Where Do We Go From Here? The Future of the Holiness Movement


I’ve been listening with keen interest to the discussion created by Dr. Richard Taylor’s article, “Why the Holiness Movement Died,” published in the Revivalist, March, 1999. What I have heard has been healthy, encouraging, and hopeful. The majority of the responses have been very supportive of Dr. Taylor’s insightful remarks. Most of the disagreement stems from the failure actually to read or understand the thrust of his article. The responders fall into four distinct categories.

The first category, by far the largest (over 90 percent), is made up of those who understood the intent of Keith Drury’s original article (“The Holiness Movement is Dead,” Revivalist, March, 1995) and Dr. Taylor’s response. They welcomed the prophetic warning and pled for a response of prayer, fasting, and other corrective efforts to “turn the tide” so that the holiness movement may say that its best days are yet ahead.

The second category of responders agreed with the thesis given by Keith Drury and the article by Dr. Taylor, but were concerned about the language in the title. They would have preferred words like “decline” or a question, “Will It Die?” rather than the rhetorical use of the word “dead.” They were concerned that it sent the wrong message or obscured the real message given by each author. This group, though small, was made up mostly of church leaders. I believe there is some validity to their view, though I question whether or not Drury would have ever been heard had he not used strong language.

The third category responding was the smallest group of all. They are what I call the “I told you so” group. They twisted Dr. Taylor’s article to agree with their long-held view that the entire holiness movement is indeed literally dead. This view offers nothing but hopelessness.

The fourth category was another small group that could be ranked on the extreme opposite of category three. This group responded with rhetoric to the rhetorical use of “death” and with sarcasm to the whole point of the article by claiming that “the holiness movement is alive and well.” They have distorted Dr. Taylor’s remarks by making him say what he never said. They seem to be motivated by a fear that to acknowledge any problem is to breed a hopelessness which will cause the younger generation to abandon the movement. One can understand their concern and even sympathize with their desire to protect their children from any discussion about the problems within the movement. However, their approach is fraught with danger. Any approach that ignores the real problem is an approach that will prevent an appropriate solution and will actually perpetuate the problem. Man’s natural tendency is not to face up to things as they are. Human nature has an infinite capacity to jump from one extreme to the other. To this group it is either “dead and hopeless” or “alive and well.” They ignore the truth that lies between these two extremes. I have dealt with young people for many years. I have two young sons of my own. What I have found is that young people can smell religious humbug from a considerable distance. They are not wanting to be sheltered from the truth. Rather, they want to be challenged to become change agents in a movement that they deeply love and are committed to just as much as their parents.

Furthermore, this approach flies in the face of church history and Biblical precedent. Never before in the history of the church or in Biblical history did speaking the truth in love cause an abandonment of God’s cause or His work. On the contrary, it proved to be a fundamental step in return, renewal, and ultimate survival.

We cannot be distracted from a pursuit of revival and renewal for the holiness movement. The cries of those who are saying they are tired of hearing it must be ignored. The truth is nobody is talking about the death of the holiness movement, but those in category three. No one that I know has ever said that the holiness message is dead, that the holiness experience is dead and that holiness saints have passed from the earth. The truth is, for the first time in my adult life, I hear serious discussion by leaders from California to North Carolina who have been moved to action in response to Dr. Taylor’s article. I believe it is urgent that we strike while the fire is hot. We must address the issues that need it and cry to God for a national and worldwide revival of full salvation that will save men to the uttermost. I believe this can be our day! We cannot afford to miss it!

What is a fair evaluation?

It would be very difficult to improve on Dr. Taylor’s article (go back and re-read it word for word). I have no real disagreement with him. (Though, I do think he speaks too uncritically of the 19th-century holiness movement. I also think there are a few other theologians from the 19th century, as well as the 20th century who, along with Mildred Wynkoop, have added to other theological woes.) Over all, Dr. Taylor’s article gave a fair evaluation of many of the problems that we do have. However, I think it is important to point out that many of the problems we are facing as a holiness movement in America, such as a steady decline in full membership, a lack of real ethical and moral impact on society, and a difficulty in articulating our belief system, are problems which are not unique to the holiness church. As a matter of fact, they are problems that are shared by the North American church in general. Any study of the dilemma of the Christian church in North America would readily acknowledge that what is happening in the holiness movement is also happening in all other denominations across the evangelical mainstream.

It should also be pointed out that many of the problems we are facing today are not necessarily new to the holiness movement. When a movement institutionalizes and becomes a formal church movement it will naturally experience times of decline. Almost a half a century ago Uncle Bud Robinson said of the holiness movement, “There are only two things wrong with this movement – too little holiness and too little movement.” The loss of sanctity and service are perennial problems within any religious institution. It is also significant to note that when a movement institutionalizes and ages into a second generation, religious experience becomes more theological than experiential. The holiness movement at the turn of the century was far more dynamic because holiness was more of an experience and a life style than a theological tenet of a particular institutionalized movement. It should also be pointed out, though it may be a bit painful, that some of those who are trying to analyze our problems are the very embodiment of the problem. They have retreated form real sanctity, real separation and real service, which have always been at the heart of the holiness movement.

What Can We Do?

Let me begin by telling you what I think we should not do. First, we had better not try to rationalize the demise of the vital signs of life within our movement, nor ignore the warnings of those who have their hand on the pulse of this movement. Secondly, we dare not continue to accept and tolerate the growing credibility gap between the holiness message verbalized and the holiness message internalized. Third, we cannot and dare not give up strong confrontational preaching that checks the erosion of ethical standards, Biblical lifestyles and the plaguing problem of materialism. Fourth, we cannot allow our church leaders and other leaders to negotiate a compromise on long-held Biblical values. We must insist that our leaders, in educational institutions, in denominations and in local pulpits, stand strong on a Scriptural response to the issues confronting our day. Fifth, we should not continually dwell on our problems. If we continue to analyze ourselves, we may simply analyze ourselves to death. We can dwell on the problem until we become problem-conscious rather than God-conscious. Dwelling on it too much is as bad as ignoring it altogether. Both can be paralyzing. We must ask God to give us the sensibility to address the serious needs and concerns within our movement without becoming obsessed with those problems. Obsession with any problem will produce negativism, censoriousness and despair.

What should we do as a movement? I believe the answer isn’t as difficult as we want to think. First of all, I think we need to stop looking around to each other for an answer and start looking up. So often we are like people stranded on a desert island who rush to retrieve the bottle floating on the waves with a note in it, only to find it is the very bottle and note that they had thrown into the ocean only a few days before. So often we just rehash our own thinking. We need a message from outside of ourselves. We need a word from God. Every movement, both large or small, has had its beginning with a man or woman who rediscovered who God is and what God can do. The Hebrew nation was born when Abraham saw the “God of glory” chose to follow Him. Every great king, judge or spiritual leader in the Old Testament was a man who rose to the occasion because of a revelation of who God was and what He could do for His people. The gospel literally was carried to the far corners of the earth because Paul saw Jesus on the road to Damascus and he could never be disobedient to that “heavenly vision.” Every great revival and move in church history was preceded by a man or a woman rediscovering who God is and what God wants to do.

The generations that surround mine are generations that have not seen the God of revival. What we do not experience we cease to believe. My generation needs to understand that God is predisposed to give revival. There are thousands of good God-fearing people around us who have never really seen who God is and what He can do. They have lived off of the vision of others and have never caught a glimpse of Him for themselves. They need to rediscover God.

I believe the natural result that will follow a rediscovery of God is a rediscovery of Scripture. God’s Word is indeed relevant to the problems of our day. The central themes of Scripture can and must become the major priorities in our lives. Holiness and holy living must be more than a buzzword or a doctrine that we Wesleyans have captured. It becomes a way of life. Far too often we have taken the Bible and just extrapolated a second blessing rather than allowed the Word of God and the Holy Spirit to produce sanctity in our lives. In rediscovering Scripture, we will rediscover that we can love God with all of our heart and our neighbor as ourselves.

In rediscovering God and His Word, we will rediscover our neighbor. Wesley was right when he said there is no holiness but social holiness. It is absolutely impossible to speak of loving God with all of our heart and not recognize our responsibility to our neighbor. If Biblical holiness does anything for us, it enables us to become focused on redemptive activity. The holiness giants of yesteryear (men who knew the holiness movement in its best of times) were men who were totally captivated by redemptive activity. John Wesley said to his itinerant preachers, “We have nothing to do but save souls.” Frances Asbury brought Methodism and holiness to America. In one generation he changed the religious complexion of America from one in forty being a Methodist to one in four being a Methodist. These men were driven with a passion to redeem lost mankind. The holiness movement at the turn of the century was led by men who were gripped with the responsibility to take the message of full salvation to the far reaches of the earth, to put it in print so that every man might read it, and to start Bible schools that would promote and preserve the holiness message to another generation. They established orphanages, homes for unwed mothers, and rescue missions in all of our major cities so that they might literally take the message of full salvation to those who needed it most. To these men a holiness message that didn’t reach out, a holiness that didn’t help heal the hurts of fallen mankind, a holiness that didn’t offer to the world an answer to the sin problem was a holiness that was neither real nor inspirational to the masses. To speak of holiness and not couple it with social concern for their neighbor would have been to these men pure hypocrisy.

I thank God for the insight of both Dr. Drury and Dr. Taylor. I don’t want to end up on either extreme in response to what these men have said. I intend to thank God for the warning, to move ahead as never before, to do my best to correct the wrongs, while continuing to preach, teach and live holiness to the best of my ability. I intend to pray and fast for a mighty outpouring of God’s Spirit that will help my generation and the coming generation rediscover God, what His Word says and who our neighbor is.

Michael Avery
Michael Averyhttps://livethedeeperlife.org/
Dr. Michael R. Avery is the President of Deeper Life Ministries and was named Chancellor of God’s Bible School & College in 2017 after serving as its President for 22 years.