Why We (Still) Need Reform
This article is Part 1 of a 5-part series. Read Part 2 here.
Today, we are living in the midst of one of the great transformations in Christian faith. What is changing is not, of course, its truth. What is changing is where this faith is living. For much of the last thousand years, it has found a home in Europe. Today, this is no longer the case. Europe has walked away from Christian faith. The many empty churches and cathedrals that are now there are the visible signs of a faith that has been abandoned.
The gospel’s main home now is in the global South. Next Sunday, for example, in Zambia 80% will go to some kind of church whereas in continental Europe, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, only about 5% will. But while this decline has been under way in these Western countries, astonishing growth has been taking place, not only in the global South, but also in Asia. China, despite its adverse political climate, has more believers than does the U.S.A.
This expansion of Christian faith into other parts of the world is extraordinarily good news. At the same time, it does raise a profound question. What has happened to us here in the West? Why is it that biblical faith finds it so hard to live faithfully and effectively in this context? The key to faithful Christian living and effective service is being anchored in the truth God has given us. It lies in being captured by the vision of the God of that truth. That being so, why is it that the Church has so often lost its theological character?
This was the question that the Pew Charitable Trusts asked three of us to explore when they gave us a remarkably generous grant in 1989. My role was to look at the cultural dimension. I tried to explore this in my 1993 book, No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? This was followed by three more volumes along similar lines: God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (1994), Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (1998), and Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World (2004). I then offered a summary of these four volumes in The Courage to be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers and Emergents in the Postmodern World (2008).
However, as I continued to ponder these issues I came to the conclusion that some of my critics had been correct. They had argued that while I had offered a critique of Church and culture, I had not provided enough of an answer to the problems I had identified. I therefore decide that I needed to spell this out more explicitly. And so I have. This new book, which will be out in January, is entitled, God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-love of God Reorients Our World. What I now want to do is to pick up on some of its themes against the backdrop of my earlier volumes.
Why is the evangelical Church in the West so enfeebled today? In the U.S.—where the Church is in much better shape than it is in Europe—many evangelicals are, in fact, dropping out of the organized Church. They are finding their sustenance, if they find it at all, not in a local church but online. How, one wonders, can they then follow Paul’s admonition to address “one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph. 5:19) if the “other” in the virtual “congregation” is invisible and unknown? And as for those who do continue in local churches, many find, unfortunately, that the preaching is not serious, or it is not particularly biblical, and the worship may well be light and engaging but it is not God-focused and therefore nourishing. These things all contribute to the Church’s weakening.
However, what we need to see here is what connects these many different symptoms. It is that a fatal conjunction has taken place. What is at the heart of Christian faith is what is now most diminished by the culture.
David F. Wells (PhD, Manchester University) is distinguished senior research professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, MA and is author of the prominent series of books including No Place for Truth, God in the Wasteland, Losing our Virtue, Above All Earthly Pow'rs, and The Courage to be Protestant. Dr. Wells's forthcoming book is entitled God in the Whirlwind.