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Conclusion to Wells

posted by xscot mcknight

This is the last of my posts on David Wells’ new book, Above All Earthly Pow’rs. I thought his criticism a bit relentless, and I found his conclusion a bit surprising, but I thought his emphasis on immigration as significant to the face of the Church in the USA important.
Wells finishes off his long chapter on the megachurches by excoriating their shallow theology. This sums it all up: “Seeker methodology rests upon the Pelagian view that human beings are not inherently sinful, despite credal affirmations to the contrary, that in their disposition to God and his Word postmoderns are neutral [this is part of his critique of the "seeker" mentality], that they can be seduced into making the purchase of faith even as they can into making any other kind of purchase” (299). Sinners, in other words, are customers who have to be served. “Bring on the popcorn but be careful about the Cross” (306).
Evangelicalism, especially in the seeker and megachurches according to Wells, have two weaknesses: they have adopted marketing strategies and they are slowly stripping themselves of the truth.
Then Wells makes a concluding proposal of what the evangelical church needs, and it is this conclusion that shocked me. After stating that the evangelical church has to proclaim the truth of the gospel in the teeth of the culture, he says this:

“That proclamation must arise within a context of authenticity. It is only as the evangelical Church begins to put its own house in order, its members begin to disentangle themselves from all those cultural habits which militate against a belief in truth, and begin to embody that truth in the way that the Church actually lives, that postmodern skepticism might begin to overcome. Postmoderns want to see as well as hear, to find authenticity in relationship as the precursor to hearing what is said. … What postmoderns want to see, and are entitled to see, is believing and being, talking and doing, all joined together in a seamless whole. This is the great challenge of the moment for the evangelical Church. Can it rise to this occasion?”

What surprises about this conclusion is that it is exactly what others — but from different theological platforms — have concluded. I guess I could also say it is encouraging — both emerging and seeker churches also contend that the most powerful apologetic is the combination of gospel truth and praxis.



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Martin Downes

posted August 31, 2006 at 4:40 am


The trouble is that emergents and conservatives disagree on what counts as authentic gospel truth and praxis. Same conclusion in form but radically different in substance.



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Scot McKnight

posted August 31, 2006 at 5:41 am


Martin,
How do their “authenticities” differ?



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James Petticrew

posted August 31, 2006 at 5:51 am


I am reminded by Well’s statement at how prophetic and insightful Lesslie Newbiggin was well over a decade ago when he conclude in THE GOSPEL IN A PLURALISTIC SOCIETY, that the only hermenutic which will make the Gospel plausible and credible to contemporary culture will a community of faith which actually lives it.
To be fair to the seeker sensitive movement I think the best of them were aspiring to what Wells commends and were attempting, “to begin to disentangle themselves from all those cultural habits which militate against a belief in truth, and begin to embody that truth in the way that the Church actually live.” I think it is a cheap shot to say that people like Hybels are only about style.



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Martin Downes

posted August 31, 2006 at 6:36 am


Scot,
Before I answer that question let me ask one myself. Does the first sentence in the Wells’ quote strike you as, well, a little bit pelagian?
Inerrancy, atonement, sexuality. Just three areas where emergents and conservatives differ. To quote from Mark Driscoll:
“What ties each of these types of Emerging Christians (the revisionists) together is a missiological conversation about what a faithful church should believe and do to reach Western culture. However, beyond that there is little unity because there is widespread disagreement on what counts as faithful doctrine and practice”.
It is really the last sentence that is relevant to my first post.



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John

posted August 31, 2006 at 7:09 am


A fine point, Martin. I remember being in a Disciple Bible study class. The instructor brought out the purported John Wesley quote: “in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.” I asked him how we were to tell which was which? What were the essentials? He looked at me as if I had three heads.



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Bob Robinson

posted August 31, 2006 at 7:21 am


Scot,
I guess I’m a little confused as to Wells’ categories. He uses the term “postmodern,” but he critiques the megachurch movement, a product modernity.
Are his observations that megachurches have accommodated to a consumeristic model of church growth a function of postmodernity or of modernity run amuck?



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kent

posted August 31, 2006 at 7:24 am


It is all fine and good toss rocks from the safety of the side of the road, but in the midst of the journey it is little different. Having pastored churches in different locales for good while now, my observation is that the overwhelming preoccupation for many of the people who attend is how to get from morning to evening and how to get from evening to morning. Do they love Jesus? Yes. Do they want to be authentic in their faith? Yes. Do they know how? Not always, but they try. They are loving to their neighbor, honest in their dealing with others, and they do read their Bibles and pray. They want to be better. They are not looking for popcorn but lifelines to hold on to. When you get to know them and see what they try to do, you understand what the author of Hebrews meant when he said “the world was not worthy of them.”



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Scot McKnight

posted August 31, 2006 at 7:25 am


Bob,
Well, that’s a new question for me to ponder about Wells.
He doesn’t like the radical distinction between modernity and postmodernity, seeing the later as late modernity. (This is semantic to me.)
He finds postmodernity (which is the term he prefers) to be the philosophical element. His two major characteristics of it are denial of truth and moral relativism. He’s more nuanced, as you can imagine, but it is the two he returns to often.
The seeker churches are driven by marketing and they have stripped the content of its counter-cultural truth. That’s a fair summary — at least as best as I can do from my office and I don’t have the book in front of me.
I think he ties the marketing stuff to modernity, but he doesn’t care where it comes from — at least that’s not something he spends much time discussing.



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RJS

posted August 31, 2006 at 7:39 am


Bob and Scot,
Perhaps the problem is our propensity for labels such as modernity and postmodernity. It is semantics. But labels create tidy boxes for messy realities. Generalities create tidy boxes for messy realities In my opinion both terms – modernity and postmodernity – should be tossed in the wastebasket and avoided in conversation. They are both gross oversimplifications that people come to believe.



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Kyle

posted August 31, 2006 at 8:20 am


Of all the posts on this thread over the last few days, I am most taken by the truth in Kent’s post above and by RJS’ observation.
Too many of our disagreements are driven by the labels we attempt to assign. It does not matter whether we call it modernity or postmodernity. It is almost malicious to label an assembly of believers a “megachurch” — a (post-)modern accomodation to (negative) marketing if ever there were one.
The truth, as Kent observed, is that the people in these congregations are no different from those in any other. They have the same questions, struggles, hopes, and needs as those in a perfectly heterogeneous downtown emerging fellowship. They have the same fears, loves, and challenges as those in any homogeneous country church where half the folks have the same last name.
God’s grace alone is sufficient. Our human efforts to form and reform our churches are as nothing compared to his Spirit working in his Church. His will be done, whether we conform to it or not.
It is way past time to stop belittling the forms and get back to being united in the one Body.
May God have mercy on us all!



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Martin Downes

posted August 31, 2006 at 8:49 am


Wells has a valid point about the methodology driving the mega-church phenomenon and whether it takes us away from the NT teaching on the church.



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Josh

posted August 31, 2006 at 8:49 am


Thanks for the posts on Wells’ book Scot. You’ve helped me think thru the issues a bit more clearly – which is good b/c I’m leading a discussion on this book with our staff soon! I do concur with you regarding Bob’s question #6… altho I don’t think Wells used the exact term, there is no doubt that he couches postmodernism as “hypermodernism” (I know others have used this term/idea) – so he sees a strong continuity rather than a sharp discontinuity between what’s happening today and what preceded it. That’s where his primary focus rested during his entire commentary on culture.
Like you I was left scratching my head at his conclusion that the church should somehow incarnate the gospel message which is exactly what emerging churches say. However, his language of “disentangle themselves from all those cultural habits which militate against a belief in truth” was helpful to a point – surely there are cultural norms that are counter to our theological convictions (epistemology might be one of them as Wells consistently reminded us) – yet I never got a good handle on exactly how he defined of culture.
Do you remember a definition of culture? Did he ever put forth any kind of model of engagement (ala Niebuhr)? Along these lines I also feel like I did with his comments on epistemology… if he was critical of what he perceives as pomo epistemology/culture (or cultural engagement) what does he propose as an alternative?



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Hunter Beaumont

posted August 31, 2006 at 8:53 am


I’m still interested in hearing the answer to Scot’s original question in #2. HOW do they differ? How would a conservative church’s praxis of “authenticity” look different than an emergent? What would an emergent church do differently? Would they love each other differently? Give us some specifics. I know Driscoll said it (and I can’t exactly what he meant given I don’t know the context of the quote), but the observation lacks enough specificity to really be helpful.



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Martin Downes

posted August 31, 2006 at 9:04 am


Driscoll listed eight areas (Scripture, Christ, sin, salvation, the cross, hell and authority). The quote was from his article in the Criswell Theological Review. On the praxis front he expressed concerns over the sinfulness of homosexual behaviour, whether men should lead their homes and who should pastor churches. In fairness many of these issues are widely debated and are not intrinsic to the emergent conversation.



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T

posted August 31, 2006 at 9:07 am


Scot, Thanks for the review and for this quote. The quote reminds me of a point you made a few days ago about the (non)difference between ‘mega’ and regular-sized churches, except in this case regarding supposed ‘seeker’ churches and those who wouldn’t expressly categorize themselves that way. As this quote makes clear, nearly all evangelical churches, including the ones that would reject a ‘seeker’ label, are organized around an in-house verbal presentation, usually the Sunday service. (Often those who strongly reject the ‘seeker’ label do so on the basis of their in-house presentation being much more ‘truth’ oriented, usually in some fundamentalist way, but not on the basis of being organized around something other than this in-house presentation.)
I think this particular method/venue for ‘presenting’ the gospel is at the core of most evangelicals identity as such. It is the corporate embodiment of the gospel of recent evangelicalism–’give assent to these facts, pray this prayer, and you’re way more than 50% done’ and the top priority that that exact interchange has in evangelicalism. Maybe having such a Sunday presentation/invitation in a church building is, in fact, what being an evangelical means, in terms of practice, for the vast majority of evangelicals. Or maybe its just the primary symbol of what it means (to use Wright’s thinking).
If prioritizing ‘the presentation’ is what it means to be an evangelical, then this quote seems to be asking evangelicals to stop being evangelicals. But if the presentation is just the chief symbol of evangelicalism, then it seems Wells (by logical extention) is asking the evangelical church to get a new symbol, a new priority, namely, actual embodiment, and I would agree. I just think that the priority of the weekly presentation is so deeply embedded (much like the Temple priority for 1st century jews) that most can’t imagine a higher priority within evangelicalism–only outside of it.
The people that immediately came to mind who are actually doing the kind of thing Wells calls for are Church of the Saviour in DC and Mother Teresa’s ministry, and there are plenty of others. But each of them has embodiment as a higher value (as borne out by their corporate practice) than the weekly presentation, however it is done, and, as a result, would rarely be considered ‘evangelical’ even though they are telling the good news loud and clear.



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Kevin

posted August 31, 2006 at 9:14 am


RJS, et. al,
Permit me to say a good word on behalf of “labels”. Labels can be, and often are, helpful. The term “Christian” is a label. Although “Christianity” is messy–there is great diversity among Christians–still, the label helps to pick out what is an admittedly diverse group by calling attention to what they all have in common. The labels “modern” and “postmodern” can be helpful, too. Granted, the label or term “postmodern” is generally never defined, or defined very well, by those who use it. But, there are, in the words of Wittgenstein “family resemblances” among impulses, observations, commitments that sets “postmodern” thought over against “modern” thought. The problem is not always with labels per se but with language users not making clear what they mean by them.
Kevin



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RJS

posted August 31, 2006 at 9:22 am


Kevin,
Part of the problem is with language users not making clear what they mean by them. And the definitions can be “misty” changing with context and user and generation.
But more importantly labels almost always simplify, even caricature, reality. I think that the real problem with labels is that people then allow their thinking to be constrained and defined by the labels.
That said, clearly labels are an important part of communication and help with expressing “family resemblances”.



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T

posted August 31, 2006 at 9:33 am


After re-reading my comment, let me sum up (so as to make it easier to disagree with me ;)–
- Although some accept the ‘seeker church’ label and other evangelical churches don’t, they all tend to have a verbal in-house presentation as their highest corporate priority.
- This practice is either at the core of what it means to be an evangelical or it is merely the primary symbol of that identity (or it is something else very important).
- This practice is based on, built around a certain ‘gospel’ and a certain idea of what that gospel asks for by way of response.
- Wells seems to be arguing for a new priority for evangelicals–namely, swapping authentic embodiment for verbal presentation.
- I agree and would point to Church of the Saviour, Mother Teresa (and even some of Dallas Willard’s recommendations) as good examples of how to have embodiment as a higher priority than verbal presentation in a real and corporate way. I’m sure there are others.
That’s a little clearer.



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Kevin

posted August 31, 2006 at 9:34 am


RJS:
You said
“I think that the real problem with labels is that people then allow their thinking to be constrained and defined by the labels.”
Granted, labels can (or better: often do) lead to this unfortunate situation. I guess I think that’s not a problem with the labels themselves, but with label-users–us! But your point is well taken.
I just don’t want us going down the road of “really there are no differences in the world that labels recognize or pick out. All differences are semantic differences. Labels create the differences, blah, blah, blah.” That seems to me not only naive, but false.
Peace,
Kevin



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Bob Robinson

posted August 31, 2006 at 12:21 pm


RJS and Kevin,
And let’s remember who used the label in the first place. The subtitle of David Wells’ book is “Christ in a Postmodern World.” Now, if he is going to label the world as “postmodern,” he had better define “postmodern” so that we are all tracking along with him. That was my point in #6 above. I think I have a very clear understanding of what I think “postmodern” is, but it seems that Wells is not talking about the same thing as I perceive it to be.
Thanks!



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Greg McR

posted August 31, 2006 at 12:32 pm


Thanks for posting on this book Scot. Martin, I don’t think the emphasis on authenticity in and of itself is Pelagian although the whole idea of humans as seekers of truth is. I don’t know how Paul could have said it any more plainly;
as it is written,
“THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE;
THERE IS NONE WHO UNDERSTANDS,
THERE IS NONE WHO SEEKS FOR GOD;
ALL HAVE TURNED ASIDE, TOGETHER THEY HAVE BECOME USELESS;
THERE IS NONE WHO DOES GOOD,
THERE IS NOT EVEN ONE.”
“THEIR THROAT IS AN OPEN GRAVE,
WITH THEIR TONGUES THEY KEEP DECEIVING,”
“THE POISON OF ASPS IS UNDER THEIR LIPS”;
“WHOSE MOUTH IS FULL OF CURSING AND BITTERNESS”;
“THEIR FEET ARE SWIFT TO SHED BLOOD,
DESTRUCTION AND MISERY ARE IN THEIR PATHS,
AND THE PATH OF PEACE THEY HAVE NOT KNOWN.”
“THERE IS NO FEAR OF GOD BEFORE THEIR EYES.”
It seems that many Emergent and many seeker mega Churches have the same un-biblical idea that if we are just cool enough then people will like us and if they like us then they will like God too. It ends up that the Gospel never gets proclaimed clearly and therefore it never gets rejected either. The difference I see between Wells’ and the Emergent approach to authenticity is that one points to a “God who is there, and who is not silent” and the other is almost completely self-referential. I guess it depends on what your definition of is, is?



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Matt

posted August 31, 2006 at 12:34 pm


I agree in principle about problems with marketing and compromising truth. But to be honest, I see it everywhere (not just mega-churches). I think the biggest problem with mega-churches is the fact that everything has to be boiled down to the most common denominator so no one gets left behind (supposedly)…thus discipling aspects don’t get large group emphasis because you always have a huge number among you that it doesn’t pertain to (supposedly). But elementary basics pertain to everyone…or so the argument goes. Thus, observers like Wells and others discern that truth (in it’s whole) is compromised. What is really happening is half of the gospel is being left out because larger churches will tend to stay general (how to get saved and improve your life with God’s principles) because they don’t want to leave anyone behind and their willing to sacrifice serious-minded people because there are always newbies and those infatuated with the elementary stuff to replace them. There are exceptions to this rule (it seems Willow and even Mars Hill to some degree and doubtless many others).



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Kevin

posted August 31, 2006 at 12:43 pm


Greg,
With all due respect, what you say strikes me as so-much caricature and stereotype. I don’t think it’s very helpful in advancing a conversation. Can you quote from any of the works of the leaders of so-call “Emergent” or “megachurch” where they say or imply such things as you suggest they’re committed to? Scot goes to a mega-church. I wonder if he sees Hybels and others there propounding the idea that if we’re just “cool enough then people will like us and if they like us then they will like God too.” Doubt it very seriously!
Kevin



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Jim Martin

posted August 31, 2006 at 12:49 pm


Scot,
The last quote by Wells is very interesting and encouraging. Not exactly what I expected, but I appreciate it, nevertheless. I would be interested to hear him elaborate on this further–the necessity of theology and praxis together. From his perspective, I wonder what that might look like?



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Martin Downes

posted August 31, 2006 at 1:02 pm


Greg McR,
I wasn’t suggesting that the emphasis on authenticity was pelagian, but the emphasis that if we do “x” then “y” will follow, “postmodern skepticism might begin to be overcome”. On reflection my original comment was pretty pointless.
I almost crossed the Atlantic to study at Gordon-Conwell. The visit I made to the seminary is a treasured memory and it was a great privilege to meet and chat with David Wells. I hold him in very high regard.



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Greg McR

posted August 31, 2006 at 1:47 pm


Martin I thought that is what you meant, I find myself in strong agreement with much that you post and also share your respect for David Wells.
Kevin I wasn’t trying to be offensive . I see a deliberate downplaying of doctrine embraced by both Emergents and seeker Churches. One starts by doing polls (Willow Creek, Saddleback) to see what the customer wants, craves, (feels that it) needs, and desires as opposed to going to the bible and seeing what God says we need. The assumption seems to be that taking away the cultural, intellectual and doctrinal obstacles to faith is all that stands between God and men. Emergents and the big box seeker Churches are alike in this respect. The bible identifies our problem as a moral one. While I don’t think I could quote anyone saying those things exactly, I don’t think they are wildly exaggerated either.



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kent

posted August 31, 2006 at 2:25 pm


I have never known a church that doesn’t market. We all have signs that at least tell people what time the services are. We spend a lot of money on those signs. We encourage our members to tell their firends about the church and invite them to come. Jesus was imapcted by word of mouth marketing since there were so many people who came to him they didn’t fit into the house and he didn’t get any rest. How did they know about Jesus? I think complaining about marketing is disingenuous. We all market. You may not like the methods used, but every church tries to communicate with the community around them what they have to offer. Every church tries to let the neighborhood around them know they exist.
Marketing does not water down the gospel, it does not play to the desires of the crowd. Those are decisions of the leadership of the church.
One last little thing – how do you know a church from a distance? How do you know what Willow Creek does or does not do unless you are a part of the church? How do you know what Solomon’s Porch teaches or doesn’t teach unless you are a part of the church? Generalizations of any church are going to incomplete. Judgments based on generalizations are bound to be wrong.
Hmmm



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Martin Downes

posted August 31, 2006 at 2:35 pm


Kent,
Have you read the book that Scot is reviewing?



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kent

posted August 31, 2006 at 3:30 pm


Actually no, and to be honest I was responding more to the other responders than the article itself.



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Martin Downes

posted August 31, 2006 at 3:46 pm


That’s fair enough. I agree with your long paragraph in 27 above. I think David Wells has a different target, part of which is the mentality that would put the best aspects of the product on sale. Doctrine becomes peripheral (because it is culturally unacceptable) and the experience of church resembles going to the mall. You can see how the emerging church approach to the sacredness of church experience is a reaction to the country club-ifying of Christian experience. Does that make sense?



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BeckyR

posted August 31, 2006 at 6:13 pm


In the 60′s and 70′s, it was how to make church inviting enough that hippies will come. I was one of those hippies. This is a reworking of the same conversation as back then. And both sides trumpeting. To underline, it comes down to the individual, my person enountering your person and hopefully in a Christ way that your person encounters Christ in me. Finding ways to communicate to the culture, and communication is more than the exchange of ideas, is good. So that I’m not talking right past your head. So that I know the things that concern you, so that I know how to interpret your word usages. I’m not sure that finding out how to make church welcoming to outsiders is a bad thing. That is the same thing that was talked about in the 60′s and 70′s of how to make church something that hippies would be comfortable coming to. Some succeeded, by focus on the person, not the hair or worn jeans or beads or sandals. In good pomo fashion, I’m not sure it’s an either/or matter. But, walk the fine line, made a fine line in that it doesn’t end up as compromise watering down of the gospel.



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