Surprise, Surprise

Michael Metzger

Life’s full of surprises. For example, some folks will be surprised to learn which churches are the best candidate for renewal.

Last week I described churches with good bones. Like homes with good bones, the churches with good bones are probably best suited for renovation. That’ll surprise some of my friends, for most of these churches look to them to be dead as a doornail.

I know—I grew up in the Episcopal Church. It’s been in decline for a long time. Its demise could happen within the next generation. I didn’t say that. The Rev. Dwight Zscheile did. At its current rate of decline, he feels the entire denomination will be gone “by around 2050.”

Seems pretty hopeless—how the prophet Ezekiel felt about the nation of Judah. She had been in decline for a long time. On top of that, God had sent Judah into exile in Babylon. She appeared to be “dead” as a nation, deprived of her land, her king, and her temple.

But surprise, surprise. Judah wasn’t dead. She had good bones. God was going to restore them (Ez.36). He took Ezekiel to a valley of dry bones. He told the prophet to speak to the bones, to tell them God would make breath enter the bones and they would come to life.

No doubt this took Ezekiel by surprise, but he obeyed God and spoke to the bones. The bones came together, flesh developed, skin covered the flesh, breath entered the bodies, and the nation stood up in a vast army. It happened then; it can happen now.

It can happen in traditions with good bones, pre-Enlightenment traditions. There are many. Celtic, Asian, African, Indian, Orthodox, Coptic, Roman, Anglican, and even some Reformed churches to name a few. Yes, many appear to be dead. But maybe their bones are just dry.

And it might surprise you to learn renewal can also happen in churches that don’t have good bones—the +30,000 Enlightenment-shaped Christian traditions founded over the last 500 years. This includes evangelical traditions of the last two centuries, even though their use of the word evangelical is markedly different than its original meaning.

And what did evangelical originally mean? Tertullian (c.155–222) first used it, referring to the “evangelical and apostolic writings” as authoritative in combatting the heresies of Marcion. Evangelical denotes foundational truths, good bones. It’s a good word but we don’t see it again until 13 centuries later, when it refers to the reforming parties in Europe.

These evangelicals sought to restore the Roman church to foundational truths. They hoped to put flesh on good bones that were in many cases horribly decayed. It worked—somewhat. Within 30 years, Rome adopted 70 of Luther’s 95 theses (i.e. objections). She reformed; just not as far as some Reformers hoped. These Reformers became Protestants.

Three centuries later, evangelical reappears in a series of Protestant revivals, the Second Great Awakening. But the word differs from how Tertullian and the Reformers used it. It refers to revivalists who call themselves evangelical but have in fact broken dramatically from their spiritual forebears, rejecting traditions and institutional church authority.

Alexander Campbell is one example. As founder of the Disciples of Christ, the fastest-growing denomination of the early 19th century, he advocated a version of Christianity free of historical influence and tradition. Suspicious of authority, Campbell wrote, “If I know my own mind, there is not a man upon the earth whose authority can influence me.”[1]

This is expressive individualism, a hallmark of today’s evangelical churches. It doesn’t have good bones, which is why scholars describe most evangelical churches as “not necessarily the norm within the Christian tradition, still less the authentic core; nor, perhaps, have they ever been.”[2] If we ponder that assessment, we might feel evangelical churches have no hope.

But surprise, surprise—they do. Life’s full of surprises, like dry mainline churches being good candidates for renewal. Many have good bones. But evangelical churches are also good candidates, even though many do not have good bones. Both are candidates for renewal if they return to the ancient paths that Judah returned to in the Babylonian exile.

Tell you about these paths next week.


[1] Roger Lundin, From Nature to Experience: The American Search for Cultural Authority (Bowman & Littlefield, 2005), 26-27.

[2] Philip Jenkins, “Companions of Life: What Must We learn, and Unlearn?” Books and Culture, March/April 2007, Volume 13, No. 2, 18-20.


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  1. I will be interested in hearing about the paths you describe. As to mainline church revival. Some Episcopal churches are indeed preaching the gospel and keeping the traditional service, but they are few and far between in the USA. The key is the seminaries. If the seminaries reject the Bible as the only source of truth, then the graduates will not be able to stand up to the persecution that is coming and they will fall. Unless people come to church to be revived spiritually by the pastor, and encouraged by the congregation, a church will seem more like a country club and it will fall because people will have better things to do.

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