Friday, July 11, 2008


I was blown away by the opening sentence in Chapter 7 of The Courage to Be Protestant. David Wells begins, "What someone thinks about the church tells us exactly what that person is thinking about Christianity." Whoa. Is that true?

Wells is talking about the methods and programs and styles and philosophies of church ministry. But as I read that first statement, I was reminded of the many people who have become disillusioned with the church altogether. Many people have at some point been suffocated by a legalistic church, or felt betrayed by scandal in leadership, or been angered by the constant infighting. Many people have grown busy and tired and just decide to stay home on Sundays. Is it really true that their low view of the church is reflective of a low view of Christianity? Yes, to a large degree, I believe it is. And Wells explains why.

What happens in the churches "tells us how people are thinking about God, how they are relating themselves to the truth of his Word, how they see the world, how they think about human corruption - or if they think about it all all - how they think about the gospel, how they think about the poor and dispossessed, their own generation, affluence, and many other things besides" (p. 209). All of these, says Wells, are evident by how we think about and treat the church.

I think nearly everyone would agree that the church is in bad shape today. It seems like there is more scandal, more compromise, more corruption, and more division, while at the same time, there are fewer attending, fewer being baptized, fewer giving, and fewer serving. Our "public approval ratings" are dismal.
From a strictly human perspective, it seems the church is sinking faster than the Titanic. But what is the remedy to all of this? Wells says there are two ways to "rethink" the church. We can either rethink its nature, or rethink its performance.

Many people wrongly devote themselves to rethinking the performance aspect of church ministry. In a desire to help the church become more successful, marketers pour their energy into new business models, new technologies, new marketing techniques, and new polling data that will lend insight into doing church. Emergents, meanwhile, dabble more in the mystical, flirt more with the immoral, and celebrate more what is uncertain.

What we really need to be doing, Wells says, is rethinking the nature of the church. We need to reverse the "middling standard" of letting theology shrink to its lowest common denominator (p. 210). We need to distance ourselves from the worldly elements of the culture (p. 224). We need to restore the centrality of God's Word in our doctrine and preaching (p. 226), reinstate the proper administration of the sacraments (p. 233), and return to the biblical practice of church discipline (p. 237). These are the distinctives of the Protestant Reformation, and they are still worth defending today.

The wonderful reality of church growth is that humans are not responsible for it. God is. "The church is his creation and only he can grow it. He gives it its qualitative growth inwardly, in terms of character and obedience, and its quantitative growth outwardly in terms of numerical expansion" (p. 243). This is a truly liberating thought! It means that pastors and denominational leaders are not responsible for reinventing the church in order to make it more successful.

What God calls us to do is to think more biblically about the nature of the church, and to let that understanding shape our strategies and methods. The church should be humble. It should be loving. It should be emotional. It should be relevant. But all of this should be governed by a robust biblical theology about the true nature of the church. And this will take courage -- the courage to be Protestant.

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