I became a Christian in the 1970s. This was a challenging and exciting time for me. I hadn’t grown up in the church and was by example (my father) and choice, an atheist prior to being persuaded of the validity and truth of the claims of Christianity. When I became a believer the Jesus movement was in full swing and the era of church trends seems to have been coming into its own. Being a new believer I was vaguely aware of some of the controversies and concerns but only vaguely. I didn’t know enough to know what I didn’t know.
One the one hand, the Jesus Movement was challenging tradition in their evangelism and worship. Long hair, sandals and more contemporary music was the order of the day for them. Much of the church leadership in the Fundamentalist and Evangelical church was concerned about accountability, holy living and sound teaching in the Jesus Movement. The 3 E’s, Evangelism, Education and Edification were emphasized and needing to be part of a healthy ministry. The Jesus Movement was certainly good at evangelism and edification. They would gather and have great worship, pray for one another, share with each other but sound teaching was another story. Toward the end several rose up to call for greater accountability which led to authoritarian and legalistic groups which became known as the shepherding movement.
The Fundamentalist church was on a different track. Most churches in that time were small, under 300. The average church size was 75. Like the Jesus Movement, the fundamentalist churches focused on evangelism and edification. They trained their folks to share the gospel. Evangelism Explosion had begun in 1967 was spreading through the church from coast to coast. Armed with this new method most churches went out doing door-to-door evangelism and every Sunday morning there was a salvation message preached and an alter call given at the end of the message in the event an unbeliever had decided to attend that day. They were also big on pot lucks and fellowship times which served to knit the group together in more of a family type bond. The big trend many were striving to imitate was having a “bus ministry.” Although the mega church was less the norm, there were a few. One of them was First Baptist Church of Hammond Indiana which boasted the world’s largest Sunday school class. They claimed an attendance of over 10,000 in Sunday school each week.
One of the most notable aspects of Hyles is his church bus ministry that he helped innovate. As early as 1975, Time magazine described the phenomenon in an article titled, “Superchurch.” The Time article notes that First Baptist Church of Hammond Sunday School, which regularly ran almost 14,000 people, pushed the church to a record attendance of 30,560 on March 16, 1975, thanks to a boisterous contest between two bus route teams. In that year, the First Baptist bus route ministry consisted of 1,000 workers using 230 buses to ferry as many as 10,000 people every Sunday. (Jack Hyles.)
Seminars were given on how to implement and carry out a bus ministry in order to grow a church numerically. Many churches jumped on the band wagon. Lots of money and energy was spent getting busses, recruiting and training volunteers to use this for evangelism and church growth. Very few came close to equaling the numerical growth of First Baptist Church of Hammond Indiana. Again, evangelism was a high priority and edification was well practiced but education was sorely lacking.
In 1972 a Dallas Theological Seminary professor, Gene Getz, began meeting with and teaching a group of about 12 couples. This gave birth to Fellowship Bible Church. The new church grew quite quickly with Getz’s unique teaching style. Getz used an overhead projector, wore a leisure suit (this sort of attire seems to have lived and died in the 1970s) and sat on a bar stool while he taught. He worked hard at developing a church which developed and utilized the 3 E’s”
Dr. Getz had other ideas about the church as well. He believed that there were “three vital experiences” needed for members to experience growth: to learn and to obey the word of God, to fellowship with God and with each other, and to witness. This is why the name of the church – Fellowship Bible Church – was so intentional. Each word, in a way, represented one of those vital experiences. (Fellowship Bible Church.)
Getz did a remarkable job of biblical balance and practice. He wrote some helpful books such as The Measure of a Man and The Measure of a Church Soon churches around the nation were duplicating his methodology but not effectively achieving the balance. Pastors were getting rid of their pulpits, buying leisure suits and sitting on bar stools while teaching with the aid of an overhead projector. The method became the thing, not the application of sound biblical teaching and balance.
In the mid-1970s another trend began. Willow Creek Community Church began its “Seeker Sensitive” model in arrived in 1975 (Saddleback Community Church started around the same time. Both influenced by Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral). Bill Hybels with the heart of an evangelist was trying to figure out how to get more non-believers into the church to hear the gospel. As he met with numerical success a number of churches began imitating their “model.” Big on evangelism but lacking in the area of education and even edification, Willow Creek grew numerically. G.A. Pritchard observes in his book, Willow Creek Seeker Services the seeming disdain against biblical education and even a certain pride at discouraging it. Willow Creek Community Church began, as you might have guessed, holding seminars in how to duplicate their model and many flocked in search of the holy grail of numerical growth. Over time the new denomination called “Non-Denominational” churches dotted the country side. All focused on evangelism, most lacking in education and/or edification.
An entire book could be devoted to the development of these issues and how they have led us to where we are at today but this is a blog and so we will spring forward to today. Rather than following the type of teaching and practice which Gene Getz was using, much of the Body of Christ followed other models. Opting for methods and programs while largely using the Bible as a proof text for those mechanics, the 3 E’s have really changed. I was speaking with a friend of the ministry about this recently and he laid out the new definition and application as evangelism, entertainment and excitement. I think he is right but it leaves the churches little more than hollow social networks. Evangelize non-churched people into the church, entertain them to keep them. Get them excited to go out and get more non-churched people in where they can be entertained and excited to go out and …
Now that I think about it, this is a bit like the story of the man who grew up with a parent that was a Jehovah’s Witness and a parent that was an atheist. When he grew up he would go door to door for no apparent reason.
I really value the churches which continue to focus on evangelism, education and edification. They tend to be small, few and far between but are more Christocentric and honoring to Him Who bought us with His own blood.