Syncretism in the American Church
You’ve probably heard of syncretism before, and you know that it is a bad thing. When ‘Christians’ in Latin America keep Bibles in their car as a sort of ‘charm’ to prevent bad luck, that is syncretism. When Africans go to church on Sunday, and go to the witch doctor on Monday for relief from evil spirits, that is syncretism. What you may not realize is that syncretism is not just present ‘out there.’ Syncretism is present in America too, and sometimes in our very churches.
What is Syncretism?
Syncretism is the fusion of two worldviews or religions into a single belief pattern. Some entire religions are based on syncretism: Yazidi belief combines elements of Christian and Islamic doctrine, while the Baha’i religion combines many elements of different belief systems.
Syncretism in the American Church
Syncretism is also present in the American church, but it often flies under the radar. How is this? As in other forms of syncretism, two competing belief systems are combined into one form: Christianity, and Secular Humanism.
Secular Humanism is an opposing worldview to Biblical Christianity, as much a spiritual belief system as any other religion, but it claims to be ‘amoral’ and ‘irreligious.’ In other words, Secular Humanism pretends that it can be combined with any religion, including Christianity, without being any threat at all.
In America, syncretism is often accepted under the term ‘contextualization’ and the idea of influencing the culture. Without a doubt, there is a correct and proper form of contextualization when we preach the Gospel. Certainly, it is important to influence the culture. Both concepts are legitimate and necessary. The problem is when these concepts become ‘sleeper agents’ to infiltrate secular humanism under the cloak of Christianity.
Until we call the bluff – until we recognize that secularism is actually an opposing worldview – it will continue to sneak into the church.
How does this syncretistic thinking (Christianity + Secularism) manifest itself? It does so in all the same ways that secularism is manifest in the world at large: a loose moral code (immorality, changing definitions of marriage), a godless culture (that affects everything from music, to dress, to aesthetics), and an unbiblical mindset (which values uncritical tolerance as a virtue and hesitates to apply sacralization).
The Fatal Effect of Syncretism
As with all other forms of syncretism, Christianity is diluted in the ‘hope’ that it will be more successful in a godless culture. The African who uses animistic practices in the church hopes that more people will come to church. Often, this is true – the syncretistic religion grows, but Biblical Christianity is usually the casualty.
As with all syncretism, American syncretism destroys the power of the Gospel. This does not mean that every Christian with a shred of secular thinking is unconverted – but as secularism gains more influence, the power and presence of the Gospel is diminished. Christ calls men to absolute and total surrender, while syncretism tries to strike a compromise with the world.
But there can be no compromise. The power of Christianity and the Gospel lies in total surrender to the absolute claims of Christ on the life – Christ alone, not Christ plus the world.
Regrettably, American syncretism is more dangerous than most syncretism. While the inclusion of secular humanistic thinking tries to make evangelism ‘easier,’ it makes evangelism outside America harder. Most of the world is much more traditional and conservative. Outside the west, this syncretistic Christianity appears as a complete buy-in to secularism, with one important different. Most who live outside the US are unable to distinguish the two worldviews, and simply equate Christianity with secularism. This has already created disastrous results.
I’m reminded of the account I heard of two conservative Muslim men, who – despite the warnings of their Christian guide – wanted to go to an American church. Afterward, when he asked their honest opinions, they gave it: ‘it didn’t feel like a place of worship. It felt like we were right in the middle of the world, as if we were in a club or a bar.’ How can a church, a place dedicated to the worship of the Triune God, ever be categorized with those places? It happens when syncretism is present. And yes, it is present – even in America.