Toothpaste, Courage, and the Protestant Church

toothbrushInsight from David Wells', The Courage to Be Protestant... In February, USA Today carried a story about a study that found most Americans are more loyal to their toothpaste brand than their denomination.

The article quotes one cultural critic:

At first blush the findings may indicate that "the United States worships at the church of consumption," but thinks there's more to the numbers than that.... "When you actually think about it for more than 10 seconds, none of this is all that surprising and I don't think it's actually bad."  He said the statistics demonstrate that some of the age-old rivalries between Protestant denominations have simply dissolved.  "Those distinctions, which seemed so important as the various Protestant churches were identifying and evolving ... are really not that important to the average churchgoer in the United States."

I had three thoughts as I read this article.

First, I have no idea what brand toothpaste I use.

Second, I have switched denominations several times in my life.  So, in some ways, the statistics of the study are not that surprising.  There are, of course, good reasons and bad reasons to change denominations.  I have changed for both good and, lamentably, bad.  The study apparently did not explore the reasons, good or bad, why people change.

Third, I was somewhat troubled by the comments of the cultural commentator above.  It seems to me that he contradicts himself, first lamenting that it may look like we worship at the "church of consumption," but then celebrating the fact that we are free to choose where to worship because theological distinctions are not that important anymore.  If theological distinctions are indeed no longer important in choosing a church, then all that is really left is one's preference for style.  In other words we truly are worshiping at the "church of consumption."

Here I am reminded of a few things David Wells says in his book, The Courage to Be Protestant:

The evangelical church, or at least a good slice of it, is nervous, twitchy, and touchy about consumer desire, ready to change in a nanosecond at the slightest hint that tastes and interests have changed.  Why?  Because consumer appetite reigns.  And consumer appetites are very much alive in what used to be called the pew.  Those who attend churches are now like any other customers you might meet in the mall.  Displease them in any way and they will take their business elsewhere (p. 36).

These are challenging words, but I can't help but think that Wells is right.  One of the reasons we are more loyal to our toothpaste brand than to our denomination is because we care too little about theological distinctions (i.e. truth), and too much about our consumerist desires.  As I've been preaching through the gospel of Luke I can't help but think of the dangerous desires of Jesus' disciples.  They desired a kingdom of power and glory (Luke 9:33, 54; 11:46; 22:24, 49-50), but Jesus gave them the cross (Luke 9:22, 44), something they did not want nor understand at the time - but something they needed!

Well, none of this ought to surprise us.  The Bible tells us quite plainly that this is simply how things are going to be.  Paul speaks of the word of the cross as "folly" to those who are perishing (1 Cor. 1:18) and he also says, "For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth (2 Tim. 4:3-4).  In other words, the time is coming (and indeed is here) when "the church of consumption" will reign.

In this ecclesiastic climate, David Wells' book is appropriately titled.  It does indeed takes courage to be a Protestant, not because of persecution from outside the church, but from within.  In his opening paragraph Wells makes this exact point, "The truths of historic Protestantism are sometimes no more welcome in evangelicalism than they are in the outside culture" (p. 1).

When Wells speaks of these rejected truths of historic Protestantism, he has in mind three foundational biblical truths (pp. 244-246):  First, the truth that God is sovereign and that God alone grows the church;  Second, the truth of human inability... we can pray, preach, counsel, and witness, "but God alone gives the growth"; and Third, the truth that God has ordained the means by which his church grows, namely, the preaching of the Word.  In summary, Wells has argued that the church has lost the doctrines which allow God to be God over his church, the result being a powerful wave of pragmatism and the displacement of God as central in church life.  This can be seen in the fact that people care more about their toothpaste brand than about the distinct theological understandings of God from one denomination to the next.

According to Wells the good news in the midst of all of this bad news is that the current ecclesiastic void left by pragmatic, consumeristic churches can be filled by courageous pastors, leaders, and congregations who are willing to let God be God over the church.  Wells concludes his book with the following:

I believe today there is a deep yearning for churches in which God is God....  Churches, in fact, need to be communities that love the truth God has revealed and, in so doing, become serious and joyous about the God of that truth and intent upon serving him in his world.  The church is not a business, not an experiment, not a product to be sold.  It is an outpost of the kingdom, a sign of things to come in Christ's sovereign rule, which is now hidden but will be made open and public.  Then all the world will bow before him in recognition of who he is.

And this, I dare say, is the only answer we have for the church's existence and service.  It is the anticipation of that great day.  It is pointing beyond itself to that great day.  It lives in this world, but it lives because it has seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.  This is the knowledge that changes everything.  Business savvy, organizational wizardry, cultural relevance are simply no substitute for this.  Unless the Lord rebuilds the evangelical church today, as we humble ourselves before him and hear afresh his Word, it will not be rebuilt (pp. 247-248).