C Peter Wagner 1930 – 2016 RIP

peter-wagnerPeter Wagner, a key figure among charismatic Christian leaders world-wide, died on October 21st. The fact that many people in the UK may have never heard of him, let alone read one of his many books, does not take anything away from the fact of his enormous importance in the charismatic as well as the wider evangelical scene. In this short piece, I am concerned neither to write a hagiography nor a critique of his thinking. Others will, no doubt, be doing both these things at some point in the future. What I wish to do is to point out how the ideas coming from one man can achieve huge influence over the way that many ordinary Christians think. At this point I think I can safely say that his legacy in the charismatic world is a mixed one. He was a man of many ideas. Whether all these ideas deserved to achieve so much influence in Christian charismatic thinking is a debatable point.

In his early days Wagner served as a missionary in Bolivia under the auspices of the South American Mission and the Andes Evangelical Mission. From 1971 up to his formal retirement in 2001 he was Professor of Church Growth at the Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of World Missions in the States. After retirement he found himself an unofficial leader in what is now known as the New Apostolic Reformation. This is a movement that has a very powerful influence among many charismatic Christians in every part of the world. Many charismatic Christians follow the ideas of this network even they may not be aware of this title. Still less will they know of the way that NAR has become politically well organised and highly influential over the past 15 or so years.

Among the new emphases that have emerged within the charismatic movement over the past few decades, Wagner seems to played a leading part in promoting and articulating many of them. In his early days at Fuller Wagner helped to promote the notion of Church Growth. I remember the first time I heard about this as a technique for increasing church membership in the 1980s. It followed the ideas of one Donald McGavran who had also taught at Fuller after a lifetime of missionary work. McGavran co-authored a book with Wagner back in 1970 which sought to promote the idea that mission was most successful when the target of missionary work was not the individual but the group or the tribe. People find it easier to accept the Christian message when it is integrated into their pre-existing cultural and social context. Translated into a Western context, it is noted how people will always find it easier to join a church when there are others just like themselves already there. Students will relate easily to other students, retired people to other retireds, and particular nationalities will more easily gravitate to people like themselves.

Church Growth principles are still taught in missionary studies but in the 70s and 80s Wagner began to develop his ideas in new directions beyond the original McGavran model. One of the most significant decisions of his career was to promote the ideas and teaching of John Wimber. In the late 70s Wimber came to teach at Fuller a course entitled ‘ Signs, Wonders and Church Growth’. This teaching eventually had a decisive impact and influence on the charismatic movement across the world. Among other things it opened people up to an awareness of evil and demonic influences at work and these needed to be countered during the process of evangelism. Also in Wimber’s teaching there was a strong emphasis on spiritual healing. Wagner identified himself totally with these new experiential teachings collectively described as signs and wonders. He was happy to describe the movements taking place around him at Fuller as being signs of a Third Wave of the Holy Spirit. Having been to a Wimber Conference in 1992 at Holy Trinity, Brompton, I am not one of those who is totally negative about Wimber’s ministry. However, I do feel much more analytical work needs to be done on his ministry and the theological and practical legacy of this teaching. Wagner’s support and endorsement of Wimber is not, for the moment, something that automatically invites criticism. However, the next stages of Wagner’s enthusiasms do give rise to some real concerns on my part.

By the year 2000 two new theological emphases had become apparent in Wagner’s thinking. Each of these were also to have far-reaching implications for the world-wide charismatic movement. The first of these seems to have begun at a Symposium in 1996 at Fuller entitled, The Post-Denominational Church. The thinking behind this title was that the New Testament church possessed no denominations. In their place there were certain offices, as taught by Ephesians 2.20, of Apostles and Prophets. Wagner was so confident about this pattern of church government that he was able to declare a little later that a second apostolic age had begun in the year 2001. We may make an observation about this confident declaration. There is here, not just a sharing of a fresh insight about biblical teaching, but a statement that Wagner believed himself to be at the epicentre of a new movement in the world-wide church. He then became involved in a confident naming of other leaders who would with him fulfil this role of Apostle. The task of these Apostles was to oversee churches and their ministries right across the world. Through these Apostles, God was going to ‘bring spiritual government to the pastors … so that the pastors can do the job that God has given them in a much more effective way.’

The second part of the new movement that Wagner was strongly identified with was what was known as spiritual mapping. I have already discussed this in a previous blog. It basically consisted of a strong sense that any missionary work would involve spiritual conflict with demons and territorial spirits. This was in part a continuation of the themes of healing taught by John Wimber that the pursuit of wholeness would often involve some form of exorcism. Space prevents me going further into this theme.

What are we to make of the legacy of Peter Wagner? He was obviously a man of enormous creativity and insight. His ideas are sometimes eccentric but always of great interest. The way that these same ideas have become uncritically adopted by so many in the charismatic world is however something that does create problems from our perspective. The concept of the Apostle as being a God-appointed role is itself a dangerous teaching. It reminds us of the ides of theocracy which seems to be the fantasy of a variety of religious leaders, both Christian and Muslim. Who oversees the overseers? In theory it is God. Peter Wagner’s legacy has not helped the wider Church give any satisfactory answer to the very basic questions about authority and where it is to be found. Simply to allow himself to become an Apostle, answerable only to God, does not resolve the wider issues. History may concur with us in concluding that top-heavy religious authority, such as that invested in Apostles, will always create enormous problems for the church. In fairness to Peter Wagner and his memory, perhaps we should not find him personally responsible for the problems of power and how it is administered in the church. In all probability, we should critique the universal longing of Christians of every tradition to search for a guru. Whether Anglo-Catholic or conservative, far too many Christians long for someone to tell them what to think and what to do. Wagner may be just one more person who found himself fulfilling the role of the guru that so many people are desperately searching for. Perhaps the culture of 21st charismatic teaching created Peter Wagner rather than the other way round.

9 comments

  1. haikusinenomine

    Thank you Stephen for introducing me to currents in the wider church I wasn’t aware of.

    In fairness to many ordinary Christians, it might be helpful to discuss in more detail the situation where “far too many Christians long for someone to tell them what to think and what to do”. Where does this longing come from, and what part of it is healthy or unhealthy? Many of us are, in some stages of our lives, and we may or may not be very aware of this, confused and ill-informed about the Christian faith as well as not sure how to understand our lives, and uncertain in some areas of decision making. We need to recognise this fact without belittling, still less demonising, people who have such needs. People in that sense are quite realistic in needing teaching and encouragement, because we don’t suddenly become fully capable and aware on our 18th birthday. Some for example such as myself who are drawn (again) to Christ in adult life may feel an intense need to find out what that could mean, and a certain humility in looking to the tradition and the church to help explain it might be more appropriate than a sense of knowing it all. But I’m not just specifically talking about young adults here, as we can all find that new dilemmas in decision-making and belief can open up at different stages in life, and as we explore deeper in what can be a very paradoxical faith.

    What I imagine you’re getting at is that on the one hand some people are lazy or feel helpless and want others to do the work for them, and on the other hand, some authoritarian churches and preachers deliberately or perhaps unawares in some cases set out to disempower people from growing in their ability and confidence to think and decide for themselves. Perhaps there is material around this area for another of your blog posts, perhaps not looking so much only at the dysfunctional extremes, but at the everyday needs people can be expected to have for guidance in exploring, learning support, training in critical thinking, confidence in one’s understanding despite awareness some of it may be provisional – and how these needs may fruitfully be fulfilled. Of course there would be very interesting ways to link this to the differing attitudes of churches to questioning, doubts and autonomy. I’m sure you’ve covered some of this and perhaps just want to point back to previous posts, but perhaps there’s room for further reflections as these are really big subjects…..

    • Stephen Parsons

      Haiku, you raise an enormous number of issues which I need a lot of time to unravel. First of all you are very fortunate indeed never to have had your growth as a Christian corrupted by an over-authoritarian teacher. If you look right across the world you will find sadly, that an awful lot of Christian teaching depends on authoritarian methods of communication, washed down with a dose of fear-inducing threats.

      Why is it that so many churches veer to the right in political terms if it is not because they hold on to some version of infallibility, biblical, political or theological? Have all the people who protest about gays really thought through the question or are they just following the party line? Authoritarian/fundamentalist describes many Protestant churches as well as numerous Catholic congregations. There is very little by way of intellectual process going on when the answer to a question is non-negotiable. ‘ Biblical teaching’ is often a code for instruction where discussion is not allowed.

      These same dynamics apply to all the numerous cults which are particularly common in the States. I am personally very sensitised to this whole scene of people having their freewill taken over by charismatic/authoritarian types. They do get something from these groups but the damage to the emotions and intellects of people can be enormous. To take one small example which I have described on one of my 300+ blogs is the Shepherding movement. For twenty years, numerous congregations all over the world encouraged all their members to ‘submit’ to shepherds. These shepherds were men (no women!) who were recent converts for the most part and they frequently caused havoc in the lives of their ‘sheep’.

      Why do people get involved in these churches and extreme groups? The main hypothesis that I have come up with is that some people need to surrender to a parent figure. That is not dishonourable. It is just human. Once you cross the barrier of 35/40 it is less easy to have this particular dependency. Immaturity is not a sin; it is simply a stage of life which should be respected by those in authority. To exploit the young in any way is something that Jesus was pretty harsh about. ‘It were better that a millstone …….’

      Copies of my book Ungodly Fear are still available for 1p on Amazon. You can read there some of the stories that I collected 20 years ago. They may be anecdotal but they are not untypical. Chris has told us many times how authoritarian Bible Christianity made his situation of poverty and limited education into something pretty horrific.

      • haikusinenomine

        Stephen; you’re right that I’m very fortunate in having had a good education where I was expected to learn to think independently and critically. I didn’t join a church until I was 30, by which time with the shame and stress of a life punctuated at times by the unexplained weirdness of psychosis, and now belonging to an outcast social group, I was desperate to find out something about God and the meaning of my life. And I landed in a relaxed rural Anglican church where I was largely nurtured, accepted and not exploited (though there have been moments!!!), and given opportunities to minister as a Reader (there’s a story there too), so I’ve been lucky, and perhaps my profile is a bit atypical for readers of this blog. I hope you didn’t read my last comments with the feeling “hasn’t she actually read any of my blog so far?” I’ve reread what I wrote asking myself what was the main question or point I was trying to make, and it wasn’t clear to me, so perhaps it was a rather unthought-out comment. Thanks for your reply. Perhaps if anything what I was getting at was the idea that the desire to be helped by trustworthy teachers is not in itself pathological or immature. There are so many circumstances to unpack.

  2. David Pennant

    Thanks Stephen – most learned. I learned a lot. I was at a Wimber conference at Brompton in I think 1994, but it may have been the same one as you in 92, as I am not sure of the date. I bought the audio tapes (cassettes – remember those?) to listen again and it was only on the third time through that I heard his aside that the Annaheim Vineyard church in Los Angeles which he pastored was then “processing fifty tons of food a month for the poor.” I was thrilled, and have never forgotten it. Imagine how many supermarket trolleys it requires to hold fifty tons!

  3. EnglishAthena

    Thanks for this. It does seem to me that liking to be told what to do is a human trait. It’s the attraction of package holidays! Even if you need to get up early to catch the bus to Pompeii, no need to worry, the courier will come and knock on the door. It’s very restful and relaxing. Many people think church should be restful and relaxing. Many people think it should be a “safe place”. I don’t mean in the lack of abuse sense, I mean, that you don’t have to question your faith or worry about doubts. I wouldn’t agree. I’m all for “Stir up your people, Oh Lord”! I think your last line is telling, Stephen. People wanted to be told. They probably created him.

  4. Stephen Parsons

    Thank you Cindy for your appreciation. I should mention that it was your friend John Weaver’s writing that alerted me to the importance of Wagner. Since looking back on what Wagner actually wrote I find myself swinging more into the critical end of the spectrum over his influence on the world-wide church. But I have said enough already.

    • Cindy

      Can one truly say enough, though? As John worked on that book, and as I read that final copy, I found myself in a process of shock and awe at how much this movement has impacted me without me realizing it. As with many such things, the effects are indirect but can become pervasive. I feel that this is much the case with me. One of the pastors that officiated at my wedding was and still is in the thick of all of this.

      Please keep John in prayer. He’s got a very full schedule with teaching this semester, but he has the bones of books on both shepherding and on abuse in the church put together. But it’s a sad subject and a hard process.

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