|AVID WELLS, IN his new book Above All Earthly Pow'rs (Eerdman's), bemoans contemporary evangelicalism:|
"This is probably the first time that Christian people anywhere in the West have thought that ecclesiastical architecture is, in principle, offensive, that religious symbols, such as crosses, should be banned from churches, that pulpits should be abandoned, that hymns should be abolished, that pews should be sent to the garbage dump, and that pianos and organs should be removed. All of this has been happening on the forefront of this movement. This is probably the first time, too, that churchgoers have wanted their buildings to be mistaken for corporate headquarters or country clubs."
Mr. Wells seems upset. And, considering the trendiness of some of our churches, perhaps he should be.
Richard John Neuhas, commenting on Wells in the journal First Things, cites The Kingdom of God in America (1937) by H. Richard Niebuhr and his statement on the gospel of Protestant liberalism at the time: "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross."
Now, charitably, Neuhas admits that "At the same time, it must be said that the evangelicalism criticized by David Wells is hardly the whole of all the worlds of evangelicalism in this country." Neuhas is right, but the two statements cited in his journal address two different things.
Wells seems upset with form -- architecture, symbols (although I agree the cross needs to be made explicit), pulpits, old songs, pews, instruments. These are not unimportant things, of course, but quite a different matter than Niebuhr's talk of God, sin, kingdom, judgment and Christ.
Truth is, the nation is covered with congregations that have all the indicators of an older evangelicalism that Wells might deem important in his featured paragraph but woefully lack the things that seem closest to the heart of God. If Christians are hunched in their cross-featuring, gloriously pulpited, organ-trumpeting, How Great Thou Art-singing, pew-sitting, steeple-boasting church with the golden-gilded Bible opened up to the Sermon on the Mount and our Lord's teaching against mammon -- without teaching orthodox truth, evangelizing the lost, reaching out with compassion to the poor, and discipling the next generation of youth for their great adventure in God -- well, then the indicators so rapturously desired are hay, wood, stubble.
Jesus needs a people who are as interested in architecture, pulpits, pews, stained glass, 200-year-old songs and pipe organs as He is. He might need a few less people who forget that discipleship is much more about taking up one's cross than self-righteously displaying it.
Matt Friedeman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a professor at Wesley Biblical Seminary. Respond to this column at his blog at "EvangelismToday.blogspot.com."
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