Laymen are saying some disconcerting things about their churches

Our times emphasize the ministry of the laity, and laymen have more and more to say these days. But there is some doubt whether any great numbers of professional churchmen have tuned in to what laymen are saying.

A wealth of Christian leadership and influence resides in the pews, and in this issue CHRISTIANITY TODAY focuses upon some representative comments by lay leaders of mature intellectual and spiritual attainment. These comments are not to be confused with Sunday-dinner carping, with its monotonous diet of “roast preacher.” They are made by responsible men who are distinguished in their churches and successful in the business world, and they ought to be taken seriously.

For one thing, clergymen and laymen do not generally agree on what the great issues of our day are. This lack of consensus is due in part to the absence of responsible interchange between pulpit and pew in recent years. Neither ministers nor laymen as groups have shown any great desire to hear out each other.

Most laymen are increasingly critical of the institutional church. They want it to speak with an authentic and authoritative voice in spiritual matters. They feel that Scripture’s “Thus saith the Lord” should not be muffled. If we can’t get together on the Bible, they ask, what can we get together on? If we can’t agree on what the Scriptures say, how can we reach any consensus on the big problems of our day?

Most analysts of the current ecclesiastical scene think that the question, What is secular and what is sacred?, is a key one. But here clergy and laity do not always think alike.

Church organization is another bone of contention. In his address to the World Congress on Evangelism, W. Maxey Jarman noted that business organization stresses flexibility and military organization demands conformity. But where does the Church fit in? Do we want authority lodged in a person or persons? Or in a creed that interprets Scripture? Or do we want to swing to the other extreme and let everyone decide for himself?

Laymen are also prodding the churches to decide whether they ought to recover the biblical exhortation to discipline members who fall away.

It is time for church leaders to consider what laymen are saying. If communication is a two-way process, then clergymen ought to give heed to the feedback.

On the following pages we present comments on the institutional church by more than a dozen laymen. Some like what they see; others are uneasy and anxious. Still others are convinced that something is wrong, and they want changes—changes that, if put into practice, would cut deeply into entrenched programs and alter the lives of many denominations and church officials.

Article continues below

One layman sees Methodism facing a possibility of spiritual resurgence. He cites the fact that more than 5,000 groups are meeting weekly for Bible study, prayer, and witnessing—a phenomenon that is both in the church and out of it.

“Let’s get away from regimentation,” says one. We are “too dominated by clergy and professional staff,” says another. “Calvary’s Cross is God’s holy laughter over intellectualism, from Aristotle to the ‘God-is-dead’ theologians,” says still another. And another charges that the Church is “committed to perfecting plans and programs for dealing with man’s temporal rather than spiritual needs.” “Improvements in the environment should take a secondary position, because without regeneration all is ultimately lost.”

This is listening time for clergy and denominational officials. The man in the pew is speaking out, and he may have something of striking importance to say:

The Protestant pulpit is not preaching the overtowering significance of the person of the Lord Jesus Christ with the emphasis of the New Testament. The Apostle says, “In him the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily,” and warns us against “intellectualism and high-sounding nonsense,” which “is at best founded on man’s ideas of the nature of the world, and disregards Christ.”

Many within the Church are actually strangling it, preventing the lifeblood of the Head from flowing into the Body, so that the Head no longer rules the Body.… Calvary’s cross is God’s holy laughter over intellectualism, from Aristotle to the “God-is-dead” theologians.

The Church needs saints saturated with the knowledge of Scripture and filled with the glory of the coming Lord.—JOHN BOLTEN, SR., chairman of the board, Standard International Corporation; member of Park Street Congregational Church, Boston, Massachusetts.

The Church’s primary responsibility is to bear witness to God and to tell men that salvation is available by grace through the redemptive act of Jesus Christ.

The Church, as an institution, consists of a body of believers whose lives and actions should be responsive to the will of God. The normative standard is that of Jesus Christ as recorded in Scripture.

Whenever the Church departs from this and takes on activities where Christ and the Gospel are not paramount, then it is not true to its primary purpose and responsibility.

Article continues below

Christ’s charge to the Church was not that it should set out to remake men, but rather that men should be brought to him so that by their spiritual rebirth he might remake them.—ELMER W. ENGSTROM, chairman of the Executive Committee, RCA; member of Westerly Road Church, Princeton, New Jersey.

During my sixty-two years of professional service, our Heavenly Father has been my constant Guide and faithful Friend.

To me the Church stands for Christ and him crucified and the divine inspiration of God’s Word. It gives me great concern to observe present-day Christianity. It appears that thousands of so-called Christians have left their first love, are denying the virgin birth of our Lord, his resurrection, and the inspiration of his Word.

I second Dr. Torrey’s advice: “Let Christians get thoroughly right with God themselves. Let them bind themselves together in prayer groups to pray for a revival, then put themselves at the disposal of God for him to use as he sees fit in winning others to Christ.”—M. H. GARVIN, retired dentist, past president of Canadian Dental Association; member of Bethesda Church (interdenominational), Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

The institutional church of today appears to be committed more to perfecting plans and programs for dealing with man’s temporal needs—social, economic, physical, and political—than to dealing with his spiritual needs, individual regeneration and commitment to a life of dedication and consecration to the true mission of Christ’s Church.

There would be much reason for pessimism but for Christ’s promise that the true Church should be victorious. The increasing departure from the truth, the ever-growing boldness in denying the historic faith of the Church, and the readiness to compromise with the prevailing trends in philosophy and theology—these call for a bold and uncompromising stand on the part of all true believers and a renewed emphasis upon the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, who in himself is sufficient to attract all needy hearts and give them the true satisfaction they crave.—HORACE H. HULL, the late co-founder of Hull-Dobbs Company, one of the world’s largest Ford dealers; elder of Second Presbyterian Church (U.S.), Memphis, Tennessee.

Laymen see the Church moving away from its basic mission—preaching the Gospel to all men—to a preoccupation with civil affairs. While laymen strongly affirm the Church’s obligation to speak out on clear-cut moral issues, they view as erroneous the efforts to have the Church take sides, as a corporate body, on matters of a purely secular nature. Such activity drags the Church into the political and secular arena to the detriment of its spiritual power. Laymen are saying: Let the Church concentrate on its fundamental mission—conversion of men to personal faith in Jesus Christ as redeemer and nurturing them in that faith. These converted men and women will deal with the political, social, and economic problems much more effectively than any church lobby or any church pronouncements.—ROGER HULL, president of Mutual of New York; member of Noroton Presbyterian Church, Noroton, Connecticut.

Article continues below

Too many people believe that the object of the Church is to achieve influence, either in the community or in the nation or world as a whole, so as to use that influence to bring about a changed condition. I do not believe that the Church should endeavor to reform the world, any more than Jesus Christ did when he was on earth, or than the local churches established by his disciples after his resurrection did. The Church should be the instrument of God to seek out that minority group of “called out” persons who will become the “bride” of Christ.

In general, churches have tended to become too large as individual units. They are too dominated by the clergy and professional staff, and too involved in social, recreational, and extraneous activities. They are not staying close enough to the Bible, the Word of God, in their message and worship.—W. MAXEY JARMAN, chairman of GENESCO; member of First Baptist Church, Nashville, Tennessee.

I recognize the importance of a vital local church. My daily responsibilities as a businessman force me to live within a framework of modern-day organization and computerized thinking. Life is subjected to organization and regimentation, whether it be through a social security or credit card number. But it does not follow that one wants the same emphasis placed on organization or regimentation in a fellowship with other Christians.

Mergers and consolidations in business are watched closely by agencies of the government in order that the public may have a broader choice in meeting their needs.… The organized church must also be careful that the freedom of choice is not destroyed in the spiritual realm where the individual loses his opportunity to worship in an atmosphere which he feels best supports his need and desire to serve the Lord.—EDWARD L. JOHNSON, president of Financial Federation, Inc.; member of Lake Avenue Congregational Church, Pasadena, California.

Article continues below

I see the institutional church as much like the man who asked Jesus: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” When Jesus gave his answer—“Sell … give to the poor … and come, follow me”—that man went away “sorrowful,” for he had great possessions.

God’s Church seems quite satisfied to wait for a more adequate response from a “sorrowful” institutional church. It knows the price it must pay. Still, some denominational leaders seem to be hoping to find an acceptable alternative.

Some think that for the institutional church to divest itself of its “wealth” of property, power, and prosperity seems foolhardy; but is it any more foolhardy for the church than for an individual? Until the institutional church is willing to take the same risks prescribed for individual Christians, from a local congregation to its highest body, it will not fulfill its sacred and holy mission; nor its function as God’s Church, and not ours.—WILLIAM H. MANESS, attorney at law, former circuit court judge and legislator; member of Ortega Methodist Church, Jacksonville, Florida.

First, the Church as a spiritual and ecclesiastical institution must adhere strictly to the infallibility of the Scriptures. Samuel Bolton said: “The Word of God, and God in his Word; the Scripture, and God in Scripture, is the only infallible, supreme, authoritative rule and judge of matters of doctrine and worship, of things to be believed, and things to be done.”

Second, Christ, the apostles, and the early Church, the Reformers, the Westminster Divines, and our own Church Fathers—all believed that the Church as a corporate entity must not become involved in secular, controversial issues, because those who oppose the position taken by the Church will then doubt the competency of the Church to speak authoritatively on ecclesiastical subjects.—J. HOWARD PEW, chairman of the board, Sun Oil Company; elder of Ardmore Presbyterian Church, Ardmore, Pennsylvania.

The institutional church problem continues because the direction the Church takes depends upon man, who is attracted more rapidly to the natural rather than to the spiritual, or to philosophy as a substitute for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, the more sophisticated man’s society becomes, the more this trend is emphasized. In this atmosphere, man is continually pondering over the authenticity of the Scriptures. Consequently, the Church falters in its purpose. If man would only realize this his own philosophy will ultimately lead him to destruction, and turn to the inerrant word of God for all his needs, then the sacred purpose and holy mission of the Church would be fulfilled in our generation.—CHARLES A. PITTS, international businessman and Presbyterian elder.

Article continues below

What is the Church? A political influence; an economic force; a promoter of civic causes; a moral conscience; a symbol of achievement; a comfortable club; an entertainment center?

The early Church was purely an instrument for the spiritual upbuilding of the followers of Christ and a means for the effective spread of the great good news that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” … That is still the Church’s single excuse for being.

The Church today stands in serious danger of sacrificing that centrality of Christ to the periphery of social reform. Adopting the world’s methods for righting the world’s wrongs can never bring success.… The world has already demonstrated this! As Christians, we know that the truly great society is possible only through reconciliation of the individual to right relationship with Christ.—GEORGE M. RIDEOUT, president of Babson’s Reports Incorporated; member of Park Street Congregational Church, Boston, Massachusetts.

The individual, created in the image of God, requires a place of retreat, of solitude, of stability, in a society which is and always has been marked by instability and change.

The Church in this unstable environment should provide a better understanding of Jesus Christ to the professing Christian in order to fulfill for him the promise, “Come unto me … I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28) and present Jesus Christ to the non-professing person in such a manner that he, too, will desire the peace and stability only Christ can give.

The Church’s primary objective should be the regeneration of the individual. Improvements in the environment should take a secondary position, because without regeneration all is ultimately lost.—ROBERT L. SLATER, president of John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company; moderator of Park Street Congregational Church, Boston, Massachusetts.

Today the great weaknesses in the institutional church are (1) the spiritual anemia of a large majority of church members; (2) the failure of too many pastors to preach the fundamentals of the faith from the Word of God under the power of the Holy Spirit.

We should, however, be thankful for some evidences of spiritual awakening. The Methodist Church shows evidences of a spirit of revival of sound evangelical faith and witness. More than 5,000 Bible study, prayer, and witnessing groups meet each week. A new, more evangelical series of Sunday school lessons has been published. A new hymnal containing many more gospel hymns is off the press with more than two million copies ordered. Scores of evangelistic services are being conducted in Methodist churches, and the demand is greater than the supply of evangelists.

Article continues below

Thank God that the fires of evangelism are again starting to sweep through this great church.—HERBERT J. TAYLOR, chairman of the board, Club Aluminum Products Company; member of First Methodist Church, Park Ridge, Illinois.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.