By Nan Corbitt Allen
Remember this protest song recorded by the trio Peter, Paul and Mary in the 1960s? Its lyrics describe a sort of cycle of life … of flowers … picked by young girls … who take husbands … who become soldiers … whose bodies go to graveyards … that are eventually covered in flowers.
Occasionally I’m asked similar questions about the church. “What’s happened to the church? Where has it gone? Will the church as we once knew it ever return?”
These questions are usually referring to music and worship styles and are often asked by those who prefer the more traditional ways — of which they are more familiar. My answer is usually some mumbo-jumbo about trends, and relevance, and post-modernism and such. But in reality I have no idea what’s happening in the worldwide church.
Through my six decades on the planet as a “church girl,” I’ve seen the Body struggle with itself (or against itself), in an attempt to make it more relevant. I am just now starting to see a pattern and trying to make sense of it all.
My friend and former pastor, Gene Mims, in his book Kingdom Principles for Church Growth, breaks down the church’s role in the world into five functions: discipleship, ministry, evangelism, fellowship and worship.
It seems as though the church hasn’t always seen these functions as equal to each other. We’ve had a tendency to focus on one individually instead of all of them as a group — even though they all share equal importance in our living out the Great Commission.
When I was growing up discipleship happened to be the big thing. Because of this push to teach and equip the saints, I was in Bible drills, Vacation Bible School and other programs that emphasized Scripture memory, helping me to “hide God’s Word in my heart.” I’m grateful for that experience.
In my college days (early 1970s) there was a call for a little less talk and a lot more action. We needed to be the hands and feet of Christ. Feed the hungry. Clothe the poor. Lift up the fallen. We needed to take off the Sunday School shoes and put on the work boots of ministry. Some great social ministries came from that movement.
Then came the 1980s and we discovered that just handing out food and clothing to the less fortunate wasn’t enough.
We needed to also share the gospel. Schools of evangelism sprang up to teach us soul-winning techniques. I was a trainer in one of these schools.
Then we discovered that we needed to walk along beside those we were trying to reach. Fellowship — support groups, softball teams, community events, the list goes on. We — and they — needed fellowship.
But there was still something missing.
There had to be a reason why we hadn’t made a greater impact on the world. Why, at least in America, have our numbers dwindled? Oh yes. Worship. Let’s fix that!
And that’s where we are now — still trying to make a difference and still trying to figure out how to be salt and light. But like we did in decades past, we think if we teach the church how to do one thing better it will make all things right; thus, schools of worship and master’s degrees in worship.
So if this doesn’t work, what then? What will we do to make ourselves relevant? Will we go back around like the circle of life in the flowers in the folksong? All I can say is: If or when the church trend brings us back through the five functions one at a time, we can’t ignore any of them. They are all important — essential. And if the focus of an age is not one of our favorites, let’s remember that the church isn’t ours anyway! B&R — Allen is a freelance writer and is a member of Judson Baptist Church, Nashville.