In 1995 Bill Bright published a volume on “the coming revival.” It summarized what he had been saying for years. If we would only fast and pray and follow the right methods, a revival would come. In other instances, however, he periodically announced a great revival. Depending upon what year or what instance a revival was either said to be coming or present. According to a recent news report, the current president of Campus Crusade has predicted that the Great Commission will be fulfilled “in our lifetimes and I personally think in the next decade.”
Really? How would anyone know? What constitutes “fulfilling” the Great Commission? Jesus said,
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age (ESV).
The recent claim that the Great Commission will be fulfilled in our lifetimes or sooner is the result partly of evangelistic enthusiasm, partly of organizational imperative, partly of a tradition of claiming to know what the Spirit is doing and when he is doing it, and partly from a reductionist view of what the Great Commission is and entails.
There can be no question that Crusade, like its sister evangelistic organizations, has a great enthusiasm for “evangelism” and witness. Who of us hasn’t seen a “Four Spiritual Laws” pamphlet or even made such a gospel presentation ourselves? I’ve known a lot of warm, godly folk in Crusade and there is a quieter side to Crusade that seeks to foster genuine intellectual and cultural engagement with contemporary thought. Nevertheless, there are fundamental problems with each of these aspects of the Crusade approach to mission.
First, enthusiasm isn’t enough. Strictly speaking, used in its old-fashioned sense, “enthusiasm” used to be regarded as a bad thing, as a sort of insanity or senselessness. Even used in its popular sense today it’s problematic. Yes, Christians, especially those who would be “evangelical” should have a strong desire to see the lost reached and the Savior glorified but by whom and how? Enthusiasm does not answer those questions.
The nature of modern American “evangelical” para-church organizations seems to make such claims virtually part of the cost of doing business. The first defense every such para-church organization offers for its existence is this: If the visible church was doing its job, we wouldn’t exist. Good old American pragmatism and efficiency. The visible church is failing thus let us build a better, more efficient organization to accomplish the same task. Having done that, if the organization cannot show measurable results, then what justification is there for the organization. In other words, whatever the actual state of affairs on the ground, the organization must succeed or close. Virtually no organization, once it is organized and once it develops a culture and a constituency is content to simply vanish. Hence the institutional imperative.
Crusade was born about the same time that Billy Graham’s revivals began to catch on as American anti-communism heated up and “secularism” was perceived to be a growing problem. It was part of the neo-evangelical movement that began in the 1940s. It would have been better, however, to describe the Crusade and Graham aspects of the movement as neo-revivalist because it has always been the tradition of American revivalism, going back to the so-called First Great Awakening (the one of which good Calvinists are supposed to approve), to claim to know what the Spirit is doing, where, and when. The proponents and defenders of the 1GA were so sure that whatever was happening was a work of the Spirit that anyone, whether rationalist or Reformed confessionalist, who dared question its legitimacy was branded unregenerate. That argument continues today. Never mind Jesus’ warning in John 3 that none of us knows what the Spirit is doing, where, or when he’s doing it. Our business is not the outcomes, it is the means but American revivalism is premised on “outcome based” evangelism. In contrast, Reformed theology, piety, and practice is premised on “means based” evangelism. Our business is to attend to the means of grace (the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments) and leave the outcome to the Holy Spirit.
Finally, especially since the so-called Second Great Awakening in the 19th century, the revivalists have typically “dumbed down” what counts as revivalism, what counts for “discipleship,” (hence the “Lordship Controversy among evangelicals in the 80s), and often simply omit the sacraments altogether as irrelevant. American revivalism has always had a core commitment to creating and perpetuating a certain sort of high-pitched religious excitement. That excitement is the true sacrament of revivalism.
Certainly when I was around the outer circles of Crusade, in the 70s and 80s, the implicit message was that Crusade was for the “spiritually mature” and church was a sort of rote necessity for weak and for maintaining appearances and for raising support. Having been influenced by both Crusade and Navigators I couldn’t decide whether the pinnacle of spiritual achievement was to go to Glen Eyrie (Colorado Springs) or to join Crusade as a staff member.
As the early church understood the commission however, it entailed 1) preaching the law of God to sinners, by which the Spirit worked the knowledge of sin and conviction, 2) the preaching of the gospel, through which the Spirit works faith in his elect, and the administration of the sign/seal of the covenant of grace to those not already baptized which was the beginning of a “baptized life.” These were no mere formalities or milk for beginners. These things constitute the sum and substance of the faith and the Christian life. Every day we repent. Every day we believe. Every day we reckon with ourselves as baptized persons upon whom the name of Christ has been placed. For historic, confessional Reformed Christians, the real Christian life is not lived in para-church organizations, however admirable some of their goals may be and however fallible the visible church may be, but in Christ’s churchly community. Evangelism is what takes place across what the Puritans called “the sacred desk.” When the minister announces the gospel in Word and in sacrament. I realize that it seems foolish and inefficient to go-go American evangelicals and it is all that—but it’s Christ’s church, his gospel, his commission, and his foolishness. There are no Four Spiritual Laws. There is only the law and the gospel. There is no truncated version of the Christian life. There is only a daily dying to self and living to Christ. There is no glorious triumph in this life, only a muddling through trusting in Christ’s promises and waiting for him to fulfill his Word. The promises of a current or coming revival or fulfillment of this or that prophecy are nothing more or less than a theology of glory but Jesus has called his people to a theology of the cross.