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Erwin McManus:  American Christians are “Incredibly Self-Indulgent”

Orginally published on Thursday, January 17, 2008 at 8:35 AM
by Todd Rhoades

In a recent article in Christian Today, Erwin McManus contends that the reason why churches are declining in America is because they are self-centered. “My primary assessment would be because American Christians tend to be incredibly self-indulgent so they see the church as a place there for them to meet their needs and to express faith in a way that is meaningful for them...there is almost no genuine compassion or urgency about serving and reaching people who don’t know Christ."

McManus, whose church members’ average age is 25 years old, is known for breaking the “rules” of traditional church and applying spiritual creativity to engage and develop the next generation of Christian leaders.

Since becoming lead pastor of Mosaic about a decade ago, McManus’ church membership has grown from about 300 adults to more than 3,000 adults. The historically Southern Baptist church also boasts over 40 different nationalities and is “packed” with artists such as musicians, writers and filmmakers.

Among the attendees are also 80-year-old members from the generation before McManus arrived, who are said to “root on” the younger generation of church members.

While Mosaic and more modern churches are growing, many mainline Protestant churches are reporting worrisome decline in membership.

The United Methodist Church reported last year that its membership was at its lowest since 1930 with just over eight million members.

Meanwhile, the Lutheran World Federation reported that although its global membership increased in 2006, its western membership declined. Lutheran Christians in North America in general decreased about 1.41 per cent, while the LWF witnessed a 1.73 per cent drop.

Speaking about church decline in general, McManus concluded: “I think the bottom line really is our own spiritual narcissism. There are methods and you can talk about style, structure and music, but in the end it really comes down to your heart and what you care about,” he said.

He often explains that while the Bible does not change, the methods to effectively communicate the Word of God can.

More here...

What do you think?  Are we, as a whole, “incredibly self-indulgent”?

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  There are 18 Comments:

  • Posted by Camey

    Yes, I believe we are. But I do see incredible signs of change.. and there is always hope.

    He said, “There are methods and you can talk about style, structure and music, but in the end it really comes down to your heart and what you care about.” We’re experiencing that first hand these days. We’ve realized what has caused division and decline is more of a heart condition than any thing else. (I speaking here of course about the local church body where we serve)

    Monday night a week plus ago now, our leadership came together. Those in their 60’s, 70’s and the 80’s were saying, “We no longer care about having our tradtional worship service at 8:00 a.m. We want to move out of the way and get involved with seeing lives changes. Whatever we need to do to help that - we’re in.” Those in their 40’s and so-on were saying, “We no longer care about having our contemporary worship."… and so on. Hearts are being changed. My way or the high way is changing to His way.

    Okay. Call me pumped this morning!

  • Posted by

    Yes - we are.  I like the term “spiritual narcissism,” I think it describes western evangelical Christians (present company included).

    There is plenty of evidence, but one that jumps out to me is our far too late entry into the effort to serve in the sub-Saharan Aid/HIV pandemic. 

    Okay - you know my soap box.  What are other evidences we can spot in our own context and what is the best way to address it? 


  • Posted by Peter Hamm

    Yes, we are.

    But we see GREAT promise among our people as we have intentionally taught our people to go out there and be the church, not go to church. Our church has a reputation, I’ve learned, not only for doing wacky stuff (like decorating our stage like a circus tent for one series, for instance), but also for being “non-judgmental” and being a place where “anyone can be at home”.

    All that is because we’ve worked hard to love our neighbor, and continue to. Does everybody get it? Of course not. Is it perfect? Of course not.

  • Posted by Andy McAdams

    Erwin says, “American Christians tend to be incredibly self-indulgent so they see the church as a place there for them to meet their needs and to express faith in a way that is meaningful for them...there is almost no genuine compassion or urgency about serving and reaching people who don’t know Christ.”

    How true those words are.  Anyone in ministry for any length of time grows tired of hearing those selfish words from church people.

    In 30 years of pastoral ministry, I did my best to teach that if you come to church to “meet needs” in other believers and come to serve, then your needs will just naturally be met by others.  Isn’t that what the Body of Christ is all about?

    But when you look at a church to meet your needs, the heart will never be right when coming to worship a God who sent His Son to “seek and to serve.”

  • Posted by Camey

    Amen Andy!

  • Posted by

    But do unbelievers come to church to have their needs met?  I agree that discipleship must encourage believers to look beyond hemselves, but is that a reasonable expectation for someone who doesn’t even understand that the Bible is divided into two “testaments?”

    It seems to me that people initially come to church looking for something - they have needs that are not being met.  I don’t have an issue with that.  I want the church to meet those needs, as we teach them to meet the needs of others.  After all, people flocked to Jesus because of what he could do for them.


  • Duh!  Of course.

    However, I think that this is really nothing new.  The early church required persecution in order to spread the gospel and visions to get beyond Jerusalem.  It is not just American, in other words, even though our culture might make this easier in this time and place.

  • Posted by

    TRUE!  However, there is one item McManus left out of his evaluation of the Church-spiritual materialism.  Unfortunately, too many Christian churches are focused on using spiritual disciplines to obtain material wealth.  The airwaves are full of those who want to be rich, happy, and successful.  Whereas, the gospel speaks about obedience and not success.  Yet, the message is infiltrating the church thta if you give money to this ministry, then all of your financial dreams will come true.

  • Posted by Randy Ehle

    As Dave said, “people initially come to church looking for something - they have needs that are not being met.  I don’t have an issue with that.” What happens, as Erwin points out, is that we don’t easily grow out of that motivation and, as Paul wrote, we ought to be teachers but we still need to be taught; we ought to be eating meat, but we’re still sucking milk.

    Transformation is all about renewing our hearts (Ro 12:1-2), which God works in us.  But it’s our job as leaders to call comfortable people to the discomfort of transformation; to pull, guide, lead, coach them there.

  • Posted by Jon

    I think the reason for declining Church attendance in America is due to the fact many people are much more educated and understand a lot more about life than say in the 1300"s when people walked around thinking the world was flat.

  • Posted by

    That’s the tension, isn’t it?  We invite people in by loving our neighbor, which is demonstrated often by meeting their needs.  Then, they find Jesus and discover it’s no longer about their needs, it is about the needs of the one outside the faith and the faith community, just as they once were.  It could feel like a bait and switch. 

    I’ve found that the people most able to manage the paradigm shift are those who keep the memory of their lostness sharp.  The longer one is a Christian and a church goer, the dimmer and dimmer the memory becomes of being desperate for the redemptive embrace of the church.  The more I remember how it feels to be desperate for redemption, the more my heart breaks for those in need of it.  If fact, sometimes those who have forgotten their own depravity begin to think those in need of redemption are the enemy instead of the mission field, and my church is certainly supposed to meet the needs of the enemy ahead of ME!!!


  • Posted by Paul Kuzma

    I agree with all of this! You can’t be around American ministry for more than a couple years to figure out how self-indulgent we are as Americans.

  • Posted by Derek


    It is the tension of discipleship for sure. I think you are right, if a person can remember “from whence they came” that goes a long way in the transformation from self to others.


  • Posted by

    Selfishness, self indulgent, self absorbed… this is a human condition.  Does it impact the church?  Sure does in more ways than one.  For someone to seek to have their needs met is not self indulgent, how we go about having our needs met can be.  Every week I speak to a group of people that range from under 10 years of age to late 70’s.  I am responsible to God to lead them well by giving truth that points them to Christ, equips them to ministry, encourages them to change world views in partnership with God’s Spirit and empowers them to live God’s word daily. 

    Some of these people are of different ethnicity, some are brand new to Christ others are veterans of faith and service, some are single, married, divorced, remarried, parents, kids, empty nesters, new parents.  This diversity is exciting but it also represents different needs.  The newly married couple loves the study about marriage but the 7th grader does not.  The new believer loves the study on forgiveness but the veteran feels like this s basic. 

    What unties them is this, a clear mission, a clear celebration of impact and a clear picture of God’s heart for people.  Without this clarity need meeting becomes self indulgent, with it need meeting is another way to minister and build and reach and equip and love and represent Christ to people.

  • Posted by

    i have read all the comments, and it seems to me you all have people needing you, well thats good, people needs people, people of god that will show them the way, you got the call of god for that very reason, if god did not trust you he would not called you to this job. count it as an honor that god trusted you with his buisness, and there is nothing that god will not help you with, he said in the scriptures,if you are a BELIEVER go into all the world , preach the gospel, heal the sick, clense the leper, cast out devils, freely you have received freely give.when the church start doing this , and maybe you already are, people will flock to where jesus is working, where his power is manifested, but you will always have the poor among you that needs help, it is a big job, but god knew what he was doing when he call you.

  • Posted by

    I understand the frustration of the original author and those that posted in utter agreement with his article.  I feel the pain of those in whom the spirit cries for a more authentic relationship with the Lord.  And I know that organizations that are made up of human beings are not perfect.  Churches are flawed simply because they are a product of the humans that make them up.  We’re human.  We’re sinners.  Praise Jesus for his salvation.

    I choose to see what’s good and holy not only in my Church but in each individual around me.  It is not always easy, and sometimes I have to declare it in the name of Christ Jesus minute by minute just to try and stay true to that sentiment.  I continually pray for the heart of Christ, to see through his eyes and hear through his ears.

    The Christian Church is such a punching bag these days and I’ve thrown my share of punches.  I’ve only followed Christ for a little over a year so my knuckles are still bloody and raw from the swings I’ve taken at the established Christian Community.  I’m guilty of maligning Christian Churches and individuals associated with them to the worst possible degree.

    Now I feel I’ve got a lot to make up for.  There is power in what we speak.  Intentions matter.  I do not want to join with a legalistic ‘religious’ doctrine, nor do I want to jump on the bandwagon of Church bashing that goes on all to frequently both inside and outside of the Christian Community.  The Church itself is worth protecting, because the Great God Almighty is working there.

    Instead of taking a negative attitude I will declare that there /is/ a revival taking place within the Christian Community.  I who once very fervently practiced a pagan religion am a product of that revival.  I walked in the darkness and I have seen the truth and the light.  The established Church brought me here, and I will forever be grateful.

    No the Church isn’t perfect.  None of us are either, especially me.  So I will shout from the highest mountain that any link to the one and only true God is a good one.  Any time I see or hear the Cross it’s a blessing.  Anyone searching for the Lord in their own time and way is a positive venture.  I pray that Christ himself will touch hearts, unlock ears and open eyes so that every person in their own time and way will draw closer to the one true God.

    I have made it my mission to stay as positive as I can, being human.  I pray that all Christians will band together.  We get clubbed hard enough from those that we are trying to reach.

  • Posted by

    I totally agree that the “American Church” is self serving and not willing to step outside the bubble they have created.

    But I too have seen glimmerings of hope. 

    Someone said that their church was working hard at “being church” and not “doing church”.  We say this just about every Sunday.  And it is happening.

    I think that for too long it has been easy to pay for evangelism by sending a missionary and ignore our personal responsiblity and calling to our own mission.

    We have been comfortable and unwilling. 

    And for our church to get where it has (from 18 to 96 in 4 years in a difficult community) there have been many tears shed, angry words, transparency that was very uncomfortable and conflict resolution or leaving. 

    And now growth.  It was tough.

    I think it’s easy to blame the “typical American church member”.  But what about the typical American church minister?

    How many are truly willing to hang in there for the long haul and deal with the hard stuff.  I see so many who hop from church to church when things get uncomfortable.

    I think we as leaders must share the blame for the state of the church.

    Repentance is the key to revival of any kind.  And we should be the first.

    Then we will see God heal our land and our church.

  • Posted by

    AMEN!  I think McManus hit the nail on the head.  Our church has recently gone through a split and a newer crowd is coming in and as I observe them during worship, many of them are very lackluster.  Something is definitely missing.  The preaching is good (many people have commented on how they love our new pastor’s sermons), the music is good, we have tons of ministries where people can plug in and yet I feels this sense of apathy.  I don’t know what the answer is.  I guess we just continue to weather the storm and seek God’s face for direction.  It seems there are always seasons in the life of the church and you simply plug away until the tide turns again.

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