Book Review: Churchquake, by C. Peter Wagner
C. Peter Wagner is a well-recognized name in the field of church growth. He is quoted extensively in other books, mostly from works other than this one. Churchquake is not meant to be a serious theological study of the church. Wagner’s aim, in the words of the book’s jacket, is to “explain, identify, and examine” a new form of church structure that he calls the “New Apostolic Reformation.” The book is not interested, really, in doing an objective theological study of these churches. It simply reports what they are doing. If you’re looking for a report, then, of how New Apostolic churches have structured themselves, this book might meet that need. If you want anything more, though, such as a thoughtful analysis of the biblical foundations of these churches, or even thoughtful, “critical” reflection on the work and practices of these churches, then Wagner’s book falls short.
I put that word “critical” in quotation marks for a reason—because I wanted you, the reader, to stop for a moment and consider what it means. There is a rather unfortunate misunderstanding about the meaning of that word “critical” that has crept into the language of much evangelical literature. It’s important to say something about it here because Wagner himself has made the error. He writes (232): “In academia, displaying a “critical mind” is considered a badge of distinction. . . . I would rather help my students think positively and creatively than critically.” If you look up the word “critical” in a dictionary, you will find at least two definitions of the word. The first will run something like this: “tending to judge severely and find fault.” The other, though, will be this: “characterized by careful, exact evaluation and judgment.” The difference between those two definitions, as skills that should be cultivated by Christians, is enormous. The first, quite obviously, is something that every Christian should strive to avoid. No one who is a disciple of Christ should be characterized by that kind of cynical and negative attitude. But the second definition, “careful, exact evaluation,” is exactly what Christians should strive for. It is what we are commanded to cultivate in our lives when we are told to “discern the spirits” or to “correct error.” Wagner, along with too many other evangelicals, has managed to all but evacuate the word “critical” of this second meaning. When seminary professors, indeed when anyone talks about developing a “critical mind” or “critical thinking skills,” they are not saying that students should develop a mind that lurches toward the severe and negative. What they are telling students is not to accept everything they see in print. Don’t just assume that good intentions equal good ideas. “Critical thinking” means having the ability to evaluate carefully what is being said. That is a good skill for Christians to have. Wagner should have said that he would rather help his students think positively, creatively, and critically.
Churchquake has ten chapters: 1) on change and “new wineskins,” 2) an introduction to the “New Apostolic Reformation,” 3) on the values of new apostolic leaders, 4) on the role of the pastor, 5) on the modern-day office of the “apostle,” 6) some practical guidelines for leading a new apostolic church, 7) on worship, 8) on outreach, 9) on seminaries and the training of leaders, and 10) on money. Wagner writes that the most important difference between these “new apostolic” churches and traditional churches is “the amount of authority the Holy Spirit is perceived to delegate to individuals as opposed to groups such as boards or committees or presbyteries,” (103). He is convinced that in traditional denominational structures, innovative new ideas are ended by committees that act as “permission withholders.” In New Apostolic churches, most authority is vested in one person who is able to set the vision and direction of the church and lead it more effectively. I think Wagner has his finger on some critical problems in the traditional church. It is, as he says, unfortunate that pastors have, on average, such short tenures at their churches (82). It is also not ideal that pastors are often relegated to dealing with the “spiritual” matters of the church’s life, while a trustee board or some other committee holds authority over the more “earthly” matters of the church (83). Instead, the pastors of churches should be the ones to cast the vision of the church and lead it, to make top-level policy decisions, and to be the leader of the ministry team in the church. I am in agreement with Wagner on these issues, but I am not convinced that the New Apostolic model is the solution to all these problems.
Chapter Nine of the book is Wagner’s report of how new apostolic churches train new leaders. It is also, though, his opportunity to take some shots at Christian seminaries. That’s ironic, since Wagner himself is a professor at one of the best known of them all—Fuller Seminary. In one sense, that gives Wagner some credibility; he is speaking against an institution that he himself has helped to build. ON the other hand, though, some of the statements that Wagner makes seem more than strange coming from the pen of a seminary professor. The paragraph above about the word “critical” is one example. It is unclear to me exactly what Wagner is saying there. Surely he wouldn’t say that he teaches his students not to think carefully and exactingly about ideas that confront them. And on the other hand, I can’t imagine that Wagner believes his colleagues to mean “severely judgmental and fault-finding” when they say they’re teaching their students to “think critically.” Another idea he seems to embrace is that all of the historians, Bible exegetes, and theologians in the church should be replaced by visionaries, cultural exegetes, and entrepreneurs, (235). Statements like that are just singularly unhelpful. The book is full of those kinds of sentences—nicely rhetorical, but just finally confusing if you look at them too long. Another example—Wagner seems to have a particular distaste for teaching the Bible’s original languages to young ministers. He quotes his son-in-law approvingly: “I paid $8000 to learn Greek and Hebrew, and, now that I am in ministry I consider it a waste of money. I have never found a use for what I was taught,” (234). Well, let me suggest just one. One use for teaching and learning the original languages might be to make sure that we are clearly understanding what the Bible really teaches instead of reducing it to a sourcebook of pretty justifications for our own ideas. How wise would it be, really, to trade in everyone who understands the Bible’s original languages for people who understand marketing techniques?
Wagner may answer that question himself by his own misuse of the Bible. The examples are numerous. On page 16, Wagner quotes Matthew 9:17, in which Jesus tells his followers not to put new wine into old wineskins. In more than one church growth book, this verse is taken to mean that the new wine of postmodernism, or of spiritual giftedness, or of new apostolic churches, or of whatever, cannot be put into the old structures of the church. Wagner writes: “This book is about one of those wineskins God is providing for another crucial hinge of church history.” This verse, though, is not talking about new forms of church structure. When church growth enthusiasts use Jesus’s words about wineskins in that way, they are missing entirely the point He is making. Jesus is not just laying down a principle about change and flexibility. He is making the glorious point that the Old Covenant is being fulfilled and completed in Him. It’s a theological point, not a cultural one, that Jesus is making. It is a statement of God’s eternal plan to institute a New Covenant in Jesus Christ.
As another example, Wagner quotes George Barna as saying that the culture is changing rapidly and the church must therefore be innovative (18). In exhortation, he writes next: “Here is an important question: How many church leaders today are prepared to cross this threshold? Are we ready to hear what the Spirit is saying today? The Bible says, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 2:11).” Yes, it does say that, but I am sure it is not talking about Barna’s latest predictions about change and culture. That verse is calling the churches to listen to what Jesus Himself is about to say to the seven churches of Asia. Wagner also uses Hebrews 11:1 “Faith is the substance of things hoped for,” to say that we need to cast vision, to see what we want to have in the future (59). “We,” Wagner writes, “put substance on the future.” Here again, Wagner misuses or misunderstands the Bible. Hebrews 11:1 is not talking about what we want to see happen in the future. It is talking about what God has done in Christ. Finally, Wagner quotes Roberts Liardon as saying that apostles are often given a “territory or region” of authority (127). “Some of these territories make up cities or counties while others are regional, national or international.” Then Wagner writes, “This statement seems to fit what the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians: ‘If I am not an apostle to others, yet doubtless I am to you’ (1 Cor. 9:2). Later he says, ‘We, however, will not boast beyond measure, but within the limits of the sphere which God appointed us—a sphere which especially includes you’ (2 Cor. 10:13),” (127). Any student of the Bible could tell you that Paul is not talking about Liardon’s idea of apostolic regions. Rather, he is talking about his very special calling as the apostle to the Gentiles. These are just a few examples of the clear misuse of the Bible that characterizes this book. Perhaps it would be a good idea to keep around some of those biblical exegetes after all.
Wagner’s argument about the office of apostle in the modern world is not convincing. His argument proceeds with a description of the “cessationist” viewpoint, and then a refutation of it that consists of this paragraph:
“The choice that has been made, not only by Assemblies of God, but by the great majority of other traditional denominations as well, to recognize evangelists, pastors, and teachers, but not to recognize apostles and prophets does not derive from biblical exegesis, but rather from entrenched ecclesiastical traditions.” (109)
The argument continues:
“Along these lines, it may be enlightening to recognize that the term “evangelist,” so common today, was not generally accepted in our country until the times of Charles Finney, who ministered from 1825-1875. Finney ignited a good deal of controversy when he first accepted the office of evangelist. . . . I agree with Bishop Carlis Moody of the Church of God in Christ, who says, “Yes, there are Apostles in the church today!”
That’s fine, but of course Wagner has not given us one single biblical reason to believe that “apostle” was meant to be a timeless office. What does his argument amount to? That we are obliged to admit that there are apostles today simply because some people once said there were no evangelists? Surely, there are more convincing ways to argue the point, and ones that have more to do with what the Bible actually teaches about apostles.
I should say that Wagner is not wholly uncritical of the New Apostolic Movment. On page 122, for example, Wagner points out a problem with the new apostolic idea. He asks (122), “To whom are the apostles accountable? In my association with some of the top leaders of the New Apostolic Reformation, I frequently raise the question of accountability, and I must say I have not received consistently clear answers.” He gives several ultimately unhelpful answers to the problem, one of which is that apostles be grouped together under the authority of an “overseeing apostle.” Quickly realizing the futility of such a move, Wagner admits that “The question still remains.” Indeed. He finally concludes with the verdict that “On this one, the jury is still out.” It’s confounding to me that such an unanswered problem does not in the least cool Wagner’s enthusiasm for the New Apostolic churches. In my mind, if such a fundamental question remains outstanding, then it might be worth considering that perhaps this is not such a good idea after all. The entire problem, of course, is solved if the “apostle” is under the earthly authority of the congregation as a whole, but that idea doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind, or at least it never made it into the book. I wonder how Wagner would respond to that idea. Of course, it would require some major structural changes in the New Apostolic churches, and it would move them very close to classical congregationalism. It’s interesting, though, that most of the problems Wagner rightly sees with connectional denominationalism would seem to be solved when congregations are independent bodies authorized to conduct their own affairs. I think Wagner should take a look at classical congregationalism. Not only would it seem to solve the problems better than the New Apostolic model, but the apostle Paul seems to have taught it as well—he placed even himself under the authority of the Galatian congregations: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!” (Gal. 1:8).
Finally, I should say a word about Wagner’s treatment of worship. He reports very excitedly about what kinds of things are going on in these New Apostolic churches. Just a sampling of quotes:
“Today’s generations were raised on background music. For many, especially the unchurched, complete quiet is not the spiritual experience it may be for believers. Rather, silence intimidates. Silence makes people uncomfortable.” (171) [Maybe non-believers don’t have the same spiritual experience as believers because they’re not Christians! . . . or it could be the silence.]
“I did see a man do a literal backflip during worship in a new apostolic church in Canada. Somehow, when he did it, his feet left his shoes and his shoes remained on the spot where he had been standing! I had never seen anything like that in my Congregational church.” (172)
Yes, it might be the case that this man is meeting God in a more profound way because he can jump out of his shoes. Or maybe he’s just been practicing that move and thought it would be a great way to show off. Regardless, I am not convinced that this is the frame of mind with which Christians should come to worship God. Look through the Bible and find the places where people come most profoundly into the presence of God. Consider Moses’ encounter with Him, or Isaiah’s, or Ezekiel’s, or the Roman soldiers’ with Jesus, or the apostle John’s with Jesus. What we see them doing is coming reverently and with great awe to the throne of God. If they come out of their shoes it is only because God demands that they do so because they are standing on holy ground. Granted, the living creatures and the elders around the throne sing loudly and cast their crowns on the ground. But the difference between the cherubim and a human being is that those heavenly beings are not sinful. When sinful Isaiah entered the presence of God, he cried “Woe is me! I am ruined!” Isaiah approached God’s throne with an awful reverence, and it was right of him, as a sinful man, to do so. When John saw Jesus, he fell at His feet as though dead, meaning among other things that he was quiet and reverent. At the very least, it is easy to see how much different are these pictures than the advice Wagner gives:
“The best way to determine if your worship is on the experiential track is to videotape your worship service and play it on a VCR side-by-side with a television tuned to MTV. The more similarity there is, the more likely it is that your worship is able to share the gospel with people.” (173)
All in all, I was disappointed with Wagner’s book. There are no ideas here that you cannot find in other, better books. The constant misuse of Scripture, along with the uncritical, almost thoughtless acceptance of everything Wagner sees in the New Apostolic Church should dissuade any serious student of Scripture and the church from reading it. If church growth has really been accepted in the church as a serious field of academic study, I hope it has something better to offer than this book.