An Evangelical Lament
"When I read Richard Weaver's 60-year-old critique of the modern world [Ideas Have Consequences] and translated it into my own experience," writes Warren Cole Smith, "a light bulb went on in my mind. Weaver was not describing a world from which evangelicalism offered deliverance. He was describing what evangelicalism had become!"
So Smith, who has been part and parcel of the evangelical movement for four decades, set out to describe what it's become in A Lover's Quarrel with the Evangelical Church (Authentic). Though he describes the book as a "lover's quarrel," the tone is more sad and wistful, more a quiet lament.
The book's strength lies in Smith's reporting, and in this, he plays to his strengths as a journalist. He has written widely for publications like World magazine, The Dallas Morning News, and Beliefnet. In this book, he names names, tells stories, and piles up the financial stats. Little of the material is new, but reading all this reporting in one place has its effect.
In talking about evangelical political power, he narrates the rise and fall of Jack Abramoff and Ralph Reed, and also how evangelicals learned to play the Washington power and spin games. In looking at the evangelical marketplace, he tallies the money flowing through large evangelical organizations (Promise Keepers, at its height, $100 million annually; Women of Faith, $50 million a year; and so on). The point is to demonstrate not that large budgets are intrinsically evil, but that "many of the worse elements of the modern world—materialism, empire building at the expense of community building, and the accumulation of power and money—have become some of the most recognizable attributes of American evangelicalism."
Chapter after chapter, Smith gently but insistently asks evangelicals to look in the mirror. In the chapter "The Triumph of Sentimentality," he shows how much many megachurches are taken with entertainment culture. He quotes one megachurch leader telling other pastors that the key to worship is "variety, variety, variety, variety"—because that's what unchurched people get everywhere else.
In writing about what he calls "the Christian-industrial complex," Smith estimates that $50 million a year is collected and distributed to copyright holders of contemporary worship songs. And he notes that whereas in the past, theologians and trained church musicians determined what songs would go into hymnbooks, now it's "what gets played on Christian radio [that] gets promoted to church musicians and church leaders."
As Smith sums up, "As we pursue these industrial models of ministry, industry thrives, but ministry is weakened. One of the ironies we're beginning to see is that … even the world wants the church to be the church. It is the church that doesn't want to be the church. That's the core problem."
Warren's apparent answer to our addiction to size is to remind us, in so many words, that small is beautiful, especially when it comes to the local church. He recommends that when churches get to a certain size, they ask some members to plant another church. This affords more opportunities for lay ministry and greater accountability, and demonstrates a corporate dying to self. And, he argues, it's biblical.