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Reevangelizing the Church: Where did we go wrong?

June 15, 2009
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In my last commentary I argued that the gospel in America, generally speaking, has suffered a serious reduction (i.e., knowing some facts about Jesus, making a personal decision for Christ based on these facts, and that this constitutes the full extent of the gospel message and mission). I also argued that such reductionism is not consistent with the Scriptures and that this reduction of the gospel has dramatically altered the modern Christian’s conception of his purpose and mission away from the biblical prescription.

In the wake of such an audacious charge, the admonition given in Jeremiah seems a fitting place to begin my defense of these claims:

Thus says the LORD: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16, ESV).

Like the Israelites to whom Jeremiah was speaking, we have drifted from the ancient paths, the paths prescribed by the law of God, the written word. Jeremiah saw the people wondering which way to go. They were confused by new religions in much the same way that we have become confused by the reduction of the gospel.

If, in fact, we have departed from the truth, then going back to the point of departure is the only reasonable course. As C. S. Lewis so aptly said, “If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road” (Mere Christianity). This is, in my mind, a twofold process: 1) determine where we departed from the “right road” and 2) once there, search the Scriptures (the ancient paths) for guidance in locating the right road forward.

I think the point of departure in American evangelicalism can, generally speaking, be traced back to the nineteenth century, namely to the influence of Charles Finney. I have addressed this topic previously but in light of our survey it bears repeating; Charles Finney was an incredibly popular and charismatic figure who galvanized revivalism in the latter nineteenth century.

Revivalism is the idea that men can create conditions conducive to conversion and that upon the creation of such conditions (i.e., opportunity to accept Jesus), men must be brought to a point of decision and only this decision can save them. In other words, present people with enough facts and they can decide their eternal fate. Charles Finney was a leading proponent of this view and is still praised by many as a great evangelist. Finney, more so than any other figure, would establish the model for evangelicalism in the century to follow.

However, unbeknown to many, his approach was grounded in the heretical idea that people are not fallen and depraved. Finney rejected the fundamental Christian doctrine of original sin. (See Finney, Systematic Theology, 245, 249, 320.) This is nothing less than ancient Pelagianism, a heresy that was refuted in the fifth century. Finney further denied that the righteousness of Christ is the sole ground of our justification, teaching instead that sinners must reform their own hearts in order to be acceptable to God. He wrote, “Sinners are under the necessity of first changing their hearts, or their choice of an end…” (Systematic Theology, 249).

Finney would issue numerous theological assertions that departed from historic orthodoxy. However, due to his extraordinary success and popularity (although being popular doesn’t necessarily indicate holy affirmation), many came to view the gospel story in these reduced terms: present people with some facts about Jesus and give them a chance to “make a decision.” Making a decision became the singular goal of modern evangelism and this evangelical activity became the near exclusive mission of the church. Thus many today consider this conversion, and any activity that doesn’t invite a decision is regarded as something other than the gospel. This was the genesis of gospel reductionism (the by-product of decisional theology) that has come to dominate American evangelicalism.

You can see the narcissistic nature of this emphasis. There is absolutely no connection whatsoever to the kingdom of God. The gospel according to revivalism is all about you and its only real implication is eschatological: when you die you get to go to heaven. However, this begs the question: What does the faithful Christian do in the meantime? Answer: Repeat the process as many times as you can and manage your personal sin. The gospel becomes a sales pitch emphasizing only the personal benefits; the redemptive work of the kingdom is ignored. The result is irrelevance. As the late Dorothy Sayers wrote, “How can anyone remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life?” (Dorothy Sayers, Creed or Chaos [New York: Harcourt and Brace, 1949], 56).

Don’t misunderstand. My salvation is profoundly personal but it is not the exclusive goal of the gospel of the kingdom.  It is so much bigger than that! I am not inviting Jesus into my life, he is inviting me into his: his present kingdom and his redemptive mission in this fallen world. C. S. Lewis said it well when he wrote, “Christianity is a fighting religion…. It thinks God made the world … But it also thinks that a great many things have gone wrong with the world that God made and that God insists, and insists very loudly, on our putting them right again” (Mere Christianity). And this “putting them right again” is embedded in the good news of God’s in-breaking reign (i.e., Christ’ kingdom) into this fallen world, setting right what sin has set wrong. This gospel of the kingdom promises the redemption of God’s whole creation; the church is gathered and sent to actively participate in this redemptive work in multiple ways, including proclamation of the risen Christ, certainly, but also demonstration of kingdom life within the community of God’s people and service to the world.

Next week, I will take up the following step in our journey back to the right path. We will examine the Scriptures—the ancient paths—and see how Jesus and the apostles describe the gospel in relation to the kingdom, and from there recover the church’s purpose and mission in light of that revelation.

© 2009 by S. Michael Craven

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Response from : Martin Van Dyk  

June 15, 2009 8:43 AM

God provides "revelation" while man provides the "response".

I too realize that churches promote alot of "revelation", but no "leadership" (correct influence) in "response" other than me-me-me.

Sunday sermons clearly push away theology and replace with psychology and book reviews. This reduces the Word as a "management" tool (coping tool).

I find that ... "Christ" is frequently not mentioned in the messages. Are churches reduced to "Edu-tainment Centres"? I often hear....

- "Give yourselves a hand".
- "Thankyou for joining us."
- "God, will you join us?"
- "You can buy my books at the entrance of the church at the back".
- "It only costs $25 a ticket to come and experience God's goodness in the music"

A reformation awaits us...

Response from : David  

June 15, 2009 9:07 AM

I believe that the answer to the question, "Where did we go wrong?" is much simpler than that.

The day that Christians stand up (once again) against pre-emptive war, torture, opulence, and oppression the way that we stand up for marriage will be the day that non-believers see us as anything more than the base of a political party.

I can't believe how many Christians I saw, last week, celebrating the murder of (the sinner) Doctor George Tiller. "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God" is the doctrine of Christ. We should be praying for this man, reaching out to his family, and condemning his murderer.

The day that Christians begin to look to the doctrines of Christ for life's answers and vote with Christ will be the day that we stop following the doctrines of men and our "problem" goes away.

Response from : Rob Casey  

June 15, 2009 9:53 AM

my heart is absolutely SCREAMING AMEN!! You and I need to have coffee. Roger O'Dell sent me this article and said we need to meet. I'm just thrilled at what you've stepped out into with your faith and your stance and your corrective surgery for the heart of Christianity. I'm with ya.

Response from : R. Lee Schreurs  

June 15, 2009 11:11 AM

Amen! Living here in the Bible-belt, where most churches still have revivals, I see so many who expect revival to come from an external preacher-teacher w/o much confession of sin. I believe that genuine revival always comes from the Holy Spirit's confession of sin. & the gospel/grace/salvation is so much more than a "personal relationship" w/ the Lord. Keep up the good work Michael! God is using you!

Response from : Dr. John H. Armstrong  

June 15, 2009 2:43 PM

Few understand how deeply wrong Charles Finney was about some of the most basic Christian doctrines. His legacy is deeply and seriously flawed and yet his influence is still huge in American evangelicalism. Thanks for underscoring some of the obvious problems. And thanks for doing this in a way that makes your wise concerns clear to many people.

Response from : John  

June 15, 2009 2:50 PM


I share your grief about the silence (or outright support!) of Christians on war, torture and many other items we should not be silent on.

However, I ask that you not let that effect blind you to possible root causes. From what I have seen, since Chruches no longer offer or promote serious discipleship and an image of the kingdom, Christians have looked elsewhere for such guidance. They have found it in the nominal "righteousness" presented by the GOP and it's "talking heads" (Limbaugh, Hannity, etc).

The vacuum of "what to do with 90% of your life" left by the Church has been filled in with other things. It is filling that vacuum with Christ and the Kingdom that we must focus on, not filling it with yet another Earthly set of priorities and beliefs.

Response from : Steve Carlson  

June 16, 2009 7:30 AM

Mike, once again this commentary is well thought out & makes one (me) think. Keep up the good work.

FYI, I met you @ Camp of the Woods a few years ago when we took the bike hike together. We head to CotW in 3 weeks. Are you going to be going back this year?


Response from : Alvin Erickson  

June 16, 2009 8:10 AM

Thanks for your input into this discussion. Having worked to address the scheming and harm being perpetrated by the so-called "sex industry", what you are saying is very apparent. Rather than take Jesus' word of Luke 4:18,19 seriously as what the Body of Christ is to be about, we have in the main chosen to step over the obvious vulnerabilities of young people and the sophisticated manipulations of those who entrap or use them. Any area of life where we Christians have allowed ourselves to be off the hook for our own behaviors and most especially for allowing our youth to be not only endangered but exploited and devastated. Yes, sinners though we are, we can stand with the afflicted and will be blessed in doing so. Isaiah 58:6-12. Jesus was not taken in by simplistic thinking. We are at the same time both justified and sinner. He calls us to be faithful in the midst of that living paradox to call us all in his church to account for what is going on.
His grace is sufficient as it was for Paul to pull out all the stops and be the faithful father figure in our reeling culture. II Corinthians 10-13

Response from : Randy  

June 17, 2009 10:59 AM

Dear Michael - In the town where I minister we have a wonderful Ministerial Alliance. Several of us from widly differeing denominations get together weekly to pray and discuss our problems and blessings. Often within those discussions the very heart of what this teaching is about (Is praying "the prayer" enough?) comes up. There is a strong belief basically across the board that American Churches have done an extreme disservice to their members with the simple "alter call" philosophy. Thank you for taking your position. Although I must say I hold a bit higher oppinion of Mr. Finney than you, the point is well made and truly needs to work it's way back into the body of Christ. It is a facinating study to see what was expected from a true believer back in the 2nd or 3rd Century. And church membership took a LONG time. I think they understood the point you are making. I look forward to sharing this with the other pastors.

Response from : Selase Kwawu  

June 18, 2009 8:56 AM

I will like to confess that I strongly felt after reading this article, that I was the one you were talking to. This is precisely how i have been taught, how I have thought, and sometimes how I have acted in these years that i have lived as a Christian. I really want to change and by Gods grace i see this, as a vital stimulus in the process. I am not an American and yet I, and without a shred of doubt several of the Christian leaders in my part of the world, have been so greatly influenced by these Ideas of Charles Finney. I pray that I am properly reformed so I can be of help to others. This is a miracle and I bless God for it and for you life Michael. May God bless you.

Response from : Stephanie  

June 19, 2009 2:05 PM

I totally agree with the premise of this article. Some of my own research has shown how men, especially charismatic men, have influenced the gospel with their own wrong interpretation of the Scriptures. The "accept Christ" teaching DOES NOT SAVE ANYONE. Yet, whole churches and denominations have been built on this teaching. We do not make a decision for Christ, He chooses us. [Isaiah 45:9-11; John 6:44, and there are many others ] The Last Day is going to be filled with so-called Christians who will be shocked to find out that, because they did not take the responsiblity to study the Word of God for themselves, were led astray by charismatic, but evil, men. One thing I learned about myself in my travels through various churches and denominations, is that charismatic men and women tend to lead churches, and as quoted in the article "Charles Finney was an incredibly popular and charismatic figure . . ." Charisma DOES NOT equal spirituality. It just means God has given a person a gift to reach out and attract people. You STILL have to check their doctrine, boy did I learn that the hard way! Be a Berean [Acts 17:11] and go check out what is being taught in the church today! You'll be surprised at what you find!

Response from : Joyce Luster  

June 21, 2009 4:28 PM

Thank you for your thoughtful writings--I agree wholeheartedly.

Response from : Dorothy  

June 27, 2009 11:36 AM

I'm so glad there's other people like you, that can see and understand what has happened to the church and that we must get back to God.

Response from : Victoria Chapman  

June 30, 2009 8:59 AM

Shalom! This was an refreshingly informative and compelling article. I agree that it is VERY important to know that "Jesus is inviting (us) into HIS (life)". However, the basic problem with the "personal decision" reduction of the gospel is not in a person's decision, but actually in its definition. The person does not understand the definition of his decision, and that it means stepping into a whole new lifestyle--Jesus'. There is nothing wrong with making a decision, but the person must know what that decision means and the full extent of "go and sin no more", and "go into all the earth". That the congregations are not "discipling" is an understatement. Many congregations are not themselves involved in kingdom work very much, if at all, let alone teaching their congregants about it. That said mostly in agreement with the article, there is one strong omission here--the "Jewish" factor. The gospel of the Kingdom is "to the Jew first, then to the Gentile". As long as we leave out the Chosen People of God, our congregations will not know the fullness of God's blessings on their work. Re-read the book of Acts, and see how many times Paul went to the Synagogues and Jewish meetings, "as was his custom", first. Then he went to the gentiles, because he considered himself the apostle to the gentiles. In order to reevangelize the church, we not only need to rediscover the true "Gospel of the Kingdom", we need to also expand our outreach definitions to include the Jewish people. We have been leaving them out long before Finney was born.

Response from : Mervyn Bufton  

July 5, 2010 5:59 AM

Having read the first three articles on "Re-evangelizing the Church", I bow before the Lord in great gratitude that He has spared me to see something for which I have longed and prayed these past 50 years. At 80, I almost echo Simeon's "Let now thy servant depart in peace. For mine eyes have seen" - the beginning of Gospel restoration.
A candle flickering in the dense suffocating smoke of an Evangelicalism fuelled on an incombustible believism.

Article 1 is 100% on target; article 3,despite space limitations for so great a matter,impacts on the essential core of the real Gospel.
Article 2 rightly highlights fatal flaws in the 20 century evangelical gospel, but seems misguided in tracing them back to Charles Finney rather than to D L Moody.
Would Michael Craven consider the following?
Moody, in his later ministry and following the pattern of British evangelist Henry Moorhouse, reduced the essential conditions for individual salvation: no longer was the seeker urged to submit to the Lordship of Christ (an "optional extra" it eventually became); it was deemed sufficient to take a believing look to the dying Jesus. New hymns rang out the simplified glad tidings:
"There is life for a look at the Crucified One..."
"On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross..."
"At the cross at the cross where I first saw the light..."
The brightly~sung revised gospel swiftly ousted the far more serious and prosaic gospel that had sobered Finney's congregations.
He did not offer a quick-fix salvation. To the contrary, on a fortnight's mission he would not offer guidance to the Saviour until the first week or more had passed. First, the hearers had to be made accutely aware of their moral lostness and spiritual deadness, without hope and without God, shut up to condemnation. Only when he saw them desperate to consider Christ seriously and sincerely would he set out the terms of entrance into God's kingdom by Christ. Terms such as "total depravity" may have not figured large in his expositions (he saw the flaws in the Calvinism of his time and avoided its terminology), but he made the realization of that depravity basic to the sinner's chance of getting saved.
"You cannot come to God at a time of your own choosing", he would say. "You can only properly respond to His call when the Holy Spirit is motioning you thereto."
In this matter I speak from experience, as a spiritual grandson of Finney. As a young man, anxious to "gain" salvation, I read, studied, re-read, prayed over his writings for 3 years. My total depravity and destituition were laid bare and bore me down as a crushing load.
I can well understand why later evangelists (Moody and his imitators)with their cut-price gospel were so enthusiastically received. To "cling to the old rugged cross" (static believism) is much more comfortable than submission to the Living Lord of God's kingdom (active, productive faith)

To illustrate the reduction of the Gospel in the late 19 century, the alterations suffered by one of the greatest hymns in the English language, one of Isaac Watts', will serve well.
Watts wrote:
"I'm not ashamed to own my Lord
Or to defend his cause;
Maintain the honour of his word,
The glory of his cross

Jesus, my God!, I know his name,
His name is all my trust;
Nor will he put my soul to shame,
Nor let my hope be lost.

Firm as his throne his promise stands
And he can well secure
What I've committed to his hands,
Till the decisive hour.

Then will he own my worthless name Before his Father's face
And in the New Jerusalem
Appoint my soul a place."

Four verses, a great confident confession of vibrant Christian faith in the person, word and work of the Christ, past, present and future.
For over a hundred years it was most highly appraised and sung unmodified, at least until the late 1880s.Then, someone under the influence of the "improved", easy option gospel spotted a gross defect. Where's the Cross in this old hymn? Only one measly reference! But the Cross is everything. It was all done there. There's nothing, absolutely nothing for me to do. Just believe it! This hymn must be put right. So he wrote a chorus:
"At the cross, at the cross
Where I first saw the light
And the burden of my heart rolled away;
It was there by faith I received my sight
And now I'm happy all the day"
What a popular hymn it now became. The chorus made it! And undid it.
The chorus is sung 4 times while each verse only once. The message that sticks and influences is the chorus: the New Gospel will prevail over the True.
Stage 2: when this hymn was taken to South America and translated into Portuguese, the translator thought the 4 verses were not good enough for the wonderful chorus (such is the power of song and satan)so he threw out all four and wrote in four uninspiring substitutes.
Stage 3 Nelson's Ultimate Bible Study materials (Libronix)deliver the coup de grace to Watts' hyme. It does not appear in their selection of the best Christian hymns; but the cuckoo in the nest, the "At the Cross" chorus, does!
It is stuck into an inferior hymn attributed to Watts.
Are these revisionists "Ashamed to own Watts' Lord? I seriously wonder.
Thank you for your attention. Keep to the great God-given task of restoring the Reigning Monarch to the evangelical church.

Response from : Mervyn Bufton  

February 5, 2012 6:15 PM

Very many thanks for your commentaries on re-evangelizing the Church, a matter on my heart for over 50 years and the subject of vehement prayers, with tears, in recent months, asking God to call and capacitate special servants to restore the True Gospel.
Be assured of my cooperation in prayer and may I share some thoughts, however inadequetely, in note-form, with you?
(1) The Reduced Gospel of the 20cent. was the product more of D L Moody's later ministry than that of C Finney.
Moody, seeing the success of Henry Moorhouse's preaching, adopted the latter's simplified Gospel. Subsequently, lesser would-be Moodies, adopted the great preacher's pattern. The Cross took the place of Christ as the key to salvation.
The most popular sacred songs among Evangelicals from late 19thcent. onwards illustrate the simplified salvation plan
"There is life for a look at the crucified one", "The Old Rugged Cross", and above all, the chorus,"At the Cross, at the Cross"
The history of that chorus encapsulates the fundamental shift from the Gospel of Finney's day to the Reduced Gospel of Moody's latter day.
(a) "At the Cross" was inserted into Isaac Watts' great hymn, "I'm not ashamed to own my Lord" at about 100 years after the hymn had been written. Why?
Because the fast growing fashionable gospel had a fixation with the Cross, Watts' hymn made only one reference, among 4 verses, to the Cross. It was out of sync., it needed drastic improvement
When that hymn is sung, each verse is sung only once. The chorus is sung 4 times. The chorus sticks, the rest is marginal noise, semi-relevant. Not the message.
(b) When Watts' revised hymn was translated into Portuguese (Brazil pre-1940) the missionary felt that Watts' lines were unworthy of the chorus, because so little attention ws paid to the Cross. So, 4 completely new verses replaced those of Watts, to the greater glory of the Cross.
(c) In the 21st cent., when Nelson's Ultimate Bible Resource (Libronix) included 100 best-loved hymns, Watts' hymn was not included, but the chorus is!! Being indispensible and unforgettable, it is inserted into another hymn.
(2) Meanwhile, evangelicals have declined in vitality .Why?
Because, instead of saving faith being placed in the living person of Christ, many have fixed it in a static Cross . Christ is a living being. In a salvation relationship with him we have to adjust to and cooperate with him.Belief in the historic act and achievement of Christ on the Cross is not faith in His person; it is only admiration of a static scene.
If one clings only to the old rugged cross and does not move under the orders of the risen , active Christ, then there is no entering the kingdom of God.
The post-Moody Reduced Gospel has produced a majority of stillborn evangelicals, not born-again Christians. (to be continued)


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