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The Courage to Be Protestant – A Review

Category Book Reviews
Date December 24, 2008

The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World

By David F. Wells
Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008
267 pp, clothbound
ISBN: 978 0 80284 007 3

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 essays. 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 centre; it has replaced God with self. This, of course, is nothing new; Paul reminds us that from the beginning people have ‘worshipped 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 mindset has affected evangelical churches, beginning several decades ago. As the centre shifted from God to self, some churches began to design their ministries to meet people’s self-identified ‘felt needs’. As the focus shifted from Bible to culture, some 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.

Wells’ devastating critique of the church marketing movement is one of the most helpful sections 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 downÂplayed, 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).

However, the Marketers’ worst fear has been realized – what was once avant-garde has now become passé. 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 are 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 to be a part of it.

What is Wells’ solution to the problems he has identified within evangelicalism? The solution is to return God to the centre of our lives and of our churches. How can this be done? 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 to the Bible rather than culture is well needed. The value of this book 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 Scripture “” truths that were rediscovered during the Protestant Reformation – and who are calling others within evangelicalism to do the same.

From The Journal of Modern Ministry Volume 5, Issue 3, Fall 2008. With permission.

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