The Positive Thinking Philosophy: Its Impact On The Church

Mike Willis
Bowling Green, Kentucky

What can be historically documented as a movement in American church history is not yet so easily documented among Christians. The influence of denominational movements on the church has generally lagged several decades. The social gospel movement was fully developed among denominations before the churches of Christ ever began supporting colleges, orphan homes, hospitals, recreational camps, retreats, and other human institutions. The denominations had their missionary societies sponsoring television programs on the networks long before Herald of Truth was supported by thousands of congregations sending money to the Highland church in Abilene. We should not, therefore, think it strange that the influence of the positive thinking philosophy on Christians is lagging behind its influence on the denominations.

In this article, I want to call attention to incipient forms of the influence of the positive thinking philosophy among faithful brethren. These are trends developing among us and, as such, are less easily documented in their formative stage than when fully mature. Nevertheless, I am confident that others have also noted some of these trends and their observations as a result of this article would be appreciated. If some believe we have erred in identifying or analyzing this trend, we would appreciate hearing from them, will prayerfully consider their arguments, and will be glad to publish a reasonable response to our material. If some who share the spirit of this distorted philosophy could be cautioned to have second thoughts about the dangerous direction of this trend, our efforts will be richly rewarded. We are not seeking to discourage or destroy anyone who labors and walks "uprightly according to the truth of the gospel," but neither do we desire to ignore any trend which may subtly lead us away from the truth of the gospel (Gal. 2:14; 2 Cor. 11:3).

Positive Contributions Of Positive Thinking

One would be unfair to call attention to only the negative influences from the positive thinking philosophy among brethren. Hence, I want to mention some positive influences the movement has had:

1. It has helped some brethren develop a "can-do" attitude toward the Lord's work. Too many brethren have a negative approach toward everything anyone suggests doing. We have all heard the trio of negative attitudes toward any program of work: "It'll never work!" "We've tried that before." "No one is interested." The positive thinking movement has called our attention to the fact that we often cause our own failure by our defeatist attitudes. For this contribution, we are thankful.

2. It helps create zeal and enthusiasm toward the Lord's work. Those who have been influenced by positive thinking are generally excited about their work and convinced that much good will be accomplished by hard work.

3. It has helped develop certain character traits, such as friendliness toward one another and non-Christians, joy, perseverance, etc. Those influenced by positive thinking have been encouraged to take a good look at their own character weaknesses to correct them.

4. It has helped some people reach their own potential. Some introverted people have learned to participate in the public services of worship through the influence of positive thinking.

I do not mean to imply by these observations that one cannot accomplish these goals without the positive thinking philosophy. The word of God does not need to be supplemented by any human philosophy to develop any of these attributes. What is true is that most philosophies contain an element of truth, which is what makes them believable. These elements of truth do not need to be rejected with the false theories to which they are tied.

Dangerous Influence of the Positive Thinking Philosophy on the Church

There are several very definite changes which are occurring among us tied to the positive thinking philosophy. I want to enumerate what I have observed:

1. Elimination of doctrine from preaching. The positive thinking philosophy has influenced preaching away from theology toward psychology. It encourages that preaching answers the so-called "felt human needs" of those listening. Consequently, many self-help manuals have been written to overcome depression, guilt, anxiety, and many other emotional needs. The positive thinking movement does not treat sin and forgiveness as a top priority (some positive thinking philosophers no longer believe in sin or redefine it [such as Robert Schuller]).

I see this same trend developing among us. In the preaching which I have heard and in the many bulletins and periodicals which I read, I see a trend away from teaching doctrinal lessons which distinguish the Lord's church from denominationalism (the organization, work, worship, and names of the church; the plan of salvation; the action, purpose and subject of baptism, etc.). I have noticed that bulletins and sermons rarely expose denominational error and many of the respectable sins of our day (such as "once in grace, always in grace," infant baptism, sabbath observance, observance of holy days, gambling, dancing, immodesty, social drinking, etc.). Under the guise of "balance" in preaching, some pulpits and bulletins have completely eliminated any distinctive preaching - preaching which would lead a man out of denominational error or worldly habits and into the Lord's church.

There appears to be a fear that preaching these doctrines will run off our contacts. One brother wrote, "By our obnoxious name-calling, negative fault-finding spirits and 'McCarthyisms,' we have run off everyone who might be interested in filling their spiritual needs. " Consequently, we will preach only positive sermons until they are converted. Then we will teach them in Bible class (if they ever attend) these particular doctrines to be believed and the morality required of a Christian. Brethren, we cannot sneak up on the alien sinner and convert him without him knowing it! To convert the sinner, he must be taught the error of his ways, repent of his sins, and obey the gospel. This cannot happen so long as his sins and denominational beliefs are never confronted and exposed. This must be done if we speak "the truth in love" (Eph. 4:15). Anything less is lacking not only in truth but also in genuine love!

At the present, I do not so much fear what is being taught as what is not being taught. A generation of Christians is being reared without the benefit of hearing sermons which distinguish the Lord's church from Protestant denominationalism. Because they see no difference between denominations and the Lord's church, they will soon want to recognize that there are Christians in all denominations and then join hands to work with them in those areas in which we are agreed. Some of the more liberal churches which have been fed a constant all-positive diet for years are already at that stage now. Attitudes have consequences; we reap as we sow. Unless there is a consistent program of instruction which teaches the uniqueness of the church and the necessity for following the word of God, apostasy will occur.

2. Elimination of allforms of controversy. The positive thinking philosophy seeks to win friends and influence people with a wide smile, a warm handshake, glowing affirmations, and other words of encouragement. It does not encourage the frank and open discussion of areas of disagreement which characterized the New Testament era (Acts 17:11; 15; Gal. 2).

As this filters into the church, a generation is raised with the philosophy that "you win more flies with honey than with vinegar," a concept repudiated by inspired men (Jer. 6:14-17). Recently an article was published among us which held up the positive thinking philosophy saying, "You gotta accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative; latch on to the affirmative; and don't mess with Mister In-Between. " I am confident that the man who made this statement would agree that, if this concept becomes the accepted norm in preaching, a generation will arise which has no backbone to oppose false doctrine. Even today some want to eliminate references to denominations from the pulpit, as though Paul erred in specifying a false religion (Acts 17:23). Preachers are encouraged not to run off denominational friends who might attend worship by sermons which expose the denomination of which they are members.

Some older Christians feel that they should shelter younger Christians from controversies in the church or in journals circulated among brethren. Preachers who participate in discussions of a point of truth are denigrated as participating in some kind of "preacher-fuss." Nearly all discussions of doctrinal differences are maligned as "issues" drawn up by brethren who do not like other brethren and are spending "their time trying to ruin the reputations of other good Gospel preachers because of jealousies and envies." They decry, "We have become too busy 'standing firm' instead of teaching the lost. We are too busy talking about our negative, back-biting view of Christianity to ever present it in a way that would demonstrate the love of God for the lost world. " (Of course, these criticisms of the "negative view" should not be judged as one preacher trying to destroy the reputations of other good gospel preachers, back-biting or jealousy; this good brother offering these criticisms is only standing firm for the truth. Physician, heal thyself!)

A new breed of preacher has arisen who is "too spiritual" to participate in discussion of doctrinal differences of any sort. Those who worked to keep congregations from supporting colleges and orphan homes from their budget are criticized for using the wrong tactics. Pulpits salvaged from liberalism by militant preaching are filled by men who condemn militant preaching!

A polarizing of brethren appears to be occurring. Those who are committed to the positive thinking movement seem to be forming a group. They only invite one another for meetings. The rest of us brethren are looked down upon as less enlightened, less spiritual brethren who are constantly embroiled in carnal controversy. We are told, "We are just beginning to wade out of the negative attitudes and stunting dispositions of the last generation and get going again." The "last generation" was fighting denominationalism and institutionalism among brethren. This new generation has "waded out" of such negativism.

This attitude toward controversy creates an atmosphere for false doctrine to breed. Where false teachers are not exposed and driven away from a flock, they will stay, infiltrate and infest the entire congregation. Soon they will be in control and they will drive off those who teach the truth. I am concerned for the church where this attitude toward controversy predominates. It is destined for trouble because this new so-called positive spirit positively contradicts the spirit of Christians in the New Testament age.

If this view predominates, an essential element of the gospel will have been lost. Through the years, we have emphasized Acts 17:11 - for brethren to search the Scriptures daily to see whether or not the things which are taught are so. Early saints engaged in discussion and dispute in order to arrive at the truth (Acts 15:2). Through these discussions and disputes, the truth became obvious to truth-loving Christians. If we succeed in eliminating all controversy or create an atmosphere where all controversy is "of the devil," we will have destroyed the spirit of searching the Scriptures to see if what is taught is so. Brethren need to recognize that discussion of differences in a brotherly spirit is healthy, not sinful. We should not feel threatened by discussion or feel that every difference aired in a paper is going to become an issue over which brethren will divide. Newly converted Christians do not need to be protected from a discussion of issues; they need to be taught to examine the Scriptures to see if the things taught are so. Where this spirit is predominant false doctrine cannot thrive.

3. Preaching with little reference to the Bible. Those who read the journals of the positive thinking philosophy know that they are filled with "testimonials" and illustrations of men who have achieved success. The anecdotes, illustrations, and testimonials inspire a person to greater achievement.

Every preacher knows the value of a good illustration, anecdote, or example to emphasize a point of truth revealed in Scripture. None of us is opposed to using anecdotes, illustrations, and examples. However, some have begun to preach like those under the influence of the positive thinking philosophy. Their sermons contain few, if any, references to Scripture. What is taught is generally true but is grounded on anecdote, illustration, and testimonial instead of the word of truth. A gospel preacher recently visited me and told about hearing a sermon in a meeting; he said it was a "fireside chat" instead of a sermon. I heard this same preacher in a meeting preach for 30-35 minutes without referring to the first Bible verse. The oratory was excellent but it does not build faith in God. Men come away talking about what a great preacher he is instead of what a great God and wonderful Savior we have.

Gospel preachers have been commissioned to "preach the word" (2 Tim. 4:2). Jesus said, ". . . preach the gospel" (Mk. 16:15). Paul said, "And 1, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.... And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power: that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God" (1 Cor. 2:1-5). Sermons so full of anecdotes, illustrations, and testimonials that the word of God is omitted or used only occasionally cannot build the strong faith which sustains Christians. I fear for the congregation whose preacher uses more anecdotes, illustrations, and oratory than he uses the word of God!

4. The power of preaching resides in the method or technique of presentation rather than in the gospel. In the positive thinking philosophy great attention is given to expressing "how to close the sale" in the right manner. For example, a salesman might say, "Do you want me to send these to you by mail or leave them with you now?" This question presupposes that you want the item he is selling. Any objections which are made are to be ignored and a presentation of the positive points of the item is reiterated.

Similar concern for technique is demonstrated in preaching the gospel. One is schooled in closing the home Bible study, "Do you want to be baptized tonight or Sunday morning?" "Would you like to have your wife present when you are baptized or someone else?" If an objection is raised, it is to be pushed aside (not answered) and a restatement of the need for Christ given.

In one study recently written about evangelism, the author encouraged us "not to challenge every false statement" which is made and not to "challenge" the sinner's immoral life. Rather, we were to make the sinner feel comfortable in our presence. He expressed concern about being perceived as "the bunch that 'thinks they are the only ones,"' describing Christians as having a holier-than-thou-attitude, leaving people with an impression that we are dogmatic, close-minded and hard-hearted. We agree that such abuses as smart-aleck, mean, and malicious remarks hide the gospel, and we do not take second place to anyone in protesting such a hurtful spirit. But it is characteristic of the positive thinking philosophy devotee to constantly harp on these abuses and to make broad charges as though the abuses have generally been the rule rather than the exception in the teaching efforts of preachers, debaters, writers, and other brethren. Paradoxically, these positive thinking philosophy devotees often use such excessive language in condemning their "negative" brethren as to convict themselves of the very abuse charged against others - the use of smart-aleck ways and tongue-lashing remarks. Meanwhile, there is an almost total absence of teaching on their part to expose the "damnable heresies" of denominationalism, liberalism, and worldliness in order that people might be convicted of sin and saved from its disastrous influence (2 Pet. 2:1, Jn. 16.8).

Although I see a need to learn "how" to answer every man (Col. 4:6), when the emphasis shifts from the message to the messenger or some technique he uses, less (not more) evangelism will occur. Brethren will perceive that they are not skilled in how to present the gospel and will not teach others. Sooner or later those we teach are going to learn that we believe that only those who have obeyed the gospel are saved (if that is what they are teaching) and that those in the denominations have not obeyed the gospel. Then those who obey the gospel may feel they were manipulated, just as some feel that way about a high-pressured salesman who has convinced them to buy his product.

The appeal of the gospel is the cross of Christ, not some technique used for presenting it. Some have become more wedded to a method of evangelism (such as Crossroads techniques) than to the gospel.

5. Faithfulness is measured by success. The positive thinking philosophy measures success in accomplishments, usually tied to financial prosperity, power, and popularity. The definition for success among preachers affected by the positive thinking philosophy becomes a growing church with a large membership, good contribution, and many responses to the invitation.

A successful preacher is one who has the ability to make a church grow, have a lot of responses to the invitation, build large buildings, and accomplish great things. (This does not mean that we discourage church growth, having a lot of responses to the invitation or building new buildings.) By these standards, many of the Lord's servants were not successful. Noah saved only eight souls. Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Amos were not very successful; they did not persuade a large number of people to repent.

In trying to achieve the positive thinking philosophy's measure of success changes must be made in our preaching to accomplish growth. We quit preaching against social drinking, dancing, mixed swimming, and other moral issues which might "run off" members. We quit referring to denominations by name in the pulpit lest we "run off" our visitors. We preach sermons addressing only the "felt human need" instead of how to obtain salvation from sin. Many liberal churches use celebrities to preach or lead singing to attract a larger crowd. Our measure of success is reached - the church starts growing numerically and in contribution, necessitating the erection of a larger building. However, the church is doctrinally weak and morally permissive.

How do we measure a preacher's success? It is only natural that we often notice the work of well-known preachers who hold a lot of meetings and work with large congregations. There is nothing inherently evil in doing either of these things; the well-known preachers with whom I have had association are conscientious men with extraordinary ability, humbly seeking to serve God. Yet, some of the most dedicated men I have known have labored quietly with small congregations in hard circumstances. By the measurement of the positive thinking philosophy, they were not "successful." However, they were faithful to God and that makes any man successful. We would do well to read 1-2 Timothy as the measure of success or failure in an evangelist's ministry - it has nothing to do with the numbers game!


From my point of view, there is no doubt that faithful brethren have been and are being influenced by the positive thinking philosophy. Paul's warning, "Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit" (Col. 2:9), was never more appropriate. Too many faithful brethren have already been spoiled by this philosophy. It has taken the cutting edge off their use of the sword of the Spirit. Their bulletins are full of the motivational pablum available in any denomination. I long for the day when one of their bulletins, papers, or sermons exposes the false denominational doctrines and worldly practices so predominate in our time. I long for the time when there is enough doctrinal content in their sermons and bulletins to persuade a denominational person to leave his denomination and become a Christian. I long for some article deploring the worldliness which is encroaching the church, specifying what it is and calling on Christians to abstain from the form of evil.

The prolonged absence of this kind of teaching is evidence that some have accepted the positive thinking philosophy and represents threatening clouds on the horizon. A generation is growing up without hearing distinctive preaching; a generation is growing up seeing no difference in the Lord's church and denominations; a generation is growing up opposed to all forms of controversy; a generation is growing up not used to biblically oriented preaching. A Bible student knows what kind of harvest this seed will bring.

Brethren, let us use this opportunity to conduct a self-evaluation to learn how we have been influenced by the positive thinking philosophy. Let us correct our course where needed and strive to present a balanced diet of teaching - both positive and negative. As we seek to improve our work, rather than doting on this world's wisdom, we need to reflect again and again upon the charge which Paul gave Timothy by divine inspiration:

I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his Kingdom; preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their cars from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry (2 Tim 4:1-5).

Guardian of Truth XXXI: 9, pp. 258, 274-276, 279
May 7, 1987