Picking a Fight with Fellow Evangelicals

Janice Shaw Crouse
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Posted: Jun 19, 2009 3:16 PM

It takes a lot of old-fashioned gumption to pick a fight in order to clear the air with loved ones. But, to have a good relationship, problems have to be addressed before they fester and become impossible to heal. In his new book, Warren Cole Smith begins a “Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church.” He makes it quite clear that he is an evangelical and that his intention is to build up rather than tear down. And, except for getting overly personal by unfairly singling out specific people for criticism and too often painting his criticism with too broad a brush, he provides piercing observations given in a caring spirit about where the evangelical church needs to do some soul-searching and repentance. He identifies specific areas where the church needs to be renewed and revitalized.

Smith describes the evangelical movement as “the richest, most powerful religious movement in history.” But, he also describes us as having fallen “ever deeper into moral and spiritual confusion.” There will be plenty of people who, like me, disagree with one or another of Smith’s points, but the overriding theme is the necessity to go deeper into Scripture, the necessity of returning to spiritual orthodoxy in our worship, and the necessity to conform the way we live out our faith to Biblical priorities and parameters.

Smith bases his critique on Richard Weaver’s book, “Ideas have Consequences,” and he shows how ideas and the lack thereof have influenced the evangelical movement. He identifies a “new provincialism” that focuses on numbers of converts instead of basing our faith on the historical fact of Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection. These, Smith declares, “are not merely ideas,” they are historical events. If not, our faith is in vain (I Corinthians 15:17). A major concern in Smith’s book is the growing tendency of the evangelical church to be a virtual church via the airwaves or a megachurch with its emphasis on “power building.” He warns that without the community and accountability found in a vibrant fellowship of believers, evangelicals don’t have the necessary “roots” for vibrant growth.

According to Smith, another significant aspect of today’s “superficial” church is the contemporary worship environment, which is fueled by the contemporary Christian music industry. Hymnbooks and prayer books have been replaced by PowerPoint with its LCD projectors and laptops. This music, he laments, is not always anchored in Biblical truth, nor does it always adhere to sound church doctrine. He also notes that in the 1960s and 1970s evangelicals began to primarily focus on numbers of converts –– he specifically mentions events like the Jesus Movement, youth rallies, and Explo ’72 (the “Christian Woodstock”) where crowds of people filled out “decision cards” –– instead of anchoring converts in Scriptural principles of Christian living so that they could learn “to obey the commands of Christ.” Smith grieves –– as should we all –– over those who were “fed on pablum to the point of bloat, but remained malnourished” and, consequently, their lives were destroyed.

Warren Cole Smith declares “evangelical growth” a myth. He cites figures of 41 percent self-identified evangelicals in 1900, 31.7 percent in 1980, and 25 to 30 percent in 2000. He says that there were 27 churches per 10,000 Americans in 1900, but only 12 per 10,000 Americans in 1985 and 10 churches per 10,000 Americans today. During the decade of the 1990s, he claims, 4,000 churches shut their doors permanently every year with less than half that many new churches started. He also exposes what he calls the “myth of evangelical political power.” Smith shows how some powerful relationships led to the downfall of some strong evangelical leaders, how the Republican Party disappointed evangelicals on the pro-life issue as well as “big-government conservatism,” and how some leaders fell into the “spin machine” trap that characterizes the political left. He exposes the “Evangelical market” –– a marketing empire that makes fortunes for some leaders, as well as deals that glamorize celebrity evangelical culture.

One of Smith’s most penetrating criticisms is what he calls the “Christian Industrial Complex.” He exposes the realities of the Christian retail industry, the growth of Christian music and Christian radio dynasties, as well as the dominance of parachurch organizations. He unabashedly criticizes the way ratings are driving liturgy and theology in the contemporary evangelical church. In the distant past, he declared, “theologians and the wisest minds of the church” determined liturgy and theology. Now, the mythical “Becky” –– the hypothetical target customer for radio and marketing, a 35-year-old married mom with two kids and a minivan whose “marriage is not all she dreamed it would be,” who goes to church and cares primarily about issues that affect her children — determines the directions that will be taken by the Christian Industrial Complex.

The most important message of the book, however, is Smith’s criticism of the “sentimentality” of today’s evangelicals –– a theme that I have written and spoken on over the past two decades. He wrote, “If we are to worship the one true God, we must worship not God as we would like for him to be, but, as Francis Schaeffer said, as ‘the God who is there.’ If we replace the God of History with a god and history of our own making, sentimentality triumphs and religious malaise reigns.”

As a result of these factors, Warren Cole Smith calls for “authenticity” –– a return to a Biblical foundation, a recovery of “vocation” (a sense of Christian calling and transformation in worldview), and a renewal of community where a gathering of likeminded believers strengthens the body of the Incarnate Christ.

This will be a painful book for evangelicals to read, but the overall message –– a clarion call to come back to a Scriptural worldview –– is an important one for those of us who claim the name, “Evangelical.”