By Joe Ellis
We are at a critical time for American churches to restore the faith and function of the authentic New Testament church.
The Time Is Right
The church today needs to hear the challenge of Esther’s kinsman: “Who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14, King James Version). Times of stress, confusion, and upheaval are times of opportunity for the church to change the world by God’s agenda of redemption. Authentic Christianity was made for just such times as these and only it can rebuild the necessary base to salvage the world around it.
More than a half-century ago, historian Will Durant described America as wandering off into the wasteland; it was becoming a time “like that which hungered for the birth of Christ.” He was right. This is a pregnant juncture in history, a moment that may be the greatest opportunity of all time for authentic churches.
If we could choose any time in history and any place in which to live, we would be wise to choose right here and right now. Christianity, as represented by authentic churches, is an idea whose time has come. It was true in the first century and it is true today.
Once-optimistic humanism and self-confident secularists are turning cynical and pessimistic. Indeed, there are signs of a counterrevolution, a return toward the original American cultural paradigm. These signs include youth movements for celibacy until marriage, the Promise Keepers movement among men, and appeals arising from many quarters for a revival of morality. A newspaper editorial said it is as though “something we’ve been searching for . . . was sitting in plain sight.”
Through the years, whenever the church has approximated the church of the first century, effects similar to that era have followed. Charles Mylander offers a sample of the potency of the church when it functions more nearly as God designed it to do:
Every student of church history knows of the Great Awakening in England and the American colonies during the eighteenth century. The preaching of John Wesley and George Whitefield gave England a new breath of life. In all probability it saved the nation from a bloodbath such as the French Revolution. In the American colonies the powerful preaching of Jonathan Edwards and like-minded men awakened thousands to the things of God. The mighty movement of God’s Spirit around 1740 molded the various groups of immigrants into a cohesive people. America as a people was born in the Great Awakening several decades before the Declaration of Independence. . . . Evangelical awakenings of such a magnitude spawn social and spiritual change of lasting consequence.1
Prior to the Wesley/Whitefield revival, England was in a state of deep social degeneracy. But as a result of the revival it was said, “An unaccompanied woman and child could journey the length of Great Britain without fear of molestation.”2 Cal Thomas wrote, “If Christians will begin living what they claim to believe, it would be a power that no one could stop.”3
Throughout its history the church has undergone many declines followed by awakenings, or movements toward normalcy. Mylander has documented such awakenings of the church and their impact on the world. The last of these, he says, occurred in 1905. Then he observes:
In the United States awakenings have often come in intervals of fifty or sixty years. In most instances they began during a time of moral decline in the country as a whole. Grieved with the decay of decency around them, committed Christians gathered for Bible study and called out to God in prayer. Some interceded for revival over a period of months and even years. At the proper moment their faith and the Holy Spirit’s timing intersected. Then the awakening struck, catching most other people by surprise. While no one can time the Spirit’s movements, it seems that after seventy-plus years (1905 to the present ) the Western world is over-due for another evangelical awakening.4
Now, nearly three decades later, how much more overdue that awakening is. Mylander predicted two breakthroughs: a great moral and spiritual awakening and an unprecedented wave of church growth. Christians must pray this occurs and do all in their power to bring it about.
Paul wrote of a “fullness of time” that had come when Christ entered the world (Galatians 4:4). That fullness included conditions that made people ready to listen. He would probably see our times and circumstances as a challenging opportunity. People are searching for answers to life’s most important questions. They are seeking meaning and relationships.
We are living in an earthquake time when everything seems to be undergoing a pervasive shaking—not just the geological world, but the worlds of culture, economics, politics, science, philosophy, and the way people think and live. The world is trembling, and in many instances, collapsing.
The most imperative issue of the current population growth is reaching all these people with the gospel. The unevangelized in America represent one of the largest mission fields in the world. Demographers used to say America was the fifth-largest mission field in the world; now they are suggesting it is the third largest. This scene is nearer the door of the typical church than we may realize. As I help churches assess the number of unchurched people in their communities we consistently find they represent 40 percent of the population.
This population explosion pales beside the explosion in human problems and needs. These are symptoms of massive societal collapse that is the result of moral bankruptcy which is, in turn, the result of a philosophical impoverishment of our culture. More than half a century ago historian Will Durant portrayed America as wandering off into the wastelands.
The Only Solution
A few years ago, Peter Drucker was a world-renowned guru of the business world. When he was in his 90s, he turned his attention to the church. A friend asked him why. Businesses, he said, can’t do what is needed to solve the problems of the human condition, and government won’t do it. And, he had concluded, he “ought to be giving more of himself to the only agency in the world that changes lives for eternity.” Thus, he said, the future of America is in the hands of its churches.5
He was right. Only authentic Christianity can deal with present social and personal predicaments. All human, secular agencies and less-than-authentic churches are inadequate. The best they can do is to offer superficial and temporary patchwork. They are, in fact, often part of the problem rather than the solution.
The State of American Churches Today
Many churches, however, are handicapped by counterfeit models of what the church is and how it is supposed to function. One author described such a church as “Cinderella with amnesia”—sitting among the ashes, having forgotten who she really is.
It is tragic that, in this time of desperate need and astonishing opportunity, 60 percent of American churches are in decline, 30 percent are plateaued, and only (at best) 10 percent are growing. But there is an emerging movement in which churches are experiencing renewed authenticity. This refers more to a revitalization in quality than to numerical growth. However, such churches do, in fact, nearly always grow in size. Drucker said this trend is “surely the most important social phenomenon in American society in the last 30 years.”
Unchurched people today have sensors (radars) that respond to authenticity. They are concerned for reality. In a sense, their message to churches and Christians is “Get real!” When they encounter authenticity they are responsive.
A Challenge to Churches
These earthquake times call for churches not merely to survive but to thrive. Robert Kriegel says that, in rapidly changing times, outmoded ideas and habits lead to obsolescence and failure. Such times, he says, call for “Break-It” thinkers.6
The compelling need of our day is for the church to return to the biblical paradigm of authentic faith, function, and effectiveness.
The call is to restoration more than reformation. Donald McGavran, considered the father of the church-growth movement in the last half of the 20th century, was an avid member and proponent of what has been called the Restoration Movement. As a widely respected missiologist, he was able to spread the Restoration concept and hermeneutic worldwide. In many instances, churches are flourishing more in other countries than in America. McGavran was convinced that nongrowth is a curable disease. Especially pungent among his statements are:
“I am growing increasingly certain that Christian churches/churches of Christ must recover the early evangelistic passion of the Restoration Movement. Being a real New Testament church means believing and doing what the New Testament church did.”
“Today, in a world where three out of every four people have yet to believe in Christ and at least two out of four have yet to hear of him, if a congregation is not reproducing, it is not a New Testament church no matter what it calls itself.”
“Most nongrowing churches neither want to grow nor expect to grow. They are contentedly doing those things that do not produce growth. It is as simple as that.”
“Our Lord went to the cross to save the lost. People who won’t cross the street for the lost can scarcely claim to be his disciples.”
1 Charles Mylander, Secrets for Growing Churches (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), 50.
2 Kendrick and Houghton, Prayerwalking (Kingsway Publications, 1990).
3 Cal Thomas, “What Christians Must Do Now,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, July 10, 1994.
4 Mylander, 52.
5 Leadership Network, NetFax No. 75, July 7, 1997.
6 Robert J. Kriegel and Louis Patler, If It Ain’t Broke . . . Break It! (New York: Warner Books, 1991).
Joe Ellis, retired dean of Cincinnati Christian University, continues to speak, write, and consult from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.