Book Review : The Courage to be Protestant – David F Wells

6 10 2008

When a friend is out on the street doing something silly and embarassing themselves what do you do? Do you remain silent hoping they will stop or do you say something? This is exactly the dillema faced by David Wells when He wrote “The Courage to be Protestant”.  I must admit that I read books about the Church & Culture with a healthy dose of skepticism. The Church faces a barrage of criticism from outsiders. Critiquing the Church is as easy as shooting fish in a barrell. There are always problems to be addressed. Sometimes I think the critics are majoring on minors.

Wells picks on two strands of the “evangelical” church today, Seeker Sensitive and the Emergent Church. Having come from a Seeker Sensitive Church myself I have experienced much of what Wells talks about.  Very early in the book he makes a very wise statement, “It takes no courage to sign up as a Protestant today…but to live by historical tennets of protestants takes courage.” Historically speaking the protestant movement was founded on the five solas.

But lets face it, much of what we call Church today is entertainment. Seeker sensitive churches view Church goers as customers. They have to make sure their customers are always happy otherwise they may leave and that is a fate worse than death for the pastor. The Church becomes like any other business which seeks to draw in new customers and retain existing ones. So we have laser light shows, catchy music, and motivational speeches inplace of sermons. Marketing strategies to increase Church growth trump Biblical literacy. Emergent Churches pick and chose their doctrines as if the Bible is a buffet lunch. The post modern attitude means that no one doctrine or belief applies to all, but is all about what it means to the individual. Wells does a great job of summing up the culture of these two movements, and while you may find his treatment heavy handed at times, we can’t argue with the facts. Biblical illiteracy is rampant amongst church goers. Many churches have resorted to “therapy” rather than theology. We’re all about making ourselves feel better. In doing that we lost our voice. We became Churches that spoke to ourselves and not the wider world. When we remove the central tennets of the Gospel, everything else crumbles.

From my personal experiences within the seeker sensitive movement I can say that doctrine is ignored to a large degree. In fact there is very little Christ preached in sermons. The Church I went to was huge and spent most of its time talking about tithing, and the new building it was planning. I went there for over two years and heard very little of Grace, or Jesus except on Easter and Christmas. It was the general thought that if we get people to the Church, they enjoy the culture and make some good friends, they would absorb the gospel by osmosis.  The idea driving it was that people werent really “unsaved” they were just “unchurched”. Without a solid understanding of Sin and the redemptive work of Jesus on the cross, many of these churches are fully Pelagian in their “doctrine”. I myself had no solid understanding of the gospel as a committed Christian who read my Bible often. Finally things changed when I left and attended some free lectures on theology. Joining a normal Church again helped too. I was opened to a whole world outside of that madness I was in.  Bottom line is that people don’t want to be treated like idiots, or pandered to. Like me they actually want answers. Many people have legitimate concerns and questions that are not being addressed by the Church.

The mood is changing. People are fed up with candy floss diets and long for the spiritual meat of the word. Christianity today reported that many young people are returning to Biblical Christianity, and more specifically Calvinism. Churches are teaching doctrines on Sundays, and others are doing systematic theology classes with their youth groups. People do seem to enjoy those answers don’t they? I am grateful that my pastor shares the same sentiments as me. Recently we had a seminar series on Postmodernism and The Trinity. We also have expository preaching on books of the Bible. We started with Hebrews and are now onto Mark. It’s spiritual meat, and it is helping to grow mature, solid believers, with a Christian worldview. But it takes time and effort. Its not therapy, or entertainment, but it does give us something to say to the world that is struggling to find any meaning. We have the best news to give the world, and dumbing it down or diluting it does not work. George Barna and Bill Hybels have both admited that their movements are not creating disciples, its just filling seats in an auditorium. 

I should probably say here that I care deeply for the Church and long to see its participants grow and mature in the love of Jesus. I’m not one to slander the Church. It is after all an imperfect organisation and always will be until Christ returns. Anyone can pick on the Church, even those on the inside. The Church is great at shooting its wounded. I think it takes courage to live by historical protestant tennets. But it also takes more courage to love our brothers and sisters who have gone astray.  In doing this we not only return to historic definitions of Grace, Love and Truth, but we model them to others. I think much of this message was missing from Wells’ book. He was great at dianosing the problem but gave very little in the way of a solution. Its at this time that we’re struck with the words of G.K. Chesterton, “The Reformer is often right about what is wrong, but not about what is right”.

Let us hold fast and contend for the faith that the Lord has, once for all entrusted to us His people. Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, was burried and raised on the third day according to the scriptures. Do not be miseld, bad company corrupts good character. Let us come back to our senses and stop sinning, for there are some among us who are ignorant of God. This is our shame.
(Jude , 1 Cor 15: 3-4, 33-34)




4 responses

6 10 2008

Thank you. The church that I grew up in was what you’d call a seeker sensitive. It was a very small town, so more traditional than laser light shows, but not much theology that I can recall. Fortunately, since I transferred for my junior year of college, I’ve found a great church that really teaches the theology, and I’m really finding my way now, I think. They work very hard to make sure they are reaching out to college students too, and make sure they understand the Scripture.

6 10 2008

No worries, thanks for the comments. Glad to know there are other people out there who have had similar experiences.

7 10 2008
m slater

It seems there is a very fine line to walk here.

On the one hand it is supreamly dangerous to conform Christian faith to the culture around it. In doing so central theological truths are often abandoned, and we lose our ability to radically challenge the world system.

On the other hand, we should present and rearticulate the faith in a way which connects to people. Just as in every generation the classics in literature must be translated afresh, so must the way we speak our faith to the world change with time. It is not more spiritual or biblically faithful to speak to 21st century hearers in a way which was relevant in the 1600’s but now is a barrier to understanding, correct?

7 10 2008

Yeah I agree with that but I think more to the point was that the churches being critiqued were abandoning the truths from the 1600’s instead of articulating them in a fresh way.
I havent got any problems with presenting the Gospel in new ways and breaking down barriers to communication, but we must not lose the basic concepts in the process. There is a fine line between relevance and “another Gospel”. The Four Gospel accounts highlight different things for different audiences, Matthew to Jews, Mark actioned packed highlights, Luke for Greeks, John almost as theological treatise to prove Jesus as the Christ.
Paul contextualised the Gospel on his missionary Journeys, using the Idol worshiping culture around him to point people to Christ.

The problem I have with some Churches today is that they have gone way beyond contextualising the Gospel. They have given into the culture of therapy and presented a psychological treatise with Bible verses attached.
Not all churches are doing this, but I agree with Wells in his assessment of the Seeker Sensitive and Emergent Churches. Much of what he said is true.

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