Modern Idolatry Exposed

The Golden Cow: Materialism in the Twentieth Century Church, by John White (InterVarsity, 175 pp., $3.50 pb), is reviewed by Leonard G. Goss, agent, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Publishers, Independence, Missouri.

White deals well with the reality of materialism, particularly in the North American Christian world. To do this he dips into the Old Testament prophets who accused the nation of Israel of harlotry. The Israelites forsook the Lord to sell themselves to other gods for political security, monetary enhancement, and social acceptance. Jesus charged the Pharisees with the same sort of idolatry. The Golden Cow, in comparing us with Israel, not only catalogs our own greed for things and our own “religion as industry,” but draws the inescapable conclusion that “there is an uncanny similarity between our day and that of ancient Israel”: consumer exploitation, violent oppression, idolatry, bribery, misplaced military alliances, legal corruption. Ancient Jerusalem? Yes, but today as well.

Perhaps the theme of this book, which the publisher calls “prophetic,” is simply that Christians are not obligated to embrace asceticism in order to battle materialism, but that, in fact, material things do corrupt. While for White there seems little virtue in poverty, there is certainly no great value in riches, either. Association with the latter is shown graphically to bring abject enslavement, a limiting of spiritual horizon, and a definite cheapening of lifestyle by undermining faith.

The theme is cropped close enough, but the author, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Manitoba, would have offered better service (and been prophetic) had he shown a bit more contempt for the popular and uncritical opinion, so often claimed today by churchgoers, that riches are not so bad after all. Instead of telling readers that the thrust of Jesus’ teaching “does not deal with the virtues of poverty or the sin of riches” (which is true), White might have labored more carefully at defining for us what is the Bible’s (and hence Jesus’) view on materialism. When Scripture declares that we must never attach ourselves to wealth of any kind (Ps. 62:10; Matt. 19:23) lest our lives become forfeit, we must say that it would be folly to do so, and not, as White, that “we are not called to imitate Christ’s poverty but to follow him in his example of love.” And it should be disturbing to read that “Should he heap material riches upon us, well and good.” And oddly, after being told that material abundance corrupts, we are told to brush the problem aside: “We need not feel condemned because we are surrounded by abundance. Rather we should praise and thank a bountiful God who pours unmerited blessings upon us.”

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The book has several exemplary points. For example, White’s view of the church is refreshingly traditional, based on people/doctrine, not on real estate or mass psychology. He also deals squarely with parachurch organizations, many of which have used questionable methods of fund raising—professing faith in God alone and simultaneously manipulating people into giving. With religious bumper stickers and other trinkets having gone so far in exploiting and spiritually desensitizing the Christian public, White uses strong words to discuss so-called Christian business. The chapters dealing with local churches, parachurches, and “Christian” business practices are unquestionably the best, I believe, but there are 10 chapters of excellent writing (although some contain questionable thinking). Ministers especially, as well as others concerned about the rampant materialism in the church, will benefit from this book.

Modern Evangelism

Five Lanterns at Sundown, by Alfred Krass (Eerdmans, 1978, 256 pp., $4.95), and The Open Secret, by Leslie Newbigin (Eerdmans, 1978, 208 pp. $5.95), are reviewed by Mark R. Branson, who works with the Theological Students Fellowship, a division of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship.

Subtitling his work Evangelism in a Chastened Mood, Alfred Krass has offered us the most complete, biblical, far-reaching, and creative book on evangelism to be published in recent years. Contemporary American culture is the setting for Krass’s evaluation and challenge.

In his preface the author writes, “To an American audience which expects to see evangelism associated with growth and visions of the New Jerusalem, the biblical evangelist must address the question: Have you really caught the drift of the biblical message? Have you appreciated how countercultural it is? Or have you reshaped it to conform to the millennialism of your own culture? Are you aware of the break between your highest visions and God’s promise?” (p. xii).

Retelling Jesus’ parable about the ten virgins, (Matt. 25:1–13) Krass assumes the position of one of the five “suburban women” who failed to get entrance to the wedding feast.

“But the way he acted that night was just so typical! ‘I’m here, and it’s time to start the wedding. Come on, girls.’ And we all woke up and the five of us saw with horror that our lamps were out—it must have been past 12! And there he was going in with Helen and her friends and, and—they were shutting the door! I ran to the door and stood there with my hand against it.

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“You see, I still get all riled up when I think about it. I kind of lost control. In my more objective moments, I recognize that what happened that night made no difference whatsoever. The essential things—the decisive things—had happened before sunset, before that day, even. The events of that night were only the logical conclusion to the deep decisions the five of us—and the five of them—had made long ago” (pp. 3, 4).

Krass takes themes from the parable (the wedding-maker, receiving invitations, the night, the announcement, trimming our wicks, the bridegroom, the feast, and on not getting in) and develops biblical, theological, and ethical issues. He explores “models” of Americans and their values. He interacts with modern “inquirers” like Robert Heilbroner, psychologist Kenneth Clark, CBS’s Dan Rather, French sociologist Robert Bellah. Emile Dunkheim (French sociologist) provides a major source of analysis for Krass.

As a member of the NCC Evangelism Working Group, Krass was discouraged by the hesitancy of denominational leaders to deal seriously with ecumenical evangelism, who favored instead definitions leading toward institutional growth. Although not dealing extensively with ecclesiology, the prologue (at the end of the book!) discusses four church models currently perceived: center of resistance, witness to transcendence, a loyal opposition, and a servant community. It is my hope that the issues raised by Krass in Five Lanterns at Sundown will be given serious consideration by everyone interested in the evangelistic task of the church.

Raising similar issues, but on a global scale, Leslie Newbigin offers The Open Secret out of the wealth of his experience as general secretary of the International Missionary Council and as associate general secretary of the World Council of Churches. If viable, the church must be oriented toward missions. Newbigin develops a general picture of how the Western church came to be and the problems we now encounter in the modern world. He calls first and foremost for a theological understanding, which must then be followed by a reordering of structures.

Based on the authority of Jesus Christ as he lays hold of the believer, Newbigin develops a trinitarian missionary theology: “as proclaiming the kingdom of the Father, as showing the life of the Son, and as bearing the witness of the Spirit” (p. 31).

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In “The Gospel and World History” Newbigin explores with refreshing insight the doctrine of election. Repudiating views of privileged status, contracted claims, and self-established positions of judgment, Newbigin develops the universal aims of the gospel, the element of surprise for believers and unbelievers in Jesus’ stories, and a focus on “the freedom and responsibility which God gives every person” (pp. 90, 91).

Further sections deal with Latin American Liberation theologians, church-growth models of Donald McGavran, and the methods of Chinese missionary Roland Allen, in which issues of numerical growth, the meaning of conversion, and culture are ably explored. A “three-cornered” relationship “between the traditional culture, the Christianity of the missionary, and the Bible” (p. 165) provides checks against imperialism, accommodation, and relativism. Newbigin defends quite well the necessity of the Bible as a needed element in opposition to some who belong to the Western “modern scientific world.”

Finally, in “The Gospel among the Religions,” Newbigin counters various schools of world religions, comparative religions, and philosophies of religion (notably John Hick).

Throughout The Open Secret Newbigin questions the Western church and its culture. Rather than leaving us with the usual guilt, though, the volume moves us through theological probings, personal reflections, and his own international insights to an exciting view of how the gospel of Jesus Christ needs to go out to all the world.

Krass and Newbigin have provided us with excellent resources. Don’t miss either.

Protestantism Goes Evangelistic

The Church as Evangelist, by George E. Sweazey (Harper & Row, 255 pp., $9.95); Go … and Make Disciples, by David H.C. Read (Abingdon, 110pp., $3.50pb); Opening the Door of Faith: The Why, When, and Where of Evangelism, by John R. Hendrick (John Knox, 112 pp., $4.50 pb); Advocate for God, by Kenneth W. Linsley (Judson, 80 pp., $2.50 pb); How to Witness Successfully, by George Sweeting (Moody, 127 pp., $2.95 pb); Friendship Evangelism, by Arthur G. McPhee (Zondervan, 139 pp., $2.95 pb); One-on-One Evangelism, by James H. Jauncey (Moody, 119 pp., $2.95 pb); The Contagious Congregation, by George G. Hunter (Abingdon, 160 pp., $4.95 pb); Evangelism’s Open Secrets, by Herb Miller (Bethany, 112 pp., $4.25 pb); Real Evangelism, by Bailey E. Smith (Broad-man, 168 pp., $5.95); Evangelism: The Next Ten Years, edited by Sherwood Eliot Wirt (Word, 165 pp., $6.95); Overhearing the Gospel, by Fred B. Craddock (Abingdon, 144 pp., $6.95), are reviewed by Dale Sanders, pastor, Orleans Presbyterian Church, Orleans, Nebraska.

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Heightened interest in evangelism has brought forth numerous books spanning the Protestant spectrum. In my judgment, four of the best books on evangelism come from the pens of Presbyterians, published by four different presses. Of the four, George Sweazey and David Read are already well-known speakers and writers. Dr. Sweazey is a former professor of homiletics at Princeton Theological Seminary, and author of the previously well-received Effective Evangelism. Dr. Read is a popular pulpit and radio preacher (New York City’s Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, and NBC’s National Radio Pulpit).

The Church As Evangelist is a passionate, immensely practical guidebook to the art and ethic of evangelism that no church library or ongoing evangelism program should be without. Unhesitant to chide his own denomination, or ecumenical footdragging, Dr. Sweazey calls for the establishment of chairs of evangelism in the seminaries. But beyond institutional interest, he offers wide-ranging and precise advice for local congregational evangelistic outreach. The weaknesses and strengths of various approaches, along with a series of dos and don’ts, are outlined, largely illustrated from personal experience. Bluntly, and refreshingly asking his reader that old question, “have you been saved” (p. 7), Dr. Sweazey takes a hatchet to the fashionable “theology of failure” that equates shrinking congregations with faithfulness to the gospel.

Dr. Sweazey’s theology is unapologetically evangelical, appreciative of evangelicalism as a movement both inside and outside the mainline denominations, and hopeful that evangelism will become the number one task of every theological persuasion (although it’s hard for this reviewer to believe that the liberals, to whom Dr. Sweazey appeals, will alter their practices to the extent he thinks possible).

David Read, like George Sweazey, rejects syncretism among the world’s religions. The perfect companion to the above book, Goand Make Disciples can be read in two or three hours. Subtitled “The Why and How of Evangelism,” Dr. Read presents an attractive “case” for evangelism, but he leaves the how somewhat ambiguous.

If there is a problem with the above two authors, it is their assumption that evangelism is suitable for all theological persuasions. John R. Hendrick, executive presbyter of the Brazos Presbytery, Texas, in Opening the Door of Faith: The Why, When, and Where of Evangelism, demonstrates the problem. Beginning with personal testimonies—Catholic, Protestant, liberal, conservative—Dr. Hendrick has written a thoughtful book focusing on “faith”; acquiring it, preserving it, and sharing it. He defines faith as centered on Christ, personal, and relational, while stressing that there is no one way persons come to faith. The especially good discussion questions and projects at the end of each chapter enhance the value of this short, chock-full, provocative book, and are excellent for small group use.

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Advocate for God is the personal story of Kenneth W. Linsley, a lawyer and general counsel for the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., and how he became a Christian. He also shares how he witnesses as a personable, compassionate believer. This book is a joy and an inspiration to read!

Three further books on personal evangelism, of varying worth, all agree on the point that canned, stereotyped methods should be avoided. George Sweeting, president of Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute, presents an easily followed outline with pertinent review questions. Here is pastoral, practical guidance for the new Christian. A drawback is frequent reference to important evangelical names of the past without identifying them—names that are unfamiliar to many who are new in the church. “Successfully” in the title, it seems to this reviewer, would be better replaced by “Faithfully” or some other non-Madison Avenue term.

Arthur McPhee, radio speaker for “The Mennonite Hour,” puts flesh on the skeleton of Sweeting’s work, making Friendship Evangelism more essay than outline. Both Sweeting and McPhee are personal without overuse of the egocentric “I.” Thirteen chapters each, the books are of near equal length, simplicity, and applicability that make them an ideal duo for a church’s evangelism group.

Pastor/evangelist James H. Jauncey, is the author of One-on-One Evangelism. The repetitive use of the personal pronoun “I” and the multiple assertions that he is a “qualified clinical psychologist” are typical of the tone that pervades this book.

It is essentially a psychological primer to evangelism, and the overwhelming impression one gets is that evangelism is manipulation premised on theory (Maslow). Especially distressing is the use of guilt, even trivial guilt, as a crowbar to persuade people to Christ. It really seems that Dr. Jauncey’s approach is selling the evangelist rather than the Evangel; in either case the accent is on sell.

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United Methodism’s entry is George A. Hunter’s The Contagious Congregation, which carries a cautious foreword by Donald McGavran. Dr. Hunter, formerly professor of evangelism at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, has made extensive use of McGavran’s “Church Growth Model” and adapted it to mainline denominationalism (p. 19) and a heavily Maslowian hierarchical model (p. 41ff). Approximately half the book is a restating of the practical conclusions of Donald McGavran, Win Arn, and Peter Wagner, but without their biblical rationale.

Dr. Hunter’s definition of evangelism is that it “appeals to people to ‘become Christian Disciples’ ” (p. 23). He disagrees with what he defines as “Hear the Word” evangelism, which he labels a misunderstanding, and championed by J. I. Packer and John Strott [sic, p. 23]. No wonder McGavran’s foreword is guarded!

The Disciples of Christ contribute Herb Miller’s Evangelism’s Open Secret. This book contains 112 pages of one anecdote after another, but evangelism, from the pen of this area minister for the Disciples’ Southwest Region, is still an open question.

Real Evangelism, by Bailey E. Smith, pastor of the 11,000-member First Southern Baptist Church in Del City, Oklahoma, and leader in baptisms for four consecutive years, blisters and blusters in Southern style and aggressively goes after deeper lifers, charismatics, disciplers, and other sundry sorts. He consistently misspells J. I. Packer’s name (Packard) and prefers to call a church sanctuary an auditorium. A regional book.

A book of essays presented to Billy Graham on his sixtieth birthday, Evangelism: The Next Ten Years, edited by Sherwood Wirt, is an ideal gift for evangelistically-minded laypeople.

The Puzzler of the Year Award goes to Fred B. Craddock, professor of New Testament and preaching at the Graduate Seminary, Phillips University, whose book grew out of his 1978 Lyman Beecher Lectures at Yale. Overhearing the Gospel, supposedly intended to evangelize the already churched, is an extended doleful explication of Sören Kierkegaard. A spelling error, “abyssmal failure” (p. 31), may be an appropriate description of method and result.

Almost all these books on evangelism take note of reawakened social interest, and the Church Growth Movement as fostered by Fuller Seminary. All the books are troves of illustrations, stories, and anecdotes.

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