How a young preacher makes up his own theology as he goes along.
Result: The chicken dinners now outdraw the services.

I have just had my first head-on encounter with do it-yourself religion, and I find myself confused, concerned—and contrite.

Reared in an ultra-conservative and intolerant atmosphere, I was compelled, as were thousands of others in my generation, to develop my own beliefs. Many years in newspaper work developed in me a habit of stating facts or opinions as directly as possible and, on the other hand, of seeking to ascertain not only what a person believes but his reason for so doing. During the past four years my work has brought me into close contact with hundreds of evangelical Christians. Some of them regarded some of my opinions as too liberal, others thought them too conservative. Following a middle-of-the-road course, I held fast to my basic beliefs but often found new and modern ways of expressing them.

Although I was aware that dozens of “isms” and theologies, some new and others merely refurbished, had invaded the Protestant seminaries and pulpits, I paid them scant attention. Like the Apostle Paul, I knew whom I had believed, and I was not greatly concerned about vagaries of belief to which various clergymen subscribed.

And then I came home—to a little rural crossroads community that two generations ago boasted seven churches but today finds two more than enough. Working together under a tentative agreement, the two churches afford ample facilities of worship for the residents of the countryside, most of whom never pass through the doors of either church, except when a chicken dinner or special program attracts them.

I found the cooperative pulpit occupied by a young, personable clergyman, a graduate of a theologically conservative college who had subsequently acquired his theological education in several more “liberal” seminaries. Ordained in a denomination generally regarded as conservative, he had become persona non grata in that, was employed as a preacher by a somewhat more “liberal” denomination, and was anxious to obtain ministerial standing in a third and still more liberal denomination.

This meandering pathway to “success” in the ministry was confusing to one reared in the belief that a minister should have a vocation to the ministry, that he should share the belief of the Apostle Paul that “woe is me if I preach not the Gospel,” and that there is something inherently dishonest in a man’s acceptance of pay for proclaiming a message he does not believe. The confusion was accentuated by certain of the preacher’s beliefs. It would be unfair to say that these beliefs were proclaimed. They were not sown by a “sower who went forth to sow.” Rather, they were dropped here and there in “sermons,” almost surreptitiously, as some wanderer in a forest might leave a trail in the hope that others might follow it. At no time did the preacher flatly assert, “I believe”; he used instead the non-committal phrase, “I think.” Over a period of weeks, however, it was possible to determine some of his opinions, especially those that were negative, and to verify the determination by private conversations.

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He admitted candidly that he does not “believe in any exterior God,” and it soon became evident that he was using the adjective in its philosophical sense—“existing apart from the mind.”

He does not believe in prayer in the orthodox sense but thinks of it rather as an emotional catharsis—accomplishing nothing that could not be accomplished by telling one’s troubles to one’s mirrored image or to a qualified psychiatrist.

He regards the sacraments as inconvenient religious mores, whose significance has been lost long since in the mists of tradition.

He believes that Jesus was no different from other men, and that he did nothing that any other man was incapable of doing.

The Crucifixion is for him “a great tragedy”—nothing more, with nothing in it that “was pleasing to God” and nothing in the nature of redemptive self-sacrifice for the salvation of mankind. “How much more good he [Jesus] could have accomplished if he had been allowed to live out his normal life span.” As for the Resurrection, he holds that each person is entitled to his own belief (ranging from outright rejection of any resurrection to insistence on bodily resurrection), that the belief chosen is immaterial, and that the important thing is to discover for oneself what “touchstone” within Jesus made him “stand out,” so that his followers believed in the Resurrection.

The preacher’s sole criterion of morality is “an awareness of human values”—how, when, or by what means obtained he would not state, insisting that “it’s just there.” For him, the sole compulsion to a course of conduct is that the chosen course should “enable me to realize my potential more fully.”

Both in the pulpit and in private conversation he displayed an obsession with the subject of sex, a marked tendency to seek a sexual motivation in specific instances of human conduct, and a morbid disposition to engage in detailed discussion of such motivation or its frustration.

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His most scornful criticism of beliefs that I hold in common with thousands of other Christians was that they resulted from some “vestige of the reward-and-punishment theory—that you do not do some things because you’re afraid of going to hell, and you do some things so that you’ll get to heaven.” Told that some Christians obey Christ’s commands because of a deep and compelling love for him, the preacher commented that he had “never heard this put on that person-to-person basis before.”

My confusion may be traced to several sources. For one, it was virtually impossible to classify the preacher’s beliefs. I am acquainted with Jean-Paul Sartre’s atheistic existentialism and with Sören Kierkegaard’s “Christian” version of existentialism. I can follow Tillich’s argument that God is the “ground of our being” without too much difficulty, and I have some vague comprehension of what Bonhoeffer means when he speaks of the “beyond in our midst.” In the young preacher’s sermons and conversation there were at times faint traces of all these and other philosophies. Yet, as often as not, he departed from them to wander in some philosophical bypath.

He resents being dubbed an “atheist,” but his concept of God would escape the most diligent listener. He holds that prayer is pointless, yet each week he addresses a liturgical prayer to God, presumably the God in whom he does not believe. His customary reference to Christ is “Jesus of Nazareth, this man …”; yet he pronounces a benediction that begins, “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.…”

I am concerned, not because I fear for my own faith—it has sustained me too long to be lightly shaken now—but because of the large number of young people, approximately half of the combined congregation, who listen each week to this carefully diluted denial of the Christian faith. There is a swelling chorus of such remarks as, “He knocks the props out from under everything we’ve been taught to believe, but he doesn’t give us anything in its place.” As one young woman expressed it, “I just don’t know what to believe any more.”

In addition to my confusion and concern, I feel a deep sense of contrition because I must share the guilt of thousands of Christians who have said, in words or substance, “Everyone has to think these things through for himself,” and have neglected to insist that all necessary information be supplied so that such thinking may be effective and may result in sound conclusions.

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The do-it-yourself fad has moved into the realm of religion, and there is increasing evidence that the results may be just as disastrous there as they have been in many cases of amateur carpentering. What blueprint does the advocate of this egoistic religion offer to those who would save themselves without exterior aid? Against what errors in judgment does he warn his listeners? Above all, what is to be the ultimate result of the self-reliant religionist’s endeavor?

Many men have succumbed to the do-it-yourself fad without either training or experience in handicraft, only to learn that it would have been better had they turned to outside help in the first place. And many Christians, having listened to the consistent advocacy of do-it-yourself religion from some modern pulpits, will find themselves driven back to more careful consideration of Colossians 2:8–10, which J. B. Phillips translates: “Be careful that nobody spoils your faith through intellectualism or high-sounding nonsense. Such stuff is at best founded on men’s ideas of the nature of the world, and disregards Christ! Yet it is in him that God gives a full and complete expression of himself (within the physical limits that he set himself in Christ). Moreover, your own completeness is realized only in him, who is the authority over all authorities, the supreme power over all powers.”

T. Leo Brannon is pastor of the First Methodist Church of Samson, Alabama. He received the B.S. degree from Troy State College and the B.D. from Emory University.

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