'Motorcycle Reverend' John Smith examines the good-feeling praise theology of many churches.

John Smith
John Smith

He was a rock musician whose talents led him to Woodstock in the '60s. But as has too often been the reality, drugs, sex and rock'n'roll broke his health and reduced his relationships to chaos.

But now, before the enthusiastic audience of the North American Christian Artists' Seminar, Mylon Lefevre stood a 'ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven' man. His tall, imposing presence held us spell-bound with energetic musical performance and powerful proclamation.

I found myself deeply moved by his testimony to the power of the Gospel to change the human heart.

But one thing disturbed me: his assertion that the way we get close to God is through praise. This has become a popular doctrine. I want to challenge it.

The Psalms are the primary praise literature of the Old Testament. Yet it is normal for the psalmists to begin with discontent, disappointment, fear, pain and a sense of moral outrage in the presence of successful and prosperous sinners and beleaguered and poor believers.

"This poor man cried...and the Lord inclined His ear unto my cry."

One of the most noteworthy 'praise' outbursts is found in an almost manic depressive context - Lamentations. Jeremiah describes himself as utterly destitute - his teeth smashed in the gravel (Lamentations 3:16-24)

Yet he says, "...hope returns when I remember this one thing...great is Your faithfulness." From this root of pain and dereliction comes the inspiration for one of the most time-honoured hymns: "Great is thy faithfulness, O God our Father...Morning by morning new mercies I see."

It is pain and awareness of the loving heart of God which leads to praise, not the other way around.

It further concerns me that the current praise theology is not the position of Jesus. Nor is it an appropriate theology in the face of a world largely marked by poverty, powerlessness and pain.

Many of the 'praise' perspectives of the more successful churches seem to mask an inability to develop a theology of suffering and an unwillingness to embrace the cross of Christ and its consequences.

Western culture-Christianity views success, good feelings, comfort, material excellence, health and overall joyous prosperity as the mark of God's approval and therefore the mark of God's friendship and presence.

If things go well, we feel close to the Lord.

If successive failure or disaster accompanies our efforts, we wonder what rebuking word God has for us. He seems so far away.