“The Lay of the Evangelical Land” A review and discussion of The Courage To Be Protestant, chapter 1

This is the first 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 Robert E. Sagers, a Ph.D student at Southern Seminary (and M.Div alumnus) who writes at the Henry Institute Rapid Fire blog.

The Courage To Be Protestant

SUMMARY

“It takes no courage to sign up as a Protestant.” So begins David Wells’s latest work on the contemporary state of evangelicalism, The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World. “To live by the truths of historic Protestantism, however, is an entirely different matter. That takes courage in today’s context.” And thus the stage is set for the first chapter of The Courage to Be Protestant, “The Lay of the Evangelical Land.”

Wells contends that the evangelical movement, which he traces in the contemporary era to such leaders, theologians, and institutions that emerged following World War II, has begun to fragment into three distinct groups: truth-tellers, marketers, and emergents. The latter two groups in particular, Wells asserts, are well on their way to the kind of liberalism against which the evangelical movement reacted in the first place. How did this happen? First, there is a general apathy amongst evangelicals today toward serious doctrinal reflection and discussion, and second, in the last two or three decades evangelicals have become enslaved to culture in a way that many churches are built upon sola cultura rather than sola Scriptura.

The truth-tellers (think Billy Graham, Carl F. H. Henry, and Francis Schaeffer), or classical evangelicals, originally coalesced around two core doctrines of the Christian faith, the authority of the inerrant Bible and the penal substitutionary death of Christ. However, the vision of the original leaders of this movement soon faded, and Wells believes that those who are responsible for this fading threaten to undermine and undo the great gains made by evangelicalism as a whole. The original movement was not without its faults, Wells contends—among them the fact that nonessential doctrines were put on the backburner, and that the movement soon became almost entirely parachurch, both in terms of organization and attitude—and the marketers and emergents, Wells argues, have emerged out of these weaknesses.

Church marketers (think Bill Hybels and Rick Warren) have sought to apply business strategies from the corporate world to best package the gospel and the church to a specific consumer market. Doctrine, it seemed, got in the way of this marketing, and was soon discarded. However, people have often become bored with this shallow, superficial faith, much to the chagrin of the church marketers. And then comes this scathing indictment:

“Frankly, there is no judgment more to be feared than this: you are now passé. That weighs more heavily even than words coming from the great white throne at the end of time. Imagine that! Passé.”

The emergents (think Rob Bell or Brian McLaren), on the other hand, “would be straining the definition of ‘evangelical’ to the breaking point if its leaders were not themselves distancing their world from evangelicalism.” Emergents, doctrinal minimalists in conversation with like-minded postmodernists, have a similar attitude toward evangelical faith and practice as that found in older Protestant liberalism, Wells contends.

Wells concludes the chapter by declaring that that the word “evangelical” may have to be retired, as it has “outlived its usefulness.” In the rest of the book, in which Wells promises to dive into many of the issues mentioned in much more detail, Wells identifies himself as critiquing contemporary evangelicalism from the vantage point of one who is “a biblical Christian first and foremost, as in continuity with Christians across the ages who have believed the same truth and followed the same Lord,” and as one who affirms the five solas of the Reformation. This kind of historic Protestantism, Wells asserts, will take courage, but it is the only thing that offers any real hope for today’s postmodern world.

ANALYSIS

Throughout this chapter—indeed, throughout all of his scholarship—Wells pulls no punches. No unnecessary adherence to the quintessential virtue of our contemporary postmodern culture—niceness—will be found in the pages of The Courage to Be Protestant. But could David Wells be characterized as grumpy? He certainly seems so to some. However, in a world and culture where tolerance often wins the day, a little bit of honesty—some may even call it grumpiness—can go a very long way in terms of discernment and clarification of the issues at hand.

For instance, a careful observer of those Wells tags as marketers can note the way that some of these said marketers consistently allude to the practices of the corporate world, at times even seeming to bemoan the fact that churches don’t operate more like corporations, with pastors serving as the CEO.

Or, for example, perhaps Wells is correct when he alludes to the “reincarnation of the Willow Creek mind-set” present among the emergents? It seems that in reacting against some of the baby-boomer, church-as-mall, give-the-people-what-they-want ethos of the seeker-sensitive marketers, the emerging church movement has devoted so much time and energy (not to mention countless blog posts) fighting against this “enemy” that is has, in a very real sense, become him. After all, consumerism comes in many forms; the gospel can be marketed in many ways; all one has to do is to find the right consumer, the right market. And one can note how many church conferences today feature such speakers as Rob Bell and Andy Stanley, or Rick Warren and Bill Hybels on the one hand, with Donald Miller and Erwin McManus on the other or more recently, Bill Hybels, Dan Kimball, and Brian McLaren.

The word “evangelical” is at present notoriously difficult to define. To break down the movement into three clearly defined constituencies may be oversimplifying the matter just a bit. Nevertheless, Wells has set the stage for an excellent work. Some may call it grumpy; others may call it clear, and true. Regardless, Wells’s work—and his proposed solutions to the issues he critiques—cannot be ignored.

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

  1. What does it mean to be an “evangelical”? Is this a word best defined politically, sociologically, theologically?
  2. What do you think about Wells’s breakdown of the contemporary evangelical movement into three groups—truth-tellers, marketers, and emergents? Is there any overlap between the three? Are there any other groups that you would add to this list?
  3. What do you think of Wells’s proposed solution to the current evangelical quagmire—to be not less Protestant, but more, and this courageously so?

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14 Responses to “The Lay of the Evangelical Land” A review and discussion of The Courage To Be Protestant, chapter 1

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

  2. Tony Kummer says:

    Robbie,
    Thanks for writing this.

    Re Question #1: Evangelical identity should be built around the Gospel (theologically), but share certain implications of that Gospel. These may be social and political, depending on the cultural context. Many issues are so interwoven with our worldview that to deny them would equal a denial of the Gospel. In this category I would put many of the traditional evangelical positions on marriage, gender, and abortion.

  3. 1) I think the term evangelical does need to be retired from its use theologically speaking. The word is so broad and shallow regarding its meaning that it no longer accurately described a true Christian. The word has been hijacked by political speakers (Clinton’s and Obama as well as Bush and McCain) in order to give the perception that they are all Christian. This is truly nothing more than pandering for votes using God as a means to an end.

    Sociologically, the term is bankrupt as well for much the same reason it shouldn’t be used politically. It seems that if anyone is spiritual, they are “evangelical.” Fortunately, Mormons and JW’s do not use this term although I think it is a matter of time before they do so.

    3) Wells is right on in our needing to be more Protestant. The only problem is how do we go about doing that? Something like a T4G is a great start, but there is much more that needs to be done if we are all to unite as Protestants and not squabble over denominational differences. For example, I have one friend who thinks Presbyterians are in sin because of their views of baptism (they are being disobedient to the Scriptures). I don’t see how that is so, but I also don’t think he is too far from the way most Protestants view others who disagree on minor theological issues (i.e., Calvinism).

    If we are going to be more Protestant, it would seem to me that we need to truly understand what “Protestant” means. For many, it is just an alternative to Catholicism. I know the evangelical manifesto came out with much fanfare and controversy, but it is something like that that all Protestants can agree to that is needed if we are to act more Protestant. Until we have a tangible example of what it means to be a Protestant in today’s era of denominationalism being corroded by ecumenism, I do not see this as very successful. Thus, it would seem that we would all “stand ALONE on the Word of God.”

    Terry Delaneys last blog post..Visiting on the Lord’s Day

  4. Todd B. says:

    I believe Wells takes an overly pessimistic view towards what he calls the “marketers” — he similarly gives a harsh critique of emergents, while acknowledging the wide spectrum of beliefs and practices among them, but nevertheless rejecting the category in its entirety. The error of Wells, IMO, is the wholesale rejection of these models as “capitulating” to culture. In reality, nearly all forms are cultural. To accept older cultural forms and reject newer ones may be an easy way out, but is not the right way.

    IMO, there are two criteria by which we may evaluate forms. First, there is a pole between those who engage the culture through contextual approaches and those who do not. Second, within the cultural/contextual forms employed, there are those who are critical (biblical) in their contextualization and those who are not. Of course, you have practices along both spectrums. My point is that is is unfair to judge marketers and even emergents by their extremes. Those who engage culture contextually and critically should not be lumped with the others.

    Blessings,
    Todd

    Todd B.s last blog post..My Ministry Core Values

  5. Todd,

    I think Wells is arguing in a generic sense rather than specific. For example, we could talk about the great missions work that the SBC does and be criticized because a few churches (more than a few, I am sure) do not do anything with missions. Granted, this is more of a positive assumption than the one given for emergents and marketers, but I think it is a fair assessment over all.

    I know Wells talks negatively of the McLaren’s and Bell’s. They may be the extreme of the emergent church, but they are the leaders; thus, the general negativity towards the movement.

    Terry Delaneys last blog post..Flying High

  6. Todd B. says:

    I am more familiar with the long history of complaints against the “marketers” (formerly known as “Church Growth Movement”) which is largely an extrapolation of extremes to the movement as a whole. The fact that Bell and McLaren are in error as leaders of the Emergent movement does not mean that all that are “emerging” (or whatever label you want to call those who are trying new methods and models to reach the present culture) are “capitulating” to culture and worldliness. I could cite errors and extremes of traditional model church leaders, but to extrapolate to all traditional models and methods would be patently unfair. Models and methods are merely tools to communicate the gospel.

    Wells has some good things to say and warnings that we would do well to heed, however, I find these wholesale dismissals of Church Growth and now emerging models to be unfair and misleading.

  7. Jason M. says:

    Do you think one of the major “marketer” approaches today is personality driven Christianity? Many of the growing churches (numerically) are pastored by men who intentionally major in forms of comedy and shock effect. I cannot evaluate Hybels or Warren as I have never heard these men preach, nor read any of there books, and wouldn’t know the first thing about their church organizational structure beyond seeker friendly, but I have listened to many pastors of large growing churches who are deliberately shocking and comedic in their approaches and wonder if they too are not playing the part of the seeker-friendly mentality because our society is largely organized around comedy and having fun (has anyone noticed the great many movies released in the past two years which fit the genre of comedy?).

    I am worried this will, as Wells states on page 14, “but the form…actually undercuts the seriousness of the faith.” Isn’t this exactly what Mark Dever was speaking about when interviewed by Ed Stetzer at Whiteboard? What will be the effect upon all these churches who have preachers preach to them through videos, when these “attractional/comedic/personality driven pastors move on? Are they actually helping the church long term when the time comes for a transition?

  8. Todd – I agree you can’t necessarily throw the baby out with the bath water, but there is an extremely fine line between being in the world as opposed to of the world. I am sure you would agree with that. It almost seems as though the concept of “church” today is becoming further and further removed from her biblical precepts that we are actually losing focus of why we are supposed to be there.

    I think Jason makes a good point in quoting page 14 about the undercutting of the seriousness of the faith. I am not saying we should be all pious and such, but I think many pastors today have lost the gravity of preaching the Word of God. It seems as some of the “marketers” and “emergents” have no fear of what they are saying as long as they are “bringing people to Jesus.”

    This is certainly a hot-button topic right now and I pray that regardless of what happens and what side we all fall on, our goal is to glorify God in what we are doing.

    Terry Delaneys last blog post..Flying High

  9. Todd B. says:

    Terry,

    We probably agree more than we disagree.

    Practically speaking, of the current forms of doing church, of which would Wells approve? Again, I submit that all forms are cultural, the only question is: which culture?

    Blessings,
    Todd

    Todd B.s last blog post..My Ministry Core Values

  10. I am sure we do agree more than disagree even on this issue. I just happen to fall into the camp that believes that the Bible should guide how we worship God and I think that most “emergents” and “marketers” throw that baby out with the bath water.

    I would actually that worshiping God should be meta-cultural in that our worship should seek to transcend the bounds set by ones culture. I do not know how possible this is, but I think it is something we should strive for in our worship of the Creator.

    For what it is worth, I am benefiting from this dialogue. God bless.

    Terry Delaneys last blog post..Flying High

  11. Chris U says:

    Wells criticizes the marketing approach in Above All Earthly Po’ers , the only one of his books which I have read.
    He gets to the topic by speaking of his concern about new ways of “doing church.” He is worried about the “lure of success” because it is the “very means by which success is actually disappearing,” as “those who once stood aloof from the older liberalism are now unwittingly producing a close cousin to it.”

    He rejects this strategy of engagement with the postmodern world because the methodology for succeeding requires “little or no theology.”

    Later he explains five things this new approach is trying to address.
    1- The proliferation of spiritual seekers (The New Seeker)
    2- The stagnation of growth within evangelicalism
    3- The marketplace for religions- it is a buyer’s market in which people have choices and churches are concerned with the way newcomer’s “feel” about their church.
    4- Changing social environment- growth of megachurches is a parallel to growth of megamalls, the root being the growth of consumption mindset
    5- “Old Fears”- That church will become irrelevant as society and culture change.

    #5 is where this new movement follows in the footsteps of the growth of mainline liberalism in the 20th Century.


    Anyway, I think that sheds some light on what he does and does not mean as far as marketing. It is probably easier to discern the marketing about which he is concerned in retrospect– not only what the strategies are now, but where they take a church or denomination.

    Chris Us last blog post..International Orange, “Afraid of Love”

  12. Todd B. says:

    Terry,

    If you would just change the word “most” to “some” or even “many” I am in full agreement with your last comment.

    Blessings,
    Todd

    Todd B.s last blog post..My Ministry Core Values

  13. Todd,

    I can agree with “many.” I said “most” because at least by the vocal group, it would appear as though “all” and I know it is not all. But, I am willing to say “many” and apologize for my own throwing of the baby out with the bath water. It is just too hard to tell sometimes.

    God Bless brother.

    Terry Delaneys last blog post..Pretty Even

  14. Robbie,

    Thanks so much for your work on this post; I hope to see more from you on Said at Southern in the future.

    Re: Discussion questions
    1. “Evangelical” is best defined theologically, as “gospel-centered.” We do not have to abandon this term, but we must strive to re-claim it, in a similar fashion to how we must re-claim the term “fundamentalist.”
    2. The three categories do seem helpful; Examples of overlap could be Mark Driscoll (truth-teller/emergent) or Johnny Hunt (marketer/truth-teller). I can think of no other categories.
    3. I’ll have to read more of Wells’ book to see what he means by being more Protestant. One thing that I think must be important in this regard is that we promote historical awareness in our churches. It is important to know why the original Protestants were willing to be excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church- and even possibly burned- for their faith

    Andrew Lindseys last blog post..Mark Driscoll’s Critique of Prayer Labyrinths

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