Book(s) Review: This Little Church . . . Went to Market & Stayed Home, by Gary Gilley
This Little Church Went to Market by Gary Gilley
Evangelical Press, 2005, 142 pages, $13.99
This Little Church Stayed Home by Gary Gilley
Evangelical Press, 2006, 190 pages, $14.99
Gary Gilley is the pastor of an independent Bible church in Springfield, Illinois, but writes in the tradition of the European Reformation. I don’t just mean the Reformation’s theological tradition; I mean the Reformation’s polemical tradition. While modern writers can be polite to a fault, men like Martin Luther and William Tyndale were less civil. Luther was not afraid to call the pope an antichrist or a devil. Gilley’s language is not that acerbic, but his criticisms are severe, and he’s not afraid to identify erring teachers by name. His two books—This Little Church Went to Market and This Little Church Stayed Home—provide a response to the growing influence of worldly philosophies and methodologies in the evangelical church.
Both Went to Market and Stayed Home are slim books, but they cover a great deal of ground. Gilley takes on entertainment, market-driven approaches to church life, the influence of psychology in the church, preaching, singing, and Rick Warren. And that’s just the first book.
In the second, he takes on postmodernism, mysticism, the Emerging Church, George Barna, and Rick Warren again. Suffice it to say, he does not address any one subject exhaustively. Indeed, much of what Gilley says is not original to him—he draws heavily on thinkers like Neil Postman, David Wells, John MacArthur, and D. A. Carson. Gilley’s cultural analysis is occasionally overbroad, but he is right when he pleads for churches to pay more attention to Scripture than to telephone surveys and cultural fads.
The bulk of Went to Market is devoted to a critique of the seeker-driven or “new-paradigm” church. Gilley argues that “The new-paradigm church is offering a purely commercialized, yuppie brand of Christianity found nowhere in the New Testament” (Market, 72). This is strong language. But Gilley makes a convincing argument that many avowedly Bible-believing churches operate according to a therapeutic mindset that owes more to Freud than the Apostle Paul. The novel, seeker-sensitive evangelistic method of the seeker-driven church has led to a novel, seeker-sensitive gospel. Gilley writes,
The new gospel is liberation from low self-esteem, a freedom from emptiness and loneliness, a means of fulfillment and excitement, a way to receive our heart’s desires, a means of meeting our needs. (Market, 74)
These benefits may, in varying degrees, result from the gospel, but none of them are the gospel. To treat them as the gospel is to undermine the gospel and simply pander to the desires of unregenerate sinners. We should all examine ourselves to see whether we are like the Corinthians, putting up with a different gospel “readily enough” (2 Cor. 11:4).
This seeker-sensitive gospel differs from the true gospel in its weak and worldly view of sin. As Gilley writes, “It is clear, when one studies Scripture rather than marketing surveys that the seeker-sensitive gospel message is flawed at its roots—it has a faulty anthropology” (Market, 69). Indeed, an evangelistic strategy devoted to meeting the felt needs of seekers is doomed from the start. The Scriptures teach that “no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11). The target audience of seeker-sensitive churches simply doesn’t exist. As much as carnal men desire purpose and self-esteem, they do not desire to know God or serve him. Indeed, Paul calls those who do not know God “haters of God” (Rom. 1:30). Evangelism is the task of offering to unbelievers precisely what they, in their flesh, least want.
Gilley singles out numerous authors and church leaders for criticism, including Richard Foster, Bill Hybels, and George Barna. However, I suspect that readers of Gilley’s books will be most uncomfortable with his criticism of Rick Warren. Gilley writes, “Warren . . . is not totally off base, and I would not want to portray him as such. Without question he is as evangelical as many evangelicals” (Home, 91). Yet from Gilley’s standpoint, this is damning Warren with faint praise. The larger part of Gilley’s two books are spent showing how “many evangelicals” have drifted into theological confusion. Gilley argues,
Warren is doing a great disservice to the church of God. As he minimizes the content of the gospel, trivializes Scripture, belittles doctrine and replaces them with psychology, mysticism and worldly wisdom, we are reminded of Paul’s warning in Colossians 2:8, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.” (Market, 111)
This may be overstating the case. Unlike some of the other teachers that Gilley discusses, Warren is firmly in the evangelical camp. And Gilley could have been more charitable to Warren.
Yet many of his criticisms stick. Gilley devotes an entire chapter in Stayed Home to evaluating The Purpose-Driven Life [see the 9Marks review here]. He acknowledges that Warren says many good things, but he highlights how Warren misuses Scripture again and again, whether by taking verses out of context or by using dubious translations to get to a desired conclusion (Home, 88-100). This troubles Gilley, and it should trouble us.
Not all of the teachers Gilley criticizes are as orthodox as Warren. For instance, his portrait of the emerging church in Stayed Home raises serious questions about the emerging movement’s commitment to the historic Christian faith. Many “emerging” churches, of course, do no more than add incense to otherwise conservative doctrine and practice. However, some of the more prominent thinkers in the movement—or “conversation”—seem to have embraced philosophies that are simply antichristian. The most damning paragraphs in Gilley’s books are his quotes of emerging church thinkers. For instance: Rob Bell is presented as arguing that its time for Christians to reconsider what it means to be a Christian, which Bell then clarifies by saying, “By this I do not mean cosmetic, superficial changes like better lights and music, sharper graphics, and new methods with easy-to-follow steps. I mean theology: the beliefs about God, Jesus, the Bible, salvation, the future. We must keep reforming the way the Christian faith is defined, lived and explained” (quoted in Home, 152-3). Or take Brian McLaren, cryptically stating that “Universalism is not as bankrupt of biblical support as some suggest” (quoted in Home, 157). Like many statements coming out of the emerging church camp, these are simultaneously vague and ominous. However, the trajectory seems clear. Gilley is right that “the emerging church is the new liberalism” (Home, 106).
Gilley’s second book—This Little Church Stayed Home—was originally designed to be a more positive follow-up to This Little Church Went to Market. In the preface, he writes, “I want to discuss what a church should be – what it should hold dear and emphasize, what its distinctive should be.” Although much of the second book critiques false teaching, he does include some positive teaching on biblical ecclesiology.
Particularly noteworthy is his plea for the renewal of church discipline (Chapter 7). He notes that “church discipline is antithetical to the seeker-sensitive movement since a goal of church discipline is purity, which is not an attractive feature to most unbelievers and even many Christians” (Home, 62). Gilley rightly recognizes that purity is a scriptural imperative, an imperative that many churches have ignored in the name of evangelism. However, no church can have a corporate witness without purity, and no church can maintain purity without discipline.
Most readers will probably want to quibble with some of the details of Gilley’s cultural analysis. Similarly, some readers will likely feel that some of his criticisms—in particular, those of Warren—were less charitable than they could have been.
Yet Gilley does get the big picture right. Many evangelicals appear to be chasing hollow and deceptive philosophies, practically begging to be taken captive. Some of the teachers that Gilley discusses have clearly jettisoned the idea of biblical authority altogether. Gratefully, most evangelicals do continue to believe in biblical inerrancy and authority. Yet what they don’t believe in is the sufficiency of Scripture. Gilley writes, “the vast majority of evangelicals and fundamentalists believe the Scriptures are either inadequate or incomplete in communicating what the Christian needs to know when navigating the important issues of life” (Market, 88). That’s why believing in inerrancy is not enough, Gilley argues. We must believe that the Bible is powerful and sufficient, as well as true.
In the end, this emphasis on the Bible as the norm for life and doctrine is the most helpful thing in these two books. Gilley constantly tests the claims of those in the church growth and emerging church movements against those of Scripture. Churches would be healthier if more pastors and church members did the same.
Flynn Cratty, formerly a legislative assistant on Capitol Hill, is working on a master of divinity degree at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.