I have though been slowly working through Ian Stackhouse’s “Gospel Driven Church”, which has been quite thought provoking (a review will follow in due course). In this rather long and rambling post I want to take up one of his ideas, which is that in the desire for (numerical) “growth”, new churches (i.e Restorationist / Renewal churches) have adopted a pragmatism which has resulted in the compromise of previously held principles. In other words success is measured by numbers rather than faithfulness to the gospel – a results driven mentality. This is possibly an overly harsh diagnosis, but I feel that he has at least discerned a trend that must not be allowed to develop unchecked.
One of the attitudes that the new churches have been glad see the back of is defeatism. In some evangelical churches, success is almost measured by how small your congregation is. If people are leaving, it consitutes proof that you are being faithful to the gospel. These churches have a “remnant” mentality, like saying with Elijah “I am the only one left” (1 Kings 19:14)
This defeatism was replaced with idealism. The new churches saw themselves as “new wineskins” (Mark 2:22), able to throw off legalism and dry rituals and replace it with a vibrant kingdom model of church, with genuine fellowship, dynamic worship, spiritual authority, prophetic direction, apostolic oversight, powerful teaching, impacting the community with the gospel. The expectation was for imminent revival, and the return to a “New Testament model” would be key to success.
But 20 years down the line, and the wide-spread revival hoped for has not materialised. What’s more, many were left bitter and disillusioned following failures and even abuses in these new churches. Ian Stackhouse suggests that to compensate for the shortcomings, pragmatism became the new modus operandi. What is working elsewhere? Alpha, Cell Church, Seeker Sensitive, Purpose Driven, Spiritual Mapping etc – whatever the mega-churches were doing ought to be copied as it is obviously working (or more commonly put “God is blessing it”). The end result is churches that have diluted their original idealism and settled for being a successful franchise of a mega-church.
But if pragmatism is not the answer, what is? Surely we don’t want to retreat back to a defeatist mentality? But neither can we return to the naïve optimism of those early days. Ian Stackhouse has his own proposals, which I will discuss when I review his book, but I want to make a humble suggestion of my own. We can return to idealism so long as it tempered with realism. In other words, getting back to the original vision of a glorious church, but honestly acknowledging that we’re not there yet, and that we’ve got lessons to learn from the church of ages past. After all, even the “old wineskin” denominations were once the latest thing themselves.
A Case Study
There are lots of ways this could be expanded on, but I’ll briefly mention the “Ephesians 4 ministries” by way of example, as it was a key part of the original Restorationist vision. It is possible for a church that has succumbed to pragmatism to pay lip-service to these ministries without actually fully embracing them. I was interested to note that Dan also has the Eph 4 ministries on his mind at the moment, as he draws attention to Terry Virgo’s excellent comments on apostles and integrity of doctrine.
Apostles – The pragmatic church gets all the training pamphlets and DVDs it needs from the model mega-church, and fulfils its part in global mission by sending some spare money to parachurch organisations. Apostles are therefore redundant, and simply function as conference speakers.
Prophets – The pragmatic church sidelines the prophetic from meetings as its not “seeker sensitive”. They don’t need direction as their manuals tell them all they need to know about how to step up to the next level of growth.
Teachers – The pragmatic church makes sure it doesn’t scare new people away with Biblical exposition. A humorous short talk or a slick multimedia presentation is the order of the day. The church may claim to be “Bible-believing”, but it will have an increasingly “Bible-illiterate” membership.
Pastors – The pragmatic church does merely what is necessary to keep people attending and tithing. The emphasis is on keeping people happy rather than helping them to grow in holiness. The pastor’s job is to maintain the membership database rather than to run the discipleship program.
Evangelists – Despite the emphasis on growth, the pragmatic church would rather find a method that can be easily scaled than looking to find those who will create fresh ways of confronting the lost with the gospel. Who needs evangelists when you can show DVDs of Nicky Gumbel?
The Way Forward
So has the original idealistic vision been swallowed up into a purely pragmatic outlook? I don’t think so, at least not in the circles I am in. However, we should beware as the transition can be gradual. Church planting is perhaps going to be key to making sure we avoid this trap. With every new church, there is a fresh return to the original vision, an idealism mixed with faith, and people who are willing to make personal sacrifices to see the kingdom advance. Existing churches will also be reminded that they don’t just exist for their own benefit as they release people to be part of a wider global mission, and new people are raised up to serve in their place. This will result in growth that is not just numerical, but spiritual, or as Ian Stackhouse puts it, growth that is intrinsic to the gospel, not extrinsic.
Anyway, that’s enough for today… I’ve got loads of thoughts running round my head on this topic at the moment, so perhaps some more posts will follow later this week.