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The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World Hardcover – April 1, 2008
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It takes no courage to sign up as a Protestant. These words open this bold new text - the summa of David Wellss critique of the evangelical landscape - leaving no doubt that Wells is issuing a challenge to the modern church. This book is a broadside against new versions of evangelicalism as well as a call to return to the historic faith, one defined by Reformation solas (grace, faith, and scripture alone), and to a reverence for doctrine. Wells argues that the historic, classical evangelicalism is one marked by doctrinal seriousness, as opposed to the new movements of the marketing church and the emergent church. He energetically confronts the marketing communities and what he terms their sermons-from-a-barstool and parking lots and apres-worship Starbucks stands. He also takes issue with the most popular evangelical movement in recent years - the emergent church. Emergents are postmodern and postconservative and postfoundational, embracing a less absolute, understanding of the authority of Scripture than Wells maintains is required. The Courage to be Protestant is a dynamic argument for the courage to be faithful to what biblical Christianity has always stood for, thereby securing hope for the churchs future.
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In this book, evangelical theologian and minister, David Wells, takes aim at the seeker and emergent models. Seeker churches use the latest marketing tools and technology to draw visitors. Content and format are overtly culture-friendly while preaching and doctrine are decidedly on the light side. Emergent churches use the Bible as a starting point to a self-discovery "narrative" which suggests truth/s rather than declares it. Emergents are so culture-friendly they've adopted much of the relativism that surrounds us in this post-modern era. In both types the vital distinctives of evangelical Protestantism - the Five Solas - are being compromised or dismissed altogether.
Wells is extremely critical of both movements and supports a return to the traditional church/worship model. I cautiously recommend this book to those interested in learning more about the seeker and emergent models and how they compare to the traditional church but be forewarned that the theology gets VERY heavy. It's definitely not a breezy read for the beach.
My opinion? I'll take some traditional hymn singing and the pastor preaching from the pulpit in a suit every Sunday but it looks like those days are fading fast. However, I'm grateful just to have a church to go to where the Bible is preached without compromise. They seem to be getting harder to find. But it is a little disconcerting to see how pastors' obligatory Sunday outfit de rigueur is now jeans, sneakers, and a flannel shirt.
- Mega-churches fully equipped with their very own Starbucks, a pastor-comedian, stadium-style seating, larger than life projectors, hobby-themed rooms in which like-minded enthusiasts can watch entertaining, pop-culture-laced sermons, streamed through a screen
- Telemarketing scam-artists wearing pink wigs
- George W. Bush
- Charismatic summer camps where kids are peer-pressured into speaking gibberish
- Various Christian "health and wealth" books and programs that promise God's blessing on your life as long as you "sow a seed of faith" for five dollars (I see a lot of these displayed prominently in the book-section of my local grocer.)
- Or, if you've recently surveyed more "with it" trends within evangelical churches, or should I say "holistic community centers", perhaps you think of the hip, middle-aged, goateed speaker who, from his stool in the center of the room, repudiates the absolute truth claims of "the dead white guys" while propagating the binding truth claims present in his own books and sermons. And, by the way, if you don't agree with his truth claims, you're probably a bigot.
Whatever associations are made with the term "evangelical," they are probably not all-together positive. What it meant to identify with evangelicalism in the 1950's is vastly different from what it means to identify with evangelicalism today. In his excellent book The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World, David Wells traces the erosion of the American evangelical movement beginning in the 1970's as it slowly but surely transferred its allegiance from historic Christianity to Postmodern sensibilities, trading the truth that was handed down through Christ's teaching and the apostolic witness (so prized by the early church, and then gloriously rediscovered during the Protestant Reformation) for watered-down, easily marketable, feel-good spirituality that is mere secular ideology clothed in "Christianese."
According to Wells, what we see now in many churches that somehow identify with evangelicalism, whether they are "conservative" mega-churches or smaller emergent communities, is a Christianity that has imbibed its core tenets and beliefs from popular culture and postmodern values. The result? Churches full of people who might identify themselves as Christian, but who know very little of historical Protestantism. Should it surprise us then at all when poll after poll reveals that evangelical Christians live no differently than their secular neighbors?
Wells begins by analyzing market-driven, seeker-sensitive churches, in which the gospel is presented as a product and the emphasis is on, "how might this benefit me?" Within these churches, theology is de-emphasized because it is entertainment, and not doctrine, that attracts the consumer, and the more consumers, the better. According to Wells, these churches are antithetical to the gospel because "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" (52).
Included in his discussion of evangelicalism is his analysis of the emergent church. The emergent church rightly senses that there is something wrong with the American way of life, i.e., American consumerism has given us more than we will ever need and technology has us more connected than ever, and yet we're so empty and disembodied, "autonomous selves" cut loose from "craft, community and family." The result is what Wells calls "the enthronement of the self" (69) and our obsessive need to tell our own stories. In an effort to remedy this American ailment and offer in its place authentic community, the emergent church has rebelled against the materialistic, impersonal and superficial product offered by the market-driven evangelical churches. The problem, however, is that it is still taking its cues from postmodern culture and not from Scripture, which historic Protestantism has always firmly believed to be both authoritative and binding. Because the emergent church finds Scripture embarrassing and countercultural, it emphasizes my story and my journey, not God's story and what God has done. The result, Wells argues, is that within the emergent church, we ironically see "the postmodern preoccupation with the self into which the whole of reality has been contracted, the self at the center of the universe and, despite all the Christian words that are spattered around, actually refusing to be part of God's (objective) narrative" (87).
The middle of Wells' book is comprised of a thorough analysis of Postmodern culture, like the Enlightenment in its rejection of a personal god, but unlike the Enlightenment in its rejection of moral absolutes, turning instead inward to the self for guidance rather than looking outside the self for transcendent meaning. Wells argues that the postmodern self has lost its center, i.e., God, and, as a result, is uprooted. Having turned inward, Postmodern culture is all about "finding the self for yourself, discovering your inner potential for your own benefit, esteeming yourself, and developing new ethical rules that serve the discovery of...the self" (136). Without a moral center, we find ourselves vacillating between "aggressive legalism on the one side or a rampant, libertarian individualism on the other" (172). This spirituality of the self is completely at odds with biblical Christianity, and yet "how readily evangelical churches have taken on board what is essentially an enemy of what they believe" (157).
Wells begins the conclusion of his book with a wonderful gospel presentation that is so rich and rewarding, articulating very clearly what historic Protestants believe about God's sovereignty, the person of Christ and the efficacy of the cross. One reviewer I read criticized Wells for only identifying the problem with the evangelical church and not offering a prescription for its many ailments. I think this person missed one of Wells' biggest points. We don't need any more new strategies for "doing church" better! Scripture outlines very clearly the marks of a Christ-centered church, and it's to Scripture, not Postmodern culture or the latest marketing strategies, that we need to turn. Wells is actually very clear in offering a remedy to the problem of American evangelicalism. We need more churches that are not ashamed to be doctrinally sound, that are led by pastors who will proclaim the Word of God and apply it to our lives, not simply fill a sermon with thirty minutes of self-help strategies. We need churches that will rightly administer the sacraments in a way that points people to Christ and we need churches that will be involved in people's lives, holding them accountable in love because our God is a holy God. We need churches that trust in God's sovereignty and will for the church, not the latest man-made techniques for getting bodies through the church doors.
This is an excellent book that I enthusiastically recommend to any Christian who is concerned about the state of Christianity in this country, and to any non-Christian who associates theologically conservative Christianity with anti-intellectual pablum. I walked away from my reading of this book feeling both challenged and encouraged by Wells' insightful analysis of Christianity and postmodern culture and was thoroughly refreshed by his presentation of the gospel. This book left me feeling proud to be Protestant, not because of anything we have done, but because of what God has done for us in Christ.