Monday, June 1, 2009

Why We Love the Church - A Review

The coauthors of the award winning book Why We're Not Emergent have teamed up again to bring us their latest book called Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion. Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck have returned with their unique combination of wit and discernment to give a counterbalance to the surge of books published today on quitting church, hating church, church is bad, hypocritical, dull, lifeless, insensitive, narrow minded, and on and on and on. (Disclaimer: The copy I read is a pre publication copy and so the page numbers I give may not match the published edition.)

Let's get one thing out in the open: DeYoung and Kluck are not blind idealists who are not acutely aware of the problems in the church. This is not a book that says the church is perfect. Far from it. They admit, "There are grave failings in the church, in the evangelical church as much as anywhere. We need better preaching, better theology, more love for Jesus, more involvement in our neighborhoods, more evangelism, more crosscultural missions, more generosity, more biblical literacy, less worldliness, less trend-tracing, and better discipleship. The church in this country will always have something--many things--to work on. But in the midst of our struggles, we need to guard against wild hyperbole. We need to exercise more caution before we announce the end of the church as we know it. We need a little more humility before we announce everything must change. And we need a little more wisdom before we reinvent the church for yet another time--let alone before we pitch her to the curb altogether." (219) And again, "[M]y aim is not to let the church go scot-free for all its mistakes. Instead, I hope to provide some much needed balance and nuance." (76)

The book divides itself into four main parts which are the four primary reasons why people are leaving/hating the church. 1) The missiologial. This addresses the complaint that the church is either not growing or that it is has lost sight of its mission. "The church has turned a blind eye to the community around her and is making no impact on the world." (16) 2) The personal. This addresses the complaint that the church is "filled with hypocritical, anti-women, anti-gay, judgmental, close-minded acolytes for the Republican Party." (16) This is also for those who have wounded or let down by the church. "The leaders are controlling: the people are phony, and the ministry is programmed to death." (17) 3) The historical. This addresses those who see the church as "an unbiblical, historical accident at best and a capitulation to paganism at worst." (17) Furthermore, "the church as we know it in the West has been corrupted beyond recognition. And on top of this, we have the record of atrocities committed by the church over the centuries." (17) And 4) The theological. This is the most serious and is addressed to those who say "Jesus came to put an end to religion, not to start a new one. He came to bring the kingdom, not our little empires we call churches. The more we can move away from all the manmade doctrines, rituals, and structures of church as we know it, the closer we will be to truly knowing God in all his unconditional, untamed, mysterious, relational love." (18)

DeYoung has an uncanny way of asking just the right question at just the right time. For example, he cites this conclusion by George Barna based on a research study: "local churches have virtually no influence in our culture. . .The local church appears among entities that have little or no influence on society." DeYoung in turn asks, "Come on, really? What research show that? Are we really to believe that if every church were removed from every street corner in America and every Christian in those churches disappeared that the impact on our culture would be negligible? Are a hundred million Christians really that pathetic?" (42-43) To be sure this isn't meant to be a show stopper. He has much more to say. But I think the question is justified in the light of such a sweeping statement based on "research."

One book in particular receives due criticism: Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna. This book received a harsh review from noted New Testament scholar Ben Witherington. DeYoung is not nearly as detailed in his critique but just as insightful. He picks two issues from Pagan Christianity that are common among the "anti-Church-as-we-know-it literature:" church buildings, and spirituality and spontaneity. Viola alleges that to meet in church buildings is unbiblical since the early church only met in individual homes. It's true the early church did meet in homes but this was, in part, because for a good part of the time their faith was illegal. Furthermore, some of the homes were quite large, complete with spacious courtyards, and could easily accommodate up to a hundred people. Finally, Christians did meet in synagogues, rented lecture halls and in caves. (120-21) The second point is spirituality and spontaneity. Here Viola objects to the traditional order of worship which is the same in all Protestant churches. The early church was much more spontaneous, free and vibrant. DeYoung faults Viola for being "grossly uncharitable" and asks "Are we really to believe that true biblical worship has been in hiatus for about two millennia and is just now getting a second chance with charismatic house meetings?" (122-23) Secondly, Viola's complaints are valid only if we ignore significant parts of the New Testament and a considerable amount of testimony from early church history. DeYoung is careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. The problem is finding the baby given the bath water is so dirty. "The arguments in Pagan Christianity are grossly overstated. On several occasions as I read Viola's claims I thought, You would be fine if you stopped right now and made the point that these things (pulpits, stained glass, robes, etc.) don't have to be in the church, but then you go and try to prove that they can't." (117) Summary, does Viola have some points? Perhaps, but it is ruined by the excesses of his own distorted logic and rhetoric.

The book admirably tackles three other issues which have been distorted in popular literature: the church's early belief in a flat earth, it's support of slave trade and the crusades. The first one is flat out false and the latter two need serious qualifications. As for slave trade, "this doesn't mean Christians have no complicity in the evils of slavery, but we should remember that slavery was eradicated chiefly due to Christians and Christian nations." (129) Also, church history is lined with those who have objected to slavery as far back as the seventh century with Saith Bathilde (wife of Clovis III) who was "famous for her campaign to stop slave trading and free all the slaves in the kingdom." (130) What about the crusades? Again, while not white washing the complicity and faults of the church due consideration must be given to the initial attacks made by militant Muslims. This reminded me of the excellent discussion by Dinesh D'Souza in What's So Great About Christianity? He has a chapter called "Rethinking the Inquisition: The Exaggerated Crimes of Religion." D'Souza forcefully pushes back on the issues of the crusades as well as the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials. I was surprised to learn that in the latter less than twenty five people died. That's a far cry from the impression I had growing up that hundreds if not thousands died. D'Souza, like DeYoung, does not intend to excuse these atrocities by focusing on the lower numbers but simply to keep it in perspective. D'Souza points out that if religion has to give an account for its bloodshed then atheism has it all the more. The number of people who have died under atheistic regimes and for political reasons far exceeds those in the name of religion.

Many will complain that DeYoung is, at the end of the day, insensitive to those who have genuinely struggled with the real problems of the church. When DeYoung asks "[b]ut I'd like church-leavers to consider that some their angst may be self-induced and some of their pain is more personal than profound. That is to say, it's possible that a good deal of the problem for church-leavers rests with the one leaving and not just the church" (84) will the response be self defense or honest examination? He concludes this chapter with "However, I am worried for church-leavers. I wonder if they will be happy in five years with their new form of church. I wonder if they will keep up the revolution without the life-support of structure and routine. I wonder if they will escape their own cynicism and anger. Most of all I worry that in leaving the church they are leaving the faith of the church and the Christ of two thousand years of church history. I feel sorry for their hurts and worry about their hearts." (92)

What about Kluck? Did all I read were the chapters by DeYoung? No, I read those by Kluck as well. His chapters were painfully honest and sometimes surprising given the topic of the book. This is best seen when he admits that when he was encouraged by the publisher to be "authentic" and "share some of your own struggles with the church" he says "I think I might be in my-church-is-hard-phase now." (60) Doesn't he know his co-author is his pastor? Of course he does. Kluck talks about the things that have been bothering him in the church--things that happen almost every Sunday like the ritual "meet and greet" or singing worship songs in different languages or being in a church when everyone is pregnant but you (and you've been trying for years). This is real and no doubt we can all relate. Personally, the "meet and greet" always bothers me too. What does Kluck do with all this? You'll have to read chapter 8 "The Year of Jubilee: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Church." Not to be missed is the next chapter where Kluck writes a letter to his son Tristan. He starts, "By the time you read this, it might be hip to like church again. Right now it isn't, but luckily for us, you're five, and for you church is just another place with good toys, friends, and lots of space to run." The chapter is intensely personal and is written from the depths of a father's heart who both loves his son and the church.

Buy this book. Read it. Give it to someone who has left the church or someone who is thinking about it. People read book reviews to know about the book not the reviewer (though I did sneak in a comment about "meet and greet"). But I will say this book helped me in innumerable ways and I'm grateful to Ted and Kevin for their labor of love and that of the church. The book is due out July 1st and sells for $14.95. See the two endorsements by Sam Storms and Mark Dever.

4 comments:

Paul said...

Alright, alright! I'll read it!!
;->

Paul said...

I wonder what implications DeYoung's and Kluck's book might show from this sobering (and somewhat seering) post by Scot McKnight?

The BBH Church Relations Team said...

Paul,

I think they would say, "Amen." Kevin ends one chapter with these words, "To be sure, let us lament with broken hearts the impurities yet to washed clean in Christ's bride. But let us never forget that the first errors to confess are not those belonging to our grandparents or the Crusaders, but our own." (138)

Paul said...

"the errors to confess are our own"
Powerful words and I pray for and long to see a church that embraces them. God have mercy on your people!!