"Midway this life, I came to myself in the midst of a dark wood."
                  -Dante in The Divine Comedy 

"Large areas of “the World” will not hear us till we have publicly disowned much of our past. Why should they? We have shouted the name of Christ and enacted the service of Moloch."
                   -C. S. Lewis in The Four Loves  



By just reading the catchy title “A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church” (Authentic Books 2009), it’s hard to tell just how quarrelsome author Warren Cole Smith will get.  Is this a minor spat, or is this a serious dispute? 

In keeping with the idea of a “lover’s quarrel”, Smith voices his substantial concerns regarding the current state of the evangelical church in America.  He prefaces his thinking, which he considers “highly critical”, with the proviso that such criticism is “aimed to build up, not to tear down”.  His goal is to pursue the truth about the evangelical church in “as unblinking a manner as possible”, because “there is no unity without truth”.   

Smith begins with an historical overview, linking a decline in Western civilization, as predicted in Richard Weaver’s book Ideas Have Consequences (written in 1948), to the birth of American evangelicalism.  Indeed, in the wake of the apocalyptic destruction of World War II, the “dead orthodoxy of the mainline church, a church that had lost the power to transform lives” warranted revitalization.  But Smith comes to the harsh realization that “Weaver was not describing a world from which evangelicalism offered deliverance.  He was describing what modern evangelicalism had become!” 

The Christian revival after World War II, referred to by some as the "Third Great Awakening," led to the birth of the modern evangelical church.  The evangelical church in turn fostered the concept of the “megachurch”, which Smith thinks has become problematic.

Protestant churches with more than 2,000 regular attenders were rare even as recently as 1970 (less than a dozen).  But by 2004 these “megachurches” became common (over 1,200 in 2004).  With the increase in church size came problems of power and loss of accountability in leadership.  Smith reminds the reader of Lord Acton’s adage “that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” 

Smith points out a lack respect of the evangelical movement for history — something he calls the “New Provincialism” (see Chapter 2).  Various “technologies and systems” were substituted on a grand scale for “relationships and communities.”  Smith recalls that Jonathan Edwards, father of the First Great Awakening, led revivals which “changed lives and improved communities” without much emotionalism.  Indeed, the revival of 1730-1745 was “born of sober biblical preaching, a high regard for doctrinal purity, and a healthy skepticism for emotionalism.”

By contrast, Smith thinks that the “New Provincialism” has resulted in a dislocation of the modern evangelical church from both history and doctrinal traditions.  As an example of a relatively recent doctrinal deviation, Smith reminds us that prior to the Second Great Awakening in 1800,  the dominant eschatological view of the Protestant church was amillennial (that the 1000 year reign is symbolic of the current Church age) rather than premillennial (that the millennium will take place in the future when Jesus returns).  Hal Lindsey’s best seller The Late Great Planet Earth, published in 1970, popularized the apocalyptic premillennial view, with a sense of urgency “that Jesus would return within a generation”.  Such marketing helped to make premillennialism the dominant view of the modern evangelical church. 

The evangelical movement also fostered the construction of a subjective vision of the world which Smith refers to as the “Triumph of Sentimentality” (Chapter 3).  The link between ideas and consequences became blurred.  The "prosperity gospel" approach of Joel Osteen, pastor of the Lakewood megachurch in Texas, is given as an example.  Osteen “treat(s) people as consumers who need to be satisfied, and not as sinners who need to be justified”.  While the promise of prosperity sells to the masses, it lacks the core gospel message that man is totally depraved and without hope apart from Christ.   

Smith is also critical of the emphasis of large evangelical churches on outreach, often at the expense of spiritual formation.  He cites Bill Hybels and the Willow Creek megachurch in Illinois as an example.  Smith thinks that such deficient teaching may render parents impotent to teach their own children and “all but ensures that every generation would have to be reevangelized”. 

Smith debunks the whole notion that the size of church is “an indication of God’s blessing”…i.e. the bigger the church, the more “blessed” the church.  Specifically, Smith thinks Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback megachurch in California, is guilty of what the author calls “Body-Count Evangelism” (Chapter 5). 

Smith also points out exaggerated estimates of membership rolls from the Southern Baptist Convention, quoting Paige Patterson as saying “some of us are having a hard time with our consciences…We needed to get more honest with the numbers”. (What have Dee and Deb told you)! So Smith doubts the validity of a “bigger is better” mindset and suspects that the reported “body count” from many of these large evangelical churches is grossly overstated. 

One of the biggest problems Smith sees with the “megachurch” is a lack of accountability between the leadership and the congregation.  In his words, “The responsible exercise of power requires great character. The leader of a large organization simply has more power than most people have the character to control. And in large organizations, those around the position of power have too much to lose if they confront the senior leader and the senior leader does not respond appropriately to that confrontation. So these confrontations rarely take place until they become scandalous.” 

Despite obvious melancholy about the current state of the evangelical church, Smith is hopeful that “we can come to ourselves… In God’s providence, it is never too late to do the right thing.”   Most of the issues over which Smith “quarrels” are related to the "megachurch" concept which was promulgated by the evangelical church, rather than evangelicalism per se.

Smith suggests that the bloated “megachurch” approach should be replaced by much smaller and more numerous church plants.  In his view, smaller churches provide more opportunities for participation and ministry of the parishioners as well as greater accountability of the leadership.  Smith believes that this sort of change would result is a more connected and effective community of evangelical believers. 

In my view, Warren Cole Smith need not apologize for starting this “lover’s quarrel” with the American evangelical church.  His intent seems constructive, and his tone is as one who speaks the truth in love.  Perhaps others of us, like Smith, will "come to ourselves" and join in this constructive dialogue.

Dr. Jon

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