Leaving revivalism behind?

Christianity Today has posted a fascinating article by Gordon T. Smith, excerpted from his essay on “Conversion and Redemption” in the Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology.  The Handbook itself is a fantastic resource, though it is terribly expensive.  Thankfully the libraries I have access to have bought the electronic version.   Included in the Handbook are articles by my dissertation director, Ephraim Radner, on the church, and a chapter on spiritual gifts by Howard Snyder, who has been a mentor to me and many other Canadian Wesleyan theological students during his tenure as Chair of Wesley Studies at Tyndale Seminary.

Smith’s article argues that evangelical understandings of conversion are changing dramatically, and that a common feature that can be seen in the wide variety of changes in this regard is that, across the board, revivalism is being left behind:

It is not be an overstatement to say that evangelicals are experiencing a “sea change”—a paradigm shift—in their understanding of conversion and redemption, a shift that includes the way in which they think about the salvation of God, the nature and mission of the church, and the character of religious experience. Although there is no one word to capture where evangelicals are going in this regard, there is a word that captures what they are leaving behind: revivalism.

Smith offers a sketch of the ways that revivalism has impacted evangelicalism’s understanding of conversion: the focus on a dramatic one-time experience, often crystallized in the the saying of the “sinner’s prayer”; the emphasis on the afterlife; the practical distinction between “evangelism” and “disciple-making,” the emphasis on numeric growth, and so on.

He then traces how developments in evangelical thinking in a number of different fields have challenged the revivalistic assumptions which characterized much of 20th century evangelicalism.  New ideas in biblical studies, new approaches to religious experience, ecumenical influences, the changing face of global Christianity, and an increased interest in learning from Christian history have all combined to undermine the revivalist understanding of conversion.

Increasingly, there is appreciation that conversion is a complex experience by which a person is initiated into a common life with the people of God who together seek the in-breaking of the kingdom, both in this life and in the world to come. This experience is mediated by the church and thus necessarily includes baptism as a rite of initiation. The power or energy of this experience is one of immediate encounter with the risen Christ—rather than principles or laws—and this experience is choreographed by the Spirit rather than evangelistic techniques. Evangelicals are reappropriating the heritage of the Reformation with its emphasis on the means of grace, and thereby affirming the priority of the Spirit’s work in religious experience.

The excerpt ends with Smith pointing to the deeper issues that this sea-change will raise for evangelical thinking about the church.

The only question that remains, then, is whether evangelicals will trust these instincts and devote themselves to Christ-centered worship and kingdom-oriented mission. Will this be evident in deep trust that God will do God’s work in God’s time? To trust the work of God is to trust the Spirit and this necessarily means that the church trusts the Word—the Scriptures preached—as the essential means of grace and conversion.

This begs the question of what it means to be the church. The evangelical tradition is at a fork in the road and, given this sea change in the understanding of conversion and redemption, the most crucial issue at stake is what it means to be a congregation. Evangelicals will only be able to navigate these waters if they can formulate a dynamic theology of the church that reflects the Triune character of God, the means of grace—Spirit and Word—and a radical orientation in mission toward the kingdom of God.

The article is well worth a read.   I think it helpfully draws together and summarizes some of the important developments that are taking place in contemporary evangelical thinking.  While revivalism’s legacy includes many positive things, some aspects of revivalist thinking are deeply suspect, and a critical re-evaluation of its influence is most certainly needed.   This was, in part, what I was trying to do in my article “Five Ways to Improve SA Worship” –  I was highlighting the way in which Salvationist worship has been shaped by a kind of “routinized revivalism,” and arguing that there are aspects of this heritage that need to be jettisoned.  The same kind of thing is happening on a much larger scale, and in relation to a broad range of topics.  It is hard to say where any of this is going to end up, but I think this change in thinking about conversion certainly has potential to bear fruit in a genuine renewal of evangelical mission and theology.

Why “developing a personal relationship with Jesus” might be a bad idea

One of the most common catchphrases you will hear in evangelical Christian circles is “developing a personal relationship with Jesus.”   It’s a phrase that gets used often as a way to underscore the importance of having a living faith, rather than a faith that is merely based on assent to certain ideas, or participation in certain church practices.   Often it seems, in my experience, that “buidling a personal relationship with Jesus” is the proposed solution to innumerable problems and challenges facing Christians today.

I’m a little bit skeptical of the phrase, because, for starters, I’m skeptical of anything that is proposed as solution for all my problems.   Secondly, I wonder what people mean when they talk about a “personal relationship with Jesus.”  The phrase is so over-used that I think people don’t stop to think about what they are saying.

When most people talk about their “personal relationship” with Jesus, it seems to imply something like a relationship between two best friends.  Often “developing your personal relationship” means “spending time” with Jesus in prayer and personal Bible study.   For most people I think they see this as kind of  like having some “getting to know you” time with God.

If this is a true reflection of what evangelicals mean by “developing a personal relationship with Jesus,” I think it can be problematic.

I worry that evangelicals can let a kind of “works righteousness” in through the back door by placing so much emphasis on personal devotion.   It seems to cast the relationship in a rather one-sided way; it seems it’s up to us to “develop” a relationship with God.  I think the gospel says something quite different: God reaches out and establishes a relationship with us, even while we are rebellious sinners who don’t care at all about him.   If our relationship with God is based on whatever we have “developed,” I think we’re in deep trouble.  That’s far too shaky a foundation.

I think we need to be clear that we do not put our trust in the relationship we have developed with Jesus – our trust is in Jesus himself.  This is another way of saying, we don’t trust our trust, because this comes at the question from the human side, and can end up leaving the impression that our relationship is something we develop and contribute to salvation. Faith is more radically outward-focused than that. We trust in Christ alone. We bring nothing to the table, even if we’ve been a Christian for decades.

So, to have “personal” faith is not so much about being on familiar terms with Jesus, in the way we might conceive of a personal relationship which develops between friends (although trusting in Christ alone will likely lead towards something like that over time); it is personal because we, as persons, trust in the person of Christ.

If our personal relationship with Christ “develops,” it’s not so much that we develop it, but that it develops in us by the Spirit as we put our trust daily in Christ alone – that is, as we continue to trust that Christ will be faithful to us, even as our meagre devotion to him remains tainted by sin.

So, I think, if I was to use this over-used phrase, I would want to be very clear that the personal relationship we have with Jesus is the fruit of our outwardly-focused trust in the person of Christ, rather than the foundation.  This is a subtle distinction, but I think it is an important one.

Typology of Views of Charismatic Movements, part 6: Institutional over Charismatic

As I said in my introduction to this series, it is hard to find anyone today who actually tries to make a theological argument for the priority of the institutional over the charismatic in the Church.

Historically, the obvious example of prioritizing the institutional over the chairsmatic is modern Catholicism, before Vatican II.   The Roman Catholic Church was conceived as a perfect society, meaning that the Church was a complete social system, and its various elements were instituted by God, so that it would lack nothing in its historical existence until the return of Christ.  The priesthood, all the sacraments, the hierarchy, even monasticism and the religious life, were said to be derived directly from Jesus Christ himself.  These institutions were therefore invested with divine authority, such that, any “charismatic” who arose outside the established order would be seen as problematic. As Johann Adam Möhler summarized this view, “God created the hiearchy and in this way provided amply for everything that was required until the end of time.”

Of course the problem with this perspective was that, for one, it was not historically accurate.  It embraces what Avery Dulles describes as a “regressive method” of theology, whereby the latest teachings of the Church are adopted “as if they have been present from the beginning” (Models of the Church, 32), since any change would be seen as an “innovation,” and would undermine the view that all had been provided for in the Church’s institutions (including the magisterium).  Clearly, the Church’s institutions have developed over time, and many innovations have been made along the way.  Among these innovations, we must include some which I would call “charismatic movements”: monasticism of various kinds, the mendicant orders, apostolic societies, and so on.  These are among Catholicism’s most treasured institutions, but in the modern “perfect society” scheme of ecclesiology, it would have been difficult to explain their origins, apart from rooting them somehow in the divine institution of Jesus Christ.

These ideas are pretty far removed from the life of the Church today, even for Roman Catholics. However, the “institutional over charismatic” mindset is by no means absent.  Institutionalism is a pervasive social phenomenon, and all of our churches (even those which are highly charismatic) have to wrestle with the challenges it brings.  Therefore, the natural tendency in any church tradition is to be sceptical of leaders and movements who arise from oustide the established order.  We could say that, though it is not argued for theologically, “institutional over charismatic” is the default operating perspective of most churches.

Clericalism is perhaps the best example.  Even in evangelical churches, which profess a strong doctrine of the “priesthood of all believers,” there is a tendency to view the pastors as “professional Christians,” and to exclude lay people from fulfilling many roles which they ought to be able to fulfill.  Those who have the gifts (charisms), should be freed to exercise them, but they are sometimes excluded simply by virtue of the fact that they are not clergy.

I grew up in a denomination (The Salvation Army) where the clergy are largely responsible for the business of the church.   It strikes me as rather odd that we should expect pastors to be business-savvy, when there are likely members of their congregation who are business men and women themselves.

I’ve noticed that a lot of other evangelical traditions tend to have a “pastoral prayer” at every service.   This is where the pastor stands up and leads the congregation in a long prayer prayer.   I suppose most people see this as harmless, but I think it promotes a clericalist mindset.  Why would we want the pastor to be the only who publicly prays during worship?  It sends the message, again, that pastors are the “professional Christians.” It is interesting that in the older traditions (Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, etc.), which most evangelicals assume are more “clericalized,” the prayers are not led by the pastor, but by lay intercessors. In the SA, the officer often leads this prayer, but sometimes it is a layperson.

The problem is that we can’t go too far in the other direction.  We need institutions, including ordained ministry (in my opinion).  We need stable structures that endure over time, and provide a means for passing on the faith from one generation to the next in a way that retains the historic core of gospel teaching.  We cannot escape this need.   We must embrace the institutions of the Church, without absolutizing them, and thereby excluding any new wisdom that the Spirit might bring from unexpected places.  That means, in part, that the institutional authorities of the Church must be open to discerning and coordinating the charisms that arise among the people.

Charismatic Movements in the Church

I’m introducing a new series of blog posts on the topic of “charismatic movements” in the Church.  When I speak of ” charismatic” movements,  I don’t necessarily mean pentecostal movements, but those movements of renewal and reform which rise up spontaneously in the Church, and centre around particularly gifted individuals, who operate outside existing authority structures.  Such movements have existed throughout the history of the Church, and have always had a rocky relationship with the established Church authorities.

I developed this rough timeline as a teaching tool for a course I was TAing earlier this year.  We could debate whether some of these movements are “charismatic,” but I would argue that they were all charismatic in origin, meaning that they sprung up around individuals who were perceived to be specially gifted (the basic meaning of “charism” being “gift”).   The timeline gets really selective when it comes to the modern era, because at that point I had to be selective.  I’m not claiming the timeline is exhaustive at that point, but I hope it is representative.  My main purpose in creating the timeline this way was to contrast “catholic” movements (meaning those who were eventually accepted by Church authorities as legitimate) with “non-catholic.”

I should add also that I’m not addressing the issue of “heresy” here, as some of the movements in question were definitely preaching a message which was outside the boundaries of historic Christian orthodoxy. I think most people would agree that the Bogomils and Cathars were heretical, but assessing the orthodoxy of other individual movements on the list would require more of a discussion than I want to get into.

One of the questions I’m studying for my dissertation concerns how we account for these movements theologically.  How do we know if a charismatic movement is truly of God?  What do these movements represent? A return to the primitive purity of the Church?  A form of fanaticism?  A revitalizing force?

I’ve developed a typology of positions on the question of the place of charismatic movements in the Church, and this typology will form the basis for my series of posts, each of which will discuss one or two representative theologians:

  • Charismatic opposed to institutional. Here the work of Rudolph Söhm and early 20th century scholars such as Adolf von Harnack is important.  The theory of these writers is that the church was originally charismatic, but this was stifled by emerging catholicism (institutionalism in his mind) in the 2nd century.  The emergence of stable authority structures was therefore a failure on the part of early Christianity.
  • Charismatic more fundamental than institutional. I’d summarize Leonardo Boff’s work in Church, Charism, and Power along these lines.  Charism is more fundamental than institution, because it gives rise to the institution and keeps it alive. Therefore the charismatic gifts of the Spirit should be the structuring principle of the church.
  • Charismatic in tension with institutional. Karl Rahner tries to hold the two structures in tension by arguing that there are both institutional and non-institutional charismata. A Legitimate opposition of forces in the life of the Church is inevitable and should be accepted.  Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s “christological constellation” also fits under this category.
  • Charismatic complementary to institutional. More recent ecumenical work has attempted to overcome the duality of charismatic movements and institutional structures by stressing the complementarity of the two.  Joseph Ratzinger also wrote along these lines in his discussion of lay movements in the Church, even going so far as to reject the dichotomy of charism/institution as inappropriate for ecclesiology.
  • Charismatic enlivens institutional. Others stress the role of charismatic movements as enlivening forces for the institutional church.  So Howard Snyder argues that both institutional structures and charismatic movements can be seen as normal and valid in the Church’s history.  I’ll also discuss Catholic theologies of “the religious life” (religious orders, etc.) under this category.
  • Institutional over charismatic. It’s hard to find anyone who actually argues for this theologically, but it is common on a practical level, so I’ll still attempt a post on this perspective.
  • Charismatic gifts as justification for separation. Oscar Cullmann’s book Unity Through Diversity makes the argument that different the “confessions” in the Church have their own unique charisms, which need to be preserved.  Therefore he argues that continued structural separation of the churches is justified, so that these diverse gifts can be preserved.  Many denominationalist theologies proceed on similar assumptions.

While the work I’ll be discussing is scholarly, the issue of finding a place for charismatic movements in the Church has immense practical implications, and I’ll attempt to draw these out.  This has been a perennial issue for the Church, and it remains an important problem today.  Think of the controversy surrounding “emergent” and whether it is a legitimate movement of reform or a heretical offshoot of genuine Christianity.  How are these “new expressions” of church related to the established Churches?

It is also an important question for people of evangelical heritage, because move evangelical denominations began as charismatic reform movements (not as denominations or “churches”).  Does that have implications for our understanding of the Church and the place of “denominations” as they now exist?  I think it does, and I’m hopeful that reflection on the history of charismatic movements, as well as theological reflection on the nature of the Church and where they fit, can provide some direction for our life together as we seek to give faithful witness in the post-Christendom context.

more on moralism, via internet monk

This morning I read this 2005 re-post from Internet Monk – a great piece on how assurance is undermined by contemporary evangelical spirituality.  Part of the issue is the moralism I was on about in my last post:

Much of evangelical preaching today is focused on moralism of various kinds, constantly pointing the Christian to what he/she ought to be doing. Serious preaching on discipleship often directs the Christian to a variety of duties, ministry needs and pressing obligations for any true follower of Jesus. For sensitive consciences, it can seem that the Christian life is about being a “good” person, doing “good” things in a hurting world, imitating Jesus so others can see Jesus in you.

Many contemporary preachers are busy describing the Christian life as a life where the Christian finds his/her destiny and fulfills his/her dreams. Follow the principles for success and purpose, and experience God’s best for your life. But what if you are failing? Suffering? Constantly falling short? Such emphases can undermine assurance when the Christian is told the outcome of the Christian life is practical, real-world results.

I think the sincere and laudable desire to be “relevant” and give “life-applications” is at the root of much of  this moralistic preaching.  We want to give people a “so what” point at the end of the sermon, so we end questions like: “What about you? Are you doing your best with [insert sermon topic]?”

The bottom line of many sermons is “you need to do more.”  Usually the “more” is about one of three things: personal Bible study, personal prayer life, and witnessing to others.   All are important aspects of Christian life, but the problem is that our worship services, and our sermons, are designed to climax at this point of “life application.”  It is the point toward which the rest of the service points.  So the main thing that we are saying each Sunday is, “we need to be doing this or that,” rather than a proclamation of the victory of Christ. Our spirituality is focused too heavily on our state as Christians, and not enough on the constant re-presentation of the saving acts of God.  Making self-examination the foundation will lead us to either despair (if we are honest) or presumption (if we think we really are doing enough!).  Our actions, the things we “do” as Christians, come as a grateful response to God’s prior action “for us and for our salvation.”   Often times it seems that we are putting the cart before the horse by our strong emphasis on what we should be doing.

Pastors as wannabe executives

There’s a really interesting post here from Dave Fitch, entitled “Stuck between Mohler and McLaren.”   By coincidence I was reading through his chapter on “Leadership” in The Great Giveaway yesterday, which covers some similiar ground.    At first I thought he was referencing Johann Adam Möhler, and I was really intrigued…but it’s Al Mohler (less interesting to me personally, but much more representative of the contemporary church!).

The thesis in this chapter of The Great Giveaway is that the contemporary pastorate has capitulated to models of leadership found in the business world, which are fundamentally oriented toward “effectiveness” in getting results, rather than on faithfulness to Jesus Christ.  This leads to conflict resolution strategies that are high handed and autocratic.  The pastor needs to decide on a solution in order for the ministry to maintain its effectiveness (which usually means numerical growth).   If people don’t get on board, they are standing in the way of the “success” of the ministry.

I’m really connecting with what Fitch has to say, as it sums up and connects some ideas that have been rolling around in my head for some time.   Most books on Christian leadership are simply parroting the latest trendy ideas from the world of management.   What’s worse is that they throw in the odd scripture verse and “spiritualize” the ideas they’re selling, which means that the pastors who buy this stuff are taking that back to their churches believing that they’ve got divine authority on their side as they try to implement these so-called “biblical” strategies.   Not that insights from the business world have absolutely no value.  They might be helpful as tools to aid in Church leadership, if used selectively within a larger biblical and theological framework.  But they should not have the defining role that they have in the contemporary evangelical world.  So whether it’s “mission statements,” “visioning,” “strategic planning,” or more recently, “branding,” churches are embracing contemporary management techniques wholeheartedly as if they were gospel truth.   People who don’t get on board then are “problems” to be managed (at best), or (at worst) hinderances to the Spirit.   If it seems like I’m exaggerating here, I’m not.  I know a person who was told that their practical questions about church finance were “of the devil.” 

For all the diversity of contemporary Canadian society, it seems like we’re getting worse at handling conflict in our churches.  Everywhere you look there is  a local congregation that is being torn apart by some scandal or another.   Perhaps it is (as Fitch suggests in his book) connected to the individualistic outlook  of modernity, which encourages each one of us to think that we are completely autonomous centres of decision-making power, and that each one of us must arbitrate for ourselves between competing truth claims.   The locus of authority, for modernity, is the reasoning self, and the presumption is that “reason” will lead us to the truth through the exercise of our intellectual faculties.  Of course this is a bit of a charicature, but it pretty much sums up the way it works on a practical level.  And perhaps that has something to do with the interminable splintering of denominations and congregations in modern protestantism.   If we all believe that we ourselves are the final arbiters of truth in matters of dispute, then why would we back down when faced with an opposing view?

The question is whether postmodern understandings of self, truth, and knowledge move us any closer to a more healthy resolution of these problems.   It would seem that postmodern sensibilities are helpful in de-bunking the conflict-ridden assumptions of modernist epistemology, but not as helpful in offering constructive solutions.   No one person can claim a certain enough hold on truth to impose it upon an entire community.  So people of my generation are less likely to get hot under the collar about a dispute within our local church, thinking that we’re the ones who’ve got the “true” answer.  But then again, we might just stop caring at all, and become apathetic in the face of conflict, as it would seem as if no final resolution is possible.  What is needed is a normative standard to replace the reasoning autonomous self.  The standard may not be “universal” in the way that some moderns claimed “reason” was universal, but it can nevertheless be authoritative within the community for whom it is adopted.  

What I like about Fitch’s approach is that he always finds his way back to biblical depictions of church life as the normative standard.   So in the post referenced above, the answer to conflict in the Church is based on Matthew 18.   What is shocking about this model is that so few churches actually try to live this out.  We turn instead to the world of management theory and dress it up in spiritual language as if that were the “biblical” way of being Church.  Why is this?  Has the model that Fitch upholds been tried and found wanting?  Not in my experience.  More likely it is the fact that is just plain messy and “inefficient,” and therefore doesn’t fit with the corporate approach to leadership that we’ve embraced.

The longest church name in the history of the world

This is a church that has a storefront in our neighbourhood.  The St. Francis National Evangelical Spiritual Baptist Faith Archdiocese of Canada.   Personally I like the acronym printed on the window below, the “St. Francis N.E.S.B.F.  Archdiocese of Canada.”

It makes you wonder about this history of this group.  How on earth did they come up with that name?   At first glance it seems like they’d have something to appeal to just about every kind of Christian.

  • St. Francis – well he appeals to everyone, but especially to Catholics
  • National – that appeals to established Church types
  • Evangelical – obviously appeals to…
  • Spiritual – maybe the charismatics?
  • Baptist – of course…

Some of these things don’t normally go together, notably “St. Francis” and “Baptist,” which makes it all the more interesting.   I found a website for the church, which explains that they are a group from Trinidad.  They seem charismatic – they are also called “shouters,” and the have three hour worship services – and they mix elements of Protestant Christianity with African religion.   It’s not clear from their site exactly what that looks like.   They themselves aren’t exactly clear on their origins.

What is interesting to me about this group is that they are charismatic, but they don’t seem to downplay the significance of ritual and symbol in their faith.   Actually their website lists candles, bells, swords, flags, uniforms and a whole host of other items as significant in their worship.    Most charismatically-oriented protestants (we could expand that to include most evangelicals) are wary of any kind of ritual.  They’ve got some obviously “catholic” elements in their worship (one page on the website has prayers of the saints), but they speak in tongues and have street preaching missions.

Then again, if you know the story of St. Francis and the mendicant friars, you’ll know that these things are not so distinct from one another after all.  Francis was the ultimate charismatic.  He was also completely committed to the Catholic faith, and to the task of preaching the gospel.   Maybe the St. Francis N.E.S.B.F people are on to something.  It’s the history of division in the Church since the Reformation that has caused us to see the various terms that go into their name as being at odds with one another.   The names that we have given to our denominations are there precisely to distinguish us from the other denominations and traditions.   Our particular denominational identities then become filters for the discernment of what is good, acceptable, and true.   For example, in my tradition, if someone says something is “Wesleyan” that automatically makes it acceptable, but if it’s “Calvinist” people assume it is wrong, without even really thinking about it.  Although strong denominational identities are fading fast, most of us have been formed in communities that make these kind of distinctions all the time. “St. Francis” and “Evanglical” seem an odd pairing to a contemporary evangelical, because St. Francis is seen as a Catholic figure. But actually Francis lived during what is rightly called an “evangelical revival,” a real flowering of the gospel, which included radical forms of discipleship, self-denial, and evangelistic preaching missions.   I really don’t know much about the St. Francis N.E.S.B.F., so I wouldn’t want to hold them up as a model of anythying, but maybe the fact that they seem to have developed in obscurity has allowed them to hold these things together without worrying that they were crossing traditional boundaries.