Observations: One Hundred Years In Christian History

by Rick Shrader

Over the last 23 years that I have been writing this paper, and the last 50 years that I have been connected with Christian ministry, many things have come and gone and many things have changed.  If I think of the men I’ve known, heard, sat under, or known about, you might say that I’ve had access to over a hundred years of first-hand knowledge of Christian history.  I was born in 1950 but most of the men who taught me in my college days or early ministry days were born around 1900-1920.  Two men who influenced my life greatly, Noel Smith and R.V. Clearwaters, were both born in 1900.  My pastor, John Rawlings lived 99 years from 1914 to 2013.  When you spend your life around men whose lives spanned over a century of time, you can learn a lot if you’ll listen.

If the apostle Paul had to confess, “I count not myself to have apprehended” (Phil. 3:13) then who are we to think we know much at all?  However, everyone observes the things that happen within that 100+ years of their lifetime.  In the Christian ministry, not to mention all the various fields of learning, there is more than a person can observe and comprehend.  Yet in that ministry, especially over the last 100 years, things have changed faster than any other 100 years.

This last month I read some  books that speak directly to the last 100 years of Christian ministry.  Four of those are reviewed in this issue.  I’ve read books, articles, and papers like these all of my life, sometimes as assignments and often out of my own interest.  I appreciate the men and women who write our “contemporary history” because they are trying hard to warn and encourage us in the days in which we minister.  Sometimes the information is not very complimentary to ministry but more often it is enlightening and encouraging.  However, we live in perilous times and these could very well be the last generations before the Lord returns.  If so, warnings and exhortations are needed.  The lessons we should be learning ought to be passed on to our people so that they will be able to stand in the evil day.

Positive observations

I always am encouraged by our Baptist and fundamental history.  I have read of the history of the Southern Baptist Convention, of the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches, of the Baptist Bible Fellowship, and others, and have been encouraged by them all.  I have also read The Fundamentals and the history of how those writings came to be.  This month I enjoyed reading the history of Winona Lake and the great Bible Conferences with Moody, Sunday, and Chapman; the singing of Homer Rodeheaver, and the planting of the Grace Brethren churches there with Alva McClain.  I was encouraged by the writings of J.M. Frost and E.Y. Mullins in the early days of the Southern Baptists before liberalism took its heavy toll.  The twentieth century was blessed because of these great movements that spread Christianity across our country.

The Fundamentals.  In 1909 two laymen set aside a large sum of money to be used to produce what came to be known as The Fundamentals.  The first editors were A.C. Dixon and R.A. Torrey.  These writing included men such as W.H. Griffith Thomas, Sir Robert Anderson, James M. Gray, A.T. Pierson, B.B. Warfield, C.I. Scofield, Thomas Spurgeon, C.T. Stud, E.Y. Mullins, and Bishop Ryle of England.  Regardless of what one thinks of fundamentalists today, we were given a great start to the twentieth century by the writing of these men.  In fact, the average Christian reader today might have trouble keeping up with the scholarship displayed there.  The fundamentalist movement has been a bedrock of orthodoxy, evangelism, and preaching for the last 100 years and has blessed the churches greatly.

Evangelism.  Fundamental Baptists, early evangelicals, and various orthodox movements have been criticized a lot these days for their aggressive evangelism.  It is not uncommon to read someone criticizing soul winning, invitations, door to door canvassing, and the like by finding some abusive example as if that were the norm.  The truth is, American Christianity would be in much deeper trouble today if it were not for the evangelism done by fundamentalists and others throughout the last century.  Billy Sunday is a poster boy of such criticism and I’m sure that he deserves some of it.  But until I also have been responsible for half a million professions of faith, I doubt I will be too critical.

Church planting.   The large cities of our country today are in great need of another generation of church planters.  It takes only three generations in the churches to find them either dying, growing unorthodox, or cold and lifeless.  We can all recount good churches of our childhood that don’t even exist today.  Whether it was the pioneering Methodists and Baptists or the Southern Baptists whose goal was to plant a church in every county seat, steeples were erected across the country and the gospel was preached in cities and small towns.  Church planting is, however, an ongoing movement.  It must continue in every generation.

Missions.  I don’t know if the whole church age has ever seen as much money and personnel given to the cause of foreign missions as America saw in the twentieth century.  It is amazing to think that such a century of war and depression could also produce industrialization and agriculture enough to raise millions upon millions of dollars to send the gospel of Jesus Christ around the world.  Many missionaries I knew were American veterans who returned to the land of their service to preach to the people they once fought.  The Philippines, China, Japan, Korea, North Africa, Germany, and now Russia are great examples.  Where would these people be today without America’s missionary effort?

Colleges and seminaries.  To support and maintain the evangelism, church planting, and missions of the last hundred years, the Bible college and seminary movement sprang up all over the country.  Sure, good schools often take a turn for the worse or even disappear, but still much good has been done by thousands of graduates from a variety of schools.  Perhaps D.L. Moody made it popular and acceptable with Moody Bible Institute, but then there were others:  Dallas, Talbot, Fuller, Southern, Wheaton, Grace, Grand Rapids, Cedarville, which stayed by the stuff for many years.  Then those of our own fundamental Baptist persuasion such as  BBC, Faith, Central, and their offshoots have faithfully trained ministry-minded young people for generations.  These schools have been responsible for thousands of souls being saved and churches being planted.  The benefit to America in the last century is immeasurable.

Negative observations

One cannot help but see the negative trends in our recent history.  Some are obvious to all, such as the afore-mentioned liberalism in the SBC, or the worldliness in colleges such as Wheaton and others.  Some negatives are not seen as negatives at all to many people in ministry.  So these are my observations from being in and around a lot of conservative movements, schools, and churches over the last fifty to sixty years.

Misplaced loyalties.  I am one who treasures loyalties.  We are all loyal to our families in good times and bad.  We are loyal to our churches because they are God’s people and the church is His institution.  We are loyal to God’s Word because it is the absolute Truth in a world of untruth.  In order to propagate these divine institutions we need human institutions for various reasons.  Schools, boards, conventions and associations, camps, retreats, etc., are tools we use to build the ministry.  Over the last century these have come and gone in their usefulness.  Some are short-lived and some remain throughout the century.  Some are slowly compromising or becoming worldly.  I guess it is that human nature of loyalty that makes separation hard to do.  Yet there have been many circumstances over the last 100 years where people have become more loyal to an organization than to the Word of God.  Sometimes it is a matter of personal conviction of one and not another, and sometimes it is a matter of position that one is not willing to forgo.  But separation is a Biblical doctrine and sometimes God’s people need to walk away from an organization that has left its Biblical foundation.

Need for success.  We are glad for great men and women.  I have mentioned a few positively in this article.  We are also glad for churches and schools and agencies that have been successful in our lifetime.  Success, however, should not be measured by the praise of men but by faithfulness to God.  I don’t think great men ever wanted to be great.  In fact, I’m sure of it.  Great men (and women) wanted to be men of God and God used them in great ways so we call them great.  I doubt that William Carey went to India to be great, or that Fanny Crosby wrote songs so that 100 years later we could praise her for them.  But I fear that we want to be great.  We “build” churches and schools.  We teach young people how to be great.  We reward one another when we become great.  We even create greatness by award and eulogy.  This is difficult to say.  It is not wrong to recognize and thank people for their service.  But I think you know what I mean about a phenomenon that we’ve observed in our lifetime.  I watched someone on television being praised for a record number of “likes” she got on Facebook.  I hope that can never be applied to Christianity.

Pragmatism.  Pragmatism and methodology can be good or bad.  America has become what it has become because it could always figure out a way to get things done, whether agriculture, industry, military, education, etc.  These things have been debated throughout the twentieth century among various ministries.  Yet sometimes these discussions are reduced to unhelpful absurdities.  Do padded seats help our services?  Is air conditioning better?  Is amplification helpful to the sermon.  Well, of course.  But be absurd to the other extreme.  Would giving away one hundred dollar bills increase professions of faith?  Would indecency help promote youth activities?  Would free beer increase attendance at the rescue mission?  These are methodologies too.  Yet the crossing of the line in the gray areas has grown with almost no objections.  I cannot believe that candy on church buses is the same thing as a Christian rock concert when it comes to acceptable methodology.

Worldliness.  Or should I say the lack of godliness?  Here too Christians differ to various degrees, but the last century has no doubt seen the church become much more comfortable in the world.  This is true in the believer’s personal life and in the church as well.  One could trace the changes made in church covenants in the last 100 years, or the standards for students at Christian colleges, or the rules for kids at youth camps, and it might be surprising how far we’ve come.  But we say, time and culture change and what was once unacceptable is no longer so today.  And I’m sure that is true.  But is that the way we evaluate worldliness?  Are we only supposed to be a few steps behind the world but going in the same direction?  In a world of entertainment, selfishness, immorality, and profanity, it is not acceptable to be on the same path but only lagging a few steps behind.

Coldness.  Having closed the twentieth century and begun the twenty first, are we more enthusiastic for the things of God and His ministry than our forefathers?  The great irony here might be that they preached the coming of Christ and the need for aggressive evangelism because the time was short.  Yet we are now closer to His coming than they were but we don’t seem to have the same concern.  We have fewer church services, not more.  We have all but eliminated the gospel invitation.  We don’t seem to be the kind of soul winners or evangelistic people as those a generation ago.  Perhaps our evangelistic concern is being manifested in different ways, but I’m not convinced they are as good as before.

I remember the term “pre-evangelism” being used a while ago.  It was a term that meant that rather than actually giving out the gospel per se, we should work more on tilling the ground, and planting and watering rather than actually reaping the newly converted soul.  Of course this must be done also.  But it seems as though 99% of all evangelism has become pre-evangelism, and if everything is pre-evangelism, nothing is evangelism.  I remember when, in the name of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, we evangelized all Catholics simply by calling them born again Christians (I called it re-definition evangelism).  I’m sure our missionaries in Catholic countries wished we had done that before they spent all they had.  I’m simply saying that we have become busier but not more evangelistic.  We have many programs, activities, concerts, etc., but these have taken the place of evangelism, they are not simply new ways of doing the same thing.

Three suggestions

Let me conclude with three suggestions, or prayers, for fundamental Baptists who live in the twenty first century.

Love the brethren.  This Biblical admonition should be taken two ways.  First we need to love our Christian neighbor, that is, the person who is there.  It is never right to be unchristian toward anyone, but especially another Christian.  God’s children are our brothers and sisters.  Secondly, we should love the idea of brethren.  We should actually desire to be the epitome of what a Christian ought to be, and then be that Christian.  This is the best kind of life we can live on God’s earth.  If we truly love the “brotherhood,”  then we love what we believe and will become a reflection of the same.

Love the church.  The local church of the New Testament is what we see going on in the New Testament.  This group of believers that gather each Lord’s day is the best group of people we could ever be around.  What we do when we gather is what we need to be doing and what the world needs to see.  I often say to my people, we don’t gather together to worship, we’re worshipers who gather together.  I don’t say that to belittle worship but to emphasize how precious this gathering together is.  There should be no greater priority for the believer.

Love the ordinances.  God gave us two object lessons to observe faithfully.  When we see these we are seeing the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We are seeing the very work He came to do which reminds us of Him and our faith in Him.  They can’t be done with extra human instrument.  They are simple but profound, they are plain but beautiful, mysterious but revealing.  We can preach no greater sermon than these.

And So . . .

I’ve made these personal evaluations both positive and negative.  We have much to be thankful for over the last 100 years in our Baptist history and also in evangelical history.  Christianity has been good for America.  We also have things we need to be careful about.  Some of these things we will differ over and practice according to our own conscience, but we must not go the way of the world.  God has given us a plain Word to follow and we will be judged by that Word.

Finally, we need to love the very faith we profess.  If we do we will desire to know what God has said and we will find our joy and fulfillment in doing that.  We will add to our faith virtue and to our virtue knowledge.  These things will end with brotherly kindness and love, “For if these things be in you and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:5-11).