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The oft-repeated cycle of church history

| by Bob Russell

A decade ago, the church I pastored had this mission statement: “We exist to evangelize the lost, edify the saved, minister to the needy and be a conscience in the community.”  

Experts insisted we needed to abbreviate it so everyone could grasp it. But I liked that statement. It not only articulated our purpose, it stated the order of our priorities. 

The primary purpose of the church is evangelism and discipleship (see Matthew 28:18-20). One of Satan’s clever deceptions is to get us to replace the primary with the secondary. Social justice or political influence can easily outrank evangelism. 

Departing from truth  

I remembered that mission statement recently when I read that a mainline denominational minister stated that Jesus was not the only way to God. “God’s not a Christian,” he said. “I’m not about to say what God can and cannot do in other ways and with other spiritual experiences.” 

The original documents of that preacher’s denomination included the statement: “Our knowledge of God and God’s purpose for humanity comes from the Bible, particularly what is revealed in the New Testament through the life of Jesus Christ.”  

How does a church begin with such noble convictions and wind up a century and a half later with leaders who espouse the polar opposite? 

Repeating the cycle 

The accompanying chart, The Oft-Repeated Cycle of Church History, helps trace the “mission-creep” that occurs in many churches. The primary mission of the church is evangelism. We exist to win others to Christ.  

The church also has a responsibility to edify new believers and nurture them to maturity. However, there’s a temptation for an established church to allow edification to take precedence over evangelism.  

If we wait until we’re perfect to evangelize, we remain silent. Actually, the best evangelists are new Christians—babes in Christ. When edification becomes more important than evangelism, the church stagnates. Evangelism and edification are simultaneous missions. 

The church also has a responsibility to be compassionate to the hurting. Jesus instructed His followers to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the sick. Every congregation should minister to the needs of hurting people. 

Today’s evangelical churches are placing an increasing emphasis on “service evangelism.” The motivation is not just that we genuinely care for people; we do. But we also know the church has an image problem. The world regards evangelicals as intolerant, hypocritical and judgmental. So, to gain a hearing, we are aware we need to be more compassionate and service-oriented.  

Primary purpose  

The problem in the past has been gradually allowing ministry to the hurting to become the primary purpose. Since meeting physical needs is more tangible and respectable, it’s tempting for the church to emphasize social justice over the need to be born again.  

The church then subtly moves to worldly respect as its primary goal. Church leaders don’t express that openly, but it’s obvious they want outsiders to esteem their church. They don’t want to offend anyone by calling people to repentance, so they tell them, “God loves you just as you are and we do too.”  

Soon, sophisticated churches embarrassed by the truth of God’s Word embrace a liberal theology. The Bible warns about preachers who say “what itching ears want to hear” (see 2 Timothy 4:3). Liberal teachers wilt under pressure and compromise the biblical message of creation, sin, salvation, heaven, and hell. 

It’s not long before compromising churches embrace universalism—the idea everyone is going to heaven. Jesus’s claim to be the only way to heaven is discounted. The Holy Spirit departs and the church dies a slow death.  

Responding to crisis  

One day a spiritual crisis arises and a remnant in the church cry out to God. They humble themselves, rediscover the truth of Scripture, repent of sin, and turn to Christ. They call the church to revival. Sometimes they are well-received, but they usually encounter resistance from sophisticates uncomfortable with gospel basics. 

At that point, revived believers withdraw from their denomination and begin to aggressively evangelize again. New converts are born again and mature in Christ. That’s the oft-repeated cycle of church history. 

The challenge for every local congregation is to keep the main thing the main thing. Our primary purpose is to evangelize the lost and edify the saved. Mature believers minister to social needs, but we don’t forget that we exist first and foremost to win the lost to Christ. 


Bob Russell

At just twenty-two years of age, Bob became the pastor of Southeast Christian Church. That small congregation of 120 members became one of the largest churches in America, with 18,000 people attending the four worship services every weekend in 2006 when Bob retired. Now through Bob Russell Ministries, Bob continues to preach at churches & conferences throughout the United States, provide guidance for church leadership, mentor other ministers and author Bible study videos for use in small groups.

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