A review of The Courage to Be Protestant. By David Wells.
Eerdmans, 2008. (Available in Australia from Koorong books)
David Wells has trained his incisive intellect on the big issues of theology, the life of the church, and the state of contemporary culture for decades now. A theologian with a keen interest in how the church is faring in modern culture, Wells has written much about these vital themes.
Indeed, his previous four volumes on these themes have all been very important contributions to the field. Specifically, No Place for Truth (1993), God in the Wasteland (1994), Losing Our Virtue (1998), and Above All Earthly Pow’rs (2005) have offered detailed assessments of, and reflection on, the crisis of truth in the life of the church, the rise of the therapeutic culture, and the decline of the Evangelical church.
This newest volume continues to explore these themes, and serves as sort of a summary volume for the preceding four. One difference is that, unlike the others, no footnotes or bibliography is included here. Otherwise it takes up where the others have left off, and explores some more recent developments, such as the rise of the emerging church movement, and its postmodern tendencies.
It should be noted that this book is not some sort of dig at Roman Catholicism, as the title might seem to imply. Indeed, it is really a dig at the Evangelical Protestant church which is floundering, losing its way, reckless about truth, driven by consumerism and marketing, and lacking in biblical understanding and teaching.
All of these themes – and more – are carefully examined in this very important volume. Wells is a theology lecturer, so his first love and concern is the vital role theology and teaching play in the life of the church. But he is also a careful student of culture, and is able to both discern the various cultural trends, and to note their impact on the church.
Thus he really offers a sort of prophetic perspective on the church, calling it back to its roots, and warning of where and when it strays from its moorings. Consider how the church has so strongly mirrored the world in the way it views success in terms of marketing strategies, numbers, and sales pitches.
In his chapter on the marketing of the gospel, Wells argues that what we have is ‘Christianity for sale’. As any good marketer knows, the customer is king, so give them what they want. That may work well in secular businesses, but it is disastrous for the church of Jesus Christ.
Christianity is about who God is, and what he thinks. It is not about us. But modern evangelical megachurches and seeker-sensitive services tend to get it back to front. We put the seeker in the primary place, and God is lucky if he even gets second spot.
Says Wells, all this does is produce a “Christianity lite” church. All it offers is a watered down, weak, anaemic and seeker-friendly gospel; one that does not make any demands on us, or expect us to actually change in any way. It is all about what benefits the consumer can get out of the deal.
And so our megachurches “are sports arenas, country clubs, and corporate headquarters all rolled into one. . . . Customers can choose between different themes in worship, or different activities, or different styles in different parts of the building. It is much more like a buffet than a set meal.”
The problem with this is those attending such churches “are now like any other customers you might find in the mall. Displease them in any way and they will take their business elsewhere”. So the pressure is on church leaders to make things consumer friendly – just like outside the church. So they get rid of the pews, the crosses, the preaching, the old hymns, and so on.
Entertainment and therapy are offered instead, and the gospel gets watered down so as not to offend. So instead of hearing about sin separating us from a holy God, and worthy of punishment, unless a substitute is found to take our place, we hear instead about what we like most: ourselves.
We hear about how we can be better selves. We learn about self-esteem and self-fulfilment and self-actualisation. It is all devoted to self, and Christ and the cross are relegated to the sidelines. “Make it as easy on the mind as a relaxing show on television. Only give something that works. Do not talk doctrine. Do not hold forth about anything that takes serious effort to believe. Do not sound churchy.”
What is left is simply a religious version of the world. Instead of sola Scriptura, all we really have is “sola cultura”. The surrounding culture has won, and the church has simply become a pale imitation of it.
Obviously in such a setting, truth becomes a major casualty, as does doctrine, church discipline, the preaching of the Word, discipleship, and the demands for holiness. Instead the whole package becomes centred on us: our wants, our needs, our longings.
We forget about what God wants of us, demands of us. We forget about the costly nature of Christ’s sacrifice for us, and the call for us to imitate our master. Gone are the notions of self-denial, taking up our cross, and following Jesus. In their place we have a self-centred gospel that puts us at the centre of attention.
Rick Warren may have warned us that it is “not about me” but for many Evangelicals, that is exactly what it is all about. The radical discipleship and demands made by the early believers seem distant and strange in many of our churches today.
In seeking to be relevant and seeker-sensitive (which is not a bad thing in itself), we have simply truncated the gospel and sold our spiritual birthright. Business and marketing techniques have their place in the world of commerce, but not in the church. This is because “God is not subject to our manipulation, our systems, our organisation, or our marketing. We cannot force the hand of God by reorganizing, hiring a new ad agency, honing our marketing skills, mimicking Disneyland, importing Las Vegas-type entertainers, building ever more splendiferous auditoria in which our celebrity-type preachers can perform.”
Only by letting God be God, and letting the Gospel once again shine through our teaching and our lives, will we be able to really impact a needy world. Gimmicks and techniques will not cut it. The vision of the Reformers, based as it was on the person and work of Christ, and the authority of Scripture, must be our central focus. Everything else is just a distraction.
There is much, much more to this book than what I have outlined here. But David Wells is to be congratulated for reminding us of these timely truths. It is simply basic Christianity that he is reminding us of. But when the basics have been lost, then they need to be reaffirmed loudly and clearly. And Wells has done just that in this invaluable book.