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Book Review: The Courage to Be Protestant

[openbook booknumber=”9780802840073″]

Reviewed by Greg Long

David Wells is an evangelical, and he is concerned with the state of evangelicalism. This is nothing new; he has written four previous books addressing issues within evangelicalism and Christianity at large: No Place for Truth: or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? (1993), God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (1994), Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (1998), and Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World (2005). Wells writes this current volume to summarize and update those four previous writings. The fact that Wells combines four previous books into one results in one of the book’s weaknesses—it is at times somewhat disjointed and at other times repetitive.

Wells begins by assessing the current state of evangelicalism. He considers the emergence and first few decades of the evangelical movement to have been a “success story” (p. 1), but is greatly concerned that it has now drifted from its moorings. The primary problem, according to Wells, is that evangelicalism has been influenced by our postmodern culture. Our culture has lost its center; it has replaced God with self. This, of course, is nothing new; Paul reminds us that from the beginning people have “worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25). Now, according to Wells, “Ours is a centerless universe. . . . We are left to fumble about with only our feelings to guide us” (p. 109). It is not that people today are no longer spiritual; no indeed—“spirituality” is on the rise even as religion is on the decline. But, Wells says, there are two kinds of spirituality: “One begins from above and moves down whereas the other begins below and tries to move up. One starts with God and reaches into sinful life whereas the other starts in human consciousness and tries to reach above to make connections in the divine. One is Christian and the other is pagan” (p. 176).

The surprising thing is that this mind-set has affected (infected?) evangelical churches, beginning several decades ago. As the center shifted from God to self, churches began to design their ministries to meet people’s self-identified “felt needs.” And as the focus shifted from Bible to culture, churches were no longer primarily concerned with asking, “What saith the Lord?” and became more concerned with asking, “What saith the culture?” Or, to put it another way, “What is the binding authority on the church? What determines how it thinks, what it wants, and how it is going to go about its business? Will it be Scripture alone, . . . or will it be culture? Will it be what is current, edgy, and with-it? Or will it be God’s Word, which is always contemporary because its truth endures for all eternity?” (p. 4). Wells calls this group within evangelicalism the “Marketers.”

Church marketing was pioneered by Bill Hybels at Willow Creek Community Church in 1975. Wells defines church marketing as “the process of communicating the features and benefits of the Church’s product (relationships) in a compelling manner that helps people take their next step in pursuing the Church’s product (relationships)” (p. 23). The strategy of the Marketers is to communicate an old message in new ways, using strategies and techniques from the world of business and marketing. The message is marketed to make it more palatable. The gospel call becomes a sales pitch.

One contemporary proponent of this approach writes, “You have to help meet [people’s] needs first. And so you scratch them where they itch. You identify people’s needs and let them know you have some answers they should consider. . . .You see, if you don’t offer something people need, they won’t come. If the people don’t come, you can’t teach them the truth. So an effective church is busy identifying people’s needs and letting the community know you have some help they should consider. If you speak their language, there is a better chance they will come to a service. If they do that, the odds increase significantly that they will hear how much they matter to God, and they just might respond” (Tim Stevens, Pop Goes the Church, pp. 120, 121).

Wells’ devastating critique of the church marketing movement was, for me, the most helpful section of this book. The Marketers are failing to produce disciples of Jesus Christ who have been taught to observe everything He has commanded (Matt. 28:20). Surveys reveal that knowledge of the Bible and theology in evangelical churches is woefully inadequate, and Wells believes that the Marketers have exacerbated this problem. He says, “Everywhere in the marketing approach theology and Bible knowledge are downplayed, and then we are dumbfounded when commitment evaporates and ignorance reigns! . . . Bible knowledge has declined drastically in the churches as Sunday school programs are eliminated, expository preaching becomes unfashionable, and the practices of daily prayer and Bible reading vanish with a prior generation” (pp. 45, 46).

The Marketers have failed because they are driven by fear—the fear of cultural irrelevance. “They are deeply apprehensive about becoming obsolete, of being left behind, so to speak, of being passed by, and of not being relevant. Never mind that they should first and foremost be relevant to God and his truth. . . . The born-again, marketing church has calculated that unless it makes deep, serious cultural adaptations, it will go out of business, especially with the younger generations. What it has not considered carefully is that it may well be putting itself out of business with God” (pp. 48–50).

The Marketers have also failed because they see the gospel as a product. Products are designed for our use. However, Wells says, in what was for me the most powerful statement in the book, “The gospel is not [a product designed for our use]. The gospel calls us not to use it but to submit to the God of the universe through his Son. A methodology for success that circumvents issues of truth is one that will rapidly emancipate itself from biblical Christianity or, to put it differently, will rapidly eviscerate biblical faith. That, indeed, is what is happening because the marketing model, if followed, empties the truth out of the gospel. First, the needs consumers have are needs they identify for themselves. The needs sinners have are needs God identifies for us, and the way we see our needs is rather different from the way he sees them” (p. 52).

However, the Marketers’ worst fear has been realized—what was once avant garde has now become passe. Although many churches are still using the marketing approach, it is no longer the latest and greatest iteration of evangelicalism. The latest group within modern evangelicalism is that of the Emergents. Emergents are reacting against fundamentalism on the one hand and the marketing movement on the other. They chafe against the idea that one can be certain about knowing truth; they find such certainty arrogant and pretentious. They also rebel against the “emptiness, loss of personal connections . . . , and capitulation to consumerist modernity” of the “Willow Creeky” churches (p. 16). Emergents are “doctrinal minimalists” who are “resistant to doctrinal structure that would contain and restrict them” (p. 17). Wells considers the Emergents, as a whole, to have strayed so far away from the evangelical camp that they can no longer truly be considered a part of it.

Although Wells offers much in the way of cogent analysis regarding the Emergents, I thought as a whole that Why We’re Not Emergent (From Two Guys Who Should Be) was more direct, concise, and useful and would therefore recommend it rather than this book from Wells for use in addressing the issues of the emerging church movement. What is Wells’ solution to the problems he has identified within evangelicalism? The solution is to return God to the center of our lives and of our churches. How can we do that? By being reminded of God’s “otherness”—His transcendence and holiness. “God is outside us, . . . he is objective to us, . . . he summons us to a knowledge of himself that is not something we have or find in ourselves, and . . . he summons us to be like him in his holiness” (pp. 126, 127).

As we refocus on God’s otherness, we are reminded that there is a moral law, that there is sin, and that Christ came from above to reveal the Father and to give His life as the vicarious substitute for sin. Here is Wells’ point: “Without the holiness of God, then, there is no cross. Without the cross there is no gospel. Without the gospel there is no Christianity. Without Christianity there is no church. And without echoes of the holiness of God in those who are Christ’s, there is no recognizable church. What is it about this chain of connections that the evangelical church today is not understanding that is leading it to soft-pedal, overlook, or ignore the holiness of God? . . . If we could see more clearly God in the full blaze of his burning purity, we would not be on easy terms with all the sins that now infect our souls and breed easy compromises with the spirit of the postmodern age. This is what leads to the casual ways in which we live our lives with their blatantly wrong priorities” (pp. 129, 133).

What, then? “What is of first importance to the church is not that it learn to mimic the culture but that it learn to think God’s thoughts after him” and to “think about the church in a way that replicates his thoughts about it” (pp. 98, 223). “An authentic church is one that is God-centered in its thought and God-honoring in its proclamation and life” (p. 242). Churches must be sola Scriptura, seeing the Word of God as authoritative and sufficient, not sola cultura. Churches must hold fast to doctrine and preaching. Churches must rightly administer the sacraments while clearly proclaiming salvation by grace alone through faith alone. Churches must exercise Biblical church discipline in order to protect the purity of Christ’s church and reflect the holiness of God. Churches must not seek to replicate the culture but rather stand as an alternative to it: “If the church is to be truly successful, it must be unlike anything else we find in life” (p. 224).

The primary strength of this book is its powerful analysis of postmodern culture and evangelical church life. Wells is more adept at diagnosing the problem than prescribing the solution, but his call for the church to return to God rather than self and the Bible rather than culture is well needed. The value of this book for fundamentalists is that it offers a powerful internal critique of the state of many churches within evangelicalism, particularly the Marketers and the Emergents. It is also a reminder that there are many within evangelicalism who are trying to hold fast to the essential truths of the Protestant Reformation and calling others within evangelicalism to do the same.

Greg Long is the pastor of children’s ministries at Grandview Park Baptist Church in Des Moines, Iowa.  He can be contacted at greglong@grandviewparkbaptist.org.

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