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For the last half-century the world has witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of para-church organizations that we typically refer to as “ministries.” American Vision is one such group, as are Focus on the Family, Precept Ministries, Vision Forum, and many others. These organizations are not affiliated with any one church or denomination and are headed up by dynamic individuals that tend to set the pace and focus for the organization as a whole. Having been involved in one way or another with several of these groups for the last eight years, I have often reflected on and wondered about the whole model and legitimacy of the “ministry.”
The parting words of Jesus to His disciples are recorded for us in Matthew 28:19-20. “Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority is given to Me in Heaven and in earth. Therefore go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things, whatever I commanded you. And, behold, I am with you all the days until the end of the world.’” One thing that should be immediately clear is that Jesus left an incredible task to His earthly followers. His close-knit band of eleven disciples (one of the twelve was a devil) were given explicit instructions to conquer the world. The “therefore” is very important. It is only because all authority in Heaven and earth has been given to Him that He can legitimately commission the twelve and us with our marching orders. The three-step process that Jesus lays out in this passage is teach, baptize, and observe. That is, teach in order that they may understand the truth of the Gospel and how it affects all areas of life; baptize as a sacramental sign and seal of membership in the visible church; and observe as a confirmation of the “birth from above” by willing and wanting to do that which is contrary to the sin nature (a “new creation,” 2 Cor. 5:17; also cf. the deeds of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit, Gal. 5).
One of the main contributing factors to the rise of para-church ministries has been the retreat of the church from teaching, baptizing and observing. Having spent the 1800s getting battered by higher criticism and evolutionary dogma, the church began cocooning in an attempt to preserve their religious status quo. At the turn of the 20th century, The Fundamentals was released and sent to every influential pastor in the country. While the publishers and financial backers of this project were noble in their intentions, the effect was actually quite the opposite of what was intended. Instead of empowering the church to stand up to the attacks of the day, The Fundamentals only served to entrench dispensational hermeneutics and made defending the faith for the layman nigh impossible. While most pastors that read the books were able to follow the arguments, they couldn’t make them accessible to their congregations. The attacks on Christianity were coming both from the academic and popular levels, but the Christian response only came from the academic level. By 1920 The Fundamentals were all but forgotten.
By the time the Reagan years rolled around, the church was in no position to abandon its social gospel message. The PTL and 700 Clubs came out of nowhere in filling a need for the Christian message that went beyond the Sunday hour. Jim Bakker and Pat Robertson became the new models for Christian ministry that transcended the doors of the church building. While this new approach opened the floodgates for other teachers and preachers to get their messages out during the 1980s and 90s, it is beginning to show its age. As Gary pointed out on Tuesday, the “old guard” is getting old. The ministry model that is based on a particular individual is proving very difficult to sustain once that individual gets old or frail. What was a very effective stop-gap measure is now becoming a crisis because of the number of churches and congregations that rely on these ministries as a source for teaching and study material. This is why American Vision is actively seeking to become inclusive, not exclusive. We are creating partnerships and friendships wherever we can in an effort to broaden the audience of the comprehensive biblical worldview, and not get pigeon-holed as only an American history or eschatology ministry.
In Amazing Grace, the powerful movie about William Wilberforce that will be released in theatres tomorrow, there is a poignant scene where William is asked why his Christian meditation shouldn’t lead to action. Wilberforce responds, “I don’t know. Let me meditate on it for awhile.” Wilberforce was more correct than he knew. Meditation should lead to action; teaching should lead to observing. From 1789 to 1807, Wilberforce tirelessly pushed his abolitionist agenda on the English parliament until he finally succeeded in getting his bill passed, effectively outlawing the slave trade in England. His Christianity wasn’t “real” until it took root in action. The same could be said of the social gospel of 20th century Christianity. The “meditation” may have been present, but it wasn’t until the ministries came along that any “action” took place. Now, however, we find ourselves in a situation where a lot of action is taking place, but those dynamic leaders are thinning out. If ministries don’t work together and with the local church, we will find ourselves in a much worse situation in another ten years. The “great commission” only works when all three elements are in place.