Motivational Teaching: How Some Preachers Hate Evolution, But Unwittingly Teach It Everyday

Me or WeThis week I heard a prominent Ghanaian preacher and motivational speaker railing against The Big Bang theory and evolution by natural selection as false and a figment of scientist’s imagination to deny God’s existence. Of course I wasn’t surprised by this, knowing the conservative nature of Ghanaian Christianity, which inevitably defaults to the view that science is against God. This preacher has also been known to be critical of African political leadership and governments (not just the current Ghanaian government) and seems to have dedicated himself and his church to the mission of equipping and encouraging an entrepreneurial spirit within the Ghanaian Christian community, so they can be rid of dependence on political leadership. This he intends to achieve via the medium of motivational speaking, constantly using the bible to teach people to discover their own personal potentials for success in life, and creating conferences and events to do same.

This style of preaching has appealed a lot to the young, middle to upper class Ghanaians, who fancy themselves on a path of upward mobility – of living the Ghanaian version of “the American dream”. In fact it has become a standard gauge by which large numbers of Ghanaian middle class people gauge preachers , and in certain circles of Christianity, that is virtually all that is preached – how one can be a personal success. Which is why I’m going to take a lot of flak for this post because I’m questioning someone who is almost revered in Ghanaian circles for his “wisdom”. But needs must.

Evolution By Natural Selection

So what is evolution by natural selection? Well, speaking from a lay man’s perspective, Charles Darwin proposed a theory in 1859 through his publication “On the Origin of Species” that living beings evolved different features of themselves by adapting to the environment in which they found themselves over thousands of years as a means of survival. In essence then, failure to adapt would lead to extinction. Someone described his theory as “the survival of the fittest”, and Darwin accepted it as a good description of his theory, and so the term stuck with us to this day. It is the foremost scientific theory today to explain how we all got here.

The Christian Response to Darwin

Of course this challenges the common Christian perception that all creation, including human beings were created through God calling them into being out of nothing, and not through a process of adaptation and evolution. Hence Darwin’s theory has not gone down well with many Christians and has been met with open hostility, including the perception that science is out to discredit the Bible. Whether that is the case and whether this hostility is warranted or not is not  the point of this post.

What is more worrying however, is that the more I listen to motivational preachers (at least the Ghanaian ones), the more I find them in line with the principles of natural selection, despite the fact that they vehemently deny it scientifically. Unintentionally, they promote Social Darwinianism, an economic theory which posits that the strong should see their wealth increase whiles the weak should see theirs decrease. Let me explain.

Everybody for Themselves, God for Us All

At the heart of motivational teaching is the individual. Motivational teachers focus on inspiring the individual to attain their highest possible potential. Though they deny it, the attainment of such potential is inevitably measured in terms of attaining success in one’s chosen career, increasing one’s ABC’s (attendance, buildings and cash) if one is a preacher, being a successful entrepreneur, having a good marriage and well behaved children in good schools, being a leader in one’s field (work, politics) and a lot more.

As with everybody else who reads the bible with a filter, their filter is one of discovering “principles” that can be applied by the individual in pursuit of these goals (I once met a Christian who said that all one needs to do is read the book of Proverbs and one will be “successful” in life). Therefore proof-texting i.e. picking texts out of their historical and textual contexts is the order of the day.

Because their measures of success are not very different from the world’s own, it’s not surprising to find a lot of business ethics taught by secular business coaches being preached from the pulpits of such preachers in the name of motivational preaching. As a Ghanaian musical critic, Koda, mentioned in his song “Nsem Pii”, one wonders if one is in a business school or in a church when such secular business ethics are being taught as “keys to success” for Christians.

As a result of the above mentioned point then, there is a lot of appeal to secular heroes, especially in the world of business and politics, to drive home their point. Fused with a modernist desire to see more “progressive” society, there’s a constant appeal to societies that are considered to be “progressive” ones, and in the Ghanaian case, Europe and America is the constant benchmark. Our African context can produce very little good, and a gloomy picture is inadvertently painted about us as a failed people and the West as the best thing since sliced bread.

And when all of this is then fused with a teaching derived from the bible that one needs to “sow a seed” to make these kinds of “success” show up in one’s life, it forms a potent and explosive mixture whose appeal cannot be resisted, especially by the middle class who seek more than they already have, and who can afford to “sow” such seeds.

Everything then boils down to the individual and their ability to appropriate these “principles” to make these things happen in their lives (coupled with exercising the right amount of positive-mindedness, appropriately labeled “faith”, and of course to tip God’s hand with a “seed” or two). In the grand scheme of things then, this is a more polished version of “Everybody for himself, God for us all”. They simply are giving people the tools to do the “Everybody for himself” part of that statement.

Why Motivational Teaching is Dangerous

Here are just a few of the reasons why motivational teaching in church is so dangerous.

  1. At the core of motivational teaching is the individual and their own self-fulfillment. At the core of the Gospel is Jesus and his church. Therefore although motivational teaching may appeal to Jesus or the bible, it’s fundamentally flawed orientation means Jesus only becomes a means to an end – each individual’s own ambitions are glorified as what God desires for them aka “success”.

  2. Motivational teaching has very little impact on systemic evil. Protestant Christianity in general has had a very poor self-understanding of the church community as God’s means of standing up against evil, primarily because the Gospel has been posed as a means of individual salvation for centuries upon centuries. This has led to its participation in violence, racism, slavery, sexism, segregation etc without even thinking twice, because “it’s all about how one gets one’s personal ticket to heaven”. Caught in this historic trap, simply teaching individuals to live up to their own personal potentials means their scope of vision is limited to what they can do as individuals about any situation, not how they can lay down their personal ambitions to work with each other for God’s ambition he has defined for his church.

  3. Because one’s personal ambitions become synonymous with what God wants, motivational teaching leads to a greater pursuit of independence, not dependence (despite the 58 “one anothers” in the New Testament). Even when one feels the need for dependence, it unwittingly drives its adherents towards seeking relationships that will only enable them to achieve their personal ambitions – which means the rich will seek relationships with the rich, ignoring to be with those for whom there’s no obvious benefit being in a relationship with aka the poor, uneducated etc as modeled by Jesus. In the end, motivational teaching furthers segregation.

  4. Motivational teaching assumes homogeneity. Even though it’s teachers claim that we are all not the same and must each fulfill our own destinies, it still works with the assumption that we all begin with the same set of opportunities. Therefore it assumes that once a person does “enough” – where “enough” can be “enough hard work”, “enough smart thinking” or “enough positive thinking” etc, one can “be a success”. It fails to recognize privilege – that some people are more predisposed to “success” than others simply by virtue of where they come from, what education they’ve received, the social connections that their parents have that they can tap into, the environment created for them during their childhood to flourish in, the abuse that one may have suffered growing up which may have created some handicaps etc.

  5. Because of the assumption of homogeneity, its individualism and confusion over the task of the church, motivational teaching and its adherents take very little practical steps to work at elevating those who are less privileged, in contrast to Paul’s statements in the New Testament that “the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty” (1 Cor 12:23). Despite all the “wisdom” coming from the pulpits of our leading “motivationalists”, have they wondered why the poor, uneducated Ghanaian doesn’t come to their church to receive such “wisdom”, and yet go to those they claim are “charlatans” to be deceived and abused? Have they wondered if perhaps their message and their practice actually only works for those who are already on the upward drive, and not for “the least of these” that Jesus spent the most of his time with in 1st Century Galilee and Judaea?

  6. Motivational teaching makes heroes of secular people, whiles leaving Jesus’s own example of self-sacrifice for the other behind. The problem of finding our examples and way of life from elsewhere instead of from Jesus is a long-standing problem in the church, but in motivational teaching this is magnified to gargantuan proportions. It is so bad that it swallows bare-faced capitalism hook, line and sinker without any form of discernment. I don’t need to be detailed on this one. Just listen to most motivational speakers and you’ll see no difference between their view of life and that of notable capitalist business moguls. And yet when Mary was told she was to give birth to the Messiah, she sang He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Lk 1:53). That’s some pretty strong stuff.

Conclusion

For me there is some dissonance between the loud protestations against Darwinian evolution and the modern day “motivational preaching” movement. Because at the end of the day, no matter the protestations of this movement, their teaching is all about the survival of the fittest – about how one’s personal “potential” is king and one’s survival, along with one’s family is paramount. And what could be a more apt description of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection than this?

And maybe the reason why most of us middle to upper class Ghanaians have bought into it wholeheartedly is that we’ve fallen into the trap that prevents us from reading Genesis 1-4 not as a statement against evolution, but rather as a reminder never to get to the place where we respond to God, as Cain did, “Am I my brother’s keeper”?

The Daily Devotional – Help Or Hindrance?

Photo Credit: Ozyman via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Ozyman via Compfight cc

It is a well known and oft-repeated mantra that Christians should read the bible on their own to further develop a relationship with God. But I find a worrying trend among Ghanaian Christians that will rather retard that relationship, if not kill it, and that trend is the rise of the “daily devotional”.

Growing up, I remember there were only a few devotionals that were recommended for Christians to read as a means of “doing their quiet time”. Typically the focus on 1 verse of scripture with a other proof-texts to support the main one, and an explanation, story, illustration etc and some praying points. These were mostly written from a typical evangelical Christian perspective by a wide range of respected Christians sometimes from different church backgrounds, and as much as possible kept the focus on one’s salvation and daily walk with God. Back then, we were encouraged to read the bible for ourselves and then add on these devotionals, but overtime many people who actually desired the ability to have “quiet time” simply substituted reading the bible with reading the devotionals only. After all, the devotionals were also quoting the bible, not so?

The trend however began to shift when every pastor worth their salt decided that their church members needed to not only hear their voices on Sundays, but carry them along all through the week as well. Matters have now deteriorated to the point where everyone who feels they have some level of understanding of the bible wants to write one, and with the advent of social media and chat platforms, easily spread their devotional to friends and family.

In my opinion this trend is however leading us down a very dangerous path – it is blinding us from discovering the bible ourselves in it’s fullness and complexity, and has become a sure means of spreading bad theology amongst Christians, to their own detriment. And here are the reasons why.

  1. It encourages proof-texting. Devotionals pick a verse or 2 out of their contexts, and then try to make sense of the verses on their own. Sometimes the authors try to draw in from the surrounding context, but since these devotionals are meant to be short, they woefully fail at doing this and focus on their interpretations of the the quoted verses. This is a sure formula for distorting scripture, as any single verse in the bible can be quoted to support any interpretation one desires, even including killing people.

  2. It props up individualistic readings of the bible. Most devotionals focus on giving their readers some snippet of encouragement, advice etc on how to live their personal lives. This means that every quoted verse is plumbed for its application to the individual, without realizing and emphasizing the corporate nature of the biblical texts themselves from which these verses are lifted. Where for example Paul is speaking of the church, devotionals teach their adherents to read them as speaking of themselves as individuals. I was amazed when someone was quoting Eph 3:10 from a devotional and feeling abuzz, letting us all know that the rulers and principalities will know God’s wisdom through him, a total distortion of the whole bible’s teaching on the critical nature of the nation of God – the church.

  3. It fails to situate Christians in their place as participants in God’s mission. Because of the explicit focus on giving Christians a personal boost for their daily lives, devotionals fail woefully at bringing to the fore God’s mission of care for one another and care for creation that can only be acted out by communities of dedicated Christians, not by individuals. The bible is meant to guide the life of a community of people who are working to make the kingdom of God felt on the earth today. That’s why Jesus taught his disciples to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as in heaven”. Individualistic reading of scripture promoted by devotionals prevent one from seeing this point.

  4. It hides the complexity of the bible from it’s audience. Devotionals by their nature are very selective of scripture. This means that its readers will get the sense of a bible which is very simple to read and understand, where every verse of scripture is self-explanatory. It propagates the well-cherished Protestant teaching that with a plain reading of scripture and the holy spirit’s help, everyone can come to the same conclusions on bible passages as the writers of these devotionals have. Given the millions of different denominations all stating that their interpretation of scripture is the right one, its amazing the irony of such teaching hasn’t dawned on us yet.

  5. It keeps it’s readers ignorant of the history and background of the biblical texts. By their nature, there’s very little understanding of the history and background of the bible that one can get from devotionals, which actually have a huge impact on how to actually interpret a particular verse of the bible. Some devotionals try to give themselves a sense of going deeper by doing “the greek word means …”, but really, if it was a simple as quoting words from the original languages, we will all still be reading the KJV as the only English translation.

I could go on with more reasons to be wary of devotionals, but I think the point is made. By its very nature, there is no real way that devotionals can make one a better student of the bible. The best it can do is to give you a boost for the day. And frankly that won’t cut it if we are going to produce Christians who actually know what the bible has to say and who will not fall for deception. As they say, “give a man fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish, and you’ll feed him for a lifetime.” Devotionals are the equivalent of giving a man a fish – Christians who rely on them will never learn to discern scripture themselves. Our churches need to be equipping Christians with the right methods to enable study the bible for all it’s worth, and in addition realize the value of community in the interpretation of scripture. In addition, the false pressure that one must read the bible EVERY DAY is one that needs to be countered – so we don’t fall into the temptation to fill up the “quiet time” slot with rather unhelpful material. Jesus’s didn’t say we need to read the bible daily – he said we need to carry our cross and follow him daily (Lk 9:23). That cross was a cross of self-denial for the other, just as he denied himself for us. What are we denying ourselves for our fellow Christian and even non-Christian on a daily basis?

We are in an unprecedented time in history where the bible is very easily obtainable due to the invention of the printing press, but sadly we are also in a time when the ignorance of the bible is even higher. This is simply due to the fact that those who actually can read aren’t reading it, and those who are reading it haven’t been trained in proper methods of understanding it.

Tips

Here are some tips for you if you are serious about reading the bible for all its worth,

  1. Stop reading devotionals. Some of them may sound like they have some depth, but if you develop the habit of reading the bible yourself, you’ll realise that there’s nothing special about them, and very soon you’ll be poking holes in them yourself.

  2. Pray to God to give you the strength to read the bible for yourself.

  3. Read whole chapters of the bible at once. Don’t feel pressured to do so everyday, but if you can then read one chapter a day. To be frank with you, I don’t read the bible everyday, so you are in good company (or rather I’m in good company).

  4. Rediscover Jesus by intentionally reading the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John) once every year. Just read them in chapters.

  5. There is an amazing magic about the Psalms, which I intend to write about soon. But I’ll encourage you to read them on a regular basis. Come up with your own schedule. Anytime you do your regular reading of the bible, read a Psalm to boot, even the confusing ones. I’ll be sharing very soon the songs that we’ve written at church from the Psalms following this practice.

  6. No matter how you do it, start small. A chapter a day and a Psalm a day. Or a chapter a week and a Psalm a week. It’s about consistency, not about “Read Your Bible, Pray Everyday”.

  7. Find friends in your church who are practicing/want to practice reading the bible this way and plan this together so you can share your thoughts with each other. Remember, the early disciples didn’t have bibles in their homes. They had to have the books of the bible read to them and they interpreted it together.

  8. Commit yourself to reading a book by a theologian at least once a year which discusses a theological concept. By a theologian I don’t mean pastors. I mean a world renowned biblical scholar. This is not to condemn pastors and teachers. The goal of this advice is to open you up to learning from people who are not found in your usual comfort zones, but who have dedicated their lives to explaining the bible for both academic and spiritual purposes, and who are aware of the complexities of the bible.

Conclusion

One of the questions I ask my friends who take themselves seriously when it comes to Christianity is this. Are you in the business of producing believers, or you are in the business of producing disciples? Jesus called us to do one of these, and we should know which one by now.