Interview with Ken Idleman

By Brad Dupray

Ken Idleman served on the faculty and administration of Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri, for 34 years—27 as president. In 1992, he became the youngest man ever selected to serve as president of the North American Christian Convention. For the past year Ken has been serving as senior pastor of Crossroads Christian Church in Newburgh, Indiana. He holds graduate and postgraduate degrees from Lincoln (Illinois) Christian College and Seminary and was awarded an honorary doctorate from Milligan College in Tennessee. He and his wife of 40 years, Kaylene, have three grown children and 11 grandchildren.

As a movement, what have we done that we could be most proud of?

I’m a real optimist when it comes to our movement. First of all, because of the recent growth of our churches. A Christian Standard issue from 1998 showed we had 50 congregations that averaged 1,000 or more in worship attendance. In 10 years time that number has nearly tripled. That is significant and rapid growth of our megachurches. If you go back four decades to 1968, we had only one or two churches over 1,000, and now it’s nearly 150; that’s the kind of growth we’ve had in the past four decades. And it’s not just the megachurches. Many other churches have shown that kind of consistent, stable growth.

The second reason I’m an optimist is because of the number of new churches being planted. In the early 1980s there was a convocation of several of our leaders in St. Louis. The purpose of that meeting was to address the question, “What can we do to get the Restoration Movement moving again?” Double Vision was birthed at that meeting, and that gave impetus to a broad-based commitment to new church planting. That, I think, is another of the real bright spots.

The third reason I’m an optimist is the dramatic growth in the number of international evangelists. The National Missionary Convention is now comparable in size to the North American Christian Convention. I never thought that would be true. I think that is indicative of a conscience we have about global evangelism, particularly in places where the gospel has not penetrated. There are literally hundreds of students in our Bible colleges who aspire to do cross-cultural evangelism. It has transitioned from being a sliver of our students to becoming one of the largest departments.

Another reason for my optimism is that man-invented religions are failing and falling. Hindus are losing millions of members who are part of their low-caste system and are tired of being exploited. Islam is being seen for what it is; the radical extremism and mistreatment of women and children is repelling people. The erosion of infatuation with Eastern religions makes me more optimistic about the future of the church.

There is a renewed interest in worship, and there is more care taken to plan worship and lead worship with God-honoring excellence. And there has been a significant uptick in stewardship in our churches. Some of that is related to growth and some of that is related to an elevated sense of stewardship. These are all indicators of health, and vitality, and growth in our churches and our movement.

How does the Restoration Movement today measure up in the world of evangelical Christianity?

I think the Restoration plea has never been more vital and attractive. There is a cultural ripeness for nondenominational churches that teach and preach what one editor calls “middle-ground doctrine.” I think he means we are not too legalistic on one hand or too liberal on the other. A recent article written by Alan Nelson of REV! magazine talks of the things that are part of the DNA of the Restoration Movement. He talks about the fact that our churches are free of political structure and that a lack of hierarchy provides flexibility. He talks specifically about the appeal of nondenominational churches and the relationships that exist between our leaders: collegial idea-sharing that he found really engaging, that the leaders are not jealous of each other, that there is no political pecking order, and there’s a lot of mutual support among our leaders. He also mentioned how longevity and succession of leadership are valued in our churches and how that positively impacts growth momentum.

What distinctives set the Restoration Movement apart from evangelical Christianity, or have we just kind of melted into the pool?

In addition our doctrinal and church polity distinctives, the value we place on new church planting and entrepreneurial, spiritual leadership in our churches is worthy of mention. I would also cite our spirit of acceptance that has fueled our passion for unity and the conscience we have about evangelism in most of our churches as distinctive. Our Bible colleges also provide a strong Bible core for our ministry leaders.

We do have a lot of Bible teaching in our colleges, but in our churches is there a softening of the doctrines that have typically been at the core of our movement?

I do think that is happening in some places, but I don’t have the “Chicken Little syndrome” about it—I don’t think the sky is falling. I think in some of our churches there is less of a conscience about some of the major doctrines. There is a tendency to interpret the Bible in light of current events, the significance of immersion in the process of salvation is debated or forgotten, and we see a tendency to be overly accommodating to the culture in methodologies for teaching and reaching people.

Are there issues of doctrine and polity that are still unique to our movement?

Our interpretation of the silence of scripture, “Where the Bible speaks we speak and where the Bible is silent we are silent,” is something we have got to maintain. That is a distinctive you don’t find in many evangelical churches these days. And, I would add the uniqueness of our view that “We’re not the only Christians, but we are Christians only” is especially relevant. People hear that and say, “That’s a neat way to say it, I like that.” Many of the Restoration “shibboleths” need to be dusted off and restated in contemporary terms. They’re very relevant today.

And doctrine . . .

On the doctrinal side our interpretation of the silence of Scripture is unique: “Where the Bible speaks we speak and where the Bible is silent we are silent.” That is something we must maintain. That is a distinctive you don’t find in many evangelical churches these days. And our view that “We’re not the only Christians, but we are Christians only.” People hear that and say, “That’s neat, I like that.” Many of the Restoration shibboleths need to be dusted off and restated in contemporary terms. They’re very relevant today.

Are there nonessentials that we should cling to?

When we cling to nonessentials we elevate them to the position of being essentials, so I think in matters of faith, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; and in all things, love. I think it’s important to hold tightly to the essentials and hold the nonessentials loosely.

Some have said we are simply becoming a generic, evangelical movement.

Contrary to what some people think, the evangelical world has moved more toward us than we have drifted toward them. Saddleback and Willow Creek have moved our way in their elevated view of baptism in the process of salvation and their church polity being more oriented toward the plurality of leaders. I don’t think that’s where those churches were 30 years ago. I think that over time the evangelical church world has drifted toward the distinctives of the Restoration Movement.

How would Thomas and Alexander Campbell evaluate our movement today?

I think Thomas Campbell would celebrate the vital signs of growth in our movement. I think Alexander Campbell would feel we are more accommodating than we should be to the denominational world; that we don’t contend enough for the truth. He was a debater. He was more inclined to be protective of the theological foundations of faith. Thomas Campbell was more pragmatic, more the churchman. Thomas Campbell would be able to give more unqualified support for the vitality of the movement, but I think Alexander Campbell would be a little more qualified in his assessment based on the perception of accommodation.

How would Jesus evaluate us?

I think he would affirm our increased seeker-sensitivity, the evidence of a better balance of grace and truth in our movement. I think historically we have been more concerned about truth, but in the past two decades we have held on to the truth while elevating grace in our churches and ministries. I have a suspicion that our Lord’s grace is probably bigger than our biggest ideas about it.

Has the Restoration Movement changed in your decades in ministry?

When you assess the preaching at the North American Christian Convention, you can assess the trends in our movement. I know the preaching that I’ve heard in the North American has changed. I first went to the NACC in 1964 and the accent was definitely more on truth than on grace. Now there’s a different tone in the preaching. I don’t think we have compromised truth, but we have added a much stronger grace component. Grace and truth exist in a better balance today than they did 40 years ago.

How do we adjust to the major cultural shifts that are taking place?

I have just become aware of some alarming statistics from Focus on the Family. The future of church leadership will be affected by these statistics. Sixty-five percent of “builders” bought into or lived out a Christian worldview, 34 percent of “boomers,” 17 percent of “busters” and—this is the stunning statistic—4 percent of the “millennial” generation make their decisions or have convictions based on a Christian worldview. There has been a dramatic drop in the percentage of the population living out their lives and making their decisions with godly values and biblical principles.

Four percent. That is stunning.

This will catch up to us; this is a real concern to me. The preaching, teaching, and discipling we do in our churches must address this disregard for biblical values and godly principles. It probably has to do with our view of absolute truth. We’ve got to recover the four pillars of the faith with respect to the younger generations: the lordship of Christ, the authority of the Bible, the unity of believers, and the evangelization of the world. We must rally the people of our churches around these nonnegotiables. The coming generation is making its decisions and living its life without being tethered to biblical truth and genuine godliness. That’s where our future church leaders are going to come from. It’s a shrinking pool. And as leadership goes, that’s the direction the church will go in the future.

How do we shape leadership for the future?

Christian parents who say “seek first the kingdom of Heaven” should translate that into raising up future Christian leaders in their households. We say we love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, but if our sons and daughters declare they want to go into international evangelism or vocational ministry and we discourage them, what does that say about our love for God and seeking first his kingdom?

Are families less inclined to point their kids to Bible college?

The economic stressors are a subtle, if not overt, influence on parents to steer their kids toward careers that will provide perceived financial security. They’re reluctant to have their children go into vocational ministry that ultimately depends on donated dollars.

What changes do our churches need to make?

I think we need to get back to more intentional efforts in the area of evangelism. We have moved away from going and getting people to trying to attract people. It’s the power of the “and”: having attractive ministry and going out to find people and bring them to Christ. It’s not just inspirational music and engaging preaching, but also a strategic program to penetrate the community and teach people in their homes and in venues other than church.

The external focus of our churches will help open those doors, but once they’re open we need to move in with the message. The “externally focused church” gets people’s hearts opened and their minds open, but then we’ve got to get into their hearts and heads with God’s truth. In evangelism, we need more activity and less passivity.

I would also mention a more targeted approach to discipleship. Rather than emphasizing community discipleship we need to have an emphasis on personal discipleship. Not just moving people into programs, but moving people into discipling relationships.

If you were starting over in ministry what primary goals would you establish?

The highest priorities are submission to the lordship of Jesus, in terms of character, and underpinning your life with biblical literacy—Bible knowledge. Also, carefully choosing the right life mate and embracing the ethics of humility and sincerity in living out the call of Christian leadership.

How do we humbly, but boldly, move forward as a movement?

We must remember we’re not right about everything, but be encouraged by the fact that we’re right about the most important things. It’s important we maintain ourselves as “undershepherds” of the Good Shepherd and be faithful to feed his lambs and take care of his sheep and feed his sheep.

Brad Dupray is senior vice president, investor development, with Church Development Fund, Irvine, California.

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