Is Revivalism Good for the Church? In a Word, No.

What role do revivalism, evangelists, emotional altar calls, crisis decisions, etc. have in a church dedicated to faithful preaching? According to Kevin Bauder, none. And I agree. Bauder is the president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Plymouth, MN, near Minneapolis. He has made revivalism, that very familiar cultural practice in Baptist Fundamentalism, an object of study for some time. He contrasts revivalism with genuine biblical revival, and demonstrates that revivalism is a man-made phenomenon that is a detriment to the church, and often to truth as well.

Here’s Bauder:

These [characteristics of revivalism] all stem from the presupposition that the normal Christian life is one of decline, i.e., that Christian people, left to themselves, will usually just stagnate and then backslide.

(1) A belief that crisis decisions are the normal and principal

Charles Finney: The Consummate Revivalist

mechanism of sanctification and spiritual development, and that such decisions are typically manifested by “going to the altar” during the public invitation. “Evangelists” are thought of as preachers who have a special ability to produce these crises. Often a preacher is expected to have some special spiritual enduement or anointing to be able to perform the function of precipitating these crises.

(2) A failure to distinguish persuasion from manipulation in seeking to precipitate such crises, accompanied by an inability to distinguish legitimate appeals to the mind through the affections from appeals to the appetites. Tear-jerking stories, ranting, and demagoguery are the special province of revivalism.

(3) A suspicion or rejection of biblical exposition as the normal and principal mode of preaching, and the adoption of storytelling and “hard preaching,” which focuses on the invitation to salvation and the berating of God’s people for their failure to evangelize or to live up to the “standards.”

(4) The use of amusements and propaganda techniques in gathering and holding a crowd.

(5) The displacement of corporate worship by religious amusements and crowd evangelism in the public gatherings of the church.

(6) A reluctance to commit the decision-making process of the church into the hands of the members, resulting in a de facto pastoral dictatorship. Sometimes this form of spiritual contempt extends even to the private lives of church members, who are told that they should seek the pastor’s counsel before making any important decision. Very often, this philosophy of manifested in an attitude of suspicion or even contempt toward pastoral arrangements that involve a real sharing of authority and responsibility among multiple pastors.

(7) A belief that the spiritual effectiveness of ministers and ministries can be gauged (ceteris paribus) by the number of crisis decisions that are being made. Soul-winning covers a multitude of sins.

“Now, this is a short description, and it is therefore incomplete. Still, to the degree that a ministry is characterized by the above, then it can fairly be called revivalistic. Of course, non-revivalists also favor revival (or, as we prefer to call it, “awakening”–and there is a good reason for this). In contrast to revivalism, biblical Christianity assumes that spiritual growth is the default state for true believers. The corollaries work out as follows.”

(1) A belief that spiritual decisions are being made constantly and that they are not normally crisis decisions. Over time, small decisions add up to big growth. When crisis decisions are necessary (and they sometimes are), then they should be made in the right ways and for the right reasons.

(2) Refusal to bypass the mind when appealing to the emotions, but recognition that the emotions (in the form of Christian affections) are extremely important. Loving God rightly is the most important thing that we can ever do, and this right love (orthopathy) must undergird every attempt to serve and obey Him.

(3) An insistence upon biblical exposition as the normal and vital pattern of preaching and the focal point of worship. As the Scriptures are carefully interpreted, explained, and applied, the lives of God’s people will be transformed. They will see Christ in His beauty, love Him for Himself, and live out that love increasingly in their daily conduct.

(4) The recognition that the most important presence in the assembly of the Church is God Himself, leading to the utter rejection of any attempt to convert Christianity into a system of amusement for the religiously inclined.

(5) A commitment to worship as the central activity of the assembled church, and a recognition that all other activities must be grounded in this. Evangelism (outreach) and fellowship (inreach) must both stem from a vital worship (upreach) or they will be shallow, perfunctory, and contrived. Christians have no higher duty or greater delight than to exult in the presence of the Mighty God, the merciful Savior, and the eternal Spirit. Where His holiness strikes us with awe, it also fills us with longing and joy. No church can offer any higher inducement for attendance at any meeting than the presence of God Himself.

(6) Rejoicing in the priesthood of believers and its implication that spiritual wisdom is available to all of God’s people. Baptists understand this to imply congregational polity and to permit–perhaps even encourage–shared pastoral authority. Presbyterians also affirm the vital role of the congregation in the selection of ruling elders, which elders constitute the voice of the “laity” in church decisions. Spiritual leadership is understood primarily as a matter of exposition and example rather than as the exercise of fiat authority.

(7) Radical commitment to the notion that the success of the church must be measured by the degree to which it achieves the unity of the faith and of the full knowledge of the Son of God, unto a mature man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.

I think Bauder’s description here is exceptional for its brevity and clarity. Having grown up in Baptist Fundamentalism with revivalism as an essential part of the experience, I have seen the long-term destructive influence of this approach. The most compelling influences in the lives of my classmates in high school toward godliness were certainly not evangelists, Christian camps and Christian school chapels. Each of those had some spiritual value in our lives, but this was true in spite of revivalism, not because of it. No, the influences to godliness were the daily examples set by our teachers and youth pastors who lacked the polish of the one-week wonders and who rejected their manipulative methods.

In addition, it was the culture of revivalism that I finger as the main culprit in the majority of Christian teens who walked away from God in my high school years. They found their crisis decisions lasted fewer and fewer days and hours over time, like the diminishing returns of drugs or pornography. Unless something harder and more extreme was sought, eventually no emotion could be stirred by that kind of preaching and hearts grew cold. Kids stopped going to camp because they knew it would cost too much money to buy new cassettes of their favorite rock music a week after they broke them upon returning from camp. Other teens accepted the challenge to just try harder and attended more extreme schools such as Hyles-Anderson and Fairhaven and either drank the Kool-Aid (the equivalent of a spiritual lobotomy) or disappeared entirely from the spiritual radar once they were completely burned out. Few exceptions to these generalizations exist.

Adults were affected too. Two week revival meetings became one week meetings, and now most churches have a hard time mustering the excitement necessary to sustain a Sunday-Wednesday meeting. This occasionally results in the clamor for old-fashioned endurance, and when pastors fall for it and schedule a week-long meeting, they find that those who shouted the loudest don’t bother to attend what they demanded in the first place.

Nothing more needs to be added to this post. Bauder’s description says it all more than adequately. When churches stop swallowing the unbiblical culture of revivalism, they will see, over time, a repair and restoration of souls as the centrality of Scripture is restored to lives and the church.

Why Good Theologians Are Worth Reading, Even When They Are Sometimes Wrong

There is a heroic quality to the thought of men who are willing to tackle the greatest themes relating to God, creation, salvation, and the church: even when they make mistakes, they make magnificent mistakes from which we can all learn.  In a day of small men and small minds, we should be grateful that the Lord is truly good, and has provided such brilliant men to inform the great traditions of the church and to provide us with immense resources of theology and devotion.

Carl Trueman, “On Heroes and the Heroic”

Philosophy Fridays: Nietzsche as Prophet of Modern Christianity, Part 1

My day won’t come until the day after tomorrow. Some people are born posthumously…The sort of predilection strength has for questions that require more courage than anyone possesses today; a courage for the forbidden; a predestination for the labyrinth.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist, Preface

That Friedrich Nietzsche was a prophet is neither a new or particularly insightful observation. He saw himself as one who straddled the past and the future, acting as a bridge for those in the present to understand and attain a future vision. Many readers of Nietzsche also see him as prophetic. The question remains, however, of what, exactly, was he a prophet? One should not be quick to assign an omniscient scope to Nietzsche’s foresight, for he certainly did not foresee the way his writings would influence and inspire some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. A chastened sense of prognostication, then, needs to be assigned to Nietzsche.

One of Nietzsche’ primary targets (if not the primary target) was Christianity. To even survey all that he said regarding Christianity would require as many volumes as he himself wrote. An examination of his attack on Christianity reveals a recurring pattern, however. Nietzsche attacked Christianity primarily in its expression in 19th century Europe (especially German Lutheranism)[1], more so than he did the Christian faith as given in the Bible and historically interpreted. Nietzsche’s knowledge of the Bible is questionable and his account of its contents alternately reveals insight and ignorance. What Nietzsche did know quite well was the nature of European Christianity in its post-Enlightenment expression, an expression that he found to be particularly distasteful and destructive of life as he saw it. As he said, “What decides against Christianity now is our taste, not our reasons” (GS, Book 3, 132, p. 123).

The purpose of this series of essays is to demonstrate that Nietzsche’s critique of 19th century European Christianity was not only insightful, but prophetic in that he understood the effects of the corruption of Christianity to an extent that few in his day could have foreseen. It will also be demonstrated that ultimately Nietzsche’s critique of the Christian faith itself falls woefully short, and reflects nothing more than an aesthetic bias against some elements of Christian faith rather than a genuine philosophical challenge.

[1] Nietzsche has little to say about American Christianity, probably because of his apparent disdain for anything American: “what do I care about the pathetic drivel of American idiots and asses?” (EH, “Why I Am So Clever,” 4, p. 92).

The True Nature of Christian Mentoring, Part 2

Mentor and his protege, Telemachus

Mentoring as life-sharing, experience-imparting and skill-training has a long history. The third-century bishop Gregory of Neocaesarea wrote an account of his relationship with the church father Origen, who became his mentor. When Gregory came to Palestine, it was for the purpose of having a relationship with Origen. Although he admired Origen’s mind, he wanted more than an information download. He wanted to spend time with the great bishop in order to learn from his life, not just his mind.

This view of mentoring was common in the early centuries. Clement of Alexandria wrote in his book on ethics, The Tutor, “The role of the tutor is to improve the soul, not to educate nor give information, but to train someone in the virtuous life.” Like others who wrote on mentoring, Clement understood the purpose to be “to form the soul in virtue” (Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, Yale, 2003, 268).

This is the aspect that many students don’t realize they need just as critically as they need theological training or skills in biblical languages. But the truth is, more men wash out of ministry because of character issues than doctrinal deviation.

Character formation is not always welcomed by young protégés. At first, Gregory resisted Origen’s attempts to change him. Though Origen’s words “struck like an arrow” Gregory was not ready to undergo the discipline imposed by Origen. Gregory was more interested in argument and intellectual debate, but this was not acceptable to Origen. His aim was to “move the soul,” and he challenged his disciples to open their hearts and allow their wills to be molded by the good (p. 269).

Although learning a set of precepts was part of the mentoring training, “what counted for more was the example of the master and the bonds of friendship formed with the disciple…Friendship, said Gregory, ‘is piercing and penetrating, an affable and affectionate disposition displayed in the teacher’s words and his association with us’” (p. 269).

This personal relationship had a profound impact on Gregory. “Through Origen’s friendship with him, Gregory learned to love Christ, the Word, but he also began to love Origen, ‘the friend and interpreter of the Word’” (p. 269). Only when this relationship became personal, was Gregory finally persuaded to give up those objects that stood in the way of Christian maturity. The master had to first know and love his students before he could cultivate their souls, and like a skilled husbandman, bring forth fruit from an uncultivated field. “To correct, reprove, exhort, and encourage his students, the master had to know their habits, attitudes, and desires. Origen’s love for his disciples was part of the process of formation” (p. 270).

This is the soul of genuine Christian mentoring. It is not a business-like, formal transaction of a superior to an inferior; nor is it a feel-good stroking of a student’s ego. It is rather an intentional life-guidance that is based on the mentor’s genuine love for the student, so that he is able to give either encouragement or rebuke when needed, all the while the student knows he is loved and valued. This is true mentoring, and it is desperately needed today, both in the lives of those preparing for ministry of some kind, and any young believer who takes his or her growth in godliness seriously.

The True Nature of Christian Mentoring, Part 1

Mentor and his protege, Telemachus

Mentoring is a popular concept in ministry and education in the first decade of the 21st century. Books, conferences and journals on mentoring have sprung up in recent years, and various schools of thought regarding mentoring have emerged. While every Christian view of mentoring agrees that Jesus’ relationship with the twelve disciples serves as the foundational model for mentoring, the diversity of interpretations and applications of mentoring principles reveals that much ambiguity exists regarding the true nature of mentoring in real life situations.

There are many weak or erring models of Christian mentoring. One approach is to treat mentoring as information download where the mentor is merely passing on information to the protégé. This approach understands the student’s greatest need to be data that he doesn’t already possess. Another view conceives mentoring as mere accountability, where the mentor asks the protégé a number of questions in order to strengthen his spiritual discipline. The student is expected to share failures and successes honestly in order to experience both the joy and support he needs in his Christian life. Still another model of mentoring is practiced by those mentors who seek to mold the protégé into his own image, with all the same opinions, personality traits and idiosyncrasies. In effect, the mentor is trying to make a replica of himself, not helping the student become who God wants him to be.

A genuine understanding of mentoring acknowledges that each of these models contains elements of truth, but each is insufficient by itself. In addition, a mentor dare not leave it up to a student to shape the scope of the mentoring relationship. I agree with Howard Hendricks that a mentoring relationship ought to be based on what the student wants to learn from the mentor and not what the mentor wants. However, many times the protégé does not know what he needs, or may seek to avoid some of the more pressing needs in his life. Students who want mentors often think what they need most is that information download I mentioned earlier, and don’t realize that their greater need is guided character development and spiritual maturity. Also, many protégés who think they are being open and honest with their mentor pull back and keep parts of their inner life hidden as soon as the mentor begins to address those areas.

As a result, the mentor and student must craft together the nature of the relationship, but the student must remain open to the mentor’s scrutiny in areas of his life that the mentor senses needs examination. In the few years that I have been mentoring, I have come to believe that what my students need most is a relationship with me where they can let down their guard, be transparent and honest about their true selves, watch my life with all its warts, ask questions, challenge my answers, have me pray for them and with them, and generally say to them what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 11:1: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”

In Part 2 we’ll examine a vivid historical example of this kind of mentorship which occurred almost two millennia ago.

If Your Bible Reading Is Not Changing You, You’re Doing It Wrong

Reading the Bible is one of the most important practices of the Christian life. But just because you read your Bible doesn’t make you spiritual, and reading on its own provides no spiritual benefit. The Bible is not a talisman that possesses magical power just for the reading. When Hebrews 4:12 tells us that the Word of God is living and powerful, it is telling us that the Scriptures have supernatural power because they are the very words of God that confront us in judgment and grace. We must read the Bible with the eyes of faith, expecting to encounter a Holy God, and submitting ourselves to the authority of the words and the searching eye of the Holy Spirit.

From the time I was a teenager, I read my Bible regularly. But for most of my high school and college years I read because I knew I should, not necessarily because I wanted to. This was not without benefit, for God used that greatly in my life to bend my heart toward him. In my second year of seminary, however, one particular morning in the Word became an epiphany for me. All the teaching and preaching in seminary on grace finally dawned in my heart, as I realized for the first time that I should read my Bible because I wanted to, not just because I should. That day the truth of grace sank deep into my heart. I wasn’t reading my Bible anymore because I thought I had to in order to remain right with God. I was reading because I understood that I had been made right with God through justification, not my own righteousness. This awoke an intense hunger for the Word I had never felt before. It awoke a desire for godliness and an intimate knowledge of God.

What was the difference? I was not reading the Bible anymore as an important book from which to gain comprehensive knowledge, or for preparation for the next Bible trivia quiz in school. I was reading the Bible to encounter the living God. This is an especially important point for anyone who teaches the Bible, whether in Sunday School, or as a college of seminary professor. The Bible was not given with the intent that we approach it as an object of neutral, objective research to be dissected and examined impartially.

Martin Luther, as scholarly as he was, knew the difference between an intense, experiential knowledge of the Word and a disinterested, academic knowledge:

Such a knowledge, even if it were possible, would only be the dead letter that kills. The Spirit makes alive! We must therefore “feel” the words of Scripture “in the heart.” Experience is necessary for the understanding of the Word. It is not merely to be repeated or known, but to be lived and felt (Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, Nashville: B&H, 1988, 85).

Luther believed that Scripture is designed to confront the reader with “the existential demand and promise of Scripture which requires a present response” (p. 85). In other words, Scripture makes demands upon the believer while at the same time comforting with promises. No Christian should be able to read the Bible without being moved and transformed by it.

Notice the confrontational nature of his sermon on the phrase, “I will call upon the Lord” from Psalm 118:5:

Call is what you have to learn. You heard it. Don’t just sit there by yourself or off to one side and hang your head, and shake it and gnaw your knuckles and worry and look for a way out, nothing on your mind except how bad you feel, how you hurt, what a poor guy you are. Get up, you lazy scamp! Down on your knees! Up with your hands and eyes toward heaven! Use a psalm or the Lord’s prayer to cry out your distress to the Lord.

Does our Bible reading look like this? It can, if we expect to encounter a holy God every time we open the Word. If we stop approaching the Bible as a duty and an object to be studied for its own sake, we can begin to experience the transforming power of the Word. When we “tremble at the threshold of the biblical text,” as one theologian has written, our Bible reading will take on a whole new meaning. As my mentor, Frank Hamrick always says, when we stop studying the Word of God and start studying the God of the Word, we will be transformed.

How To Deal With Doubts About Your Salvation

Many people struggle with assurance of their salvation. Even though they have placed their trust in Christ alone and believe that the Bible says this is the way to salvation, they agonize over whether they have been truly converted. Because they don’t always feel assurance, they doubt.

They are not alone. Even such an historical giant as Martin Luther wrestled with doubts. To those who were concerned that perhaps they may not have been one of the elect, his basic advice was, “Thank God for your torments.” It is characteristic of the elect, not of the reprobate, to tremble at the hidden counsel of God. In addition, he recommended a recognition that these doubts came not from God, but the devil. A believer ought to flatly reject the devil who brings such thoughts and fix his eyes upon the Savior. When a parishioner named Barbara Lisskirchen asked for advice regarding this issue, Luther responded:

When such thoughts assail you, you should learn to ask yourself, “If you please, in what Commandment is it written that I should think about and deal with this matter?” When it appears that there is no such Commandment, learn to say, “Be gone, wretched devil! You are trying to make me worry about myself. But God declares everywhere that I should let him care for me…”

The highest of all God’s commands is this, that we hold up before our eyes the image of his dear Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Every day he should be our excellent mirror wherein we behold how much God loves us and how well in his infinite goodness, he has cared for us in that he gave his dear Son for us.

In this way, I say, and in no other, does one learn how to deal properly with the question of predestination. It will be manifest that you believe in Christ. If you believe, then you are called. And if you are called, then you are most certainly predestinated. Do not let this mirror and throne of grace be torn away from before your eyes…Contemplate Christ given for us. Then, God willing, you will feel better.

Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, ed. T.G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955), 116.

There Were No Golden Ages of Church History

How often have you heard people lament that these days are not like the “good old days”? Perceptions of the past state of the world or Christianity are often skewed, reflecting the selective memories of individuals or the selective reading of the historical record. We like to think that there was a Golden Age when true and pure Christianity was dominant and Christians all lived happy, holy lives, but the more history I read, the more I believe the idea is a fantasy.

Westminster Seminary church historian, Carl Trueman reminds us that this pining for an ideal era of Christianity has a long history that goes back at least to the Reformation:

One harmful but guiding assumption of much of Reformation and post-Reformation historiography has been that there are ‘golden ages’ such that the present state of the church pales in comparison to some perceived time when all was right with the church…

The Golden Age model has two faults. First, it typically smooths out the rough spots in a particular era by treating theology as though it dropped out of the sky, or, perhaps better, straight out of the Bible. It does not. Humans do theology in specific historical, cultural contexts, and theological issues are always more complex than the Golden Age model allows. One does not have to reduce everything to an extreme materialist model of history to acknowledge the truth of this statement.

In addition, it does not always allow for the fact that we live in the late twentieth century, not the sixteenth or seventeenth. If one wishes to appropriate the sixteenth or seventeenth century, for example, as a model for contemporary church theology, one must do without blinkers and with an awareness of the theological, cultural and philosophical developments between then and now. Ignoring the critical questions of history does not make them go away.

(Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment,ed. Carl R. Trueman and R. S. Clark; Paternoster, 1999, xvi.)

With that last statement Trueman reminds us that we need to tell the whole story, a story that takes all the aspects of life into consideration: political, sociological, and cultural. We cannot imagine that none of these things mattered or had an influence on the times. Additionally, if we wish for the good old days of selective memory or reading, we have to take the good and the bad. If it’s the Reformation we wish for, we have to take the inherent violence and political instability of the times, in addition to the somewhat rudimentary post-Catholic church order and life. If we long for the great revivals of the 18th or 19th centuries we have to take the extreme emotionalism, moralism and nationalism that were often confused with the gospel.

Rather than wish for the “good old days,” we ought to take the advice of Solomon, who recommended against idolizing the past, and instead instructed us to enjoy the present, warts and all:

Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?”
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this…In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him. (Eccl. 7:10, 14)

Desiring God Is Unlike Anything Else

Because God is not bound by space or time, the desire for God is unlike desire for things in this world. When, for example, we have yearned for food or drink and receive what we have longed for, our desire ceases. Often our enjoyment falls short of our expectations, and in the very moment of satisfaction, we begin to desire something else. But our yearning to see God will be satisfied only by knowing God more fully and more intimately. The more we know, the more we desire to know.

Robert Louis Wilkin, summarizing the thought of Gregory of Nyssa, a 4th century theologian, in The Spirit of Early Christian Thought (Yale, 2003), 301.

Hope Is the Key to Patience

For Tertullian the singular mark of patience is not endurance or fortitude but hope. To be impatient, says Tertullian, is to live without hope. Patience is grounded in the Resurrection. It is life oriented toward a future that is God’s doing, and its sign is longing, not so much to be released from the ills of the present, but in anticipation of the good to come.

Robert Louis Wilken, speaking of the Early 3rd Century Church Father, Tertullian (c. 160-220) in The Spirit of Early Christian Thought (Yale, 2003), 284.