I remember well those heady days in the mid-1970s when a breath of fresh air blew through the church in Britain.

The Charismatic Renewal was at its height, with all sorts of non-Pentecostals getting baptised in the Holy Spirit and starting to use his gifts. Denominational walls were coming down and believers from the Baptists, Brethren and Methodists were finding brothers and sisters in the Church of England and even, to their amazement, in the Roman Catholic Church.

At that stage, what are now called ‘the new churches’ were beginning to form, and I was right up there with them on the crest of the wave. This great move of the Spirit, we all felt, was the harbinger of greater things. It was God’s way of spring-cleaning his grubby and cluttered church so that it could offer a fitting welcome to the droves of unbelievers who would flock to it when the imminent revival broke out.

That word ‘revival’ was never far away. The prospect of it coloured all we did. We saw ourselves as the sharp arrow-head that would pierce Satan’s armour and force him to deliver up his captives in their tens of thousands. Prophetic words to that effect were frequent and passionate.

That was thirty years ago and the revival never came. Let’s be blunt: those passionate prophecies, well-meant though they were, have been found wanting. They were duds, born more out of wishful thinking than out of God’s word. That’s not to say revival will never come—it may well do, and I’ll be the first to welcome it. But human beings who live three score years and ten find it hard to cope with God’s longer-term plans. For them a thirty-year wait is getting on for half a lifetime, and ‘hope deferred makes the heart sick.’

So what to do? With the revival-incentive all but dead, what will keep Christians going?

For those who never left their original denominations the simple option has been to stay put and let the old system keep rolling: the sung eucharist, the hymn-prayer sandwich, the preacher from ‘the plan’. In a predictable routine of Sunday services these folk can find, maybe, a Grade 2 satisfaction to take the place of the hoped-for Grade 1 type that the revival prophecies failed to deliver. But for those who said goodbye long ago to the ‘mainstream’ churches the situation is more difficult. The whole point of joining a ‘new church’ was to be able to move with the ‘flow of the Spirit’, free from the bells and candles of tradition. With the hope of imminent revival gone, and a return to traditionalism unthinkable, what will sustain them now? They and their leaders face the pressing question, ‘What kind of church do we want to be?’

The New Testament rules out one option: to be no church at all.

Huge numbers of Christians from ‘new churches’ are now unattached. They maintain their walk with God. They read their Bibles. They pray. But disillusionment, disappointment, personal hurts or mishandling by leaders have combined to make them wary of getting back into church. If they join any, it’s likely to be the kind where no questions are asked and you can sit at the back, taste the sermon and then leave with nothing more probing than, ‘Nice to see you.’

But to be a New Testament Christian one must be part of a local church of some kind. True, real church can be a messy business. As in any family, there will be personality clashes, arguments, fall-outs and pain. But there will also be the genuine love, security, caring and support that make a family-based individual so much more robust and balanced than he could ever be on his own. Church is what Christ died for and what he is building. It is not optional. So well done to the hardy souls who, knowing this, are open to embrace a local church life that is more than superficial. Now they have to decide just what kind of church to join, and recent years have revealed certain trends as leaders have set their course in this post-revivalist generation. I will identify four, and then offer a fifth option which, to my mind, is preferable.

The first is the ‘lights and cameras’ trend.

These are churches big into the media, with a TV presence, a publications department and, invariably, a ‘star’ leader. The programme is event-based—a series of ‘shows’ with plenty of glitz. This is ‘mega-church’, measuring success by the world’s criteria of numbers and big buildings. Leadership follows a business model, with the ‘pastor’ more a CEO than a shepherd/teacher. His charismatic personality and the neon-lights publicity bring ‘worshippers’ from far and wide.

This approach has its advantages. Crowds mean big offerings and plenty of money to fund ministry projects (and often an un-Christlike luxury lifestyle for the leader). Money also buys publicity, and the church soon gains a high profile in the area.

But there’s a downside. Experience has shown—especially in the USA—the danger faced by a mega-church built on the personality of a single strong leader: if he falls he brings the whole edifice crashing down with him. There are other negatives: the show-style meetings make the people spectators rather than participators, and sheer numbers make the logistics of sound pastoral care so difficult that some no longer bother.

Then there’s the ‘latest craze’ trend.

With no ‘imminent revival’ incentive to stay excited, these churches have latched onto passing fads instead. There was the ‘line up and fall over’ phase in the wake of the Toronto Blessing. Church leaders hijacked what started as a move of God’s Spirit and soon turned it into just another item in their spiritual repertoire. Then there was gold dust falling from the ceiling and, continuing the gold theme, divine dentistry with gold fillings. There was a ‘prayer sticks’ phase, where you gave your prayers greater power by banging a stick on the floor while hollering at the Almighty. The ‘territorial spirits’ fad—its biblical base flimsy, to say the least—led to much marching and prayer-walking, making for fit Christians if nothing else. Then came ‘deconstruction’, with the ditching of plenary sessions of the local church in favour of mere hob-nobbing.

These passing crazes—and others—often took over to the point of pushing out the routine discipling of God’s people and the preaching of his Word. It’s no bad thing to be open to the Holy Spirit, but failure to distinguish between the leading of the Spirit and human fads is tragic. I’ve seen some such churches go out of existence.

Next, there’s the ‘let’s confess’ trend.

I don’t mean the RC-type confession of sins to a priest but ‘confessing the Word’—the practice of the ‘Word of faith’ movement popularised by TV preachers like Hagin, Copeland and Dollar. Its focus is on personal health and material prosperity. Devotees repeat scriptures to themselves till, near-hypnotised, they float off to a Gnostic ‘upstairs’. Up there, provided they press the right biblical buttons, health and wealth are guaranteed. But it doesn’t seem to work in the ‘downstairs’ of everyday living and many such Christians end up out of touch with reality.

This approach has little need of the Holy Spirit because, provided you work the system correctly, you can twist God’s arm to get everything you want. What’s more, you don’t really need church: the system operates primarily between the individual and God. In fact other Christians can hold you back if they fall short of the faith-level that you yourself have achieved, and that may be why many followers of this trend are lone Christians who attend only the ‘electronic church’ of Christian TV.

‘Let’s confess’ Christians are to be commended for ‘taking God at his Word’—albeit in a very limited sense—but they fall down by lacking a grasp of the Bible’s broader teaching and of God’s overall plan. Some observers would call their brand of fringe-Christianity heresy. Certainly it has little resonance with the grace of God, because theirs is a system in which the enjoyment of healing, prosperity and revival are made to depend largely on one’s faith. There is great pressure to achieve.

Fourth is the ‘liturgical comfort’ trend.

Recent years have seen a significant exodus from the ‘new churches’ to more traditional churches: the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and—most trendy of all—the Eastern Orthodox Church. Some ‘new church’ members now feel that when they broke away from the mainstream they unwittingly ditched the good aspects of the old as well as the bad. Now they are opting for the kind of church that will remind them, by its liturgies, its traditions and its icons, of their continuity with Christians of previous generations. That’s a reasonable desire.

They are also finding some security in the steady repetition of ritual and the predictability of a known way—the benefits of being in a spiritual groove. The groove, of course, can easily become a grave, and frequently does. There are other dangers, too: the externals of stained glass, pipe organs, soaring pillars and mediaeval music provide an emotional satisfaction that may usurp the place of true spirituality. But wisely incorporated, the ‘old’ has much to complement the ‘new’.

These four trends are more than a sociological curiosity. The church is nothing less than the body of Christ and thus under obligation to show itself a fit match for its illustrious Head. It is a corporate prophetic statement to the world, a ‘letter from Christ’ to a needy society. Each of the above church scenarios is in one way or another ill-suited to be that. But there’s another expression of church that may well do the job better.

The ‘living community’ church.

Here, the local church is family, operating on the basis of relationship. It is an earthly extension of the ‘sweet society’ of the Trinity where Father, Son and Holy Spirit function in essential unity, in different roles and in joyful harmony. It is a microcosm of the great universal church, where God is Father, Christ is our elder brother and we are all brothers and sisters.

In a ‘living community’ church the people know each other, love each other and support each other, and the leaders use their skills as shepherds and teachers to nurture the flock in the ways of God, bringing counsel and direction in line with his Word. Here one finds old and young from a variety of racial and educational backgrounds united in Christ, their relationships well oiled by the Spirit, a family driven not by the world’s success-criteria but by a single desire: to please the Lord. Everyone is involved in mutual service; there are no passengers.

As a working spiritual family, this kind of church has to remain manageable in size, so once it becomes several hundred-strong it will tend to divide into two—by choice. While keen to grow in numbers, its priority is growth in quality of Christian life and service. No-one can visit and hide in the crowd: too many arms reach out to welcome and embrace.

By its very nature, this kind of church is probably more likely to develop from a ‘new church’ base than from an institutional one. And it is in the happy position of being able to draw the best from the other types. From the ‘lights and cameras’ church it can learn to do what it does well, without getting caught up in a slick professionalism that becomes an end in itself, and to look to God to increase its numbers without its falling prey to the carnal criterion of ‘bigger is always better’.

From the ‘latest craze’ church it can learn to remain open to new things that God may be doing without letting go of the unchanging fundamentals of the gospel.

From the ‘let’s confess’ church it can learn to take seriously what the Bible says without turning it into a system for manipulating the Almighty.

From the ‘liturgical comfort’ church it can take the best of the ancient creeds, prayers and practices without becoming bogged down in the past; it can cultivate an awareness of our rich spiritual heritage while remaining open to the Holy Spirit; it can appreciate the value of a steady, week-by-week life of faith without the groove becoming a grave.

In today’s increasingly dysfunctional society this ‘living community’ type of church, by its very existence, is a corporate witness to the love of God among ordinary folk. Its members will individually ‘gossip the gospel’. They may well plan corporate evangelistic endeavours, too, but the church’s primary magnetism to outsiders lies in being just what it is: a functional family, an outpost of God’s kingdom, a corporate ambassadorial presence that declares, ‘This is what happens when God is among ordinary people—and it’s good!’

Copyright © David Matthew 2005

[Note: Some of these themes are touched on in a recent book by Ian Stackhouse. Click here for a review and quotations.

And another book exposes some of the unthinking hype about revival.]

No Revival, So What Now?

Options for frustrated churches

This is one essay in the Shades of Grey series. Click the Next and Previous buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.

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