We who call ourselves Evangelical Christians owe a great debt to Martin Luther. Luther, a Catholic monk who learned that the just shall live by faith rather than by religious behavior, led a Reformation. His impact demonstrates how movements often happen. Rarely if ever do spiritually renewing movements come from the center of a tradition; rather, most of the time movements start at the margins and bring life to the center. In Luther’s case a radical break had to occur because of the flawed soteriology (among other issues) of Catholicism. Luther began the communion that bears his name and the Lutheran church was born.
Before long, after a century or so, the Lutheran church became mired in institutionalism. Along came a young Lutheran priest named Philip Spener, who saw priests enjoying the benefits of being clergy without the concomitant passion for the gospel. He wrote a book called Pia Desideria in 1675 calling for a renewal, a Great Commission Resurgence if you will, in the Lutheran church.
Spener did not have a lot of demographic data to show him the need for a renewal in his time. His pastoral wisdom and insights from others observing the same thing was enough. Those in the center of Lutheranism did not jump on the idea of resurgence he called for in his book. In summary he called for these points of renewal:
1. A greater commitment to spread the Word of God (we might call this becoming more gospel-centered).
2. A renewed emphasis on the priesthood of all believers.
3. A greater focus given to the development of individual spiritual life.
4. Establishing truth not through disputes but through repentance and a holy life.
5. Candidates for the ministry should be genuine Christians, who have had spiritual training.
6. Sermons should not demonstrate the preacher’s erudition, but attempt to teach and edify.
While the center of the Lutheran church scoffed at the need for change, many embraced the ideas, especially younger people. In a matter of decades a movement was birthed called Pietism that brought much life to the Lutheran church and spread to affect others from more Reformed to newer groups such as the Moravians. In fact, the Moravians produced a missionary movement so extensive that one Moravian for every sixty went to the mission field. In comparison, if for instance the Southern Baptist Convention had that ratio we would have 250,000 going across the globe rather than 5,000.
Historically, even the best of movements honoring Christ tend to move toward institutionalism and eventually to decline. You see it in the early church after the early centuries of amazing growth. You see it in the first century in the church at Ephesus. You see it in the Methodist church, an evangelistic juggernaut for centuries now in rapid decline. The same can be said for others, and not only traditions, but also institutions within them, including schools and individual churches.
Today many call for a renewal in the church in the West. In the Southern Baptist Convention it comes under the banner of the Great Commission Resurgence. Others have different slogans or emphases, but there is a general sense that the American church has not remained the spiritual force it once was. More than a few individual churches also hope for a renewed vision and effectiveness for Christ. Of course there are plenty who want to squash such notions, arguing that things are not so bad. That is not new either, for in the Old Testament the prophets had to warn the people: “woe to those who are at ease in Zion.” It is easy to cherry pick statistics to argue for the status quo. Statistics matter, and I often consult those who have the skill and expertise to do statistical studies (they too see a need for renewal). But sometimes we need to do more than crunch numbers. Sometimes we need to see what leaders out in the middle of ministry sense is happening in the culture — pastors, laypeople, students, etc. Many who either feel outside the center of life in their tradition, or those whose convictions about change are pushed to the periphery, may in fact be the very ones who can bring life again to the center of their faith tradition. It has happened before.
In the First Great Awakening Theodore Frelinghuysen scandalized his tradition (Dutch Reformed) with his obsession for the gospel. This led to a series of complaints by those in the center of his tradition. When confronted concerning his preaching and methods he replied: “Is this not the doctrine of the Reformed Church? I would rather die a thousand deaths than not preach the truth.” His conviction and new ideas, such as involving laity more in ministry and visiting the lost to share Christ, brought renewal and revival, and his innovations became standard practice.
Jonathan Edwards brought renewed life as a young preacher to the Congregationalist church, even though some were so committed to the Halfway covenant of his day (among other issues) that he eventually faced termination from the church he served in the awakening. Arthur Wallis is correct: revival is costly.
John Wesley and George Whitefield were forced to preach in the fields due to the content and the zeal with which they preached the gospel. Wesley, who at one time wrote that he did not know whether a person could be saved outside a church building (that is serious institutionalism) witnessed such a movement of God that an entire tradition was born (Methodism), although he never left the Anglican communion. Sometimes when movements remain pushed to the margins, never allowed to bring life to the center, they must break away.
Some sought to marginalize William Carey and his call to missions. Quite content with the status quo, ministers told him if God wanted to save the heathen, he would do so. But Carey, undeterred, led a Great Commission Resurgence of sorts in the Calvinistic Baptist tradition of his day. The same could be said about early presidents of the SBC in the Conservative Resurgence, pastors of large churches but also men outside the mainstream of the denominational leadership center.
Today again there is a growing tide of people, in particular those on the front lines of ministry–pastors, church planters, missionaries, students, etc. — who feel more than a little marginalized, but who hope to see their faith tradition energized again. I personally see and hear from so many international missionaries, more than a few veteran pastors, and disenchanted denominational servants adding to a growing chorus calling for change, in hopes to bring a fresh gospel fire to the center of the communion known as Southern Baptists. But many have responded with “do not get too carried away, we are fine, it is not so bad.” Ironically, that is what many in the center said 30 years ago when some on the margins said liberalism posed a great threat.
I have talked to hundreds of pastors and dozens of other leaders who also have talked to many actively involved in gospel ministry. The overwhelming consensus: we need a resurgence of conviction about and practice of the Great Commission. I honestly have not met a single person who is out in the fields who thinks the status quo is worth maintaining.
I think Michael Green says best what must happen in the Western church today:
“Unless there is a transformation of contemporary church life so that once again the task of evangelism is something which is seen as incumbent on every baptized Christian, and is backed up by a quality of living which outshines the best that unbelief can muster, we are unlikely to make much headway through techniques of evangelism. Men will not believe that Christians have good news to share until they find that bishops and bakers, university professors and housewives, bus drivers and street corner preachers are all alike keen to pass along, however different their methods may be. And then will continue to believe that the church is an introverted society composed of ‘respectable’ people and bent on its own preservation until they see in church groupings and individual Christians the caring, the joy, the fellowship, the self sacrifice, and the openness which mark the early church at its best.” (Evangelism in the Early Church, 275.)
In my tradition, the SBC, no story in the past few decades has better shown our work for the gospel than current president Johnny Hunt. Hunt was a lost pool hustler who met Jesus and never recovered. He has gone from pool hustler to become pastor of one of the great churches of our era, an evangelistic, church planting, missions dynamo. He has also long been known as one who listens carefully to those who are in the frontlines of ministry. Hunt has concluded, as have a multitude, we need a great commission resurgence. I pray we will see it.
Will the church of the Lord Jesus Christ recover a passion for the gospel that leads to dramatic impact of biblical proportions in the West? Can we see such a movement of God? We can. But it will likely start outside the center.