A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church
“A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church”, by Warren Cole Smith
Smith’s book is wonderfully timed. Every bookstore you enter whether “secular” or “Christian” greets you with the works of megachurch pastors like Rick Warren, Joel Olsteen and others of a similar vein. While there are some points in the book with which I disagreed (like the somewhat pugnacious way in which he attempts to differentiate and dismiss those of “liberal” or “postmodern” persuasions), his analysis of the contemporary church is insightful.
The beginning of his book and title of his first chapter, “The Evangelical Myth,” has many political, social and religious implications. Politically, he is right to feel concerned about the growing partnership of political and religious parties. While many feel that certain political wings (both liberal and conservative) have been co-opted by very specific religious ideologies, Smith rightly asserts that one should necessarily be concerned about such a pairing. In contrast to the words and life of Jesus which emphasize the meek and the poor (those historically subjugated through politics), the delusions regarding the “myth” of an American civil religion foster disparaging ideas regarding the “Kingdom of God” and the “Kingdom of Man.”
One way in which these disparaging ideas manifest themselves is through society. In light of the growing pandemic of megachurch spirituality, Smith illuminates the parallels between the growth in megachurches and the lack of reduction to global ailments (e.g. poverty, violence, etc.). He correctly points in that, in the event that megachurches were cultivating the amount of believers they claim by way of church attendance, one would hope to see significant changes in society; however, affected in part by the myth of civil American religion, these believers often opt into (or know no alternative of) the shallow spirituality fostered in such churches.
Cole’s metaphor and use of the term “New Provincialism” (NP) is affective and persuasive. His allusion to the theology of premillenialism and it’s somewhat heretical past and its rapid surge into mainstream evangelicalism is one illustration of how New Provincialism has manifested itself into Christianity today. One additional way in which NP has shown itself in a dangerous way is the “Triumph of Sentimentality.” While modern worship fosters a sort of consumer approach to worship in church living (in that if the worship service is not poppy enough or the sermon is not persuasive enough or the variety in a service is lacking), it has the effect of perpetuating the same short attention span (and, thus, lack of depth in understanding and practice) that many forms of popular, contemporary culture does.
To addition to fostering that same consumeristic approach to church, NP celebrates “more is better” much like the culture we are in. The success of megachurches is indicative of God’s blessing and the proliferation of their ideas is a sign that this is how the church is supposed to act and grow. Or so they tell us. He presents some pretty wonderful quantitative data to illustrate that the growth of these churches is not an accurate reflection of the growth of the Church as a whole (for example, as mentioned earlier, lack of social ailments being remedied).
However, here is my second (and last) disagreement with an observation of his. While dismissing megachurches and the addition of numbers which are supposed to indicate growth and blessing, he then moves to discuss successful churches elsewhere in the world using only multiplication. While initially, this does seem to align itself more with at least Genesis commandments for the church (“Be fruitful and multiply”), he too falls into the numbers game. And I just wonder how indicative even that method of church counting is of the actual state of the church. When I think about the differences of adding to a church and multiplying churches and, thus, adding to the numbers associated with it, it’s almost the same thing. Maybe there’s a better way to measure the growth of the kingdom.
Here’s a pretty undeveloped approach (that I’m hashing out in this review): what if it’s more about volume than numbers? While numbers can be telling, as he notes, they can often be misleading or even intentionally deceptive. What if, instead of measuring the numbers, we measure a more holistic evaluation of Christians? What if it’s the multiplication of the two and an additional variable? What if we measured the numbers within a church (let’s say their height) and the number of churches and believers planted because of that (their width) and the effects of the church (their depth)? There can be thousands of people in thousands of churches but if their spirituality is ineffectual can we actually say that’s a burgeoning body of Christians? Are they really imbued with a sense of God’s purpose for this world (the enacting of the Kingdom of God in the World of Man as Christ made known in the Avinu prayer)? While even this cannot fully describe the people of God and their effects, I feel like it could better describe the status of Christianity and Christians than pure numbers.
So, with my two very minor issues with this book (his obvious concern/disdain for progressive/”liberal” believers and the question of numbers), this was a refreshing book. I recommend reading this alongside “A People’s History of Christianity” by Diane Butler. The observations by Cole will frustrate you in their truth and possibly provide clarity to ideas you may already have about the church. And Butler’s book will invigorate your spirit in knowing that it has not, is not and will not always be the way that it is today. Alternate reading the chapters. I coincidentally got these books at the same time and alternated between the two chapter by chapter. It was a roller coaster.
While this review has a lot of complaints about Christianity, it is only because I love it and want it to be the fullest it can be.
I’m new to this game and would love your input and insights. Leave me complaints, concerns, encouragement, ideas. Whatever you want.