Friday, 30 December 2011

Enthusiasm and the Presence of God

I love enthusiasm! It may be a crowd enthusiastic for their sports team, an academic passionate for their subject, or a child in raptures over their latest toy. It is a joy to watch, because the enthusiasts are so happy and their enthusiasm is infectious.

However the best enthusiasm is the one that is for God. If people can get enthusiastic over sports teams and the like then surely Christians are allowed to be enthusiastic for God! It could be that believers are caught up in worship, singing and praying with passion and fervour. Or they could be on mission, zealously telling others what Jesus Christ means to them.

It is in this latter sense in which the word “enthusiast” is used in the church growth models. They are the believers who contact unbelievers and lead them to conversion whether directly or indirectly. They have what Dean Kelley called missionary zeal (1), an enthusiasm specifically directed towards activities that grow the church. Clearly the more enthusiasts then the more the church grows. However it is also true that the more enthusiasm the more growth will occur. Thus a church needs to ask not just how it can make more enthusiasts, but also how can it increase their enthusiasm. Put another way: how can those enthusiasts increase their missionary zeal?

Clearly the more general enthusiasm there is for God then the more likely it is that the enthusiasm specific to missionary zeal will increase. But it still leaves open as to how that general enthusiasm increases, or is started. Christians have other names for this, “being set on fire”, “being filled with the Holy Spirit” etc.  Whatever the name, it gives the Christian a direct experience of God himself, often described as the “presence of God”, or his glory. In this experience the things that make God who he is become directly felt. Often it is the person of Jesus Christ who is encountered. Sometimes people say Jesus reveals himself to them. The presence of God is at the heart of revival.

Of course such an experience of God leaves the Christian longing for more. The full intensity of the experience does not last. Thus the Christian is driven to seek the experience again, because having once tasted of the Lord so directly, life is just not the same without him. Earlier in the year a worship-evangelist named Roy Fields was in Cardiff near where I live. One of his songs sums it up “I am thirsty, hungry, desperate for Your Presence.”  The Christian is full of enthusiasm for God and the means of seeking him such as worship. This enthusiasm then spills out in missionary zeal

So the process goes like this. Some Christians gather to worship God. He draws close and they are caught up in his presence.  In order to seek more of this experience they now pursue him more enthusiastically. Their whole life is characterised by enthusiasm for God; their actions are all set to this end. Most importantly they want others to share their experience. Thus missionary zeal follows and they become the “enthusiasts” of the Limited Enthusiasm Model and are seeking new converts and to pass that zeal on to them, as well as seeking to enthuse existing Christians.  The original “enthusiasts” causal loop of the model remains:
  • The more enthusiasts, the more converts, thus the more enthusiasts.
Additional there is now an “enthusiasm” loop:
  • The more enthusiasts, the more the presence of God is felt, thus the more enthusiasm, the more missionary zeal, the more effective the conversions, thus more enthusiasts.
The result is a revival increasing in strength and the accelerated revival growth of the church.

This is what happened in the 1730s in Northampton, Massachusetts, under the ministry of Jonathan Edwards and others. Through his preaching the presence of God was felt to such a degree that a number were converted and made enthusiasts. Both the presence and the level of enthusiasm increased. Edwards wrote, "The town seemed to be full of the presence of God: it was never so full of love, nor joy, and yet so full of distress as it was  then… it was a time of joy in families on account of salvation being brought unto  them; parents rejoicing over their children as new born, and husbands over their  wives'' (2).  The “presence” was subsequently communicated through the joy and love of the converts, whose zeal to see others converted knew no limits. Thus both the number of enthusiasts, and their enthusiasm, rose.

Thus if the church wants to grow, make converts and fulfil the great commission, then it not only needs to produce more enthusiasts, i.e. reproducing Christians, but to increase their enthusiasm, i.e. to seek revival. It is imperative then that seeking the presence of God is of the utmost importance to church growth. This passion for the presence can be seen in a number of contemporary revival-like movements: charismatic renewal, the Jesus People, Vineyard church, the Toronto Blessing and the Pensacola outpouring.  In most cases a moderate amount of church growth has resulted and in some, revival growth can be measured, e.g. UK restoration churches.

However no movement/revival have become so big that the presence of God has affected the whole town, as in Edward’s days. This may be a simple matter of population size. It is much easier to affect the whole community in a smaller interconnected population, than in a larger one. It may also be that there are now much stronger “social fields” such as television and the Internet which, because they are either apathetic, or negative to the revival, hinder the communication, of zeal, enthusiasm and the presence.

What started as a short article has ended up a ramble! My eyes are now on the current batch of Christian movements who are seeking the presence of God and seeing enthusiasm generated. I mentioned earlier Roy Fields, whose meetings in Wales were very powerful, especially in the worship, definitely an experience of God’s presence, but it has not made us enthusiasts in the sense of missionary zeal. There is also the Bay of the Holy Spirit revival which adds a healing ministry to the enthusiastic worship. I have no personal experience of this yet to get any sense of enthusiasts being generated. Finally there are the New Ecstatics I wrote about two years ago. Again there is no doubt about the presence, but there does not appear to be any huge growth. Somewhere in the enthusiasm loop there is a broken link in all these movements. This needs more research and reflection.

  1. Why Conservative Churches are Growing: A Study in the Sociology of Religion, Dean Kelley, Mercer University Press (1986).
  2. A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, Jonathan Edwards, (1736). Contained in “Jonathan Edwards on Revival”, Banner of Truth, p14. Also in “The Works of Jonathan Edwards volume 1”.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The Strength of the Christian Church in the USA

It is often remarked by sociologists of religion that the Christian church is much stronger in the USA than in the UK. This is reflected in the figures where in many places in the UK the church has less than 10% of the community in attendance. Compare the USA where it can be up to 30%. Likewise the majority of the UK denominations are declining, most to extinction, whereas even the declining ones in the USA are not declining so fast, and there are many which are stable or growing.

On a recent visit to the USA I found additional evidence to support the claim that the USA church was stronger than the UK. These evidences showed the impact the church has on that society and is thus an indirect indicator of its strength. That strength will come from its numerical superiority, but it may also come from a more robust spirituality as well. I present here 6 pieces of evidence.

Evidence 1: There were well-kept churches everywhere.
I was in the Bible belt; Virginia and North Carolina. However, wherever I travelled, each community, however small, had numerous, large, well-kept churches from across the denominations. In the case of the Baptists there were many of those in each town! In some ways it reminded me of my native Wales, but these days many Welsh chapels are near derelict, or converted to other uses. Those that are still open have no glossy advertisement boards, like their US counterparts, as there were few people left in attendance. In the US the churches looked an integral and essential parts of their communities.

Evidence 2: Grace in public.
Staying in my first hotel the family next to me said grace at the breakfast table. Such open displays of faith are almost unknown in the UK, but as I found out, more common in the USA. The suggests a Christian faith with more confidence than the UK.

Evidence 3: TV adverts.
There was one advert in particular, on a local TV station. The firm built large pre-fabricated buildings quickly. The manager/owner was speaking in the advert: "If you need to extend your business, build a warehouse, or a new church facility, I am the man to see!" In the UK no-one would mention a new church in the advert because there would not be enough taking place for it to make commercial sense, especially locally. But in the US churches are often needed to build bigger buildings for growing congregations, and new churches start frequently. On another occasions there were TV adverts for a new church starting that Sunday, describing its worship and ethos.

Evidence 4: Sales talk.
In one place I was staying at a time-share and they tried to get me to one of their sales presentations. It was on the following day, a Sunday, but there were different timeslots throughout the day. The lady asked me what sort of person I was: "are you the sort who likes to laze around and have a late morning, was I a get up and get out early person, or a person that would spend the morning at worship". No-one would have asked the third type in the UK, there are not enough Christians to make it a common occurrence. And most of the UK Christians I know skip church when on holiday and away from their own! But in the USA even a hard sell timeshare has to take the church into account.

Evidence 5: Wal-Mart.
The local Wal-Mart was selling a range of "I love Jesus" baseball caps among their hats. I mentioned this to a lady in a nearby Christian bookshop and said that a UK supermarket would not sell things like this, as they would be afraid of offending people. The lady said, it does offend some people in the US as well. The difference is there are enough Christians that Wal-Mart can sell plenty, and their profit outweighs the problems cause by any offense that might be caused! They would not be sold in a UK supermarket, not because of the offense, but because they would not sell sufficient to make it worthwhile.

Evidence 6: Christian books in the supermarket.
In one local supermarket there was a selection of Christian books in the book section. I was particularly struck by one entitled "101 Bible characters you need to know." I am not sure I would find that in Tesco’s! All the supermarkets had Christian music and worship as labeled categories in their CD sections.

That is it. 6 pieces of evidence to suggest the church in the USA is stronger than that in the UK. This might just be a social strength due to numbers, but it may also be due to an underlying spiritual strength, as reflected in the life I witnessed in the churches I have attended in the US. This suggests the question: is the church in the UK small because it is weak, or is it weak because it is small? Talking with older people I am not sure these types of open display of Christianity would have existed in the UK for most of the 20th century. I therefore tentatively suggest that church decline in the UK is due to its inherent weakness, socially and spiritually.