Archive: Renewal Through Recovery

By Carl E. Glasow, Pastor, First United Methodist Church, Cleveland, Tennessee

A Local Pastor Looks at The Church

Renewal is one of the current emphases in the Christian Church. Decreasing Sunday school and worship attendance, the lack of success in evangelism, the difficulty in recruiting ministers, and the general cut-back of religious activities to one hour a week is causing great concern among the leaders and members of the major Protestant bodies. Also, a large number of people feel that the declining influence of the Church is a contributing factor to the decay of our society. To them, the growing crime rate, narcotic addiction, divorce, and juvenile delinquency are at least partly the result of a lack of religious vigor in our society.

Many ideas have been advanced by Christian leadership in an effort to bring the desired renewal into existence. For example, a great deal of stress has been placed upon the re-designing of church school curriculum materials. It is felt that professional language, varied lesson outlines, charts, maps, and film strips will revitalize the educational program. Another approach to renewal was taken recently in The Methodist Church when one of our noted theologians made a strong statement to the effect that the episcopal appointive system is out of date. A restructuring at this point is apparently essential for the morale of the Methodist clergy in modern America. In other instances, local pastors are being told repeatedly in books and periodicals that they must change the basic pattern of their work. Many critics are saying that preaching is old fashioned and that the Gospel must be advanced by more modern methods. They stress that the program of the local church must be reorganized to include participation in the civil rights movement, the war on poverty, and various open-housing projects.

In short, it seems that the trend in current thinking is toward renewal through an institutional approach. Redesign, restructure, and reorganization are the terms which apparently define the major approaches being recommended for the strengthening of the modern Church. The clearest indication of this is to be seen in the ecumenical movement. The Consultation on Church Union is making rapid progress in the establishment of a giant church to be achieved by the merger of 10 different Protestant bodies. Those supporting this movement are dedicated to the idea that a major restructuring of denominations will lead to a new day for the Christian religion in America. These ecumenists believe that union “is the most hopeful frontier in contemporary Church life.”

But does this approach to the religious problem in our modem society stand the test of reason and revelation? Does “renewal through reorganization” make sense? Does it fit in with the historical insights and performance of the Church? Is it adequate for the challenge of these days? Some observers think not. These pastors and laymen feel that this contemporary approach is superficial and does not deal with the basic issues involved.

In order to support this critical viewpoint, let us take a brief look at Church history. Even though we live in the twentieth century, we can learn something from the past. Most Americans today seem preoccupied with the future and the idea of change. They stress all that appears to be different and unique on the modern scene. But a paraphrase of Charles Dickens seems to give us the needed balance. Isn’t it true that “these are the newest of times and yet the oldest of times”? We face a new age in a relative sense but perhaps, in an absolute sense, things are not really so different after all.

One of the motor car companies has recently been using a series of commercials built around the slogan, “Ford has a better idea.” Actually, this was the basic claim that was made by Christianity at its founding 2000 years ago. The Gospel proposes that it has “a better idea” about God and the salvation of man. This idea was summarized by the writer of Matthew’s Gospel when he recorded Peter’s confession to Jesus at Caesarea Philippi, “Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God.” Our faith proclaims the message that Jesus was the Messiah of Jewish expectation and that He, in a unique way, incarnates the deity and offers redemption to the world.

However, an idea is only part of our religious heritage. Ideas lead to institutions. Thus, the idea of education results in a school, the idea of love results in marriage, the idea of democracy results in a government. So it is with the idea that Christ was the Messiah. Following Peter’s confession, Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, “Upon this rock I will build my Church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” In short, the Christian idea led to the Christian Church.

Theoretically, of course, ideas and their institutions should remain in a balanced relationship, in a kind of creative tension resulting in the complimenting of each by the other. However, in actual practice, this dynamic equilibrium is difficult to attain. History reveals that, from time to time, churchmen have so emphasized their organization that they have neglected the Gospel and its central truth.

For example, in New Testament times, the idea of the Gospel resulted in the institution of the Christian Church. By the fourth century, the Church had conquered the Roman Empire. But following this struggle, the organization became pre-occupied with secular pursuits and its own advancement. In a sense, the institution came to neglect the Christ-idea and thus lost its spiritual vitality. In fact, many historians point to Constantine’s support of Christianity as marking the fall of the Church into politics and temporal concerns.

Reform followed in the development of the monastic movement. A dedicated minority of laymen, seeing the imbalance of the institution, went off into the deserts and mountains to meditate and pray. These monks revitalized the idea regarding Jesus, “Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God.” And they followed Christ in lives of poverty, chastity, and obedience. This renewal, in turn, led to a new organization, the monastery. Then, after a period of success, this institution also lost much of its spiritual force. The idea of the Gospel was greatly weakened in later monasticism when it became, too often, the instrument of the Church, as illustrated by the sale of indulgences and by the excesses of the Inquisition.

Martin Luther, a monk himself, was shocked by the overall situation and began the Protestant reformation in the sixteenth century. He recovered the concept of a faith relationship to God made possible by the ministry of Jesus. Later on, however, this idea again was lost and a need for renewal became evident among the churches of the Reformation. John Wesley faced an indifferent, state-supported church in England during the eighteenth century. By the grace of God, he recovered the Christian idea and was later forced to establish an institution that has evolved into The United Methodist Church.

Today, it is evident that the major denominations have grown to great size and great wealth. But the need for reform is all too evident-as has been noted in the opening paragraph. In short, the modern Church has all the signs of once again being an institution that has lost the power of the idea that gave it birth and vitality.

If this analysis is essentially valid, it is quite obvious that “renewal through reorganization” is not the basic solution needed. The importance of structure and strategy is only secondary. Primarily, we must understand that our only hope is “renewal through recovery” – the recovery of the Gospel idea. Institutional pre-occupation with curriculum, church union, civil rights legislation, and the poverty program is not an adequate substitute for the experience and projection of the confession, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” These secondary activities properly follow from the idea of Christ’s Lordship. But to offer them in the place of spiritual vitality is a waste. It is the spiritual vitality that is sadly lacking today and that must be recovered.

Again, the past offers us guidance as we seek the objective, “renewal through recovery.” As we have noted, the monks brought reform to the ancient Church. While this movement had its limitations, its positive contributions included a return to Scriptural Christianity, a stress upon the obedience of the laity (monasticism began as a lay movement), and an emphasis upon higher standards for the fellowship. Luther brought vitality to bear upon the medieval Church. His approach was similar. He returned to Pauline theology, developed the doctrine of the Priesthood of All Believers. And he called all Christians to the same high level of commitment. Wesley brought renewal to the English church. Again, remember the similarities. He took Biblical preaching to the people, organized the laity, and set up strict General Rules for his societies.

In each case, the Idea was recovered by turning to the Book which has preserved the Gospel from its beginning. Also, a stress was put upon the disciplined discipleship of the rank and file. These creative approaches go back to the mind of Jesus. They are suggested in John 15 with these words, “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch and is withered …”

Renewal today depends upon the fulfillment of these requirements. Without the vir1e and its life-giving nurture, the branches will die. Without the pruning influence of God’s high standards, the vine itself is greatly hindered and even threatened. Thus, the vitality of the whole Church is dependent upon the Bible as the source of the Christ idea, upon the disciplined obedience of its members, and upon the life-giving presence of The Holy Spirit.

However, this approach faces great obstacles at the present time. Back in the second century, the Roman emperor Diocletian wished to defeat the Christian religion. His plan was simply to destroy its Book. He issued an edict that all Scriptures be burned. Today, we do not face this external danger in America. Yet there is evidence that the influence of the Bible has already been largely destroyed. The reason for this is that its authority has been undermined from within the Church itself by humanistic theology, by extreme Biblical criticism, and an over-emphasis on social action as THE gospel.

The result has been the watering down of the Christian message to the point that there is little difference between it and secular idealism. At the same time, church membership standards have grown increasingly lax. In Methodism, for example, Wesley’s General Rules have given way to virtually no rules at all. It is true, in general, that the civic clubs are stricter than the major denominations when it comes to the admission of members and the fulfillment of attendance and financial commitments. This trend will only be accelerated by participation in the radical aspect of the ecumenical movement. Organic union of the major churches will be achieved only through the further compromise of membership, doctrinal, and ethical standards.

Actually, the Christian Church is weak because a major segment of the ministry and the laity have apparently lost the dynamic idea of the redemptive work of Christ which leads to a personal and prophetic witness in a troubled world. Both clergy and laymen will remain “frozen assets” until their hearts are “strangely warmed” by creative encounter with Christ and the Bible in its traditional function as the authoritative witness to Christ, and until greater discipline is restored to the Christian community.

The Church faces a new day in this twentieth century – but only in a relative sense. Actually, these are the newest of days, yet the oldest of days. The institution has lost the power of the basic Idea, which is Christ. Let us understand that renewal must be achieved through recovery of the Idea that “God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not die, but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) Next to this, reorganization of the Church institution is only secondary. New life will come to the Church only as the laity and clergy alike return to Scriptural Christianity and to higher standards of obedience to Christ.


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