Monday, February 27

David Wells interview

[update: I've made it bigger. Oops.]

I've previously blogged about David Wells and the appreciation I have for his thinking. Here's some excerpts from his interview with his publisher regarding his newest book.

4. Your strong critique of contemporary “seeker-sensitive” styles of worship will come as a surprise to evangelicals who see this kind of worship as necessary to bringing people into the church. What are the greatest dangers of uncritically accepting this kind of worship?

David Wells: You are certainly right that my critique will come as a surprise to many evangelicals because they have come to think that the seeker-sensitive approach is the only game in town. It is also the only thing they know. And certainly it is what has made many churches big and important. These evangelicals also reject the alternative which they think of as being backward, obsolete, traditional, aging, not with-it, failing to reach a new generation, and therefore doomed to inevitable decline and irrelevance. I think these are false alternatives. I offer no brief for failing traditional churches which deserve to fail, but I hold out no hope for all of these trendy players in the church who are going to end up empty-handed. The inescapable fact is that the culture is offering just about everything that one can find in these churches but without all the inconveniences of having to be religious.

This experiment in doing church is already a demonstrable failure. Barna, who is both its architect and its chronicler, has demonstrated its failure. Week-by-week, his polls show that born-againers, so many of whom inhabit churches that are in the sensitive-mode, are biblically illiterate, live no differently from the secular and, in fact, only 9% have anything like a worldview (by which he means the most minimal set of Christian beliefs which inform the way they see life). He predicts that in five years the evangelical movement will be gone. Not even I have gone so far out on that kind of limb! He also predicts that within a few years, 50% of the churches will have melted away. Instead (and Barna thinks this is really great!) people will be following the current cultural mode of being spiritual but not religious, meaning that they will divest themselves even further of doctrinal belief and corporate involvement in a local church. Talk about a recipe for suicide!

Here will be the graveyard of evangelical faith and we are being led, step by step, into it by our oh-so-sensitive, trendy, with-it pastors. Taking us there has made them famous as they have become C.E.O.'s of big church enterprises, but the price of their fame and fortune is the bankruptcy of the faith, not by their overt heterodoxy but by their practice.

The fact is that Christ is not up for sale. His message is not in the marketplace begging for takers. And those pastors who so prostitute themselves will find that the faith they no doubt hold dear has slipped from between their fingers. Here is a paradox that neither the earlier Protestant liberals nor many of our currently sensitive evangelical pastors appear to have grasped: Christian faith which makes absolute truth claims, and demands a commitment which matches this absoluteness, against all cultural odds, thrives; Christian faith which mutes its truth claims in order to fit in, and dilutes the commitment it asks for in order not to be off-putting, is doomed.

The issue here is not traditional versus contemporary. The issue is authentic versus inauthentic. It is historic Christian believing versus its remnants, its pale imitations, in the hands of these pragmatists.

5. Are there any benefits to it?

David Wells: Not too many that I can think of.

6. What do you envision a church that's being faithful to the gospel to look like in the twenty-first century?

David Wells: We make a great mistake in thinking that the only thing that counts in the life of a local church is its form. That is, what it looks like and sounds like. Do we have the latest technology? Is our screen big enough? Do we have a food court? Do we meet at times which don‘t get in the way of people enjoying their weekend? Have we eliminated all the things that offend them like pulpits, crosses, hymn books, and pews? Do we have music that is inspirational, contemporary, and makes us feel good? Are our singers professional enough? Is the parking lot larger than we need? Do people leave the church feeling happy like they do when they go back to their hotel rooms from Disneyland? These are all the parts of the gnat with which we are straining while there is a massive camel which we have already swallowed.
So, what is it? The camel is the fact that we have, unbeknownst to us, taken on board ideas that are inimical to biblical faith. What do I mean?

In the West, we are moving ever deeper into a pagan mindset and that mindset is producing our postmodern culture and its public forms. For a church to go along with this set of assumptions in order to get along, and to get along in order to be successful, all too often results in a hybrid which unwittingly embraces pagan elements (such as the way in which the current cultural disposition to be spiritual but not religious is usually being worked out). Is this really what we should be doing? Surely, in what we think and do, in the way we live and act, we should be expressing what the alternative is to our increasingly paganized culture. The issue is far less what we do (do we have drums and PowerPoint or organs and robes?) than in who we are.

In our church, we need to be articulating a worldview that has the triune God at the center, which has truth as its directive and sustenance, and which is fleshed out in a joyously countercultural life wherever a moral and intellectual over-againstness is called for. What this means is that in this church we will remain sinners and never become consumers, we will recover a moral view of life in place of the therapeutic view which our postmodern culture palms off on us, we will devote ourselves to what is enduringly right and will reject all forms of relativism, and we will be asking, not what the church can do for us, but what we can do for Christ in the church and in our broken world. It is all about substance, not style; all about who we are as people who are owned by Christ, not so much about what it looks and sounds like. It is about turning our backs on the superficial and trendy and turning our lives toward him who is eternal and enduring. The situation today is that if you really want to see what is superficial and trendy, go and find a successful evangelical church. If you want to see the most artful, pandering practitioners of the therapeutic (what Christina Hoff Summers had in mind in her book, ‘One Nation Under God: How the Helping Culture is Eroding Self-Reliance’) go and find an evangelical church, almost any one, and you will find it, all out in the front, all quite shameless, as if this is what the apostles had in mind when they thought about the meaning of Christian faith! These things should not be.

Evangelical churches should be the places where we find an alternative way to thinking about our world and living in it, one which in its profundity is a reflection of the God who is incomparable, not a threadbare mimicry of the culture. We should find an understanding of life that is on the same scale, morally and spiritually, as the life we encounter in the workplace and hear about in the evening news. Today, evangelical churches are more often like little pygmies who are living in a land of giants, always trying to get into their game, pretending that they, too, are giants. They are not. The time for pretense is over; reality is now at hand.

7. So, what kind of future do you see for evangelical faith here in America?

David Wells: The fact is that Christianity is fleeing the West; it is only the reason for this of which we may be unsure. That it is so is indisputable, as Philip Jenkins has shown in his book, ‘The Coming Christendom.’ Not only is Christian faith burgeoning outside the developed West, but inside the West it is declining — catastrophically in Europe, less so in America. Christian faith of a biblical kind has found it remarkably difficult to sustain itself in the midst of modernized, postmodern cultures, all of which have, in varying degrees, eviscerated it.

The gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. That is a given. But that does not mean that God the Holy Spirit will not seriously move outside the West to build Christ‘s church. Indeed, he is doing so! Unless American evangelicals change their ways and repent of their worldliness, that is exactly what I expect will happen more and more in the future, and we will find that numerically speaking, the evangelical churches will become a shadow of what they once were.

I go to Africa every year because I serve on the board of a Christian foundation which is building orphanages for children, most of whom have been left behind by AIDS. I am always struck by this paradox, if that is what it is. Here in America we have everything, but despite everything we have (Bibles, church buildings, theological education, colleges, money, know-how), the evangelical church is weak and stumbling. In Africa, amidst great poverty and disease, illiteracy and deprivation, rampant independency and woeful alliances with traditional African religions, there is still to be found courage, vibrancy, and a Christian testimony to the truth of God that is striking by Western standards. Let us not forget who saved the Church of England from their pathetic willingness to capitulate to the homosexual agenda. It was the African bishops, not those from America or Europe! God, you know, does not have his hands tied simply because we in America have all the money!


Kim said...

It was a great article till my eyes went blind.

Matthew Westerholm said...

Hope the size difference helps, Kim! The screen where you create posts looks quite different.

Also, if you hold [control] and scroll up, the text gets larger.