The Decline and Renewal of the American Church: Part 3 – The Path to Renewal

By Dr. Timothy Keller

This is the third in a four-part series on how the American church came to be in decline and what a way forward could look like. Other articles include "The Decline of the Mainline" (Fall 2021), "The Decline of Evangelicalism" (Winter 2022), and "The Strategy for Renewal" (Summer 2022). To read a longer version of this series, download the PDF here.

What is wrong with the American Church and how can its life and ministry be renewed? To answer this, I wrote two articles looking at the decline of the church, limiting myself to Protestantism, though recognizing that the Catholic church is facing its own waning. In this article and the next, however, I would like to map out a possible way forward to renewal and new growth. 

Basically—we need a revival that only God can provide, and a new movement to capture the fruit of that revival for the renewal of the American church. 

Revivals and Movements

Revivals are periods of great spiritual awakening and growth. In revivals ‘sleepy’ and lukewarm Christians wake up, nominal Christians get converted, and many skeptical non-believers are drawn to faith. In Europe and North America there were significant revivals in the 1740s, the 1830s, and the late 1850s. The 1857 revival began in lower New York City and is often called ‘the Fulton Street Revival.’ By one account, during a period of about 2 years, about 10% of the population of Manhattan was converted and joined the city’s churches. In the Welsh revival of 1904, it is estimated that 150,000 people, or 7.5% of the nation’s population, were converted and came into Protestant churches. [] [1] See Kathryn Teresa Long, The Revival of 1857-58: Interpreting an American Religious Awakening, Oxford University Press, 1998, and J.Edwin Orr, The Flaming Tongue: The Impact of 20th Century Revivals, Moody, 1973. Looking back further for revivals, historians point to the monastic movements that transformed Europe, and the Lutheran Pietist and Moravian movements. More recently there have also been major revivals in East Africa, Korea, as well as many more localized revivals. 

Notice that the terms ‘revival’ and ‘movement’ are often used almost interchangeably to describe these times of church renewal. It would be more accurate to say that revivals—times of spiritual refreshing, reality in prayer, and awakening—lead to movements. A movement is a self-propagating body of men and women, united by a common vision for a new future and committed to specific changes. For Christians this could be a major change in the church, or in society, or both. 

Looking back in history, we see how revivals provided the spiritual momentum on which movements were built. One of the most well-documented was the Wesleyan revival, which led to the establishment of a major new world denomination—Methodism—which itself was originally built on the at-home small group system of the earliest awakening. That revival also led to a major awakening in the Church of England, the evangelical Anglicans. And out of those evangelical awakenings in Britain in the mid-18th century came many reforms in society, such as the passing of laws against child labor by Lord Shaftesbury and the abolitionist movement led by William Wilberforce. 

The purpose of a revival is always, supremely, to please, enjoy, honor, and glorify God. It is to become the church God wants us to be. And when that happens even to a small degree, there is always an impact on non-believers and society. William Blair was an American missionary in Korea in the early years of the 20th century. He was present at the great revival that broke out at the Bible conference meeting in Pyongyang in January, 1907. He describes the aftermath in this way:

“The Christians returned to their homes, taking the Pentecostal fire with them. It spread to practically every church. Schools canceled classes for days while students wept out their wrong doings together. We had our hearts torn again and again by the return of little articles and money that had been taken from us over the years. All through the city people were going from house to house, confessing wrongs, returning stolen property, not only to Christians but to non-believers. A Chinese merchant was astounded to have a Christian walk in and pay him a large sum of money he had obtained unjustly years before. The whole city was stirred. The cry went out over the city….” [] [2] William Blair and Bruce Hunt, The Korean Pentecost and the Sufferings Which Followed, Banner of Truth, 1977, 87-88.

So great church movements start with spiritual revival, but what can we do to bring it about? Many say “nothing—it’s up to God,” and they have a point. Only God can send revival. Psalms 80, 85, and 126—well-known prayers for revival—recognize that the power for spiritual renewal resides wholly in God. This perspective says that human beings have little to do to bring about revivals. It is all God. However, there are those who have fallen into the opposite error, who have taught that revivals can and will happen whenever the church performs its ministry in prescribed, proper ways. 

D.M. Lloyd-Jones and others take a balanced view. The revival prayers of the psalms themselves exhibit heart attitudes and practices on the part of believers that invite and invoke God’s invigorating power. Lloyd-Jones, a very strong Calvinist, in his lectures on revival said this: 

“The way to revival is not just to say, ‘Let’s pray about it.’ Of course we must pray, and I hope to emphasize that…strongly. But there are preliminary conditions attached…” [] [3] D.M. Lloyd-Jones, Revival, Crossway, 1987, 43.

Christians must recognize that they do have things to do to prepare for renewal, but that ultimately it is God’s wise sovereignty that will determine whether and how the church is renewed. Many see a metaphor for this concept of renewal in Elijah’s confrontation with the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel in 1 Kings 18. The prophet builds an altar, but it is only God whose fire can ignite it. Christians looking for revival, then, are “building the altar,” praying that God will use their efforts to bring a fire of revival with a movement of his Spirit.  

The Holy Spirit is the ultimate cause of revivals, but there are three instrumental means (or secondary causes) that the Spirit ordinarily uses. 

  1. First, there is always a recovery of the gospel. The default mode of the human heart is self-salvation and works righteousness, whether of a conservative or a liberal variety. Christians theoretically believe that “Jesus accepts me, therefore I want to live a good life,” but their hearts reverse that, and in practice function on the principle “I live a good life, therefore Jesus will accept me.” The results of this reversal include pride, defensiveness, a critical spirit, racial prejudice and cultural ethnocentricity, an allergy to change, and other forms of spiritual deadness. Revival always proceeds around a rediscovery of the wonder of grace and the radical nature of Christ’s accomplishment of salvation on our behalf, leading to a joyful repentance, a sense of being so loved that we can finally admit the flaws and sins that we have denied or hidden. 
  2. Second, there is always corporate prayer—extraordinary, kingdom-centered, prevailing prayer. This is prayer beyond the normal daily devotions and worship services. As much as possible, prayer should be united prayer, bringing together people who do not usually pray together. Prayer that accompanies renewal has both a more outward and a more inward focus. (a) Inward: asking for grace to confess sins and humble ourselves, and to know God—to see his face, to see his glory, to experience his love and high assurance. (b) Outward: asking for compassion and zeal to reach the lost, to see the church flourish and grow with new converts. See prayer for revival and what it led to in Acts 4, Exodus 33, and Nehemiah 1.
  3. Third, however, there is always creativity. No revival is just like the last one. For example, the Wesleyan revivals were based on the innovation of itinerant preaching, including open air meetings. The 1857 revival, however, was based on prayer meetings led by lay people. In each generation, some new methods arise for lifting up the gospel in ways that fit the cultural moment. 

The best Christian movements are those that arise out of spiritual awakenings, and that is as necessary today as ever. One of the features of our time is that churches are dividing over politics, because people are finding themselves far more passionate and moved by political and social issues than they are by the truths of our faith, and especially the centrality of the gospel of Christ. They become most exercised and emotional not in worship, but over flashpoint political and cultural issues. That is a sign of a spiritual vacuum in Christians’ lives, an emptiness.

One of the marks of spiritual renewal is an extraordinary sense of God’s presence, of increased communion with God (1 John 1:3), of “joy unspeakable and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8). In place of intellectual assent to the abstract idea that God loves us, the Spirit of God strengthens our “inner being with power” in order to “grasp” how “wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.” This is not to simply know about God’s love, but to know it (Ephesians 3:16-19). An intuitive assurance that we are God’s loved children is granted (Romans 8:15-16). Spiritual experience can be strong as a tidal wave (Acts 4:31). Other times, it is like a gentle rain softening and loosening our fear. But a renewed Christian relates to God as Father rather than merely a boss, or worse–a tyrant or distant power.

But how do movements happen? A new Christian movement thrives and grows when—

(1) The need for it is acute and clear.

(2) A specific, compelling vision is cast for a better future. 

(3) There are overlapping networks of people with different abilities, assets, and resources, united and working sacrificially for a common purpose and with common values. 

(4) The changes and goals achieved first naturally trigger and empower other changes. 

(5) New institutions are begun that can sustain the movement for longer periods of time.

(6) The movement responds to opposition wisely and lovingly.

(7) It maintains and fosters its roots in spiritual renewal.

The Need for a New Movement

Christian churches in the U.S. have not been able to avoid being drawn down into the same maelstrom of forces tearing our society apart. Liberal mainline churches have allowed the progressive-liberal political agenda of the Democrats to virtually replace its ministry of evangelism and formation. This has led to a deadly, precipitous decline spanning decades. And the evangelical church has made virtually the same move with conservative, Republican politics. (There are similar divisions in the Catholic church and within Judaism.) Religious bodies are increasingly being reduced to voting blocs for political parties. 

There is a place in society for a new Christian movement that practices love and justice, that answers the great questions—of purpose, meaning, hope, happiness, guilt and forgiveness, identity—questions that the secular culture has given up on. But it must avoid the abuses of power and the mistakes of religious regimes of the past.

For reasons I touched on in earlier articles there is no existing religious body, no single institution, and no one branch of the Christian church that has all it takes to lead the way to renewal for the American church. It will take a newly assembled movement of lay leaders, ministers, and scholars who will coalesce around a vision for renewal and a number of strategic initiatives that create a movement. The leadership will come from the evangelical church, the black church, many conservative confessional bodies (Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed, Methodist, Anabaptist) and the wonderful, dizzyingly-diverse body of newer ethnic and immigrant churches. And there will also be those who do not hail from any of the expected places, but nevertheless share the fundamental theology and future vision of the movement. 

A movement has an inner energy that comes from a compelling vision, moral suasion, strong personal friendships, and innovative thinking that is not the result of any one person or organization’s command and control structure. 

How do movements develop? Groups can hope to ignite a movement, but they cannot ultimately determine whether it will capture imaginations and attract people naturally and organically. When that does happen, however, the initial organization of the movement sparks the creation of other initiatives and organizations that serve the same basic future vision and moral ideals.  

The Establishment of a New Movement

A new movement will unite around historic Protestant theology. 

There is nothing more basic and necessary for a cohesive and dynamic Christian movement than passionately shared theological beliefs. The primary reason for maintaining historic Protestant theology is that it contains the basic beliefs on which the gospel of grace alone, by faith alone—not of works—is based. And as we have seen, the recovery and use of the gospel on our hearts and lives is the key to spiritual renewal. 

The body of core theological truths that define and defend an orthodox understanding of the gospel includes, first, those expressed in the ecumenical creeds: the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. These creeds establish: 

  • the doctrine of the Tri-une God, that there is one God who exists eternally in three equal persons who know and love one another
  • the doctrine of creation, that God is the sole Creator and sustainer of all things, and that the physical creationincluding our bodiesare both real and good 
  • the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, united in one person forever 

Secondly, the common core of the various Protestant confessions and catechisms—consisting of the ‘Five Solas’ (‘Alones’)—also define and defend an orthodox understanding of the gospel. They declare that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, according to Scripture alone, through the work of Christ alone, for the glory of God alone. [] [4] There are interesting correlations between David Bebbington’s four marks of evangelicalism and the “Solas.” Bebbington lists (a) The full authority of the Bible – (sola Scriptura) (b) the necessity of conversion, the new birth – (sola gratia and sola fidei) (c) salvation by the blood atonement of Jesus, now works – (sola Christus) and (d) the necessity of mission, of evangelizing the world – (sola Deo Gloria). So the Protestant confessional statements [] [5] Examples of these include: The Augsburg Confession (1530), The Belgic Confession (1561), The Helvetic Confession (1562), The Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England (1571), The Heidelberg Catechism (1576), The Canons of Dordt (1619) The Westminster Confession, and Larger and Shorter Catechisms (1647), The Savoy Declaration (1658), The Baptist Confession of Faith (1689). They find more modern-day expressions in The Lausanne Covenant, and in statements of faith such as that of the World Evangelical Alliance. These confessions serve Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, Baptist, and Congregational communions and therefore differ in significant ways. Yet we believe that they contain the core of Protestant orthodoxy. establish:

  • the necessity, sufficiency, clarity, authority, and infallibility of the Bible 
  • the doctrine of sin, that human beings are wholly unable to will or achieve their salvation without the free grace and intervention of God
  • the doctrine of atonement, that Christ received the penalty we deserved, in our place 
  • the necessity of the new birth through the Holy Spirit, the blessings of justification, union with Christ, adoption, and sanctification 
  • the indispensability of the church and its ministry of the Word, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, for the formation of Christians into disciples 
  • the personal return of Jesus Christ to earth to judge the world and establish a new heavens and new earth 

A new movement will require repentance and seeking the Lord. 

There’s no spiritual revival without repentance. There’s no reconciliation between individuals or groups without repentance. There’s no reformation or change without repentance. Unless we can name fully and truthfully what we have done wrong—without excusing, minimizing, or blame-shifting, asking God and others for forgiveness, for help toward genuine change, and for the restoration of relationship—there is no hope for the church.

There are a few common factors in every Christian revival—a re-emphasis on the gospel of grace, extraordinary prayer, repentance, vibrant corporate worship, a sense of God’s immediate presence, and singular new leaders. But in many ways every renewal is different than the last in shape, methods, and measures. 

God is sovereign, because he is a God of grace. You can’t cause or merit a revival any more than you can merit your salvation. Yet I have seen over the years that when we earnestly seek God for his own sake (not for our reputation or success) and seek to be mini-cases of personal revival ourselves, positive spiritual dynamics begin to work in the church around us. God has many more revivals in his plan for the world, before the final, ultimate revival, the ultimate spring after winter, when even the trees of wood will sing for joy (Psalm 96:12). 

A new movement will divide, but with tears and grace. 

Something like the evangelical-fundamentalist split of the 1940s may need to happen (or is already happening) again. One of the best accounts of that story is in George Marsden’s Reforming Fundamentalism.  [] [6] George Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Evangelicalism (Eerdmans, 1987). In the 19th century, evangelicalism was the unofficial religious establishment in the U.S. It consisted of traditional Protestant theology joined with a ‘revivalist’ aspect–an emphasis on individual conversion and experience–and organized not only through denominations but also through trans-denominational organizations for evangelism and mission. This “evangelical empire” dominated most of the major Protestant churches, colleges, and universities. Most public figures had to show respect to its beliefs and ethos if not embrace it. Yet within a span of one generation, from the 1890s to the 1930s, the influence and prominence of evangelical Christianity among elite society—the universities, mainline Protestant denominations, the federal government, and other major cultural institutions–collapsed. Both biblical ‘higher criticism’ and Darwin’s theory of evolution ascended first at European universities and then spread to the U.S. Many of the newer universities were founded with a deliberate anti-religious, secular foundation. (See Christian Smith, ed. The Secular Revolution: Power, Influence, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life, University of California, 2003). Then many leading figures in the mainline denominations argued that traditional Christian doctrine had to be changed in light of modern science and sensibilities. The conservative vs liberal battles occurred first in the Northern (later American) Baptist Convention and the northern Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. but in others as well. The conservatives lost those battles and by the late 1920s “few respected educational institutions of any sort in the northern United States would even tolerate fundamentalist teaching.” (Marsden, 4) When conservative Protestantism was ejected from elite cultural institutions, especially in the North, between 1890 and 1930, what came to be called “fundamentalism” set up shop in thousands of new organizations, networks, radio ministries, summer camps, schools and institutes, and innumerable other associations. George Marsden and Nathan O. Hatch (Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity, Yale, 1989) have shown, American evangelicalism in its early history had seeds sown in it—“tendencies” to separatism, radical individualism, anti-intellectualism, and political extremism. (Marsden, 10). These tendencies had been muted when evangelicalism was more ascendent in society, but now fundamentalists retreated into their own trans-denominational organizations. The older more intellectual fundamentalist leaders like J. Gresham Machen died off, and in their new, embattled stance, these “tendencies” of fundamentalism strengthened greatly.

In the 1940s, a group sought to “get rid of these…aspects of fundamentalism”—separatism, radical individualism, anti-intellectualism, legalism, political extremism—and yet “retain its essential evangelical orthodoxy” as well as its rightful pushback against secularism. [] [7] Marsden, 10. These leaders came to describe their movement as “the New Evangelicalism.” Carl Henry described the vision of the new movement when he wrote an article “The Vigor of the New Evangelicalism” in 1948. He asks three rhetorical questions, the first directed to liberalism and the second directed to fundamentalism: 

“Is it too late for Christianity to reintroduce…depths of meaning…which can be found only in the message of a supernatural salvation? Is evangelicalism’s only message today the proclamation of individual rescue from a fore-doomed generation? Or has this evangel implications also for the most pressing social problems of our day?” [] [8] Carl Henry, “The Vigor of a New Evangelicalism” quoted in Marsden, 69.

The new evangelical movement thrived for forty years, but beginning in the 1980s and 90s new versions of fundamentalism re-asserted itself. A sad, similar kind of alienation is again happening between friends who formerly thought of themselves being on the same side, promoting biblical orthodoxy against unbelief. The division can be seen in one important aspect of modern U.S. evangelicalism—the major conference circuit. Speakers who once shared the same platforms have been disinvited—or disinvited themselves—sometimes informally, sometimes formally. A second place to see the division is in the way the formerly united donor-bases of evangelical institutions are now splitting over “critical race theory,” “gender ideology,” and “social justice.” This puts enormous pressure on those colleges and agencies to choose a side and adjust their language to reflect the tribe which they have chosen. The division is having an impact—some more and some less—on conservative denominations that may or may not lead to formal divisions into new denominations.   

Many flashpoint issues of 80 years ago were unique. Fundamentalists and the New Evangelicals differed on whether to separate from the ‘apostate’ mainline denominations on the use of alcohol and tobacco and modern entertainments such as the cinema, and on ‘dispensationalism’ —a complex way to read Old Testament prophecy that resulted in a profoundly pessimistic view of any social involvement or cultural engagement. 

Yet other flashpoints of that time resonate today. The New Evangelicals did not just evangelize individual souls but tackled social problems. Fundamentalists complained this was the “liberal social gospel.” Evangelicals also engaged the modern university. Fundamentalists complained that this was compromising with unbelief, and they took a strongly anti-intellectual stance. [] [9] For other differences dividing evangelicals today, see my second article where I describe a new, surging fundamentalism.

In these articles I’ve continued to use “fundamentalist” and “evangelical” to describe the two sides in the divide. However, for most of the American public, there is now no real difference between the two terms. And so I leave it up to others to propose new terms, names, and descriptors. [] [10] It’s noteworthy that no one less than Carl Henry himself had mixed feelings about the term evangelical. At the time, it was being taken up and used, he said, “nobody wanted the term ‘evangelical’” because the word sounded to many people like 19th century Christianity and, therefore, “passe,” Marsden, 10.

In any case, whoever responds to this division with truth, tears, and grace will be the one more reflective of the Savior and more likely to be effective in winning non-believers and sanctifying believers. The side that behaves the most graciously will flourish the most in the aftermath. That means– 

  • We should forgive if we have been wronged. Forgiveness was so crucial to Jesus that he died forgiving his enemies (Luke 23:34). When he was insulted and scorned, he never responded in kind (1 Peter 2:23). How much more, then, should we be gracious and forgiving to other brothers and sisters in Christ that oppose us? 
  • We should evangelize and edify more than engage in polemic. The divisions in our culture and in our churches are fueled by those on the left and the right. Both sides want to co-opt as much of the church as possible for their political agenda. Both sides insist they have the moral high ground and are fighting on the side of truth and justice. Each side produces enormous numbers of attack videos, memes, and articles targeting church leaders and others who are not aligning with them. Polemics are sometimes necessary—but they are medicine, not food. You can’t live on medicine. In the long run constant polemics are exhausting and they don’t build us up spiritually. The movement that will succeed is the one that becomes the most famous for preaching and writing and teaching and pastoring that is astonishingly good, and that spiritually nourishes and changes the readers or listeners right in their seats. 

A new movement will develop a ‘Protestant Social Teaching’ especially around the issues of injustice, sexuality, and politics.

No Christian can engage in society without a working theory of how biblical doctrine and ethical principles relate to social issues. Besides providing direct answers to a set of contemporary social and political issues, Protestant Social Thought will need:

To offer a kind of Christian ‘high theory’ that critiques modern secular culture in general, exposing its deep structural failures. In general, Catholics have done much more work in this area than Protestants (e.g. Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor). [] [11] Two Protestant examples, however, that may provide a starting point are Reinhold Niebuhr “The Christian Church in a Secular Age” in Robert McAfee Brown, The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses, Yale, 1986, 79-92, and David T. Koyzis’ Political Visions and Illusion: A Survey of and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies 2nd edition, IVP, 2019.

To give guidance on ‘cultural engagement’ in general, addressing the divisions over the “Christ and Culture” models. [] [12] By far the most famous version of the models is H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, Harper and Row, 1951. The excesses of each model must be avoided. They include:

  • The transforming danger. This is the approach that sees the culture as in terrible decline and seeks political power to rectify it. Its danger: taking power (even with the best of motives), rather than transforming it as Jesus the servant did, and therefore becoming conformed too much to the world. 
  • The assimilating danger. This is the approach that sees the culture more positively, as ‘history moving toward more justice and inclusion’ and wants the church to join in with liberationist movements. Its danger: being conformed too much to the world, typically the liberal rather than the conservative world. 
  • The withdrawing danger. This approach is as negative in its view of culture as the ‘transforming’ approach, but it believes that by retreating into sheltered communities it can avoid pollution. Its danger: a blindness to how much the culture has already influenced them. There is no way to prevent cultural engagement.
  • The ignoring danger. This says the world is doing fine and doesn’t need the church’s cultural engagement. Just build up the church and win people to Jesus. Its danger: similarly to ‘withdrawing,’ it is blind to how much the culture is influencing them. 

To give guidance on political involvement in general. Christians live in two ‘cities’ or social orders at once. One the one hand, they are citizens of the heavenly City of God (Philippians 3:20-21). On the other hand, they also reside in the “City of Man,” where social orders are based not on love and self-sacrifice (“my life to serve you”), but on power and self interest (“your life to serve mine”). Christians must never identify the City of God with any particular social or political agenda. Any earthly political movement or party will contain both virtue and complicity with sin. Christians involved in political parties should be good team members, but also critics of their parties. All secular or non-Christian views of the good will make idols out of something. For example, the left will be over-trusting of government and the right will be over-trusting of the market, or of their own race’s goodness. This mixture of outcomes and of method is even true of Christian organizations and movements seeking to do good.

A new movement will seek influence, but with a Christian understanding of power. 

There is no way to form a growing new movement in a particular social sphere except through competition with other groups, organizations, and individuals for money and donors, numbers of adherents, public attention, audiences, and influence over the broader culture. 

We should not be blinded by inspirational terms like “being a new movement” and promoting “spiritual renewal.” The moment we begin, we will unavoidably be in a competition for power. We will leverage our social capital to reach a wider audience. We will present ourselves as being more able to address the culture’s questions and objections than other religious communities. We will make strong efforts to define ourselves and not let others “name” us, but that means describing ourselves in contrast to—and over against—other groups. There is no use in protesting that we will be above competition. [] [13] In American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving, University of Chicago Press, 1998, author Christian Smith proposes a ‘Subcultural Identity Theory of Religious Strength” – an explanation of why some religious communities thrive in a pluralistic environment better than others. To (over) generalize, Smith argues that the religious community best thrives that “chooses its battles” well. If it chooses to oppose the general culture at too many points, or at too few, it will not thrive. Smith believes that, in general, evangelicalism will do a better job than fundamentalism (which fights too many unnecessary battles) and liberal Protestantism (which fights too few or none). Smith’s ideas are fascinating and highly relevant for any renewal movement in the American church. We can’t open up the implications here, but we should note that ‘battles’—criticism and opposition—are necessary. We should not be naïve about that. The question is how will we conduct our ‘battles.’ We will unavoidably enter a competitive social field in which the rules of the game are quite opposed to these words of Jesus: 

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:42-44)

We must be driven by Jesus’ teaching and not the world’s. The real question is—how will we do this? Will we “compete” through our use of the Bible, through making decisive, compelling arguments based on exegesis? Will we represent the views of opponents in ways that recognize and affirm? Or will we be driven by the way of the world, creating caricatures that are easy to knock down, seeking to accrue capital through stoking fear and anger, engaging in ad hominem arguments while imputing motives and charging all opponents with bad character? Will we just shame, antagonize, or “own” opponents rather than trying to persuade them? The answer to all these questions had better be a resounding “no.” 

We must be driven by Jesus’ teaching and not the world’s. The real question is—how will we do this? Will we “compete” through our use of the Bible, through making decisive, compelling arguments based on exegesis? Will we just shame, antagonize, or “own” opponents rather than trying to persuade them? The answer to all these questions had better be a resounding “no.”

A new movement will conduct seven mission projects. 

James Hunter argues for the effectiveness of “overlapping strategic networks of capital.” That is, when scholars, business people, religious leaders, artists, scientists, journalists, politicians, and so on, unite and direct their symbolic, social, economic, and political capital “toward shared ends, the world, indeed, changes.” [] [14] James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, Oxford, 2010, 43. And so our church renewal movement must bring together the kinds of people with resources appropriate for each particular mission project. There should be at least, I believe, these seven projects, and an eighth ‘meta- project’. I will only briefly describe them here and will expand on them in my fourth and last article. 

  1. Church planting and renewal. We need to double the number of new church plants in the U.S. from the current 3-4,000 to 6-8,000 annually. Current models of church planting need to be changed. 
  1. ‘Counter-catechesis’ discipleship. Christian education, in general, needs to be massively redone. We must not merely explain Christian doctrine to children, youth, and adults, but use Christian doctrine to subvert the baseline cultural narratives to which believers are exposed in powerful ways every day. 
  1. Post-christian evangelism. The Christian church in the West faces the first post-Christian, deeply secular culture in history. It has not yet developed a way to do evangelism with the secular and the “nones” that really gains traction and sees many people regularly coming to faith. This project is to develop both content and means for such evangelism.
  1. A justice network. We must create a network—at least one trans-denominational ministry or maybe a network of networks—that organizes Christians and churches in communities to both help various needy populations and also to work for a more just and fair social order at the local level. (I have long thought that eventually, after picking up and ministering to dozens of victims of robbery, that the Good Samaritan might begin to ask how to make that particular stretch of road safer for travelers.) 
  1. A faith-work network. We must create a network (or, again, a network of new and existing ministries) that organizes and equips Christians for ‘faithful presence’ in their vocations, [] [15] See Hunter, To Change the World, for a description of the concept of “faithful presence.” to help them serve the common good through integrating their faith with their work. The network will help churches disciple people for their public life, so Christians neither seal their faith off from their work, nor infiltrate vocational fields for domination.
  1. The “Christian mind” project. [] [16] I’m naming this initiative in honor of Mark Noll’s seminal work, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Eerdmans, 1994. Evangelicalism has a strongly anti-intellectual cast to it that must be overcome without losing its appeal to the majority of the population. The goals include increasing the number of Christians on faculties, forging a robust intellectual culture for orthodox Protestantism, and increasing the number of Christian public intellectuals.
  1. A new leadership pipeline. We must not only renew, re-create, expand, and greatly strengthen youth ministries and campus ministries across the country, but we must link these with theological training programs and seminaries. The purpose is to produce increasing numbers of well-equipped Christian leaders.

Behind all seven projects is an eighth ‘meta’ project. Call it Christian philanthropy. We cannot renew the church or be of any help to society without strong financial undergirding. That will require a change in how Christians give and steward their wealth, such that it will release far more money for ministry than has been available. 

Ultimately all the projects stand or fall together—they mutually support and energize one another. There will be no full achievement of any one without achieving them all.  

And finally, a new movement will articulate a future vision and the non-negotiable values for the movement. 

Any effective movement must be able to paint a picture of the future it aims to bring about. This can in some part form the various practical outcomes of the ministry projects. But beyond that, there must be a portrait of the kind of church we are called to be. We are committed to: 

  • Protestant doctrinal orthodoxy, yet in a broad tent of denominations. We will each love our own denominations and traditions, but respect and appreciate the others. 
  • Salvation by free grace, yet unto holiness. We will avoid the typical and twin pitfalls of moralism and relativism. 
  • Unity with the global and non-western church. We will find ways as a movement of listening to and staying in close touch with non-western Christian leaders. 
  • A multi-ethnic American church and leadership. We will be a movement led by a multi-ethnic team that truly empowers non-white leaders throughout the church. 
  • The integration of word and deed ministry. We will unite evangelism and teaching with doing justice and mercy. 
  • Spiritual revival, but also building institutions. We will neglect neither individual spiritual experience nor the importance of the local church and new institutions. 
  • A Protestant social teaching that resists secular versions of left or right politics. (We treated this above.) 
  • Apostolic yet servant leadership. We will both encourage dynamic, entrepreneurial “apostolic” leaders, yet require that such leaders work in a stance of servanthood. 
  • Worldview yet common grace. We stress the antithesis between the fundamental beliefs of Christianity and other worldviews, yet recognize common grace and wisdom in non-believers. 
  • The original Christian ‘social project.’ We will be committed to a) multi-ethnicity, (b) concern for the poor, (c) forgiveness and reconciliation, (d) the ‘pro-life’ cause, and (e) sex only within marriage between the two genders that God created. 
  • Theological retrieval and the production of new studies in dogmatics. We will be both true to the orthodoxy of the past, yet work to relate orthodoxy to modern issues. 
  • Extraordinary prayer. We will be people of prayer. 

On this final subject of prayer, I will leave you with this passage from D.M. Lloyd-Jones’ talks on spiritual renewal and revival:

“I commend to you the reading of biographies of those who have been used by God in the church throughout the centuries, especially in revival. And you will find this same holy boldness, this arguing, this reasoning, this putting the case to God, pleading his own promises. Oh, that is the whole secret of prayer, I sometimes think. Thomas Goodwin uses a wonderful term. He says, “Sue him for it, sue him for it.” Do not leave him alone. Pester him, as it were, with his own promise. Quote the Scripture to him. And, you know, God delights to hear us doing it, as a father likes to see this element in his own child who has obviously been listening to what his father has been saying.” [] [17] D.M. Lloyd Jones, Revival, Crossway, 1987, 209.

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