Earlier this week I tweeted (yeah, I Twitter; @jamiedgreening) that I was reading the book A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church by Warren Cole Smith. Almost immediately a pastor friend of mine asked me to write a review of it when I was finished.
Smith’s premise can best be summarized from a brief sentence near the end of book. He writes:
In fact, it is unfortunate that perhaps the most apt metaphor for the megachurch’s relationship to the body of Christ is that of the cancerous tumor; as it grows, it kills the body. (p. 216).
This one sentence encapsulates the gist of Smith’s complaint. He has come to believe that megachurches and the people who lead them are doing great harm to the overall church in the United States. I thought it would be impossible to find someone who was more cynical of the church-growth movement than I am, but I was wrong. The deeper I got into the book I decided it should have been titled Why I Hate Megachurches. Smith is a reporter, not a pastor or theologian and he goes at his work with the kind of fervor that an investigative journalist might go after a story about faulty car seats for infants or tainted milk in school cafeterias. One gets the feeling that a certain glee at the “Aha, I got you,” came over his face as he put the book together.
I have to admit I like his style. He does not hold back names or direct accusations. He goes after all the big named people: Joel Osteen, Bill Hybels, and Rick Warren. In fact, he accuses Rick Warren of downright lying and Billy Graham of heresy in salvation theology. Smith even goes after dead people, devoting a large amount of print to attacks on Finney. The best parts of his book are when he is outlying the theological weakness of most of Protestantism right now and how quickly we buy into faddish things.
The book is not for the squeamish. Smith very capability surveys broad scopes of history, theology, and business. In fact, the “Christian-industrial complex” is a favorite topic of his. Perhaps his best chapter covers the Christian music industry and how it has taken something that is free, worship, and added a price tag to it. I liked that chapter.
The thing about Warren Smith is that he is interesting. Whether or not you agree with his premises or his complaints his writing is engaging. Sometimes I agreed with him, and sometimes I wanted to immediately send him an email in refutation. I particularly felt this way over his continued insistence that a Calvinist approach is the only real sustainable theological way of doing church. I am a non-Calvinist yet I still agree with much of what he says. Not all, but much. However, he kept me engaged and that really is all I ask of writer. It is so boring to just agree with everything.
The book was written in 2008, which means it is a little dated. However, not much has changed in the Evangelical world since he wrote. However, much of what he laments are already being addressed by myriad people. For example, much of his sentiment is captured in Eugene Peterson’s recent memoir The Pastor. Many of us have begun to get the feeling and sense that the way we’ve been doing church for the past 50 years has failed. The system is broken. We do not have more Christians than we used to have and the a majority of those following Christ today are not as theologically, biblically and morally sound as believers were in the past. Smith’s tone and sensibility resonate with me. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to look critically at the state of Evangelicalism right now.