There seems to be no shortage of books about the church at the moment. Each one provides its own critique of what the typical church is doing wrong, and what it should do to rectify this. What makes Ian Stackhouse’s contribution unique is that it comes from a charismatic, criticising charismatics, with particular reference to the UK revivalist / renewal / restorationist scene.
It does not make for light reading. The style of writing is academic and targetted at students of theology. It certainly had me reaching for the dictionary on occasions.
His main thesis is that the contemporary charismatic church has capitulated to the “numbers game” – the all-consuming quest for getting more people to attend your church. This has resulted in at worst compromise, and at best pragmatism, where they simply try to mimick ‘success’ stories elsewhere. This can be seen in the way that churches are so quick to embrace the latest “fad” that promises growth, whether this be Alpha, Strategic Spiritual Warfare, Seeker Sensitive or even Toronto or Pensecola Revivalism. These fads, he argues, have diverted attention from discipleship. Many churches have even embraced a contradictory mix of theologically incompatible fads in their eagerness to grow numerically.
Although he approves of a ‘catechesis’ for new believers, Stackhouse is critical of Alpha, which is viewed by many as a panacea. He also cautions against the excessively experiential focus of charismatic worship, with the need to “get something out of it”, which has led to “performance driven worship with its cult of the worship leader”.
So what is the solution? He argues for a return to preaching, sacrements and prayer. This will result in growth that is intrinsic to the gospel – organic and not merely mathemematical.
So first he calls churches back to preaching from the Bible, which has been displaced in charismatic circles by an emphasis on the prophetic. Where there is preaching, the trend is to preach for a decision rather than as a call to a different way of life. There is also the desire to be “relevant” which again can draw us away from the true demands of the gospel. He also cautions against the trend of preaching visions and ideas, and insists that we let the Biblical text speak. As in other areas of church life, Stackhouse calls for a fidelity to the basic metanarrative of the gospel as our benchmark for success, irrespective of numbers. The gospel, not the church’s relevancy or contemporaneity determines its identity and mission.
Drawing on the insights of P T Forsyth, he argues that a romantic religion of affection and temperament has obscured the religion of will and conscience. We need to believe in the gospel as an agent of renewal.
His next chapter on the sacrements I found a little harder to follow. He contrasted the holiness revivalism of Pensecola with the passive spirituality of Toronto, both of which he sees as missing the mark. Charismatic worship has emphasised musicianship above communion and liturgy resulting in a loss of transcendance. He highlights the importance of remembering what God has done in Christ, which is celebrated in the sacrements of communion and baptism. He rejects the “belonging before believing” model of church growth, which circumvents the scandal of the cross.
In a chapter on ‘pneumatological concerns’ he critiques the “Toronto blessing”, arguing that it represents a step away from a pentecostal Spirit baptism to a focus on manifestation. He calls for a return to an appreciation of the sacrement of the laying on of hands – the gift of the Spirit is not normally unmediated.
As he moves on to consider prayer, he notes that in renewal circles, prayer is almost exclusively conceived as intercession – a tool to be harnessed for church growth. He thinks we would benefit from returning to a “daily office” and a systematic praying of the Psalms, rather than the ad-hoc approach to reading and praying through the Scriptures that most charismatics take. He also laments the lost art of “contemplative prayer” understood as us listening to God as he takes the initiative.
In a chapter on leadership he notes that the focus now seems to be managerial, rather than providing “cure for souls”, hence the senior leader is no longer a “pastor-theologian” but a CEO. He argues that we have lost sight of the pastor’s important role of personally knowing and caring for the members in his church. This is not the same as the pastor becoming a contemporary counsellor, and a commitment to this care for souls will of necessity result in a mega-church model being rejected, as the pastor simply cannot personally relate to more than 300 or so people. Theologians such as Peterson have advocated this necessity of smallness for pastoral ministry to operate correctly. Stackhouse doesn’t wholeheartedly embrace this idea, but admires it. He sees the “Jethro principle” that attempts to compensate for this in large Cell Churches as inadequate.
The final chapter deals with the Ascension gifts of Eph 4, a favourite passage of renewalists if ever there was one. He argues that these are specifically intentioned for qualitative growth, not quantitative. However, he believes that if communities of mature believers are created, the quantitative growth will follow naturally. He calls on those with apostolic ministry to call the church to stay within the theological boundaries of historic orthodox Christianity. This includes a restoration of the doctrine of sin to the attenuated gospel that is being proclaimed. He also takes a swipe at the “militancy” of a post-millennial revivalist mindset, arguing that such an attitude is bogus as a way of constituting the people of God. In conclusion we are urged to forget about effectiveness and focus on fidelity to the Jesus narrative.
What are we to make of this book? Anyone who has spent some time within the UK charismatic scene will have seen first-hand examples of most of the attitudes and practices that Stackhouse criticises. His analysis is insightful, especially the observation that a fixation with numeric growth has been allowed to set the agenda far too easily. I expect that many will react strongly to his criticisms of Alpha, Cell Church, Toronto and so on, but I think it is worth seriously reflecting on what we are doing and why. In the present culture, if a church is large and growing, it can easily assume that it is getting everything right. We must not content ourselves with having a few strengths that the traditional churches do not share. We need also to learn to emulate their strengths. As Stackhouse says, “the necessary iconoclasm of the first generation of any renewal movement ought not to prevail into the second generation.”
I hope to move on now and read some recent books that present the vision from a restorationist perspective of the life and mission of the church – including Dave Devenish’s What on Earth is the Church For and John Hosier’s Christ’s Radiant Church. It will be interesting to see whether any of Ian Stackhouse’s criticisms (and other similar voices) have been recognised and responded to in either of these books.