Is the Self Esteem Movement Harming Church Membership?

Is the Self Esteem Movement Harming Church Membership?

What is a balanced view of self esteem? Why are men often bored in church?


Transcript Is the Self Esteem Movement Harming Church Membership?

[audio clip from the movie Whiplash]

KEVIN HARRIS: Dr. Craig, David Murrow is a very entertaining writer. He has written a best-selling book called Why Men Hate Going to Church. We will talk about that here in just a moment because you have some thoughts about that as well – just that topic. But he has written another article titled “Is self-esteem wrecking church attendance?”[1] The first thing I am going to think when I look at this title is, “OK, am I supposed to have self-esteem or not?” Just tell me right now, Dr. Craig – are we supposed to have a good self-esteem?

DR. CRAIG: In Christ you are supposed to have a good self-esteem. You are supposed to have a realistic picture of yourself as a fallen miserable sinner with feet of clay, but to recognize that as you come to God with those sins, confessing them and asking for cleansing and filling of the Holy Spirit, that in Christ you are a new person that is righteous before him. You can have a good self-esteem in Christ.

KEVIN HARRIS: I am thinking of Romans 12, Paul says to not think more highly of yourself than you ought, but the next verse says use sound judgment. That is what you were saying there – have a realistic, good, balanced look at yourself.

DR. CRAIG: Yeah, to recognize the fallenness and the brokenness, but then also the new status that you have insofar as you are in Christ. You are seated with him in the heavenly places, Paul says, and have all of these tremendous spiritual benefits and gifts. You are a child of God. What higher status could a person enjoy than that? That is a basis for self-esteem that isn’t predicated upon your natural gifts or talents.

KEVIN HARRIS: I don’t think David Murrow would disagree with any of that.

DR. CRAIG: Oh, no.

KEVIN HARRIS: But he is talking about a particular self-esteem movement.

DR. CRAIG: Right.

KEVIN HARRIS: In fact, I was watching a very liberal news network, and they had a feature story on this sports team and all the kids who joined all get a trophy even if they sit on the beach or whatever they do. Everybody gets a trophy. Even this very liberal news source says that is ridiculous. What is that teaching them? There is almost a kind of a backlash against this spoiling people to where they are no good of themselves. Let’s see what he says. He says,

The modern self-esteem movement is celebrating its 50th birthday. In 1965, sociologist Morris Rosenberg invented “The Self-Esteem Scale” — the first academic tool that assessed a person’s view of himself. In 1969 Psychologist Nathaniel Branden took that data and released “The Psychology of Self-Esteem,” which became the bible of the modern self-esteem movement.

Over the next two decades higher self-esteem came to be seen as the antidote to crime, drug abuse, teen pregnancy and student underachievement. Parents were taught to lavish praise on their children. Schools eliminated failing grades. Sports leagues gave everyone a trophy.

The results are in – and all this self-esteem boosting has done little to stanch crime, drug abuse, etc. In fact, many critics believe the movement has actually harmed young adults, by causing them to shy away from any experience that makes them anxious or uncomfortable.

Pausing there for a minute, there is a meme, a picture, that comes up on Facebook from time to time that says, “Good morning, America. What are we going to be offended by today?” Continuing,

Some Millennials, unaccustomed to even mild feelings of rejection or social alienation, are walking away from institutions and relationships at the first sign of difficulty.

We want to know. Write to us, Millennials. Are Millennials seeing this? Are they seeing this in their peers or in their friends?[2] He cashes this out by saying that this includes the institutional church.

A generation bathed in self-esteem is having a hard time integrating into institutional Christianity for a number of reasons:

1. Our message starts with sin. Yes, the Gospel is Good News, but it begins with bad news: all have sinned. Young adults may have a hard time believing they are sinners because they’ve never been told they’re guilty of anything worse than “poor decision making.”

2. Churches are led by flawed people. Thanks to the self-esteem movement, many young people are blissfully unaware of their own shortcomings – but can easily identify fault in others. As a result, they may have a hard time extending grace to imperfect spiritual leaders.

3. To get the most from church you must participate beyond worship services – which means dealing with difficult people. Self-esteemers may feel tempted to cut and run the moment they have an unpleasant interaction with a fellow churchgoer.

4. The Gospel itself is harsh. Jesus specialized in making people feel uncomfortable. Millennials may misinterpret spiritual conviction as a sign that something is wrong.

5. There is no perfect church. Young adults may quickly reject a church the moment they see or hear something they perceive as improper – and view themselves as noble for doing so.

This kind of resonates. I don’t know if he has got statistics or hard numbers to back all this up but I can see this.

DR. CRAIG: Well, he doesn’t present them. There is no sociological study here. There is no data to support this. It seems to be just based on his observations. I don’t know that these problems are the result of the self-esteem movement. Certainly the fact that our message starts with sin, as he puts it – that is to say that people are sinful and condemned before God, guilty and deserving of punishment and needing his forgiveness – would be something that goes down hard today with people who have been raised on a generation of being told “I’m OK. You’re OK.” The message that you are a sinner doesn’t fit well with that sort of self-esteem program. You are not OK! You are guilty. You are fallen. You are broken, and you need forgiveness. That seems plausible to me. But it is not clear to me that these other problems that he mentions arise from Millennials having too much self-esteem or encouragement to have good self-esteem. I’d like to hear from our listeners who are Millennials as to whether or not they think Murrow here has identified a real problem.

KEVIN HARRIS: This just gets back down to don’t spoil your kids, and we all do. Every generation thinks the next one is spoiled. Again, he is saying, “Now, I’m not saying all young adults are this touchy. But increasing numbers are approaching institutions with a growing wariness and cynicism.”

DR. CRAIG: The surveys do bear that out – that this Millennial generation, I think, is wary and cynical about the institutional church and aren’t as involved in it. But I am skeptical that this is due to the fact that they have been inculcated with this self-esteem philosophy. I find that it may be due to other factors. For example, he is very interested in the gender gap that he perceives in the church, and trying to get men back into the church. I doubt that that has much to do with self-esteem. Recently, Jan and I asked out to lunch after our Defenders class about six of the young guys that come to the class. We wanted to find out which worship service they attended – the traditional service with hymns, an organ, and so forth, or did they go to the contemporary service in the gym with the music band. So we asked them, “Which service do you fellows attend?” They kind of looked at each other, then they looked at us, and they said, “We don’t attend either one.” I said, “What?” And they said, “We don’t really attend any worship service.” I said, “You guys don’t go to church?” And they said, “No.” And I said, “You just come for Defenders class?” And they said, “Yeah.” And I said, “Why?” And they said, “Well, we just don’t get anything out of church. But we really get something out of the Defenders class.” That was just like a revelation to me. Whatever you think of their reason – and I don’t think it is a good one – they were bored with church. They didn’t get anything out of it. But the intellectual stimulus that they got in the Defenders class was such that these guys would get up on a Sunday morning and come to Defenders even though they wouldn’t attend church in the very same building the hour before.[3]

I am just convinced that if we want to bring more men in the church we need to appealing more to the intellectual rational side of the human personality. The church has become overly feminized, overly sentimental and emotional, and I think as a result men are bored with it. They are disinterested in it, and they don’t want to come. But if we can challenge them intellectually and show them that Christianity meets the demands of their head as well as their heart I think we are going to see an increased interest on the part of men, including these younger guys.

KEVIN HARRIS: What is funny, Bill, is that your wife, Jan, feels this way, too – too much feminization in the church. And she is very feminine!

DR. CRAIG: [laughter] Yeah, that’s true.

KEVIN HARRIS: So it is not a slam against the female species. That might sound misogynistic. It is just that there is a balance between the two. I don’t think women want to go outside of the way they are wired. A lot of times I see our churches so geared toward the ladies that men are left out. This writer talks a lot about that. I hope that we can see some correction. Philosophy and apologetics is definitely one corrective help.

I thought this was funny what he is saying. He says,

Our grandparents weren’t schooled with self-esteem. In fact, they were institutionally shamed (dunce caps), whipped with razor straps and ranked by ability (go to the head of the class). These methods would be considered abusive today [boy, would they ever!], but made sense in a time when life was much tougher. Our grandparents developed a thick skin that enabled them to keep calm and carry on through less than ideal circumstances. The “greatest generation” stuck with sour marriages, less-than-fulfilling jobs and irritating churches because they were trained to persevere through pain.

I guarantee you that they were the only generation that could have stormed Normandy when I think about it.

DR. CRAIG: I think it is certainly true that we need to be taught to persevere through pain, to make it through rough times, and so forth, but I have to say I would disagree, I think, very deeply with the idea of institutionally shaming children. When we lived in Germany we talked to folks who had small children in German grade schools. This is a way the German educational system works. The slowest kids – the least talented kids – in the class are ridiculed by the teacher, made fun of in front of the other children so that they laugh at them. This is supposed to motivate the child to try to do better. I remember our friend speaking with one of these teachers saying this is destructive of these children. It demotivates them because it discourages them. The teacher said, No, that motivates them! He was really convinced this is the way to get children to perform better. I think that is just utterly misconceived. You don’t have to give everybody a trophy that is on the team, but you don’t have to ridicule the kid who is the slowest in the race and crosses the finish line last. You can still hold people’s self-esteem up while rewarding those who excel.

KEVIN HARRIS: He then says,

Then came my generation – the Baby Boomers. We grow up in relative wealth, peace and abundance. We had choices our grandparents never dreamed of – and we learned to shop around for experiences. We were the first generation of “church hoppers” – moving from congregation to congregation to meet our needs. We re-created the church in our own image, throwing centuries of tradition overboard and turning worship into a rock concert.

Pausing there. My generation – we wanted more contemporary music as just an expression and allow church members to use the talents that they had. So churches do have contemporary services now. Now he is saying that rather than a legitimate expression perhaps of worship to God, that is all part of whoever has the better band – go to them. They have great music over here at this church. I don’t want to join this one if this church down here is going . . . so you hop from church to church in a consumerism attitude.

DR. CRAIG: I think that depends on the reasons why one is making a switch. It certainly is true – statistics do bear him out – that people very often do not worship today in the denomination or group that they were raised in.[4] The recent Pew study on religious affiliation shows that there is tremendous mobility. People raised as a Catholic are now worshiping, say, in a Protestant church. Or people who were raised as Protestants may have joined a Greek Orthodox church. There is a great deal of mobility. But I think on balance this is a very good thing because the largest trend is not that evangelicals are leaving evangelical churches for these other groups; it is that people are leaving these mainline liberal Protestant denominations and the Catholic churches in which they were born and raised and they are coming to evangelical churches now instead because their needs are being met there spiritually and they find themselves feeling alien in these churches in which they were raised.

In fact, as I think about it, that is both my wife’s experience and mine. We were, as children, raised in mainline Protestant denominations, but neither of us worships in that today because we never heard the Gospel there. We both heard the Gospel through the witness of other people. Then eventually we began to worship in churches where the Gospel was faithfully proclaimed and our spiritual needs were met. So this kind of fluidity that he describes – church-hopping – I think is on balance quite a good thing and redounds to the strength of the evangelical movement in the United States.

KEVIN HARRIS: To wrap it up here, he says all we need to do is when somebody joins the church and they go to a new members orientation or a new members class they need to be told, We have certain programs here and opportunities, but we also want you to know that there are plenty of imperfect people in this church. It is not perfect. It is flawed, and you are bound to be made uncomfortable, perhaps betrayed, and somebody is going to be obnoxious. That is part and parcel of being a member of any human group. Right?

DR. CRAIG: Exactly. I think that is right. We need to talk to people about suffering – they are not going to necessarily find life a bowl of cherries. It will involve suffering and hardship and God can give you the strength to get through that. But it is not going to be a life exempted from that.[5]



[1] David Murrow, “Is self-esteem wrecking church attendance?” See http://www.patheos.com/blogs/churchformen/2015/02/is-self-esteem-wrecking-church-attendance/ (accessed August 31, 2015).

[2] 5:00

[3] 10:14

[4] 15:10

[5] Total Running Time: 18:06 (Copyright © 2015 William Lane Craig)