I have thrown down the gauntlet. I maintain that the evangelical church is weak, self-indulgent, and superficial, that it has been thoroughly discipled by its culture. As Jesus said, “Every one when he is fully taught will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40 RSV). Furthermore, I believe the crisis of the church is one of product, the kind of people being produced. I propose the solution to be obedience to Christ’s commission to “make disciples,” to teach Christians to obey everything Christ commanded.
Do I stand alone in my critical analysis of the church? Others more wise and experienced than I maintain the same thesis. The late Elton Trueblood has said:
Perhaps the greatest single weakness of the contemporary Christian Church is that millions of supposed members are not really involved at all and, what is worse, do not think it strange that they are not. As soon as we recognize Christ’s intention to make His Church a militant company we understand at once that the conventional arrangement cannot suffice. There is no real chance of victory in a campaign if ninety per cent of the soldiers are untrained and uninvolved, but that is exactly where we stand now. Most alleged Christians do not now understand that loyalty to Christ means sharing personally in His ministry, going or staying as the situation requires.1
A 1980 Gallup poll indicated that of the 22 million churchgoing evangelicals, only 7 percent had taken any evangelistic training and only 2 percent had introduced another person to Jesus Christ. How would you like to march into battle with only 7 percent of your troops trained and only 2 percent with combat experience? While I pray these figures have changed over the years, I would guess that today’s figures are much the same.2
This illustrates the need for asking the right question. How could the 3,000 gathered for worship compose a great church, if only 7 percent were trained to witness and only 2 percent had introduced another to Christ? The test of a congregation, apart from personal holiness, is how effectively members penetrate the world. American churches are filled with pew-filling, sermon-tasting, spiritual schizophrenics, whose belief and behavior are not congruent.
Christians are not well trained, largely because pastors have not worked out a means of helping people do what Jesus has told them they should. As a result they feel a great deal of frustration and guilt.
Most churches grow by transfer. The rule of the day is the rotation of the saints. The number of real conversions to Christ by some “great churches” is meager. Instead churches with strong preaching and great music programs attract large numbers. Therefore, people think that the church is great and the staff does its job. In reality the churches with the best programs are crowded, along with the best restaurants and theaters, because people like excellence.
In the relationship between clergy and laity, the clergy have become professional performers and the parishioners the audience. The better the show, the larger the crowd. All this proves is that outstanding performance attracts people. It means little more than that; in no way does it faithfully reflect the priorities of Christ for His Church. As Elton Trueblood has stated, “Cheap Christianity can usually pull a pretty good attendance on Sunday morning. It is cheap whenever the people think of themselves as spectators at a performance.”3 Trueblood goes on to point out that emphasis on how many gather for worship is pre-Christian and pagan. “We fall back into an Old Testament mind-set, in which we look mostly at how many people come into the temple for the ritual. That was what counted most under the Old Covenant. Meanwhile, we forget Jesus’ words in Matthew 12:6, ‘I tell you something greater than the temple is here.’ ”4 You can always get a crowd, if you demand very little and put on a show.
Deceptively, such success blinds us to the real issues. Are the Christians healthy, is reproduction taking place, are people being trained to be disciple makers? What is being asked of the people, are they living and serving the way God planned? The purpose of gathering Christians is for training so that their penetration ability is improved.
Looking at the church twenty years ago, pollster George Barna commented:
There is strong support among Christians for the notion that an individual is free to do whatever pleases him, as long as it does not hurt others. Two out of five Christians maintain that such thinking is proper, thus effectively rejecting the unconditional code of ethics and morality taught in the Bible. Three out of ten Christians agree that nothing in life is more important than having fun and being happy. Christians express such love for money, possessions and other material objects that their Christianity cannot be said to rule their hearts. For instance, more than half of the Christian public believes that they never have enough money to buy what they need, nor what they want. One out of four believers thinks that the more you have the more successful you are. The fact that the proportion of Christians who affirm these values is equivalent to the proportion of non-Christians who hold similar views indicates how meaningless Christianity has been in the lives of millions of professed believers.5
Even though Barna’s findings are over twenty years old, they still ring true. If anything, the problem is more acute now than then. Not only are Christians untrained to penetrate their spheres of influence, their values have slipped as well. Now the difference between Christians and non-Christians has blurred and is fast disappearing. My own experience as a pastor substantiates this belief. Christians’ use of money, priorities of time, attitudes about work and leisure, divorce and remarriage, increasingly reflect culture rather than Scripture. Therefore, the church is weak in skills and weak in character.
When Os Guinness says, “We have left out substance, it is no longer the holies of holies, but vanities of vanities … we worship the god of the gut, no deeper than our last experience,”6 he speaks of a lack of strength in the church. George Gallup’s findings support this view. Only 42 percent of Christians know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and most of them know that because of television. Those who could identify the writers of the Gospels or name the Ten Commandments were fewer. Evangelicals show a startling biblical illiteracy. Bible teaching and learning are different. Among evangelical pastors a major myopia exists on this very issue. Sermons do not prepare people to live effective Christian lives. Christians evidence a serious lack of depth of both knowledge and good experience.
Francis Schaeffer warned us: “Here is the great evangelical disaster—the failure of the evangelical world to stand for truth as truth. There is only one word for this—namely accommodation: the evangelical church has accommodated to the world spirit of the age.”7
We see the bitter fruits of biblical illiteracy and subsequent accommodation in some sensitive ways. George Barna recently did a study among 10,000 evangelical youth. The results show the alarming rate of decline of values among churchgoing evangelical teens. By eighteen years of age, 43 percent had experienced sexual intercourse. Twenty-four percent considered premarital sex as acceptable. Thirty-nine percent found other sexual activity as normal. Fifty-five percent could not state that premarital intercourse was wrong. A startling find was when those who had engaged in intercourse were asked if they were forced into sex against their will, 47 percent of the boys and 65 percent of the girls said they were pressured.
The transfer of values and priorities from parents to children is weak because the majority of parents in evangelical churches have an accommodated value system. They are not committed as a whole; therefore, the children reflect the same slippage of commitment.
George Gallup says that among evangelicals, there are a highly committed group of 10 percent. These people carry the load and will make the difference. These nonaccommodators are the “hell-bent for glory group.” From them the 7 percent trained for evangelism come. Ten percent highly committed means that effective values transfer operates at ten percent efficiency.
I will develop this in full later, but for now I need only say that the truth we have sacrificed is the command for quality. The Great Commission has been worshiped, but not obeyed. The church has tried to get world evangelization without disciple making. The impetuousness of human nature and cultural pressure to get quick results have caused pastors to take every shortcut. Shortcuts don’t work; most of the time we end up starting over again. Only one road leads to world evangelism: disciple making. The truth that disciple making is the key to world evangelization, because it is the key to reproduction and multiplication, refuses to go away. We have sacrificed disciple making on the altar of cultural success, ego gratification, and immediate need.
Hull, Bill. 2007. The Disciple-Making Pastor: Leading Others on the Journey of Faith. Revised and Expanded Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.