looking, more popular, more successful, and more satisfied – and will attain a state of nirvana.
Fourth, the forces of darkness oppose us. Satan and his demonic legions go to great lengths to prevent people from placing their faith in Christ. One of his most effective strategies, especially in America, is to convince us that the American Dream is not just consistent with following Christ, it represents one of the great benefits of following Him. In doing so, Satan undermines many of Jesus’ teachings and refocuses our attention on enjoying the good life and pursuing leisure, luxury, pleasure, and popularity instead of intimacy with Christ.
We must be mindful that the call of Christ leads down a difficult path while the American Dream promises ease and comfort. Too many in the church have chosen ease and comfort instead of obedience and convinced themselves it reflects God’s blessing. In doing so they have entered the broad gate that leads to destruction.
2] We must count the cost. It is surprising how few churchgoers understand that following Christ comes at considerable cost. Surprising because that truth appears in so many of Jesus’ teachings and parables, and is reinforced by the apostle Paul in unmistakable language.
In one such parable Jesus explained that a builder counts the cost before beginning construction to ensure he has sufficient resources to complete the project. Similarly, kings count the cost of going to war before waging an offensive campaign to ensure they have a reasonable likelihood of victory.
Christ then informs potential followers that they, too, must count the cost of becoming His disciple. Why? Because the cost is high. Jesus explained to the crowd that day in these terms. “Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple.” (Luke 14:33, NLT).
That reflects absolute commitment. Jesus doesn’t ask for a portion of His follower’s lives. He asks for all of it. And contrary to popular teaching, He isn’t asking for His disciples to simply be willing to forsake all (in some conceptual, ethereal manner that never materializes into substantive action). He requires total abdication of control over their lives. You’re all-in or you are not a disciple.
What does that look like practically? It will vary by individual but will always look extreme and radical to the outside world (and to the apostate church). Speaking in broad terms, Paul offers us a glimpse of what Jesus’ statement means. “But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:7-11; NKJV).
There is far too much in this passage for us to unpack here. For our purposes it is important to note that Paul recognizes that as a follower of Christ he is called to count as loss all things he previously valued, and to do so in his daily pursuit of Christ, which then serves as evidence of his faith.
Early in His ministry Jesus provides two metaphors for heaven. “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13:44-46, NKJV).
Jesus is not suggesting we buy our way to heaven. Eternal life is extended by grace and not earned. What He is emphasizing is that salvation, though free, costs everything. That means when we accept Christ as Lord we yield every area of our life to Him. We retain no rights to our lives, our time, our resources, our dreams, our income, our safety, or our career. Nothing. In other words, we ‘forsake all.’
That is one way we demonstrate that we love the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. And it is evidence of not only our love for the Lord but the authenticity of our faith.
The American Dream, in contrast, promotes the preeminence of consumerism, luxury, leisure, entertainment, comfort, and excess. Obviously, none of that comports with what Jesus taught. Not even remotely.
3] Sacrificial Stewardship. When we yield the entirety of our lives to Christ and forsake all, what does that look like in practical terms? Does God really want us to literally sell everything, give to the poor, and then take up our cross and follow Him in poverty, as He counseled the rich, young ruler? (See Matthew 19:16-22).
Pastors are in almost universal agreement that Jesus gave the rich, young ruler that guidance because wealth was what prevented him from fully committing himself to Christ. They then conclude that since no one in their congregation puts wealth or material possessions ahead of Christ, the message to the rich young ruler has no relevance for the American church.
Which is shocking. Because if the American church is not the modern manifestation of the rich, young ruler, then the issue of spiritual adultery (loving the world more than the Lord) simply does not exist on the planet today. Like the ruler we are comfortable in the Lord’s presence talking to Him. Like the ruler, we are confident in our current spiritual condition. And like the ruler, we are so blinded by our profound love for the world that we cannot fathom its existence.
This passion for wealth and worldly possessions is evidenced in the verse most frequently cited as a favorite by churchgoers, especially within evangelical circles. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11, NIV). We then emphasize God’s plans to prosper us when we quote it. No misused verse better reveals churchgoers who have layered apostate faith onto their pursuit of the American Dream.
Not only do we demonstrate our lack of understanding of the context when we employ it to justify our prosperity (which happens in hundreds of churches and at thousands of Bible studies every week), but our near universal decision to use the NIV version exclusively reveals our bias for justifying our love for the world. (For a brief but helpful discussion of the verse, read here).
Jesus provided a very simple but profound test for whether we love wealth and worldly possessions more than Him after advising us to store up treasure in heaven and not on earth. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21; NKJV).
Most of us give somewhere between 2% and 10% of our income to the church and/or Christian ministries. Then we spend the remaining 90%+ lavishing ourselves with whatever material pleasures our heart desires. Does that sound like the action of a committed Christian or someone pursuing the American Dream?
Jesus makes it clear that we are stewards of the financial resources He gives us; we are not to treat those resources as our own to spend as we please. To the faithful steward Jesus will say, “you were faithful over a few things, I will make you a ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your Lord.” (Matthew 25:21, NKJV).
Over and over again Jesus and the apostles warn of the dangers of wealth and love for the world. One compelling parable, in particular, serves as a constant reminder to (and indictment of) the American church.
“The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?’ So he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’ ‘So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.’” (Luke 12:16-21, NKJV).
Were it retitled for the current age, this passage would be labeled the parable of the American Dream. The rich man represents the bulk of Americans, including most churchgoers, who choose to spend increases in income primarily on themselves. They cannot satisfy their lust for the things of the world, always expanding their collection of material possessions. Also consistent with the American Dream is the emphasis on self in attaining the success that yielded the increased wealth.
Finally, the rich man in this parable decides to use his free time on himself, satisfying his carnal cravings. The American Dream, too, advocates a lifestyle of comfort, luxury, leisure, and pleasure. We spend an inordinate amount of our time chasing our desires for worldly activities such as sports, entertainment, shopping, vacations, and thrills. As Americans we believe we have earned it, and as Christians we believe God wants us happy. So we chase these worldly outlets as aggressively as our non-Christian peers.
Of course, these activities are not innately evil or sinful. But just as we direct a disproportionate amount of our income towards ourselves, leaving God the crumbs, so too we invest far more of our time on our own pleasure and interests than in cultivating our relationship with Christ and advancing His agenda. We do not practice what we profess. The chasm between our claim Jesus is Lord and our excess pursuit of the world reveals our faith as disingenuous. We are all talk and no walk in this area.
Jesus’ warning to the man for whom the earlier parable was given is germane for us as well. “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.” (Luke 12:15, NKJV). It is a timely reminder for all Americans, especially those in the Church. Probably far more than we care to admit.
Conclusion: Our spiritual idolatry (worship of worldly things instead of God) and spiritual adultery (grafting our pursuit of the American Dream with our professed commitment to Christ) has serious repercussions. For the American Church, it risks missing Jesus’ return if it does not awaken to this blind spot and begin teaching biblical truth to the lost sheep of America. For the individual churchgoer the risk involves embracing a faux faith taught by an apostate church. Jesus describes the dire consequences of that decision in this way.
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matthew 7:21-23, NKJV).