“Christianity For Sale” A review and discussion of The Courage To Be Protestant, chapter 2

This is the second part of our team book review & forum based on The Courage To Be Protestant by David F. Wells. (series index here) It was written by Drew Dixon, a M.Div student at Southern Seminary who writes at Elect Exiles and his personal blog.

The Courage To Be Protestant

Chapter 2 Summary: Christianity For Sale

I remember the first time I heard the word “evangelical.” I was in high school and had only been a Christian for about a month. I thought the word meant that a church preached the gospel-I was completely naïve to how loaded the term was. Today the word “evangelical” carries with it a ton of baggage, much of which has very little to do with the gospel. I wish my naïvete had been correct because in today’s market-driven evangelical churches, it seems that the gospel has shifted from the foundation to the periphery. It may or may not be time to throw out the word “evangelical” but evangelical churches certainly cannot hope to bring glory to God if the methods of the market continue to trump those of Scripture.

David Wells calls attention to this trajectory and rebukes such evangelical churches for letting the market take precedent over Scripture in, “Christianity for Sale,” the second chapter of The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World. What drives the marketers is the idea that “things are stagnating in the evangelical world and the ways of ‘doing’ church in the past won’t work with the newer generation.” Thus evangelical churches, it is thought, must “change their way of doing business or face extinction.” Many evangelical churches have turned to the marketing world for answers, it would seem that traditional or liturgical churches have ignored their customers as the way they “do church” has not changed over the years. Marketers, on the other hand, realize that in the business world, the customer is supreme. Indeed, as Wells says, “Customers, after all, are sovereign.” This is why today there are entire conferences for pastors on how to make one’s church more relevant that make almost no mention of doctrine, truth, Scripture, or expositional preaching. Apparently the market is not ripe for truth! Wells’ basic argument is that the “form” of these marketing churches “is actually affecting the content” and when the customer is sovereign, he determines the agenda over and against any other potential sovereign.

Several factors have added to the market-driven climate that much evangelicalism finds itself in. Modernization, the rearrangement of our societies around cities, has contributed along with the rise of the information age in which consumers are confronted with an over-abundance of information. Consumers are buying new products at ever increasing rates and the church has learned to speak the language of the market by offering consumers exactly what they want. There are so many choices in the market place today that the customer must be treated very delicately-one false move and the customer will take his business elsewhere. This same mindset is taking place in many churches today who are struggling to keep up with the market in fear of losing those who they have marketed the church to. In pandering to the consumer, churches inevitably sacrifice the truth. When churches begin to sweep the hard truths of Scripture under the rug for the sake of getting people into the church doors, these hard truths run the risk of being lost altogether. What use is a seeker-sensitive church that never offers anything of substance for seekers to find?

Wells compares this delicate balance between consumer and customer to parents with disaffected children. These children feel their parents have been cruelly unjust towards them and the parents response is “to back off and take the path that inflicts the least pain.” What these parents fail to see, Wells notes, is that “they are about to be robbed . . . out of their good intentions, space is enlarged around the child, latitude allowed, rules are rescinded, rebukes are stifled except in rare cases, and expectations are lifted.” Despite the parent’s best efforts to give their children space to grow out of such onerous attitudes, the result of such abdication is children who are more onerous and intolerable than ever before. This is a powerful metaphor because I think Wells is correct-this is exactly what is happening in many churches today. In garnering themselves to the market, churches have actually driven a wedge between the average church member and theology, between doctrine and practice. Wells cites a Barna poll which reports that “in America 45 percent say they are born again but only 9 percent, and maybe only 7 percent, give any evidence of Christian seriousness by way of minimal biblical knowledge for making life’s decisions.” The result of this delicate dance is church members who do not know their Bibles and do not live by them. This is because the world has set the agenda for church over and against the Bible.

Chapter 2 Analysis

Although the emergent church movement represents a significant shift in the evangelical church today, I think that the influence of the market-driven churches are much more widely felt. This can be seen in the vast number of mega churches present today-in America in 2005, there were 1,210 mega churches (churches with more than 2,000 members) as opposed to 16 in 1960. This can be seen in Barnes and Noble and Borders when Your Best Life Now competes for position on the best-sellers shelf with the latest Oprah Book Club title. This can be seen in the disturbing statistics on how many “Christians” in the evangelical world today actually read their Bibles and apply them to their day-to-day lives. This can be seen in churches that have the most up-to-date facilities, all the best technology, and multiple services based on every genre of music but are clueless about what it means to be a member of a local church.

Wells is absolutely correct when he points out that the needs consumers identify for themselves are not their true needs. The true needs of every man, woman, and child are the needs God identifies for them. Indeed, we suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18) and “are incapable of being obedient to it (Rom. 8:7).” In other words we need the Lord to change us-we need a revival of Biblical Christianity because the gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16). Furthermore, Wells cites a study by Thom Rainer on the unchurched in America that indicates that the people are leaving these market-driven churches because they came to church to hear preaching and to learn doctrine! The death knell of market driven churches is the ever-changing nature of the market. What good are churches doing if they succeed in getting people into the church but fail to give them anything of substance to which they can commit to? I am all for getting seekers to come to church, but not at the expense of minimizing or eliminating doctrine and the commitment implied in Biblical church membership. If we continue to let the market drive our Christianity, it will inevitably cease to be distinctively and historically “Christian.” You know there is a problem in the evangelical church in America when the preacher of the largest church can tell Larry King that he believes Mormons are Christians and yet there is not a mass exodus of people leaving his church!

The stakes are high, if our churches continue to pander to the market they may for some time continue to draw a crowd, but if in doing so they are sacrificing the truth of the Bible then they have utterly failed at their primary objective. The church’s primary objective is to display the glory of God in Christ Jesus. When the preaching of the cross is no longer the church’s firm foundation, the church will inevitably fail-not by the world’s standards but by the Lord’s. I don’t mean to communicate that we cannot learn anything from the marketing world, but when the market drives our Christianity over and against the Word of God, our evangelical Christianity has ceased to be truly Christian or evangelical. I have not decided whether I am ready to search for a new term to replace evangelical, but I am determined more than ever, to join Wells in preaching Christ and him crucified and letting God’s perfect Word set the agenda for my church. Wells makes a compelling case:

It is time to reach back into the Word of God, as we have not done in a generation, and find again a serious faith for undoubtedly serious times. It is now time to close the door on this disastrous experiment in retailing faith, to do so politely but nevertheless firmly. It is time to move on. It is time to become Protestant once again.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. How has the market-driven model affected Churches you have been a part of? (Please don’t name names, share stories but don’t slander anyone)
  2. Can we salvage the term evangelical and still distinguish ourselves from the marketers who have essentially made the gospel secondary?
  3. Am I being too critical? What can we learn from these marketers?
  4. Wells doesn’t lump all mega churches into the category of marketers, how does a mega church (or any growing church for that matter) avoid the inevitable temptation to pander themselves to the consumer?
  5. How ought we to seek to grow our churches biblically?
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14 Responses to “Christianity For Sale” A review and discussion of The Courage To Be Protestant, chapter 2

  1. Pingback: Group Book Review: The Courage To Be Protestant by David Wells | Said at Southern Seminary

  2. Drew,
    I appreciate your insightful comments on Well’s work and the current situation of the church in North America. They seemed to be reasoned and careful, which is important when walking the kind of ground one is walking with this subject.

    1. How has the market-driven model affected Churches you have been a part of? (Please don’t name names, share stories but don’t slander anyone)

    I am a church planter, so the market driven model has played a significant part in what I do. I have seen (and continue to see) a cheap side to the market driven approach that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Frankly, the cases are too numerous to mention.

    2. Can we salvage the term evangelical and still distinguish ourselves from the marketers who have essentially made the gospel secondary?

    Why do we need to salvage the term evangelical? I don’t mean to sound irrevrent, as if our solid evangelical forefathers (Carl Henry, Barnhouse, Packer, Jones, Stott, Graham, etc.) aren’t worth emulating. For instance, as one who holds great regard (perhaps more) for the Puritans, I don’t self-identify myself as a Puritan. The response to the Evangelical Manifesto is indicative of how impossible it is to nail down any type of consensus around the term with many defining evangelical leaders refusing to ally themselves with a document claiming to tout an “evangelical” way forward in the 21st century. I like Moore’s approach to this… “it depends”. If by evangelical you mean – gospel preaching, born again, baptized, witnessing believers in Jesus, then yes, I am an evangelical. But… if by evangelical you mean doctrinal downplay, market driven, manipulative evangelism, and Bill Gaither songs (sorry Gaither fans) then no… I’m not an evangelical.

    3. Am I being too critical? What can we learn from these marketers?

    I can’t say if you are being too critical. However, I think Wells is often overly critical. I agree with Wells 95% of the time and think he is a sure guide theologically and ecclesiologically. I would put this book in anyone’s hands and recommend it wholeheartedly, but I think the manner of his writing and criticism often help to defeat the power of his argumentation. The fact is that many of the people who use a market driven approach are men who are desperate to win people to Jesus, but are misguided. A rebuke may be fitting, but not the type that Wells uses. These men aren’t Fosdicks. Granted, in the case of “prosperity gospel”, or watered down tripe (Osteen), we may be dealing with men worse than Fosdick (can that be?). However, we have to be able to distinguish between Ed Young Jr. and Creflo Dollar.

    4. Wells doesn’t lump all mega churches into the category of marketers, how does a mega church (or any growing church for that matter) avoid the inevitable temptation to pander themselves to the consumer?

    Focus on the Gospel and authenticity. Market driven worship is wrong. But so is worshipping in an inauthentic way. We have to recognize that 1950′s stylistic preferences, and hymnody that is disattached from our real lives often represents a more unbiblical pattern of worship than what we might call “contemporary”. If the Gospel is foremost, then we have to understand that with the gospel there is great liberty (even in worship).

    5. How ought we to seek to grow our churches biblically?

    At the end of the day, if we are to grow churches (believers assembled for the worship of Jesus Christ as Savior), then we must do two things.

    Preach the Gospel – Expository preaching with Christ as the focus as every message. A critical part of this, however, must be engaging expository preaching, which is not happening many places. If we make the bible seem boring, then anathema upon us.

    Evangelize – With the gospel, and the gospel alone. Too much of our evangelism is saturated with unbiblical thinking. It has become characterized by praying the sinners prayer and then learning to act, talk, and think like all of the other people in church. The gospel converts the soul, yet so often what we see instead are superficial changes passed off as Christianity.

    Jason Hutchinsons last blog post..The Power of Personal Evangelism

  3. Drew says:

    Thanks for your response Jason–I am impressed that you actually addressed all 5 questions!

    I think I am with you on your comments about Wells. I am with him 95% of the time. I think you are right there is a difference between Ed Young Jr. and Creflo Dollar. I suspect Wells would admit that as well, but he would likely add that the market-driven model by its very definition dances around the gospel because it is always adapting to the trends and it avoids giving consumers what will likely turn them off (like Romans 3 for instance and the reality that “none is righteous, no not one”). That is where I struggle with Wells. I am with him in that I am concerned when so many of the marketers seem to be making the gospel secondary but I don’t want to say that they are all worthless and we should give them the word “evangelical” and reinstate “protestant” in its place. That is why I asked the question–I am not sure. I am close to Wells on this but not sure if I am ready to be as harsh as he is (though I guess I was pretty hard in my article).

    I appreciate your comment about “engaging” expositional preaching, you are right, you don’t see a lot of that. We need more engaging, passionate preachers of God’s word!

    Anyway, thanks for your comments Jason, they gave me more to think about. I will pray for you today as you seek to honor our great God in church planting!

    Drews last blog post..“Christianity for Sale” (. . . A review and discussion of The Courage to be Protestant chapter 2 by David Wells)

  4. Jason M. says:

    2. I’m not sure salvaging the term evangelical is all that important. I still use the term publicly, but I always have to do a little explaining afterwards. Here is why saving the term is not all that important. A more fundamental term, I would argue, is the term “Christian.” However this term is used by many around the world who I would not group myself. The meaning of whatever terms we use will surely in the end be defined most effectively in the local church. And if someone asks us what our church believes, we will have to explain in sentences, not terms.

    4. I believe the way mega churches will avoid resorting to marketing themselves is the same way smaller churches will as well. An embracing of some form of the regulative principle will ensure biblical fidelity.

    5. I believe it will take pastors and influential members in the church being unswerving to biblical fidelity even in the face of other community churches growing numerically through unbiblical means. In the end, churches must be committed to growing more than just numerically. The pressure will be great at times to compromise, but we must remember that we will be held accountable for what kind of disciples we produce and for the health of our local churches.

    Jason M.s last blog post..Tuesday is for Hymns

  5. Ron says:

    Thank you for thoughtful post and commentary on Well’s book. Look forward to reading The Courage to be Protestant when get caught up on my current reading. Over at Pyromaniac’s (http://teampyro.blogspot.com/), there was recently an interesting post inviting dialog and comparing Well’s book with Tim Steven’s book Pop Goes the Church.

    As per your first point of discussion regarding personal involvement in a marketing driven church, I relate in a rather long (12 pages) post of my experience with a well-intentioned market driven/seeker sensitive/purpose driven/entertainment driven church that may be of some interest. Sorta pimping my post, the URL is http://ronclick.wordpress.com/2007/12/25/an-ecclesiastical-journey/

    Rons last blog post..Mark Dever interviewed by Ed Stetzer at Whiteboard church growth conference

  6. Tony Kummer says:

    Drew,
    Thanks again for writing this summary.

    The Barna statistic about percent of “born again” people who show any signs of conversion is very bad news. It would seem that American Christianity (and Evangelicalism) is facing a shortage of biblical Christians.

    The other thought that really hit me from this chapter was this: With the right marketing, you can have a “church” without any gospel. So, one day America could be filled with “mega-churches” that are nothing more than businesses that meet fill the need for consumer driven religion. You might even buy stock in them and expect a quarterly dividend.

  7. Drew says:

    Thanks for the feedback guys.

    That is a stunning thought Tony–I think you are right–if Osteen’s church were doling out shares, they would be worth a pretty penny. I mentioned him in my article because he is the perfect example of a market-mindset that has almost totally forsaken the gospel. If the people in his church had been fed the Scriptures on almost any level, they would have spoke up when he gave that awful interview to Larry King.

    Jason, I appreciate your comments, I think you too are right. I think that we need to encourage churches to adopt some form of the regulative principle–the Scriptures must dictate on some level what we do in church. The idea that just because it is not forbidden in Scripture means we can do it with a good conscience ends in doing all kinds of foolish things. I am not for a full-out regulative principle (not many are today–even those who think they are really aren’t) but the principles behind the regulative principle ought to be applied to our churches–we ought to weigh everything we do against Scripture!

    Drews last blog post..“Christianity for Sale” (. . . A review and discussion of The Courage to be Protestant chapter 2 by David Wells)

  8. How has the market-driven model affected Churches you have been a part of? (Please don’t name names, share stories but don’t slander anyone)
    I used to be a part of a local body where a relative of mine pastored. He preached the Word, but not expositionally unfortunately. The sermons were ok, and even Biblical in many ways. But they were all about practical day to day things and topical in nature. You never really learned to original context and how to apply it to your life.

    I really think preaching sets the tone in the church. If you don’t set the tone in the Sunday AM pulpit, it won’t go elsewhere in the church. And it did effect PM worship too, as preaching was soon replaced by Nooma videos and a contemporary band that played rock music. After I left there to do a church plant in a nearby town, things went further downhill and I was glad to be gone honestly. I was a fish out of water there! I just didn’t fit in. A couple of years later, and suddenly the church fired my relative because of a dispute over his new bride-to-be. They just couldn’t accept his wife’s death and how he had moved on with life and was now engaged. I just can’t help but think how the whole situation could have been avoided by preaching Biblically and not letting that church look like the rest of the world.

    Can we salvage the term evangelical and still distinguish ourselves from the marketers who have essentially made the gospel secondary?
    Do we really want to salvage it? I’m much more concerned about being Biblical in my pastorate than I am about fussing over a term. The world doesn’t understand the term anyway. I think it’s mostly an internal dispute.

    Am I being too critical? What can we learn from these marketers?
    I don’t think you are being too critical. If these market-driven folks have no desire to “contend for the faith once delivered unto the saints”, they deserve to be tested by the Bible, weighted in the balances and found wanting. We would be much better off if we just quit calling these market-driven “churches” a church to begin with. Let’s just call them a “religious country club” because that’s all they really are. When you leave the Gospel, you are no longer a church. Laodicea comes to mind here.

    Wells doesn’t lump all mega churches into the category of marketers, how does a mega church (or any growing church for that matter) avoid the inevitable temptation to pander themselves to the consumer?
    If one preaches the Gospel as Jesus did, you won’t pander to the consumer. Just model yourself after Jesus, Paul, John the Baptist, etc. No feel-good, fluff preaching there!

    How ought we to seek to grow our churches biblically?
    Simply put, pastors need to focus on the depth of their ministry and leave the breadth of it up to God. Read John MacArthur’s book “Ashamed of the Gospel” for a great work on this issue. It’s one of my favorite books of all time. Also, remember that it was Jesus who said, “I will build MY church.” We don’t grow a church as a pastor. God grows a church. We aren’t in competition with Him! Just focus on going deep into the Word of God and deep in prayer and model that for your congregation. God will take care of the breadth of your ministry, whether it is large or small. Numbers are irrelevant. Faithfulness to the Gospel is the sum of ministry. After all, Jeremiah had how many converts in his lifetime? Think about that one!

    Michael Wilhites last blog post..GOD’S EFFECTUAL CALLING

  9. Michael,

    I enjoyed reading your post.

    You wrote: “I think preaching sets the tone in the church.” I couldn’t agree more. I think a good way to look at the preaching event as the shifting the rudder of the ship and determining the course. If we don’t put time into charting course, and following the map (Scripture) that we’ve already been given, then we are in deep trouble as your story about your family member illustrated perfectly. Your high view of preaching is commendable.

    I would question your assertion that, “Numbers are irrelevant. Faithfulness to the Gospel is the sum of ministry.” I think numbers are relevant, because “numbers” (in a climate of Gospel preaching) equals conversion. I would argue that if we are being faithful, then “numbers” will result. I think (and would be interested to hear your view on this) that pastors who turn in an ACP with 0-1 baptisms a year ought to leave their posts until they repent for their heard-heartedness and disobedience. Just some thought. Blessings.

    Jason Hutchinsons last blog post..Wow.

  10. Jason,

    Well I do agree that numbers in a preaching environment that is faithful to the Gospel may well equal conversions, but I am frankly leary of the ACP. I’m not convinced it’s all that helpful. Should pastors who turn in 0-1 baptisms per year leave their posts? Well, should Jeremiah the prophet have quit ministry when no one repented and Judah still went into Babylonian captivity? Preaching the Gospel and being faithful will most always lead to conversions, but it’s up to God to change hearts and do the work of conversion. As I said in my post, I concentrate on the depth of my ministry and just leave the breadth of it up to God.

    Michael Wilhites last blog post..GOD’S EFFECTUAL CALLING

  11. Michael,

    I appreciate your thoughtful response. I too am leary (and weary) of the ACP. For the recored, I wholeheartedly agree with your statement that, “Preaching the Gospel and being faithful will most always lead to conversions, but it’s up to God to change hearts and do the work of conversion.” I simply worry that the priority of evangelism is being left in the dust, which the ACP’s (love’em or hate’em) indicate is happening. Peace in Jesus.

    Jason Hutchinsons last blog post..Wow.

  12. Jason,

    I think you are right about evangelism being left in the dust. I don’t care for the ACP’s, but you are right that they do indicate a lack of evangelism.

    Michael Wilhites last blog post..Rick Warren’s View on Preaching

  13. Drew says:

    The state of many “evangelical” churches right now is such that turning in an ACP of better than 0-1 is difficult because there are so many unregenerate people in the churches. I know very godly men in ministry right now who are having a very hard time at their churches and not seeing a whole lot of growth because the churches they are in are full of lost people who think they are saved.

    I agree with both of you (Michael and Jason) that faithfulness to the Word must be the sum of our ministry and we must unflinchingly evangelistic!

    Drews last blog post..“Christianity for Sale” (. . . A review and discussion of The Courage to be Protestant chapter 2 by David Wells)

  14. I surely agree with you there, Drew. I think the other thing to consider is that even the regenerate in our churches sometimes have lost their passion for evangelism when it hasn’t been done in so long other than the altar call! It takes a lot of time and effort for a Godly pastor to be used by God to turn a church around. You can lead them to the water, but you can’t make them drink. That’s why I say faithfulness to the Word is the sum of ministry. I take care of the depth of my preaching and teaching and I know that God will take care of the breadth of it in His timing.

    Michael Wilhites last blog post..Rick Warren’s View on Preaching

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