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The Gospel-Driven Church:Retrieving Classical Ministry for Contemporary Revivalism (Part II)

(Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster Press, 2004), 291pp.

Ian Stackhouse

This is a continuation of the first half of my review.

Stackhouse summarizes his thesis in this way:

“A return to classical ministry and the wider tradition is part of the overall progress of renewal spirituality: for renewal is best realised when we attend to those things – preaching, sacraments, prayer and pastoral care – that reconnect the church to the original gospel of what God has done in and through Christ. The church is most likely to be renewed not by the promise of programmatic change, or by some new wave of charismatic phenomena, though these will have their place, but by attending to those practices that are not so much guarantors of growth, but the given means by which God promises to sustain the faith of the church. . . . Specifically, our hypothesis is that in the trajectory of renewal the continued process of innovation requires a complementary process of retrieval: a return to the wider catholicity of the tradition, coupled to a Pentecostal and Reformed theology, as a way forward” (77-78).

Stackhouse begins his proposal with a chapter on the crisis in preaching in our churches. As simplistic (and, for some, boring) as it may sound, he contends that “as we faithfully expound the scriptures, the combination of good theology and the presence of the Holy Spirit will cause churches to grow” (88). This emphasis on the “combination” of Word and Spirit is one of the hallmarks of Stackhouse’s proposal.

He has some harsh words for those who elevate “relevancy” as the standard by which preaching is to be measured. This reflects an obsession for growth, which itself is “part of the problem of a church that has capitulated to the world’s criteria for success. Instead, the main business of the church is to ensure that the gospel finds a home within its worshipping life. It is this gospel, rather than the church’s relevancy or contemporaneity, which determines its identity and mission” (96). One should not be surprised, then, that he also targets anecdotal preaching and an excessive reliance on the visual, as over against oral, presentation of the gospel.

Many readers will want to skip his discussion of the preaching theology of P. T. Forsyth, but do not overlook his emphasis on the preached word as sacramental. The evangelical and charismatic penchant for immediacy has contributed to the loss of emphasis on the power of the spoken Word. Preaching, he argues, is not simply a word about Christ. Rather, Christ himself enters the congregation through the words the preacher proclaims from Scripture.

Chapter Four is one of the most important in the book, as it focuses “On the Importance of the Sacraments” (not what one would typically expect from a Baptist!) It is, says Stackhouse, “the loss of the concept of mediation, inherent in a sacramental understanding of religion, that is central to the diminution of Christian identity we are seeking here to expose” (125).

Stackhouse attributes much of this to the fact that it is the musician, rather than pastors and theologians, who set the agenda for worship in today’s church. Thus the hallmark of worship today is that it is “immediate, intimate and most definitely non-sacramental (indeed immediacy and non-sacramentality are two ways of saying the same thing)” (127). The result “has been the loss of transcendence. The collapse of the theological notion of mediation means that God is all too near” (127). Thus, what is encouraged is an “ecstatic” rather than “incarnational” view of religion which can, at times, “negate the human and material dimension of Christian spirituality” (127).

I’m a bit torn at this point. My love for “immediacy” in contemporary worship was initially stirred by the lifeless formalism of more traditional approaches. I longed for God to be “near”. I was done with any form of Christian “deism” that relegated God to a distant and uninvolved transcendence. Yet, I also can appreciate Stackhouse’s point. But why must we choose between worship that is “ecstatic” and “incarnational”? Why must we choose between a God who is immanent and transcendent? Is it not possible to formulate a theology and praxis of worship that honors both the intimacy of God’s nearness as well as the awe and reverence of his holy otherness? Personally speaking, I simply refuse to settle for anything less.

The strongest element in Stackhouse’s call for a retrieval of the sacramental dimension “is found in its ability to keep central the gospel narrative, of what God has done in and through Christ and the Spirit” (130). And it does this primarily through evoking “remembrance” of God’s movement toward us in Christ. Indeed, “this is the basis of all missiological activity by the church, because it is only out of the church’s awareness of the gospel’s power to initiate and sustain its own inner life that it can go forth into the world confident of the efficacy of its message” (135).

Stackhouse acknowledges that “according to certain preconceptions, the language of remembrance is inert, dead language that stultifies spiritual growth, in contrast to the vital and pressing language of revival. However, as [Gordon] Fee points out, anamnesis [remembrance] is not the recalling of past events for the sake of nostalgia; rather, in the light of the resurrection, it is the recalling into the present the very real and substantial events of death and resurrection, in order that they might be celebrated, enjoyed, even participated in” (137). In sum,

“The deployment of the sacrament of the word, baptism and eucharist, are not the church being overly academic – nor overly liturgical, for that matter – but the church being itself: the church attending to what it has done historically to keep alive truly gospel speech. After all, it is Paul who tell us that the Lord’s Supper proclaims ‘the death of the Lord until he comes’. And by retaining this sacrament of grace, the church challenges the reduction of the gospel to method or experience. It is a summons not only to adhere to but also participate in the facticity of the death and resurrection of Christ, initiated by baptism and sustained by communion, with the notion of remembrance central to both” (149).

Of all the chapters in the book, I was least impressed by number five, titled “Pneumatological Concerns.” Here Stackhouse takes up the Toronto renewal as something of a case study by which to critique contemporary approaches to the Holy Spirit. I’ll note four specific criticisms and respond to each in turn.

First, although it must be said that Stackhouse doesn’t regard Toronto in entirely negative terms, he does suggest that it “has a decidedly romantic slant: a view of the Spirit’s work that is untrammeled by words and dogma” (166). Second, it has contributed to “the development of a pneumatology in which experiences of the Spirit, evidenced at the level of phenomenology, become the sole means of legitimising the truth claims of the gospel. The long-term repercussions of this is a renewal movement detached from the central doctrines of salvation in Christ, but also a revivalism that requires ever more outpourings of the Spirit to secure its place in the world” (175). Third, “Toronto has severed the link between pneumatology, christology and ecclesiology, and further undermined the confidence of the church in its essential rites” (180). And fourth, “contrary to the Toronto notion of resting and soaking in the Spirit, holiness is not simply a matter of letting go or resting, but of active appropriation of the power of the indwelling Spirit, who conspires to effect radical and ethical change in the world of the ordinary and the mundane” (180-81).

I have problems with each of these criticisms. First, Stackhouse fails to see precisely for whom, in my opinion, Toronto was intended. The people who were most powerfully impacted were those who had become burdened with the lifeless and divisive dogmatism of a ministry that was exclusively word-based. The leadership of Toronto was not opposed to propositional truth or Christian dogma, but only to an intellectual arrogance that tends to measure one’s spiritual maturity solely in terms of one’s theological precision. That some reveled in the subjectivity associated with the renewal (and what renewal or revival in history has entirely escaped this problem?) is undoubtedly true. But that’s not the same as saying that Toronto was designed to diminish the centrality or life-changing power of biblical truth.

There is perhaps more a measure of truth in Stackhouse’s second criticism. I suppose my objection is with his use of the adjective “sole”. Experiences with the Spirit, when grounded in and consistent with the written word do have a measure of apologetic value. But I don’t recall many (if any) claiming that Christianity is true based “solely” on what they experienced at Toronto. Perhaps we would be better served to say that such experiences “confirmed” or “bore witness” to one’s convictions concerning the gospel.

Third, I suppose what Stackhouse has in mind here is the focus in the renewal meetings on experiencing an encounter with the Spirit that appeared to be detached from the preaching of the cross or the corporate life of the church. But why should that necessarily undermine the “confidence of the church in its essential rites”? Most of those with whom I spoke during the heightened season of renewal testified to being refreshed and re-energized to return to their local churches with a new and exciting commitment to live out the truths of the gospel. People were drawn to the power of Toronto not as an excuse to ignore the routine responsibilities of church life but to receive a fresh infilling of the Spirit and a new vision for how they can better and more joyfully fulfill them.

In regard to these last two points, yes, it must be admitted, there are always people who rely solely or primarily on experience and who irresponsibly shirk the biblical mandate for community life in the body. But I think it’s unfair to suggest that Toronto consciously intended to empower such folk in their sin (although it may have inadvertently contributed to this problem). People who are inclined in this way will find an excuse to justify their ill behavior irrespective of renewal or seasons of revival.

Fourth, and finally, no one of whom I know who was part of leadership in the Toronto phenomenon taught or teaches that “resting” in the Spirit is a substitute for “active appropriation” of his power or for commitment to the classical disciplines of the faith. Far from it. Resting or soaking was encouraged precisely for its capacity to renew and refresh and empower weak souls to get up off the floor and get back in the fight against the world, the flesh, and the devil. Stackhouse here falls prey to the “either/or” syndrome, as if to suggest that a season of “soaking” under the power of the Spirit’s work in the inner man negates or is inconsistent with a focused and energetic pursuit of holiness in the grace of God. I would suggest that this phenomenon of “resting” or “soaking” was perhaps Toronto’s greatest contribution, not because it was being recommended as a new model of sanctification or an antidote to the rigors of Christian living, but precisely because it was used of the Spirit to heal, refresh, cleanse, empower, and re-ignite in countless weary souls a love for Jesus and his Word and his church.

Yes, Toronto had its flaws. The pressure to find biblical warrant for bizarre physical manifestations was more than its apologists could resist. Many simply “overinterpreted” the significance of what was happening. And Stackhouse is right in pointing out that the Scriptures did not play as central a role as they should have.

But I cannot easily dismiss the countless pastors who told me how the Spirit of God reversed ministry burnout and restored zeal for their calling and to the church while at Toronto. I cannot easily dismiss the hundreds, if not thousands, of people who testified to having their affection for Jesus intensified, their courage for evangelism built up, their wounds from past abuse healed, their capacity to feel God’s love enlarged, their marriages restored and addictions shattered and their worship enlivened. So, let’s not fault Toronto, or better still, what the Spirit of God accomplished through Toronto, simply because it did not fulfill the expectations of what it never proposed to be.

Chapter Six is devoted to the subject of prayer, or better still, what Stackhouse perceives to be the excessive focus on intercession among revivalists to the exclusion of “the cumulative range of prayer that might feature in other traditions” (197). The overemphasis “on intercessory prayer has the tendency,” he contends, “in some places, to posit a static God who will only yield up his reward to those who pray long enough and loud enough” (197). Stackhouse fears that, where there is an anticipation of revival just around the corner, prayer becomes “simply the means God has given to implore him for the sake of the multitudes outside the faith” (198). Prayer, he believes, is “stunted when it is driven solely [there’s that word again!] by the need to save souls. At this point both evangelism and prayer cease to be organic and integral to the worshipping and praying life of the church and are conceived, instead, as tools for success. Prayer thus becomes a mechanism of evangelistic growth” (198-99).

Stackhouse proposes as a remedy a return to the daily office. He writes:

“Though the crisis in the contemporary church may seem, ostensibly, to be about its perceived irrelevance, the crisis ought more properly to be identified as one of loss of the church’s theological and baptismal identity as a community situated in Christ, ‘occasioned by the distance at which the church lives from the source and sources of its faith and life,’ namely the scriptures. Hence, the urgency to return to those sources and practices that enable the church to encounter once again the power of those scriptures. The point of the daily office is to root prayer in those same scriptures, and thereby provide the church with a genuinely spiritual and theological model of renewal, rather than one that is merely organisational” (202-03)

Stackhouse’s recommendation has a three-fold focus. First, praying the psalms is essential, in that “what the psalms suggest, by their repeated use in worship and devotion, is a comprehensive training in the grammar of pain – one that resists sentimentality whilst, at the same time, expressing genuine lament. Praying the psalms invites a changed perspective on the question of pain by embracing it as an integral part of biblical spirituality” (207). Second, he suggests the Lord’s Prayer as another discipline that enables faith “to survive through the various fluctuations of enthusiasm” (208). Lastly, in keeping with his charismatic convictions, Stackhouse endorses the regularity of private prayer in tongues.

The last chapter (seven) devoted to Stackhouse’s agenda for the church takes up “The Lost Art of the Cure of Souls.” He laments the move toward “more managerial forms of leadership, [that are] oriented towards growth rather than spirituality, success rather than fidelity” (220). Certainly we see this in America, in which the role of the minister is less that of pastor-theologian and more akin to a chief executive officer. Stackhouse fears, and rightly so, that the prophetic has replaced the pastoral in the life of the church. Without denying the proper role of the visionary leader, he is convinced that “if the charismatic-evangelical church is not to be entirely overtaken by the categories of functionality and pragmatism, something by way of a recovery of the classical pastoral ministry needs to occur – a recovery of the lost art of the cure of souls” (223). Read closely his summation:

“Our thesis is not about abandoning the many positive gains that have accompanied charismatic renewal – though it may be misunderstood that way; rather, our desire is to progress forward in renewal, realising that the radical vision must also retrieve aspects of the tradition as it progresses through subsequent stages: ‘The paradox of progress is that it occurs by conserving the great memory, which can revitalise dormant dreams.’ The enemy of the church is not without, in the form of territorial spirits, or postmodernity, or indeed secularisation, but within, in the form of a churchmanship that refuses to deploy its doctrinal, theological and sacramental resources for the fight” (234).

In his final chapter, “The Church Apostolic,” Stackhouse provides us with an extensive and quite insightful exegesis of Ephesians 4:11-16. From it he is led to conclude, yet again, that “at root the problem [in the church] is not structural, nor cultural, but a crisis of faith and a loss of gospel speech. . . . The nature of the crisis is theological amnesia concerning the dogmatic core of historic and evangelical Christianity, to which the answer . . . is the recovery of the classical practices of the church as a way of reconnecting with the gospel” (275).

The church, he concludes, “is most faithful to its vocation to be the people of God as it embraces the beatitudinal life of compassion and mercy rather than the way of success. The paradox of faith is that the church is most effectual when it ceases trying to be effectual and concentrates on the substantive and simultaneously subversive confession that arises from its own cherished texts” (272). If by revivalism is meant “the once for all invasion of the Holy Spirit resulting in . . . unprecedented evangelistic success” (273) Stackhouse is convinced that it is “secondary” (273) to the vocation of the church he has outlined in this book.

Finally, I’d like to close with a few concluding observations in addition to those made throughout this review.

First, Stackhouse is undoubtedly a keen observer of developments within charismatic renewal in the U.K. I sense in reading his book that he has been confronted, as a pastor, with a measure of negative fallout from both excesses in the movement as well as the lack of biblical and theological depth so often characteristic of many who embrace the full range of the Spirit’s gifts. Add to this the controversy sparked by the “Toronto Blessing” and one can easily understand the genesis of this book.

I share Stackhouse’s concerns. I too am bothered by the “faddish” nature of much in charismatic Christianity. But, like Stackhouse, I too am committed to the biblical truth of charismatic experience of the Spirit. This inevitably puts us in an unenviable position. On the one hand, we refuse to settle for anything less than the fullness of the Spirit’s life and activity in the church today. We have seen the biblical errors of cessationism and the spiritual bankruptcy of religious life that so often comes with the “quenching” of the Spirit’s presence and power. Yet, we are also faced with the shallow, flippant, and presumptuous spirituality of much of “charismania”. Contending for the comprehensive ministry of the Spirit while refusing to sever ties with the classical disciplines and traditions of the church, as rooted in the gospel and written Word, is not an easy task. Let’s be honest: it sets one up to get shot at from both sides. This is why I applaud and so deeply appreciate what Stackhouse has attempted to do in this book. This is, if nothing else, a very courageous book. That doesn’t mean I think his answers were always on the mark, but at least he’s recognized the questions that need to be asked and is willing to venture forth a proposal for where the church needs to go.

Second, it’s important that we distinguish between what is intrinsic to a revivalist mentality and what is only the occasional and unintended effect of it. I’ve already referred to what Stackhouse perceives as the weariness, anxiety, and even disillusionment that come with “the delay of revival success” (6). “Basic spirituality is subsumed by revival” (7), by which he means, in part, the neglect of traditional practices of discipleship and pastoral care, as rooted in the gospel, due to the ever-expectant focus on impending mass conversions and church growth.

I’ve witnessed this as well, here in the U.S. But I must also say that many who are committed to fervent intercession for revival are stable and faithful folk, grounded in the Word and not at all inclined to flights of spiritual fancy (I trust it is permissible to say that I include myself among them). My point is simply that one need not fall prey to the onset of “theological amnesia” or the religious despair that he believes comes with deferred fulfillment. Nor do I think that fear of the latter is sufficient reason to diminish the church’s focus or dedication of its resources to continual pursuit, in prayer, of God’s eschatological purpose of global harvest (assuming, of course, that the latter has a solid biblical footing).

Thus, I see no reason to conclude that a commitment to a biblically-informed view of revival will invariably lead to pragmatism or a capitulation to worldly standards of success. That some in the charismatic renewal have yielded to the latter is undeniable. But that is no reason to abandon or diminish our embrace of the former. One need only think of the revival theology and praxis of Jonathan Edwards (a non-charismatic, I should add; 1703-58), especially as seen in his treatise Religious Affections, to see how it can and should be done.

So, can “revivalism” survive, perhaps even thrive, alongside and together with the vision of the church outlined by Stackhouse? I’m hopeful (nave?) enough to believe it can. There are those, and on occasion Stackhouse seems to be among them, who contend that there is a fundamental inconsistency between the two, that one cannot embrace both “immediacy” and “sacramentality”, both “ecstasy” and “discipline”, both “intimacy” and “transcendence”. I simply refuse to settle for one over the other (given the fact that all are biblical). I refuse to believe, as do many, that invariably one will swallow up the other or, at best, relegate it to the periphery of church life.

If the divinely ordained marriage of Word and Spirit means anything it is that we must never capitulate to the lie that they cannot dance in tandem, that something is intrinsic to what they are that invariably leads one to subordinate, or cancel out, the other. I applaud Stackhouse’s brave proposal on how they can both be retained and given their full rights in the church. He doesn’t always succeed in doing so. As noted, he doesn’t always acknowledge that a healthy revivalism that thrives on intercession, intimacy and immediacy can co-exist with a classical, sacramental, Word-based ministry. I believe they can. I believe they must.

Third, a word of clarification is in order concerning the nature of sacramental theology. Contrary to much Protestant opinion, the sacraments are not barriers between God and man, but bridges. They are not designed to keep God at arm’s length or to inhibit our intimacy with him. The very purpose of a sacrament is to mediate the sanctifying, life-changing, powerful presence of divine grace to the heart of the believer. Sacraments are not substitutes for the person of Christ, but the divinely-ordained means by which our Lord makes himself and his love and his sin-killing power available to the redeemed. We should never think of the sacraments, whether the Eucharist, baptism, the preached Word or whatever, as if they stood between us and God to keep the two apart. Precisely the opposite is the case! God ordained them that he might draw near and make himself known and bring into present experience the reality and joy of that intimacy with Jesus Christ that his cross was designed to secure. I applaud Stackhouse’s efforts to make this point and join him in calling back the evangelical world to a biblical appreciation for the classical “means of grace”.

Fourth, my experience has been that those committed to revival have a comparatively healthy view and practice of prayer in all its dimensions. Although they are certainly given to energetic intercession and a zeal for lost souls, they are not for that reason any less committed to the full range of biblical prayers, whether those in the psalter or the epistles, that are essential for qualitative growth and Christian development. Granted, contemporary revivalists are typically less Reformed than some of us would prefer, but those who celebrate the sovereignty of God (such as I) would do well to remember that often times “we have not, [precisely] because we ask not” (James 4:3).

Fifth, some of you, I’m sure, are fearful that if Stackhouse’s recommendations are embraced the church will suffer loss of personal intimacy, freedom in worship, emotional vulnerability, spiritual power, expectation of the miraculous and other charismatic dynamics for the sake of which you left the traditional evangelical church in the first place. I, too, have no desire for a careless return to the former ways of empty ritual and intellectual arrogance. But that is certainly not what Stackhouse proposes. His call is for the biblically grounded integration of both Word (and all it entails in terms of disciplined life and theological integrity) and Spirit (and all it entails in terms of spiritual vibrancy and supernatural activity). Dare we even attempt to do otherwise? I think not.

Don’t think for a moment that these criticisms and qualifications diminish the importance of Stackhouse’s book. I strongly urge all involved in charismatic renewal to read it carefully. It is an extremely good, insightful, and incredibly timely and relevant book that deserves a wide reception in the body of Christ.