“Which Way the Tide?”
This is the most important question
facing Americans today.
Walking through Houston’s Hobby Airport with a heavy, silver, three-foot-high statue trophy, I was greeted like a returning Olympic champion.
As a high school senior, I had just taken third place in the 1963 national competition for “Original Oratory.”
In June of that year, after competing with students at the local, county, regional, and state levels, I found myself representing Ohio on the stage of the auditorium of Rice University. It was the final round of the contest, now winnowed down to five contestants. Even though I had delivered my seven-minute speech scores of times before, I was clearly nervous. I began by announcing my opening question (which was also the title of my talk):
“Which way the tide?”
Now, sixty years later, I find that my message that day has come full circle. The question is more relevant today in 2023 than it was in 1963—both for the Church and our nation.
When I delivered my original composition at Rice University, I was looking at the threats of communism, nuclear war, rising divorce rates, racism, urban crime, and pornography (to name a few). It was the right question to ask then. It is a hundred times more appropriate to ask it now at this defining moment.
In fact, I’ve concluded that over the past sixty years, with a few exceptions along the way, the tide has continued to recede; the waves of God’s glorious redemption in Christ are impacting less and less of the shoreline.
In fact, I believe it is the most important question facing all Americans at this defining moment—but especially for millions of us as Jesus followers.
Let me tell you why it is—and why we must answer it soon, one way or the other. Our whole future depends on the answer.
The key question throughout world history
The central point in my talk at Rice reflected the same concern of renowned Yale historian Kenneth Scott Latourette in his massive one-volume work on The History of Christianity. He put his overarching interpretation of the progress of the gospel over the past two millennia in the form of a metaphor involving ocean waves and tides.
His research showed that at certain periods of history, the tide of the Church’s mission appeared to be strongly advancing as the waves washed increasingly higher up the beach. In other words, historical events, large and small, often revealed how the gospel was effectively spreading its impact among the nations more widely. The Second Great Awakening of the late 18th century that launched the modern missionary movement would be one example.
At other times, however, the record revealed that the tide of the gospel’s movement was receding—the waves were descending back down the shore, leaving the beach bare. In other words, the cause of Christ seemed to reverse course and begin to lose ground in God’s redemptive initiative among the nations. The disastrous Crusades of the Middle Ages would be one example.
Therefore, historically speaking, Latourette would suggest that the question to ask of any generation, including our own, remains this: Which way is the tide moving?
Therefore, it becomes the most important question one can ask to help Americans interpret our current situation in the long story of the Christian movement in our land. I’ll put it like this:
“In 2023, which way the tide?”
Let’s be honest with one another.
In our nation right now, are we witnessing the victorious, redeeming reign of Christ being extended to more people and into more realms of the public domain by the Holy Spirit’s powerful work among and through God’s people? Are we witnessing the intensifying of the gospel’s renovating power for our nation—a Christward revolution that we all know is so desperately needed?
Or instead: Over the last few years, has a host of Jesus followers across our country been taken thoroughly captive by the priorities, allurements, divisions, and the corrupting forces of our culture? Is our message about Christ being drowned out by the increasing spiritual, social, political, and moral undertow all around us? Are we heading toward the low tide of barrenness in fulfilling the cause of Christ in America?
To make this probe more personal: Which way is the tide moving in your life, as well as among your fellow believers where you live, within the congregations in your community, and in the gospel outreach of God’s people there? Truthfully, does the tide of Christ’s saving power seem to be advancing, or does it feel more and more like it is fading?
“Which way the tide?”
One warning sign to watch for
In one very consequential way, there’s a low tide threatening the future of the Church’s mission in America.
Did you know that in just the past twenty years alone, over 40,000,000 church members have decided to quit attending altogether? Think about that.
In The Great Dechurching: Who’s Leaving, Why Are They Going, and What Will It Take to Bring Them Back (Zondervan), Jim Davis, Michael Graham, and Ryan P. Burge look at the decline in US church attendance, examine who is leaving and why—and discuss how to bring people back to the fold. The fact that such a book would be needed at all tells us a lot. On page one of the opening chapter, the authors write:
In the United States, we are currently experiencing the largest and fastest religious shift in the history of our country, as tens of millions of formerly regular Christian worshipers nationwide have decided they no longer desire to attend church at all. These are what we call the “dechurched” . . . For the first time, more adults in the United States do not attend church than attend church. This is not a gradual shift; it is a jolting one.
As I weigh their findings, what strikes me the most is that so many Christians have allowed themselves to walk away so easily and casually as they become involved in other activities that seem more rewarding. Perhaps even more sobering: Maybe this reveals that even now, countless thousands sitting in our church halls and sanctuaries on Sunday mornings still have never been born again in the first place.
This says to me that in many cases, American believers’ initial reason for choosing to be church attenders fell far short of a desire in their hearts to live under the lordship of Christ—that they are devoid of the commitment and passion to see more of Christ, to experience more in Christ, and to become more for Christ.
Therefore, when the answer to “What’s in this for me?” seemed less than compelling, it was not difficult to give themselves permission to take up other pursuits and priorities in their search for personal fulfillment. (I suspect the forced isolation of COVID provided one excellent excuse for many.)
In the end, the “dechurching of America” is simply one of many manifestations of the crisis I’ve been warning about for years: the debilitating shortfall of the Church’s vision of the full extent of the wonders and supremacy of God’s reigning Son—the “crisis of Christology.”
Predictably, this singular crisis is emptying pews as spiritual leaders fail to provide God’s people with a grand enough biblical hope in the person and reign of Christ—hope not just for themselves personally (as important as that is), but a hope big enough to heal our broken, corrosive society and reverse the direction of a nation accelerating toward the deadly, rocky shoals of a historic descent into a spiritual and moral low tide.
“Which way the tide?”
Here’s the rest of my story.
After the contest, as a college freshman in the fall of 1963, I received a call from the Republican Party of Pennsylvania. They offered to fly me up from my college in North Carolina to share my winning oration at a banquet in the grand ballroom of the Pittsburg Hilton, convened to honor the governor’s birthday. I accepted—but with fear and trembling.
That evening, I found myself seated beside one of the longest-serving US senators at the time, who was the main speaker. Following my talk, his prepared remarks were about how America’s greatest hope rested in a significant enlargement of our armed forces and our firepower.
What my hosts did not know, however, was that I had rewritten a part of my winning speech. It had a sharper edge. Its premise actually ended up going in the opposite direction of what the main speaker had just said!
You see, earlier that fall, I had experienced a saving encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ. (Telling that event would require a whole other blog post!) Its impact on my life was so profound that it continues to bear fruit to this very hour. In fact, my own Christ awakening is the fountainhead of our mission for Christ today—and of this blog post.
Therefore, before that night at the Hilton, I revised my talk to include a new and pointed emphasis on “Christ as our only hope” for America.
Before that august gathering, consisting of wealthy donors, political operatives, and government leaders, I delivered a vision for what I call today a “Christ Awakening” as America’s one true and lasting hope.
As I spoke, I watched people around their banquet tables become transfixed. I’m sure my message was not what anyone had anticipated. Nor did they quite know what to do with it!
But for me, that night was the beginning of a mission adventure that has never been diverted. The fact is that a dynamic vision of the greatness and glory of God’s reigning Son has been at the core of my life’s message all these years since.
Then and now, my theme remains threefold.
The Crisis. We’re living at an auspicious moment. The “tide” is active. A clear
understanding of which way it is moving is required. That cannot be put off any longer. We can’t know how to respond unless we first know which way the tide is moving.
This is what I mean: Our nation and the Church in our nation have arrived at a crossroads, an inflection point. In terms of God’s kingdom, nothing here is static. The reign of Christ is in motion in one direction or the other.
Individually, as God’s people, as well as a nation, we’re either shifting toward high tide—as the waves of “the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ Jesus” (2 Corinthians 4) wash over us more and more, like the waters cover the seas, or we are increasingly drifting toward low tide—as we descend further into a spiritual wasteland, taking the whole nation with us.
All of this may sound melodramatic, I realize. But it is nonetheless our most profound reality and must be confronted sooner than later. The consequences—either good or bad—cannot be avoided.
The Christ. The direction of the tide—high or low—is determined by what we do with King Jesus and what he does with us. This is true for the individual. This is true for churches. This is true for the nation.
Inevitably, all of our choices bring us to the foot of Jesus’ throne, where we receive either the fullness of God’s promises fulfilled in Christ, which take us “from glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3)—like an incoming tide—or we sink into the finality of God’s judgments, where the “wages of our sin” become for us “death” itself, and we are abandoned to disappear with the outgoing tide (Romans 6).
The Christ Awakening. Therefore, the most crucial decision we can ever make is to wake up to Christ for ALL he is, become wholly alive to the whole vision of the whole Christ, and experience such a thorough “saturation” with the glory of Christ, by the Spirit of God, that we, in turn, begin to saturate the world with the gospel of Christ.
A “Christ Awakening” is nothing short of a spiritual revolution at any level. It is the incoming tide that we so desperately need to dominate our life as a nation, spreading to every corner, bringing with it life—the life of Jesus— wherever it flows.
Thankfully, Dr. Latourette confirmed the rightness of these themes in his writings. In his 1500-page overview of the global Christian movement, he reemphasizes the miracle of fresh outpourings of the Spirit that came at the darkest hours of an era of Church history, waking and taking a generation of God’s people into a transforming encounter with the risen, reigning Son of God—a miracle that ultimately unleashed God’s people to advance the gospel to the ends of the earth.
This miracle is the primary explanation for how the Christian movement today is nearly 90 million times larger than when it first began.
This miracle is our one great hope, as we are threatened by the forces arrayed against us. It is nothing less than the tide of God’s kingdom overwhelming this generation with the saving power of the Lord Jesus Christ.
“Which way the tide?”—What say you?
Is there a fresh work of God’s saving power at hand for his people and for our nation? Are we willing to pour ourselves out in concerted prayer to that end until it fully arrives?
Ultimately, how God’s people answer these questions and what we do in response to our answers will shape the future of the cause of Christ in America—and also the destiny of America itself.
Personally, I’m leaning on hundreds of biblical promises of God’s renovating power—such as this dramatic picture from Isaiah 59:19, which points to our Savior (my paraphrase):
Then at last they will reverence and glorify
the name of the Lord Jesus Christ from west to east.
For he will come
like a flood tide driven by Jehovah’s breath.
He will come as the Reigning Redeemer
to awaken and restore all in America
who turn from sin to him.
View our brief video titled “Our Vision for America” HERE.
About the Author
Over the past 50 years, David Bryant has been defined by many as a “messenger of hope” and a “Christ proclaimer” to the Church throughout the world. Formerly a minister-at-large with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, president of Concerts of Prayer International (COPI), and chairman of America’s National Prayer Committee, David now provides leadership to ChristNow.com and Proclaim Hope!, whose mission is to foster and serve Christ Awakening movements. Order his widely read books at DavidBryantBooks.com. Enjoy his regular Daily CHRIST TODAY Podcast.