Church Growth with Charles Finney

Doesn’t he look fun?

Today’s entry is about a 19th century revivalist’s impact on the church.  Admittedly, the 19th century is a little recent for my tastes, but I’ve been mulling over what the Church is, what its primary tasks are, and what it’s corporate existence ought to look like, and Finney seemed like someone worth engaging with.

Finney was trained as a lawyer, and after a conversion experience, decided to become a pastor.  Legend has it that he showed up at a meeting with his legal client the next morning and told them, “I have a retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead his cause and cannot plead yours.” (131 Christians Everyone Should Know, 67)   He’s certainly got some good quotes!  He lived during the Second Great Awakening and worked in the “burned-over district” in New York, which was the cradle for all kinds of unorthodox and distinctly American religious traditions like Mormonism, spiritualism, and the Shaker community.  In all of this excitement, Finney rose up as an incredibly popular revivalist preacher, partially because of his emphasis on choice.  Americans were settling in to their new democracy and the power of personal choice was increasingly apparent.  Finney acknowledged that power and urged them to make the choice to accept Jesus as their savior.  Huge masses of people did just that at his urging.

One piece of his that has made its way through history are his “Lectures on the Revival of Religion.”  It’s a series to to help other preachers adopt his revival techniques.  A lot of it reads like any book on church growth today might, but what seems normal today was a landmark in it’s own time.  Books about how to preach, set up churches, and perform worship in a way that will numerically grow your church weren’t common until around this time.  This series represents a cultural watershed for the belief that pastors and churches ought to hold themselves accountable for proven practices that produce higher number of converts in their pews.

Here’s an excerpt that particularly interested me:

Without new measures it is impossible that the Church should succeed in gaining the attention of the world to religion. There are so many exciting subjects constantly brought before the public mind, such a running to and fro, so many that cry “Lo here!” and “Lo there!” that the Church cannot maintain her ground without sufficient novelty in measures, to get the public ear. (Measures to Promote Revivals, 2.5)

He’s all for change! Innovate as necessary to reach more people with the Gospel. “Novelty” is your most valuable tool. So much of the modern church growth movement seems to take this kind of stance.  The form of worship isn’t relevant.  Adopt whatever form increases your numbers!  The desirable end result is that people walk away claiming to have a relationship with God, not having followed some formula of when to sit, stand, and say the right thing.  Why not have church in a pub, a coffee shop, a hiking trail, or wherever else people might show up?  But I’m more than a little skeptical of Finney and his spiritual successors.  Is this really the end game of the Church?  And where is the fine line between reaching someone through familiar means and pandering to people?

At it’s worst, the logic reminds me a little of Odysseus and the Cyclops.  You remember that story from grade school! When Odysseus and his crew were imprisoned in a cave by a Cyclops that planned on eating them, how did they escape?  By blinding the Cyclops in the night, then tying themselves under his sheep.  When the Cyclops let out his sheep to graze, he felt each sheep to make sure that no men were sneaking out.  Sly ol’ Odysseus and his men escaped because they was hiding under the fuzz of the sheep!  Are we Christians doing the same thing? Hiding Jesus under the comfortable wool of pop-culture, hoping that the general public is blind enough that they’ll let him sneak into the gates of their hearts?

When did Jesus ever try to be cool?  I suppose this is where there’s some room for interpretation.  You could argue that Jesus wasn’t trying to be “cool,” but he was never restricted to the traditional worship settings of his day.  He reached out to people in new ways.  For every Bible story set in a temple, there’s several set out in the world with random people. This approach is what the pub churches, hiking churches, and other innovators are trying to emulate.  They want to reach out in new ways, just like Jesus did.  I think they’ve got a point.  If Jesus was following the strict religious orthodoxy of his day and emphasizing it above all else, one might expect more stories set in formal settings and more detail about official religious practice in the gospels.

Even so, I find that the Scriptures have a shocking amount laid out for what worship ought to look like, and that’s not even touching on the massive amount of stuff passed down through Church history.  If we pay it any heed, it really hinders our attempts to make church cooler.  For example, I’m not really one for singing.  I don’t enjoy it all that much, I’m not very good at it, and a lot of times I think that the words are pretty lame.  There was a period in my life where my ideal church didn’t have any singing at all because the REAL point of worship (in my mind) was being taught about the faith and responding with holy lives.  Singing was just a goofy removable element. 

And I was wrong.  2 Chronicles 29 shows a temple service in which song is a distinct, ordered part of worship.  The psalms are a whole collection of worship songs, many of which repeatedly urge people to make music because God likes it.  Colossians and Ephesians both urge people in churches to sing spiritual songs and psalms.  You get the picture.  Each of these instances are not only represented in Scripture; they were taken on by the people after them

Not to suggest that Finney hadn’t read all the same stuff.  Heck, he probably knew it better than I do.  And I’m well aware that every piece of tradition starts somewhere, and not all of it sticks around forever. Thank goodness, right? We’ve all suffered through some clumsy attempt of a pastor to make a new, awesome thing that just didn’t work, and we all rejoiced quietly when it died. Not everything is timeless tradition, that’s for sure. I guess it comes down to that question I’ve been mulling over, “what is Church?”  If church is primarily about passing on and popularizing certain ideas or spiritual beliefs, there can be little doubt that Finney had it right.  Cut out the older parts that don’t work anymore and add some new pieces that produce the desired results.  I think I’m too much of a traditionalist for all that.  Church isn’t just about making a decision for Christ; it’s transforming the self in light of a tradition that stretches back thousands of years.  We are the end-result of God working through centuries of people.  Worship forms us as much as we form it. How could we just ditch certain elements and feel like we’ve not lost something?

That being said, I’m well aware that Finney has a point.  Sometimes we’re so addicted to the form of a thing, that we don’t honor the spirit of it.  He’s not wrong about novelty either!  When you mix things up, people pay attention!  In a religious landscape with Christianity distinctly on the wane, something that gets new eyes sounds great! But how do we mix things up, rather than water them down?  How do we innovate traditionally? How to we reform with the spirit of Christians in every era, rather than pander to our personal preferences?

If you want to give Finney a read, head on over to his lectures on the revival of religion on ccel.org (Christian Classic Ethereal Library) where they have all kinds of good stuff. 

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