Dennis Hill revisits David F. Wells’ challenging book published in 1994 and, 13 years on, asks the author for his present views on Western evangelicalism.
God in the wasteland was the second of four books on evangelicalism by Dr Wells. Along with the first, No place for truth (1993), it created a stir in the evangelical world. His theme throughout was one of warning regarding the relationship between Christ, the Church and culture.
Evangelicals, he fears, have taken on the mindset of modernity. This is ominous because, ‘There is … no part of culture that is neutral or safe’ (p.28). To engage with the culture, while necessary in one sense, is dangerous in another.
According to Wells, modernity ‘is the public, cultural environment, the way of looking at life, that comes as part and parcel of the modern world’. And because this is a fallen world, ‘modernity is worldliness’ (p.29). The accommodation has gone so far that, ‘today, evangelicalism reverberates with worldliness’ (p.55). ‘Modernity is the issue because Christianity is not surviving it’.
Marketing the church
He sees the current position as potentially catastrophic. ‘I believe that the church has lost the transcendent truth and goodness of God, and I believe that if it fails to recover this truth and goodness, Christianity will buckle completely under the strains that are being exerted upon it by modernity’ (p.117).
Some of the problem areas are the ‘marketing’ of the church, the therapeutic church, and the user-friendly church. Evangelicals are characterised by a ‘spirituality that is light, bouncy, simple, fun, engaging and uplifting … serving up pleasantries and trying to avoid unpleasantness’ (p.224).
Such people think (quite wrongly) that the church is weak because ‘its routines are too old, its music too dull, its programs too few, its parking lots too small, its sermons too sermonic’ (p.225). But, these are not the real problems, insists the author.
‘The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is that God rests too inconsequentially upon the church. His truth is too distant, his grace is too ordinary, his judgement is too benign, his gospel is too easy, and his Christ is too common’ (p.30).
Even with all this, he ends on a hopeful note. If we can recover a discernment about what is truly worldly, and a determination against it and for a genuine counter-cultural spirituality, then there is a way back.
The book, which includes both sociological and theological analyses, is not always an easy read. But the message is compelling and the verdict, sadly, accurate. It deserves a place on the list of the most significant books of the last 40 years.
Tell us more about modernity
Modernity is the public cultural environment – the way of looking at life – that comes as part and parcel of the modern world. It is a world clustered around cities, driven by capitalism (and thus geared to production and consumption) – all laced together by superb communications.
The modernised West has become a magnet for immigrants from around the world. People of different religions, worldviews, lifestyles and cultures mingle on the streets of its major cities.
When worldviews become aware of one another, the perception is greatly diminished that any one of them is uniquely true. In this environment, relativism flourishes and materialism grows. In a world dominated by technology we begin to think naturalistically and pragmatically.
When Christianity becomes infected by this spirit, truth becomes irrelevant – religion is viewed as a therapy for solving human problems. This is our worldliness. Worldliness is everything in a society that makes sin look normal and biblical righteousness look strange. This is why it is impossible to love both God and the world at the same time (1 John 2:15-7).
Modernity is the big issue because Christianity is not surviving it. Philip Jenkins’ book The coming Christendom documents the fact that Christianity is now leaving the West but growing in Africa, Latin America and Asia. I visit Africa every year and tell them that the main thing they can learn from the West is how badly we have confronted modernity.
Is this true of Britain as well as America?
Evangelicals face the same fundamental issues throughout the West. However, there are differences between the USA and Britain. British evangelicals, I believe, have thought harder and more successfully about postmodernity than have the Americans.
But equally, the Christian faith has declined more markedly in Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand than in the United States.
I think American evangelical faith sees its world a little differently from British evangelicals, even while each face many common issues.
Is there a place for the megachurch?
In the US a ‘megachurch’ simply means a church of 2000 or more. In 2005, there were 1210 such churches and a surprising number are traditional – places where the Bible is preached usually in an expository way.
However, we can also use ‘megachurch’ to describe a church that got big through marketing, and this is a different matter altogether. Marketing sees the church as a ‘product’ and those who attend as ‘customers’. To market effectively, churches typically hide biblical truth quite deliberately and offer Christianity only in terms of its benefits. It is a methodology that anyone can use – including Catholics and liberal Protestants.
Originated by Bill Hybels at Willow Creek Community Church, Chicago, the movement has been exported to many other parts of the world. However, it has now crested and may be disintegrating.
I see it as a terrible disease which has brought calamity upon the evangelical world, 80% of whose pastors in the US have followed this approach to some degree. The result, according to Barna Research, is that 45% of Americans claim to be born again – but only 7% have any knowledge of basic biblical doctrine or what it means to be a disciple. There is now no correlation at all between the claim to be ‘born again’ and the way people function at an ethical level. This is a disaster.
How far are the seminaries affected?
I did work with the Social Research Center in Grand Rapids to study the views of representative seminary students across the United States. We found that these students tended to be amphibious in their thinking – they could adopt different worldviews in different situations. This is just another way of saying that they had learned the art of psychological survival!
What it also showed was that relativism can work in those who, at one level, are opposed to it. It is very difficult in today’s cultural environment to sustain a consistent belief in truth that is absolute and applicable to all people, in all places, at all times.
Had we surveyed the teaching faculty, I suspect we would have found a very similar picture. The bottom line is, of course, that if we do not believe in truth we have nothing to say.
Can evangelicalism survive?
The recovery in Western evangelicalism that followed World War II and had a world-wide impact, is now beginning to wind down – certainly in Europe. This movement has spawned two newer constituencies which are not really a part of it, and yet have come out of it.
First, there is the marketing movement, now in sharp decline, and second, the Emergent church, now on the ascendancy. However, unless the emergents give themselves to movement-building, I think they will remain a conversation on the theological left wing which produces a few books and then dissipates.
Where I do see hope is among a younger kind of Evangelical, not so much part of the older evangelical coalition, but theologically opposed to the emergents. They believe in authenticity; are tired of being marketed to; are dismayed by the insipid belief so typical of the evangelical world; are troubled by evangelical inconsistencies at an ethical level; are serious about practising their faith; and are doctrinally tough-minded and resistant to the liberalism of the emergents. Many of them are Reformed in their understanding. I think this is a very hopeful development.
Will these young people stay the course?
Will these young people be able to stay the course theologically and spiritually? Will they become a rejuvenating presence in the older evangelical networks and institutions? Will they be able to build their own institutions? I don’t know.
But if biblical Christianity is fading in the West, it is exploding in Africa, Latin America, China and other parts of Asia. God is not beholden to Western expertise and institutions!
For the first time ever, most Christians now live outside the West – but most of the resources remain in the West! This is going to take a lot of wisdom as we consider how best to proceed. But I am more encouraged today than I have been in many years about what is happening.