Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 08/13/2009 by Tim Challies.
Recommended. Constructive criticism of the Evangelical Church from one who loves it.
"My name is Warren, and I’m a recovering evangelical." There are plenty of books today that begin in roughly this way—biographies by Franky Schaeffer and Bart Ehrman come to mind. But Warren Cole Smith is different in that he remains an evangelical, he remains a professed Christian. His recovery from evangelicalism does not involve tossing away the faith, as others have prescribed. His recovery involves reformation, not of the Christian faith but of its evangelical (and largely American) expression. His quarrel with evangelicals is a lover’s quarrel, not a pitched battle. A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church is "intended primarily for Christian believers, particularly those who might generally fit into the category of theologically conservative, evangelical believers. Though much of what follows is highly critical—on both practical grounds and theological grounds—of the current state of the evangelical church, it is criticism aimed to build up, not to tear down." It is intended as, and proves to be, a constructive quarrel.
This book comes from a man who has been an insider, an evangelical, for several decades. And it comes from a man who loves the church, not one who wants to phase it out or move on to the next thing. He spends the bulk of this book diagnosing problems within evangelicalism saying that once we are able to name a problem, we are equipped to deal with it. He begins by dismantling evangelical myths (bigger is better, being the foremost of these) and then turns to his description of The New Provincialism. This is a term he coined to describe evangelicalism’s obsession with now at the expense of the past and the future. "We act with no regard to consequence," he says. "Effects admit no cause. The result is that we live in an age of ideology. We can make up any theory we like about how the world operates, and we look for data to support it." Here he looks to the Great Awakening and compares it to the revivals and revivalism of our day. He looks next to The Triumph of Sentimentality, his way of describing evangelicalism’s alternative and subjective vision of the world. This brings about discussion of Willow Creek and one of its great successes, Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church.
Borrowing and adapting a well-worn phrase, Smith dedicates a chapter to The Christian-Industrial Complex, the seedy relationship between the Christian church and the Christian retail industry. Next up, he looks at Body-Count Evangelism, looking to the rise of the parachurch organization and its role in evangelistic techniques that count success with something as potentially meaningless as a signed commitment card. In The Great Stereopticon Smith begins to channel McLuhan and Postman, pointing out the folly of this, the "one fundamental idea of modern evangelicalism that trumps all others… that method, techniques and technology are morally and theologically neutral." Through these chapters he powerfully points to many of evangelicalism’s most pressing, most immediate problems.
Smith’s response to all of this may seem weak to some, and especially those who have succumbed to the evangelical spirit of the age. This response, though, is firmly rooted in the local church (which is rarely a local megachurch) so is bound to appear weak. How could it be otherwise? Yet with Smith I believe firmly that the local church really is the hope of the world. The local church is God’s Plan A. Perhaps just a little bit ironically, Smith uses Gospel for Asia as his primary example of an organization that is doing things right (though it is a parachurch organization, its work is planting churches). Ultimately, the solution is to plant churches—reproducing churches that gauge success in ways rooted in Scripture. Though the solution may seem to lack the punch of the chapters detailing the problem, I am convinced that Smith is largely right.
Whether or not you are inclined to agree with the proposed solution to these problems, I am convinced that most Christians will agree with most, even if not all, of Smith’s analysis of the problem. And for that alone, it is well worth the read. This book combines some of the best of the likes of Neil Postman, Richard Weaver and David Wells and also carries shades of Os Guinness and Michael Horton (in Christless Christianity and The Gospel-Driven Life). It is powerful and convicting and, perhaps best of all, it displays a wide and diverse range of influences; there is something different about it, something that sets it apart from so many Christian books today. I highly recommend it.