Hope Network Newsletter: To Dream Again… (May 1992)

By Matt Dabbs

by Lynn Anderson
May, 1992

After 55 years of living, 35 of them in ministry, I know plenty of shattered dreams first-hand. Have you noticed how few of my age peers are still preaching? Soe say they were driven out; others, burned out. Maybe. But as William Willimon says, “Burn-out in ministry is not usually from over-work, but from under-meaning.” A lot of us simply lost our dream. We can live with the work, the flack and the furstration, but we can’t live wout dreams.

We are all of us dreamers of dreams
on visions our childhood is fed

but the heart of a child
is undaunted it seems,

by the ghosts of dreams that are dead.

Somewhere along the way our fellowship lost its dream. Our dreams began early. In 1865 The Baltimore American said of us, “they had their origin in this country only about forty years ago, but they number now, in the United States alone, over six hundred thousand communicants.” Just think – from zero to six hundred thousand in only forty years!

Up until the 1960s we believed it could be done again. We said we were still the “fastest growing religious group in the country.” My buddies and I dreamed of “taking the world.” Our missionaries were on the march. It was the “Dawning of the Age of Aquarius,” and we were changing the planet!

Somewhere around 1965 our statistics flattened, then headed down hill on a collision course with oblivion, until a slight upturn around 1986. Mac Lynn reports three percent growth between 1980 and 1990. Rather than changing the world, we fell behind population growth and weren’t even keeping our own kids. In some states, we ended the decade smaller by scores of thousands. In 1991 Flavil Yeakly said, “I don’t know of any of our older, larger mainline churches that are growing by evangelism!” Our dreams were shattered.

I spotted an old friend leaning against the wall, alone in a crowded room, staring at the floor, his eyes as vacant as last year’s bird’s nest. He slowly dragged his eyes up from the floor to mine. Then he spoke for a lot of us, “Lynn, I’ve lost my dream. What do you do without dreams?”

He may live on by effort and plan
when the fine bloom of living is shed
but God pity the little that’s left of a man,
when the last of his dreams is dead.

What went wrong?

Whatever it was, it is not just a problem with our fellowship. Lyle schaller says that fewer than five percent of all local churches in America which are 25 years old are growing by evangelism.

Some of our wrist-slashing is misguided. “We are too narrow. Too broad. Too materialistic. Don’t love the lost. Lost our distinciveness. Too sectarian … ” Whack! Slash! While there may be some truth in this, not all the good Chrisians lived in Bible times, or in the ’50s or whenever the golden age was. Lousy Christians lived a long time ago, too. For starters, check Corinth!

No! I believe something more recent and pervasive lies behind our declining growht and shattered dreams.

The wine of the gospel didn’t run out. The wineskins quit stretching. We froze and the culture moved off and left us. Or, as someone has said, “They put my church on auto-pilot in the 50’s and haven’t been back to the cockpit since!”

In his book Unleashing the Church, Frank Tilapaugh reminds us that prior to the American Revolution, churches in this country were mostly cultural branch-offices of European denominations, clustered on the eastern seaboard. They did not connect with the new culture. With the Revolution, America headed west. New churches sprang up all across the frontier. Baptist plow preachers knew how to communicate with the pioneers. Methodists employed effective “methods.” These pioneer church planters were strategists who designed ways of “doing church” that connected with the culture. Growth exploded!

Then frontier communities evolved into cities. The grandchildren of the pioneers graduated from the universities, settled in the cities and brought their faith with them. However, in so doing they transported rural, frontier church styles to modern, urban settings. After all, these formats had worked back in Farmerville, and “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

But urban culture kept changing radically and swiftly. And those strategies which served so well in the rural nineteenth century, simply did not fit today’s cities. For example, I used to “hold gospel meetings” in rural churches an baptize 10 or 20 people a week. Few city churches attempt this strategy today, however. They understand it was designed for a cultural setting that no longer exists.

However, not all “strategies turned dogman” die so easily. Old wineskins resist stretch. What the plow preachers designed as “strategy” became “event.” “Event” became “tradition.” “Tradition” became “identity” and finally “dogma,” and in our fellowship “the biblical pattern.”

The early leaders of our movement, however, were in touch with the culture. Some of our preachers helped draft state constitutions, built universities, designed communications systems.. Their hands were on the levers which drove the culture. So our movement exploded in those early years.

However, in more recent times what happened to churches in general happened to us as well. Strategies have become institutionalized. Many congregations hold as sacred mere forms and methods which were designed only as strategies for another place and time. Like other groups, we turned inward, equated “modernity” with “liberal theology,” and “change” with “apostasy..” We stopped developing, and the culture moved on without us.

Sure we are hampered by narrowness, legalism and loss of commitment on the one hand an materialism, secularism and liberalism on the other. But I believe our greater problem has been our preoccupation with the past – attempting to duplicate nineteenth-century (or first-century) church patterns, rather than projecting the biblical Christ into twentieth-century experience.

Did I hear you shift in your chair and ask, “Lynn, why call this column the Hope Network Newsletter? Sounds more like The Doom.”

Good. Now we are ready to talk hope! I am more excited about the future of our fellowship now than I have ever been in my life. If the Lord would let me choose any slice of history in which to live my life, I’d choose now, with our people.

Why? Because of some specific, observable realities going on right now.

Global Action

First, the Global Action. In 1974 Billy Graham and John Stott, alarmed at cut-backs in world missions, called a global congress of 2,500 Christian leaders in Lausanne, Switzerland to address the crisis. Fifteen years later, 1989, they convened Lausanne II in Manila, to assess progress. Over 4,000 delegates attended Lausanne II, including seven of us from churches of Christ. Progress was astounding. The global “Christian community” had more than doubled, nearly tripled in 15 years.

The numerical locus of the Christian faith has shifted from North America to Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa. For example, in Seoul, Korea, three congregations number over 100,000 each. A math teacher from Ghana who attended Lausanne I went back home and started a Bible study in his house. Now it is a congregaion with 50,000 members which has started approximately 1,000 daughter churches.

Great things are happening globally in our movement, too. In Ethiopia, despite communism, civil war, persecution and famine, and no on-site missionaries, the membership in churches of Christ has grown from roughly 15,000 to 50,000 in the last 15 years! In Kenya, Nigeria, and Zambia growth is amazing. Malawi has nearly 1,000 congregations. Solid growth flourishes in Brazil. And watch Eastern Europe!

North American Action

Second, the North American Action. You might say, “But nothing much is happening here.” Wrong! Many churches in this country are growing at record rates, mostly thorugh new church plantings. The Southern Baptists have started several hundred churches per year in each of several states. And look at the Bible church and community church movement.

Two years ago, I picked up a car at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and headed out through snow, wind and 21 degree weather, to visit a Wednesday evening church service. Five thousand people showed up 30 minutes early for 90 minutes of worship and Bible teaching. On the weekend over 12,000 showed – and that church was started only 13 years earlier with less than a hundred people.

My first reaction was, “This stuff must be a mile wide and an inch deep. Of course if you cater to self-interest and dazzle people you can gather a crowd. But if you ask people to stand up for Jesus and the Bible, like we do in the Restoration Movement, that crowd would soon scatter.”

Upon closer examination of a number of these growth stories, however, I’ve been amazed at their substance. Most claim the Bible as their only rule of faith and practice, require baptism, and follow scirpturally qualified leaders. They call people to high levels of moral, financial and ministry expectation. Most expect accountability and practice firm church discipline. Of course I don’t agree with all I see, but my point is this: nothing in the message or demands in our congregations would make them any less “marketable” than the message and demands in their congregations. In fact, a lot of our folks would scream bloody murder if called to similar standards.

I am convinced that it is not our message, but our methods and models that “market” so poorly. There is no inherent reason why churches of Christ cannot reach people with amazing effectiveness. I sing in the shower about what is ahead.

Leadership Action

Third, the Leadership Action! I love our older preachers. Fact is, I am one of them. But it’s our gorwing army of young ministers who lift my hopes. In the last decade or two, our rapidly improving schools are turning out preachers who are light-years ahead of where I was at their age. They come out with academic tool sfor Bible study far surprassing mine and most of my preaching peers. They love the Lord and the Bible and preach expository messages. They walk in the spirit of the early restoration leaders by being in touch with the culture. They know the times. Most of them read widely, and many are trained in more than one field.

Also, our younger ministers are earning deep respect outside of our fellowhsip. An organization called Leadership Network hosts cross-denominational resource retreats for ministers. A number of our finest have participated in several of these conferences. Twice I have heard executives of Leadership Network say, “After visiting with all kinds of ministers, I think the guys from your fellowship are among the brightests and the best.” Every Sunday more than 40,000 of our people hear the preaching of these “brightest and best” ministers in some of our largest pace-setting churches. A bright new day is dawning.

Church Plantings

Fourth, church plantings. Some of our older churches definitely are changing format and strategies to be more effective, and some are showing signs of new growth as we are learning how to manage change without splitting churches. In one graduate class I taught recently, well over half of the 19 students aspire to be church planters. This is a new and exciting trend. We are dreaming again!

I expect to see dozens of new congregations planted in the next few years – churches which will be rooted firmly in scripture but at the same time connect with our times because they will be:

  • Spiritually renewed
  • Structurally re-organized
  • Sociologically targeted
  • Strategically intentional.

A God Of Surprises

Finally, my optimism is rooted in Our God of Surprises! All of God’s major movements in hisotry have been surprises. The people of God could see no way out of Egypt. But God surprised them and parted the Red Sea. Who would have planned this route or anticipated this mighty act of God? Again, in the first century A.D., Israel lost hope under the iron heel of Rome. But God surprised them with a manger, a cross, a resurrection, and Pentecost – and scattered hope across the world.

Only Rip Van Winkle could miss the most recent surprises of God: the Berlin wall scattered to knickknack shelves around the globe; the spread of the gospel in Eastern Europe; the spectacular and swift dissolving of the Soviet Union. Surprises! But then God is full of surprises and capable of anything! What next?

Who knows what the the God of surprises will do around our next corner? Who will be the next Moses, or Paul, or Luther, or Campbell! maybe he or she is sitting in your Sunday school class. Maybe it is you! To paraphrase Joshua, “consecrate yourselves and tomorrow the God of surprises will blow your doors off!”

The God of surprises is a God of hope. So, for as long as Wineskins lets me, this column will traffic in hope! We will network with visionaries, risk-takers, and thinkers to track what the Spirit is doing on the cutting edges of the Kingdom. I invite you to network with us month to month for hopeful things God is doing, the hopeful people he is raising up, the hopeful skills he is giving us, and the hopeful developments on our horizons. In the tradition of the men of Issachar, we will attempt to “understand the times” so that we will “know what to do” (1 Chronicles 12:31).

Send us your signs of hope!Wineskins Magazine

Lynn AndersonFor the twenty-five years Lynn has served as an adjunct professor at Abilene Christian University, teaching missions, ministry, and leadership courses. And through those years he has been called on increasingly by scores of minister and numerous churches—as they sought encouragement, resources, and counsel in the midst of the challenges of church leadership. Lynn Anderson is an author, well-known speaker, and founder of the San Antonio-based Hope Network Ministries, a ministry dedicated to coaching, mentoring and equipping church leaders. [http://www.mentornetwork.org/]

 

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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