In the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church (Review)

November 2, 2010

Book cover for "In the Land of Believers" by Gina Welch.Title: In the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey into the Heart of the Evangelical Church

Author: Gina Welch

Publication Year: 2010

Pages: 352 (audio length: 14 hours 13 minutes)

Genre: Non-Fiction, Memoir

Source: Purchased audiobook from Audible

From the cover:

An undercover exploration of the world of evangelicals, offering an extraordinary behind-the-scenes look at the faithful

Ever since evangelical Christians rose to national prominence, mainstream America has tracked their every move with a nervous eye. But in spite of this vigilance, our understanding hasn’t gone beyond the caricatures. Who are evangelicals, really? What are they like in private, and what do they want? Is it possible that beneath the differences in culture and language, church and party, we might share with them some common purpose?

To find out, Gina Welch, a young secular Jew from Berkeley, joined Jerry Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church. Over the course of nearly two years, Welch immersed herself in the life and language of the devout: she learned to interpret the world like an evangelical, weathered the death of Falwell, and embarked on a mission trip to Alaska intended to save one hundred souls. Alive to the meaning behind the music and the mind behind the slogans, Welch recognized the allure of evangelicalism, even for the godless, realizing that the congregation met needs and answered questions she didn’t know she had.

What emerges is a riveting account of a skeptic’s transformation from uninformed cynicism to compassionate understanding, and a rare view of how evangelicals see themselves. Revealing their generosity and hopefulness, as well as their prejudice and exceptionalism, In the Land of Believers is a call for comprehending, rather than dismissing, the impassioned believers who have become so central a force in American life.

I originally picked up this audiobook because it sounded interesting – after all, who in contemporary North America is not at least aware of the growing power and volume of right-wing evangelical Christianity?

Once it got past the initial logistics – who the author is, why she decided to go “undercover” at Jerry Falwell’s church, and what her preconceptions were – In the Land of Believers got really interesting. Welch really gets into the details of everyday life in Thomas Road Baptist Church, starting with her attendance at a few support/course-style evening meetings, and later at EPIC – a singles ministry. She starts going to services, gets “saved”, then later gets baptized, all the while struggling with the choices thatshe’s making.

What I really enjoyed about this book was that instead of just sticking with her preconceptions about evangelical Christians, Welch really got into the positives that she saw as well. In the same frankness as she discussed Falwell’s homophobic sermons, she also shows her readers the simple kindnesses that her “fellow churchgoers” show her and each other. She even goes on a mission trip with some of them to Alaska, which is a whole other kettle of fish in terms of the positives and negatives she experiences within the evangelical community.

If you’re looking for a closer look into the evangelical Christian movement in the United States, this would definitely be a great place to start. It’s not one of those scholarly, anthropological discussions; rather, In the Land of Believers is one woman’s informal look into the lives of people attending one specific (high-profile) church. It’s an interesting point of view on an important issue in today’s world.

Rating:

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