Considerations on Church-Renewing Movements 1

There are lots of programs, systems, paradigms and “movements” surging through the American Church scene that are promoting themselves as ways to revitalize your church, making it more “missional” and faithful to Jesus and Jesus’ cause. For those who have a rich love for Jesus’ Church, and desire be part of the Word of God increasing and multiplying (Acts 12.24), then this kind of talk will rouse their hearts and draw their attention.

Because this subject resonates with me, I would like to take several weeks to think through some issues related to it. The way I plan to address these concerns, hopes and anticipations is by ruminating over six considerations brought up by William J.Abraham in the first chapter of his book, “The Logic of Renewal” (p.3-6). Though I read this book in 2004, I have found his observations perceptive, and an indispensable aid to discernment in this area throughout the past several years.

To begin with Abraham points out what I think is a serious blind spot for those embracing renewal models, and ought to be kept in the forefront of a church-planter’s or pastor’s mind:
“1. Proposals in renewal will be inescapably theological in content. They will presuppose some sort of ecclesial picture of what the church is supposed to be and to do. It is all too easy to forget this, not least because Christians in the West are woefully weak in their thinking about ecclesiology. Either they refuse to think about it at all, or they simply accept uncritically the conception of the church that they have inherited. Yet ecclesiological considerations are crucial in any deep conception of ecclesial renewal. Our conceptions of renewal depend in part on some governing model of what the life and work of the church should be. We operate with some picture of how things really ought to be in the church at large” (3).
As Abraham brings out here, renewal-missional-reviving movements assume a specific ecclesiological model. I would go further and say that they also flow from a specific sacramental preconception, for ecclesiology and sacramentology go hand in glove. The value of Abraham’s observation is that when looking into any renewal agenda, the leadership must persistently ask, “What ecclesial picture is being assumed here, and thus being advocated (whether intentionally/unintentionally)?”

As an example, when certain emergent church figures started coming into the spotlight with their various books, I picked up several to read. It wasn’t long into any one of them that I began to notice a trend toward something like a restorationist ecclesiology. Restorationism finds its most pronounced adherents among the Anabaptists and their grandchildren (for example, the Campbellite movement that splintered off into the Church of Christ/Disciples of Christ/Christian Church camps). Interestingly enough, one of the more vocal emergent talking heads is a self-proclaimed Anabaptist, happily quoting other Anabaptists, like Yoder and Hauerwas.

The central idea of Restorationism is to restore the first century church because everything went to pot from the 2nd century onward. Some place the shift at the “conversion” of Constantine, but the point is the same: there’s the pristine church and then, ka-pow, the gone-to-pot church. Therefore, the church was royally screwed up for 1500 years (or 1700, or 1900-plus, or...) until we (our particular group) put it back on the right track with our plan or program.  And if you don’t buy into our unspoiled model, you’re part of the apostasy, or you're part of the dysfunctional, compromised Church structure.

An attendant concept that Restorationism has is an individualist ecclesiology that is normally coupled with a memorialist sacramentology. Each congregation is a law unto itself (the root meaning of autonomous) and therefore not subject to any governing authority outside itself. With this congregational autonomy comes a belief of immediate divine authority; whether it’s by the Spirit at work revealing Himself to the leadership or congregation directly, or by way of the leadership’s/congregation’s own historically unplugged notions of what the Bible says, etc. Similarly, the sacraments are vacant of any awareness of the real participation or real presence of Christ, or that the sacraments are truly means of grace. The sacraments are seen more as tools that we can take or leave as we see fit; to use or misuse, keep as they were instituted or modify, however it is most meaningful to us.

This individualist ecclesiology (with its accompanying sacramentology) became clearer to me with each passing tide of new books and new speaking engagements by the authors. What Abraham stated above appears to be correct, that church renewal is inescapably theological in content, and unavoidably ecclesiological.* That recognition ought to cause us to start asking strong questions of any renewal model marketed to us. The primary question must be, “What ecclesial paradigm is assumed and advocated by this program?” And a second question following close by should be, “What is the sacramental supposition of the proponents of this model?”

This leads me to some reflective questions for the reader.
·         If Presbyterians, Anglicans and Lutherans, with their professedly meaty ecclesiology and sacramentology, imbibe in a renewing-resurging paradigm that is Restorationist (specifically, Baptistic and Zwinglian) in its undercurrent, what will the result be?
·         Will this renewal plan create cognitive dissonance in their parishioners (“Why do we act like Baptists, but sprinkle babies?”)?
·         Will we be turning our churches into parachurch organizations or Tupperware parties with a cross, instead of an intentionally Christian Church that is unashamedly Trinitarian and is nurtured in Word and Sacrament, with Prayer?
·         By following this or that model will we be segregating our fellowship across ethnic/economic/political/chronological lines? In other words, does this particular program market to specific age groups, economic groups, racial groups etc, and exclude others who are followers of Christ (see my post on that here)?
As I have written before, we need to worship up to our theology. In a similar vein, maybe we need to renew-resurge up to our theology/ecclesiology/sacramentology as well. This is exactly what I attempted to promote in the fifth chapter of my book, “Gnostic Trends in the Local Church.”

Feel free to post your reflections, comments and observations. I think we would all benefit from the discussion. And watch for the next post in about a week.


* For those wanting to see clearer examples of this, Abraham works through 7 chapters of movements that cut across Catholic-Orthodox-Protestant-Charismatic lines.


It is interesting that protestants usually have spoken of constant or continual reformation and those who see the church as a continuous gathering speak of renewal.I will get the book and read it before I comment further. Peace to you
Paul said…
Will you be discussing Transforming Church Network (TCN) that is rampant in the LCMS? Thanks for what you are doing! Pax Christi,

Fr. Paul F. Becker +
Anonymous said…
The music is part of it. In being "missional", with a bunch of "praise songs" that are about us, and only tangentially about Jesus and His atonement for our sins, the heart of Lutheranism (or of any other Reformation tradition except the Anabaptists) is discarded. Now--once you've accustomed your people to that, if they, as so many people do these days, move to another town, will they look for the local Lutheran church? Or will they look for the nearest "community" megachurch?

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