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Evangelicals, Numbers, and Success

We evangelicals are a funny bunch when it comes to numbers. Some of us sectarian types–and I was raised among such, in a little church in northern Ontario–used statistics to congratulate ourselves on our sanctity, by way of inverse proportionality. The proof of our holiness was precisely in our tiny numbers. We hadn’t “sold out” to the culture, like the “liberal” churches had, and thus we were faithfully small.

Now a lot of evangelicals, here and abroad, congratulate ourselves because our numbers are big. Big church memberships, big churches, big church staffs, big budgets, big paracongregational organizations, big schools, big everythings: clearly God is blessing us!

(Meanwhile, some in the liberal/mainline churches have flipped things around and are congratulating themselves, precisely as we fundies used to do, for their refusal to “sell out” to the culture, maintaining their prophetic integrity and thus their declining numbers.)

So what about the decline of churchgoing in Canada–and in Australia, New Zealand, Britain and, according to some recent surveys, the United States–over the last few decades? Evangelicals have been alarmed at this decline. But should we be?

If we return to the origins of evangelicalism in the eighteenth century revivals in Britain and North America, we see a movement that is not impressed with automatic, “everyone already belongs” Christianity. Quite to the contrary, the emphasis of evangelicalism is on authentic, personally appropriated Christianity that would make one stand out–not from pagans, or apostates, or members of other faiths, but from a nominal Christian majority.

Evangelicals of all people, that is, should be looking for signs of “scriptural holiness,” “distinguishing marks” of the Holy Spirit (to coin a phrase), evidences of “sound conversion,” and the like–and being suspicious, in fact, of “moral majorities” and broadly popular religiosity. Rather than hoping for cultural dominance, we might cast a gimlet eye upon mass movements into the church and especially into churches that look and sound so much like the culture at large.

John Wesley himself was dubious about “successful” preaching events that did not issue in small groups of serious Christians committing themselves to spiritual growth and to each other in serious Christian fellowship. He was not against big numbers, but he was suspicious of them, and worked hard to make disciples, not just converts.

Roughly two centuries later, another British evangelical, Oswald Chambers, warned his readers thus, on the basis of Luke 10:20-21, which conveys Jesus’ warning to his disciples not to rejoice in their power over evil spirits, but over the gift of God’s salvation:

“Never court anything other than the approval of God…. Jesus told the disciples not to rejoice in successful service, and yet this seems to be the one thing in which most of us do rejoice. We have the commercial view–so many souls saved and sanctified, thank God, now it is all right” (My Utmost for His Highest, reading for April 24).

“The commercial view” indeed. A wise friend of mine recently warned of the danger of becoming a “successful failure,” an individual whose talents and drives led to a range of conspicuous accomplishments while one’s spiritual and psychological deficiencies led to eventual collapse of character and destruction of reputation. In this, my friend echoed the apostle Paul’s concern to discipline himself so that “after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified” (I Cor. 9:27).

I certainly have put too many ego-eggs in the basket of “accomplishment” and invested not nearly enough in “character,” although I have struggled for years to right this balance and I struggle still. I suppose I am acknowledging here that I’m not helped in this struggle by the ambivalence in my own evangelical tribe, as we as a movement can’t finally decide whether tangible success, whether “bigness,” is the mark of God’s blessing, or of worldly capitulation, or what. And thus we waver and wobble in our definitions of success, and in our investment of resources–of time, money, talent, and concern.

Surely we must do good, but we must first and fundamentally be good. Jesus tells us to “make the tree good, and its fruit [will be] good” (Matt. 12:33). So does Psalm 1.

Even that should be enough for us proof-texting, verse-quoting evangelicals, no? And perhaps for others of us, too?


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