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David Wells and the Making of a Modern Prophet

07/16/20

Dustin Messer

If you’ve spent any amount of time thinking about the ways in which Christians should and shouldn’t engage culture, you have likely come across the writings of David Wells. His books, ranging from God in the Wasteland, published in 1994, to his more recent God in the Whirlwind, have together been a bellwether for evangelicals trying to take their faith and their public witness seriously.

“What is to be gained,” asked Wells in The Courage to be Protestant, “if we are so intent in reaching out to the unchurched that we then unchurch the reached?” As he laments the lack of saltiness in the American church, he also spells out how this “unchurching” process happens in his book Losing Our Virtue:

“Alongside the success of much Church marketing, and in the midst of much of the psychologized faith in the evangelical world today, a profound secularization of faith has taken place, and this despite the continued use of good biblical words like sin, grace, Christ, and atonement. This secularization is appealing because it buys the appearance of success, but it also forfeits the nature of biblical faith. The seeds of a full-blown liberalism have now been sown, and in the next generation they will surely come to maturity.” 


If you’ve spent any amount of time thinking about the ways in which Christians should and shouldn’t engage culture, you have likely come across the writings of David Wells. His books, ranging from God in the Wasteland, published in 1994, to his more recent God in the Whirlwind, have together been a bellwether for evangelicals trying to take their faith and their public witness seriously.


While Wells’ views on theology and culture are perhaps ubiquitous to some, I’m betting his story is less well known. Yet, it strikes me that his unique perspective on the American Church is birthed out of his biography.

Wells was born in what’s now called Zimbabwe in a decidedly non-Christian home. In 1957, John Stott, the great theologian, gave a series of evangelistic talks at Cape Town University in South Africa where Wells was studying architecture. Out of curiosity, Wells attended the first session. Not impressed, he walked out half-way through the sermon.

Two weeks later, a professor he respected shared the gospel with him and he became a Christian. That summer, he went back home to Zimbabwe. Infuriated by his newly found faith, his parents let him know how disappointed they were in him.

As it turned out, Billy Graham was hosting a crusade that summer just down the road. Each night that he went, he returned to his parents’ house to find the doors locked. His parents made it clear: he could have faith or he could have his family, but he couldn’t have both. He packed his bags never to see his father again. He only saw his mother once or twice more, but he was never able to reconcile with her.

With $50 to his name, he moved to England, depressed, scared, and lonely. More pressingly, he was homeless. His first day in London he made a voyage to All Souls Church to see the man he’d scoffed at a short time before, John Stott. Wells told Stott how he’d heard him preach in South Africa, how he’d walked out of the talk, how he’d subsequently become a believer, and how he’d lost everything as a result.

After listening quietly, Stott asked, “Where are you staying?” “I don’t know,” Wells answered. Stott’s response shocked him: “You do now, you’re living with me.” And so, for the following 6 years, Wells lived with Stott as he studied theology at the University of London.


In 1994 you didn't have Christian discernment bloggers and podcast hosts taking their cues from shock-jock culture, David but Wells saw it coming. Indeed, Wells saw a lot of the ugliness in today's evangelicalism coming. How was he able to recognize these trends so early? After reflecting on his biography, it seems to me that it was his background that gave Wells the perfect lens through which to critique the American church when he moved here in 1966. 


His genius, it strikes me, is that he recognized almost before anyone that while the worldliness of yesterday’s church was marked by its concessions to high-culture, the worldliness of today’s and tomorrow’s Church is marked by its concessions to pop-culture.

In 1994 you didn’t have Christian discernment bloggers and podcast hosts taking their cues from shock-jock culture, but David Wells saw it coming. Indeed, Wells saw a lot of the ugliness in today’s evangelicalism coming. How was he able to recognize these trends so early? After reflecting on his biography, it seems to me that it was his background that gave Wells the perfect lens through which to critique the American church when he moved here in 1966.

When I think of Wells’ story, the philosopher Abraham Heschel’s words come to mind: “Prophets must have been shattered by some cataclysmic experience in order to be able to shatter others.” In his books, articles, and lectures, David Wells was able to shatter the worldliness of the Evangelical church precisely because he himself had first been shattered.

As one rejected because of his faith in Africa, he was able to recognize our anemic view of conversion. As one welcomed because of his faith in England, he was able to recognize our anemic view of discipleship. Having personally grappled with Luke 14: 25-33 (count the costs, etc.), Wells was able to ask us to do the same.

May we have ears to hear.

 

Dustin Messer is Worldview Director at Christian Academy in Frisco, TX and Curate at All Saints Church in Downtown Dallas. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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