The Church: An Organic Picture of Its Life

by Robert Brow

Brow Publications, 1996

Chapter 4

Groups and Tribes

Bishops and popes, hierarchies and conferences, denominational structures, mergers, and splits - these are what men see of the church; these are what is reported in Time and The Times. From God's point of view they are uninteresting. There is joy in heaven only when the prodigal comes home, the sinner becomes a saint, superstitious terror turns to joy unspeakable. This is church growth. It influences nations and creates civilization on a vast scale, but at its growing edges it has no news value. And yet no man can say anything relevant about the church unless he has seen as God sees. Faith is intensely personal. Its origin is as invisible as the failing of a speck of dandelion seed. In time the leaves will appear and yellow flowers will cover the lawn, but the actual moment of conception is unpredictable. Church growth can only be observed well after God's work has been done.

It is a commonplace that the foundations of western European civilization are Christian. They go back to the conversion of savage tribes that had pillaged across the forests of Europe and Britain. These numbered a few hundred thousand; we now count millions of equally savage tribesmen who have become Christians in the past hundred years. In South America, across Central Africa, in the hills of India, Burma, and China, in the islands of Southeast Asia there has been astonishing church growth. Whereas the Moslems and Hindus and the educated Confucianists and Buddhists have been virtually untouched, primitive animistic tribes have responded in vast numbers. We must beware of despising what God has not despised, and, after all, such were the roots from which we have come. Political signs of new life have appeared in the independence movements that have added dozens of countries to the United Nations. All these are only the beginning of long-term developments that will be no less significant than the conversion of the pagan tribes of Europe.

As soon as politics and the conversion of tribes and large numbers added to the churches are mentioned, we need to face some important objections. Is not faith an individual matter? Are not many of these baptisms for economic advantages or other wrong motives? How many of these so-called Christians are true believers? What evidences of Christian character indicate that this is really a work of God? What about all the tares among the wheat? Less worthy of consideration is the stupidity that asks: "But have these people read our books, understood our philosophy, and thought out their problems as we have?"

At this point we need to make a clear distinction between two things that are inseparable. On the one hand there is a visible community, the people of God, and on the other there is an inner core, known only to God, of those who are truly his. The Old Testament prophets knew that there were the ungodly, the sons of Belial, the wicked, the uncircumcised in heart among God's people. Paul explains that "he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is the true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal" (Rom. 2:28f.). Jesus indicated that many would be deceived about their own state before God: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. In that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.'"

As we shall see in the next chapter, denominations vary as to the conditions they impose for baptism and membership. Some missionaries make stringent rules, extending the time of preparation and observation for years, to try to prevent any unconverted from entering the church. Others are happy to sprinkle water on untaught multitudes to take in as many as possible. With the best efforts the most carefully schooled convert can turn out to be a Judas, and on the other hand true faith may suddenly blossom among those who came in untaught and with the worst of motives.

Let us imagine a typical tribal situation and see how the decisions are made that result in church growth. The tribe is a social unit with its own unwritten dialect. They have some contact with the neighboring civilization in the market town, and some of the men know the trade language. The only schooling is the tribal lore, and the tribal elders are men of deep wisdom. Their decisions become law, and offenders are severely punished.

Now a missionary arrives, learns the language, and gains the confidence of the people. The first converts who burn their fetishes and reject the spiritual control of the witch doctor face bitter persecution. Gradually the elders find themselves discussing the questions. Shall we or shall we not become Christians? What will be the effect on our crops and our hunting? If evil spirits cause sickness, how shall we manage without the witch doctor? If we become Christians, education will come to our tribe, but what about our tribal wars, and our drinking feasts?

One day, unknown to the missionary, the ciders decide to become Christians, that it will be good for their tribe to change. Now growing numbers start asking to be prepared for baptism. Whatever conditions are required the candidates will sincerely try to meet them. The older men may decide to delay because they cannot quit drinking or abandon their several wives, but they will encourage the younger men to take the step.

At this point much depends on the work of the missionaries and the church workers whom they have trained. If they are wise they will first teach the elders to read and write and to maintain their tribal authority, even though this may take longer than turning the young men into upstart know-it-alls. If they have learned from Roland Allen, they will appoint local leaders immediately so that the churches can be self-governing from the beginning.[12] If they have learned from Donald McGavran, they will encourage the movement to go on, without requiring long periods of preparation for baptism - the baptisms in the New Testament were all immediate, without any time to test the quality of the lives of the converts.[13] If the missionaries believe in the Bible as God's appointed Word for the church, they will press on with Bible translation, doing all they can to teach every Christian family at home and in short-term Bible schools. If there is an emphasis on prayer and spiritual life and true heart experience, then many of the converts will become men of God and the fruits in changed lives will be beautifully impressive.

If, however, the tribal structure is carelessly torn down and missionaries become colonial paternalists, if the Bible is not taught and spiritual life is negligible, then the tribe would have been better off without these misguided do-gooders. If the missionary insists on such high standards for baptism that only a very few are taken in and the remainder of the tribe is left untouched, perhaps less harm is done, but church growth remains negligible.

So far we have concentrated on church growth from tribal societies. This was the type of movement that produced European Christendom, and it is the most significant development in many parts of the world in the past century. A similar type of group decision occurred in India in the so-called mass movements. These might better be called group movements, since they are confined to particular caste groups, rather than to the masses as usually understood. Instead of being located in a compact territory like a tribe, caste groups are scattered in a large number of villages. Members of the shoemakers' caste, for example, might number from two to a dozen families per village, but they have a strong social unity. Marriages are confined to the caste, and caste elders exercise effective discipline. When the Christian gospel makes an impact on such groups, the process of decision and church membership is identical with what we have seen in a tribe. The difference is that the problems of organizing and shepherding churches are tremendous. With only a few families in each village, and these usually from a despised lower caste, effective self-governing churches have been rare.

In spite of the problems, some of these caste movements were impressive; and they produced probably 80 percent of the visible church in India. The economic changes that occurred and the rapid improvement in social status were first described by Bishop Pickett.[14] The long-term results still have to be seen. When we consider that the caste system had remained unchanged from father to son for twenty-five hundred years, the changes that have taken place in the hundred years since the group movements began are remarkable.

We must also consider the waves of growth and decline within a country or a group that has previously adopted the Christian faith as its predominant religion. The countries of southern Europe were Christianized in this sense about A.D. 500, Britain. by A.D. 700, Russia three hundred years later. South America was subjugated with misguided zeal by 1600. These dates roughly mark the first wave of church growth across a continent, though within each country there were movements in individual tribes before that time.[15]

After this first wave there were tidal movements set up by the forces of degeneration and decline, which were followed again and again by revival and spiritual growth. In Britain, for example, one could list the advances with Anselm in the eleventh century, the Franciscans in the thirteenth, Wycliffe and the Collards in the fourteenth, the reformers in the sixteenth, the Puritans in the seventeenth, Wesley in the eighteenth, and the evangelical and missionary movements in the nineteenth. It is unnecessary to chronicle the declines: that of our own day is still painfully with us. In the United States the ebb and flow of spiritual life is as well documented in the history of revivals and the figures of church membership as the stock exchange is mirrored by the Dow-Jones index. Obviously with each advance there is much that is spurious. Hypocrites find it convenient to profess what others are experiencing, the blessing of the parents may have been eroded by the second or third generation, and of course the church will be invaded by business interests to make a profit from the newest religious fashion. In the declines the church is just as quickly abandoned even by her friends. Hypocrites, questioning children, business interests, even the sincere find it embarrassing to be associated with what is dying. The point is that there is a movement of ebb and flow within every so-called Christian country, and this movement is quite different in character from the first wave, when there was the turning from idols to the living God.

This ebb and flow means that the missions of the church must not only be interested in the first wave on the frontiers of Christendom, but also with revival and true religion where love has grown cold. If they fail at this point, the situation may deteriorate-as it did in Ephesus and Asia Minor and North Africa-to the point where no visible church remains. God longs to see revival and reformation, but he apparently prefers to have no church than one that carries the name of his Son but misrepresents his way, his truth, and his life. Wherever local churches begin to deviate and to die, they need mission. One of the tragedies of Protestantism has been the failure to have a theology of mission that includes the churches at home. It is not just the heathen overseas who need to be won. Pagans in the church may be nearer, but they are no easier to disciple. The Roman Catholic orders like the Jesuits, Dominicans, and Franciscans have been more realistic at this point. We will consider this further in Chapters XIII and XIV when we look at the relationship of the church to its missions.

Chapter 5...