Recapturing a ‘Phenomenal’ Vision for Our Churches
Recapturing a ‘Phenomenal’ Vision for Our Churches

By Michael C. Mack

January 2020 seems like an excellent time to think about vision.

The articles in this issue focus on significant church strategiesfundraising, assessing, training, neighboring, church planting, and reaching men, for examplethat can help churches fulfill Jesus’ vision and carry out his mission. But I want to make sure we don’t confuse strategiesthough they may be biblical and beneficialwith the church’s vision and mission. Strategies must never supplant our mission.

I did a quick topical search of the bookshelves in my office: The Five-Star Church, The Seven-Day-a-Week Church, The Emotionally Healthy Church, Becoming a Healthy Church, Building a Contagious Church, Building a Church of Small Groups, Simple Church, Sticky Church, Slow Church, The Giving Church, The Externally Focused Church, The Unfinished Church, The Disciple-Making Church, Church without Walls, The Church on Purpose, The Purpose-Driven Church, and Autopsy of a Deceased Church. I added to the fray with The Synergy Church and Jerry Harris chimed in with Micropolitan Church.

We have access to an Amazonian number of books about church strategies. Most of those strategies work for a season but are soon replaced by others . . . but Christ’s vision for the church is (or should be) never-changing: to be his witnesses in ever-expanding circles from where we live and work and gather to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). We accomplish that vision through our mission, to go and make disciples. . . . That’s pretty simple, church.

Historians have described the growth of Restoration Movement churches nearly two centuries ago as phenomenal. “Between 1830 and 1860 . . . its membership grew by 900 percent while the population of the country grew only one-third as fast,” reported Joe Ellis in The Church on Target. The remarkable growth continued until the turn of the century, when the movement was 45 times larger than it was seven decades earlier. In 1900, said Ellis, 1,000 churches were planted. Tens of thousands of people were being baptized. “Restoration was an idea whose time had come.”

Note that these things occurred before the wide acceptance of the Sunday school movement, before the small-group movement or the church-growth movement of the twentieth century. So what can we learn from the church of the last 70 years of the nineteenth century? For that matter, what can we learn from the church of the first century, which undoubtedly had even more phenomenal growth?

Restoration Movement leaders have generally focused on doctrinal restoration and/or unity. However, said Ellis, “When [the restorers] turned their full attention to restoration and unity, they developed conceptual clarity, but the movement stalled. But when they launched into vigorous evangelism as the leading edge for these other concerns, the movement generated enormous momentum. It exploded into growth and it made great strides in restoration of doctrine as well as unity.”

How did we lose that evangelistic vision? Ellis said we redefined faithfulness.

“One group redefined faithfulness as unity and refocused its priority there,” he said. This group settled for “maintenance mode.” When we choose unity as our primary vision, “concern for both restoration and evangelism fade,” said Ellis. “Others in the movement redefined faithfulness as doctrinal purity. They have refined and refined their understandings of doctrine and have fractured into many additional subgroups in the process.” And when this happens, “both unity and evangelism suffer.”

“Neither unity nor sound doctrine ought to be compromised,” said Ellis, “but these concerns are best served in a context where the Great Commission mandate has priority. . . . To the degree that the movement is not succeeding as it once did, it has shifted its focus from the original, authentic goals. Means and ends have become confused.”

Strategies, tactics, distinctives, and principles have become our vision, and we are left focusing on something other than Jesus’ original mission for his church. We are lost in a vast forest and can’t help but scrutinize various varieties of tree trunks.

The Church on Target was first published by Standard Publishing in 1978, but I believe Ellis’s assessment remains true: “The restoration movement has, to some extent, succumbed to thinking ‘survival’ rather than ‘success’ on Christ’s terms.”

It’s no secret that some of our Bible colleges and many of our churches have found themselves in survival mode. Many, of course, have not survived. When we make decisions to survive rather than to succeed in our mission, utter failure is near. Joe Ellis put it bluntly: Restoration Movement churches have “been inclined to take the Master’s trust, bury it in the ground, and guard it. In a slow motion somersault, it has turned statistically inward.”

We must focus on Christ’s original vision in every facet and at every level of the church. His vision must guide our magazines, Christian Standard and The Lookout, as well as our movement’s colleges and universities, parachurch ministries, each church, and every Christ follower.

As editor, I am committed to do the best I can to focus on our bigger vision and mission while identifying great strategies in line with biblical principles and distinctives. Christian Standard does not exist merely to survive; we want to succeed, and we do that when we help churches carry out the Lord’s mission!

My personal commitment to Jesus’ vision is this: I want to be so busy sharing the gospel with the people God continually puts around me that I don’t have the time or energy to argue with fellow believers. I’m not saying truth is unimportant, of course; but I’d rather be sharing God’s truth and grace with people still far from God and with those new to their faith than debating nonessentials with the guy devotedly guarding his buried treasure.

Let’s keep Jesus’ vision and mission alive in every church and ministry, in 2020 and beyond.

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  1. Avatar
    Jon Weatherly
    January 3, 2020 at 10:23 am

    Excellent piece, Mike!

    Joe Ellis’s insights are proving to be timeless. And I think that he and Medford Jones can in part be credited with the outstanding growth of RM churches in the last decades of the 20th century, as those they trained planted churches that flourished. That focus on evangelism was very much alive through their influence.

    But I’m also reminded that the seed grows in secret, that God gives the increase. Joe and Medford would remind us that in the end this is God’s work.

  2. Avatar
    January 3, 2020 at 12:01 pm

    Thanks, Jon. I agree 100%. My favorite quote from Dr. Ellis is, “God’s work is accomplished by a combination of human and divine effort. We cannot do it without Him; He has ordained not to do it without us. We depend on each other” (The Church on Target, p. 34).

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