Elmer Gantry Runs Our Churches

Elmer Gantry is an Academy Award winning film of a book by Sinclair Lewis. The book and film were widely condemned in evangelical circles but won numerous awards and critic’s acclaim. I wasn’t even born when the movie first came out (1960) but I had an opportunity to view it a few years ago. I highly recommend it.

For those of you who haven’t seen it, the plot revolves around Gantry who is an unchristian charlatan who gets involved with a traveling revival meeting after discovering it’s a better way to fleece suckers than any of his usual rackets. He convinces the woman running the revival of his sincerity and soon takes over.

From some of the criticism I’d heard, I’d thought the movie was anti-Christian, but it makes it obvious that Gantry is not authentic. He’s not a Christian. He’s a liar and thief. He deceives people for his own benefit, taking advantage of their emotions to “raise a temple for God” to drain their bank accounts before moving on to the next town. He eventually has a falling out with the saintly woman and everything ends in disaster.

But the thing that struck me when watching the movie was that it is, like all old movies, a time portal to see how life in America was years ago. The book was written in the 20s, the movie came out in 1960 and things were different then. I remember going to church when I was a kid back in the 1960s and it was nothing like it is now. Modern methods resemble the methods Gantry employed to ramp up interest (and donations) in his traveling revival. Those methods have since conquered American church administration, with the results predicted by the film.

A scene where the city fathers of a town have gathered to discuss if they’ll allow the now famous traveling revival to visit their town reinforces this. The businessmen are all for it. It’ll bring increased business. The cops think it’ll probably reduce crime (at least in the short run.) The only voice against it is a prominent reverend, the pastor of the biggest church in town.

You might think his opposition was jealousy, but it wasn’t. His concern was that people would, driven by the emotional frenzy Gantry was known for inducing, make hasty decisions for Christ, throwing themselves down at the altar call. (But that sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it?) But then when the revival rolls out of town, they’ll be abandoned with no one to train up the new Believers into good disciples. Like the seed that fell on stony ground that sprang up and then withered and died (Matthew 13:3-23) he suggests it would be better to let the good ground of the local church handle the spiritual renewal of the populace. But he’s overruled and events unfold pretty much as he predicted.

In America today, it seems most churches have adopted the trappings and style of the old traveling evangelists. Traditional hymns used to be about how mighty and awesome God was, or what pathetic sinners we were. Now they’re all love songs to Jesus, about how much he loves us. No mention of our sin. Or repentance.

After the praise team gets everybody riled up, the speaker comes out and harangues the crowd, not to present information but to further stimulate them emotionally before the climax of the event, the altar call. The meeting style employs the exact same methods used in totalitarian party rallies. (But churches do it for all the “right reasons” of course.)

In the old days the preacher spoke about our sin, and the need for repentance, or things like dealing with problems in the Christian life, what it meant to be a disciple. Churches knew their main, even only task, was to train up disciples. Sunday school had serious lessons and Bible studies and prayer meetings were serious business.

Today, the sermon is all about how much God loves you and how you can get your ticket to heaven. Every service ends in an altar call. The whole point is to get people to pray that prayer of salvation. There’s little or no effort to go much beyond that. Churches today are little more than Gantry’s traveling revival meeting.

He’d blow into town, rile everybody up, get a bunch of “decisions for Christ,” pocket their donations and then blow along into the next town along the line and do it again. His goal was getting people to “accept Jesus” so they’d pony up the funds to expand his ministry so he could do more of the same. Whether or not those new “Christians” ever actually repented or developed into effective disciples was left to local churches. (Actually Gantry didn’t really care. He was all about the cash.)

The problem today is, there’s nothing left but revival ministries. The local churches aren’t making disciples. They’re operated exactly like Gantry’s ministry with no concern for disciple making. And just as Gantry’s “ministry” ended in disaster, so have our Gantry wannabes.

American society today is post Christian. Churches are in decline. Sin is rampant. Christianity has lost most of its social influence. And it’s because we quit making disciples back in the 1970s.

You’ll never hear a sermon about repentance. No pastor will ever preach against abortion or divorce. Too many of his flock has already had one. Pastors are too afraid of offending people to ever condemn anything. They’re all about God’s love, but never his justice or judgment. God “loves you just the way you are.” There’s no need to repent. This is because the ones who run our churches see them as a permanent revival meeting.

According to the Barna poling organization “The year's research also underscored the fact that half of the people who attend Christian churches on any given weekend are not Christian - that is, they do not trust in Christ alone for their eternal salvation.”

Research reveals few congregants have a biblical worldview, half the people they minister to are not spiritually secure or developed, kids are fleeing from the church in record numbers, most of the people who attend worship services admit they did not connect with God, the divorce rate among Christians is no different than that of non-Christians, only 2% of the pastors themselves can identify God's vision for their ministry they are trying to lead, and the average congregant spends more time watching television in one day than he spends in all spiritual pursuits combined for an entire week.

In a national study only 7% of Christians identified spiritual wholeness and development as the factor that will produce a successful life. Barna went on to state: "The Christian faith commends sacrifice, servanthood and sharing as the means to significance. How is it possible to have more than 120 million adults attending Christian churches on a regular basis, but only 15 million who grasp the message that success is not about personal accomplishment or material possessions?"

Because churches have gone from seeing their mission as making disciples, to merely getting new people to pray that prayer of salvation and become regular church goers. (And hopefully put a little cash in the collection plate so we can expand the building program and seat more people.)

Sermons are no longer about sacrifice, servanthood and sharing but God’s love and how Christ’s sacrifice has gained you your own place in heaven just for the asking. Sunday school has changed from a serious Bible study to a fellowship time designed to keep people coming back next week. Christianity has changed from a second chance, a new life of discipleship as a changed person, to a passive social activity to pass the time while we wait for Jesus to pick us up for our eternal heavenly vacation.

Is it any wonder only one-third of teenagers attending church today are likely to continue to do so once they reach adulthood? [Statistics from “Barna Identifies Seven Paradoxes Regarding America’s Faith”, December 17, 2002]

“While most believers have heard of spiritual gifts, half of all born-again adults either do not know what their spiritual gift is or claim that God did not give them one.” [Growing True Disciples, page 74]

According to the Gallup polling organization in June 1990 74% of Americans describe themselves as having made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ [Awakening the Giant, Jim Russell, page 13], yet in the last few decades rates of illegitimacy and divorce have skyrocketed and unmarried couples have become a standard feature of our society. Over a million people are currently in prison, (statistics from Prison Fellowship) one of the highest rates of incarceration in the world, certainly in American history. How can this be if three-quarters of the adult population have made a personal commitment to Christ?

Because the seed scattered on stony ground withered before it could take root.

School shootings are not unusual anymore. Neither are even pre-teenagers involved in sexual escapades. Society is melting down around us and Western Civilization is dead or dying.

And it’s all because Elmer Gantry took over our churches.


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