The Gospel-Driven Church:Retrieving Classical Ministry for Contemporary Revivalism (Part I)
(Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster Press, 2004), 291pp.
This is an exceptionally good book. It is also exceptionally painful to read. Not because Stackhouse writes poorly. Far from it. He is a superb writer and makes his points with the utmost clarity. That’s the problem. His points are sharply pointed and will inevitably sting a lot of people who take the time to dig into his treatise.
I had never heard of Ian Stackhouse until my recent visit to England, where my host handed me this book as a gift and encouraged me to read it. I read it non-stop on the flight home and finished it not long after returning to Kansas City. Stackhouse is referred to on the back cover as Pastoral Leader of Guildford Baptist Church in England. This volume, which is his first book, is a revision of his Ph.D. dissertation. On occasion it shows, but even when he delves into deeper theological waters the reader doesn’t require a religious life jacket: novice swimmers need not fear jumping in.
The book is the first in a series devoted to an ecumenical conversation known as “Deep Church” (the latter is attributed to a letter by C. S. Lewis in Church Times, February 8, 952). “Deep Church” is a “recapitulation and restoration of the historic Christian faith as reflected in the scriptures, creeds and councils of the early church, and in the lives of the community of saints” (xiii, from the Foreword by Andrew Walker). Again, it is best described as “an adherence to the apostolic faith of the New Testament as it was received, expounded and explicated in the patristic tradition of the early Christian centuries” (xiii).
As for Stackhouse’s contribution to this series of studies, his is an attempt to call the contemporary charismatic church back to the stability and centrality of the gospel of a dying and rising savior. The church today, he insists, suffers from a severe and debilitating case of “theological amnesia.” In our hankering for what is new and sensational and effective in promoting church growth we have lost contact with the only thing that will truly bring renewal and the kind of qualitative growth that honors Christ: the gospel itself, embodied and expressed in the believing community.
Later on in the book (201), Stackhouse identifies specifically what he has been arguing for throughout: “a more robust theological basis for charismatic revivalism in order to counter the faddish nature of its praxis.” Don’t be put off by this. Walker concedes that “it is possible that some will interpret The Gospel-Driven Church as a turning away from both evangelism and charismatic renewal, and regressing to a staid liturgical fastidiousness and a discredited and discarded formalism” (xvi). To do so, however, would be to miss Stackhouse’s point. Yes, this book “is certainly a rebuke to the excesses of revivalism, but it is not a rejection of evangelism or charismata per se. Rather, it is a plea from a pastor for a more rounded and deeper understanding of renewal – one that is ever open to the Holy Spirit’s leading, but also one that remembers all that God has already achieved for us on the cross and in his resurrection” (xvii).
In a word, Stackhouse firmly believes that “the future of renewal [to which he is wholeheartedly committed] lies in the retrieval of the classical tradition” (xxii), what Lewis called “Deep Church”. This flies in the face of much in the charismatic world which has typically assumed that renewal is dependent, at least in part, on the abandoning of those classical disciplines of church life that many feel have stifled and formalized the passions of the heart. Moreover, “theology and tradition are viewed [by many in the charismatic world] as symptomatic of the unpopularity and irrelevance of the church” and thus “ought to be abandoned” (21).
The one problem I face in summarizing this book is the temptation to simply quote Stackhouse over and over. Trust me, he’s worthy of it. There are countless rich and poignant and painful paragraphs that call for our careful and studied reflection. So if I appear to be quoting him excessively, you’ll understand why.
I’m doing something with this book that I have never done in another review. I’m dividing the review into two parts, corresponding to Parts One and Two of the book itself. There’s simply too much worthy of our attention to relegate it to paraphrased summaries. I should also point out that I have tried to retain the British spelling wherever my computer would permit. You’ll note, as but one example, how often our brethren across the Atlantic prefer ‘s’ to ‘z’.
One more thing before we begin. Although I have made critical comments here and there, I’ve reserved my final observations for the conclusion of part two.
Chapter One is titled, “Revivalism, Faddism and the Gospel.” Here Stackhouse identifies the problems associated with contemporary revivalism, such as “competitiveness among churches” and, more significantly, “a general weariness” that the delay of success engenders (5-6). His fear is that “basic spirituality is [often] subsumed by revival. Indeed, revivalism has a tendency to cultivate a sub-culture of its own, strangely detached from the person of Christ” (7).
Stackhouse believes that revivalism, or the orientation of church life based on an ever-present expectation of an instantaneous surge in spiritual power and numerical growth, “breeds perpetual discontent with the way things are” (8). Stackhouse is by no means opposed to revival, as biblically conceived. Nor is he committed to the status quo as if it possessed some unique sanctity. But he does fear that revivalism all too often leads to a worldly obsession with numerical growth, a pragmatic approach to methods of ministry that run contrary to the biblical text, and a tendency toward theological innovation that threatens to undermine “the basic tenor of Christian proclamation” (10). The result is that “theological pragmatism and relevancy, rather than fidelity to the gospel, is now the accepted hallmark of the movement: whatever can be done to avoid decline and stimulate growth” (11).
The author proceeds to cite as an example the concept of territorial spirits and strategic level spiritual warfare found in the teachings of C. Peter Wagner. According to what Stackhouse calls “Prayer Warfare” (his label for Wagner’s approach), evangelistic success is suspended on a technique whereby the “strong man” (ruling principality or demon) over a particular area or city is first bound or pulled down. Stackhouse fears, and not without reason, that this view “has negated, if not entirely overwhelmed, the traditional emphasis on the finished work of Christ as the victory of God in the world, and thereby has jettisoned, in the form of gospel preaching, a classical means by which this victory was implemented. In the scheme of Prayer Warfare, preaching the gospel, and the evangelistic success derived from gospel preaching, can only take place once the necessary demolition of spiritual forces had occurred” (13-14).
Aside from the fact that “Prayer Warfare” lacks explicit biblical sanction, Stackhouse believes this approach “undermines the efficacy of the victory of Christ by making proclamation of the gospel, and the inherent power of the gospel, dependent on a particular methodology of prayer” (14). In this way, “the gospel is displaced as the locus of evangelical authority” (15). This leads to the strange and paradoxical situation “of an overrealised eschatological vision, namely revival, resulting in a prayer warfare methodology that understates the gospel’s own power to effect conversion. In effect, prayer warfare, with its associations with revival, has contributed to the demise of preaching as an effective means of grace by neglecting the theological grist that has underpinned preaching in the classical sense: namely, the announcement of a victory already secured” (15).
Not even Alpha is exempt from Stackhouse’s inquiry. While not unappreciative of its accomplishments, Stackhouse fears that it is open to the accusation of “dumbing down” the faith to a “lifestyle option” (23). He laments Alpha’s attempt to distance itself from what he calls “crisis” conversion and the “confrontation and offence” (25) that are an inescapable element in the message of the cross.
Stackhouse leaves no doubts concerning his view of the church’s capitulation to the “numbers game” (26). He sees the obsession with quantitative growth especially in the church planting movement. “When growth replaces qualitative Christian nurture as the rationale of the church, traditional notions of initiation into the gospel are sacrificed on the altar of expediency, and pastoral care of the saints, in the somewhat ambiguous and messy business of real life, is set in opposition, unnecessarily and unbiblically, to the call to evangelise” (28). Again, when “growth” becomes paramount, “issues of spiritual formation are almost entirely subsumed by categories of functionality; theological inquiry replaced by sociological analysis. In the charismatic movement, it has meant the domination of the prophetic-visionary strand over and against the pastoral and the priestly” (29). In sum, what we see is “the triumph of vision over substance” (29).
As stated earlier, Stackhouse refuses to abandon all notion of revival. “But the present revivalism that has beset the charismatic movement, as reflected in its praying and worshipping life, has taken its cue more from the sociologists and the statisticians than it has from the theologians” (31). So what is the key to genuine renewal? It is in “the formation of a counter-culture religious community [i.e., the local church], rooted in faith and baptism” (33) and forever shaped and energized by the intrinsic power of its gospel message.
And that’s only the first chapter! Whew!
In chapter two he turns his attention to the subject of Worship. Stackhouse is quick to acknowledge the benefits of contemporary worship and its focus on both “immediacy” and “intimacy” with God. He does not believe, as apparently some within the charismatic movement do, that “contemporaneity” and “theological substance” are irreconcilable. He argues that, in the right context of worship, “spiritual encounter of an ecstatic nature should be positively encouraged” (45). But he also fears that, if left unchecked and not tethered to biblical truth, contemporary worship will come to be valued only for “the interest it can engender or experience it can induce” (47). In other words, worship becomes an instrument for the effects it produces rather than a celebration of God as he is in himself. In such cases “worship takes on an authority of its own so that only in and through the experience of worship, and the way we perform in worship, can grace be appropriated; hence, the pressure to make something happen. Worship as spiritual formation is sidelined in favour of worship as effect” (48).
Stackhouse focuses particularly on the belief in some charismatic circles that revival is itself dependent on what happens in the moment of worship. He cites the popular song “Lord You Have My Heart” in which, he argues, “there is an implicit belief that drawing near to God in worship will bring down the glory of God, and presumably the revival. This is not a celebration of the glory that already inheres within the gospel of Christ, but a further glory, encapsulating all the hopes of a revived land, that can only be uncovered by intensity: the community of feeling that charismatic spirituality has often been identified with” (53).
I’m only partly in agreement with Stackhouse here. Yes, we should celebrate the glory that “inheres within” the gospel and see that glory and power as the foundation for life and growth and mission. But this doesn’t preclude the need for fresh impartations or anointings of power for present ministry. Clearly, we are touching here on the delicate tension, but not contradiction, between the “already” of our conversion and reception of the Spirit and the “not yet” of what God offers and invites us to receive.
Stackhouse takes direct aim at Matt Redman’s song, “Lord, Let Your Glory Fall,” “in which the numinous experience of the priests in the temple in 1 Kings 8 is retold. The tempo of the song reflects the fairly buoyant and upbeat mood that is the hallmark of charismatic musicianship; but what is problematic with this lyricism is the repeated discontentedness of the worshipper with the status quo and an inadequate understanding of the factualities of revelation. In the retelling of the drama, and in the expression of desire for more (again, an entirely legitimate desire [a concession I’m glad to see Stackhouse make!]), the song, nevertheless, inhabits a peculiarly pre-Christian hermeneutic that forestalls on the fulfillment of the promise of glory in the coming of Christ and the Spirit” (53).
I think Stackhouse is both right and wrong in this critique. He’s right in pointing out that the “glory” that “fell” at the dedication of Solomon’s temple was an adumbration or foreshadowing of the “glory” that has come in the person of Christ and the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost. I myself hesitate to sing those words for the simple fact that I don’t believe “glory” will come to the church, in any literal sense, apart from that which is already ours by means of the indwelling Christ. The “glory” that hovered over the mercy seat in the Holy of Holies has now taken up residence in the individual believer and in the body of Christ, or the church, corporately. Such “glory” will not again be seen and should not again be expected until it appears in the person of our returning Lord at the close of history (see Titus 2:13 where the blessed hope is identified as “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ”). So, yes, from a purely redemptive-historical point of view, the lyrics fail to take note of the way that Old Testament episode found its consummate fulfillment in the incarnation of Christ and the events associated with the day of Pentecost. My point is simply that the “glory” that appeared then, in Solomon’s day, now resides in its fullness in the heart of every believer.
On the other hand, I want to defend Redman’s intent. Surely his point is that today we long less for the literal and visible coming of such glory and more for its practical and often life-changing operation. This is similar to our simultaneous affirmation of God’s omnipresence and our praying for him to “come” or “draw near” in his “manifest” presence. Or again, Christ already lives in and abides with every Christian, but we pray for him to “dwell” in our hearts “through faith” (Eph. 3:17). Other examples could be cited in which an accomplished theological truth may as yet be “released” into our experience in transforming power. I suspect this is what Redman had in mind.
Later in this same chapter Stackhouse again takes aim at the tendency among charismatics to sever Word form Spirit. Revivalists, he argues, “should attempt to couple the enthusiasm of their tradition to thoroughgoing catechesis: attentiveness to the revelation [in Scripture], training in the disciplines and commitment to the body of Christ, which, thereby, allows for faith to be sustained outside of revival. One of the deleterious features of a revivalist mentality is that short of what might be termed a surprising manifestation of God there is very little else to be getting on with. Whole sections of legitimate church activity are held in suspense, and, moreover, deemed a failure, simply because they fall short of revival criteria. Commitment to spiritual formation, on the other hand, takes seriously the fact that there are indeed seasons in the Christian journey, both personal and corporate, and that intense fervour is not sustainable, nor even necessarily required, in order for Christian living to occur. It is simply enough to commit oneself to ‘the technique of going to church’” (61).
Stackhouse concludes this chapter on worship with this provocative statement:
“The loose structure [of charismatic worship] is performed in the name of informality, relevance and immediacy, and is close to the centre of charismatic ideology; it is expressive – we ought to remember – of an understandable mistrust of ritual and form. But the irony is that the loss of distinctive liturgical space, transcending ordinary time, means in fact that no time is sacred. Immediacy and accessibility could mean, paradoxically, worship that is escapist and, strangely, irrelevant. Devoid of all theological ritual, alternative worship may be no real alternative at all, but a mimicking of the culture, and theologically insufficient to sustain Christian faith” (66).
As you can see, these last two paragraphs from Stackhouse are deep and thoughtful and controversial and unsettling. They deserve far more reflection than is possible in a review of this sort, and I hope you will take the time, as I plan on doing, to give them your serious consideration.
Thus concludes Part One of the book, the primary focus of which was a somewhat negative critique of what Stackhouse perceives to be the weaknesses of contemporary revivalism. Part Two of the book is the longest, covering some 175 pages, and contains Stackhouse’s more positive recommendations for a way forward.
To be continued . . .