Why I Hate Why We Love the Church

Some books make you angry. Others make you drowsy. Why We Love the Church manages to do both, often simultaneously. I should’ve predicted both reactions from the subtitle, which prompted me to read the book: “In Praise of Institution and Organized Religion.” It’s baffling that anyone would defend institutional Christianity and organized religion, and I certainly wasn’t convinced.

Co-authors Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck , pastor and “member” of University Reformed Church in Michigan, respectively, denounce “revolutionaries” in favor of the “traditional and old.” Their sad attempt at humorous, conversational writing adds to the irritation of their thesis that we should persist in the old, humdrum way of doing church. They dismiss the statistics showing Americans’ mass exodus from church, only to argue a page later such an exodus isn’t a bad sign since Jesus said “small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” And they assert there’s no New Testament command or emphasis (?!) to grow. Their argument from silence for the former is no more convincing than their misinterpretation of the New Testament for the latter. If growth isn’t emphasized or at least valued, why does Luke repeatedly record the number of believers being added in Acts? Why does Paul praise the churches (the Thessalonians, for example) for spreading the gospel? But in keeping with their Reformed theology they eliminate any concern for growth with the statement, “no one can change the number of God’s elect.”

The authors are committed to the gospel and its love ethic, but they don’t see this as revolutionary because they’re enamored with tradition. Consequently they cannot conceive of church without a worship service, or a meeting without professional teaching. Ultimately this leads to a consumerist approach to church. Kluck writes:

“I’m also glad that my church is ‘organized.’ I’m glad I know where to put my toddler on Sunday morning. I’m glad somebody was institutional enough to think through topics for a Sunday school class or two. I’m glad my pastor, rather than just freewheeling it, cares enough to study Scripture and a bookshelf full of dead authors to give me real spiritual food each Sunday….I’m glad somebody (not me) makes sure the kids are learning something biblical in their classes. It is, at its most basic, organized religion. And I love it.”

I’m glad he’s grateful for the ways his church is serving him, but this selfish argument for “organized religion” doesn’t pull any biblical weight. The fact that I like eating ice cream doesn’t make it good for me. Bruxy Cavey addresses this point well in The End of Religion when he writes, “The problem with organized religion isn’t that it’s organized. It’s that it’s religion.” Amen!

It seems the authors wrote this book to refute emergents who are leaving church in favor of frequenting Starbucks and soup kitchens. This (other) selfish view of church needs to be challenged, and the authors are right that believers need to commit to serving in a local body instead of just whining and leaving. But Why We Love the Church has no alternative to help disenchanted people love the church. The authors refer in passing to an array of nauseating fundamentalist practices, from to infant baptism to the “turn and greet your neighbor” ritual, to clone-like greeters and open mic nights, to the have-six-children-and-home-school consensus of the congregation. They don’t directly endorse all of this, but it’s the snapshot they provide of their beloved church. But how many cynical millenials from broken homes could love such a church?

What the authors fail to see is an option somewhere between leaving church to just golf, and the traditional, unbiblical, outdated worship service of institutional Christianity. Just as Viola, in Pagan Christianity, could only come up with completely unstructured meetings devoid of any teaching, these authors land on the extreme opposite end of the “doing church” continuum. Is there no alternative?

There is, and I think we’ve found it. How about a large meeting with high-quality teaching, discussion, prayer, and fellowship? Then add smaller home groups, also with teaching, sharing, and prayer, plus opportunities for tighter community? And then smaller gender-specific Bible studies where discipleship and intimate relationships are built? But if the authors of the book saw the Xenos model they’d ask, “Where’s the music? Where’s the communion? Where’s the nursery?” They predict that home churches will be the next hot trend in Christianity (old news) but argue for a larger worship service where people can be entertained by clergy teaching and bored by bad singing. In fact, the authors can’t imagine how a church would work without a clergy-laity model.

This two-hundred page book has little real content. The type is double-spaced and the chapters alternate between “theological” pieces by the pastor and “personal” pieces by the sports writer. Ideas are supported by a proof-text or two, or the biblical support is cited but not explained. If it were, readers might see the importance of church as a local Body of Christ which doesn’t consist of worship services in a steepled building. Their support is much more historical than biblical, but history can’t tell us what the church is. They demean those who seek to model the early church by worshipping in houses, arguing that it was done only out of necessity. (But it worked!) And they see Constantine’s politicization of Christianity as helpful.

Speaking of history, the pastor actually defend the Crusades. Go ahead, let your mouth fall open. I, too, am still shocked he even goes there. His rationale is based on the idea of Christendom, or a Christian-political earthly kingdom. He says since Muslims took over Christian lands, the Christians had to go reclaim them for God. If Muslims stormed Washington, he reasons, wouldn’t we go defend our nation’s capitol? Wait, what? That analogy is not analogous at all. A national defense/political issue does not parallel a religious war where atrocities were committed in the name of Christ.

So that’s why I hate Why We Love the Church. I appreciate their argument against the uncommitted emergent church-leavers. But in the end they have nothing better or biblical to offer, and often end up sounding whiny, proud, and selfish themselves. I think they mean well, so I hope they come to their senses and join the revolution. Until then, check out Cavey’s End of Religion which is the polar opposite of Why We Love the Church, from its revolutionary subtitle “Encountering the Subversive Spirituality of Jesus” and message, to its quality writing and biblical content, to its humble tone.