Considerations on Church-Renewing Movements 3

Analogies can be helpful tools for teaching new concepts, transferring perceptions from one person to the next, or opening up a new awareness to ideas not seen before. William Abraham (“The Logic of Renewal”), in trying to pierce into the heart of renewal movements and their unexamined assumptions, moves to a medical analogy.
“3. Proposals about renewal invariably follow a simple pattern. They propose a description of the life of the church that depicts what is flawed in one way or another – we are told that the church is diseased or sick in some crucial respect. This leads to a diagnosis as to why the flaw or set of flaws has developed – we are given an account of the etiology of the sickness of the church. Finally, there is a prescription as to how to put things right – we are offered an account of the medicine that we need to take if the church is to be cured” (p. 3-4).
This medical analogy is helpful in thinking about how renewal movements view an existing church structure and in discerning the unwritten assumptions lying behind the architectural plan they have proposed for moving forward. Three parts of the analogy break out simply: (1) Description of the disease; (2) Diagnosis; (3) Prescription.

Assuming that Abraham’s analogy “works”, we immediately run into a given rejuvenation project’s initial supposition: the church organization is diseased, broken down, malfunctioning, faulty. There is no alternative narrative, no self-restraining perception that maybe the organism might actually be working as it was meant to work. No modest deportment raising self-questioning notions that maybe the revitalizers themselves might simply be dissatisfied and discontent with a healthy ordinariness. For them it is a forgone conclusion that the church is sick, diseased and dying, “unless we do something fresh and novel!” It seems to me that there is a deep need for a self-policing humility, a self-restraining reticence, a seriously reflective self-doubt. A godly prudence that is similar to Luther’s slow-going reserve before the Diet of Worms, Calvin’s reluctance on his initial trip through Geneva, or Cranmer’s plodding patience with the prayer book.

Once we move beyond this initial supposition, there are at least two interrelated questions to then ask (while still using Abraham’s description above):  What perceptional diagnosis is a particular renewal movement telling and does it reveal an inherent ecclesiology and sacramentology?

By asking this two-part question, we are pressed to look through a movement’s lens to see what they see, to discern what the program producers perceive is the disease. For example, some groups coming from a Restorationist paradigm will see the disease infecting the church as the lack of a pristine spirituality. That there is too much formalism in structure or liturgy, and not enough spontaneity. That the present leadership is too restrictive and impedes real revival. Also, that the message the church preaches is too formulaic and routine. And this heavy formalism, tight-fisted governance, rigidness in preaching, wooden conventionalism in administering the sacraments, is vandalizing the church’s purity and hampering its mission. Therefore the church, with its message, and method of worship and mission, has become irrelevant. The ecclesiological and sacramental assumption lurking in the shadows is that order and form, stability and structure, precision and procedure, hamper freedom and vitality.

The remedy that might be proposed by this reviving consortium will probably sound something like this, “We just need to go back to the purity of an extemporaneous Christianity, the cleanness of an unadulterated and uncluttered worship, the wholesomeness of the New Testament Church. We need to unfetter the gifts and sacraments from the clergy and democratize them. The priesthood of believers means the priesthood of THE believer!” Or even worse, the touted cure might, on the one hand, pronounce the rejection of all restraint (liturgically, ethically, ecclesiologically, and sacramentally), and on the other hand, promote only instantaneous encounters with God.

It would appear that by using Abraham’s medical analogy above, a church planter or pastor would be benefited by asking certain questions of any revitalizing project to which they are attracted:
  •  Does this project presuppose that the church is marred, malformed, or diseased? To follow that thread of thought backward will probably reveal the ecclesiology and sacramentology of any given restorative program.
  •  What remedy does this project promote? Does it automatically trade off form and order with spontaneity and anticlericalism?

I hope this series is beneficial to you as you think these things through. I am not sure I have any answers at this point, and therefore am eager to see this turn into a civil discussion. Please feel at liberty to interject your thoughts and observations. Thanks for reading.



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