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Robert D. Decker is professor of New Testament and Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Drop-outs, Cults, and Fast Growing Churches:

Three different news reports in three different Church magazines at first glance appear to have little in common. Upon a bit of reflection, however, they do have something in common. That something is crucial to the life and well being of the church. The first concerns a ministers’ conference recently held in the Netherlands.

The church must neither shut itself off from the world nor accommodate herself and her message to the spirit and thinking of the modern world. This was said by Dr. C. Klapwijk of The Hague at the ministers’ conference sponsored by the Confessional Reformed Consultation (CGB). The first approach results in losing all contact with the youth; the consequence of the second tack is that the church forfeits her right to exist.

The theme of the conference was “Church Drop-Out Among Young People, Considered Against the Background of a Godless Culture.” Dr. Klapwijk, a retired pastor in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (GKN), spoke of an explosion of church-leaving. Two-thirds of the young people refuse to belong to any denomination. A major culprit in this development has been modern affluence and the popularization of modern theology. 

The best approach, according to Klapwijk, is “to faithfully keep going as church of the Lord. . . . Don’t be rowing in a pool beside the stream, don’t drift along the stream, but row against the stream.” (RES News Exchange, Oct. 1, 1986)

The second news item appears in the October issue ofCovenanter Witness, a magazine published by the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America. The title of the article is, “Cult Groups Fed By Churches That Don’t Feed Intellect.”

Most members of religious cults are not “weirdos who don’t take baths and who have a penchant for air- ports and flowers,” a researcher on cults told participants of the International Conference for Itinerant Evangelists. 

Rather, cult members are usually above average in intelligence, between 18 and 25 years old, and are most likely to have a conservative religious background, said Jeff Amano, a research associate of Probe Ministries in suburban Dallas, Texas. 

Amano said many young people coming from conservative backgrounds become prime candidates for cult groups if the churches they attend do not teach effectively the hows and whys of their beliefs. Churches which don’t teach reasons for their beliefs skim only the surface and stress a “milky” rather than a “meaty” comprehension of the Scripture, he said. This causes people to search for further answers, said Amano. 

Amano told the evangelists there were more than 3,000 cults in the world. He noted that followers of these groups often do not remain followers for a lengthy time. One study showed that only one-half of one percent of Unification Church members (Moonies) remained Moonies after two years. 

Amano said cults usually had these elements: an authoritarian leader; legalistic, highly structured and disciplined guidelines; they deem themselves a sole possessors of truth; are concerned with the end of the world and believe they can use unethical practices to fulfill what they consider the calling or purpose of their movement.

The Church Herald (Reformed Church in America) reports on the fastest growing church in 1985 and the largest single United States:

The fastest growing church in North America is an Assemblies of God congregation in Arizona, and the largest is a Baptist congregation in Indiana, according to a survey published in the September/October issue of Ministries Today magazine. 

The survey was conducted by Elmer L. Towns, president of Church Leadership Institute in Lynchburg, Virginia. He has been compiling and publishing annual statistics on large and fast-growing churches for the past fifteen years. Towns is also dean of Liberty Baptist Seminary in Lynchburg, founded by Jerry Falwell.

The fastest-growing church in 1985, according to the survey, was First Assembly of God in Phoenix, Arizona, which gained 2,307 new worshippers for a total of 7,688. “No church in America has had this much growth in a single year since I have been conducting this survey,” Towns said. He reported that the Rev. Tommy Barnett attributes the growth to a new 7,000-seat sanctuary and “an aggressive ministry of inviting people to ride buses for Sunday school.” 

First Baptist Church in Hammond, Indiana, was the largest church in the country last year, with 19,320 worshippers, representing a gain of 620. About 8,000 people come to the church each week by bus. 

In a list citing the fastest-growing church in each of the fifty states, thirty-two of those mentioned were Assemblies of God congregations. “This is the first time they have outnumbered Baptist churches in growth,” Towns said. Pentecostal churches such as the Assemblies of God are growing, he said, “because they usually provide greater-involvement by worshippers in the service and they offer exciting services.” (Oct. 17, 1986)

Why do the cults and Pentecostals grow while Reformed churches such as the GKN lose their youth? Pulpit failure! The Bible teaches that the preaching of the Word is the chief means of grace, by which it pleases God through Jesus Christ to gather, defend and preserve His church. Where the Word is faithfully preached and taught (catechetical instruction in the history and doctrine of Holy Scripture) complemented by Christian Schools that are really Christian and covenant homes where fathers and mothers teach their children God’s fear by word and deed, the church grows. Let us be warned. Let us “hold fast the traditions we have been taught . . .” (II Thess. 2:15).

Lutherans Unite:

The American Lutheran Church (ALC) at its recent 13th General convention in Minneapolis entered into a “new relationship” with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Reformed Church in America (R.C.A.) The relationship includes “occasional joint services of the Lord’s Supper” and “the sharing of pastors between our traditions . . . The action means that the ALC formally recognizes the two church bodies from the Reformed tradition as churches in which the gospel is properly preached and which have authentic sacraments and ministries. It reciprocates identical actions by the 3.2 million-member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and by the 353,000 member Reformed Church in America at conventions in June.” (Calvinist Contact, Oct. 10, 1986)

The American Lutheran Church also decided by an overwhelming majority to merge with the Lutheran Church in America and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches. The latter two denominations also agreed to the merger by big majorities. The new church will be called the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The membership will total some 5.3 million making it the fourth largest Protestant Church in the United States. The merger will be finalized in 1988. Will the R.C.A. and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) eventually merge with this large Lutheran church? We think that is likely. Time will tell. Noteworthy is the fact that the more conservative Lutheran churches, the Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Synod, are not a part of this merger.

Women in Church Office:

This issue continues to plague Reformed Churches the world over. The RES News Exchange reports:

In 1982 the Church of Toraja Mamasa (GTM) in Central Sulawesi, Indonesia, decided to open all offices in the church to women. At its synod held this year in July in Ujung Pandang, the GTM admitted a number of women students to training for the ministry. This issue has caused tension with the Christian Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (CGKN) which, in 1924, sent its first missionary to Mamasa. The CGKN is solidly opposed to ordaining women to church office because it believes this is contrary to the teaching of Scripture. 

At the recent meeting of the synod of the CGKN the relation between the two churches was discussed and much time was given to women in office. In the presence of two delegates of the GTM a proposal was made to discuss the issue with the GTM, but after some persons declared that this might mean a break between the two churches, a decision on the proposal was postponed. (Oct. 1, 1986)

The Christian Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (CGKN) are the mother denomination of the Free Reformed Churches in North America. Some of the ministers of the Free Reformed were educated at our Protestant Reformed Seminary. We hope that the Dutch brothers do not follow the lead of the Indonesian churches. Our prayer is that they will continue to be “solidly opposed to ordaining women to church office.”