Charles C. McCabe was the Director of Church Extension for the Methodist Episcopal Church as well as a brilliant strategist. In the spring of 1881, he was riding a train in the Pacific Northwest when he saw an article about the National Convention of the Free Thinkers of America. The newspaper included the text of a speech delivered by prominent atheist Robert Ingersol. As McCabe read the speech he became quite angry. Ingersol had said, “The churches are dying out all across America. They are struck with death! By the dawn of the 20th century, churches will be but relics of a bygone day”. McCabe got off the train and fired off a telegram to Mr. Ingersol in Chicago. It read,” Dear Bob, We are building more than one church a day for every day of the year and propose to make it two a day!” The story got out and someone composed the following chorus:
The infidels, a motley band, in council met and said,
“The churches die throughout the land the last will soon be dead.”
When suddenly a message came that filled them with dismay,
“All hail the power of Jesus’ name, we’re building two a day”.
We’re building two a day, dear Bob; we’re building two a day!
All hail the power of Jesus’ name, we’re building two a day!
Charles McCabe clearly shared the vision of Methodism’s Founder, “to reform a continent and to spread scriptural holiness across these lands.” Methodism envisioned itself as a reform movement. A vision that propelled the Methodist church to the forefront of outreach and pioneer evangelism in America until it could be said that the Methodists owned the 19th century!
Despite the multitude of stories telling of the Church’s transformative impact on cities, countries and civilizations, there has been no shortage of hostile voices predicting her demise. Yet even while the scoffers scoff the Church of Jesus Christ steadily penetrates a darken world like yeast penetrates a loaf of bread “until the whole be leavened” and will continue to do so until that day when “at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”. The future of the Church does not hang in the balance! Victory for the Church of Jesus Christ is inevitable!
The truth in the paragraph above stands without equivocation. However, any thinking person who reads the above statement and then simply looks at what is happening in the vast majority of churches in North America and Europe today would have cause to question the veracity of what I wrote. It is true that the Invisible Church of Jesus Christ is and will be triumphant. It is not true that every part of the visible church on earth experiences that same conquering spirit. While the Church is harvesting a bumper crop in Asia, Latin American and Africa the harvest seems to be rotting in the field in Europe and North America. The problem is certainly not with the Lord of the Church or with His power to prevail. The problem lies with a Laodicean spirit that has gripped the visible church of North America and Europe. The problem is not new! Read Paul’s words to a church that was not yet twenty-five years old! Take a moment to read again the first three chapters of the book of The Revelation. Take a literary walk down the pages of church history reading the stories of the Reformers and the Revivalist and you will see what I mean!
A willingness to acknowledge historical fact and present reality about certain parts of the church should not turn us into pessimist. One does not have to join the “church is dead” movement to be able to admit that the visible church has at times lost her way, backslidden, become unfruitful and needed major reformation and revival. As a matter of fact, I believe the church in America is in such a time right now. James MacDonald says the evangelical church is experiencing a time of “epic failure.” He further says that, “Until we acknowledge that the church in North America is failing, we won’t take the steps necessary to see that trend reversed.” MacDonald’s word to the evangelical church should be taken to heart by the Conservative Holiness Movement as well.
The Call to Resurgent Hope
I along with the faculty of God’s Bible School and College have the greatest appreciation for and the deepest commitment to that part of God’s Church identified as the Conservative Holiness Movement. This is the tradition that GBS has lived and worked within long before there was such a name designation or a movement identified as such. The “Call to the Conservative Holiness Movement” was written by our faculty as an attempt to restate the strengths of that tradition, to acknowledge its weaknesses and to dialogue on how to restore what is vital to its future. By the very nature of such a call we are acknowledging problems, struggling to find answers and humbly offering solutions. The last section, Article X, in the Call to the Conservative Holiness Movement is a call for Resurgent Hope. The CHM needs a renewed vision for its future. It lacks a “grand idea” to marshal its youth and to propel it forward. The absence of such of vision has caused the movement to become disoriented and allowed it to drift away from its historical landmarks – the things that made it special in the first place. However, the key to a renewed vision or a new vision altogether begins with a willingness to acknowledge apparent problems with an eye to corrective measures.
There is an Elephant is the room!
It has been obvious, for a long time, to many of the leaders within the CHM that the movement is in a state of serious decline. It has failed to grow numerically by means of new conversions while membership roles in some of the largest and oldest denominations have decreased as much a 60%. Unfortunately too many key leaders have simply ignored the obvious. You could say it is the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about! To reinforce my own observations with facts, I had a third party survey conducted. The survey was conducted among the eighteen denominations that identify with the CHM. The leadership of each denomination was asked to identify their top two churches so that the pastor of these churches could be interviewed. (It should be pointed out that using the top churches in each group heavily weighted the survey towards a more favorable outcome). Fifteen of the groups cooperated with the survey which allowed us to question the pastors of 30 of the top churches in these denominational groups. I then surveyed four of the largest independent churches in the CHM and added the results to this survey. The pastors were asked three questions. (1) How many conversions of unchurched people have you had in the last five years that have been discipled to the level of membership? (Not yet a member but ready to be) (2) How many conversions of unchurched people have you had in the last five years that have been discipled to the level of maturity that allows them to be involved in ministry? (3) How many third generation Christians do you have in your church?
Here is what we found:
- 80 % of the top churches in the CHM have had no unchurched person converted and discipled to the level of membership within the last five years.
- In the six largest churches surveyed only one had unchurched people converted and discipled to the level of membership in the last five years. Only two had converts discipled to the point of ministry involvement.
- The churches with the most third generation Christians tended to have the least number of unchurched converts, while churches with the least number of third generation Christians tended to have the most unchurched converts.
- The majority of the churches surveyed had at least one convert that had been discipled enough to use in ministry but was still unable to be considered for membership.
- There were three churches that I considered “outliers” and set them apart in the survey results. Together these three churches had 180 converts of unchurched people in the last five years. 60 of these converts were discipled to the level of membership. 120 of these converts were discipled to the level of ministry. All three churches had a combined total of only 24 third generation Christians (that is an average of only 8 each). These churches are exceptional and have something to teach us!
The survey highlights a number of problems. First, most CHM churches are not reaching the unchurched. Second, when a CHM church does see unchurched people converted it rarely retains these converts. This problem of attrition has several contributing causes but it is primarily because the average CHM church has failed to address the process necessary to grow these converts and to assimilate them into the core fellowship of the church (the process of becoming and belonging). Hence most of them backslide or go to another church. Third, the survey revealed something else that I had only surmised. It revealed that churches with high numbers of third generation Christians do the poorest job of reaching the unchurched. This is true despite the fact that many of these operate impressive ministries to that very population. It is alarming to see that these large churches, that are resource rich, can operate impressive outreach ministries and never truly “reach out.” This is the elephant in the room!
How do you eat an Elephant?
Occasionally one of my colleagues or students will share with me what seems to them to be an insurmountable problem. I will listen carefully then ask them this question, “How do you eat an elephant?” While they are looking at me in absolute bewilderment I will answer for them, “One bite at a time!” All of our problems, no matter how large, can and must be addressed “one bite at a time.” For the CHM the process of addressing the serious problem of decline will be a long-term deliberate strategy that must be implemented “one bit at a time.”
Success in eating the elephant means that the CHM must avoid the danger of two extremes. The first extreme is to do nothing. Since the elephant is so big and the challenge is so overwhelming the danger is that we just ignore it and do nothing at all. On the other hand, we must avoid the other extreme of trying to eat the elephant in just a few bites. Massive and sudden change can divide, demoralize and possibly destroy a church or movement.
Doing nothing is not acceptable!
However insurmountable the problem may appear to be doing nothing is not an option. Like a man paddling across the Atlantic with a hole in his boat, we can neglect the problems of our movement for a while, but if not eventually addressed we will certainly sink. Complacency can be one of our biggest enemies. It is sometimes hard to spot complacency because it can hide its failure to act behind impressive rationalization. Complacent leaders and pastors will pose the argument that true success cannot be measured or quantified. They say that such measurements are the world’s way of evaluating a successful ministry and that simply counting conversions, members, offerings, buildings, etc . . . is not the way God measures success. They contend that the only true criterion for ministry is faithfulness. There is so much truth in this argument that it is difficult to debate. There is much to be said from the Word and from practical ministry about faithfulness. It is extremely important in both the eyes of God and men. However, holding up faithfulness as the final measure of true success can be a “cop out” for failing to do the hard work of reaching people. Even if that isn’t the case, it is certainly an oversimplification. I agree with Timothy Keller when he says that there is a more Biblical gauge to evaluate ministry than either success or faithfulness – it is fruitfulness (John 15:8).
If complacent leaders and layman can comfort themselves with an appeal to their faithfulness (one that has certainly been uncoupled from the concept of fruitfulness) then that may prove to be a strong enough “sleeping potion” to keep them from addressing the true barrenness of their particular denominations and churches. I am afraid that as long as the various groups that make up the CHM can afford to hold the annual IHC, operate their own annual campmeeting and give respectable offerings to a foreign missions program they will remain complacent – even accepting of the failure of the local church to be fruitful and reach its surrounding community.
The importance of Vision Renewal for the CHM
If you have ever driven a car with misaligned wheels you know that it is difficult to keep the car in the middle of your lane – it constantly wants to pull to one side. That is what it is like to be in a movement, church or organization that lacks vision. Everyone may be very busy doing something but they are continuously pulled off center – away from the main thing. Without a compelling vision to motivate, energize and direct, people will wear themselves out with meaningless activity. Any church or movement that is engaged in such activity becomes the breeding ground for skepticism, criticism and a host of “rabbit trials” that take it away from its main objective.
In greyhound racing there is a little mechanical rabbit covered in fur that sits on the end of a long metal rod that circles the track ahead of the dogs. The operator of this mechanical rabbit always keeps the rabbit ahead of the dogs so as to keep them running but never allowing them to catch it. In one race, while the dogs were hotly pursuing the rabbit, there was a short in the electrical system that caused the rabbit to explode. With no rabbit to chase the dogs didn’t know what to do. Some of them went crazy jumping through the fence. Others just wandered aimlessly around the track. Still others laid down on the track and howled at the spectators. Not one dog finished the race. Without a vision to pursue: dreams fade, people drift and once-vibrant movements slowly die.
The CHM is resource rich! It has a wealth of talented people who are deeply committed to their faith. It possesses what it takes to move forward with the work of vision discovery, renewal and implementation. Yet it does have some major “vision obstacles” that it will have to be overcome. Things like:
Reluctant Leadership – So much rises and falls around leadership. The CHM struggles to be open to the kind of visionary leader that has the capacity to lead it from where it is to where it needs to go. Even where that kind of leadership exists, it has too often bowed to the politics of fear or lacked the resolve to push beyond the obstacles.
Pietistic Pride – The CHM battles with a strange paradox. On the one hand it struggles with an inferiority complex while on the other hand it struggles with pietistic pride. There are times when our opinion of ourselves is too exalted. So much so, that we tend to look down on the rest of Christ’s body as “not quite where we are.” This sanctimonious arrogance needs to be replaced with a little sanctified humility. After all pride made the Devil the Devil!
Pre-occupation with the Past – When CHM folks get together you will hear far more talk about our “holiness heritage” than you ever will about our “holiness future.” Our Methodist Holiness history is fascinating! But it is still history! The past must serve as a guide post not a hitching post – it should be the rudder on the ship not the anchor. God consistently reveals Himself as One who is forward looking. He is primarily interested in where we are going not where we have been. It is the Devil who wants us pre-occupied with the past! Movements and churches that have been mightily used of God in the past, and for one reason or the other get stuck there, will be set aside and someone else or something else will be raised up to take their place.
Resistance to Change – Continual change is the reality of our time. The church is not an isolated island from the rest of society and by its very nature it cannot be. It too is changing. As a matter of fact, change is not new to the church. For those of us within the holiness tradition, John Wesley and the early Methodists serve as an example of innovative and creative change to meet the ministry needs of their time. The CHM has proven quite resistant to change in methodology, technology and organizational structure even when it is apparent that change could advance the kingdom without any compromise to the message.
An Unhealthy focus on Single Issues – Churches were never meant to have a single focus like Pizza Hut or Jiffy Lube. The church must be fully Biblical and properly balanced in all its priorities and emphasis! To be a healthy body it must be a whole body. Too many CHM churches are known for one thing – the lifestyle positions they embrace. When this single focus prevails it can hurt the church both internally and externally. Biblical holiness does in fact have behavioral consequences that impact my lifestyle. But it also cast them as a part of discipleship and growth where they are lived out in an atmosphere of relaxed self-discipline and humble dependence on God – never as the main thing.
Fear Driven Decision Making – Movements, churches and pastors who constantly test the winds of “what others might think” end up neurotic, paranoid and pathetically immobile. Fear has been the catalyst for many needless rules and regulations. The fear of what others “might think” has killed many positive outreach initiatives. A man fearing spirit and the general fear of change has hindered churches from needed adjustments that would have positioned them to better serve their own people as well as those they might reach.
Vision begins with God!
God is more than willing to help a struggling or failing church or movement to regain its footing, but He will not climb over the impediments of no vision, poor planning, weak execution, horizontal thinking and a lack of faith. Leadership must take seriously the work of vision casting. For me to propose a vision or even attempt to restate a vision for the churches, the denominations and the organizations that make up the 21st century CHM would push the boundaries of arrogance or ignorance (I will let you decide). The work of vision casting and mission development is not a “cut and paste” moment achieved by a few hours of “goggling” all the good web sites. Vision comes from the Lord! It comes when leaders and laymen seek God, find a divine burden, and mold it to their situation! Vision is not some mystical dream detached from reality. Whatever vision God gives a church it will have some parallel to the mission and vision laid out for us in the book of Acts and duplicated throughout the centuries by the church. Vision is anchored in one’s core values, grows out of one’s main reason for existence and fits perfectly within the context of one’s ministry situation (gifts and resources). Vision is birthed when someone has a heart that aches so badly to know how to advance God’s Kingdom that they are willing to get alone with God long enough to say, “speak Lord for your servant heareth” and then stay still long enough for God to speak to their situation. Vision is not solely owned or produced by one person but I do believe that God normally puts the vision for a church, an organization or a movement into the heart of a one person and not a group of people. I also believe that He confirms and refines that vision as the leader shares it with a small group of elders or spiritual leaders to whom he is accountable or with whom he shares oversight of the ministry.
A vision statement explains where a church or denomination is headed and helps to formulate a picture of what it will “look like” as it accomplishes its mission. I can’t author a vision statement for the CHM or the individual churches that compose its membership but if I could the following components would be a central part:
UpReach – I believe prayer and worship are two core elements that are struggling to survive in ways that truly impact the CHM. We live in a post-Christian culture where not only do men sin with no sense of remorse but where anti-Biblical values and anti-Christ views are entrenched at the highest levels of the institutions that undergird and govern our society. Only prayer can break such a stronghold. We must once again become a praying church.
The culture we are called to win is one that is lonely, empty and materialistic. They are desperately seeking for something they do not have – something transcendent. They are crushed by the disappointment that they cannot create happiness for themselves beyond the momentary. They have a deep longing in their soul to know, to experience and to worship God. The church that provides an experience of unashamed worship, marked by the presence of God, is the church that will never lack for people. We must return to the kind of worship that is marked by God’s presence. This may be our greatest need!
OutReach – Many holiness churches began as store front missions. They located where the sinners were because they believed it was their main job to see sinners saved, sanctified and established in the family of God. It seems that the CHM no longer believes that this is their main mission and unfortunately the statistics support such a conclusion. The CHM has become primarily a preservation movement. However, that can change! A renewed vision for the CHM should make the Great Commission a vital part of its main mission so that we might “reform a nation and spread scriptural holiness across this land.”
InReach – According to Dr. Brian Black, there are approximately 3000 churches in the USA that in some way identify with the CHM (compare that to the North American church numbers for the: Nazarenes – 4800, Wesleyans – 1710, and the Free Methodist – 957). With all these churches and all the individual talent within the CHM one would think the movement could and should be doing something significant for the Kingdom of God. However, we are resource rich and cooperation poor. We have miserably failed to reach within – join hands – and unite for the greater good of advancing the work of God in church planting, education, printing, missions and compassionate care. Instead of one or two strong mission organizations there are thirty-one struggling ones. Instead of one or two strong colleges there are eight struggling ones. Instead of one strong holiness church in town there are four “family controlled” struggling ones. Cooperation for stewardship reasons alone would free up millions of dollars to further the Kingdom and the message of scriptural holiness! No movement on earth could gain more from just simply working together than could the CHM.
DownReach – The CHM has a wealth of Biblical, theological, doctrinal and practical teaching that is not being passed down to new Christians or to younger generations. The CHM needs a renewed commitment to discipleship, mentoring and preaching. Discipleship is the perfect arena to “teach” many things that should not and cannot be adequately “preached.” Mentoring is the key to helping our immature converts and young people maneuver the choppy waters of life successfully. Just keeping the few converts we do have coupled with saving our own would double our population numbers within a few years. Preaching as it is being done in many CHM churches is passionate exhortation with the goals of inspiration, motivation and evaluation. Preaching in today’s world needs to be passionate explanation with the goal of transformation and application. The post-modern mind today doesn’t want someone “yelling” at them. It wants someone explaining the Bible and giving them ways to apply to their life right now!
Someone has got to see it!
Francis Asbury saw an American frontier evangelized for Christ and the Circuit Rider was born. William Booth saw the poor of England sinking in despair and the Salvation Army was born! Martin Wells Knapp saw a school to train a new generation of Christian soldiers and God’s Bible School was born. Rev. Eber Teter saw the state of Alabama without the message of heart holiness and the Friendship Wesleyan Methodist Church was born – at whose altar I found saving grace. Someone must see what can be before it can or will come to pass!
The founder of Disney World, Walt Disney, died five years before Disney World was completed. On opening day in 1971 someone said to director Mike Vance, “Isn’t it too bad Walt Disney didn’t live to see this?” To which Vance replied, “Oh, Walt did see it! That’s why its here.”
Somebody has got to dream and envision a renewed holiness movement. I long for a movement unified in purpose – linking arms in mission and message! Martin Luther King saw an America where racial inequality was abolished – “He (God) has allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!” I too have been to the mountain top and I’ve seen on the other side! The CHM just needs more mountain climbers who will get above the fog at ground level and see what “can be” in our tomorrows!