The B.E.E.F. Blog

Biblical Eyesight Emerging Forefront

Putting Methods Before Doctrine

A book review looking at David Wells “The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World”

Bloggers note:  The references on the book review will be based on the location on an Amazon Kindle, instead of page numbers.

Often people tell me they are looking for another perspective when it comes to faith and ministry, and what they often do is to look at authors and sources that are closer to the liberal side of Christianity (and sometimes not even Christian).  This book is the opposite of that.  David Wells’ goal in this book is to challenge the reader to go back to what he calls “classic evangelicalism.”  He challenges the ready to put aside polls, research, relevancy, and focus on God’s Word being the primary authority of the church.

What is the binding authority on the church? What determines how it thinks, what it wants, and how it is going to go about its business? Will it be Scripture alone, Scripture understood as God’s binding address, or will it be culture? Will it be what is current, edgy, and with-it? Or will it be God’s Word, which is always contemporary because its truth endures for all eternity? 105-107

Wells believes the primary authority tends to be trends, surveys, polls, culture, and hang outs for people.    These things are not bad in themselves, but the problem is when we lose sight of where the true authority of the church comes from.  God is who is over the church.

Letting God be God over his church, seeing him as its center and glory, its source and its life, is a truly liberating experience. 3251-3252

My goal in this review is to examine what the author wrote.  I agree with most of what he says, but there are parts of this book I would disagree with a little.  His challenge to examine how we view God is needed in the church today, but on the other hand I think he is overacting to the obsession of church help literature out there today (there is nothing wrong with examine why a church grows or shrinks, but when God is not the focus there is a problem).  This book review is going to look at a summary of the book and ask three critical questions: how do we view God, are we trying to fix what works, and who is our audience?

Book Summery

Wells starts off by looking at what he sees as three groups of Evangelicals: truth-lovers, marketers, and emergents.  Truth-lovers as he sees it are those who are focused on the church of the gospel, and do not live off of the latest survey to determine where their preaching and teaching should focus.  The latter two came from this group.  The problem is they were so concerned that their message was not being heard; they started to focus on what everyone else is saying instead of what God is saying.  They felt as if:

Regular Christianity, many now think, does not go down easy and smooth; Christianity Lite does. 393-394

What they ended up doing is putting the Word of God aside, and being more concerned about culture as opposed to doctrine.  Marketers are ones who still believe in the importance of the Bible and generally hold traditional Christian doctrine.  The problem is they have lost their focus on those doctrines.  Instead they are more worried about trends and polls as opposed to what God’s Word says.   On the other side you have the group that the author refers to as emergents.  They see the trends to see where people are heading in our culture.  They focus on these trends and question what the Bible says about certain matters.  Instead of merely focusing on the trends as the marketers do; they embrace the trends by making orthodox Christianity against the world.  It is with these three groups in mind that the authors continues to examine how we can return to have right thoughts on God, Jesus, the Bible, and the church.  He looks at how the marketers and the emergents have gone astray, and tries to bring us back to the right focus.  He is more prescriptive in this book, a slight departure from his previous works.  He explains why with the following:

Some of my critics have said that my books have all been about this kind of diagnosis but that I have offered little prescription. It is all too negative, they say. There is not enough that is positive. 2837-2838

He does this primary in the chapters about God and the church.  In the chapter about God he examines where we have gone wrong with our thoughts about Him.  He says we need to focus more on an outside God as opposed to an inside God (this is a focus in the next section).  When he talks about the church, Wells challenges us to not allow polls and surveys to determine our focus, but to primarily view the Word of God as our main source of how we “do church.”  He writes about how we are always looking for ways to do church differently, but if we focus on how God wants us to do church, then there would be no need to do church differently.

The church is not a business, not an experiment, not a product to be sold. It is an outpost of the kingdom, a sign of things to come in Christ’s sovereign rule, which is now hidden but will be made open and public. 2837-2838

We need to remember God’s church is a reminder of things to come, not a place to make money, get famous, and win a popularity contest.  The church is place where the gospel of Jesus Christ is preached with men and women coming to Christ in order for them to unite them with God.

How Do We View God? 

In order to unite a person with God; we have to know who we are uniting them with.  One of the biggest problems with our culture is how we view God.   Most people see God as more of a Santa Clause figure as opposed to a Lord and King.  Often we will treat our prayers as quarters, giving them to God in order for us to get what we want from here.  When He does not give us what we want; we grow frustrate, and question His love for us.  We think of Jesus as one who came to make the world a better place, and not the Savior who came to save people from sin.

Christ was not a social reformer, or a do-gooder for whom things got out of hand. These are the old liberal ideas, but they are not biblical thoughts. The cross was not an accident. It was planned in eternity, and it was for this, Jesus said, that he had come. He had come to die. And in his moment of death the holiness of God and our sin collided. 1702-1704

We have to remember why Christ came.  When He healed the sick, caused the lame to walk again, took a stand against the false teachers of His day, and called out those who were with God for financial gain; He was doing so to prove who He was.  When we start to focus on the true mission of Jesus; we begin to see God in the proper light.  More often, we focus on God working inside of us changing our lives as opposed to the God who created the universe.  Wells calls he prior an inside God, and later an outside God.  By focusing on an inside God only, we fail to understand who God really is.

God is not only near to us and related to us through creation and his preservation of it, but he also rules over all of life, guides it to the end he has in mind for it, and holds all people accountable for their lives. 1638-1639

Having a complete view of God will allow us to be closer to Him.

What we are doing, in the face of our own disintegrating center in ourselves, is reaching out to create a center that will give us more internal stability. 1613-1614

The results of focusing on all aspects of God keep things on His terms.  The biggest temptation of man is to think of Him on our own terms by putting Him in a box.   Several doctrines and theologies are mere attempts to put God on our own terms.

And always it is a reminder to us that God cannot be had on our terms. He cannot be manipulated. He cannot be bought. He is never subject to our will. If we know him, it is only on his terms. 1663-1664

When we realize who God is; Christianity is understood differently.

Christianity is not about sinners lifting themselves up to God but about God coming down in condescension and grace to them. 2324

There is no way we can make it on our own.  Seeing our place in our relationship with God will allow us to grow closer to Him.  The closest thing I can think of is how parents want their children to think of them as their friends.  While we want our kids to be open and honest with us; truth is we are their parents first.  To us, God is ruler over the universe and all creation.  He saved us from our sins.  Keeping that in mind will help us understand who He is more.  It will also give us more stability.

We need the biblical knowledge of the outside God to complete our knowledge of who God is, and we will find that this knowledge often serves as a corrective to the corruptions to which our sense of the inside God is often prone. 1638-1639

Our goal overall is to focus on who God really is, and not who we want Him to be. (I examined this idea on another blog post, Thinking About God on the Outside).  This was one of the best benefits of reading this book.  It gave me the opportunity to examine who God really is, and move towards a better understanding of Him.

Are We Trying to Fix What Is Not Broken?

I remember when I was on leadership at my last church, and often we were focused on trying to fix the problems in the church.  I will say the church had a lot of problems, but we were so focused on addressing those problems, we failed to focus on our first love (sounds a little like the church in Ephesus on the book of Revelations).  The end results were sad because the church did eventually have to disband, but through the grace of God, another church was able to come and use the facility to reach out with the gospel.  Sadly, in the church today, we are more focused on retooling as opposed to tuning in with God.  We try to be more engaging, reaching out more, and trying to be more relevant.  The end result in many churches is a “lighter personality.”

In an age of entertainment, such as our age is in the West, we have to be funny, engaging, likable, and light to succeed. So, seriousness must be banished. Preserve the taste but cut the calories. 389-391

Wells calls this idea: church lite.  It is the same stuff, but not as harsh.  Many pastors today are more worried about being liked, than they are connecting God’s people with the truth.  They try to fix the problems that seeming plague their churches on their own.

Reading today’s “how-to’ literature, one has to draw the conclusion that the church’s days are numbered unless we rush in to prop it up with our own know-how. God, you see, has more on his hands than he can possibly handle. 3218-3219

This goes back to how we think about God.  People act like God needs us to get things done, but in reality He chooses to use us.  The result of this “we can fix it” mentality in the church is a new type of leadership.  The focus of many pastors is being friendly, loved, and seen a good friend to have around.  People are getting a new friend in life as opposed to a mentor.

The capacity to think doctrinally was being lost as new leaders emerged, as the leadership of the evangelical world shifted from the older pastor-theologians to the newer entrepreneurial organization builders, and as churches began to reflect this change in their attitudes and worship. 156-158

Pastors are more focused on church growth as opposed to spiritual growth.  We forget why God established the church in the first place.

The truth is that without a biblical understanding of why God instituted it, the church easily becomes a liability in a market where it competes only with the greatest of difficulty against religious fare available in the convenience of one’s living room and in a culture bent on distraction and entertainment. 195-197

When the church loses it purpose; it will lose its ability to engage the culture as the Apostles did in the New Testament.  We try to fix what works by trying to change or filter the message of the gospel.  As God’s people we are called to honest about what God says about sin, salvation, heaven and hell.  Keep the truth out there, and let God grow the church.

Who Is Our Audience?

The author is not a fan of the seeker sensitive movement.  His concern is the church becomes a place more for unbelievers than it is for believers.  The result has been pastors and church leaders being tempted to hide certain elements of God’s Word in order not to offend people.

Churches that want to influence their culture are so often tempted to think that to be effective they must hide their otherworldliness and become slickly this-worldly. 2935

The focus is on growth and not on truth.  The results have been damaging to the church.

There have been just too many instances of obnoxious empire-building going on, too much in evangelicalism that is partisan and small, too much pandering to seekers, and too much adaptation of the Christian message until little remains. Too many of its leaders have been disgraced. There have been too many venal television preachers. There are too many of the born-again who show no signs of regenerate life. For many people, the word “evangelical” has become a synonym for what is trite, superficial, and money-grubbing, a byword for what has gone wrong with Protestantism. 292-295

The image of the church has been hurt by its mindset.  What happens often is people are “rethinking church.”  The author gives his view on the results of this by saying:

In my view, so much of this rethinking confuses rethinking the nature of the church with rethinking its performance. 2913-2914

When most start to rethink church the first question that comes to mind is the looks of the building, the music that is played, the type of pulpit used, and how do we make the place look inviting.  What we need today is rethinking church the way God wants us to think about the church.  We need to move away from performing, and move towards worship.  God is the one who should be determined our agenda.

However, in thinking about this, it is important to remember that culture does not give the church its agenda. All it gives the church is its context. The church’s belief and mission come from the Word of God. 1286-1287

With the above statement, Wells helps us understand where context fits in the church.  What he is doing is prescribing to then church how we can keep the right focus, while keeping our context in mind.

Final Thoughts

Overall this is a book I would recommend to just about anyone who is a believer.  I recommend reading it to get the full picture of what Wells is saying.  He has some strong points.  He reminds us of how the Evangelicalism is starting to lose its focus.  The problem starts with lack of Scripture reading today.

There is abysmal ignorance of biblical truth in evangelical churches today. 3004

I am amazed today at how little people know about the Bible.  I am even more amazed at how pastors will focus on God’s Word from the pulpit.  The prominence of biblical reason I think is the number one reason why churches are struggling today.  I believe it is the main reason why my last church failed.  Other leaders in the church knew as much about Scripture as I do Chinese.  I would even argue to some the Bible seemed like Chinese to them.  At the same time they believed that their efforts could fix the church.  Wells addresses this thought by writing:

Unless the Lord rebuilds the evangelical church today, as we humble ourselves before him and hear afresh his Word, it will not be rebuilt. 3273-3274

Only God can rebuild a church.  Often we think we can rebuild the church, but only God can rebuild what He built.

In the area of church growth literature, I think Wells goes too far.  I agree with him that we can be overly obsessed with the literature out there today, but there are some great church growth authors who keep doctrine in the front of their mind, while examine what causes a church to grow (two examples that come to mind is Tom Rainer and Ed Stetzer).  There are times while reading this book I came under the impression the author would not like my church.  The reason is my church is contemporary, but their doctrine is spot on.  I know he would agree with my pastors doctrinally, but how we practice church he might not like.  There is nothing wrong with making church a comfortable place when it comes to the looks of a facility, but when it comes to the message there are times we are to feel uncomfortable.

I challenge you to read this book with an open mind, and look at how the Holy Spirit will speak to you through the author’s wisdom and insights.

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