October 19, 2017

IM Book Review: A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church

By Chaplain Mike

Warren Cole Smith’s book, A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church has a title with which I resonate. If you’ve been reading Internet Monk for any length of time, you’ll know that we describe ourselves in two ways:

  • We are evangelicals. That is, we have been captured by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. We love the Gospel.
  • We’re having struggles with the church. We are engaged in a critique of the church which bears Jesus’ name. We have become convinced that it is not very Jesus-shaped these days.

So, on the one hand we love Jesus. On the other hand, we’re not quite sure what to do with the corporate community that represents him in the world. Many of us call ourselves “post-evangelical”—that is, we no longer feel comfortable within the system known as the American evangelical church. So we’ve moved out to seek something more deeply grounded in sound Biblical theology and the Great Tradition of the historic church, and more attuned to the Kingdom of God than the ephemeral culture of this world. Our quarrel exists not because we stand against the church, but because we want her to fulfill her high calling. Ours is a lover’s quarrel.

In this book, Warren Cole Smith sets forth the question many of us are asking:

What is it about evangelical theology or evangelical practice that is both so appealing and so troubling? (p.8 )

What follows is an incisive analysis of the “cultural captivity” of the American evangelical church, and its need for a new reformation.

At the outset, Smith acknowledges his debt to three books well-known for their critique of modern American culture: Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, and David Wells’s No Place for Truth. “My greatest hope is that I have taken their ideas and made them a bit more accessible” (p. xvii), he writes. Smith’s book flows in a stream of cultural criticism that has recognized the particular impact of technology in modern society, and various ways this has provoked the rampant secularization of our culture. Sadly, the church has not delivered people from this world-system, but has often contributed to its growth.

. . . technologies and systems became the mechanistic substitutes for relationships and community. Size, speed, and power have become the ways the evangelical church measures God’s blessing. (p. 40)

Warren Cole Smith begins his quarrel by questioning several evangelical “myths”—the myth of evangelical growth, the myth of evangelical political power, and the myth of the evangelical market. Using data points and anecdotes, he points out that many of the triumphalistic claims made in the name of evangelicalism are misleading. Furthermore, the evidence suggests a movement that lacks discernment and bases its understanding of “success” on questionable criteria.

One of the great contributions Smith makes is that he gives names to the chains that bind us in cultural captivity. These are:

  • The New Provincialism: Evangelicalism has so cut itself off from history and Biblical and church tradition that, “the evangelical church risks ceasing to be a Christian church at all.” (p. 60)
  • The Triumph of Sentimentality: “Sentimentality is the result of our unwillingness to realign our desires with the reality of the world, but rather to remake the world in accordance with our desires” (p. 67). Having rejected history and our theological legacy, today’s evangelicalism is all about creating an alternate reality—through highly efficient, full-service megachurches, through technologically-generated “worship experiences,” through therapeutic, positive-thinking, and prosperity-Gospel preaching.
  • The Christian-Industrial Complex: The “Christian market” has expanded so dramatically over the past generation, that a vast industry has grown up to supply products to satisfy its desires. It’s the American way. Now, many aspects of church life are driven by target marketing rather than by theologically-informed, pastorally-sensitive ordained and accountable leaders.
  • Body-Count Evangelism: As any evangelical will tell you—size matters. Contrasting the ethos of the First Great Awakening and pastors like Jonathan Edwards with that of the Second Great Awakening and evangelists like Charles Finney, Smith shows how today’s evangelicalism, fueled by such trends as the growth of the parachurch movement, has bought fully into the revivalist tradition with its emphasis on numbers, scale, and spectacle.
  • The Great Stereopticon: Rejecting the long understood fact that “the medium is the message,” evangelicalism has adopted the philosophy that any means is OK as long as one is communicating the right message. However, as Smith observes, “When you change the medium, you change the message, whether you intend to or not and though the words remain exactly the same. It is a lesson the evangelical church has not yet learned.”

Smith fleshes out these points with insightful analysis, numerous examples, and reflections from authors, thinkers, and other concerned believers who have contributed to his perspectives. He is unafraid to name names and look at specific ministries. He describes an evangelicalism that has settled down comfortably and made itself completely at home in American secularized, market-oriented, media-driven culture.

What solutions does Warren Cole Smith offer to counteract these concerns? What will break the chains of cultural captivity by which the American evangelical church is bound? Like many books critiquing the church, Smith’s analysis of the problems is much more extensive than his outline of a better way. However, what he has to say in this regard provides a helpful start.

First, using the example of the mission Gospel for Asia and its emphases on indigenous missionaries, church planting, and multiplication, Smith encourages the American evangelical church to embrace “the next small thing”—a humble, organic, grassroots movement focused not on charismatic personalities, big institutions, technological innovation, and capturing market share, but rather on personal ministry, multiplication through church planting, building cohesive, smaller communities of believers who serve their neighbors, and developing strong Christ-like pastoral leaders who will sacrificially contribute to the multiplication process.

I would describe it as the “farm” approach rather than the “factory” approach, and I heartily endorse what Smith is saying here. Jesus taught quite clearly that the Kingdom of God comes via unimpressive means and methods. It’s about small seeds, planted in obscurity, growing in darkness, breaking through the earth in frail form, coming to full flower over time through organic processes and careful tending. It’s about life. It’s about cultivating life, bringing life to maturity and fruitfulness so that life can reproduce itself. It’s not about manufacturing a product. I sometimes stand amazed that people who say they believe the Bible are so committed to the production line approach.

Second, Smith argues for a recovery of emphasis on the theological and practical concepts of vocation and community. When we receive God’s grace of salvation we also receive the grace of vocation—we are baptized into a life of actually following Jesus, to walk a Jesus-shaped path. This sense of vocation is nurtured when we live in community as the Body of Christ, growing in God’s Word,  and filled with the Spirit, gifted and led by him to serve one another in love.

I would love to see Warren Cole Smith write a second book for us—A Lover’s Proposal for the Evangelical Church—in which he might flesh out these suggestive ideas and help guide evangelicalism back to a more Jesus-shaped way.

Comments

  1. This is a good book, and I highly recommend it to those who are frustrated with Evangelicalism but know that it’s worth improving. Our obsession with growth, power, politics, pragmatism, and sentimentality are ugly marks on a movement I believe is capable of far more.

    I had some reservations at times, and thought that he reached a little too far to make his point. A few caveats:

    – Smith uses a lot of anecdotal examples to make his case, and in the “Body Count Evangelism” chapter he seems to overdo it. A lot of assertions about people are made with the only justification being “some people say,” with a link to random blogs as occasional evidence. One of which (regarding John Stott) is made with little explanation or context, making his confessional honesty of 20 years ago look like a hard shift in theology. Same with Billy Graham, as he quotes the infamous Ingrid Schlueter to make his point. Overall this kind of thing dulls his points. Unfortunately, these kind of drive-by accusations, reminiscent of IMonk’s issues with discern-a-bloggers, are one of my quarrels with the Evangelical Church.

    – One of Smith’s assertions that Armenianism is at the heart of the problems with the Evangelical church, and the remedy for all of this is Reformed theology. This is repeated a bit, and I think it’s both simplistic and unfair. While I’m closer to Reformed in thinking, none of what he wrote convinced me that the Lutherans down the road are a bigger problem than the Reformed Baptists who spend years debating who’s is and who’s out of Evangelicalism.

    I thought that these arguments kept the book from being the best it could be. Still, there is a lot to recommend here, and I encourage people frustrated with Evangelicalism (or know those who don’t know why you are frustrated) to check it out. Also recommended: Mark Noll’s “Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” or Os Guinness’s “Fit Bodies, Fat Minds”

    • I’m pretty far from Reformed in my theology, though I’m not sure I’d call myself Armenian either. I don’t see how either theology is “to blame.” I expect that he views things like the Prosperity Gospel coming out of the traditions of Armenianism, which is fair but certainly not the whole picture. I have just as much (if not sometimes more) problems with the Reformed/Calvinist Evangelicalism as I do others.

      Are Scot McKnight or Ben Witherington III really “problems” in Evangelicalism? I’d listen to either of them before John MacArthur. 🙂

  2. Spencer says:

    Chaplain Mike,

    Nice review. I haven’t heard of Smith’s book, but it sounds interesting. I had one question about something you said in this review though, which I’ve seen you mention before. You said that some evangelicals are moving away from modern superficiality and shallowness to embrace the “Great Tradition” of the church. What do you mean by “the Great Tradition?”

    Pax Christi,

    Spencer

    • Very briefly, the Great Tradition is most fully spoken in the creeds of the early church—particularly the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. This is the orthodox faith that was hammered out in the early centuries of the church after the apostles and before the canon of Scripture was finalized.

      Those who embrace the Great Tradition find unity with other Christians on the basis of the Creeds and are willing to allow differences in other areas of doctrine and practice.

      • Isaac Rehberg (the poster formerly known as Obed) says:

        The term “Great Tradition” is often used by Church historians to speak of the unified Church during the first 1000 or so years of the faith. It’s not that they had no problems in those days, but that there was a unity, including an institutional unity, that is in some ways impossible right now. By taking cues from the “Great Tradition,” however, we can start to regain unity even if it’s not an institutional one. Often, those who are looking to the Great Tradition are trying to build what Robert Webber called an “Ancient-Future” faith.

        • Emil Voynich says:

          The important thing is to focus on who the term is intended to exclude: gnostic, Nestorian, and non-Chalcedonian Christians (depending on which creeds are included) whom the creeds originally targeted; and modern groups outside a self-described Protestant “mainstream” (Catholics have a completely different approach to the framing of tradition).

  3. dumb ox says:

    I often think of the closing scene from “Brother Son, Sister Moon”, where the cardinals debate regarding what to do about the fledgling Franciscan movement, to which one of them recommends leaving them alone, that the people would flock to the Franciscans, and the Franciscans would lead the people to the cardinals. It’s great Zephirelli story-telling, but I think there is a warning there for post-evangelicals. I am concerned that the appearance of more and more books pointing to the problems within evangelicalism does not indicate that there is a growing concern and an interest in a new reformation; rather, I think it indicates that the powers that be now recognize post-evangelicals as a new marketing demographic. They’ll keep printing stuff that sticks in our craw, because they know we’ll buy it. Others will come along, who will try to leverage post-evangelicals to support their own agendas – be it political or ideological.

    I think there is a need to communicate the problems, because too many evangelicals still think all is well. I think we need to talk about how to fix the problems, but we need to be careful not to find solace in yet another “-ism”.

    It is amazing how denominationally and ideologically agnostic internetmonk.com is. It doesn’t place blame at the feet one particular group within evangelicalism, nor does it promote one particular group as having all of the answers. It really is a model that I hope will be emulated by other forums.

  4. Christiane says:

    There is a strong thread of faith that runs from the very first Christians down through the centuries and connects the Body of Christ together.

    To those who believe the thread of faith was hopelessly broken, I would say to them:
    ‘take another look’. For many, it might be their ‘first’ look.
    Somewhere in the Holy Land, or in the ancient Churches of the first Christian centers of the East and the West, or somewhere among the early Christian catacombs, evangelicals are able to recognize a kinship to those early Christian brothers and sisters, many of them martyrs.

    That heritage is there. waiting for evangelicals to discover. It can only enrich their faith.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      (Sarcasm on) But if the Thread of Faith wasn’t Hopelessly Broken (only to be rediscovered by Our Founding Pastor), how can We Be The Revivied One True New Testament Church? And how can Our Founding Pastor be Important? (Sarcasm off)

      A LOT of Evangelicals (“Landmark Baptist” being the example I’ve heard of on this blog) have the same view of church history as the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses (and weirder groups) — the True Church went off the rails and crashed into Romish Popery between the last apostle and Constantine, and all were Apostate until We Came Along and Revivied The One True Way.

  5. Scary – I was just talking with a friend not a few hours ago about many of the above situations. I even used Gospel for Asia as an example of another approach to missions. I will have to check out this book when I have the chance. (Right now, I’m still working through a tome called Mere Churchianity – don’t suppose you’ve heard of it?)

    • Tome? It’s like 200 pages. 🙂

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Compared to flashfics and Twitter tweets, it’s a tome.

        Compared to the Trilogy Components you see on bookstore shelves, it’s a Twitter tweet.

  6. Emil Voynich says:

    Talk of a “lovers quarrel” is misleading. You may love “the” church, but no matter which “the” you mean, it assuredly does not love you. It will never change (at least, not for you).

  7. There’s an ‘Evangelical Church’?

    Seriously, the title took me by surprise; I guess I’ve always thought of evangelicalism as a movement, rather than a church. I wonder if his publishers suggested the title?

    At times I’ve been happy to be identified as an evangelical, although it’s becoming more problematic for me as the movement becomes more diluted, but I belong to the Lutheran Church (the first Evangelicals!).

    • but I belong to the Lutheran Church (the first Evangelicals!).

      Uh…. I think the Gospel authors and the Apostles were the first Evangelicals, after Jesus, of course. They all believed in and announced and proclaimed repentance, new birth and faith in Jesus. 😀

      (And after reading Luther’s 95 Theses, I sometimes wonder why today’s Protestants are so quick to claim him as one of their own, unless his positive comments therein about the authority of the Pope and bishops, etc., was sarcasm on his part.)

  8. Thanks, Mike, for the thoughtful review, and to your readers for their interesting and helpful comments. I’m intrigued with your idea for “A Lover’s Proposal For The Evangelical Church.” Thanks especially for that suggestion….

    • FollowerOfHim says:

      Mr. Smith:

      I have reread your book (autographed at that!) at least twice over — and this is not a common occurrence for me.

      I also sincerely hope you never decide that the phrase “Christian-Industrial Complex” is a trademarked term, as I have already used it on occasions too numerous to count and would probably owe about $1,000 in royalties by now. Hence the pseudonym.

      By the way, I’m living the putatively good life here in West (not East) Cobb County, Georgia. (I especially liked your story about Jenny Larmore at the talent show at Sprayberry High back in the day.

      Best regards,