Chapter One.
Church Renewal in Perspective

What has transpired in evangelical churches over the last two decades is not unrelated to what has happened in our culture at large. It never is. "Cultural spillover" is inevitable.

During the late '60s and early '70s, America began to experience an anti-institutional mood that actually threatened the very foundations of our society. It was during these years that university students particularly were rebelling.

These cultural upheavals and crises indeed "spilled over" into our evangelical subcultures. Most of us who were teaching on Christian campuses during those days vividly remember the threatening questions and verbal attacks on the various institutions we were teaching in as well as negative student attitudes toward the institutional church (see figure 2).

A number of educators, theologians, and churchmen began to sincerely face these questions and to attempt to unravel the problem and sort out what was indeed valid in these reactions and what was simply unhappiness, frustration, and disillusionment caused by a society in crisis.

What was transpiring then in culture generally and in the evangelical subculture particularly also had significant historical roots. No crisis is ever precipitated in a vacuum. In the secular world the "sacred cow" of science and its promised results were not working. There were no signs of the "great society." Furthermore, the adult world was in the process of changing its moral value system, particularly causing disillusionment among our youth. Also, more and more young people were becoming very dissatisfied with what they felt was a depersonalized society that was swallowing them up, squelching their individuality, and destroying their creative urges. They felt lost in a huge cultural machine that was running out of control. They felt let down. Their main recourse was to vent their anger on the institutions of America. And the crisis in Vietnam only added fuel to the fire.

Intricately interwoven with these institutions in America stood the churches and the Christian schools. The negative "spillover" was immediate. But there were some valid reasons. Christian institutions along with secular institutions appeared to many to be void of meaning and reality. Christianity seemed merely academic and cognitive, many times legalistic and often superficial and unreal. In its present form it seemed to lack acceptable solutions to the big issues of the day. The facts are that in many instances we were not even talking about these issues.

The Church Renewal Movement

It was in those days that church renewal writers began to speak to these issues. The book titles themselves form a unique profile regarding the primary concerns occupying the thinking of many Christian leaders.

The Company of the Committed. In the early '60s Elton True-blood published The Company of the Committed. Quoting Karl Heim in his book, Christian Faith and Natural Science, he saw the church as:

A ship on whose deck the festivities are still kept up and glorious music is heard, while deep below the waterline a leak has been sprung and masses of water are pouring in, so that the vessel is settling hourly lower though the pumps are manned day and night

A Quest for Vitality in Religion. Findley Edge picked up the same theme as Trueblood a couple of years later. Experiencing disillusionment himself, particularly over the continual growth in his own denomination and yet what he felt was a lack of Christian reality, he wrote A Quest for Vitality in Religion. He stated:

At the present time churches are experiencing a period of almost unparalleled popularity and prosperity. Such a situation normally would be the base for unrestrained optimism and rejoicing. Strangely, such is not the case. Many thoughtful religious leaders and mature Christian laymen evidence a growing ferment of uneasiness and concern. In spite of plush church buildings, growing membership, and many vigorous activities that are carried on within the churches, something is seriously wrong with modern Christianity. Something is wrong at its center. It is in danger of losing its life and dynamic.

A New Face for the Church. A few years later the spectrum of concern broadened when a group of Christian educators representing various Christian schools met at Wheaton College's Honey Rock Camp during successive summers in 1967 and 1968. The result was Larry Richards' A New Face for the Church, representing the thinking of the Honey Rock group generally, and his own thinking particularly.

To most, the book was radical and idealistic. It called for a complete evaluation and overhaul of our present church forms and structures and, if necessary, beginning anew. However, it was a stimulating book. It motivated many of us to go back to the New Testament to take a fresh look at what God has said about the church.

The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century. The second book that appeared in the early 70s was The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century, authored by Dr. Francis Schaeffer. Writing out of a very comprehensive understanding of history and culture, he spoke directly to the problem of differentiating absolutes from nonabsolutes in Scripture. "In a rapidly changing age like ours," he wrote, "an age of total upheaval like ours, to make nonabsolutes absolutes guarantees both isolation and the death of the institutional, organized church." This was an especially perceptive church renewal book.

The Problem of Wineskins. Also beginning in the early '70s we began to hear another voice. Howard A. Snyder, a missionary stationed in Sao Paulo, Brazil, began to submit articles to various American magazines. The titles themselves focused his concerns:

"The Fellowship of the Holy Spirit," "Church Renewal through Small Groups," "Does the Church Suffer an Edifice Complex?""'The People of God'—Implications for Church Structure," and "Should the Protestant Pastor be a Superstar?" After returning to the States he used these articles as a base for publishing a book entitled The Problem of Wineskins. "Leaving the North American scene and becoming involved in the work of the church in another culture," he wrote, "prompted me to a fundamental rethinking of the mission and structure of the church in today's world."

Both Snyder's and Schaeffer's insights were directly related to their experiences with the church after leaving the American culture and becoming involved in ministry in another part of the world. This is a significant observation because many times our own cultural experiences blur our vision regarding the supracul-tural nature of Scripture. As people who live in the United States particularly, we often times "Americanize" the Bible and inadvertently superimpose upon the Word of God cultural forms and structures that are not there. Both Schaeffer and Snyder helped cut through some of these misperceptions.

Full Circle. Here and there Christian leaders experimented with new forms and structures. David Mains, especially impressed with the writings of Elton Trueblood, launched a bold experiment in downtown Chicago. We were all impressed and excited about Circle Church, made popular by Mains' own story in his book Full Circle. Those of us who followed Mains' efforts admired his willingness to confront the inner city and the problems of integration and class distinction that plagued not only our American society but the evangelical subculture.

Yet the experiment did not measure up to Mains' expectations and hopes. One reason he gives is that he did not heed the principle being propounded by church growth specialists regarding the need to consider structuring to reach the "homogeneous unit" He later stated that he would have been wise to have heeded Wagner. Mains wrote,

He warned me not to try to reach too many different people in one church. Sure enough, the congregation eventually split in our attempt to extend our imperfect love too far, too fast. We were young and obsessed with solving in a few years problems that had been centuries in the making."

The House Church. Some (including myself) tried the house-church concept in the early '70s and were often disappointed because we ignored twentieth-century problems. Lifestyle demands placed on American families soon made it a burden to continually have a home available for a church meeting, especially involving all ages. Furthermore, in these experiments we did not calculate the tremendous impact of the "church building" mentality that has evolved in our present culture, which is undeniably related to our sense of security and the need for permanence.

This experience taught me how important it is to not only look through the "lens of Scripture" but also through the "lens of culture" when we attempt to develop contemporary forms and structures for the church today.

Some Christian leaders attempted to do away with the traditional educational ministries to children and youth to focus more on the total family unit. Though it was a noble objective, these people again ignored culture. Many were soon to learn that this approach worked only for singles and young couples without children. As soon as children came along, educational programs were added, or people graciously excused themselves and began attending more traditional churches with nursery facilities and educational programs for their children. Though they often missed the dynamics generated by a simple church structure, the needs of their children outweighed their own in the eventual choice of a place to worship.

With this constant exodus and/or the inability to attract families, these new churches were often made up of singles or young couples. This posed another problem. These churches lacked mature leaders, older men and women who had well-ordered households. Furthermore, these churches lacked a dynamic that a total family brings to a body of believers.

Dr. George Peters, a missionary statesman in his own right and who has influenced my own thinking as much as any other evangelical leader, believes that in order to be healthy, "churches should be built of family units rather than individual believers."

Brethren Hang Loose. Some church renewal enthusiasts overreacted to structure per se and attempted to design "structureless" and "leaderless" churches, which can best be illustrated in Bob Girard's book Brethren Hang Loose. Though Girard did not actually think it was possible to function without form or to have groups without leaders, he seemed to convey an uneasiness when the church began to become organized. On the other hand, his concern for "body function" under the leadership of the Holy Spirit is certainly noble and is, in my opinion, a biblical emphasis. But, it represented at that time an overreaction and swing of the pendulum away from the institutional syndrome. He seemed to want "organism" without "organization"—a functional impossibility.

Body Life. During this time some traditional churches began to make significant changes. Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, California is a prime example. Under the leadership of Ray Stedman, this church popularized the "body-life" service. Stedman's book Body Life spread the concept and encouraged numerous traditional churches to incorporate more body function into their structures.

I was much inspired by Stedman's ministry. In fact, I spent time at the church observing the phenomenon and videotaping Peninsula Bible Church's body-life services and sharing them with my students at Dallas Theological Seminary.

But it soon became obvious that much of the dynamic at Peninsula Bible Church was directly related to the West Coast culture and the Jesus movement that was rapidly gaining momentum at that time. Nevertheless, Ray Stedman's ministry inspired many Christian leaders.

Revived Traditionalism

Ironically, another strong movement began basically at the same time with the quest for church renewal we've just described. While many were questioning the traditional approach to church structure, both educationally and for the total congregation, some began to promote the traditional Sunday School. When Richards and many others were questioning the validity of traditional educational agencies and their contribution to church nurture, Elmer Towns, for example, published a book titled The Bright Future of the Sunday School. The same year he published The Ten Largest Sunday Schools and What Makes Them Grow.

This emphasis was destined to be more than a Sunday School influence. It involved pastors, since one of Town's findings was that "great pastors" create "great Sunday Schools" and "great Sunday Schools" build "great churches."

Towns was able to capture the imagination of numerous church leaders, primarily because he had at that time a channel and public expression for his research statistics and conclusions in Christian Life magazine. Corresponding with his own publications, he began to promote large Sunday Schools, their statistical growth, and how they ranked in both size and growth rate. And perhaps, most significantly, he identified each pastor.

This was an ingenious idea, building on an inherent motivational technique. Unfortunately, the primary emphasis, was on numerical growth. It fostered unhealthy competition and in some instances generated unethical reporting of statistics. It did, however, generate a great deal of activity in reaching new people with the Gospel.

One of the most important things that has resulted from this emphasis is that pastors of some of these large churches have conducted seminars that are designed to motivate and convince young pastors that they also can be just as successful in growing a large Sunday School and church if they follow certain techniques and methods. Unfortunately, these leaders have ignored the cultural milieu that contributed significantly to their own growth phenomenon. Furthermore, they have ignored the strengths and uniqueness of their own personalities in causing these churches to grow.

William J. Petersen, editor of Eternity magazine, has pointed out that these "smaller churches which followed the example of superaggressive evangelism and spent money for buses, television, church campuses, and larger facilities (even salaries of church evangelists) often did not fare so well." The facts are that some of these churches went bankrupt.

The Church Growth Movement

In the early '70s another simultaneous movement began with the church renewal movement and the revived emphasis on Sunday School growth. It is what I identify as the "official" church growth movement, involving such notables as Donald A. McGavren, Winfield Arn, and Peter Wagner. Writing such books as How to Grow a Church, Your Church Can Grow, and Ten Steps for Church Growth, these men took a more sophisticated approach to this process. Applying good techniques of research, they surfaced numerous principles and guidelines which cause church growth.

Though these writers emphasize a need for evangelism and nurture and a commitment to the authority of Scripture, the practical outworking of this emphasis is still focused on quantitative growth. Though they attempt to integrate biblical principles with scientific guidelines, emphasizing the need for qualitative Christian experience, the pragmatic and scientific often seem to overshadow the scriptural. It appears they purposely focus on general ecclesiological principles so as to be able to relate to a wide variety of churches and denominations on the religious continuum.

My main concern personally is that most church-growth writers do not start with biblical study and exposition to support their positions. Rather they start with "what works" and then attempt to integrate scriptural support into their pragmatic system. This often results in a nebulous perspective on what the Bible actually teaches about the church. However, these men and many inspired by them are having a significant and continual influence on churches and Christian leaders. What they are saying cannot and should not be ignored. Keen insights from culture and sophisticated research methodology make this movement commendable, particularly in terms of helping reach more people for Christ

A Turning Point

In the latter part of the decade of the '70s new dynamics entered the culture at large, affecting the mainline church renewal movement. As just outlined, there was initially a flurry of activity, articles, books, and experiments. But almost simultaneously the church renewal movement was overshadowed by the church growth movement. At the same time the radical anti-institutional movements in the culture at large began to subside, which even made some radical evangelicals more content with the institutional church. Further impetus was added by the Jesus movement, in a sense a quasi-return by the youth culture to institutional structures for security and hope. The charismatic renewal movement also added greatly to this impetus, particularly in some mainline denominations that were characteristically void of both good Bible teaching and relational Christianity. In fact, this movement is impacting missions and the church substantially in the decade of the '80s. It has focused the attention of the official growth specialists.

It became clear to everyone that evangelicals were becoming a force in society to be reckoned with. In 1978 George Gallup, Jr., "predicted a continued upsurge of evangelical strength." Richard Quebedeaux added to this analysis when he wrote:

The evangelicals are a talking point everywhere. Their growing churches, highly visible campus ministries, phenomenally successful publishing and other media efforts, and unlikely "twice born" national celebrities... have caught the eye of Protestant liberals, Roman Catholics, and secular journalists.

To most Christians this was no time to splinter and divide but to forget our differences and unite for the glory of God. Many writers who had been critical of the church now began to see in the rebirth of evangelicalism potential answers to their concerns.

But where is all of this heading? Predictably, the church-growth writers are excited. They see in this flurry of activity the movement of God's Spirit. And who can deny that God is at work in this world? Furthermore, it is certainly ego satisfying to be a part of a movement that has often been ignored.

Frankly, however, I'm concerned. I'm excited about church growth. I've experienced it first hand, helping start a number of churches in the past several years. And as I write this chapter, I'm pastoring a rapidly growing church in the Dallas metroplex.

However, as I travel around the country sharing with pastors, as I read what is being written relative to the church, as I observe what is happening in evangelical Christianity generally, and as I draw upon my own experience as a pastor, I am convinced that both the average church as well as the average parachurch organization definitely lacks a clear grasp on what the Bible teaches about the church. We still confuse function and form, principles and patterns, absolutes and nonabsolutes and that which should be supracultural and that which is strictly cultural. Many Christian leaders have no clear-cut philosophy of ministry based on an adequate ecclesiology that emerges from a careful study of Scripture. Without this foundation, many Christian leaders evaluate success based on personal and corporate experience rather than on biblical theology. Furthermore, quantitative response still seems to be the "bottom line."

The need for church renewal is just as great today, if not greater, as it was in the late '60s and early '70s. Evangelical popularity, as exciting as it has been, has only sidetracked us from the basics and contributed to the process of growing institutionalization. The influence of humanism abounds in many Bible-believing churches, both in function and form. The concerns stated in the early '70s can still be stated today. In some respects we've come full circle. What is needed, however, is not theory, overreactions, and superficial experiments that characterized the initial efforts in church renewal. We need a comprehensive biblical perspective that will guide pastors, missionaries, and all church leaders through a maze of viewpoints that are often confusing.

Biblical Renewal

What is a biblical perspective on renewal? Paul was the only New Testament writer to use various forms of the word, but the concept behind the words permeate the New Testament literature. Renewal is at the heart of Christianity. It is an active word and describes the conversion experience as well as the process of growing in Christ.

Renewal and Salvation. Writing to Titus, Paul described "renewal" in terms of the work of the Holy Spirit in regenerating an unsaved heart. God "saved us," he wrote, "not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit" (Titus 3:5).

"Biblical renewal" then involves the very experience of salvation itself. It is a work accomplished by God's Spirit. In this sense, it happens at the moment we put our faith in Jesus Christ. It involves a moment in our personal history when we pass from darkness to light and become a member of God's eternal family.

Renewal and Spiritual Growth. Paul also used the word "renewal" to describe the process of becoming conformed to the image of Christ once we have been initially renewed by the Holy Spirit Initial renewal takes place instantaneously the moment we trust Christ for salvation. Ongoing renewal that conforms us to the image of Christ is ongoing and progressive.

The most graphic and comprehensive use of the word "renewal" by Paul in this sense is found in his letter to the Romans. After laying down a broad theological foundation in the first eleven chapters of this letter, and which he summarized in Romans 12:1 as "God's mercies," Paul urged these Christians to present their bodies to God as a living and holy sacrifice. "Do not be conformed to this world," he wrote, "but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." This process, said Paul, is the means whereby the Christian is able to determine the will of God (Rom. 12:1-2).

Paul referred to the same process in his letters to the Ephesians and Colossians. "Lay aside the old self," he wrote to the Ephesians, and "be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth" (Eph. 4:22-24; see also Col. 3:9-11).

Renewal—Both Personal and Corporate. The initial renewal experience is definitely personal. It involves a one-to-one relationship with Jesus Christ. Conversion is a transaction between each individual and God. However, progressive renewal for the Christian is both personal and corporate. To present my body to Christ is certainly a personal experience. To conform my life to Christ by the renewing of my mind is also a personal experience. But, contextually Paul made it clear that renewal is also corporate. Not only should individuals develop the mind of Christ, but a church should develop the mind of Christ. This is why Paul spoke to the entire body of believers at Ephesus exhorting them to be renewed in the spirit of their mind. This is also why the Scriptures speak of Christians being one in heart and mind (Acts 4:32).

Personal renewal will not happen as God intended it unless it happens in the context of corporate renewal. On the other hand, corporate renewal will not happen as God intended it unless it involves personal renewal. Both are necessary. This is why we see the concept of renewal in Scripture used at times in a corporate sense and at times in a personal sense.

A biblical perspective on renewal can be illustrated with the following circles:

Church Renewal. The total circle represents "church renewal" This is the most comprehensive concept in the New Testament and extends right on into the center of the circle. In most instances scriptural injunctions are directed at local bodies of believers—not at individual Christians.

It is important to note, however, that even though God intended every body of local believers to be His most basic and dynamic unit of people in society, the body also consists of smaller, self-contained, but interrelated social units—marriage and the family.

Family Renewal. The family (the next inner circle) in Scripture emerges as the "church in miniature." By its very nature, every local church is made up of a number of family units. Thus, the Christian family is an intricate part of the local church. What God says to the church, He also says to the family, although He at times said some special things to members of each family unit. (See Ephesians 5:22-6:4; Colossians 3:18-21; 1 Peter 3:1-7.)

Marriage Renewal. The family, in turn, is made up of an even smaller unit—husband and wife. In fact, the husband/wife relationship is to be a constant reminder of the relationship that should exist between Christ and the church. It is to be the most intimate of all human relationships.

Personal Renewal. The inner circle represents personal renewal which is inseparably linked to all of the other basic units. For example, marriage is made up of two separate individuals who become one. Furthermore, the family is made up of parents and children who are, as a family unit, also to reflect the mind of Christ. And the church is not only made up of individuals but of couples and families.

Biblically speaking, it is impossible to renew the church without renewing families, husbands/wives, and individual Christians. On the other hand, it is not possible to renew individual Christians without renewing husbands/wives, families, and the church.

The Process of Renewal

It is possible to begin biblical renewal within any separate social unit included in figure 3. But wherever you begin—with the church, with families, with husbands/wives, or with individuals—you immediately touch all of the other social units in God's scheme of things. Furthermore, unless we understand the functions and principles that God has outlined for each unit, we will not be as successful in bringing about positive Christlike change as God intended. In fact, we can make serious errors in judgment and in some instances "box people in" to what we think God is saying to a particular social unit or individual, when in reality we have tunnel vision. On the other hand, we may unwittingly go beyond the principles of Scripture and give too much freedom, not realizing we are being affected by our humanistic culture.

Therefore, biblical principles of renewal must include what God says, first to the church, and then to parents and children, next to husbands and wives, and finally to individual Christians. This is important, because it is difficult to understand and to discern the special things God says to families, couples, and individual Christians without understanding what He has said to the church. As stated earlier, what is said to the church makes up most of what God says in the New Testament letters. Without this total perspective, we develop blind spots in our philosophy of ministry.

Let me illustrate how a restricted approach can lead to an inappropriate interpretation of Scripture. I was talking one day with two people who are deeply involved in the process of marriage renewal. Through a study of Scripture, they have concluded that "headship" is not a scriptural concept. They believe that Paul emphasized this responsibility because of the cultural context in the New Testament They insisted that Jesus never intended it to be that way on a continual basis. In other words, to them "headship" in marriage is not an absolute but a cultural adaptation.

At that point I asked them about authority in the local church. "What about elders?" I asked. "What about their authority?" Their response to my question was enlightening. They had no problem with the fact that elders were to be the leaders of the church with God-given authority; however, they believed that God's plan for marriage was different.

At this juncture it became clear—in my own thinking at least—that their biblical interpretation was influenced by the fact that they had not developed a proper ecclesiology; that is, what the New Testament teaches about the church. They did not seem to perceive the consistency that is present in the New Testament We see this consistency in that elders are to lead the church, fathers are to lead their families, and husbands are to be the head of their wives as Christ is the head of the church. In fact, it is impossible to separate family function and marriage function from local church function. All of these social units are interrelated. It is not logical that God would have one set of supracultural principles for the church, another for the family, and another for husband-wife relationships.

This helps focus a problem faced by founders and leaders of many parachurch organizations that come into being because of specialized needs in the body of Christ at large. There are many examples. One organization may come into existence because of a burden for personal evangelism. Without a proper ecclesiology, leaders often neglect what the Bible says about corporate evangelism. Another organization may come into existence with a burden for personal discipleship. Without an adequate ecclesiology, leaders will neglect the importance of body function in bringing people to maturity in Christ The problem is complicated when some organizations begin with a ministry to smaller social units and then attempt to expand their ministry to include the larger context treated in the Scriptures. For example, I can think of one organization that began by helping young people relate to their parents. A set of principles was developed out of context of what the Bible says to the local church. The next step was to become involved in the area of husband-wife relationships. Again, a set of principles was developed outside of the context of what the Bible says about the local church. Eventually, however—out of necessity—the principles were expanded to include the local church. The problem is that when we move from the inside of the circle to the outside of the circle, we can develop "blind spots" in our biblical interpretation. This is why it is so vital to develop all principles to guide the family, marriage, and individuals in view of the overarching principles that God has established for the church. After all, this is the essence of the New Testament The bulk of the New Testament is written to the corporate body, not to individual Christians, or even to family units.

Biblical Renewal-and Evangelism

We must remember that biblical renewal is not an end in itself. The body of Christ is to build itself up in love so that the unity produced will serve as a bridge to reach a lost world for Jesus Christ—as individuals, as married couples, as a family, and as a total church. This was the essence of Christ's prayer for believers: "May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that You sent Me and have loved them even as You have loved Me" (John 17:23, NIV).


Biblical renewal is a comprehensive process. It is the essence of Christianity, the ultimate purpose of the church, and the primary message of the Bible. It excludes no segment of the Christian community. The task before us then is to first discover those principles that God has established for the church. From that point, we can focus biblical principles of renewal for the family, for husband-wife relationships, and for personal growth in Christ There is a means for accomplishing these goals—the subject of our next chapter.