“The form greatly modifies the content” by David F. Wells

“Here was a newly invented and freshly minted church world. It was a church world completely reconfigured around the sales pitch. Here was the gospel product as sleekly fashioned and as artfully sold as anything in the mall or on television. Here also were churches smelling of coffee and reverberating with edgy music. There were bright and exciting videos. And the professional singers rivaled any one might hear in Vegas. It was all put together in a package to please, entice, entertain, relax, grab, and enfold potential customers, and worm its way into their hearts.

There was, however, a generational focus. The generational target for the marketers has been the boomers. The music is contemporary. Usually, though, ‘contemporary’ is no later, musically speaking, than the 1970s or early 1980s, because that is where boomers find their comfort zone. Rap or heavy metal would not be cool.

What results, all too often, beneath all the smiling crowds, the packed auditoria, is a faith so cramped, limited, and minuscule as to be entirely unable to command our life, our energies, or, as a matter of fact, even much of our attention. One church advertises itself as a place where you will find ‘loud music’ and ‘short services.’ It has a ‘casual atmosphere’ but, it wants us to know, it also offers ‘serious faith.’ This is always the rub in this experiment: the form greatly modifies the content.

The loud music and short services are part of the form, but the form, put together to be pleasing, actually undercuts the seriousness of the faith. The form is in fact the product, and in this market the sale has to be done quickly and as painlessly as possible because the customers all have itchy feet. That greatly militates against the seriousness any church wants to have. And that is why a deep chasm has opened between the church marketers and historic Protestant orthodoxy. It is less that the truths of this orthodoxy are assailed than that they are seen to be irrelevant to the building of the church. They are, it is believed, an impediment to its success.

Not only are the bare bones of this approach now showing, but it has to reckon with the fact that people have also become bored with it. They want something new. It has been mainstreamed. The marketing approach has become conventional in the American evangelical world, so now, people are thinking, it is time to move on. Frankly, there is no judgment more to be feared that this: you are now passé. That weighs more heavily even than words coming from the great white throne at the end of time. Imagine that!”

–David F. Wells, The Courage to Be Protestant (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 13-4.

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