Destiny For Downtown Churches

What’s Ahead For Old First Church, by Ezra Earl Jones and Robert Wilson (Harper & Row, 1974, 134 pp., $5.95), and Survival and Mission for the City Church, by Gaylord Noyce (Westminster, 1975, 162 pp., $3.95 pb), are reviewed by A. J. Conyers, doctoral student, Southern Baptist Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.

Led by Dean Kelley’s Why Conservative Churches Are Growing (1972), at least a score of recent titles have examined the mystery of how churches might expect to grow, or even survive, amid the difficulties of this age. Judging by the number of books, this is an important question for most churches, and it is especially so for the city church, where failing business districts, changing populations, and new traffic patterns are assuring that at least some churches will not survive. Which ones will, and how, and why, are the questions taken up in these two new books.

Jones and Wilson deal mainly with those pre-eminent city congregations typified by “Old First Church,” though they apply their study to other churches with a comparable city-wide outreach. Similarly, Noyce’s book concerns those central congregations that have long been the religious and cultural focal points of metropolitan areas. Neither book is marked by unbounded optimism; the authors of both are acutely aware of the great handicaps under which many city churches now labor. Both see a need for change—often drastic change. Both are honest attempts to seek answers, and, in their attempts, they are seriously and similarly flawed.

In What’s Ahead, Ezra Earl Jones of the United Methodists’ Board of Global Ministries and Robert Wilson of Duke University find a number of difficulties converging upon Old First Church. They note the alarming decline in membership for an increasing number of central-city churches, and the consequent frantic efforts to keep the churches alive. The success of these efforts, they conclude, will largely depend upon the willingness of congregations and leaders to be innovative in their ministry.

There are some encouraging exceptions to the general trend among Old First Churches. Jones and Wilson have looked for the things that distinguish these churches from their failing peers in other cities. A winning combination, they say, is a pastor who provides strong leadership (emphasize strong—energetic, inner-directed, success-oriented), and trained lay leadership. Other factors that they see in a successful downtown ministry are: a large potential constituency, accessible location, continuous recruitment, and what the authors call a “created fellowship.”

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In much of this discussion, however, something is curiously missing. Perhaps it was scientific restraint that caused the authors to see a strong-willed pastor who is inner-directed rather than one who has a strong sense of direction born of moral earnestness and spiritual depth. The former description could still, sometimes, be more accurate—but one would hardly expect the latter to be missing entirely.

The tendency to reduce the Church to terms that are comfortable in closed-system, secular thought is the greatest weakness of this helpful book. The reader is hard put to find anything distinctive about the Church as an institution, unless he is satisfied with an occasional nod to “Christian beliefs,” with little enlightenment on what these might be.

Following this line of thought, the authors see fellowship in the Church as “consciously created” by skillful leadership. It is the product more of organizational savvy than of any community of condition and purpose. In ministry and outreach the authors emphasize “useful strategies” rather than biblical imperatives.

While Jones and Wilson see diversity as an organizational necessity, Gaylord Noyce of Yale Divinity School comes nearer to making it an essential ideal of the church. His argument in Survival and Mission For the City Church proceeds from this central theme. Scripture, though generously applied, is used more to support the author’s theme than to give it direction.

For Noyce, the key to survival and continued ministry is, first, identifying the various roles that a city church might fill. New Testament “images” of the Church are sufficiently varied, he says, that one can conclude that “ ‘Church’ is no rigid concept.” These biblical concepts, however, have a theological rootage, expressing a “relation between believers and Christ, or between God and the church.…” Noyce feels free to use metaphors of a “sociological rootage.” Admitting the danger of failing to express the distinctive faith of the Church, he says they nevertheless “serve for translating Christian commitments into Main Street action,” and he pictures a church as a “cathedral,” “living room and forum,” “family,” “servant church” or “revolutionary cadre.”

Having thus cut the cord to biblical precedents, he proceeds to offer numerous alternatives for mission in the city. Some suggestions, such as making church buildings available to other community organizations, are admirably practical. Others, such as the promotion of week-day Bible study, are enough to warm the heart of most evangelicals. Still others, such as classes on “Christian Yoga” and experimentation with Eastern cults, are a bit eccentric to say the least. It doesn’t seem to matter to Noyce what form a church takes so long as it offers diversity. The key is to offer something for everyone.

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The overall picture is of a church without any definite commitments except to diversity itself. It becomes a medium for unlimited options, governed equally by biblical mandates or currently popular notions. The Church is found to be a headless body without coordination of limbs, or worse, no body at all, only cells of people following no particular purpose except that which “seems right in their own eyes.”

The author’s call to diversity is a very practical concept, even biblically well founded. Yet his failure to begin with biblical foundations leads to a different kind of diversity from, for instance, that taught by Paul. The distinction is not difficult to see. If diversity grows from the authority of God’s Word, there is variety enough, like that of a vast garden of infinite color and form, and yet with a certain divine orderliness and fittingness. Without this “theological rootage,” the diversity becomes little more than the kind found in the litter along the highway, reflecting only the temporary tastes of a throw-away culture. Diversity can be a rich byproduct of Christian commitment; but as an aim in itself, it distorts Christian values and takes on the ruined and eccentric character for which the Church, first of all, is seeking remedy.

Both of these books are only one step from making a vital contribution to one of today’s pressing needs. But as they are, they reflect the common error of allowing temporary needs to govern eternal priorities.

Ins And Outs Of Possession

The Devil’s Bride: Exorcism Past and Present, by Martin Ebon (Harper & Row, 1974, 245 pp., $6.95), is reviewed by Gordon Melton, director, Institute for the Study of American Religion, Evanston, Illinois.

After plowing through a number of recent books on exorcism, the demonic, and the phenomena of possession, I was pleased to encounter this one. It rises above the narrow and largely naïve presentations in most of the literature and brings to the issue the insight of a large number of religious and secular disciplines. Ebon discusses biblical exorcism and also exorcism in other cultures and religions. For the Christian he supplies data important in understanding how exorcism fits into Jesus’ total ministry and, by inference, into ours.

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Possession and exorcism occur at all periods of history and in a wide variety of cultures. Interestingly enough, most possessions are considered positive occurrences. Some cultures were guided by persons believed to be spirit-possessed, such as the oracle at Delphi and the shaman. In biblical language, the Spirit of Yahweh came mightily upon Saul and he prophesied (1 Sam. 10:6). In the New Testament the disciples were baptized with the Holy Spirit, which resulted in the manifestation of the gifted (1 Cor. 12:1–11; Acts 10:44–47) and fruitful (Gal. 5:22; James 3:1–18) life.

Possession of the kind that needs exorcism is also ubiquitous. The shaman is an exorcist. But Jesus, Ebon points out, rose above most exorcists. He was patient and understanding and approached the possessed as a person, and not just an occasion to show his power. Jesus did not exorcise everyone, and there is a distinction between the healing and the exorcising ministry (Mark 1:32–34; Matt. 10:1). Paul distinguished the gift of healing from the gift of discerning spirits (1 Cor. 12:4–11).

Obsessed people have certain symptoms according to the accounts in the Gospels. They are irrational, speak obscenities, are sometimes deaf and dumb, show epileptic characteristics, are endowed with great strength, contort and abuse their bodies. No one person has all the symptoms, and some symptoms may be had by those not possessed. More often Jesus used a healing prayer and the laying on of hands with the sick. Possession was just one among many afflictions.

Possession, then, is of two kinds—positive and pathological. The two are often confused, and Jesus himself was accused of being possessed of Beelzebub (a well-known Near Eastern demon, often confused with Satan) while he was engaged in healing by the Spirit of God. Supernormal phenomena are no evidence of God’s Spirit. The fruit of the Spirit-filled life is the only standard of judgment.

Ebon raises a cluster of theological questions. He also informs the reader of the various issues raised for the exorcist by psychology and parapsychology and of a number of possession cases that give hard-core evidence of the supernormal. He discusses how the Church has treated the possessed throughout history. Ebon even hints that the claim to be demon-possessed has become popular in this decade because it relieves the so-called possessed one of responsibility for his or her own behavior.

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Finally, for the would-be exorcist (and that includes every pastor who will someday have to deal with a person asking to be exorcised) Ebon has a helpful chapter on medieval exorcism and the requirements placed by the Church on exorcist activity:

Before the priest undertakes an exorcism he ought diligently to inquire in the life of the possessed, into his condition, reputation, health, and other circumstances; and he should consult with wise, prudent, and well-informed persons, rather than those who might be too credulous and inclined to be deceived. Melancholics, lunatics and persons bewitched often declare themselves to be possessed and tormented by the devil; these people, however, are more in need of a doctor then of an exorcist.

The current interest in exorcism has been caused by many cultural factors, such as the hunger for the supernatural in a secularized world and church. There is also little doubt, however, that a major contributing factor is the widespread circulation of a number of books that extol the power of Satan and strongly suggest that body ailments and emotional needs and states are sure signs of demon possession. Ebon is an excellent antidote to such naïveté.


Christianity on Trial, by Colin Chapman (Tyndale, 594 pp., $7.95 pb). This is a masterpiece of popular apologetics. The most basic questions about Christianity, the universe, and man’s existence are posed. Each major philosophy or religious system of today responds in turn, with Christianity getting both the first and the last word on each question. The reader serves as the jury.

A Religious Guide to Europe, by Daniel Madden (Macmillan, 529 pp., $9.95). If you are planning a trip to Europe this book could help you visit many inspiring spots that you might otherwise miss. Describes briefly (sometimes too briefly) monuments, shrines, monasteries, cathedrals, and museums in Austria, Belgium, Eastern Europe, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Scandinavia, Spain, Switzerland, and Turkey.

Five Sermons and a Tract, by Luther Lee (Holrad [5104 N. Christiana, Chicago, Ill 60625], 135 pp., $3 pb). Lee (1800–1889) was one of the early leaders of the Wesleyan Methodists. This collection can, in the words of the edtior, Donald Dayton, “remind present-day Wesleyans of their heritage of Christian concern for the oppressed” and “contribute to the current resurgence of social witness among biblically oriented people.” Opposition to slavery and the sale of liquor and support for the ordination of women are among the topics.

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An Exegetical and Practical Commentary on Acts, by H. Leo Eddleman (Books of Life [Box 1647, Dallas, Tex. 75221], 410 pp., $6.95 pb). A helpful, verse-by-verse commentary, full of suggestions for preachers. By the former president of New Orleans Baptist Seminary.

The Ethics of Fetal Research, by Paul Ramsey (Yale, 104 pp., $2.95 pb). As objectively as possible Ramsey relates what is happening in this area of research and then raises some thought-provoking questions about the validity of it. He offers no answers, but his questions lean strongly toward taking moral implications into account.

Your Faith Can Heal You, by Norvel Hayes (Manna Christian Outreach [Greensburg, Pa. 15601], 80 pp., $1 pb), How to Pray For Healing, by Mary Wenhe (Revell, 96 pp., $1.50 pb), Healing: Prayer or Pills?, by Jonathan Yoder (Herald, 56 pp., 95^ pb), and Healing, by William Nolen (Random, 309 pp., $8.95). The gamut of views on healing is represented here. Hayes maintains that to settle for less than healing is to settle for less than God’s will. Many of his statements are not substantiated. Wenhe discusses many attitudes that should be in evidence when one prays for healing such as humility, unselfishness, obedience, and joy. The last two books, both by doctors, arrive at different conclusions but maintain a high view of the role of medicine. Yoder justifies God’s use of medicine as a means to healing. Nolen sought for two years for a valid faith healer and concludes that there is no such person. He does sympathetically speculate on why people turn from the physician to the healer.

Thinking About God, by John Macquarrie (Harper & Row, 238 pp., $8.95). Advanced students of contemporary theology will want to see what the divinity professor at Oxford has to say. Many of the chapters grew out of journal articles. Basic concerns are the method of theologizing, theism, and interaction with various other theologies (hope, process, Heidegger, Bultmann, and others).

UFOs Explained, by Philip Klass (Random, 369 pp., $8.95). Some Christians are troubled by the possibility of extraterrestrial beings probing earth; others use the accounts to fit into biblical description and prediction. UFO religious cults have emerged. Anyone interested in the subject should read this book. Klass is to be commended for tackling the “best” claims for UFO visits instead of just the obvious hoaxes.

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You Mean the Bible Teaches That …, by Charles Ryrie (Moody, 127 pp., $1.95 pb). Several of the most pressing social controversies such as divorce, women’s lib, and civil disobedience are dealt with from a scriptural perspective. Concise and in some cases controversial interpretations but worth the reading.

Just Mahalia, Baby, by Laurraine Goreau (Word, 610 pp., $12.95). The author chronicles Mahalia Jackson’s pilgrimage from the slums of New Orleans to her success as the queen of gospel singers. It’s all there: Mahalia’s conversion, baptism, rejection of the blues, romantic problems, professional difficulties. However, the author’s choppy, arty style makes it difficult to get. What this book needed more than anything was a good editor. Mahalia deserves better.

Now That I’m a Christian, by Chuck Miller (Regal, 76 pp., $1.95 pb). Using a step-by-step approach to Christian growth, this study guide includes chapters on the nature of God, a Christian’s self-image, and biblical priorities. The manual’s graphics and design are geared toward the junior and senior high level and stress the importance of individual study as well as group sharing. Perforated sheets allow the user to make a permanent notebook. Recommended for the new Christian.

How To Communicate

Christianity Confronts Culture: A Strategy For Cross-Cultural Evangelism, by Marvin K. Mayers (Zondervan, 1974, 384 pp., $5.95 pb), is reviewed by Harvie M. Conn, associate professor of missions and apologetics, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Especially because of its strengths in the area of applied skills, this book by the ex-head of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Wheaton College is welcome. Since he deals not so much with “strategy” as with skills, not so much with “evangelism” as with “communication,” Mayers’s title and especially his subtitle are somewhat misleading. The reader who expects a guidebook in the planning of change will be disappointed. That is not the intent of the hook. But the reader who comes looking for suggestions in the application not merely of anthropology (model three of four around which the book revolves) but also of social psychology, psychology, and education will find much stimulating reading and exercise.

This practical focus of the book shines especially in the group activities suggested at the end of each chapter and in the expansive use of case studies made throughout and gathered in eighty-two pages at the conclusion of the volume. Sometimes with debriefing questions, sometimes not, the case studies are especially effective in moving the user of the volume from theory to concretization. There are ample and exciting suggestions for the teacher in role-playing, games, and simulations. Guidelines are given for the use of these materials. Supplementary reading in Weeks, Folkes, et al, ed., Casebook in Church and Society (Abingdon, 1974), would be helpful for the user.

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The one place where I would like to see amplification and revision is in the opening chapter, “Exploring the Subject of Change.” Here are raised the theoretical questions of the nature of mission and the role of the behavioral sciences, in particular, anthropology. One would expect a full biblical-theological treatment of the areas, a Christian approach to current scientific theory that would provide a framework for the materials that follow. Here one may be disappointed. The functionalist structuralism of Malinowski and others seems presupposed without even a bibliographical clue to the challenges they face from such scholars as I. C. Jarvie (The Revolution in Anthropology) and Robert D. Baird (Category Formation and the History of Religions) Mayers points “in part” (p. 26) to the value of conceptual models like those of Claude Levi-Strauss without indicating the Hegelian concept of dialectic on which Levi-Strauss, for example, builds his anthropological methodology of binary oppositions. I am not advocating a move from Malinowski to Jarvie. I am simply pointing out the need here for more theoretical structuring, molded by biblical directive, than I found.

This weakness of Christian theoretic at the foundational level may explain why Mayers sees James “not … as a theologian at all, but rather, as a behavioral scientist!” So Jesus, Paul, and James share “the behavioral science approach to life.” And “the Bible record … becomes a guidebook by specifying various historical settings or situations in which man needed to approach the lived experience cautiously.” This is to look for more in the Bible than it is, the inerrant Word of God whose purpose is the declaration of the history of redemption in Christ. The behavioral-science approach comes close to usurping the redemptive-history “approach.”

Minor questions arise also. Is it theologically and historically justified to say that “one of the pitfalls of reformed theology is that the individual is made to feel worthless before God”? Is the converted sinner “something enriching God”? Is it wise pedagogical practice to encourage the playing of a simulation game like “Instant Rejection,” in which one is to select a person as the object of rejection and “then … proceed to work with all the tools at your disposal to reject that person and communicate the message of rejection to him”?

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Despite these strictures, I welcome the appearance of what will be a useful tool for missionaries on both sides of the ocean.

—New Periodicals—

The split in Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, caused the cessation of the theological journal edited by its faculty. Now there is a mostly new faculty, and the quarterly Concordia Journal made its appearance in January, 1975. All theological and Bible-college libraries should subscribe, and many individuals will want to do so also. (801 De Mun Ave., St. Louis, Mo. 63105; $5/year.)

The Journal of Christian Reconstruction is to be published twice a year with the intention of reaching intelligent laymen with orthodox Christianity of a rather conservative, Calvinistic nature. Many of the writers are graduates of Westminster Seminary. The first issue featured several articles on Satanism; the second defended six-day creationism. (Box 368, Woodland Hills, Calif. 91364; $6/year.)

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