Tuesday, March 28, 2006

"The Dying American Church"--Is Calvinism the culprit?

Thom Rainer, newly elected President of Lifeway finds his typically optimistic heart deeply challenged by the evangelistic anemia that characterizes most evangelical churches in America. According to his research, it takes 86 American church members one year to reach one person for Christ. His research further suggests some reasons for this:

  1. Doctrinal ineffectiveness, by which he means that major doctrines of the Bible are often avoided by churches. Repentance, hell, regenerate church membership and church discipline are disappearing from the life and ministry of many churches.

  2. Church leaders are becoming less evangelistic. A recent survey of pastors discovered that 53% of them had not made an attempt in the past 6 months to engage one lost person evangelistically.

  3. Minor issues often distract Christians from focusing on evangelism.

Rainer concludes: "The numerical evidence seems clear. The American church is dying." Coming from an optimist, these are sobering words. Rainer's opinion is not that different from the assessment that many have been making for decades, however, in the midst of of much evangelical self-congratulatory celebration. Maybe if his and other voices continue to join the chorus, more evangelicals will stop boasting long enough to engage in some much needed self-evaluation.

One final note--Rainer wisely does not try to blame the spread of Calvinism for the decay of American Christianity. It is obvious that 53% of American evangelical pastors are not Calvinistic. Calvinism is not the culprit. But it may indeed be the antidote. As the doctrines of God's sovereign grace continue to spread throughout churches in our country the prospect of revival and reformation increases. Apart from such spiritual renewal sent by God, Rainer's prophecy will sadly come true.

We need to heed the wisdom of the great Southern Baptist leader from the early 20th century, J. B. Gambrell. He recognized that the great need of his day was a renewal of the preaching of the doctrines of grace. This is what he said:

We may invigorate our faith and renew our courage by reflecting that divine power has always attended the preaching of doctrine, when done in the true spirit of preaching. Great revivals have accompanied the heroic preaching of the doctrines of grace, predestination, election, and that whole lofty mountain range of doctrines upon which Jehovah sits enthroned, sovereign in grace a in all things else. God honors the preaching that honors him. There is entirely too much milk-sop preaching nowadays trying to cajole sinners to enter upon a truce with their Maker quit sinning and join the church. The situation does not call for a truce, but for a surrender. Let us bring out the heavy artillery of heaven, and thunder away at this stuck-up age as Whitefield, Edwards, Spurgeon, and Paul did and there will be many slain in the Lord raised up to walk in newness of life (quoted in Tom Nettles' By His Grace, For His Glory, 216).

Pray for ongoing reformation in our day!


Garvis Campbell said...

How Gambrell's words are not for the faint of heart!

"There is entirely too much milk-sop preaching nowadays trying to cajole sinners ... Let us bring out the heavy artillery of heaven, and thunder away at this stuck-up age ..."

But, most poignantly, his closing statement in your quote of him:

..."and there will be many slain in the Lord raised up to walk in newness of life."

Thanks, Tom, for bringing this quote back from the grey matter graveyard.

Praying for Reformation,


P.S. Let us also continue to pray for Dr. Rainer. Personally, I make a note of SBC leaders and regularly commit them to prayer. Any suggestion that we pen a universal list of sorts and circulate it so that we're all praying from the same page?

Tony K. said...

As a Children’s Minister, I am always hearing that the majority of conversions happen before age 13. These statistics are used to argue for the importance of children’s work. But if this research is accurate, the American church is certainly dying. We have lost our ability to reach adults. Our religion is barely convincing our own children – while the rest the world laughs at us.

(I would add that many of the supposed conversions in children’s ministry are suspect. I have recently seen several articles on ‘making faith stick.’)

Jeremy Weaver said...

I am convinced that part of the problem is unclear teaching concerning the Gospel. We need more Calvinistic preaching. And we need more who will offer the Gospel freely to those will believe.

David B. Hewitt said...

Thanks, Dr. Ascol.

Your post is certainly timely (as most if not all of what you say here is). I'm a small voice in my church, a church mostly devoid of doctrinal understanding, Doctrines of Grace or otherwise. I do indeed pray for Reformation in my church, in our convention, and continued Reformation in my own life.

May God be glorified,
David Hewitt

Scripture Searcher said...

Welcome back to the USA,Tom!
Many of us prayed daily for
your mission to some who have experienced what we
Christians in America are to
experience in the future -
tribulation and suffering.

Regarding today's subject
may I suggest that the dialogues (intelligient and
fair debates) scheduled this
year between honest Christian brothers with some
serious differing viewpoints on the awesome
supernatural work of God in
the salvation of sinners will help people see that
biblical Calvinism is not the culprit aka cause of dead churches, declining interest in real revival and true evangelism.


FivepointCoug said...

I can identify with David Hewitt's comments about being a small voice in a congregation. Even though standing for the truths of the Doctrines of Grace I sometimes feel as though I am a tinkling cymbal and feel as though I should be more loving because I used to believe almost everything my fourpoint brethren still cling to. But praise God that in response to this confused believer's prayer to learn more about Church History that he opened my eyes to the truths of the Doctrines of Grace and since that discovery my oh my how my understanding of Scripture has changed. To Him be the praise.

chadjohnston1 said...

Last weekend I went and heard Mark Noll give some great lectures on the center of Christianity shifting from the northern hemisphere (Europe and America) to the southern (Africa and Asia). It challenged me to think about “American Christianity” in a whole new light. You should check out his books on the subject. The conference took place at Roanoke College www.roanoke.edu and church of the Holy Spirit www.coths.org

slmayes said...


Just a quick question concerning Thom Rainer: Is Rainer a Calvinist? He taught adjunctly at Beeson when I first went there, but left before I was able to take a class under him. I was thinking, but could be wrong, that he went to Southern after Dr. Mohler became president. Can you shed some light on this?

jbuchanan said...

Recently I attended the Evangelism conference for the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia. Dr. Voddie Bauchum preached twice that day and I believe these are two of the most important messages that I have heard in years. In the first message he called us back to the Biblical gospel and to abandon the numbers game that we are currently trapped in. In the second message he challenged us to return to the Biblical model of the centrality of the home in evangelism and discipleship. The problem in the American church is simple a lack of Biblical preaching and teaching. Southern Baptists need to stop trying to be relevant and start being Biblical.

Calvinism may be part of the antidote but I think it goes farther. First, we must return not just to the inerrancy of Scripture but also to its sufficiency. That means we need to examine every practice in the life of the church by the Word. Second, we need to have a renewed passion for evangelism. Here is where we must examine ourselves brothers. I agree that much of the evangelism in the SBC is watered down and unbiblical but we must stop complaining about it and offer something better. If we are to ever have a voice in the SBC we must prove ourselves to be evangelistic. That means getting outside of the walls of the church and preaching the gospel in the highways and by-ways of our communities.

J.D. Rector said...

Dr. Tom: Welcome back home! Thanks for your reference to these poignant comments by Dr. Rainer. I also appreciate the quote from Dr. Gambrell. My personal prayer for my church fellowship, my denomination and the evangelical church in America is a God-sent revival from His sovereign hands. In the words from the old hymn "... all is vain unless the Spirit of the Holy One comes down. Brethren pray... !!"

Soli Deo Gloria,
J.D. Rector

jbuchanan said...

Third, we must start planting new churches. Many of our older churches are too far gone to be reformed. Planting new churches that hold to the doctrines of grace from the beginning will be far more effective.

Fourth, we must eliminate all theater style seating from our churches and restore the proper God honoring pew to our worship.

Nate Russell said...

A lot of the comments on this post talked about the need for the evangelical revivals of the past and the great preaching that accompanied them, but it seems we need to ask ourselves what those events accomplished and whether or not they are the answer. My point is this that even though those events were grand and made a great impact on our society they did little in forming true followers of Christ that are adept in not only being saved but also in saving (by the way can one really be a follower of Christ and not follow Christ, interesting thought). It seems that if you want to make a forever kind of impact, not only on one's immediate surroundings, but on the relationships of the people of the world with God, then one must teach them who God is and who we are in relation to him, and MOST importantly give them a reason to follow him. If we don't lead by example then we won't have anyone to lead. I mean this is what the numbers are saying. Guess what it is we need? It's theology. Theology is what makes or breaks the church and if we want people to know God then we have to tell them who he is, because they have to know who he is, not just believe he exists, before they act, much less tell someone who he is. So let's stop all this talk of grand revivals that give people experiences and let's start giving them relationships.

Glennsp said...

jbuchanan said...
"Fourth, we must eliminate all theater style seating from our churches and restore the proper God honoring pew to our worship."

I fail to see what is God honouring about pews. They are rigid, unmovable, inflexable, restricting.
The method of seating (except pews!) has nothing to do with the Godliness of people or the state of their hearts.
Don't forget, Jesus knew nothing of pews and in Church history they are a very recent invention. Praise God they are not universal.

Hot Rod 121 said...

The church in America is dying; it is very anemic, as in the seventh church in the book of Revelation chapter three.

Thomas Young said...

Thank you for not attacking doctrine. It's not about Calvin it's about what we are doing with the WORD we are given to share. Everyone is waiting for someone to step up. Well, WE are what we have been waiting for. The day of the lone wolf out barking in the wilderness is over. We need more attacks to come our way and more heat. That will enable us to be stengthend and clear in our message. The message of the beauty of the cross. Lord use the new Reformers of today to revive us again!


John said...

I am not a Calvinist (I would call myself a 'practical Calvinist'), but I agree with Gambrell that the way to bring about revival is to preach the unsullied Word, all of it. Man has too high an opinion of himself, especially these days. We need to glorify God and stick to His word, and it seems the Calvinists are really good at this.