Christianity Today is 25 years old. What has happened in and to the churches during this period, and what can we forecast for the future? This much we do know: the knowledge explosion has more than doubled all the knowledge that men of all ages learned up to 1956. This explosion has seriously affected the churches and the world in ways we do not yet fully understand.
If we go back to the Enlightenment, an eighteenth-century movement characterized by the use of the empirical method in science and by the waning of biblical authority, we can understand today’s happenings. Until the Enlightenment, the Judeo-Christian world-and-life view undergirded Western culture. But since then, it has come under persistent attack. Western society has increasingly rejected God’s rule, and substituted a secular, man-oriented viewpoint. The last quarter of a century has witnessed the full flowering of the Enlightenment in the United States, the last bastion of Western civilization. As far as the dominant underpinning of our culture is concerned, we may have already entered the post-Christian age.
A recent editorial in the Indianapolis Star observed: “Church-going, belief in God, patriotism, the family, free enterprise, and a consensus about the undesirability of unmarried cohabitation, homosexuality, pornography, drug use, and other practices were fundamentals of an ethical system that held sway in the United States until 1960. The same virtues were praised and the same vices condemned in schools, universities, the mass media. Then traditions came under assault.… For example, in the mass media today the ‘reigning pieties of 20 years ago’—religion, capitalism, patriotism, the family—are under relentless attack, represented as ‘thing because they are rigid, sclerotic, and atavistic,’ while those who believe in them are ridiculed as insecure, stupid, neurotic, hypocritical, and fanatical.”
The editorial added this about the churches: “ ‘Mainline’ churches and powerful social agencies, particularly those of the government, employ the same strategy to set up a ‘secular, pluralistic’ ethical system on the ruins of the old.”
Quoting James Hitchcock, professor of European history at Saint Louis University, the editor went on to say: “What is at stake today is not merely the survival of particular denominational groups or of once privileged dogmas. What is at stake is the survival of all values and of any kind of belief. Finally what is at stake is the survival of humanity.”
The editor then drew his own conclusion: “Can ‘secular humanism’ be defended against the charge that it is a creed of nihilism and moral anarchy?”
It is fascinating that even those who do not stand in the Judeo-Christian tradition talk about Armageddon. While they have no use for the biblical view of life, they sense that the alternative to it is chaos—especially in light of the increasing threat of man’s complete annihilation. There are three major developments that explain this awareness.
First, reduction of distance: we now have systems which can send missiles to any point on planet Earth in a few hours. Second, the development of nuclear weapons: we now have the means to destroy all mankind. Third, the division of the world into two major groups—the Marxists and the Western democracies: the sharp enmity between these two groups has caused them to develop a mighty array of offensive-defensive armaments that boggles the mind. Each now has a motive to annihilate the other. And, given the history of man and his incalculable ability to blunder, the use of these arsenals cannot be kept in check.
This ideological polarity has also crept into today’s churches. Strong ecclesiastical voices in mainstream denominations support the Marxist viewpoint by condemning capitalism and advocating socialism. They even advocate revolution as the means to destroy capitalism. The World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches in the United States have demonstrated their support of the far left by defending far-out groups whose views are radically antibiblical. In general, these voices encourage a secular rather than biblical lifestyle.
The Decay Of Mainstream Denominations
The mainstream denominations connected with the ecumenical movement have experienced a severe reversal during the last 25 years. This decline is the bitter fruit of their theological liberalism, which led to the fundamentalist-modernist controversy in the 1920s. Granted, the liberal colossus slowed down following the rise of neo-orthodoxy, but later emerged as a strong movement toward the theological left. Instead of strengthening the churches, liberal theology has weakened them dramatically. This may be illustrated in the areas of evangelism, missions, and Christian education.
The mainstream denominations largely have lost their concern for evangelism and missions. As a consequence, their membership has dropped and their overseas missionary outreach has declined severely. CHRISTIANITY TODAY will later run an essay with statistical charts pinpointing the amazing and tragic decline of these churches in both areas. The twelfth edition of the Mission Handbook has a review statement by David M. Stowe, who observed: “The center of gravity of Protestant missionary-sending is shifting constantly away from the ‘ecumenical’ agencies toward conservative and fundamentalist ones.”
One set of statistics can highlight the shift. In 1979, the career personnel of missionary agencies connected with the Division of Overseas Ministries (DOM) of the National Council of Churches numbered 3,473. On the other hand, employees of the major Bible-believing missions agencies and unaffiliated bodies numbered almost 32,500. The DOM reported an income in 1979 of $146 million; evangelical groups reported an income of over a billion dollars.
The decline of the Sunday school among mainstream denominations has specific implications for the future. The accompanying chart shows the Sunday school enrollment figures of many NCC churches along with those of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Church of the Nazarene. While virtually all of the NCC churches experienced declines in Sunday school enrollment, the Southern Baptists remained stable, and the Church of the Nazarene increased from 671,000 in 1962 to 897,000 in 1979.
The Roman Catholic church has rediscovered the Bible, and the dramatic increase in Sunday school enrollment reflects this fact. Comparative enrollment, however, does not equal that of the Southern Baptists.
Smaller Sunday school enrollments guarantee a decline in biblical literacy on the part of churchgoers. Those who attend one worship service each Sunday of the year, but not Sunday school, would hear the Word of God (if it was proclaimed) about 25 hours for that year—approximately the same amount of time they spend watching TV in any week. A biblically illiterate churchgoer bodes ill for the spiritual vitality of a congregation. In the eighteenth century, the rise of the Sunday school movement went hand in hand with the dramatic rise of the modern missionary movement. Likewise, in today’s mainstream denominations, a decline in one area naturally leads to the demise of the other.
While I see no human reason to predict a marked revival of the Sunday school in mainstream churches during the next 25 years, I do not want to paint too bleak a picture. There are also positive signs. For example, literally thousands of home Bible studies are meeting around the country every week These interdenominational studies are generally evangelical. Moreover, during the same period in which mainstream Sunday school enrollment declined, enrollment among many smaller evangelical denominations rose. The Assemblies of God grew from 508,000 to 1.3 million. The Christian and Missionary Alliance enrollment rose from 137,000 to 152,000. The Baptist General Conference rose from 98,000 to 112,000. The Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.) grew from 283,000 to 380,000.
Theological education has undergone vast changes in 25 years. But the next quarter of a century promises many difficulties and challenges, even disaster for some of these institutions. Today, more students are attending seminary than ever before. The Fact Book of 1979–80, published by the Association of Theological Schools, states that in 1969 there were 29,000 students in theological schools. The numbers jumped to 49,611 in 1980. But the numbers alone do not tell the whole story.
Today 20 percent of the seminary enrollees are women; between 4 and 5 percent are black. The number of men working for the basic M. Div. degree has declined from 80 percent in 1969 to 54 percent of the total enrollment. In some of the leading schools, 45 to 49 percent of the students have registered for advanced degrees. In the past decade, 14 seminaries closed their doors. Another 15 were engaged in mergers, resulting in 8 schools instead of 29. It is estimated that another 30 will undergo serious changes in the decade ahead—relocation, merger, or closure. But even that is not the whole story.
Because of declining birth rates, the student pool will decrease through the end of this century, leading to stiffer competition among seminaries. Enrollments may shrink by as much as 20 percent.
Right now most seminaries are feeling the financial pinch. Many sustain annual deficits; others scarcely balance their budgets. Faculty salaries have not, for the most part, kept pace with inflation. Energy costs are soaring; one institution reported that by 1985, the school may spend as much for fuel as it now spends for its entire program. Many students now graduate from seminary with $9,000 to $10,000 debts. Unlike graduates in medicine, law, and business, they will have to begin repayment while their salaries are very low. Except at Southern Baptist and Lutheran seminaries, which keep their costs low, tuition will continue to rise in the years ahead. Moreover, the fact that far more seminary students today are married and have families increases the tensions. As husbands pore over the books, wives work, many children are farmed out to day-care centers, and family alienation can result.
The Fact Book does not take into account the numerous schools of Bible college level and the many seminaries unrelated to the ATS. Nor does it include much information on independent churches in America. Surely one challenge is the planting of new churches, the reopening of closed ones, and missionary work among non-English-speaking peoples, particularly Hispanics.
The secularization of American culture and of its churches has dimmed the role of the Holy Spirit, whose task is to call and endow God’s people for the ministry. Those who win coveted theological degrees but who have not been called to the ministry of the church by the Holy Spirit cannot but be seriously handicapped, however good their intentions. The churches to whom they seek to minister will also suffer from the impairment of the uncalled. Moreover, in the years ahead, there may have to be a recovery of a sense of sacrifice in which money and success are subordinated to a simple ministerial lifestyle, and seminary professors may have to live on a lot less. At the same time, churches may understand that their members who study for the ministry are worthy of financial support as much as missionaries overseas. And students who receive support from churches may have to defer marriage until their education is completed. Moreover, no one who takes the Bible seriously can doubt that the sovereign God who calls will meet the material needs of those who accept his call.
The Evangelical Advance
In the last 25 years, liberalism’s biggest guns were silenced, marking the end of an age. Tillich, Barth, Brunner, Bonhoeffer, Bultmann, and Niebuhr passed from the scene. Instead, evangelicals came to the forefront to carry the faith in almost every field—Billy Graham in evangelism and missionary outreach, Francis Schaeffer and Edward John Carnell in apologetics, Harold Ockenga in evangelical cooperation and theological education, and Clyde Taylor in evangelical political activity. In the magazine world were Sherwood Wirt of Decision, Donald Grey Barnhouse of Eternity, and Carl Henry and Kenneth Kantzer of CHRISTIANITY TODAY, to name only a few.
The National Association of Evangelicals symbolizes the rise and maturation of evangelical ecumenism. Through its commissions and affiliates, such as the Evangelical Foreign Missions Association, the World Relief Commission, the National Religious Broadcasters, the National Association of Christian Schools, and others, it has blazed a responsible trail that promises greater achievements by the end of the century.
In the fields of radio and television, Theodore Epp of “Back to the Bible,” Oswald Hoffmann of “The Lutheran Hour,” Pat Robertson of the “700 Club,” Rex Humbard, Jerry Falwell, Bob Schuller, Jim Bakker and, of course, Billy Graham have left their mark. Multitudes of others, small and great, have also used these electronic media for strategic witness.
Consider the remarkable growth of the National Religious Broadcasters. When Ben Armstrong came to the organization in 1966, the NRB had 104 organizational members. Fifty percent of air time was sustaining and most of it was allocated to NCC-related groups. Today the NRB has 900 organizational members. Only 8 percent of air time is sustaining and the NRB membership represents 80 percent of all religious broadcasting. Right now, one new evangelical radio station comes into existence each week, and ten new evangelical television stations a year are coming into being.
In student outreach, Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ, John Alexander of Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, David Howard of IVCF’s Urbana missionary conferences, and organizations such as Young Life, Youth for Christ, Christian Service Brigade, Pioneer Girls, Awana Youth Clubs, and Child Evangelism swelled the ranks of evangelistic witnesses for Jesus Christ. Christian evangelical organizations of various stripes ministered around the nation. And younger men assumed places of leadership in churches that became noted around the country: Adrian Rogers of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Raymond Ortlund of Lake Avenue Congregational Church in Pasadena, Charles Swindoll of the Evangelical Free Church of Fullerton, California, Chuck Smith of the Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California, Ralph Wilkerson of Melodyland School of Theology in Anaheim, California, Chris Lyons of Wheaton Bible Church in Wheaton, Illinois, Gordon MacDonald of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts, and Bailey Smith, currently president of the Southern Baptist Convention, who baptized more than 2,000 converts in 1980 in his church in Del City, Oklahoma.
The evangelical advance in the U.S. made possible a series of international conferences on evangelism sparked by Billy Graham—Berlin, Lausanne, Pattaya, and a number of national congresses including Minneapolis in America and the 1981 Festival of Evangelism in Kansas City, Missouri. During the same period, small groups of evangelicals formed in many of the mainstream denominations so as to challenge theological liberalism. Methodism,
Presbyterianism, and Episcopalianism, for example, have felt the impact of these agencies. Theological seminaries committed to orthodoxy grew by leaps and bounds, and evangelical liberal arts colleges and Bible colleges matured.
The evangelical resurgence has not been without external problems. A rising tide of opposition has begun to surface in the struggle between two opposing theological ideologies—one favoring biblical authority and inerrancy, and the other opposing all this movement stands for. Churches are leaving their denominations and forming new ones, such as the Presbyterian Church in America. In addition, mainstream theological seminaries remain uninfluenced by and critical of the evangelical movement. This fact alone bodes ill for the evangelical future vis-à-vis the mainstream denominations who continue to train and persuade men and women to enter church vocations in the years ahead.
Evangelicals are also beset by internal problems that may lead to grave disaffection in coming years. Many are moving away from belief in biblical inerrancy. Their views about the mission of the church differ substantially—not about evangelism, but about whether social justice and social action are intrinsic to the church’s mission or a byproduct of it. Some disagree strongly over feminism, simple lifestyle, capitalism and socialism, the ordination of women; others show an obvious softness on homosexuality. The emergence of the Moral Majority and its reception or lack of it by numbers of evangelicals has heightened the tensions among them. What the outcome will be nobody can predict.
Evangelicals will play an increasingly important role in the events of the next quarter century for two reasons. First, evangelicals today are at the forefront of a “burgeoning spiritual renaissance,” a phrase used by social scientist John Crothers Pollack to de scribe a moral activism among the “highly religious” in America.
“The re-emergence of America’s religious strain,” Pollack added, “symbolizes nothing less than a determined effort to revitalize essential American self-confidence in the face of adversity, an enduring optimism and faith that have sustained so many newcomers to this land for so many centuries. The religious current running through America is far, far stronger than what has been tapped by the Moral Majority—so far.” Clearly the sentiment of which he speaks derives from evangelical sources, for the most part.
Second, the evangelical surge may continue to increase because the mainstream denominations have, in effect, a sort of death wish. Two things are happening: a hardening of the ecclesiastical arteries over the question of church order, and a softening of denominational commitment to theological orthodoxy.
For example, the United Presbyterian church continues to major on minors. It insists on the ordination of women and refuses to ordain or permit the transfer of ordained ministers who do not believe in women’s ordination. It is moving speedily to secure constitutionally possession of all property of the churches in the denomination. In the now-famous Kaseman case, the United Presbyterian church’s highest judicial body has ruled that any presbytery may admit to its membership those who do not believe that Jesus is God. Moreover, the UPCUSA is proceeding with plans to reunite with the Southern Presbyterian church. All of these moves are likely to cause an exodus from the UPCUSA.
Yet while the Book of Order is tightened and complete conformity demanded, members of the UPCUSA are permitted to believe virtually anything they wish. No holds are barred. Theological individualism and totalitarianism in church government are reigning simultaneously. This same tide is rising in most of the other mainstream denominations.
A final factor to consider regarding future growth of evangelicalism is the role of parachurch groups. They have been a positive development, showing that when channels are blocked in existing churches, God moves outside them and does new things. However, there is also a tendency for them to replace the local church. These groups will add greatly to their ministries as they stress the necessity for church membership among their adherents and as they support local congregations and strengthen their work. Faith missionary organizations do represent a wholesome approach to this problem. Their missionaries come from local churches and are supported by them. But radio and television broadcasters, for example, find it more difficult to make sure their listeners get involved in a local church.
There is a rising tide of evangelical input and influence around America. It promises to increase in the years before us. It has helped some of the flagging denominations to stay alive, and it conceivably may bring renewal to the mainstream churches. Evangelicals certainly should pray for such renewal, but it appears unlikely unless a spiritual awakening comparable to those led by Jonathan Edwards in the U.S. and the Wesleys in England takes place. Otherwise, we can expect further deterioration among the mainstream groups. But there is a remnant in all of these groups that remains faithful to historic orthodoxy even as some leave these churches to unite with other churches or to form new denominations.
At the last, either the ideology spawned by the Enlightenment or that of historic Christianity must prevail so far as Western culture is concerned. Europe has given way to the Enlightenment and needs to be reevangelized. America has not yet reached that place, but unless the Judeo-Christian tradition regains its dominance over American life and culture, our country will further deteriorate into a vast moral and spiritual wasteland.
Harold Lindsell was CHRISTIANITY TODAY’s second editor, serving from 1968 to 1978. Now living in Wheaton, Illinois, Dr. Lindsell continues to write and speak widely. He is author of Battle for the Bible (Zondervan, 1978) and The Bible in Balance (Zondervan, 1979), and the recent Lindsell Study Bible (Tyndale, 1980).
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