This Is America: A Returning Missionary’s Perspective

What’s most disturbing about returning from Africa isn’t just the consumerism in American culture, but the consumerism within the American church.

Without a doubt, the absolute coolest thing we have seen during our brave venture back onto American soil is the computerized soda machines at fast food chains.

Yep, that’s it. They blew our tiny minds. Though it took us a solid ten minutes to figure out how the machine worked, our taste buds were pleased and hearts content at our shoving 1,000 calories’ worth of soda down our gullets.

I was the only one left unsatisfied, because, like a complete novice, I chose raspberry diet coke. It was gross, and I learned my lesson. But this is America—so I dumped it out and started over.

Along with us was our Tanzanian colleague, Apollo, who came back to the motherland with us for agricultural training with my husband. It is his first time seeing America, and he has been constantly teasing us about how many options there are here for every single thing on God’s green earth. He especially noticed this when joining us on a trip to the grocery store.

This experience turned me into a crazy, self-loathing monster who wanted every single item that I could wrap my greedy little fingers around, while simultaneously feeling guilt-ridden at the sight of our grocery cart piling high before Apollo’s astounded face. He’s a great guy, so he didn’t judge us—but he may have been somewhat repulsed by the scene.

Dear Apollo: Watching us indulge in such grotesque undertakings at the grocery store wasn’t fun, but watching you watch me wasn’t fun for me either. You took all the fun out it.

Not only did we discover that the options are boundless in American grocery stores, but we noticed that everything in the store also claims to be healthy—even the margarine. Margarine’s claim to be healthy is as believable as Apollo’s not to be a scared on his first intercontinental flight. We all know it’s not true.

Just like the grocery stores, we have also been stunned by the many new brands of churches. Like all groceries claiming to be healthy, all brands of churches here are claiming to be Christian.

We anticipated the consumerism and indulgences in grocery stores, but we never expected to see the giant shift of consumerism taking place in American “Christianity” as well.

When you have been away from a place for a long time, everything that you see upon re-entry kind of takes you off-guard. It’s not that you are above it or incapable of the same or worse sin; you just see it differently. The things that used to be normal to you start to shake you up a bit. Because you aren’t living in the culture anymore, you have the privilege of standing on the outside looking in.

And I must admit—I am pretty uncomfortable with some things that I see.

Consumerism in the Church

American consumerism has crept into the sacred beliefs of our faith. Rather than understanding that faith in Christ means that he gets our everything, many Americans believe that Jesus is just a nice addition to our already-nice lives. We wouldn’t say that, of course, but our beliefs are exposed in the way we are living.

To be honest, this type of “Christianity” is not only disturbing, but I believe it is a false gospel that is deceitful and damning to our culture.

If Jesus is merely an addition to our American dream, then who really needs one more thing on their plate? If Jesus is just a great way to help us live more moral lives, have better relationships, and slightly-above-ogre behavior at our kid’s soccer games, then who really needs him? Can’t Oprah help us with that?

If we think of Jesus as an addition to our lives and not our everything, then we do not really know Jesus. We are deceived.

If sermons in your church sound more like self-help in living your best life (for Jesus, of course) or simple marital and family advice, then you need to ask yourself some serious questions about what you are being taught. Jesus warns in Mark that many will come to deceive in the name of religion (Matthew 24:5). They will say all the right things, dress in all the right ways, know all the popular prayers and sayings and topics of the times, and they will lead you astray from the path to Jesus.

Jesus never promised a “better life” here on earth. Following him is costly, dangerous, painful, lonely, unpopular, counter-cultural. And did I mention that it’s also worth it?

Jesus never promised a ‘better life’ here on earth. Following him is costly, dangerous, painful, lonely, unpopular, counter-cultural.

The men and women who are teaching this brand of “best-life-now Christianity” are false teachers. They are taking the beautiful truth of the gospel and adding it onto their own gods: life, possessions, empty pursuits, and a created community that is more like a club than a body.

I have a feeling that many Christians think the Bible’s warnings about wolves in sheep’s clothing only concern the televangelists who are knocking innocent people backwards onstage. Don’t be fooled—Satan is much craftier than that. He loves to take the “truth” from God’s word and mix it with worldly wisdom to offer temporary satisfaction to our heart’s desires. He wants you to think that comfortable suburban Christianity is an excellent addition to your already comfortable life and that it leads you to Jesus.

He wants you distracted. He wants you to find your hope and joy in things outside of Christ.

Jesus tells the disciples in Mark 8 that not only will he suffer, but anyone who wants to be his disciple will also suffer. “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35).

If you take the time to really discover what Scripture says about following Jesus, then learn about the suffering that Christians are facing around the world for following Jesus, you too will be uncomfortable sitting Sunday after Sunday in a sermon that focuses more on getting your best life now than on a holy God.

Spiritual Warfare in the West Versus Spiritual Warfare in Africa

Satan is doing his work all around the world. Unlike in Tanzania, where he uses fear and witchcraft and visual displays of dark spiritual forces to keep people from Jesus, here in the U.S. he simply numbs us. He is pacifying us with just enough satisfaction and just enough “religion” to keep us blinded to the true gospel message.

It’s a battle for our hearts. It’s a raging war against the flesh and the spirit. In The Screwtape Letters, the senior demon Screwtape instructs his apprentice nephew,: “A moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all—and more amusing.”

Moderate religion takes a little bit of Jesus and then it worships created things. It worships things meant to be gifts, small tastes, faint glimpses of the true source of complete satisfaction and joy found in Jesus.

A moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all—and more amusing.
Uncle Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters (C.S. Lewis)

We are starving and blind citizens of the world, withered up like branches in a desert. We are desperate for help and in need of nourishment, so we follow the nice-looking, well-spoken, popular leaders of these moderate religions in hopes of being pointed to the way of salvation.

But they are blinded too. They are leading us to the only thing they see—muddy puddles. They see glimpses of goodness, glimpses of God’s good gifts and point us to those rather than taking us to God himself. They lead us astray, and many die there without ever tasting the water that will truly satisfy. Many of us are dying there.

But even if these puddles do keep us alive, they leave us sick, and desperately searching for more. We are like addicts constantly searching and gnashing our teeth at the next thing offering satisfaction. This dirty, murky water prevents us from seeing what is promised to us: Jesus. We want a taste of it all. Health, youth, beauty, respect, wealth, popularity, ease, options, fun, success, rest, importance, belonging…

…oh, and also Jesus, of course.

But the Bible tells us that anyone who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him, will be like a tree planted by the water (cf. Jeremiah 17:7-8)—the water we are all so desperately thirsting for yet have been distracted from tasting. When we are planted by this water, our roots will be nourished by the stream that never runs dry.

Living Water

In Christ, our weary souls are nourished and our deepest needs —salvation and communion with Christ—satisfied. We are rescued from our restless pursuit. Scripture tells us that even when the heat and droughts come (and they will come), those who are planted by this stream will not fear, and their leaves will remain nourished and green.

These trees also bear fruit, which is what true followers of Christ do. They don’t just consume the everlasting water for themselves, but rather live their lives empowered by the water.

This water is Jesus; nothing else and no one else. We cannot pursue “our best life now” and add Jesus to it. We can’t be busy running around lapping up the muddy water and also have our roots planted by the stream. We cannot serve two masters. We cannot keep our lives and give them to Christ at the same time.

These aren’t the words of a bitter American expatriate wanting to stir trouble. I speak as a sister in Christ who is just as susceptible to deceit and distraction, warning and begging anyone who cares to wake up and see the deceit for what it is. Don’t live another day being lulled to death by comfortable and convenient Christianity. It may make a comfortable place for you to spend your earthly pursuits and your weekly church services, but our very souls are at risk.

A rich young ruler wanted to follow Jesus (Mark 10:17-31), and the Bible says that Jesus loved him. But when Jesus put the young man’s true beliefs to the test, he couldn’t let go of his “best life now.” He left because he wanted to add Jesus to his other great things, and Jesus wouldn’t accept it.

It is commanded: “You must love the LORD your God with all of your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:5) Jesus demands our all. In turn, Jesus gives us himself. He saves us and gives us a new heart that abandons all to follow him.