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On the anniversary of his death twenty years ago today, it is appropriate to examine Norman Vincent Peale’s legacy and to summarize the influence he has had on the church.
The acknowledged father of possibility thinking and its offshoot the “seeker sensitive” movement was Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, who passed away twenty years ago today. During the height of his popularity in American culture, Peale was one of Christianity’s best-known preachers (although almost all Bible-upholding pastors rejected Peale’s theologically liberal and seeker-sensitive/positive-thinking beliefs1). As Peale proclaimed his “possibility thinking” approach to better Christian living and church growth, one of his strategies was to see the church be more seeker sensitive in its outreaches in order to get people to visit welcoming-type churches. Peale’s teachings regarding positive thinking—which were an expression of his belief that people had the ability within themselves to better their lives—were presented in his enormously successful book The Power of Positive Thinking, his national radio and TV programs, lectures, media interviews, and the magazine Guideposts. In the 1950s and 1960s, he was a household name in America.
It’s as if the book of Romans with its full presentation of the gospel has been ripped from their Bibles.On the anniversary of his death twenty years ago today, it is appropriate to examine Peale’s legacy and to summarize the influence he has had on the church.2 Counted among his first disciples was the Rev. Robert Schuller, who considered Peale to be his mentor. In more recent times, mega-church pastors like Pastor Joel Osteen have joined the ranks of positive thinkers.3 Such church leaders have adopted Peale’s seeker-sensitive beliefs and incorporated them into their church services, as well as in their media outreaches.4 The “success” of this approach is such that even churches that are more theologically conservative than Peale’s or Schuller’s have adopted many of these seeker-friendly ideas in an effort to attract seekers by catering to their needs. They have turned much of their Sunday morning service into a warm and fuzzy gathering, and rather than focusing on a worship of our holy God and getting deep into His Word, they have emphasized entertainment programs. They not only seek to make the Christian faith appear less offensive and more accessible, but they try to fulfill the wants of people to feel better about themselves and to be entertained. As a result, they have catered to the desires of the people and have neglected what God wants them to hear, including the truth about the sin nature of human beings. The seeker-friendly strategy may have “worked” in terms of the numbers of people who have filled the pews, but the hearts and minds of these people have not been filled with a correct knowledge of God, His Word, and the true spiritual condition of sinful human beings.
As Peale and Schuller stressed the positive aspects of Christianity, they paid little or no notice to the Bible’s teaching—from Genesis onward—about the sin nature of people. They almost entirely avoided challenging people about their depraved condition, much less presenting the biblical account of the rebellion of Adam and Eve in the Garden and the sin nature we all have inherited from the first couple. A hallmark of many churches that describe themselves as seeker-sensitive is that they do not want to offend people with the message that we have all sinned and have come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Using entertainment programs and winsome pastors, these churches have attracted large Sunday morning crowds as they have tickled the ears of congregations and have essentially presented messages people have wanted to hear, not what they needed to hear. It’s as if the book of Romans with its full presentation of the gospel has been ripped from their Bibles.
With the increasing emphasis on entertainment in church life today, there has been a corresponding dearth of solid Bible teaching and therefore a lack of spiritual maturity seen among Christians in these seeker churches. Such congregations essentially function as a group of biblical illiterates, and thus are more susceptible to being swept up in anti-biblical thinking of the day, such as supporting “gay” marriage. An ignorance of what the Bible teaches about homosexual behavior combined with a mindset that Christians must be “loving,” many churches have become accepting of “gay” marriage. This is merely one example of how the Bible-ignoring church is conforming to the world.
Of course, as a part of carrying out the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18–20), Christians should be reaching out to seekers and urging them to examine the Christian faith and seriously consider the gospel. Our Creation Museum, for example, has been called a place of “edu-tainment,” with all kinds of fun things to enjoy, such as high-tech theaters and state-of-the-art exhibits for seekers to check out. At the same time, the Creation Museum has a purpose of presenting visitors with the gospel of Christ but without shrinking from proclaiming that we have all inherited a sin nature from Adam (Romans 5:19). In fact, the museum presents this essential truth about our depraved condition in a major section labeled “Corruption” (one of the museum’s “So, What Are the ‘7 C’s’ Anyway?”) and then shares the need of redemption from our sins.
At this Christmas season, when we celebrate the most positive news that can be proclaimed—the coming of Jesus Christ to earth—we must not forget why He came: to redeem us from our depraved state if we believe in Him.
The Peale mantra, emulated by countless congregations today, is essentially: “change your thinking, and it will change your life.” Last Sunday, for example, Pastor Osteen, who leads the largest congregation in America (Lakewood Church in Houston), declared on the TV program Fox News Sunday that “we should be thinking thoughts of ‘I’m talented, I’m smart, I got what I need, I’m a person of destiny,’ just positive things.” While Christians should not live in a state of despair with no hope of change, they still need to acknowledge that because of their sin nature, they are unable to make lasting changes by themselves.
With a joy in our faith (Philippians 1:25), we are expected to have a positive outlook on life as we think on the things of God that “are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report” (Philippians 4:8). As Christians, we should rejoice in a Christ who has saved us from our sin nature, and ask the Holy Spirit to continue to do a work in us as He regenerates and renews us (Titus 3:5). But the seeker-sensitive movement has promoted the view that changes in our lives can come from within ourselves, rather than through the power of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 6:9–11) and the Holy Spirit. Christians who have faith in their own abilities to bring about true, lasting change in their lives are essentially exhibiting a form of humanistic thinking.
There is an aspect of the seeker-friendly churches that can be applauded. With a welcoming approach to its visitors, a church that displays Christian love is fulfilling Christ’s teaching in John 13:35, which states, “‘
By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.’” And, of course, it’s possible that even with the limited amount of Scripture that is presented in most seeker churches, God can use these churches to bring people to a saving knowledge of Him.
By the way, do verses like John 13:35 above teach that “unloving” actions, as seekers might call them, should never be displayed by a Christian? Consider John 2:15, where we read that Christ become extremely angry at the moneychangers who had defiled the temple: “When He had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers’ money and overthrew the tables.” We also have the account of the taunting by Elijah in 1 Kings 18:27, who mocked the prophets of Baal. Many so-called “unloving” accounts from Scripture could be cited that would be rarely heard from a seeker-sensitive pulpit.
Stressing the Bible’s “positive” teachings and not proclaiming the full counsel of the Word of God has had another fallout since Peale died twenty years ago. The modern church has failed to develop the biblical worldview of congregations, thus failing to equip people to function as believers in secularized society. In 2009 a Barna survey of Christians on whether they held to a biblical worldview (defined as believing that absolute moral truths exist) revealed that “slightly less than half of the born again adults believe in absolute moral truth.”5
When many churches are reluctant to call a sin a sin and will not proclaim the full counsel of God when it comes to godly behavior, should we be surprised that we hear a famous country singer—who is known for thanking the Lord when she wins awards—declare she is in support of “gay” marriage? This Christian singer has stated, “‘I definitely think we should all have the right to love, and love publicly, the people that we want to love.’”6
The positive “Good News” of why Christ came to earth 2,000 years ago has its flip-side: it includes some bad news. He came because of our sinful condition and our need for redemption. This week as we celebrate the Babe in the manger, let’s remember that this act of love came about because of the necessity of redeeming us from our sins. Contrary to the approach of Peale and his successors, we submit that the true loving message that must be shared with seekers this special week and any time of the year includes not just a proclamation of God’s love, but how a holy God declares our need of salvation through Christ and that He also judges sin. Those who have repented of their sins and believed in Jesus Christ have true hope because of His sacrifice on the Cross, which should cause us to rejoice:
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13)