Wednesday, December 27, 2006

On Reforming the American Church

It is no secret that the American Church as a whole is in decline. David T. Olson, founder and president of The American Church (, reports that in 1990, 20.4% of the population attended church on a regular basis, whereas in 2003 only 17.8% did so. And if this trend continues, the attendance rate in the year 2050 will be about 11.7%. While evangelical churches are gaining slightly in numbers, mainline churches are declining rapidly (see Olson’s power point presentation entitled, 29 Interesting Facts about the American Church).

Have you ever wondered why this is so? A phenomenon so serious as national church decline cannot be reduced to a single factor, but surely among the most important factors is the state of the clergy, and more specifically, the manner in which we train and employ them. Consider what Richard Baxter wrote in 1656 (The Reformed Pastor, Banner of Truth, Carlisle, PA: 2005):

“But, when languages and philosophy have almost all their time and diligence [i.e., those training for the ministry], and, instead of reading philosophy like divines, they read divinity like philosophers, as if it were a thing of no more moment than a lesson of music, or arithmetic, and not the doctrine of everlasting life—this it is that blasts so many in the bud, and pesters the Church with unsanctified teachers! Hence it is, that we have so many worldlings to preach of the invisible felicity, and so many carnal men to declare the mysteries of the Spirit; and I would I might not say, so many infidels to preach Christ, or so many atheists to preach the living God; and when they are taught philosophy before or without religion, what wonder if their philosophy be all or most of their religion” (60).

Having attended the Graduate Theological Union for four years, and having studied alongside so many preparing for the ministry in mainline churches, I can tell you that this paragraph reads more like a modern report on the state of our seminaries than like an ancient bemoaning of ancient problems. Indeed, there is nothing new under the sun! When we drift away from the Word of God and toward the philosophies of men, we reap a harvest of clergy who, for the most part, do not believe the Bible they preach. And if they do not believe what they preach, is it any wonder that they cannot inspire the souls of their hearers and impress upon them the great and urgent need to share the gospel with every man, woman, and child?

The nature of the ministry is that you have to be consumed with what you preach and teach in order for it to have its intended effect. (Except that in some cases, by grace, God is pleased to glorify himself through unbelieving clergy.) As with Ezekiel and the apostle John, you have to eat the Word of God before you declare it (Ezekiel 3:1; Revelation 10:9). The Word has to become part of the fabric of your being before it can flow out of you with power.

Thus, we would do well in our efforts to reform the American Church to start, not with reformation of the church, but with the reformation of the clergy—the content of their learning, the manner of our instruction, and the absolute insistence that everyone who takes a pulpit must be aflame with passion for what he preaches.

And let not the evangelical church think this is an issue for the mainline church only—it is not. In the last few decades we have been subtly sliding away from the Word of God to the extent that we are now sending men out to plant churches who do not believe in such crucial doctrines as the inerrancy of the Word of God or the substitutionary atonement or the uniqueness and primacy of Christ. We are a stone’s throw away from the liberalism that has sacked the mainline church, and we would do well to get back to the Word of God—learned and lived—as our primary means of instruction.

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