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FIRST-PERSON: What happened to the Moravians?

MARIETTA, Ga. (BP) — Church planting is hot. Few things inspire me more than young adults called to vocational ministry who want to take the Gospel to the hard to reach. The tougher the city to reach, the more they want to go. The harder to reach the people group, the more willing they are to pay the price to take the Gospel to them.

Yet in preparing for our church’s annual global ministries week when we bring in some of the partners we work with around the globe, I gained some new insights about the Moravians, a pietistic Christian sect that made frequent evangelistic visits to America and other nations during the colonial period. Most Christians only know about the Moravians as being instrumental in the conversion of John Wesley when he was returning from America to England as a failed Anglican missionary. The big reason for Wesley’s failure is that even though he was an ordained Anglican clergyman, he was not truly saved.

On the ship home, a terrible storm came upon the Moravians and Wesley. Fearing for his life, he was struck by their calm faith. He knew the Moravians had something he didn’t. Under great conviction, he soon came to personally trust Christ as his Savior and Lord during that famous Bible study on Romans on Aldersgate Street in London.

But what most don’t know is how the Moravians were such a dynamic missionary force in the 1700s and early 1800s. They were bold and courageous. Their zeal and passion for spreading the Gospel was the driving force behind their movement. I got to thinking. What happened? What happened to the Moravians?

So I began to do some research and found there are just over 800,000 Moravians today. How could this dynamic missionary force be so small now? Was it a classic case of embracing liberal theology that killed the missionary zeal? No, it was not.

Nathan Finn, professor of church history at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, says that the Moravians were part of the Pietistic movement within the Protestant church that reacted against the dead orthodoxy among many Lutherans and Calvinists of their day. The Moravians felt what was important was preaching the Gospel for the individual to be saved, or born again. They were so focused on that, they neglected doctrine. So what happened? This dynamic missionary movement lost its zeal because second- and third-generation Moravians didn’t know the basic doctrines of the faith. They didn’t turn from the Gospel to liberalism or unbelief. They just weren’t taught the transforming power of the doctrines of our faith. So the children and grandchildren lost their zeal for taking the Gospel to the world.

Could there be a more sobering warning to the church planting movement of today? What a passion young church planters and missionaries have for reaching the tough-to-reach with the Gospel! Yet where are the basic doctrines of the faith emphasized and taught? Will this movement go the way of the Moravians?

Praise music is great for worship, yet so often it is weak on doctrine — especially in comparison with classic hymns of faith. Often, Sunday Bible study or Sunday School is confined to children while regular weekly Bible study for adults is evaporating. Small groups that are strong on fellowship and prayer and discussing the pastor’s sermon of the week are seen as the way to go.

Since parents have the major role in discipling their children, how can they do so without being taught key biblical doctrines of the faith? Is it realistic that the church meeting with their children once a week can get this done since so few parents will be trained for the task of spiritual leadership in the home?

Please know, I’m not advocating church as it used to be — with the structure and methods of yesterday. I am only asking the passionate young church planters and missionaries of today: How is the Spirit of God going to lead you to truly disciple the new followers of Jesus in your care — to teach them biblical doctrine so that each succeeding generation knows what they believe and why they believe it? Then hopefully the missionary and church planting zeal can continue to prosper with the third and fourth generations to come.

Some thoughts:

1. David Platt’s Secret Church is seeking to address this need, yet how can this type of teaching be incorporated in the local church on an ongoing, weekly basis? One great teacher heard once a year is just skimming the surface of the week-to-week needs in discipleship.

2. What Gen X and Millennial church leaders will step up and develop Bible study material on basic biblical doctrines of the faith in a style and language and methodology that Millennials gel with and are drawn to?

3. How can publishers and ministries incorporate Gen X and millennial writers that use the social networking tools of technology to provide churches -– especially new church plants and missionaries –- tools for teaching the Bible and biblical doctrine to adults, teens and children?

While it’s vital to raise these questions, the answers will come from Spirit-led Gen Xers and Millennials who become just as passionate about discipleship as they are about reaching the unchurched for Christ in tough-to-reach areas. This is my great hope for today’s passionate generation of planters, missionaries and young adult Christians: that 50 years and 100 years from now a few remaining Christians will not wonder, “What happened to the passionate church planters and missionaries of the early 21st century?”
Bryant Wright is senior pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga., and a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Bryant Wright