April 11, 2013
Ninety Percent Obscurity
Is faithful invisibility the antidote to church decline?
Nobody knows better than New England Baptists how ministry is changing in America. And that shouldn’t surprise us. They’ve been at least a generation ahead of the rest of us for a couple hundred years. They practically invented evangelicalism in the 1740s. That was nearly a century before my home state (Arkansas) was admitted to the union. And while many of us west of the Mississippi fear the creeping influence of secularism, our New Englander brethren minister in the least religious states in America.
Fortunately, they are also a generation ahead of us in recovering the critical ministry value of faithfulness.
Earlier this year, I spent a long weekend with a group of Baptists from Vermont and New Hampshire. Before an evening session, one pastor reflected on the fact that the Bible only records three years of Jesus’ life and ministry. If Jesus died at 33, then we only know about ten percent of his life. Or, as this pastor put it, that means Jesus’ life and ministry was “ninety percent obscurity.”
That’s a feeling with which he and his fellow shepherds could relate. The Baptists were once the leading spiritual lights in New England. Following the Great Awakening, Baptist churches grew in massive numbers. Within about sixty years of the revival, Baptists grew from just dozens to nearly twenty-five thousand in New England. Those swelling ranks had influence beyond the church world. They carried with them considerable cultural clout. The Baptists did a lot to see the first amendment added to our constitution, for example, to ensure religious liberty for dissenters like themselves. They were a thriving, culturally relevant force.
But now the region’s churches are shrinking. Several of the pastors present that weekend hold services in church buildings erected in the 1740s which, on the one hand, testifies to the longevity of the movement. On the other, it speaks to a certain stagnation, a leveling off of 200 years of growth. Many pastors are bi-vocational, because their membership can’t support a full-time minister. And instead of being a shaping influence in the broader culture, the churches are fighting to prove their relevance in their profoundly secular environment. They labor in obscurity.
At the risk of sounding like a forecaster of doom, their story is our national story. It’s how we often tell our story, anyway. There were days when people went to church—most people, maybe. When the church was a cultural force for change for the better. Times have changed and are changing. If we want to know what awaits us in a generation, we need only look at New England.
But this is not a cautionary tale. It’s a story of hope.
Even if the conditions in which these faithful men and women serve may frighten some of us, the spirit in which they serve holds a lesson for ministry in the coming age. They have rediscovered the value of faithfulness.
The pastors I spoke with in New England have concerns, to be sure. But they are committed to blooming where they have been planted. Several call themselves “25 to Lifers,” because they have committed to spend their careers in small towns and seemingly insignificant churches. They have decided that God has called them not to extraordinary success but to uncommon faithfulness—to serving quietly and confidently in ninety percent obscurity.
It strikes me that, in this way, they are recovering a key value of the Great Awakening out of which their movement (and the rest of evangelicalism) was born. Although today we think of the impact of the Awakening in terms of the massive numbers of new Christians it produced, the heroes who were celebrated at the time were honored for their commitment, not their success. David Brainerd was chief among the faithful. Brainerd served as a missionary to the Delaware Indians for just a few short years, until he died of tuberculosis at the age of 29. He had enough success in his ministry that churches tried to lure him away to pastor their more notable congregations. But he refused. His mind was set on serving, in relative obscurity, where God had called him. That faithfulness was his legacy.
For those of us who fear the Western church’s decline in numbers and influence, it’s tempting to focus on strategies for greater success. We may hope there’s a formula to secure our future. Our Baptist brothers and sisters remind us that faithfulness in obscurity is more important than splash and clout.
Brandon J. O’Brien is a contributing editor of Leadership Journal and author most recently of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes (IVP 2012).