“God in the Wasteland” is the next book in David F. Wells’ series on the church. I reviewed the first book, “No Place for Truth” last week and that book described the condition of the church as it meets our present time – that is, the time of modernity. Wells begins this book recapping some of the arguments he made in No Place about the current church. He argues that the church: 1) modernity, urbanization, capitalism, and postmodernism has infiltrated our culture; 2) the culture has a higher degree of influencing the church today than in times past; 3) the church is seeking for things like truth from sources outside the Bible because of this, most definitely from within as our culture has prescribed. These few facts set up the argument that Evangelicalism has lost it’s way in the modern era.
Wells speaks much more in this book about what the influence of our culture means for the church. In the first book, he painted a broad landscape of the various problems with the culture. In this book, he makes equally sweeping statements on how this is dramatically affecting the church. One of his chapters is about how capitalism and consumerism have become the dominant themes of today’s churches. For example, he cites heavily from George Barna’s “Marking the Church: What They Never Taught You About Church Growth.” This book is all about how to transform your church into a thriving enterprise based on the latest business tricks that are successful in the corporate world. Because our culture is saturated with economic demands of a free market, the most logical step for the church is to pattern their practices off the same used in the business world. What Dr. Wells points out however, is that the church is not a business. He ties this in with the theme of No Place: the modern church is not decidedly focused on God and the Bible, but rather we have become a therapeutic society where church is a way to address the needs of the self. He talks about how Pastors are increasingly becoming less concerned about God’s truth and more concerned about filling the felt needs of every person in the congregation. Obviously, not everything in the Bible has a “feel good” message but the wisdom from these capitalist-driven Christians is to simply not talk about the “bad” stuff. Why would you when your goal is not to make more of God, but to bring more people to church? And therein lies one of the most fundamental problems with the Evangelical movement today: we have lost sight of the purpose of the church.
Dr. Wells moves to the “weightlessness of God,” which means that both “high culture” (elitist culture) and “low culture” have come to a fixed point of autonomy. Culture does not find truth within an objective source, but rather a subjective one that is within. The irony of the whole situation when it comes to the church is that people desire spirituality, but they do not want to define their spirituality in terms of doctrine and dogma. Rather, they turn to a physiological means of synthesizing both God and the “self-culture” into an artificial precipice that is devoid of anything resembling Christianity. We can see this in the wide acceptance of things like Eastern Spirituality and the Charismatic movement. Religion is now “designer,” meaning that one can be more pluralistic in an age of fading truth and objectivity. God is now someone whom we use instead of obey; God is someone who fulfills our needs and not someone whom we surrender everything to.
Dr. Wells argues that the church is sacrificing on two major points that are furthering her demise: the loss of God’s proper place in the church, and the greatest abuse of the doctrines of providence and Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross (substitutionary atonement). He takes two chapters to look at these issues. In the first chapter, he looks at the character of God and how modernity has influenced the church to lose sight of the importance of things like the holiness of God. In the second chapter, he speaks at length about the providence of God (that would be too much to discuss here). Lastly, before he closes out the book with his closing thoughts, he looks at two separate surveys of Evangelicals who were attending seminary in the 90’s. He looks at this data and tries to interpret it to demonstrate his argument (again, too much to discuss here; I would encourage you to pick up the book if you want details on both of these subjects).
He ends with a scathing review of the church. Read an excerpt here of some of his last thoughts:
“Recent proposals for church reform have rarely amounted to anything more than diversions. They tend, in fact, to lead the church away from what it needs most to confront. They suggest that its weakness lies in the fact that its routines are too old, its music is too dull, its programs too few, its parking lots too small, its sermons too sermonic. They suggest that the problems are all administrative or organizational, matters of style or comfort. That is precisely what one would expect to surface in an age that is deeply pragmatic and fixated on image rather than on substance. Real reform will have to look beneath the surface to see the poverty of spirit in the evangelical world, its lack of seriousness, its tendency to engage in superficial rather than penetrating analyses, its childish inability to withstand the diversions of flash, fun, and glamor. God now rests too inconsequentially upon the church. His Word, if it is preached at all, does not summon enough. His Christ, if he is seen at all, is impoverished, thin, pale, and scarcely capable of inspiring awe, and his riches are entirely searchable. If God is at the center of the worship, one has to wonder why there is so much surrounding the center that is superfluous to true worship – indeed, counterproductive to it. It is God that the church needs most – God in his grace and truth, God in his awesome and holy presence, not a folder full of hot ideas for reviving the church’s flagging programs.”
This is indeed a wake up call for Evangelicals. I’m surprised this book isn’t circulated more. If you are interested in ministry, I believe this series of books is so incredibly essential to your growing library.