Modern evangelicalism builds empires, not disciples

A review of  ‘A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church’
Joel Osteen’s effervescent smile to the contrary, all is not well in American evangelicalism. If you grew up evangelical, or spent all your Christian life in that domain, you might, like the proverbial frog in the kettle, not know how influenced by American culture modern American evangelicalism is.

Warren Cole Smith, veteran journalist and author of “A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church,” is our guide to how accomodative and consumeristic we evangelicals are in relation to culture.

For instance, Smith argues that we evangelicals are just as prone to being power-hungry, materialistic and being builders of our own empires as anybody else, to the detriment of community.

Evangelicals are also often guilty of a new provincialism. Provincialism usually means our outlook is narrowly determined by our small localized setting. For evangelicals, our narrowness is due to being stuck only in the “now.”

Regarding seeker-friendly churches that are seeking earnestly to be relevant, Smith states, “Everything about these new churches reflects the rootless, existential, modernist condition of the world.”

Smith says that such evangelicals are so into the “ever present now” that they are disconnected from the lessons of history, what C. S. Lewis called the “clean sea breezes of the past.”

I wonder – could this be the reason that some thoughtful evangelicals have been attracted to Anglicanism, Eastern Orthodoxy or even Roman Catholicism?

It does bring to mind Joseph Sobran’s comment that he “had rather be in a church that is 500 years behind the times than one that is five minutes behind the times, huffing and puffing, trying to catch up.”

While many evangelical churches and ministries would give biblical doctrinal standards, it is their operational theology that gives away where their faith is. For example, many CCM Christian radio stations’ formats are determined by a marketing strategy designed to reach a fictitious “Becky,” who is 35, has two kids and a not-so-great marriage. In other words, the airwave content is audience-driven, delivering positive feel-good music that is “safe for the entire family.”

But, as Smith points out, the God we serve is anything but safe. In such a format, what becomes of pesky subjects like sin, repentance and God’s holiness?

Smith also makes the case that the First Great Awakening and the Second Great Awakening were fundamentally very different. He argues that, contrary to the First Great Awakening, the Second Great Awakening did not bear lasting fruit, and generally speaking, resulted in many stony-ground hearers.

Smith lays much of the blame for this failure at the feet of lawyer-turned-evangelist Charles Grandison Finney. It is perplexing to see how Finney remains a hero in evangelical circles when his theology is biblically nightmarish.

For example, he said that revival is not supernaturally caused by God but is a “right use of the constituted means.”

He rejected the biblical idea of original sin, and – amazingly – the substitutionary atonement.
Evangelicals are acting like the heirs of Finney when they do “body count evangelism,” amassing large numbers of “converts” but not integrating them into a community of believers with fellow disciples-in-progress, assuring accountability. What is telling is that the First Great Awakening came through the means of the church, while the Second came through the means of the parachurch, through mass evangelism.

The author also borrows from Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” when he argues that we now live in a video culture. And, in such a culture, Culture will thrive, whereas in a print-based culture, reason will thrive.

But, it is up to the church to remember that it is by the foolishness of preaching that God saves. It is preposterous to suppose that the Word of God loses its power due to being trumped by multi-media.

Despite all the critique, Smith offers a way out. A trip to India to see the work of K. P. Yonannah’s Gospel for Asia figures in his solution. You’ll have to read the book to learn more.

I took this book on our family’s beach vacation a week ago, and I am still ruminating on some of the things Warren Smith had to say. If all the trappings of modern evangelicalism leave you nothing but hungry for something more substantial, then read this book.

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