Sydney ahlstrom, chairman of the Department of Church History at Yale University, warns evangelicals that America has come to the end of a 400-year cycle dominated by evangelical Puritanism.
He is not alone in his view. Leland Hines laments, “Evangelicalism is a dying movement. It is very sick and dying of old age.”
Theirs is not an isolated sentiment; similar pessimism sounds from every quarter. “The church has had it” is a familiar refrain. If contemporary crepe hangers had their way, the church would have been buried and forgotten long ago. Charles Fielding in Theological Education says: “Things once uttered only in dark corners at clerical gatherings, heard only at seminary bull sessions, or spoken by laymen out of clerical earshot, are now announced in the headlines in the assemblies of the churches. Ministers announce that they are bored with the trivia of local church life and leave it. Their wives rebel at life in a goldfish bowl where their unpaid daily performance is observed by too many censorious onlookers. Writers and speakers articulate a common feeling that the conventional local church is irrelevant.”
One minister chastises the churches: “The most difficult battle we will ever face is getting the diapered saints out of the church house into the hot war with secularism. The church is so neurotically afraid of clashing swords with blasé materialism that it sucks its thumb, curls up in its Linus blanket of warm security, and hides its head and heart in a church house.”
Another adds: “The church has succeeded in pulling Christians out of the world—out of society—out of community and civic affairs. So often it is a little island of irrelevant piety surrounded by an ocean of need.”
A Christian student writes: “I explode because I don’t feel I want to identify myself with the church. Perhaps that is my biggest reason for not going into the ministry. As I look at the world situation I wonder if it is even worth giving one’s life to the church anymore. I now find that those who think, make the mission field or ministry the last thing on their agenda of possible vocations.”
Evangelicals must repudiate this pessimistic view of the future as the lie of the devil intended to intimidate them and to render them fearful and powerless in their ministry. I cast my lot with Elton Trueblood, who comments in The Incendiary Fellowship: “The hardest problem of Christianity is the problem of the church. We cannot live without it, and we cannot live with it.… However bad the church may be in practice, it is the necessary vehicle for Christ’s penetration of the world. However much it may at times become adulterated, the church is now, as always, the only saving salt we have in this world. The intelligent plan then, is never to abandon the church for then we have lost it all. Instead, rather, we must find some way of restoring the salt to greater purity and thus to more effective preserving quality and, if possible, though this is not so necessary as the other, to better savor to our palate … when a Christian expresses sadness about the church, it is always the sadness of a lover.”
America Is Not Now And Never Has Been A Christian Nation
America, we need to be reminded, has never been a Christian nation. At the time of the Revolution, less than 10 percent of the colonial population belonged to any religious organization—Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish. In his classic work, Religion in America, written at the middle of the nineteenth century, Robert Baird described in glowing terms the church of his day. Nine out of ten churches, he declared, are soundly evangelical, where the gospel is preached, and men and women are invited to the Savior. The church is divided into just two camps—the Calvinists and the Arminians: but both branches of American Christendom uphold the deity of Christ, salvation by personal faith in Christ, and an ethic that grows out of Holy Scripture. American Christianity, he argued, “is a religion based on the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible.”
We look back with nostalgia, almost envy, upon this near-idyllic description of the church in 1850. However, only 20 percent of the American people belonged to any church during this period; throughout the nineteenth century, the percentage of church members never came close to half the total population.
Today, 90 percent of the American people identify themselves as favoring Christianity: 70 percent are members of a church; three-fourths explicitly affirm Jesus Christ to be the divine son of God. Nearly half claim to be born again and have undergone a conversion experience which involved Jesus Christ and which they still regard as very important to them. Approximately one-third confess Jesus Christ as their Savior from sin and their only hope for heaven. One-quarter hold the Bible to be the Word of God and reckon that it contains no mistakes.
George Gallup, Jr., the most revered of modern prophets, only confirms Time and Newsweek—those infallible and inerrant analyists of all that is American—in assuring us that 40 percent of the American people are evangelicals. Conservative churches, so he documents, are growing. This is no momentary fad. It represents a long-term, worldwide movement. And Dean Kelly from the staff of the National Council of Churches explains, in his volume by that title, “Why” Conservative Churches are Growing.
The True Basis Of Evangelical Hope For The Future
The evangelical does not despair at today’s pessimism. Nor does he base his hope on the predictions of Gallup and Kelly and Time. He does not need to read this morning’s newspaper to discover whether or not he can still cling to hope. Nor does he collapse in utter despair at the tragedy of daily events. His hope is in the living God and in his Christ, who said: “I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” This church, despised on every hand, belongs to God. He has promised to protect it against every enemy. Even the forces of all hell cannot destroy it or hold out against it.
God is still on the throne. The universe is not in chaos. God is working out his plan for human history. His promises to his church are not broken pie crusts, but solid rock. Neither leaders of the mightiest nations of earth nor all the devils from hell itself can remove Christ’s church from the loving protection of his sovereign hands.
I would rather be stricken dead than be found fighting the church of Jesus Christ, which he purchased with his precious blood and promised to preserve forever. This helpless, confused, bigoted, sin ridden—even, at times, repulsive—institution Jesus Christ not only established: he also promised to stand behind it, and to protect it against all its foes to the very end of the time.
Our Greatest Strength Is Our Greatest Danger
The greatest danger facing people today is lack of faith. They see nothing worth living and dying for. They think the job market is sluggish, that they are getting a bad break, that the real problem is the energy shortage or our lack of oil, or inflation, or the balance of trade, or the budget, or labor unions, or management, or any irritation of the moment.
Yet the real problem in the free world is that we have lost confidence in the future. The root problem is loss of faith. But for us evangelicals, faith is our greatest strength. Today, evangelicalism is the only force in Western Christendom with vigor and set of mind to conquer the problems of modern man. We evangelicals must cast aside our ghetto complex and advance actively into the contemporary battle for the minds of men and women. Evangelicals must stop simply reacting to the initiative taken by others. For two generations we have been as Green Berets, furiously waging a rear-guard mission to search and destroy and thus slow down the advance of the enemy. We must reverse this role. We must stop conceiving of ourselves as embattled guerrillas on the defensive. We must see ourselves primarily as heralds and persuaders. We must learn to think biblically and creatively.
Evangelicals Must Adopt A Constructive Strategy
This has nothing to do with compromising Christian faith in unholy alliances with apostate bodies. It has everything to do with a positive forward thrust in the presentation of the gospel. It has to do with recognizing our responsibility for leadership in the church and in the world.
Instead of constructing our own doctrinal commitments, we have for too long merely attacked those who have done it wrongly. Instead of writing our own commentaries or apologies in defense of Christian faith, we have reprinted old ones long outdated. Instead of planning evangelical strategy, we have merely repeated past mistakes.
Evangelicals must move back into the mainstream of our culture. We evangelicals have an immense heritage. It is not ours to keep and to hoard, nor is it ours to despise and to squander. Rather, it is ours, by the grace of God, to give and to share. Evangelicals must go back again to the marketplace of human society.
I challenge readers under 25: Do you have faith to believe that Jesus Christ will use the church to advance his kingdom? Not some imaginary church he never founded, nor some ideal body you and I would like the church to be. Rather, it is the church around the comer—the church that confesses the name of Jesus Christ, pays its allegiance to him, and thus, in spite of all its manifest flaws, is a part, at least for the moment, of that church he founded and preserves and promises to protect.
Do you have faith to believe that Jesus Christ loves that church? That he identifies himself with it? That he will use it for his own glory? That ultimately he will make it into the glorious church he has promised? I confess I cannot hold such a faith unless I love that church. It takes the powerful alchemy of love to believe that God, even God, can take that church and bring to fruition all his promises for it. And I cannot love that church unless I know Jesus Christ as Peter did. “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” he said, and the Lord responded, “I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
Why Dare We Believe In The Church?
Of course, the church is worth serving and saving not because of what it is but because of who Jesus Christ is and because of the relationship that church bears to him.
I see the faults of the church. I have spent all my adult life in it. I know church politicians who would rather hold office than do right. I know adulterous preachers who have sold their souls for a bit of sex. I know white racists who mouth Scripture, send off missionaries to the people of darkest Africa, yet won’t permit an honest black to live beside them in the same city block. I know self-righteous church elders who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel. I know the lazy Christians for whom Christianity is just cheap fire insurance.
Someone has said (with more truth than humor): “The church is like Noah’s ark. If it were not for the storm outside it, I couldn’t stand the stench inside it!” I would have given up on Christianity and the church long ago if it were not for Jesus Christ its Lord. I know the church and its faults all too well. But I also know Jesus Christ. I have committed myself—irretrievably—to him as my Lord and Savior. I know the place of the church in his plan and in his love, and therefore I dare not spurn it. To spurn Christ’s church is to spurn God.
Is The Church Willing To Be Self-Critical?
I recognize, of course, that most who read this are over 25. Most of you are ministers, lay leaders in the church, teachers, or church administrators. You chose long ago to identify yourselves with the establishment that is the church of Jesus Christ. Now, therefore, I must ask: Do we, as a part of the establishment, dare to be self-critical? Are we willing to scrutinize the church honestly in light of the Word of God and to correct it by that divine standard? Or do we find ourselves slipping into the position of the Pharisees in Christ’s day—those against whom our Lord spoke the harshest words of any to be found in the Gospels? Why did he rebuke the Pharisees so sternly? Just because the Pharisees in their self-righteousness refused to be self-critical; they never took the first step in order to see their needs. If we don’t recognize our needs, we never try to find their remedy. The man who doesn’t search because he does not see his need is really lost.
Judgment, declares Scripture, must begin in the house of God, and the church of Christ today stands in need of it. We forget that the Lord judged the church at Laodicea. We forget that we are accountable to him. Too often we confuse the absolutes of divine revelation with the relatives of our own peer group. We confuse the directions God has given with the securities and comforts of the life we prefer to live. How tragic if, after a century of fighting liberalism, orthodoxy won the battle for orthodoxy (right doctrine) only to lose the battle of orthopraxis (right living). The church of Jesus Christ must learn once again to be properly self-critical. Only as it places itself boldly and honestly under the searching scrutiny of divine revelation can it find healing for its open sores.
The Goal Of The Church: A Society Of Love And Good Works
And now, finally, may I remind both those who like to defend the establishment as well as those who repudiate it that God calls us to love his church and to identify with it. In Hebrews 10 we are called to a love for God and to a love for Christ that will draw us into a society where, in the quaint words of the King James Version, we are “to provoke [the church of God] unto love and to good works.”
The ancient church called its meetings “love feasts.” One early church historian records that even its enemies remarked, “Behold how they love one another.” The true church of Christ represents a fellowship of love—love to Christ and love for one another.
But I must warn you: if out of love for Jesus Christ and love for his church you give your life in service as a leader of the church, you immediately lay yourself open to all kinds of hurt. That is why in the church of God we really do not love more thoroughly; the reason is clear—we are afraid to love! In order to love I have to lay myself open to another. And then I create all kinds of opportunities for others to crush me in excruciating pain. The people whom I keep at a safe distance from me cannot hurt me. It is my wife who knows me well enough to hurt me. It is my son who knows me well enough to hurt me. It’s my students, my faculty colleagues, my fellow members of the staff of CHRISTIANITY TODAY who know me well enough to hurt me.
We are afraid to enter into the kind of relationship where love can take place because we are afraid of the hurt that may be done to us. But when we do, we make love possible. And we give meaning and purpose to all of life. We make our human lives really worth living.
Do I Love Christ’S Church And Identify With It?
What, then, is the future of the evangelical church? Has the church had it?
In one sense, who cares? But in another sense, this is a supreme concern of humankind. The church is God’s chosen instrument, the one through which he will complete his work in this world. We must ask not whether the church has had it. The real question is, “Have I had it?” What is my relationship to the society of love that has Jesus Christ as its center? Do I have courage to open myself to love in any earthly society, even the earthly society of the church of Jesus Christ? Have I, in obedience to Jesus Christ, identified myself wholly with his church? Do I love the church of Jesus Christ enough to give myself—all that I am or ever can be—in glad and willing service for Christ and his church?
Has the church then had it? God forbid that we should think that! The church is rather God’s answer to the despair of modern man. It is God’s instrument for introducing love into the barren, loveless existence of the fragmented and isolated life of twentieth-century man.
Christ offers to all men and women everywhere a redeemed society of love. Imperfect? Of course! But it is a society of love in which Christ my Savior draws forth from me an answering love to him and to that body which is his beloved bride. This church, his church, is a society in which we with Christ create a society of love, and against which the gates of hell cannot prevail. Rather, it will endure forever.
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