Monday, October 25, 2010

How the West Was Won -- Part 3

As a proud grandfather, I just had to include this picture of our new grandson and his father (our son).

Let me introduce Matthew Billings Jr and his father Matt. Matthew was born October 21, 2010 and is healthy, content and very well loved.
Let me pick up where I left off. I'm trying to provide background material to part one in this series in which I said that the way early Baptists and Methodists in America were structured made a significant difference in their ability to start many new churches and reach people with the gospel. I'm basing my argument on the excellent research provided by Finke and Stark in The Churching of America: 1776-2005. The comments in italics below are direct quotes from their work. All other comments are mine.
One of my contentions in "Insanity Redefined" is that we cannot start all the churches we need because there are not enough clergy to pastor the number of churches we need if we rely on having full-time, seminary educated clergy. That wasn't a problem for the early Baptists and Methodists in America.
Not only could the Baptists and the Methodists generate surplus clergy, both denominations operated with incredibly low overhead. The Baptists typically paid their preachers nothing at all; most earned their living with a plow just like other members of the congregation. [p.82]
The uneducated and often unpaid clergy of the Baptists and Methodists made it possible for these denominations to sustain congregations anywhere a few people could gather, for it was the pursuit of souls, not material comfort, that drove their clergy forth. [p.84]
I include these two quotes not to suggest churches should not pay their pastors, but to show that Baptists grew through laymen leading small groups of folks like themselves. We might think of this as bi-vocational pastors leading congregations or laymen leading simple, organic churches. It also highlights their passion to reach the lost as the following quote suggests: Indeed, it would be hard to imagine that any sum of money could have motivated Bishop Asbury to travel nearly 300,000 miles on horseback, disregarding weather and chronic ill-health, to supervise his far-flung network of itinerants and circuit riders. [p.84]
These farmer-preachers knew what to do: preach! Neither the Baptists nor the Methodists set forth their confessions in complex theological writings that required extensive instruction or teaching ... but both denominations stressed spiritual conversion and a strong individual responsibility to God. [p.86]
What about their doctrine? Did the lack of formal theological education make them subject to poor theology or false doctrine? Apparently not. Probably just the opposite.
The Harvard and Yale divinity schools did not train their students to earn their own livings behind a horse and plow or prepare them to spend half their days in the saddle going from one rural hamlet to another. As George Whitefield charged, the primary impact of these schools on many of their students, then as now, may have been to replace faith with theology and belief with unbelief. For seminaries, a desire for intellectual integrity and academic acceptance soon takes precedence over developing the skills desired and the piety admired by those in the pew. Indeed, it was in the religion departments and divinity schools, not in the science departments, that unbelief was formulated and promulgated in American intellectual life. [p.87]
Just FYI, in the last quote the authors refer you to Conrad Cherry (Hurrying Toward Zion: Universities, Divinity Schools, and American Protestantism) for a historical overview of divinity schools' struggles with intellect and piety. Also, just to be clear, I am grateful to my alma maters, Belmont University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, from which I received a good, solid liberal arts and theological education.
What does this mean? It means these folks were solid theologically and passionate about reaching people with the gospel. Though not professional clergy, they were effective in reaching folks like themselves because they were "of the people, by the people and for the people." They used the language of the people. They made careful use of vernacular imagery, metaphors, and stories that applied to the everyday life of their audience. // The Baptist and Methodist preachers looked like ordinary people because they were, and their sermons could convert and convince ordinary people because the message was direct and clear and the words were not read from notes, but seemed (to both speakers and hearers) to issue directly from divine inspiration. // We must never underestimate the impact of humble and ardent preachers on the spread of faith. [p.86]
In some ways, these preachers were not special. They were common folks, but that may be what made them special! They were common, ordinary everyday folks, in love with Jesus, passionate about reaching others with the gospel, willing to personally sacrifice if necessary to see that their family, friends and neighbors had a chance to hear the gospel and be saved. That's how the west was won for Christ in America.

Monday, October 11, 2010

How the West Was Won -- Part 2

In my previous blog I mentioned Finke and Stark's The Churching of America: 1776-2005. I thought a few quotes from their chapter "The Upstart Sects Win America, 1776-1850" might be enlightening. Quoted material will be in italics and cited for easy reference.
In 1776 the Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians seemed to be the colonial denominations. Of Americans active in a religious body, 55 percent belonged to one of the three. And at the time it seemed certain that these groups would continue to be in the "mainline" for the foreseeable future. Indeed, in 1761 Ezra Stiles using a demographic projection technique taught him by Benjamin Franklin, proclaimed that one hundred years hence there would be seven million Congregationalists in the colonies and fewer than four hundred thousand Baptists. But by 1860 there were actually fewer than five hundred thousand Congregationalists in America, while the Baptists numbered nearly two million. What happened? [p.55]
In 1776 the Methodists were a tiny religious society with only 65 churches scattered through the colonies. Seven decades later they towered over the nation. In 1850 there were 13,302 Methodist congregations, enrolling more than 2.6 million members--the largest single denomination, accounting for more than a third of all American church members. For such growth to occur in eighty years seems nearly miraculous. [p.57]
Thus the central question comes into clear focus. Why did the leading denominations of 1776 crumble in a free market religious economy? What did they do wrong? Or what did the Methodists and the Baptists do right? [p.60]
Where there are winners there are losers. Much can be learned from a comparison of the two primary winners in the American religious economy between 1776 and 1850, the Methodists and Baptists, with the two primary losers, the Congregationalists and Episcopalians. There also is much to be gained from examination of the "also-ran" Presbyterians, whose growth kept pace with the population, but not with the increase in the proportions active in churches. [p.72]
Social scientists agree that the structure of an organization can have tremendous impact on its efficiency and success. [p.72]
The authors cite the local, democratic rule of the congregation in both Methodist and Baptist churches as significant. Methodist congregations were divided into small, close-knit groups called classes. Each class met on a weekly basis and was composed of approximately a dozen or more members. Here is where the zeal of camp meetings was maintained, intimate fellowship was achieved, testimonials were offered, new converts were instructed, and the behavior of the faithful was monitored. [p.73]
In this era the actual pastoral functions were performed in most Methodist churches by unpaid, local "amateurs" just like those serving the Baptist congregations up the road. [p.73] [This is in contrast to the Congregationalists and others that functioned with highly educated, well-paid, full-time clergy.]
Whereas the Baptists would form regional associations wherever four or five Baptist churches were established Congregational churches established outside of the New England region were often isolated units, lacking any regional support. [p.74, just had to thrown that one in]
The Presbyterians had established strong presbyteries throughout the nation, and ... they fared much better than did the Congregationalists or the Episcopalians during this era. Their growth, however, was constantly plagued by divisions within their organization. [75]
The organizational forms used by the Baptists and the Methodists were quite different, but their clergy were nearly interchangeable. In both denominations, ministers primarily came from the ranks of the common folk and, to a very important extent, remained common folk. Unlike the Congregational, Presbyterian, arid Episcopalian ministers, who typically were of genteel origin and were highly trained and well educated, the Baptist and Methodist clergy were of the people. They had little education, received little if any pay, spoke in the vernacular, and preached from the heart. [p.76]
In short, well-educated clergy entered a prestigious full-time profession with a variety of career opportunities, whereas the uneducated clergy answered a call from God and the people to serve the local church in saving souls. [By uneducated the authors mean they lacked formal theological education. They were not, the authors point out, less educated than the people they served.] Reliance on well-educated clergy also created a serious practical problem for the colonial mainline: a constant shortage of clergy. [p.80]
In contrast, Baptists and Methodists had an abundance of available clergy because the clergy came from the people. Both denominations developed systems that made it easy for gifted laymen to enter the ministry. Among the Baptists the local preacher, or farmer-preacher, was often a man of local origins whose call was ratified by his fellow congregants. [p.82]
Not only could the Baptists and Methodists generate surplus clergy, both denominations operated with incredibly low overhead. [p.82] More on this will follow.
That's enough for now. In good "speaker" speak, let me tell you what I'm trying to tell you and then continue developing my argument later: one of the key issues we need to face is that our current system of doing church is more like the Congregationalists than the old time Baptists and Methodists. Dependence on full-time, highly educated clergy, for example, limits how many churches we can start. So does our dependence of buildings and our emphasis on super-sized churches. Denominational conflict hindered Presbyterians and has hindered us as Baptists. Operating as isolated churches rather than working together hindered Congregationalists and will hinder us.
Back to the point I've tried to make all year. We've got to change the way we do church if we are going to reach the city. We've got to think differently about church if we are going to change. That's what I think. Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

How the West Was Won

So, have you defined the problem yet? I will share some of my thoughts in this article, but I think it might be helpful to give you a bit of background information before I do.

One of the most intriguing and informative books I've read in many years is The Churching of America: 1776 to 2005 by co-authors Roger Finke and Rodney Stark. Dr. Roger Finke is a Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at the Pennsylvania State University who helped create the Association of Religion Data Archives which provides significant information on religious life in America (and a resource I use for our work in Houston). Dr. Rodney Stark was for 32 years professor of sociology and comparative religion at the University of Washington. In 2004 he became University Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University where he also serves as the co-director for the Institute for Studies of Religion. (I believe this is a book anyone interested in reaching our world for Christ should read! To purchase a copy of The Churching of America: 1776 to 2005 click here.)
In The Churching of America: 1776 to 2005 the authors look at the history of the church in America, how it grew, what factors contributed to the growth of some denominations and the decline of others. For example, in 1776, the leading denominations in America were Congregationalists, Anglicans (Episcopalians) and Presbyterians. Baptists and Methodists were considered sects. By 1850 everything changed! Methodists and Baptists were the largest denominations. Congregationalists, Episcopalians and Presbyterians fell far behind. Changes in the Methodist church in the 1880s caused their growth to stall out while Baptists continued to grow becoming the largest denomination in the US.

What happened? What contributed to the growth of Baptists and the decline of other denominations? Social scientists believe there were several contributing factors (things we need to pay attention to today).

Structure made a difference. Churches were not highly organized. Their structure was simple and congregational. Among Methodists, the class meetings (home Bible studies led by laymen) were a primary source of spiritual and social support for members.

Pastors were not professionals. A highly professionalized clergy had not yet developed. Among both Baptists and Methodists, pastoral functions were mostly performed by unpaid, local "amateurs," what were sometimes called "farmer-preachers." The call of George Truett to ministry was typical of what was going on in churches at that time. His church needed a pastor. George was just a young man in the congregation. During a congregational meeting, a layman announced "I believe God is calling George Truett to be our pastor." George wasn't convinced. He planned to study the law, but the congregation prevailed upon him and he became their pastor. That's how one of Baptists greatest leaders entered the ministry!

And there is much, much more in the book (and history) we can learn from, but this is enough for now.

In my last article I said we need to define the problem, we need to see what impedes our reaching all the people in our city with the gospel, what is contributing to the loss of market share for the church in Houston and in America (sorry if stating things in such crass terms is unsettling for you)?
I'll answer by referring you back to a conversation with a new friend and neighbor (posted in August). In our first meeting, he asked what I did. After I told him he said, "I go to church with my fiancee. It's a Presbyterian church, but it's not really a church because we meet in a school."

Did you catch his idea of what a real church is? Therein lies the problem. What is it? I think it is in our institutionalized understanding of church. Even though we know "the church" is the people, we've allowed an institutional model to creep into our thought process and take over our understanding of church. I believe that model of church is a major impediment to the rapid multiplication of disciples. (And for those who ask, is it about making disciples or planting churches, I think the distinction is only relevant if we think of church as an institution. In my mind, the concepts are more alike than distinct.)

It's probably dangerous for me to say so, but I believe we need to de-institutionalize church. We need to find models of church that are consistent with the biblical characteristics of church but without many of the trappings that we think of when we think of church: buildings, professionally trained clergy, large budgets, complex organizational structure.

Now I realize that's probably not going to happen in the US unless something quite frame-breaking happens (like the taxation of the church, and don't think that couldn't happen!). So rather than dismantle church as we know it, I believe we need to lay another system alongside the institutional church, a system of simple church that empowers the laity and doesn't require significant funding. But that's a conversation for later when we start talking about solving the problem. For now I'm just trying to define it.

For more on "How the West Was Won, the Growth of the Church in America," plan to attend our January Quarterly Meeting when I'll be doing a more extensive presentation of this material.
In case you missed it, I would also encourage you to read my July article entitled "Insanity Redefined" for data that shows it would take 1,452 years and $47.9 billion dollars to reach the unreached population of Houston using our current strategy for starting institutional model churches!
And thanks for all who are engaging the conversation by making comments. Keep those cards and letters coming. :-)