I’ll begin this by saying, this is by far one of the best books I have ever read. I have, for awhile now, contemplated the misdirection of the American Evangelical movement. We are a culture that is obsessed with self: Jesus came to die for MY sins; God wants ME to be happy, healthy, and wealthy now etc. But this is all a farce. The concept of the Gospel does not point to man or self, but to God. Not only this, but we have become the most technological civilization there has ever been at any point. The world is connected by the push of a button; we have hundreds if not thousands of ‘friends’ on Facebook; one can know within minutes the latest news stories on the opposite coast and on the other side of the world. But instead of becoming more connected, we have privatized our lives so that community is becoming non-existent. One no longer knows those in his local community which normally would encourage accountability, but this is quickly disappearing. This is a foundation we have built for ourselves: one that rests on emotionalism, felt-needs, a lack of doctrine and other factors that have invaded our churches. And this my friends, is why the American Evangelical church is dying.
Wells contributes this slow death to three movements: the marketers, the emergents, and the postmodernists. He begins the book with “the Lay of the Evangelical Land,” and in the first sentence shocks the reader with this:
He then breaks down these three movements but has a consistent theme throughout his book: the lack of a doctrinal foundation. He says,
“What happened, though, was that this doctrinal vision began to contract. The goal that diversity in secondary matters would be welcomed quite soon passed over into an attitude that evangelicalism could in fact be reduced simply to its core principles of Scripture and Christ. In hindsight, it is now rather clear that the toleration of diversity slowly became an indifference toward much of the fabric of belief that makes up Christian faith… The erosion in biblical ways of thinking at first passed almost unnoticed. Nevertheless, after a while it was hard to miss the fact that this was happening. No doubt there were many specific causes. Campus organizations were undoubtedly reducing Christian faith to its most minimal form. And as serious biblical preaching in the churches diminished, ignorance of biblical truth became commonplace. But the largest factor in this internal change, I think, was that evangelicalism began to be infested by the culture in which it was living. And then Christianity became increasingly reduced simply to private, internal, therapeutic experience. Its doctrinal form atrophied and then crumbled.”
He begins with the marketers: these are the “seeker-senitive’s”, those who place the idea of what people think before the Gospel message. For example, there was a church not long ago that sent out surveys to the local to community to find out what kind of music they liked and then, based on the outcome of the surveys, spliced the most popular music into their church service to appease people. He argues this mentality of turning the church into a business comes from our economic world where numbers (such as attendance and money) are placed in front of doctrine. When we begin to let the culture influence the church, the church will crumble, as Wells puts it here:
“The truth is that without a biblical understanding of why God instituted it, the church easily becomes a liability in a market where it competes only with the greatest of difficulty against religious fare available in the convenience of one’s living room and in a culture bent on distraction and entertainment… The constant cultural bombardment of individualism, in the absence of a robust theology, meant that faith that had rightly been understood as personal now easily became faith that was individualistic, self-focused, and consumer oriented. That was the change to which the church marketers attuned themselves. Instead of seeing this as a weakness to be resisted, they used it as an opportunity to be exploited. Increasingly, evangelical faith was released from any connections with the past, from every consideration except the self, and was imbued with no other objective than entrepreneurial success. As the evangelical experience was thus cut loose, it became increasingly cultural, increasingly empty, and increasingly superficial.”
Some churches have gone as far as leaving out key doctrines of the Gospel, such as the doctrine of sin, to cater to the “felt-needs” of the congregation. But the real irony is that Christians will flock to churches that have a strong doctrinal and preaching foundation:
“What were these people looking for in a church? If we believe all the church-marketing hype, we would have to conclude that potential customers wanted, above all else, not to hear issues of truth and belief. These should be avoided like the plague. These are matters, the prevailing wisdom says, that should be hidden from seekers because they are so dreadfully off-putting. Not so! In fact, go percent of those in Rainer’s studies said the preaching was important to them, and not just any preaching. Almost the same percentage, 88 percent, said that what they came to hear was doctrine. The beliefs of the church were important to 91 percent. They wanted to know what the church believed. They wanted to have this laid out for them – with conviction. This was their preeminent concern. The next issue of importance, the friendliness of people, was far down the list – only 49 percent cited it. Is this such a revolutionary discovery? Should we really be so amazed that people would like to know what Christians think and whether, in this age of jaded, faded, transient beliefs, there actually is something that can be believed for all time?”
Wells next attacks the Emergents, those who believe that the social gospel runs supreme, or who believe in existentialism. In both cases, the priority of doctrine is neglected and human thought or reason is the ultimate end to the churches many problems.
Wells ends his book with a word of criticism he seems to get a lot: that it is great to diagnose what is wrong with the church, but how do we fix it? The point he makes is that if we believe that God is sovereign, it is in his will that we are to remain faithful to preaching and teaching the word of God and that he alone is able to make a change in the direction of the church.
I believe that my calling in this life is to enter into the ministry and begin to accept this great challenge: to remain faithful in the things God has given us and to pray that someday He will effect change. Whether I see the fruits of this labor is a non-issue as God is the one who has ultimate authority. This book was an eye-opening look on today’s church in our self-absorbed culture and I recommend it to anyone who is involved in the church.