Evangelicals entered the mainstream of American life during the late 1970s and "almost immediately" lost their ability to define themselves theologically. Modernity's separation of public and private has limited evangelicals' beliefs "to matters of private experience, increasingly shorn of their distinctive worldview, and increasingly withdrawn from what was external and public." Ultimately, "being evangelical has come to mean simply that one has had a certain kind of religious experience that gives color to the private aspects of daily life but in which few identifiable theological elements can be discerned or, as it turns out, are necessary." The theological wheel has turned again in the same circle: "Evangelicals, no less than the Liberals before them whom they have always berated, have now abandoned doctrine in favor of 'life.'"
Wells find this surprising, given the fact that evangelicals have always defined themselves as a "doctrinal people." On reflection, the real surprise is that it has not happened sooner, for his criticisms cut more deeply than Wells seems to realize. Evangelicalism is, after all, often defined as a branch of Christianity that gives particular emphasis to certain aspects of Christian experience: spiritual rebirth, conversion, and a personal relationship to Christ. Spend a little time among evangelicals, and you are sure to learn about people who believe all the right doctrine but are not "real"-which is to say, born-again- Christians. Long before neo-evangelicalism, long before the rise of the Christian right, long before the "Toronto blessing," revivalism gave American Protestantism its distinctive experiential shape, as wave after wave of anti-intellectual New School, New Light, and New Whatever movements were accepted and, paradoxically, accorded theological legitimation.
Wells notes that evangelicals are drawing "increasingly injurious" conclusions from the appropriate emphasis on a believer's personal relationship with Christ: "They have proceeded to seek assurance of faith not in terms of the objective truthfulness of the biblical teaching but in terms of the efficacy of its subjective experience." Not only in the use of testimonies but in hymnody as well, evangelicalism is "changing direction to reflect this experience-centered focus." To anyone who has sung nineteenth-century revival hymns with their sentimental lyrics set to syrupy melodies, however, it is scarcely credible that these represent recent developments.
Ring true? False? What do you make of his conclusions?