- The Washington Times - Friday, July 6, 2001

Part five of five

But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you. —1 John 2:27

KANSAS CITY, Mo. —It is Sunday morning on a cool March weekend downtown, and Bartle Hall is rocking.
"I have an unashamed desire to be great in the eyes of God," declares the Rev. Mike Bickle, a casually dressed baby-boomer preacher, to 3,000 boisterous evangelical Christians inside the convention center.
Many gather in a mosh pit in front of the main stage. Worship lasts a dizzying 90 minutes, heedless of deadlines or common wisdom about prim, hourlong services.
Speaker after speaker during the weekend conference has urged the faithful to strive for a radical, "prophetic" Christianity. Mr. Bickle, master of ceremonies, describes how the American "culture of entitlement" has affected the church.
"Even the dedicated are half-compromising," the 46-year-old preacher tells the throng. "If you have the pain of an unsatisfied heart, this propels you into the heart of God. Don't let anyone get rid of that pain for you."
But, how to stave off moral compromise? Do without a meal or two, he suggests.
"Fasting is critical to maintaining spiritual vitality," Mr. Bickle tells them. "Our culture is so afraid of missing out on a pleasure. We are high maintenance, low impact; two ticks with no dog to suck blood from."
Dissatisfaction with how the Christian church trains its clergy and organizes its flock to bring the lost to Jesus brews at this and many other such gatherings across the country.
Since the birth of itinerant evangelism in colonial America, self-taught and freewheeling preachers have come and gone. The Rev. Louis Weeks is among historians who say the "new breed is really the old breed," citing equally enthusiastic ministers of the Gospel in the 19th century.
"All of these were new-breed ministers who thought that on-the-job training was better than going to seminary," says Mr. Weeks, president of Union Theological Seminary in Richmond. "When they preached, they preached against 'the boring church,' as they called it."

Resuscitating passion
As the millennial year 2000 approached, many clergy promised an American revival surpassing even the excitement of the "Jesus movement" and charismatic renewal of the 1970s. That revival did not come, pollsters George Barna and George Gallup say, so revivalist ministers face a new challenge: retaining the interest of baby boomers and younger Americans.
What attracts many boomers to the "good news" of salvation through Jesus, studies show, are programs that emphasize personal experience, egalitarianism and dress-down informality.
One such congregation, Southwest Community Church of Palm Desert, Calif., grew from 300 members to about 7,000 within a few years of hiring a 33-year-old pastor. The Rev. David Moore wore sports shirts in the pulpit and preached how-to sermons on improving relations with children, spouses and friends rather than verse-by-verse expositions of Scripture.
Such new methods are good, but may not be enough to stir a "spiritually stagnant" America where churchgoers have "traded in spiritual passion for empty rituals," says Mr. Barna, an evangelical Christian pollster.
Although the number of committed Christians — those holding to orthodox beliefs — grew from 35 percent of the faithful in 1995 to 41 percent this year, the pollster says, weekly church attendance dropped the same amount: from 49 percent to 42 percent.
The 41 percent of the population who call themselves born-again Christians amount to roughly 114 million. But the numbers enrolling in Bible study and adult Sunday school or volunteering for religious activities have shrunk.
"The challenge to today's church is not methodological," Mr. Barna says. "It is a challenge to resuscitate the spiritual passion and fervor of the nation's Christians."
Mr. Bickle, the Kansas City pastor, is more to the point. Having left a large church two years ago to oversee the fledgling International House of Prayer, an interdenominational ministry, he lays blame at the preacher's pulpit.
"The church is suffering from spiritual boredom," he says. "There's tons of babbling in the church, and it really creates a disdain for the preachers."
Clergy who "started out fearless" became timid because now "they have too many people they must keep happy," Mr. Bickle tells the crowd in Kansas City.
"Your life is a rebuke to them because they cannot afford to be fearless anymore. Fearless people unsettle and unnerve the structure."

Watching for leaders
Other organizations devoted to church growth have noted problems with the same structure: Ministers who employed unusual but effective evangelistic methods in the 1970s — when many baby boomers were converting to Christianity — barely keep pace today.
One such organization is the Leadership Network, a nonprofit Christian group formed in Dallas in 1984. Styling itself a "network of innovative church leaders," it offers mailings, publications and advice from outside-the-box clerics such as the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, who delivered the closing prayer during George W. Bush's inauguration ceremony.
Good ideas are catching, according to the Leadership Network, which scans the country for up-and-coming spiritual leaders who can recognize the quickly changing social landscape. Some exist within denominations; others have started their own.
Aided by a $3 million annual grant from the Buford Foundation, endowed by Dallas cable TV executive Bob Buford, the Leadership Network sponsors one-day conferences around the country.
The organization also sends out an in-depth teaching, "Explorer," to 1,800 subscribers over the Internet. An additional 7,000 get the Reader's Digest version in "Explorer Lite," a biweekly e-mail compendium of "brain clips," or suggestions on ways to create a compelling church experience.
The Leadership Network readily acknowledges that in an age of megachurches — full-service "worship centers" complete with gyms and restaurants — congregations resemble multilevel corporations more than village parishes. But in the process, some lost that personal touch.
"It used to be that churches employed a senior pastor, a youth pastor and a children's worker," says the Rev. Bruce Miller, 39, pastor of the 1,300-member McKinney Fellowship Bible Church in McKinney, Texas. "Now you have people on staff who … do marketing."
Mr. Miller's 4-year-old church, in a growing Dallas suburb, also employed spiritual remedies. Instead of going door to door to solicit converts, members took a phone book for McKinney, the seat of Collin County situated 30 miles north of Dallas, and prayed over it in sections to draw those folks to the church.
Now the pastor has 35 on staff. A conservative evangelical, he belongs to one of America's new Protestant denominations: Fellowship Bible Churches, a loose-knit group of 300 churches.
Mr. Miller's church recently issued a pamphlet, "Forty Days With God," which asks: "What does it look like to live a radical life for Christ in Collin County in 2001? How would Jesus' disciples live if they were here today in our community?"
The pamphlet suggests returning to the ancient church discipline of fasting during the pre-Easter season of Lent. Readers are told to "go further than is comfortable for you" in praying and reading Scripture.

Wanting to do more
The American scene increasingly is filled with such independent churches that belong to denominations founded in the past 20 years. The clergy who lead them are spiritual entrepreneurs — mostly men who are dissatisfied with the status quo of traditional denominations.
Many come from the ranks of the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination that today boasts abundant clergy: 18,000 ordained ministers for 12,000 congregations. Many have struck out on their own, says the Rev. Russell P. Spittler, an Assemblies minister and academic provost at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.
"Some who grew up in the Assemblies of God eventually felt strictures by the denomination, so they bailed out," Mr. Spittler says. "We were like a farm for ideas and practices, and they want to do more."
The 1998 National Congregations Study of 1,236 houses of worship of all faiths, conducted by University of Arizona sociologist Mark Chaves, estimated that 19 percent of the nation's roughly 325,000 congregations are independents.
About 150 of these are among 600 "megachurches," defined by the Megachurch Research Center in Springfield, Mo., as churches with more than 2,000 worshippers. Sixty percent of the independent megachurches, the center says, are charismatic.
Another sign of independence is a lack of clear "denominational heritage," which is the case with about 38 percent of houses of worship, according to the recent "Faith Communities Today" survey. The survey, conducted by Hartford Seminary, involved 14,301 representative congregations.
Entrepreneurial clergy, moreover, often may be found among the 30 percent of American ministers whose highest training was in Bible college, or the 10 percent with only a high school education.
Bypassing seminary is no shame in many church traditions. The Assemblies of God bylaws, for example, say "no certain amount of education shall ever be required for ordination."
Mr. Spittler, with 25 years in academic work at Fuller, insists some of the best ministers he's known did fine with Bible college or a correspondence course. "It's a strange thing to say, but true," he says.
Indeed, the denomination recently elected the Rev. George Wood as its first general secretary to hold a seminary degree.

The black entrepreneurs
The other big issue for the new breed, Mr. Spittler says, is accountability. The Assemblies have an elaborate governing system, but independent clergy may become governors unto themselves.
Assemblies ministers who left the fold include former televangelist Jim Bakker, Baton Rouge evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, Times Square (N.Y.) Church Pastor David Wilkerson and the Rev. Paul Crouch, who operates from his powerful Trinity Broadcasting TV network in Southern California.
Nathan Hieb, a third-year divinity student at Fuller, recognizes that some of the free-wheeling excesses of independent, evangelical Christianity can tar the reputation of the faith.
"Many of the people I've worked with — postmodern, post-Christian people — have no idea what the Bible says," Mr. Hieb says. "When they think of Christianity and the Bible, they think of preachers on TV asking for money."
The entrepreneurial boom also is making its mark on black pastors and predominantly black churches.
Though formal theological education never before has been so available to blacks, many opt for on-the-job training. This worries leaders in historically black denominations such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, where higher education was a hard-fought achievement.
It's tough to push years in a library at seminary, however, when preachers such as Bishop T.D. Jakes can go from a West Virginia storefront to a $32 million sanctuary in southwest Dallas. Mr. Jakes, 43, became "bishop" of his own nascent denomination, which boasts 26,000 local members, a television show and best-selling books.
Although the black-power movement turned against the church in the 1960s, Pentecostal entrepreneurs successfully recruited young people and built large churches with high attendance.
"The 1950s was not a boom time for the black church, but it grew dramatically from the 1970s to 1990s," says Lawrence Mamiya, professor of African studies at Vassar College.
Between 1983 and 1996, for example, the census recorded a jump in black males who identified their occupation as clergy. Their number nearly tripled from 14,357 to 39,649 while the black population as a whole rose less than 10 percent.
Few of these men had time to go to seminary. Instead, they trained under a clergy apprenticeship system. Its leading example is the Church of God in Christ, a Pentecostal and entrepreneurial tradition with 5 million members — but only one theological seminary.

'Worship is everything'
Many entrepreneurs in the predominantly white evangelical culture see graduate-school seminaries as part of the problem.
"A lot of seminary training is academic," says Brad Smith, 42, president of the Leadership Network. "But learning Hebrew and Greek doesn't fit real-life needs. There is a new kind of clergy who are driven by the question our culture is asking: What is the usefulness of our church to society?
"The older clergy don't think that's a valid question. The newer clergy think it is."
"People want experience," Mr. Smith says. "So worship is everything."
Hence the 90 to 105 minutes of worship at the Kansas City gathering, the singing and music punctuated by individuals who shake tambourines, dance in the aisles or wave banners.
Conferences and master-novice relationships have displaced seminaries as the main means of training Christians, the Rev. Rick Joyner of Morningstar Ministries in Charlotte, N.C., tells the gathering.
"I did not intend for my statement to be a slam on seminaries," he says later. "However, the Lord has called His church to be a family more than just an organization, and it seems that the most effective way that everything of lasting significance in the church is accomplished is based on relationship."
The trend seems to be anything on how to connect deeply to the living God. Book tables at the Kansas City conference are full of advice on prayer, seeking God, contemplation, revival, spiritual passion, prophecy and "bridal love" for God.
Why this? The 21st-century seeker is overwhelmed with information and data, says the Rev. Brad Cecil, 43, associate pastor of Pantego Bible Church in the Dallas suburb of Arlington.
"The scientific understanding of life is fading in our culture," Mr. Cecil says, "whereas the mystical, experiential understanding is growing.
"Today, people don't just learn through teaching. There's too much information for people to know. So what you really know is your experience and who you relate to."
Those to whom he ministers don't see Christianity as a set of beliefs, but more "a central figure," Mr. Cecil says, "which is Jesus Christ."

'New paradigm' churches
Some of the new entrepreneurial breed of clergy start out as technicians, office workers and businessmen. McKinney Fellowship Bible Church's pastor, Mr. Miller, says he wrestled with ordaining an executive from Nortel, the high-powered computer firm.
Mr. Miller reasoned that many successful Christian shepherds, from Willowcreek Community Church founder Bill Hybels to Campus Crusade for Christ leader Bill Bright, do not have a seminary degree. The New Testament, meanwhile, records that ordination — the conferring of priestly authority —came only when Jesus' Apostles laid hands on a follower named Timothy.
The Nortel executive turned out to be an effective leader, Mr. Miller says.
Such lay-based pastors can attend weekend conferences, read Web sites, subscribe to magazines and gather a wealth of ad hoc materials to train themselves. They attend conferences, like the one in Kansas City, to take in two days' worth of teachings on specialty topics from prophecy to spiritual warfare.
University of Southern California religion professor Donald E. Miller is a leading researcher of new-breed ministers and churches. An Episcopalian, he calls the phenomenon "new paradigm churches."
"The pastors of 'new paradigm' churches tend to be extremely bright, close to the age and experience of their boomer congregations and unfettered by seminary educations that instruct them on how to run a church," Mr. Miller writes in his study, "Reinventing Protestantism."
Mainline churches are too bureaucratic, he says, while "their message is ambiguous, lacking authority, and their worship is anemic."
The professor studied three trend-setting charismatic denominations —Calvary Chapel, Hope Chapel and Vineyard Christian Fellowship — that originated with the Southern California beach scene and hippie culture of the 1960s. Lack of seminary training among leaders did not hurt the denominations' exponential growth, he found.
Nearly all mainline Protestant as well as Catholic clergy have graduate-level seminary training. By contrast, only 38 percent of clergy leading Calvary's 600 churches have an undergraduate college degree. The rate is 64 percent among Vineyard pastors.

Teaching the Bible
On Monday nights, music and youth ministry prevail at Calvary's mother church in Costa Mesa, Calif., a sweeping complex that suggests a hacienda-style shopping center. Sunday morning is more traditional. And in the midst of preaching three sermons that day, the Rev. Chuck Smith, the founder, explains what a church can do.
"Our feeling is that if a church is all that a church should be, then seminaries would be unnecessary," Mr. Smith says. "The churches should be teaching the Bible. We go from Genesis to Revelation."
In fact, Mr. Smith's tape series — encompassing the entire Bible on several hundred tapes over several years of Sunday services — is a core curriculum. Members of his congregation listen to the tapes while commuting or on the job; they also take courses in the morning or on Sunday or Wednesday nights.
"On the road, they are in a seminary of sorts," Mr. Smith says. "After a few years here, they are ready to go out and share with others the things they've learned."
But not everyone who asks to be ordained is allowed to be.
"We don't believe that man can ordain a man for the ministry. God is the one who ordains them," Mr. Smith says. "What we seek to do is ratify what we have observed that God has done."
Take Al James, a stockbroker who attended Calvary, then began leading a Bible study.
"We heard Al James' study was going really great, so we realized he must be able to communicate," Mr. Smith says. "Then he said he'd like to go pioneer [a church]. We said, 'Great, Al, go for it.'"
Now Mr. James has the largest church in Prescott, Ariz. Of the nation's 25 largest churches, nine are Calvary chapels, Mr. Smith says.
Calvary's worship is casual and what some label "soft charismatic," with an openness to — but not a heavy use of — "gifts of the Holy Spirit" such as healing, prophecy and speaking in tongues.
Only men are pastors. And Dave Rolph, an associate Calvary pastor, is a rare case: He earned a master's of divinity at Talbot Theological Seminary in Los Angeles. But he says men inspired by ministry don't have to study for 10 years or plunk down $40,000 for a seminary degree.
"Today, the information is all out there, thanks to computers," Mr. Rolph says. "You can buy a CD-ROM now for $60 that has as much theological material on it as my whole education."
This contrast between a spontaneous ministry and formal training is one more issue that divides Christian clergy, already split over the Bible, the role of women, morals and politics.
Yet scholars such as the University of Southern California's Mr. Miller stress that formal mainline clergy could learn from the "new paradigm." In turn, freewheeling pastors often see graduate school as the next step — to the chagrin of spirit-filled colleagues.
Theology educators say they don't know whether the nation's roughly 500,000 ministers can band together to refresh or upgrade the "profession," though this fall Duke University Divinity School's "Pulpit and Pew" clergy survey — the largest of its kind ever — may provide some clues.
Meanwhile, most successful pastors surely know one thing: the daily needs of both the saved and the lost, especially in a society where institutions such as the family are in flux. In Texas, the Leadership Network's Mr. Smith says "parenting of the soul" is in great demand.
"Their parents weren't what they could be, so the church connects them to relationships, then deals with the soul issues," Mr. Smith says. "In a society that reinvents itself every three years, the church has to be a place that doesn't change."

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide