I just finished reading Warren Cole Smith’s book A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church, and wanted to post a few thoughts about it.
It’s easy to find books that critique American evangelicalism. It’s not so easy to find books that do it with the kind of rootedness in history, tradition, and theology that Smith has. He skillfully points out several pathologies that infect much of American evangelicalism:
- An unmooring from historical theology and tradition that has resulted in a “new provincialism.”
- A triumph of sentimentality over reality.
- An inextricable connection to the “Christian-industrial complex” that is more interested in selling merchandise than living out the gospel.
- A “body count” philosophy of evangelism that counts numbers of “decisions” and people in a building instead of true conversions to Christ.
- A wholly uncritical acceptance of mass media and video and broadcast technology as philosophically neutral.
If there any criticisms to be leveled at Smith’s book, he tends to root many of his arguments in the same few sources, almost all of which come from a Reformed theological tradition. But his argument is nonetheless convincing and I think his diagnosis is correct: unless these pathologies are dealt with, American evangelicalism will die (at least in its current form), which, of course, might be a good thing.
Smith doesn’t stop there, though. He goes on to offer a remedy, and that remedy is rooted in church planting. Instead of monolithic churches growing larger and larger, putting more and more people under one roof, he advocates planting more and more churches (a man after my own heart!). The advantages are many, according to Smith:
- It provides more opportunities for ministry
- It provides greater accountability
- It’s multiplicative (not simply additive)
- It demonstrates a dying to self (no monuments to one person’s preaching prowess or leadership greatness)
- It’s biblical
I wholeheartedly agree. It was refreshing to read a book that seems to diagnose the problems well and advocate a solution that lines up with the way we are attempting to plant our church community here in Fort Wayne.
EDIT: I have one more criticism of Smith’s book: he lumps “emerging” church into the same lot as Joel Osteen, which betrays a severe lack of understanding about where most of these people are coming from. It is one of the issues that Jim Belcher pointed out in his book Deep Church, namely that “postmodernism” means two different things, depending on who you are listening to. Most “emerging” church folks point to post-modernism as a break from modernism, while others (like Smith) see post-modernism as an extension and strengthening of modernism: hyper-modernism. In this way, many times the two sides talk past one another, when in actuality they agree on a lot.
I read this book last month and I’m pretty sure God used it as a tool towards my ever-ongoing sanctification – not just as ammo for someone who would have otherwise mouthed off rashly against the evangelical church, but as an example for how anyone really seeking to follow Christ should act towards it. Warren Cole Smith sets an example as a thoughtful, educated, enlightened, patient, unhurried, trusting writer standing firm in the truth of God’s word. Thanks for the public recommendation. God bless.
Warren Cole Smith says
Thanks for this generous review. (And thanks, too, to Melissa, for her encouraging comment.) I’ll add two comments: FIRST, you’re right that I essentially reject the notion of post-modernism as something “new.” I have found no definition of, or differentiation of, post-modernism that I have found convincing, though I would agree with Neil Postman that the TV age has changed the way we communicate so that we now have significantly retarded our capacity for complex, abstract thought. Perhaps that will end up being a “new” thing, though it’s too early to tell. SECOND: You’re also right that I “lump” emergents and Osteen and Rick Warren and even the prosperity gospel guys together even though they are — I readily admit — very differrent on the surface. But they are the SAME in a few essential particulars that are central to “A Lover’s Quarrel.” Most importantly, they all succumb to sentimentality, which is to say: they are their own gods when it comes to defining how God works in the world.
I’m honored that you took so much time with the ideas in “A Lover’s Quarrel.” Thanks for your thoughtful and generous assessment.
Ben Sternke says
Thanks for the comment, Warren. I think one of the problems with talking about “emerging” church is that it really is a kind of amorphous blob. I’ve generally stopped using the word because of that.
On “post-modernism,” Jim Belcher has shed light on how many times “emerging” and “traditional” churches end up talking past one another because of divergent definitions of the term. To one it simply means “hyper-modernism” (i.e. modernism taken to its logical extremes – ala Postman, ala everything you write against in your book). But there are others who talk about it as a break from modernism, as a kind of repentance for modernism – ala everything you advocate FOR in your book. If you haven’t read it, Deep Church would be worth your time, I think.
Another book that says many of the same things you’ve said, but from a more “anabaptisty” perspective, is David Fitch’s The Great Giveaway.
Again, Warren, I appreciate you taking the time to interact with my review of your book. Thanks for writing it! One other thing that I appreciated in the book was your distinguishing between the methods and ethos of the First Great Awakening and those of the Second. It was illuminating.