When Was Your Church The Greatest?

making church great again

We all know that at least one presidential candidate wants to get back to that time when America was its greatest, but it’s unclear when that was exactly.

Margot Sanger-Katz wrote this for The NY Times Tuesday asking “When was America greatest?”  2000+ United States citizens were surveyed and their answers to this question varied widely.

The years most voted “the greatest” were 1955, 1960, 1970, 1985, 2000, 2008, and 2015.  But what was “great” for some people was not so great for everyone:

  • 1955 – No wars, Baby boom (But Claudette Colvin was arrested on March 2 for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white woman in Montgomery, Alabama.  She was handcuffed, kicked and harassed on the way to jail.  She was 15 years old.  And this was legal.)
  • 1960 –  Hawaii joined the USA!  Cassius Clay won the Olympic gold medal in boxing. (But four African America students were arrested for sitting at a “white lunch counter” in Greensboro.  And it was ugly.  Jim Crow laws would still be in effect for five more years.)
  • 1970 – 18 year olds get the vote! Earth Day is established.  (But at a protest on the campus of Kent State University, the National Guard shot 67 rounds of gunfire in 13 seconds, killing four students.)
  • 1985 – Ronald Reagan is President! (But AIDS killed 5636 people in the U.S.)
  • 2000 – The unemployment rate drops to a low of 3.8%, the lowest since December 1969.  (But the USS Cole was bombed by Al-Qaeda suicide bombers killing 17 in Yemen.)
  • 2008 – Obama is elected president.  Ice is discovered on Mars. (But the worst financial crisis since the 1930s peaks.)
  • 2015 – Lowest violent crime rate since 1995.  (But three young Muslim students were killed by a neighbor in Chapel Hill, NC. Freddie Gray was killed while in police custody in Baltimore.  Nine people are killed during a Bible study at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, SC by a white supremacist.  Sandra Bland died in police custody after her arrest for a traffic violation in Texas.)

When was the U.S. the greatest?  It depends who you talk to.

And when were the greatest years for your church?  Again, it depends.

  • When the Sunday School was bursting at the seams?
  • When stay-at-home moms were so plentiful that there was never a problem finding volunteers?
  • When the titans of industry built magnificent sanctuaries?
  • When the choir toured in Europe?
  • When Mainline churches enjoyed political and cultural power?
  • When non-denominational mega churches grew in power?
  • When evangelists got TV shows?
  • When denominations built hospitals and schools?
  • When denominations spoke up against injustice – even injustice perpetuated by national and international powers?
  • When men were pastors and women were pastors’ wives?
  • When everybody dressed in their Sunday best?

I guest preached in a gorgeous sanctuary a few years ago and as we waited for the prelude to end, I found myself staring up at the glorious Tiffany windows and the gold leaf painted dome.  “What are you looking at?” the liturgist said.  “I‘m just marveling that someone would love Jesus so much that they would give the money to create this amazing space.”

Oh, it wasn’t like that at all,” the liturgist continued.  “Those two windows were bought by (a wealthy industrialist) and then (another wealthy industrialist) donated four windows to show that he was richer than the other guy.”


I can’t help but think that – actually – the greatest years for the church were in the First Century CE:

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. Acts 2:44-47

I can’t help but think that – if we focused on ministry that looked more like ministry in the First Century – the church would indeed be greater.  What do you think?

4 responses to “When Was Your Church The Greatest?

  1. I once heard the author of Acts compared to a congregation’s church historian, who gives the rosiest picture possible. I doubt “all” and “everyone” was ever literally true, just as in Acts 4:32 we get “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common,” followed almost immediately by the story of Ananias and Sapphira.


  2. It’s always struck me that we woldn’t have parts of the New Testament, like large swaths of the Corinthian correspondence, if the church of the first century wasn’t deeply flawed.


  3. It depends on the definition of “great”.


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