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The narcissistic church and our need for a Saviour

Not a matter of talk but of power.

“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power” (1 Cor. 4:20).

We’re seated at supper around chicken wings and garlic toast. I’m telling my family about Pastor Sonnel, a friend of mine from Sierra Leone who’s been leading revivals in eight remote villages. I tell them how he was chased by honeybees from one village; how, in another village, after delivering a powerful sermon on the end times, Sonnel’s dentures fell out – to which he said, “It was an embarrassment, though not much, because I was preaching the heart of the Greatest King who ever lived.” 

I tell them about all the lives coming to Christ through this humble man who’s not afraid to risk his life to cross Lil’ Scary River in a canoe hewn from a tree. I say, “Pastor Sonnel is truly an amazing man.”

A man and a boy in the forest.
Emily and Pastor Sonnel.

And my children’s response?

“What about us? Aren’t we amazing too?!”

Please know, I believe strongly in affirming our children. But, as I looked at them in that moment, I felt great sorrow. Not only was I seeing the next generation and the dangerous precedent we’ve set by entitling our youth – I saw James and John, the disciples, arguing about who was greatest. I saw myself, who for years struggled as an anorexic “affirmation junkie,” desperate for the approval of others. And I saw the face of the white, middle-class, evangelical church.

Since growing up as a pastor’s daughter in a typical Canadian congregation, I’ve wondered at the powerlessness of a people touted to be able to demolish demonic strongholds. I’ve wondered at the apparent lack of miracles. I’ve wondered at the lack of love. I’ve wondered at the hypocrisy.

And then, in 2014 – as part of a blogger’s trip, leading to me starting a non-profit which equips the local church in villages across Africa –I began to travel. Over the past seven years, I’ve had the privilege of visiting churches in Uganda, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia and South Sudan. As a result of these trips, in which I’ve developed long-lasting friendships with local pastors, I’ve realized the Holy Spirit is very active in these parts of the world. He is still raising the dead, healing the sick and casting out demons. The gospel is still very much alive in the unadulterated joy of Jesus’ humble followers, in the laying down of their lives for others, in their obedience to the commands of the New Testament. 

(Friends, I’m aware that due to the brevity of this piece, and the enormity of this issue, generalizations are bound to happen. I’m begging forgiveness in this regard. Please hear the spirit in which I share this.)

Nothing without Christ

I don’t think the problem of our spiritual powerlessness lies, necessarily, in our unbelief. I think it lies in our idolatry. I think many of us in the middle-class, evangelical Canadian church have elevated Self over God. We have spread the mantra that we deserve to be treated a certain way, that we have certain rights, and that those rights must be upheld. We believe so much in our self-worth that we fail to remember we are simply dust – nothing, without Christ. We refuse to sacrifice because we don’t feel good when we sacrifice. We believe God came to us, and that we somehow deserve his love. We forget that the Bible says when we draw near to the Lord, then he will draw near to us. He doesn’t stand begging for our attention. He waits for us, yes, but he does not pander to our needs. We forget Whom we serve – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. When someone says Yahweh is amazing, we immediately respond with, “But I’m amazing too, right?”

Paul says, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith – that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:8-10).

A chapter prior, Paul recounts how Jesus, the very Son of God, “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:7-8).

Our weakness, Christ’s power

This Easter, as we ponder anew the rugged cross, the empty tomb and the risen Saviour, wondering if God does, in fact, still do miracles, let me assure you – he does. I’ve seen it here in Canada, too, in a white, middle-class, evangelical church, years ago. My pastor-father had been immensely humbled by then, our church having resorted to a school gym. We met each week, setting up the chairs, gathering to worship, then taking down the chairs. Meanwhile, my mother, who had been battling brain cancer for 10 years, was healed. God prolonged her life for five more years, allowing her to see all of her children married and her grandchildren born – the answer to her prayers. God delighted in showing his power in the midst of our utter lack, in the midst of us crying out to him to have mercy, in the midst of us recognizing our need for him. His power is made perfect in our weakness, dear church. Hallelujah!


  • Emily Wierenga

    Emily Wierenga is a wife and mother who is passionate about the church and lives in northern Alberta. She is the author of the memoirs Atlas Girl and Making it Home (Baker Books), and the founder of a non-profit working in Africa and Asia.

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