In addition to being a part of a local congregation I also enjoy visiting other churches and listening to a variety of sermons. I’ve done it for decades. Over the last several years I’ve noticed a trend in evangelical churches towards something I call "moralism." It can take good concepts (like a high view of Scripture or a desire to promote Godly living) and put a twist on them the makes a sermon more like a scolding or lecture than a proclamation of good news. After listening to a recent sermon in a church I was visiting for the first time I developed what I call a “moralism checklist” to help me recognize the eight key components of moralism.
1. Enemies. The crux of this is, "Isn't it horrible about the.....[pick the evil of choice--humanists, socialists, gays, heretics, Buddhists, Paris Hilton, Oprah, naturalistic scientists, etc.]. Lots of energy is focused on the creation of enemies and a lot of the firepower of the sermon is generated by the emotions that "enemy talk" can generate. Three things you do with enemies. a) blame them for all your problems, b) run away from them, and/or c) "fight them."
2. Misguided Attribution. What are the principles of "cause and effect" in this sermon? Are bad things that happen to people inappropriately blamed on things people do or don't do that probably aren't the real cause? Lost your job? Probably because you didn’t tithe. An earthquake in Haiti? Must be because of voodoo. Sometimes the sermon includes false promises of "rewards" that may not be realistic (i.e. if you don't have sex before marriage you will have endless erotic and relational bliss once you say "I do.").
3. Biblicism. Are there references to "The Word" that suggest the instant answers to all questions, the final word on science, a kind of magical power, or recipe book? Is there a wooden, literalistic approach to the bible that always assumes we know what the true "Biblical" answer is and that all other sources of insight or knowledge must be trumped by your particular interpretation of what the Bible says?
4. Gnosticism. This refers to the belief that the crux of Christianity is "being right." Having the correct belief on any particular issue is the key to authentic Christianity. Sometimes this plays out in terms of "my religion is better than your religion" and disputes between different Christian groups or groups within a church. A lot of theological warfare is of this variety.
5. Triumphalism. Is the portrayal of Christianity and the work of Christ such that creates a triumphalistic, "we're right and everybody else is wrong" perspective. This can also apply to aspects of "the American way" as well.
6. Denial. Are there hints that "good Christians don't have these problems" (or they have them only if they are "being wicked")? Are there quick fixes or easy formulas used for complex human problems such as divorce, sexuality, addiction, the dark night of the soul, etc.? Does the sermon set the stage for people to shove certain problems underground or only talk about them with disclaimers (i.e. "I know that Lord is giving me victory over this") instead of an honest exploration of feelings?
7. Privatized Behaviorism. Do "private sins" (i.e. lust, gluttony, etc.) loom so large that they overshadow more collective approaches to systemic evil in the world? Is it worse to look at a racy website than to do an "Enron" or "AIG" that nearly brings down the world economy? Or to ignore policies that increase poverty? Or be indifferent to environment because "when Jesus returns he will clean up our mess"?
8. Imperative-ism. Is more of the gospel about "oughts" and "shoulds" rather than what God has done and the initiative he has taken in Christ? How much scolding and lecturing factors into this message? Sometimes it includes statements such as "God may be a God of grace but if you don't get you act together in the following way you will go to hell."