How stands the church in 1979? Such people as Harvard theologian Krister Stendahl, national pollster George Gallup, missions leader David Howard, and Catholic bishop Thomas Kelly have their opinions. So do pastors in places like Waka, Texas, and Nappanee, Indiana. They were among the respondents to this CHRISTIANITY TODAY survey, designed to show where the church “is at” as we enter a new year.

News assistant John Maust traveled the nation by telephone and post, asking persons at all levels of church ministry two questions: What is your greatest concern for the church today, and how might the church begin to deal with that concern in the coming year?

We could not publish all the responses in the space available, but representatives for varying concerns are included. Similar subjects are grouped together first and then other views are grouped according to the ministry or profession of the respondents.

CHRISTIANITY TODAY readers aren’t expected to agree with every observation that follows. We chose people who would represent points on the theological spectrum—from Dwain Epps of the World Council of Churches to soul-conscious conservative John R. Rice. The editors want to challenge readers to ask themselves, Where should the church be headed in 1979?

‘Letting The World Set Our Agenda …’

Charles Keysor, editor of Good News magazine, a publication of the evangelical movement of the same name within the United Methodist Church.

Christianity is being modified to accommodate the fads of our culture. Rather than “leaning against” the consensus, as Francis Schaeffer puts it, we are letting the world set our agenda. In the mainline denominations, this can be seen in the uncritical endorsement of abortion, homosexuality, and secular feminism—baptizing as Christian the agenda of the left wing of the Democratic party.

In more conservative circles, capitulation to culture can be seen in the lopsided emphasis on personal experience, material prosperity, and health, and on being content with a fellowship of those with whom we agree—a “ghettoization” of the faithful.

The main defense against that is for believers to know Scripture. Otherwise, they will be seduced into cultural conformity. For this reason, all genuine renewal must be centered in God’s Word, rather than in personal experience, church reorganization, church growth, gifts of the Spirit, social action, or anything else.

Denny Rydberg, editor of the Wittenburg Door, a magazine that often takes humorous but accurate aim at evangelical foibles.

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The church is being eaten up by the culture. Christians are being co-opted, not just in the way we do things, but also in our goals and priorities. The church seems almost indistinguishable from any other organization in society. You can’t tell the Christians from anyone else. I think that pastors, church leaders, and laypeople are going to have to ask, “Hey, what are the distinctives of the Christian faith? Where do they run counter to the culture and how are we going to really help people not be conformed to this world?”

Billy Melvin, executive director of the National Association of Evangelicals.

My concern is the measure of infiltration by the world into the church. We have been influenced far more than we would like to admit. This infiltration has dulled our effectiveness, blurred our vision, and caused us to adopt worldly standards of success. The answer is a return to the authority of God’s Word.

David P. McDowell, assistant chaplain at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

My greatest concern is the rise and progress of cultural Christianity. This phenomenon has not only weakened our witness to society but has also led to a certain assimilation of the church into society. The church should redefine what is essential Christianity. Its leaders need to explain the Christian faith in all of its radicalness so that Christians can establish life styles that witness to the reality of Christ vis-à-vis society.

‘More Genuinely Involved With Social Justice …’

Ronald J. Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, author of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, and professor at Eastern Baptist seminary.

A top priority for both the mainline and the evangelical churches should be to become more biblical. That means that mainline churches should get more genuinely involved with evangelism, and that evangelical churches should become more genuinely involved with social justice. Both groups should begin overcoming their ghastly individualism and begin to discover the New Testament meaning of the church.

I don’t think we can make much progress toward living simple life styles or toward getting involved in social justice until we rediscover the church—as a community whose members are living very differently from the rest of the world. The church is being swept into the mainstream of American society. Whatever else you might say about the fundamentalists, at least they knew they were separate from society. Of course, they could become separate in wrong kinds of ways. But the church is different from the world. Its values should differ, for example, from the American attitude that it is a constitutional right to have instant gratification.

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We literally need thousands of evangelicals to move back into the city. Individual families shouldn’t do it alone. The movement to the city should be one of community, several families going together to support each other. Community living has its problems. You’re close to each other, and you discover each other’s weaknesses. That’s painful, but valuable.

Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine and a member of Sojourners’ Fellowship, a Christian community living in the inner city of Washington, D.C.

My prayer is that the church be awakened to the need for its own conversion, that churches bound to comfort and fear become communities of compassion and faith. Churches that are guarded by status and guided by the status quo should become bodies that care for each other and for the poor. I am convinced that churches that are uninvolved in struggling to ease the pain and oppression of life must become places where God’s hunger for justice and peace is made visible in the world.

John Perkins, head of Voice of Calvary Ministries, Jackson, Mississippi.

The church should help the poor through holistic evangelism and development projects, giving them pride and dignity, to find a way out of the poverty cycle. It should support indigenous projects and churches in the poor and black communities.

Manuel Ortiz, counselor for “high risk” adolescents at Clemente High School in Chicago and an elder of Spirit and Truth Fellowship, a Christian community of Latinos within the racially tense Humboldt Park neighborhood.

The church needs to identify with the poor and oppressed for spiritual, emotional, social, and intellectual liberation. The churches already in the inner city should recommit themselves to meeting and working with the oppressed people. They should speak clearly and prophetically to the church that has not yet identified with the poor. They must break down the bias, the walls, the insensitivity to the poor, and then educate the church about the poor.

‘Getting More People Involved …’

Alvin Shifflet, pastor of the 300-member First Brethren Church in Nappanee, Indiana, a rural town of 4,000 noted most for its Amish residents and kitchen cabinet factories.

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I want more people involved in church ministry. You can take people into the church, but unless they get involved and become committed disciples, you haven’t accomplished much. I’m serving a small community church, but the super-churches are having the same problem of inactive members. The only difference is that with them the problem is magnified. I’m not suggesting a massive revision of church membership lists or “back door revivals,” as they are called. We just need a stronger emphasis on discipleship.

Small group Bible study is the best tool I know for that. When people really begin studying God’s Word, it affects them. They become better disciples and often end up ministering in the church. I can have pastor’s classes and tell new members what I think, but that’s not effective. They’ve got to get involved on their own in Bible study.

Of course, many people aren’t interested in doing that. I guess they’re too busy. So much of our time is spent in maintenance—maintaining the church program or the church building. Perhaps this is a subtle trick of Satan’s that we spend 80 per cent of our time that way. We could spend that time in discipleship. I have a feeling that many Christians are going into the rapture by train—pretty slow.

Robert Schuller, author and pastor of the Garden Grove Community Church in suburban Los Angeles—a “superchurch” that is attended by thousands.

My greatest concern for members of the local church is their commitment to paying the price of lay leadership. The church must be the body of Christ in the community. Its members should look for people who hurt and then love, lift, and help them. The priority for church ministry in the coming year should be evangelism and church growth. A church fails unless it becomes a mission. There is no way an institution can survive if its only objective is to take care of its own people.

Ted Engstrom, executive vice-president of World Vision International.

There seems to be an ever-increasing tendency for the average person in the pew to expect the “professional” to head up the program and meet the needs that are to be found in the local church. As a result, we are experiencing a trend toward large, multi-staff institutional church organizations. There must be a renewed emphasis on the “priesthood of believers” and on the vital role of the laity in carrying on the ministry committed to the church, the Body of Christ. Preachers and professionals must take the lead in causing this renewal.

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‘Parents In A New Team Effort …’

George Gallup, Jr., a Sunday school teacher and Episcopalian who majored in religion at Princeton University; is best known as president of the Gallup Poll.

My greatest concern is that our youth are not getting the help or guidance they seek from their parents regarding such issues as sex, cheating in school, alcohol, and drug abuse. Nor are young people receiving much help in terms of their spiritual values, simply because parents are unwilling or unable to discuss basic religious questions with their offspring.

Pastors, priests, and rabbis need to work more closely with parents in a new “team effort” so that parents will be able to discuss key issues with their children with greater spiritual insight and maturity.

Thomas Kelly, general secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and its service arm, the United States Catholic Conference, ordained a bishop in 1977 and a member of the Dominican order.

My major concern is for family life within the church. The church should discover how it can support and strengthen the family, while combating the forces that are militating against it.

The Roman Catholic Church has embarked on a costly study of family life in America. The study, called A Plan of Action of Family Ministry, is designed to get people involved on the parish level from now through 1990. The program in the local parish will have six emphases: singles and pre-marrieds, married couples, parents, “developing” families, families that are hurting, and leadership couples.

‘Get Back To Soul-Winning …’

John R. Rice, 84, elder statesman of fundamental Christianity in America; worked the revival circuit for years and has edited the Bible-preaching Sword of the Lord newspaper since its inception in 1934.

The churches need to get back to soul-winning—the Great Commission. This has not been a primary concern for most major denominations, though some groups—the independent Baptist churches, for example—have had a great upsurge in conversions.

Soul-winning would have to start with the preachers, and the preachers have to be trained in the seminaries. Unfortunately, most of the fundamental, Bible-believing seminaries are stressing scholarship, not soul-winning. A man who attended one of these seminaries once confessed to me, “They taught us how to load the gun, but they didn’t teach us how to shoot it.”

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At the Sword of the Lord, we could find only twenty churches in America that had won and baptized 200 or more converts during 1965. I challenged churches in my newspaper to reach a 200-convert goal in the coming year. About half of them succeeded. Two years later, more than ninety churches had baptized 200 or more members in a single year. Then more than 120 had done it. I expect that more than 300 churches will do so this year.

Their goal is to win souls. They make their services evangelistic and go out to get people in house visitations. I’m not against the great churches of today, but I’m against any church that is satisfied to stay small. That’s not biblical.

David Howard, director of the Consultation on World Evangelism, a conference to be held in June, 1980, in Thailand.

The church must recognize its mission to get the Gospel to the whole world, a mission that has not changed since New Testament times. In our outreach, we must realize our responsibility to the three billion people who still have not had an adequate opportunity to hear of Jesus Christ.

If the church is going to fulfill its mission to the world, it must do so within the context of the given cultures of the world. The church must discover how to make the Gospel relevant to any culture in any time or place. We must keep in mind three cultures: the cultural context in which the New Testament was written, the cultural trappings of the Gospel communicator today, and the culture of the audience that is being exposed to the Gospel. At the same time, we Christians must be careful not to do away with the unchangeable standards in the written Word.

From The Grass Roots

Ronald Gifford, pastor of the growing Blanchard Road Christian and Missionary Alliance Church in Wheaton, Illinois—the area often called the Protestant Vatican by many people in the media.

Here in Wheaton you first have to realize that you’re ministering in a parade. It’s hard to create any sense of community among people who move away so fast, such as students and missionaries home on furlough. You also have to realize that many people in the congregation have their first priorities elsewhere in the kingdom of God. They have fellowship and a sense of ministry at their place of work. Another struggle, a great frustration to me, is that so many people live in Wheaton because there’s no challenge to their faith. You don’t have to interact with non-Christians in Wheaton. The problem is that your faith can go squishy soft. I try to challenge my congregation in my preaching. People who don’t want that kind of challenge don’t come to our church.

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I hunger for believers to put down their spiritual roots—for a Spirit-led movement in which believers’ lives are affected totally and their Christianity becomes a joy to live, not just something to put up with. When I speak of a moving of the Spirit, I’m not speaking of something having to do with the excitement of the movement or an emotional froth. We’re so existential, it scares me.

This renewal needs to begin with the pastors. It is a rare moving of the Spirit that will propel the people of God beyond their pastor’s level of spiritual maturity. So my first concern at Blanchard Road is for my own spiritual health. I find that I’m spending more time in prayer and personal reflection. I’m encouraging and discipling my leaders to do the same. I think the result is that the entire church will be affected.

Paul Toms, pastor of the 2,000-member Park Street (Congregational) Church in Boston and president of the World Relief Commission, relief agency of the NAE.

I want to see biblical preaching practiced. I want to see biblical truth come alive and meet the day-to-day problems of people. A way to encourage this is through fellowship groups, where members develop pastoral concern for each other.

Ted Mears, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church near Florence, South Carolina, whose members celebrated the 200th birthday of their church last year.

The church should begin meeting the needs of families that move from the city into residential and suburban areas. For example, my church for 175 years was a small rural church serving a farming community. But in the 1950s Ebenezer became a suburban church of 785 members as the city of Florence grew outward and toward the church.

David Stauffer, pastor of the Church of the Brethren in Waka, Texas, farm and cattle-ranching town of 1,200 located in the Texas panhandle.

The adults in my church are concerned that young people brought up in the church don’t have enough zeal for the Lord, and they don’t understand why that is the case. Most of the people now active in my church are in their fifties or older.

Kenneth Peterson, pastor of the independent Calvary Bible Church in Wichita, Kansas.

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The church should keep its spiritual purity and dedication to Christ. Only then will it fulfill the great commission to reach the world with the Gospel. There must be a genuine return to Bible preaching.

Jerold Barnhart, pastor of the Elmore, Minnesota, United Methodist Church where Vice-President Walter Mondale was confirmed in 1941.

The church needs people who will reach out to others of the community in the name of Christ. We do this already, but in the name of other organizations such as the Lions, the Odd Fellows, and the Masons. I call these the “other churches.” They are great competition.

Herbert Bell Shaw, Wilmington, North Carolina, a bishop within the 1.5-million-member African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

The church should organize a summit meeting of the leaders of all the major religions in the world. The purpose would be to find out what the other religions have in common with Christianity. This is something the Christian world ought to at least think about. I know there are some things that Christians have in common with those other religions.


Krister Stendahl, dean of Harvard Divinity School and one of the most respected New Testament scholars in the world.

As I see it, waves of fear and resentment will surge over the United States and the Western world in the years ahead. These will come when we are forced to shrink in our own self-importance, in our consumption of resources, and, perhaps, in our standard of living, as compared to the rest of the world.

This suggests to me something that is the most difficult thing spiritually—namely, for us to learn to diminish, instead of always striving to be bigger and bigger. Our spiritual needs will be enormous when we try to overcome this ingrown way of thinking. It is the model of John the Baptist, when he said, “It is as it should be—that I diminish and he increases.” That kind of grace, to diminish, is the hardest of all to learn. It would be very strange if the church did not help us in this respect.

I am afraid that many people in America grab onto religion these days only as a way of making America stronger or bigger. This is common because of the strong fear that America is going backward. I hope and pray that the Gospel, which has had power to overcome similar ways of thinking in the past, will do so again.

Frances White, coordinator of the counseling major at Wheaton Graduate School.

My greatest concern is the lack of stress on biblical truth. The tendency to replace solid scriptural teaching with culturally relevant, but ever-changing issues, could leave today’s generation without a solid base of objective truth upon which to evaluate social concerns.

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As a behavioral scientist, I am keenly aware of the need to address current issues that affect our lives. However, to do this honestly, the church must first guide its members to understand the unchanging truths of Scripture and help them incorporate those truths into their total lives. With this as a base, the church is ready to distinguish between the revealed, absolute truth of God’s Word and temporary, cultural, relative beliefs.

Counseling is becoming accepted within the church today because the needs are so tremendous. With all the cultural changes taking place, people are running into conflicts and issues that they haven’t had to face before. For example, new perspectives on the role of women and marriage relationships have created a new set of problems and a tremendous amount of conflict. People are hurting. And hurt drives them to seek help.

Richard Lovelace, professor of church history at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

I am hopeful that evangelical renewal groups within the mainline denominations will continue to grow, in the process reviving the churches spiritually and reforming them theologically—bringing healing and unity to the body of Christ without sacrificing evangelical integrity.

My second concern is for the evangelical movement itself—that it continue to be reformed, purified, and reestablished in its original balance of emphasis on spiritual renewal, evangelism, social witness, and church unity. The classical evangelical movement, at least as I have studied it from the Reformation to the nineteenth century, had a strategy of renewing the entire church body. In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, evangelicalism has become somewhat separatistic.

William Hill, pastor and director of student ministries at Taylor University, Upland, Indiana.

One of my greatest concerns is that the church of the twentieth century has found its home in the world. This is seen in the million-dollar edifices erected to the glory of man. Television and radio hucksters promise success in business, family affairs, and physical health to those who will contribute to their programs.

The church needs a world vision that will take it out of itself. What life would come to the church if its members became involved in door-to-door evangelism, inner city ministries, and in visiting hospitals, prisons, and orphanages. What a testimony there would be to the world if church members would forfeit a luxurious vacation to spend the time on a mission field.

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Denominational Leaders

Joseph R. Flower, general secretary of the Assemblies of God, the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States with 1.3 million members.

I’m concerned about church growth. Even more important to me is raising the spiritual level of Christians to a deeper devotion to the Lord and a fuller experience in the Holy Spirit, with the manifestation of the Spirit being in evidence.

James C. Sams, president for twelve years of the National Baptist Convention—one of the largest predominately black denominations in America.

The church should try to bring back into its fellowship those members who have strayed away. The pastor should motivate his active members to reach out to those who have left the church.

Herbert A. Mueller, secretary of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the second largest Lutheran body in the United States with 2.9 million members.

Our greatest concern at the moment within the LCMS is the large segment of young adults that, according to the Gallup Poll, have a very low interest in the organized church, and perhaps even in religion. We intend to mount a special program of outreach toward them.

William E. Kuhnle, assistant to the national representative of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches, a denomination of 260,000 members with headquarters in Schaumburg, Illinois.

The church must rely on its biblical foundation in all areas of its ministry. There needs to be a return to the absolute authority of the Bible as a guide for daily and godly living.

Here And There

Richard Halverson, pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Bethesda, Maryland.

I see two serious needs: the need of the world’s unreached masses to know about Christ, and the need of contemporary Christianity to shake off the shackles of secularism.

There are more than two billion unreached people in the world, according to missiologists, and the majority of these are beyond the scope of present witness. The church must take this challenge seriously. At the same time, the church must seek a renewal that will influence our culture for the kingdom of God.

Happily, evangelicals within the major denominations are discovering each other at last and beginning to work together in and through the system to make their witness effective.

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Ralph Bell, associate evangelist, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

White Christians need to exhibit more concern about racism and poverty. The cause of racial justice has suffered reverses recently, and the church has remained quiet. Maybe the church can’t help everybody, but it can at least speak out and take creative action to help solve a few problems.

Masses of urban dwellers remain untouched by the black churches around them. A number of young black evangelicals have appeared on the scene, and they ought to be encouraged in their outreach efforts.

Dwain Epps, World Council of Churches representative to the United Nations.

The church should be a major world force for breaking down barriers that separate human beings into conflicting and sometimes warring camps. It should give witness to the unity that all Christians have in Jesus Christ and discover ways, through contact with people in other countries, to demonstrate the common humanity we have.

Margaret Andersen, associate communications officer at Episcopal Church headquarters and member of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in New York.

The church should concern itself with metropolitan issues, or root causes, of problems that can be found in both rural and urban communities. In the human rights issue, I can see any number of root causes—for example, the lack of understanding of human sexuality, of a person’s right to be recognized, of the dignity of life, or of the dignity of dying.

The church can be a conscience. It must help each person to understand the root causes of problems and then to react to those causes.

Donald E. Wildmon, pastor and executive director of the National Federation for Decency, Mississippi-based organization that is combating sex and violence in the media.

The church should become involved in the public area of private morality—prostitution, pornography, sex-oriented music on radio, debasing television programming. The church should call its members to action from the pulpits. It should use institutional committees, support other efforts, and pray for its own forgiveness for having neglected to speak to this critical issue. Without personal integrity, society will not fulfill its mission in God’s world. Past history offers plenty of evidence for this conclusion.

Karen Mains, speaker and author of Open Heart, Open Home, a book on Christian hospitality.

Popular Christianity today has a problem. By that I mean that many times we settle for easy forms of Christianity. We settle for words and activities, and we avoid what can be an agonizing search for spiritual realities. But even within this easy, popular form of Christianity, there is a group of people who are hungry for God. These Christians hunger for knowing God by acquaintance, not just for knowing about him.

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