Considerations on Church-Renewing Movements 5

As William Abraham continues to tackle renewal movements in his book "The Logic of Renewal" (see my previous posts to get up to speed if you’re just joining in), he turns to the area of discernment;
“5. This leads naturally to a fifth point. Like it or not, there is no firm calculus for making good judgments in this arena. Perhaps this is why some people stay clear of the whole business of renewal. They are acutely aware that, in thinking about renewal, what is ultimately needed is a very rich gift of ecclesial and spiritual discernment. It is easy to go astray; more specifically, it is easy to fall prey to a kind of utopianism. ( . . . ) On the one hand, people who crave for radical and substantial change often feel very incompetent and helpless. In such circumstances, they are liable to follow any leader who is confident enough to lead them to revival. On the other hand, there are leaders who are only too keen to become spiritual dictators. They can easily develop spurious justifications for their fiscal and moral aberrations” (p. 4-5).
Abraham believes the renewal “is not itself the health of the church but a means to the restoration of health” (6), which means that renewal programs must be approached with care and sagacious insight. As noted above, there are two critical pitfalls to avoid: (1) Utopianism; (2) Grasping at Leadership straws, banking on the charisma of a leader and his/her plans. This leads me to ask a few questions for the church planter or pastor who is craving renewal in the church:
  • Is this program overreaching itself by “over selling” its product? In other words, does it promise that by following the programmers’ precise steps the church will be resuscitated and become the local super church? Is it all mechanical and technical, with steps of success up the ladder of influence (“If you will only follow these 5, 15, or 40 steps, your church will blossom and flourish and you can then write books like this one.”)?
  • Does this particular plan promote the notion that “this is the real, genuine New Testament/Holy Spirit/Early Church way to do things. And if we would only get back to it we would see life again”?
  • Does the particular reviving format approach renewal as, “This is how it worked in my church, and by being like me or doing like me, you too will accomplish victory”?

These are only intended to be starter questions, but they all address the utopian tendencies and leader-charisma intensive aspects of many renewal programs. What are some other questions that ought to be asked to help decide if a program is helpful or possibly harmful?

Abraham pointed out that what is needed for gauging renewal programs is ecclesial and spiritual discernment. What this will look like may be fairly different in various traditions. Most church planters and pastors will need to define their own ecclesiology, sacramentology and pneumatology, and then see if the program fits or modifies it.

 One example of a format that breaks its ecclesiological boundaries is that proposed by the Assembly of God theologian from Singapore, Simon Chan, in his book “Liturgical Theology.” Though I loved the book, and his desire to reclaim liturgy, it always seemed to me that his approach would turn Assembly of God congregations into something other than what they are. Another example would be the Church of Scotland missionary to India, Lesslie Newbigin.  His beautiful attempt at melding Presbyterian, Anglican and Congregational mission works into a unified whole (The Church of South India) was noble, but reshaped those congregations into something completely other than what their initial ecclesiology and sacramentology defined them as. Please don’t get me wrong. I found both of these men’s works insightful, instructive, hopeful and helpful, and recommend their works often. The trouble is that the end result seems to me to create movements that turn host churches into something completely different than what they were at the start. Though neither necessarily requires dependence on Leader-charisma (the 2nd pitfall Abraham warns against), both can easily slide into utopianism.

Do you have any other examples of the two pitfalls Abraham mentions? Post them in the comments below.



Greg Fields said…
When I first came to our church, I explained that I intended to pastor a reformed church. I had a sample of the liturgy that expressed my sense of what this meant in terms of worship. Nobody flinched. A year to the day after putting those changes in place, 8 folks left. That was a third of the congregation. There were various reasons not connected to the changes, but I do believe that one issue was significant. It was not the same church anymore. One reason I tried to be up front about my intentions was that this church, though Presbyterian, had functioned in a broadly evangelical way. The changes I introduced, though bringing it closer to many churches and church plants, altered the habits of worship and an entirely new character developed. This created a dissonance that some could not overcome.

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