David Wells on Substance over Style in the 21st Century Church

David Wells answers a series of questions from Eerdmans, the publisher of his most recent book, Above All Earthly Powers. (HT: Justin Taylor). His answer to the following question is especially insightful and important: "What do you envision a church that's being faithful to the gospel to look like in the twenty-first century?"

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.

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1 comment:

Matthew Celestine said...

I tend to find David Wells rather boring.

It sounds like he has made some very good points in his new book.