Don't want to spoil the image, but according to historians Fink and Stark in their book "The Churching of America", the early colonial days weren't quite as pristine and godly as some like to imagine. Not all that many were puritans either in theology or practise, and the blunt statistic is that by around 1780 only around 17% of Americans went to church.
But then by 1980, 200 years later the percentage was 62%. How is the amazing statistic to be explained? A rise in 37% in 200 years.
We know that statistics can be deceiving, and that not everyone who 'goes to church' is a believer. But after adjustments have been made to both statistics, this is still a remarkable increase - how can it be explained?
Very simply, by church planting. One after another new church was planted. That's how America was churched.
But out of this fascinating story emerge some pretty sobering truths.....
(1) New churches were planted when old ones 'went to seed'
When old churches, and especially when old denominations went worldly, this gave opportunity for new churches with new structures to emerge. Perhaps the most tragic case of this is the puritan Congregational churches which were big at the start. These churches became formal and academic and eventually died, but this kind of "secularisation (worldliness) is a self-limiting process that leads not to irreligion but to revival." (p.43)
(2) The predominant growth took place among 'lay preachers and churches'
Clergy/lay is a distinction nowhere found in Scripture and implies unacceptable hierarchy. That being said, those churches where ordinary members worked at building the kingdom, whether in preaching, leading or serving, were the ones that grew and those who employed and focused on professional trained pastors dwindled.
(3) A great hindrance to church growth was the professional education of ministers
This of course sounds strange to western ears, but it is true. Not only were the growing new Methodist churches led by ordinary men without any professional theological training, the dwindling Congregationalists were led by increasingly trained professionals who, the more they were educated, the less effective they became. Increasing education reduced their effectiveness for many reasons:
- they came from ever higher stratas of society so became less and less able to connect to the ordinary 'man in the pew'
- they sought to be respected like other professionals, and became lazy in their pastoral duties
- due to the high standard required of ministers, there was a shortage of them
- as their denominations established seminaries - Harvard and Yale no less - the teachers became corrupted by liberalism, novelty and human logic - the curses of the academy:
“It may be that secularisation (worldliness) ensues whenever religion is placed within a formal academic setting, for scholars seem unable to resist attempting to clear up all logical ambiguities. Rather than celebrate mysteries, religious scholars often seek to create a belief system that is internally consistent. Finding that things do not exactly fit, they begin to revise and redefine. Whether or not this corrosive effect of scholarship is inevitable, this is what went on at Harvard and Yale, starting well before the Revolution.” (45)
“One of the most striking differences between the clergy of the upstart sects (e.g. Methodists and Baptists - sects in the eyes of the established Congregationalists!) and those of the colonial mainline was in their education. It was no secret that the great majority of Baptist and Methodist ministers had little education.” (76)
- educated ministers no longer preached fiery sermons, but toned down their preaching to suit the high tastes of their now-elite congregations:
“Exhortations to repent and to be saved gave way to a “well-styled lecture, in which the truths of religion and the moral duties of man were expounded in as reasonable a manner as possible. Sermons thus became a species of polite literature…reviews of published sermons frequently were critiques of syntax and style rather than content.” (46)
Two central lessons
Two central lessons of this period of church history are (a) the Kingdom of Christ grows by church planting. (b) The Kingdom of Christ grows through the efforts of lay men and women, not professionals. We could read this lesson from the book of Acts. God is pleased to use the despised and ordinary things and people of this world.
A sobering lesson of church history is that the moment we educate pastors in the way the world educates its professionals, we end up killing off spiritual life and killing the church.
The Bible's way of training is not academic, but spiritual and practical - the apprenticeship scheme - where the next generation of workers are trained by watching and observing the last generation. This is how Moses trained Joshua, Elijah trained Elisha, Jesus trained the Twelve and Paul trained Timothy. The early church grew through the powerful ministries of ordinary men and women including the apostles who were 'unschooled' (Acts 4:13).
God wants his people to use their minds; it's not a matter of using or not using our minds. It's a matter of how we use our minds. Loving God with our minds requires submitting them to God's Word.
All data from the Statistical History of the First Century of Methodism, Charles Chaucer Goss