Top 10 Ways Churches of Christ in America Can Survive and Thrive in the "4th Great Awakening"

Today I received a call from a dear woman who has a sweet spirit and tender openness towards God. I had added her to one of our outreach groups, as I felt that she had a heart for reaching broken people with love and tenderness.

She mentioned that I had put her in that group. I said, yes--but if she did not want to be in it, she could just drop out. She said, no, she was touched by this, that she had often wanted to have a valued role in ministry, but had had those desires squelched because she was a woman. But she was feeling a call, using language like, "born again." What she was describing was a spiritual awakening in her life.

And in something that surely is not coincidence, when she called, I was reading from a book called Christianity After Religion: The Death of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening  by Diana Bass, with plans to write this blog post on this very topic.  

Since our fellowship (Churches of Christ) chooses to be "ahistorical" (we don't care what Alexander Campbell believed, Martin Luther, or anyone else--we just follow the Bible--is our rather naive saying), many church leaders are unaware of or give little credence to the various Spiritual awakenings in American history.

But these historical events ought to be noted, for they give us insight into what is happening in our world today, and what will happen in the future. The comments below reflect insights and research from Christianity After Religion, with my own application to our fellowship.

There are three generally recognized "Great Awakenings" in American History:

  1. 1st Great Awakening (1730-1760) - This was the breaking away of churches from European styles of church government, freeing churches to be more indigenous in the US.
  2. 2nd Great Awakening (1800-1830) - This was a breaking away from the hold of Calvinism, with an emphasis on free will, "voluntary church membership," and "benevolence work. The leaders of the first generation of Churches of Christ in America grew up during this time, and were largely influenced by this movement in many ways.
  3. 3rd Great Awakening (1890-1920) - This involved a growing concern for the "social gospel" and the rise of Pentecostalism

Bass cites William McLouglin, who proposes that we are now in a 4th Great Awakening, a time which began in the 1960s. This awakening could be called many things--a shift from a modern worldview to a postmodern world, a shift from church to Jesus (for Christians), or a shift from institutional religion to spirituality.

These movements are a mixed bag, as they always have excesses. The current spiritual awakening, for instance, has seen the excesses of "religion" in 9/11, and now some 15-20% of the population are agnostic, atheistic, or simply not claiming any form of religion.

But in general, these awakenings have brought about spiritual renewal, as they have critiqued the religion of their age and sought to find a better or more complete answer to the longing in our souls. The pattern that bass identifies in these awakenings is the following:

  1. There is a "crisis of legitimacy" in which religious adherents can no longer make sense of their religious heritage
  2. There is "cultural distortion," in which people conclude that their crisis is due to the institution to which they belong.
  3. "Significant individuals or communities begin to form a new vision"
  4. As the vision starts to form, small groups of people/communities begin to form a new way
  5. The larger institution eventually sees the validity of the awakening and adopts it

These Great Awakenings appear to be God initiated in many ways, or God at least used them, to end ineffective and out of step leadership models, show the importance of the Holy Spirit, value women, end slavery and begin the civil rights movement, and more.

In this book, Bass also goes through the three aspects of the psychology of religion--believing, behaving, and belonging, and she shows how the progression of religion and spirituality today is first, belonging (Jesus called the disciples together before he taught them), behaving (Jesus sent out the disciples to proclaim the kingdom and heal the sick, before they truly understood who he was), and believing (finally, Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ--but still does not fully understand this until the resurrection).

So what does this awakening mean for Churches of Christ? How can we look through this cultural maelstrom and not only survive, but thrive? Here are some predictions of how a small group of churches are or will seek to adapt and respond to the Spirit's leading and the culture's legitimate critiques.

  1. Mission, with a strong emphasis upon both social justice and the message of and about Jesus, will become both the stated and in reality driver of the church's leadership, funding, energy, etc. People will be reached through invitation into community (belonging), and will both serve together (behaving) and be served in their areas of brokenness, and then will come to faith in Christ (believing) and with an active call towards believing/trusting in the one whom they have been following and to seal the relationship with the community that they have found.

  2. Leadership will become decidedly about finding and empowering new leaders to fulfill the vision that God has put on their hearts. No longer will church leaders be the people to seek to control others and control the Spirit, but to empower others and let the Spirit lead them.

  3. Churches will modify or change how they do Spiritual formation. Large Bible classes will be replaced or supplemented with groups that do life together, meet at many different times and locations, meet virtually, etc.

  4. Worship will truly be seen as 24/7, breaking down the dichotomy between Sunday and the rest of the week, helping to curb the hypocrisy and the cynicism that it breeds today. This understanding of all of life and all that our body does being lifted up in worship to God will end many of the current arguments about worship. Worship will increasingly touch both the heart/emotion and the mind, the "right brain" and the "left brain," Artists and non-artists will both have things that speak to their soul. Men, women, children, teens, young adults--all will be seen and valued.

  5. There will be a greater fellowship between Churches of Christ and Christian churches, Baptist churches, and many Bible and non-denominational churches, and a partnership with other fellowships on many social justice issues. In a rising cultural tide of non-religious, atheism and antagonism towards Christianity, increasingly we will see what we have in common with other fellowships and learn to value, support, and learn from one another.

  6. Technology will be used to help people practice spiritual disciplines, and will supplement face-to-face interactions more and more. For those in certain fields such as health care or emergency response workers who must work on Sundays, they will find a form of community online.

  7. Giving will be increasingly tied to local and global mission--seeking the lost, serving the community, and sharing the good news--because of the values of the huge Millennial population, and because of the increasing awareness that we simply must concentrate on mission in our post-Christian world.

  8. Women will be increasingly valued, upheld, and commissioned as they were in the New Testament--as great servant-leaders, missionaries, and "prophetesses." Women will share their stories of God at work, tell of their missionary journeys, and lead others to Christ. They will not be seen as or feel like second class citizens. 

  9. These churches will be the first to serve the marginalized and come to their aid for healing. Like the good Samaritan, these churches will minister to homosexuals, prostitutes, and other marginalized groups first, showing their love. Then out of an extension of their love, they will share the gospel and its call upon our lives.

  10. The freeing, life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ and the call to love God and others will be front and center in preaching, teaching, and daily life. This is what the church of Christ will be known for, as Jesus said that we would be. We no longer will be known primarily for what we don't do, for our worship controversies, or anything else that is of secondary importance. This will be a post-issue driven church, that does things in line with love, the gospel, and Christ's mission.

How do you think that churches and individuals should respond to this 4th Great Awakening? What should be kept or emphasized, and what should be jettisoned or de-emphasized?

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Comment by James Nored on August 28, 2014 at 10:55pm

George, thank you for your comments and feedback. Yes, I used to have a very thick New Members class curriculum. While I think that it was theologically based and fairly balanced, I have gone towards a much more holistic "follow-up" study to a follow-up set of missional and discipleship practices, learning as they live a life on mission.

Most of the time we never get to praxis in our teaching, even when it is good/healthy teaching.

Comment by George Mansfield on August 23, 2014 at 11:17pm

James, I think this is a good piece. While I did not read it to critique it, I sense it is well balanced. I believe we must keep the simplicity of the gospel. The gospel is about Jesus and that can not rightly be changed in any way,as I see it. Some of the church thing we hold on to as if we had book, chapter and verse for are crusty years of tradition and we must look and re-look at these. We need to move out of majoring in minors. I try to explain it this way. Picture an Ice-Cream cone, big at the top and little at the bottom. Many, many people believe in God, Christ and even the church on the level of the most open large part of the cone. Then comes New Converts Class. (now we are moving deeper into the small part of the cone) Here is where we seek to teach them "sound doctrine" as we believe it to be. Problem is this sinks pretty quickly to things like "silence of Scripture," "Necessary inference, etc. while all those really great and needful doctrines like grace, faith and telling the good news to others. Long story short, we finally reach the bottom of the cone and we are calling doctrine the tiny thing that set apart congregation a from b. Eating in church meeting places, proper attire for worship, how many songs, even what kind of song, etc. This has to change or we are going belly up.

Comment by James Nored on August 22, 2014 at 10:41am

Thank you, dad. Yes, indeed, we seem to be stuck in an information transfer=transformation paradigm, which has proven to be false. We need more than knowledge for transformation. The churches that thrive in the future will get this.

Comment by James Nored on August 22, 2014 at 10:39am

Thanks, Ron! I appreciate you sharing your perspective!

Comment by Ron Furgerson on August 21, 2014 at 8:22pm

This is a great article.  Very well done.  This is essentially a call to Biblical discipleship wherein every Christian is called to be a disciple and a disciple maker. Until recently this type of disciplemaking emphasis has, in my opinion, received scant attention within the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ.  Anyway, thanks for sharing this preview of the next awakening.  <>/p>

Comment by Lynn S. Nored on August 21, 2014 at 6:23pm

James, This an excellent post.  I would suggest your point on Leadership is one of the most important.   Eph 4 tells us that leaders are to "equip the saints for works of service."  Surely one admonition is for any leadership to do this by finding other leaders.   Another poiint is the change in character of Bible Classes.  Giving information, the focus in bible classes for generations, neither equips for service nor does little to transform lives.   The laboratory of experience couple with bible knowledge does transform lives.   It is the practice of a thing that transforms one--however I might like to read about it and "learn."  Jesus said if you know these things and do them, happy are you.  Knowing alone just doesn't cut it. 

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