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The Oft-Repeated Cycle of Church History

by Bob Russell

Gleaned from www.bobrussell.org

A decade ago when I was the minister of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, our mission statement read, “We exist to evangelize the lost, edify the saved, minister to the needy and be a conscience in the community.” Experts on effective mission statements insisted it needed to be abbreviated so everyone could grasp it. But I liked that mission statement because it not only articulated our purpose, it stated the order of our priorities.

The primary purpose of the church is evangelism and discipleship. (See Matt. 28:18-20.) One of Satan’s most clever deceptions is to invert our mission and replace the primary with the secondary. Social justice or political influence can easily become more important than the paramount task of evangelism.

I remembered that mission statement last week when I read about a mainline denominational pastor who stated that Jesus was not the only way to God. This influential minister was quoted as saying, “God’s not a Christian… For me, the Christian tradition is the way to understand God and my relationship with the world and other humans…but I’m not about to say what God can and cannot do in other ways and with other spiritual experiences.”

The original documents of that preacher’s denomination included the statement, “Our knowledge of God and God’s purpose for humanity comes from the Bible, particularly what is revealed in the New Testament through the life of Jesus Christ.” How does a church begin with such noble convictions and wind up a century and a half later with leaders who hold the polar opposite in beliefs?

The chart above, The Oft-Repeated Cycle of Church History, helps trace the familiar mission-creep that takes place in many denominations and para-church organizations. The primary mission of the church is evangelism. That’s our true north. We exist to win others to Christ. But John Stott points out that the gospel message is “prickly at times” because it demands humility and repentance.

The church also has a responsibility to edify new believers. Jesus commissioned us to “Make disciples of all nations and teach them to observe everything I’ve commanded you.” Those who have been born again need to be nurtured to maturity. However, there’s a temptation for an established church to allow edification to take precedence over evangelism. You’ll hear members say, “We better get our own act together before we try to convert outsiders.”

But if we wait until we’re perfect before we evangelize, we remain silent. Actually, the best evangelists are new Christians who are just babes in Christ. When edification becomes more important than evangelism, the church quickly stagnates. Acts 16:5 records, “So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.” Evangelism and edification are simultaneous missions that complement each other.

The church also has a responsibility to be compassionate to the hurting. Jesus instructed His followers to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the sick. Every congregation should minister to the needs of hurting people both inside and outside the church.

Today’s evangelical churches are placing an increasing emphasis on “service evangelism.”. The motivation is not just that we genuinely care for people…we do. But we also know the church has an image problem. The world regards the evangelical church as intolerant, hypocritical and judgmental. So to gain a hearing we are aware we need to be more compassionate and service oriented. Everyone respects those who care for the needy. When the church takes up an offering for hurricane victims or feeds the homeless, the world applauds and hopefully will be more receptive to our message about salvation.

The problem in the past has been that churches gradually allow their ministry to the hurting to become their primary purpose. Since meeting physical needs is more tangible and respectable, it’s tempting for the church to emphasize social justice at the expense of communicating the need to repent and be born again. As a result, evangelism becomes an afterthought.

The church then subtly moves to worldly respect as the primary goal. Church leaders don’t express that in so many words, but it’s obvious they want their church to be esteemed by outsiders. They don’t want to offend anyone by calling people to repentance from sin and salvation through faith in Christ alone, so they tell them, “God loves you just as you are and we do too.” The applause of men becomes more important than the approval of God.

Soon the sophisticated church is embarrassed by the truth of God’s Word. It then embraces a liberal theology. The Bible warns about preachers who say just “what itching ears want to hear.” But liberal teachers wilt under pressure and compromise the Biblical message of creation, sin, salvation, heaven, and hell in order to be culturally acceptable.

It’s not long before the compromising church embraces universalism – everyone is going to be saved. “One religion is as good as another.” “Jesus’ claim that He is the only way isn’t really true.” By then the Holy Spirit has departed and the church dies a slow death. It survives partly to minister to human needs and mostly to provide salaries and pension funds for those it employs.

Then one day a spiritual crisis arises and a remnant in the church cry out to God for help. They humble themselves before God, rediscover the truth of Scripture, repent of sin and turn to Christ. They enthusiastically call the church to revival. Sometimes they are well-received, and there is renewal. But usually, those seeking recommitment encounter resistance from a sophisticated church that’s uncomfortable with the basics of the gospel.

At that point, the revived believers withdraw from their denomination and begin to aggressively evangelize again even though friends and family are embarrassed by the “radical” nature of their faith. But new converts are born again and begin to mature in Christ. That’s the oft-repeated cycle of church history.

The challenge for every local congregation is to keep the main thing the main thing. The primary purpose of the church is to evangelize the lost and edify the saved. Mature believers minister to social needs, but we don’t forget that we exist first and foremost to win the lost to Christ. Like Peter and John, we say, “We can’t help but speak about what we’ve seen and heard.”

“What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels” (Luke 9:25-26).

.                                     Bob Russell is retired Senior Minister of Southeast Christian Church, Louisville, KY.

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