Book Review – The Gospel Driven Church (Ian Stackhouse)

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.

8 thoughts on “Book Review – The Gospel Driven Church (Ian Stackhouse)

  1. Hi Mark,

    It’s hard work keeping up with all you Newfrontiers bloggers and your copious postings coming out of the conference!

    All I can say about Stackhouses’ comments is, ‘Those with ears, let them hear….’. I think that he points to a fundamental ‘fault’ line within much of what churches like Newfrontiers do and think and, like all fault lines, the risk is that they fracture….

    I’ve not read the book (and probably won’t get around to it for a squillion years since I’ve got a loads to catch up on!), but it’s interesting to hear that:

    a) He mentioned the importance of Sacraments

    and

    b) You found it hard to understand what he was saying

    Of course his writing could have been obtuse and less than clear but (in my experience) this uncovers an underlaying deficiency within the evangelical (of whatever paradigm) mindset – such that sacramental theology is almost like speaking a different language.

    If I get time I think I’ll post some ideas about Sancramental theology, but – as a taster – the concept is about how we do justice to the purpose and agency of God within the physical world in which we live and of which we are made. Matter without the transcendant Spirit becomes idolatry, but the Spirit without matter becomes Gnosticism, both being heresies which the charismatic movement is never far from emulating. Within a sacramental mindset the impulse is to find balance between both extremes and to recognise the divine within the created and thus to participate with the created in order to appropriate the divine. Sound dangerously close to paganism? Well, it is well recognised that the best way to divert someones attention from something is to present them with a parody, so I would suggest that if we want to get closer to understanding true-sacramentality then we might need to understand false-sacramentality.

    Hope this whets the appetite!

    Richard

  2. Richard,

    You are right. I am an ignoramus when it comes to understanding ‘sacraments’. Your point on Spirit without matter and vice versa was helpful.

    Perhaps I can set you a blogging challenge to explain sacraments using simple language. (Or at least start simple before going deeper). You at least know the language that is understood in new churches. If I was leading a time of communion in a cell group meeting and wanted to help a bunch of typical non-theologically savvy church members to ‘get’ a sacramental understanding of communion, what would I say?

    I also don’t know a lot about sacraments in church history. Are there “four views on sacraments”, or are they essentially uncontroversial and the only difference is how much emphasis we place on the sacramental interpretation of baptism / communion?

    I also look forward to hearing what “false sacrementality” is.

  3. Thanks for this post, Mark – I have been meaning to read this for a while now. In particular, I am interested in distinguishing between abuses and faults that we all recognise need to change and improve (eg I think we all agree that preaching needs to be more Biblical – and I see New Frontiers seeking to address this) and what are abuses and errors in theology and structure that demand significant restructuring/redirection. From what you have read – are Stackhouse’s critiques more of the former or latter?

  4. Ger,

    A very interesting question. I guess he might say that the renewal movement genuinely noticed some abuses, errors and omissions in the established churches. They sought to build churches righted these wrongs.

    The trouble is, at the same time, some of the strengths of those older churches were absent from the new, and some even misunderstood and discarded completely.

    So in theory, the new churches can ‘fix’ many of their problems by simply expanding their horizons a bit, and making sure that they are not neglecting important aspects.

    More concerning is what Stackhouse calls the “numbers game”, which he feels needs to be abandoned. It has resulted in compromise even of some of the distinctive strengths of the new churches, and also the embracing of fads, which are usually of dubious value. This needs to be replaced with a fundamental commitment to our fidelity to the gospel story.

    So its hard to definitively answer your question. I think most new church leaders will agree with most of the positive statements Stackhouse makes about what principles should govern church life (e.g. who would disagree that we need quality not just quantity?). But I’m not sure how many consider the way they are operating currently to be in violation of these principles.

  5. Thanks Mark – I think it is clear that there are abuses and omissions in all denominations/movements. The question then comes, can the particular abuses and omissions of a denomination/movement be ‘fixed’ within the current wineskin. My own thought is that movements that are birthed out of renewal find it more difficult to ‘fix’ their own omissions, because they were birthed as a new movement/denomination with key distinctives and they have a tremendous fear that if they try and fill their ‘omissions’ they will begin to lose their distinctives and their ‘reason to exist’. The second generation of these movements therefore has to do one of three things; try and re-live the early years (and I was at a Vineyard conference recently and the call was to do just that), or to find a new vision that is still based around the old distinctives but will give them a new ‘reason to exist’, or to re-emerge (and risk the dismantling of the movement) into the wider body of Christ as they seek to mesh their distinctives with those of other denominations. I don’t think there is a ‘right’ answer to this question and one must listen to the leading of the Spirit as to which way to go. Interestingly, the last 10 years have seen examples of all three directions amongst UK charismatic house/new churches.

    Blessings

    Ger

  6. Great insights Ger!

    I guess I have to unashamedly opt for option 3 everytime, since the 1st two options risk stagnation or distortion. I’m not really a big E evangelical and go for the church catholic in my ecclesiology. Movements born from division will ultimately struggle if they fail to relink with the wider body. But then that’s only my humble opinion!

    Richard

  7. Enjoyed the reveiw mark.

    Sorry i have not visited your blog recently.

    I have looked at the hosier and devenish books. Unfortunatly they do not deal with the issues raised in the gospel driven church. I am hoping to write a critical review of them, once i finish my studies. Suffice to say that Hoiser, who i know is passionate about breaking bread, does not even have a chapter on it in the book. And seems more worried by the pragmatic nature of what church should do rather than what church is.

    If it was up to me he should have read P. T. Forsyth’s Church and Sacraments 😉

    Richard

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