A conversation about two different ways of doing ministry was the focus of a gathering of pastors and church leaders in Anaheim June 13.
Sponsored by 9Marks and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, discussion at the 9Marks at 9 event — held in conjunction with the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting — centered on the question, “What’s Wrong with Us?: Revival vs. Revivalism.”
“We [as Baptists] believe everything in the Bible is true,” said Mark Dever, president of 9Marks and senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.
“Churches [are] the frontline for redemption and against sin. That’s where the real battle is fought,” he told the audience of nearly 900.
Caleb Morell, senior pastoral assistant for research at Capitol Hill Baptist, explained the concept and history of revivalism — the philosophy that conversion to Christ is a decision of the will that should be made “right now” and can be “manufactured” with the right methods.
According to Morell, a revivalism emphasis on immediate decisions in early Baptist churches led to increased membership but declining retention rates and nominalism among church members — more were coming, but giving didn’t increase; there were “more members than attendees,” he said.
“You see [nominalism] along with declining rates of church discipline,” Morell asserted. “All these things [were] happening at the same time: easier path into the church and the churches stopped practicing discipline.”
Phil Newton, author and former pastor of South Woods Baptist Church in Memphis, recalled that revivalism influenced the early days of his own ministry, when he delivered sermons he now calls “extraordinarily legalistic.”
“The whole thing was to get people down the aisle,” Newton reflected. “There was no gospel in it. If you don’t preach the gospel of Christ, and you’re trying to present people the idea that being a Christian is ‘what you don’t do,’ you totally miss the gospel.”
Newton said revivalism can lead to pastoral burnout and “job hopping” because pastors never see “success” — more people responding, bigger budgets, more baptisms and more church members — as they rely on clever ideas instead of the work of the Holy Spirit.
Music as message
Drew Hodge, music pastor at Desert Springs Church in Albuquerque, noted music also plays a role in revivalism today, with some churches using it to create an atmosphere to manipulate people into feeling they’re having an encounter with God.
“That [sensation] can feel like a [transcendent] worship experience,” Hodges explained. “But are [worshipers] really experiencing communion with God or are they just merely being moved by beautiful music?
“We want to be careful in how we use the gift of music, because music by its very nature is emotional and God did not make a mistake in the way He made us to respond to music and art and beauty,” Hodge cautioned. “And He did not make a mistake in commanding us to sing, to use music to shepherd our emotions and our affections for the Lord.”
Church leaders should consider how they structure services, Hodge added, to help and train worshipers to think rightly about God and then to live rightly in light of Who God is and what He has done in Christ.
The right focus
Ben Lacey, assistant pastor at Capitol Hill, pointed out that revivalism can lead to unbiblical methods and means of getting worshipers “down the aisle” when biblical commands are used to call people as a metric of decisions. That can be a false assurance of salvation based on an action, not true conversion.
“Jesus’ invitation wasn’t [to] walk the aisle or pray a prayer, it was [to] carry your cross,” Lacey declared. “And the effect of our preaching, the fruit it produces is cross-shaped … the more we preach by God’s grace, Lord willing, we will see people carrying their cross and denying themselves for the sake of following Jesus.
“I’m concerned that godly brothers … undermine the gospel with these invitation methods and they are affirming a lot of people,” Lacey said. “I think a lot of people on Sunday sit in pews, assured they’re saved when they’re not saved at all.
“We want to see revival; we want to see the Spirit of God move among us,” he added. “Jesus told us how to do that — faithfully preach the Word and He will produce the results.”
9Marks, aimed at helping pastors and church members see what a biblical church looks like, offers events and resources on nine biblical marks of a healthy church: expositional preaching, biblical theology, the gospel, conversion, evangelism, membership, discipline, discipleship and godly leadership.
For more information visit 9marks.org.