The “Spiritual” Mission of the Church
Southern Presbyterians’ consistent support for Billy Graham and their on-going longing for spiritual renewal pointed to a deeper issue, one to which conservative leaders returned again and again: namely, the spiritual mission of the church. At the heart of that mission was the a spiritual focus and an evangelistic imperative—telling men and women about their sin and the offer of salvation in Jesus. Wilbur Cousar asked rhetorically, “What is the centrality of the Church’s Mission? The Great Commission provides a concentrated, yet comprehensive, answer. It says that the church’s supreme mission is to evangelize.” Samuel McPheeters Glasgow agreed that “the primary mission of the church of Christ and its consuming passion must always be, bringing lost men and women and children to the only Savior.” Nelson Bell chimed in that “our Lord came into this world for the primary purpose of saving sinners, giving to those who believe in Him eternal life.”
PCUS conservatives contrasted their understanding of the church’s mission with progressive voices within and outside their church. For example, in reflecting on a 1948 ecumenical meeting in Amsterdam that served as a lead-up to the later World Council of Churches gathering, Nelson Bell observed that there was a deep cleavage in the PCUS understanding of the church’s mission. If the church has “a spiritual mission, then the primary and predominating work of the Church is to preach the unsearchable riches of Jesus Christ to men who are lost for all eternity and whose only hope lies in faith in that which he has done for them.” On the other hand, there were churches who taught that the human condition was “essentially good” and that human beings needed “primary the opportunity to make good.” These churches saw their mission to be “work[ing] for reforms which will make possible the achieving of happiness, peace, prosperity, and health.”
This fundamental divide in their understanding of the mission of the church—with conservatives placing confidence in evangelism and progressives in education and reform—was repeatedly set forward as a key difference. For example, Bell contrasted “a Spirit-sent and directed revival,” which would produce “a personal experience with living Christ,” with merely “educat[ing] young people into church membership” and “invit[ing] others to ‘join the Church.’” He noted that “education has its place but personal salvation is a personal experience and it comes through a work of the Holy Spirit in the individual heart and no other way.” At one point, Nelson Bell noted pithily, “Remember, men are born into the kingdom, not educated into it.” This was because “this doctrine of the new-birth is diametrically opposed to the natural teaching of our time, a teaching which stresses improvement in environment, social opportunities and privileges, education and other natural processes as the answer to man’s dilemma. Following closely in this naturalistic substitute for God’s supernatural work is the emphasis on education as a means within itself.”
For southern Presbyterian conservatives, this commitment to evangelism as the church’s spiritual mission was finally a commitment to the authority of God’s Word. This was modeled by Graham’s own method, as Tom Glasgow noted. “Without debate,” he wrote, “Billy Frank Graham is today the nation’s greatest and most widely sought after evangelist. And what is his message? ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ the exclusive story of Salvation by a Crucified Savior from the Old Book and supporting the Whole Book.
Henry Dendy, reflecting on Graham’s 1953 Asheville, North Carolina, campaign, observed that Graham “preaches with power and with authority because his life and his message are saturated with the Word of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit.” Such was “an example to preachers of our time, for his work is a living testimony”: the mission of the church is spiritual in nature and centered on the preaching of the Gospel as the inspired Word of God. And Dendy noted during the 1954 London campaign, Graham’s spectacular success was “because of this faithful adherence to the Scriptures…Let him change his beliefs and his message to that of modern theological liberalism and he would be shorn of his power as surely as Samson was shorn of his power when his hair was cut short.” By trusting unreservedly in God’s Word, Graham, and by extension conservative southern Presbyterians, were the ones who had power to accomplish the church’s true mission, the saving of souls.
Where things became complicated for these southern Presbyterian conservatives was that evangelism was never simply about disembodied souls; there was an expectation that renewed individuals would make an impact in their local contexts. Wilbur Cousar claimed that “the regenerated Christian, ‘born from above,’ is to be the infiltrating agent of righteousness in a corrupt world. He is to daily practice the virtues of his new found faith and to condemn the vices of his contemporary society.” Nelson Bell also believed that evangelical Christians who represented “the great soul-winners of each generation” all too often discounted and failed “to appreciate that the individual Christian and the Church have a social responsibility. Men need the Gospel, but they need food and clothing too. Men need Christ’s redeeming power in their lives, but they also need the removing of injustices and discriminations.” In fact, personal transformation would lead to social reform: “Social reforms must come through and from redeemed lives.”
This confidence that evangelism could produce genuine social transformation made drawing the lines on what constituted the spiritual mission of the church or how it played out in local contexts difficult and sometimes apparently arbitrary. From the reports on Graham’s evangelistic meetings, one could conclude that the spiritual mission of the church would clearly have a social impact. For example, in Fort Worth, it was claimed that “the Billy Graham Crusade is literally a religious revival set up to fight crime, political corruption, immorality and all the other ills of our generation.” And a reporter from Houston noted that the police saw crime statistics decline during the meetings. Moreover, Graham never hesitated to use his preaching ministry to hammer Communism. As historian William Martin noted, Graham claimed that “not once will you hear from this platform an attack, by implication or otherwise, against any religious or political group. The only one I mention from the platform occasionally is Communism, which is anti-God, anti-Christ, and anti-American.” Such rabid anti-Communism mixed together with his Gospel message made it hard to know where the church’s spiritual mission ended and the nation’s political mission began.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty for southern Presbyterians in stewarding the church’s spiritual mission and in promoting revival derived from their consistent focus on its potential benefits for America. In this regard, southern Presbyterian conservatives and progressives had a great deal in common. While conservatives were quick to point out areas in which liberals sought to transform society through programs of reform and education, they never differed with progressives concerning the ultimate goal—namely, the transformation of America. This was the unstated presupposition of both parties within the church during this period: that American civilization was essentially Christian; that the church was failing in its duty by not speaking out on the internal corruption of the country and by failing to bring about meaningful change; and that the church was the fundamental instrument in reversing this trend and so saving America. The difference was that conservatives believed that the church’s mission of evangelistic outreach, typified by Billy Graham and others like him, represented the only hope for America because only through personal transformation would national and international transformation be possible.
Not surprisingly, contemporary conservative Presbyterians continue to wrestle with exactly what the church’s spiritual mission entails. Undoubtedly, part of the reason for this is the legacy of their southern Presbyterian forbearers. Over the past ten years, contemporary conservative Presbyterians—especially in the second largest Presbyterian denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America—have engaged social justice issues to a far greater degree than ever before. Eager to bring about the transformation of American culture, younger ministers have emphasized the renewal of culture, the transformation of the city, and the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom. In so doing, they unwittingly echo deeper themes in the (southern) Presbyterian story, which always has sought the renewal of America through the demonstration of the genuine relevance of Christianity. The difference between the 1950s and our own time may be the degree to which our modern-day younger ministers are willing to de-emphasize what their forbearers saw as the primary and spiritual mission of the church—the salvation of souls through the preaching of God’s Word—and to emphasize a different mission, namely the transformation of American culture through social reform. The net result may be a fault line upon which the future of the PCA may rest—a fault line that historically divided the progressive from the conservative wings in the old southern church and may bring about such a divide again.