How to destroy the Church

churchquakeI have recently discovered a remarkable book published earlier this year by a young American academic, John Weaver. It is a history of a movement known as the New Apostolic Reformation. It is a very detailed account. One is in fact overwhelmed by the information and left fairly confused about the interrelationships of groups and people that are connected in various ways across this NAR network. To try and put the argument of the book into a few words, I would say that the author claims there is in America, and to some extent in the UK, a distinctive but loose confederation of NAR churches and ministers, hitherto below the radar of academic scrutiny. These NAR individuals, institutions and congregations have similar views about the nature and future of the church. The network can be identified by a common dedication to a charismatic style of teaching, preaching and worship. The word Apostolic in the title betrays another feature of this huge international network. All those who belong are united in an acceptance of being under the leadership of ‘Apostles’. These Apostles are charismatic leaders who are regarded as having a special ministry which gives them authority over dozens, even hundreds of congregations. The authority that such Apostles possess, transcends denominations and, it is claimed, comes from a divine call and the recognition by many Christians of their charismatic standing.

The Reformation part of the title for this neo-Pentecostal grouping, comes from the common understanding within the network that all Christians are called to be involved in a revolution. The task before them is to conquer nations and society for God. The rhetoric of NAR followers is one of battle, conflict and struggle. This war is to be waged against satanic and demonic forces that are arrayed against God’s people and his church. One particular feature of the movement is the idea of spiritual mapping. This strange idea, which I have encountered from time to time, suggests that particular places, even countries, have evil spirits which have control over them. The task of a Christian is to confront such spirits with the power of intercessory prayer. I once went to give a talk on spiritual deliverance to a Bible college in Gloucester and I was puzzled to meet a woman who was doing a year’s dissertation on the spirits that were oppressing the city of Gloucester. I was not able to get any detail about what precisely she was doing, but no doubt she was actively engaged in researching local history to see if there were any hotspots of evil activity in the city. Her task was to draw up a map of the city which would identify areas of particular concern. No doubt then she and others in the college would go down to those areas and pray the oppressive spirits out of existence.

While it is impossible to present any more of the detail in this remarkable book, I can share with my blog readers one particular section which fills me with a special horror. This was the section which reviewed the ideas of one C Peter Wagner, one of the Apostolic founders and gurus of the movement. He wrote an influential book in 2002 containing his ideas called Churchquake. In it he discusses what he thinks of ministerial training. Although Wagner had received himself a very thorough education in theology at the Fuller Seminary, he expresses the desire to simplify the training of the ministers and pastors of the church to having technical competence in the main principles of NAR. The job of ministry has become something very practical in nature. He is more concerned that students focus on the doing side of ministry rather than the theoretical study of scripture and theology. He wants power evangelism, exorcism and spiritual warfare to be taught in preference to the detailed study of scripture, history and theology. He is contemptuous of traditional theological training. Certainly from reading this approach he would not want any student to be allowed to have a mind or opinion of their own. In thinking about Wagner’s model, one is reminded of the warriors in a Lord of the Rings film, the Orcs. Spiritual warriors are needed. In one case for the cause of God but in the other to do the will of Lord Sauron. It is important in both cases that these warriors act together and never deviate from the prescribed text or opinion. Another way of describing this model is to see ministry and church life as a kind of franchise for a particular style of church life. Training would not be the same as study; rather it would be the practice of particular techniques connected with evangelical/charismatic rhetoric and technique.

John Weaver points out very fairly that it is completely unsatisfactory if a first generation in a religious movement deprive the second-generation of followers of the same formation and education that they received. The task of leadership, management of change and developing ideas is not best conducted by people who have only learnt one trick, like a chef who only has one dish on his menu. It goes without saying that if you spend decades following one particular rhetorical style and spiritual technique, it will eventually become stale and wearisome. I have often complained about the repetition that is involved in so-called gospel preaching. Not only will congregations become bored through hearing the same sermons over and over again, but the same thing will happen to the preacher. The provision of a good theological education for anyone who takes up the task of teaching and preaching in a congregation is important, not only for the congregation, but also for the minister concerned. If one has studied various traditions within Christianity, then it will not be necessary to present the faith only in one cultural form. Speaking personally, I have been very grateful for my own studies in the Orthodox tradition. Having experienced the Christian faith in a Greek speaking context has given me quite a different take on how to understand the Christian faith. I have, in consequence, become a far more visual person and I constantly use verbal pictures in my preaching. This also means that I am extremely critical of any verbal formula that verges on cliché.

John Weaver thus strongly criticises this emphasis on praxis rather than theory in ministerial training. He foresees how the church run in this way will never be able to change and develop. Christian ministers, who are at best clones of their teachers, will never be able to overtake and develop what they have received. If the second-generation of New Apostolic Reformation leaders cannot bring anything new into the tradition, then it follows that the third and subsequent generations will be even more impoverished. Lack of theology, lack of understanding of the skills of secular knowledge will create a ministry that is isolated by its own ignorance and inability to understand the wider culture. The Church is already involved in a crisis of communication with the public opinion when it speaks the language of reaction and yesterday’s morality. How much worse this would be if the church was seen to be openly endorsing the values of ignorance and obscurantism? The educated section of our population may not be the only group which is worth evangelising, but to invite contempt and ridicule from this section would be to expel the church into an intellectual and cultural dark age from which it might never recover.

This blog, survivingchurch, is passionate about the Christian faith being credible and able to commend itself to people of all backgrounds and educations. For the church to retreat into the shadows of obscurantism and ignorance by deliberately withholding a decent education from its ministers would be a path of destruction for the church. C Peter Wagner and his New Apostolic Reformation must be resisted for the sake of the long-term survival of our Church. The Church and its message must always be able to commend itself to people of all kinds, including those of culture, education and sophistication.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

5 thoughts on “How to destroy the Church

  1. Don’t you think the CofE is already headed in this direction? There is a whole new class of lay ministers who don’t need any qualifications, don’t go through a selection process and are not trained, but who act like Readers and take services and preach.

  2. It probably is, EA. But in theory there are theologically competent clergy overseeing these laity and checking that they don’t teach things that are off the wall. The trouble is that many clergy are frightened of their enthusiasts and/or don’t have the theological/human skill to check the craziness that sometimes comes out of their mouths. I found it very helpful to see where this wackiness is coming from theologically and politically.

  3. I came across the idea of hostile spirits over a region some years ago. After reflection, I decided that this teaching does not fit with me being a follower of Jesus, because Jesus never raised it in the gospels, so I let it go.
    As regards educating ministers, Jesus’ concluding words “teach them to observe what I have commanded you” (Matt 28:20) answers the point to my mind.
    There will always be winds of doctrine trying to blow us off course! (Ephesians 4:14)

  4. David, I think you’re very wise! Stephen, you have come across some right eejits in ministry! So you know it ain’t necessarily so. Also, when I started out, I was pretty much abandoned/left to my own devices/given a good deal of independence (delete as inapplicable!) So I don’t think most clergy have the faintest idea what other ministers in their parish are saying or doing. For one thing, communion by extension is widely used as a form of lay presidency. And I’m not sure to what extent the clergy connive at this. They aren’t there, of course!

  5. Yes – this book smells a lot of conspiracy theory to me. Some of the names mentioned are fairly mainstream if you inhabit the charismatic/evangelical arm of the church (universal). There are some wild and wacky ideas out there, and I have friends that buy in to some of them to various degrees. Sure this part of the church can be antithetical to liberal ideas, but that doesn’t make it the enemy!
    And it doesn’t make it an organised conspiracy! I really take objection to the idea that particular more evangelical forms of the faith are more open to abuse. Sure they are sometimes linked, but correlation does not indicat causation…

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