Magazine article Insight on the News

Resuscitating Passion

Magazine article Insight on the News

Resuscitating Passion

Article excerpt

A new breed of pastors relies less on formal training and more on Jesus. The American religious scene increasingly is filled with independent churches and entrepreneurial clergy.

It is Sunday morning on a cool March day in downtown Kansas City, Mo., and Bartle Hall is rocking. "I have an unashamed desire to be great in the eyes of God!" declares the Rev. Mike Bickle, a casually dressed baby-boomer preacher, to 3,000 boisterous evangelical Christians inside the convention center. Speaker after speaker during the weekend conference has urged the faithful to strive for a radical, "prophetic" Christianity. "Even the dedicated are half-compromising," Bickle tells the throng. "If you have the pain of an unsatisfied heart, this propels you into the heart of God. Don't let anyone get rid of that pain for you."

Since the birth of itinerant evangelism in colonial America, self-taught and freewheeling preachers have come and gone. "The new breed is really the old breed," says the Rev. Louis Weeks, president of Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va., noting that many revivalist ministers prefer on-the-job training to the seminary. Whatever their background, however, ministers face a the same challenge: retaining the interest of baby boomers and younger Americans who embrace personal experience, egalitarianism and dress-down informality.

One such congregation, Southwest Community Church of Palm Desert, Calif., grew from 300 members to about 7,000 within a few years of hiring a 33year-old pastor. The Rev. David Moore wore sport shirts in the pulpit and preached how-to sermons on improving relations with children, spouses and friends rather than verse-by-verse expositions of Scripture.

Such new methods are good, but they may not be enough to stir a "spiritually stagnant" America where churchgoers "have traded in spiritual passion for empty rituals," says George Barna, an evangelical Christian pollster. Although the number of committed Christians -- those holding to orthodox beliefs -- grew from 35 percent of the faithful in 1995 to 41 percent this year, the pollster says, weekly church attendance dropped the same amount: from 49 percent to 42 percent.

The 41 percent of the population who call themselves born-again Christians amount to roughly 114 million. But the numbers enrolling in Bible study and adult Sunday school or volunteering for religious activities have shrunk. "The challenge to today's church is not methodological," Barna says. "It is a challenge to resuscitate the spiritual passion and fervor of the nation's Christians."

Leadership Network, a nonprofit Christian group formed in Dallas in 1984, has embraced the challenge. Styling itself a "network of innovative church leaders," it offers publications and advice from outside-the-box clerics such as the Rev. Kirbyjon Caidwell, who delivered the closing prayer during President George W. Bush's inauguration.

Good ideas are catching, according to the Leadership Network, which scans the country for spiritual leaders who recognize the changing social landscape. Some exist within denominations; others have started their own. Aided by a $3 million annual grant from the Buford Foundation and endowed by Dallas cable TV executive Bob Buford, the Leadership Network sponsors one-day conferences around the country. The organization also sends out an in-depth teaching, "Explorer" to 1,800 subscribers over the Internet, plus an additional 7,000 Reader's Digest versions.

The Leadership Network readily acknowledges that megachurches -- full-service "worship centers" complete with gyms and restaurants -- resemble multilevel corporations more than village parishes. In the process, some have lost that personal touch. "It used to be that churches employed a senior pastor, a youth pastor and a children's worker," says the Rev. Bruce Miller, 39, pastor of the 1,300-member McKinney Fellowship Bible Church in McKinney, Texas. …

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