Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Organized Renewal Movement

[The organized renewal movement exists in more than one of the mainline denominations. It has enjoyed some successes; but in a large measure, it has also met with considerably less success than circumstances warrant. In the prior series of posts on the renewal enterprise, I have considered a number of reasons why this seems to be the case. I’m very aware that the observation itself – of the lack of success, is offensive to a number of renewalists. It is not my intent to place blame; I fully recognize the sometimes heroic efforts of individual renewalists. Nonetheless, I would point out that the rank and file – ordinary members and pastors who have supported the renewal movement (as distinct from those who were uninvolved) – have the perception that it has failed. In the face of that widespread perception, it might behoove leaders in the various renewal groups to take that perception (no matter how hurtful it may feel) seriously. In my opinion, renewal in the American Church is certainly possible – though difficult; in my opinion, at least certain aspects of work toward renewal are certainly worthwhile. Nonetheless, if the organized renewal movement continues in the direction it has gone in the past, it will fail. If, on the other hand, renewal groups and individual renewalists rethink their operational philosophy and rebuild their strategy from the ground up, they may still fail, but it is not a foregone conclusion. In order to make progress, the renewal movement must cease to be reactive, must cease to focus on crisis management, must be transformed into a genuine movement in its own right. Many people are asking, “Where do we go from here?” While I am fully persuaded that all individuals who desire renewal in the sense of genuine revival need to engage in those practices biblically commended practices (some of which I mentioned earlier: prayer, reading and study of the Bible, fasting, seeking God’s face, preaching the Gospel, opposing the right enemy, and especially repentance), I am also aware that, when speaking of a ‘movement’ specific actions are needed. I therefore find myself in the unenviable position of offering a suggestion to renewal groups and individual renewalists. I do not submit a strategy or plan of action, but a reconsideration. How might one get from point A to point B?]

A. Renewal groups and individual renewalists need to engage in a brief but focused and purposeful “season of discernment”. This period must be brief because perpetual naval gazing is not an option if one wants to make progress. The first order of business during such a period of discernment must be to accurately assess the full extent of the crisis in the mainline denominations (and in the American church more broadly). It is true that many of us on the outside see the situation as more dire than it may actually be; that is a matter of interpretation combined with a perceived inability to actually do anything productive about it. Renewal groups tend to err quite significantly in the other direction; at least in their public statements many of them seem to fail to grasp the actual severity of the problems. Arguments about unity will be raised, or about focusing on mission rather than division. But these take for granted that the warring opinions within the American church are all actually Christian. If they are not, (a contention that is supported by the fact that these are mutually exclusive), then unity and common mission become impossible. Though it may sound ‘nice’ to focus on them, in that circumstance this would be delusional.

A second essential purpose of such a period of discernment would be to determine the goals of the ‘organized renewal movement’ in as specific terms as possible. One of the issues that have greatly hindered the effectiveness of renewal efforts has been a historic inability for renewalists to clearly articulate their goals and strategies to ordinary members. I believe this should be the first order of business for anyone serious about renewal in the legacy denominations. Whatever results might grow from such a period of discernment – the articulation of goals and appropriate strategies – needs to be simple and clear. Personally, I value precision, but I often sacrifice plainness for it; but that plain speaking should be maintained as much as is possible. Worry less about the nuances than about being honest and broadly understood. Avoid the use of poetic language and vagaries in some misguided attempt to gain a fictional unity. Avoid the use of current fashionable terms that can have multiple meanings; avoid the use of guild-speak and jargon – specialized language that has the function of cutting off ordinary people from the conversation. The objective here is to articulate the goals and beliefs of the renewal movement in such a clear way that these cannot be misunderstood by any serious questioner. No such plain spoken presentation will lack critics – many opportunities will arise to make the case in very detailed terms. (In other words, you’ll still get the chance for nuance; you’ll still get the chance for intellectually satisfying arguments; but not at the expense of common understanding.)

I grant that the logistics of this are problematic, but it would be good for representatives of renewal groups and renewalists to meet together in a kind of summit. It would also be good if such an event were not confined specifically to one denomination. At the very least, consultation together within a denomination or tradition (e.g. related denominations from the same ‘family’) is a must. I label this a must, but I’m also aware this would amount to the ecclesial equivalent of herding cats; I should say it would be extremely beneficial if everyone who was willing would meet together to explore ways to foster cooperation. Consultation of this type need not occur in person – other effective technological options exist. It may be that finding that much common ground will prove impossible; the current visible disunity within renewal movements, however, is counterproductive, and every effort must be made to overcome it. Additionally, various renewal groups (and individual renewalists) have different cultures, resources, and talents that enable them to do different things well. If these could ever be persuaded to operate cooperatively – so that renewalists were not constantly obliged to reinvent the wheel – the gifts they bring would greatly increase the overall effectiveness of the renewal movement.

B. Renewal groups and renewalists need to begin thinking long term. Certain groups – particularly single-issue groups – have done this. In the main, the renewal movements have tended to emphasize reversing the current crisis only, seeking a status quo ante that was anything but satisfactory to begin with. I realize, of course, that ‘energizing the base’ tends occur around the latest shocking event in one or other of the mainline organizations. This emphasis on the most recent problem takes advantage of human nature in one respect, but it overlooks human nature at the same time. Humans have an inherent tendency to try to mediate between extremes. If, on the one hand, you have the compromised position that represents fifty years of drift away from historic and biblical Christianity, and on the other hand you have the radical fringe progressivist philosophy – then the mediation between extremes position will be half moderate, half radical fringe. Focusing on the immediate prior state of affairs, as if this were a laudable goal, helps shift the attitudes of large numbers of ordinary members who are striving to moderate between ‘extremes’. The thing is, one pole is extreme; the other is already skewed in the same direction – just not quite as far. It is a functional unipolar contest whose results cannot help but be some (albeit mild) variation of progressivist religious philosophy.

To those on the outside this is what it looks like. The renewal movement draws a line: this far and no more. That line is breeched. The renewal movement counsels, ‘wait and see how the new situation will look … don’t be hasty … it might not be as bad as we think.” Eventually, when a certain number of renewalists have gotten used to the new situation, the renewal will draw a new, more modest line: this far and no more. That new and improved line is breeched. The renewal movement counsels, ‘wait and see … don’t be hasty ….’ Yet another line is drawn: this time we really mean it; this far and no more.

Renewal groups and individual renewalists would be well advised to remember that the only way out of this often repeated dance – that simply continually transforms the beliefs and priorities of large numbers of members in one direction only – is to reject the initial premise. Sure, fight against the latest outrage if you must, but don’t stop there; have more significant goals. Stop thinking small; decide what it is you want to see in your denomination and fight for that. I think it would be a mistake to select an idealized historic period within a denomination, perhaps fifty or a hundred years ago, as if there were no challenges then. Instead, I believe an unequivocal stand for biblical Christianity is what is called for. In that case, instead of standing firmly on the sand of the most recent state of affairs and unwittingly helping advance a progressivist agenda, renewalists would find their feet planted on the Rock – the faith once delivered to the saints.

C. Engage ordinary members and local leaders. At one time a person could accurately speak of a ‘silent majority’ of members whose views and beliefs differed greatly from those advocated by people in leadership positions within their denominations. Today, I suspect we’d be talking more in terms of ‘silent pluralities’ of members. These constitute, of course, a sizable group, but they are fewer than they once were. Whatever the case, no attempted renewal movement that bypasses these members and local leaders has any chance of success. There is, in some renewal groups, a culture of elitism – in which these solicit donations from the ‘silent plurality’ but insist on fighting ‘for them’. In effect, this does the same thing to members and local leaders that denominational bureaucracies do: it sidelines them. They send in the money, they add to the numbers, but nothing is required or desired of them – least of all their active participation and opinions. Renewal groups are not as openly contemptuous of ordinary member and local leaders as are denominational bureaucrats, but they still discount them. This is not universally true, but it is far more widespread than it should be. I don’t believe that such a movement is at all sustainable.

I have come to the conclusion that a two-fold transformation in renewal groups is the need of the day. First, the primary focus of the organized renewal movement needs to become advocacy for biblical Christianity. I do not mean this should be necessarily the singular focus of all renewal groups – just that it must predominate. In order to be effective, such an advocacy must include both the clear articulation of biblical Christianity and the identification of and opposition to the competing non-Christian philosophies that enjoy currency in the church. This is best accomplished by rejecting current trends among ‘evangelicals’ that have faddish components, by backing away from over-reliance on confessions and creeds that are already compromised, by sidelining secular politics in the vast majority of cases, and by avoiding adding to or taking away from biblical Christianity. Second, renewal groups need to see their role as one of empowering ordinary members and local leaders. Instead of working for ordinary members and leaders in local congregations or on their behalf, the focus needs to shift to facilitating these members’ own efforts at renewal. I say this for a number of reasons, but primarily I must observe: as the ones who pay the bills and make up the numbers of the denominational organizations, ordinary members are the ones who both have a right to be heard, and, though they may not know it, have the ability to make their presence felt in ways far more profound than any small group can ever hope to do.

> The case must be made to ordinary members and local leaders that they can have an impact in their local community AND in their wider denominational settings. These two are not mutually exclusive concerns, and in fact, they complement one another well.

> The case must be made to ordinary members and local leaders that advocating for biblical Christianity in their communities and more widely is a worthwhile pursuit. It must be seen not as a hassle, not as a call to endless fighting about irrelevancies, but as an invitation to an adventure. It is these ordinary members and leaders that are invited to become fishers of men.

> An accurate presentation of the real situations in the denominational organizations must be made to ordinary members. Such a presentation must be fair minded, but it must also never cringe from presenting a true picture. [Personally, I see this as one of the more difficult things for the organized renewal movement to manage because it must also come to terms with an accurate view of the actual situations.]

> Renewal groups ought to provide detailed, easily accessible materials to help ordinary members to become more effective advocates for biblical Christianity. A great many people are willing – and follow vaguely biblical Christianity, but have never thought some of their beliefs through in a coherent, systematic manner. (While such a scattershot approach to biblical Christianity may work in their lives, it often leaves them unable to put their beliefs into words in an effective way. It also often leaves them unable to precisely identify the flaws in philosophies that compete with biblical Christianity.) Similarly, many ordinary members are unfamiliar with potent challenges to biblical Christianity. Materials that help us work through these challenges could only be beneficial. Many such materials already exist, but renewal groups would do well to gather them and make them widely available.

> Renewal groups must educate ordinary members about their denominations’ historic teachings and their polity structures. It can no longer be assumed that the people in a particular denomination were reared in that denomination and understand its traditional teachings and polity. It would be helpful to prepare ordinary members not to be intimidated by leaders – particularly national leaders. It would also be helpful to provide clear, concrete actions that ordinary members and local leaders who are concerned with the direction of their denominations can take. Some that come to mind are polity participation where that is practical; observation of regional and national meetings – renewalist congregations should be encouraged to send observers to such meetings; communication with denominational leaders – sometimes, if enough people communicate their beliefs it may give national leaders second thoughts about ignoring those beliefs; genuine (actually signed) petitions have been underused – and could be effective at showing widespread support or opposition to a particular course; financial giving opportunities that would not violate these members’ beliefs – often denominations have some things they do well, but the average member usually lacks the information to sort one from another; speaking out in their communities against misguided actions of national and regional governing bodies. I mention these – but I remain aware that opportunities and ideas exist. The organized renewal movement would do well to encourage as much action on the part of ordinary members as possible.

> Renewal groups might want to consider providing opportunities for fellowship among biblical Christians. Sometimes these may find themselves in settings where they are rather strongly isolated. That condition can be completely demoralizing; and the conviction that one is ‘all alone’ is not accurate. Helping biblical Christians, renewalists, ordinary members to provide support – emotional and otherwise – for one another should be a priority. Technology can be a great help in this regard if it is correctly used.

> Renewal groups need to focus on formulating effective communication strategies. If these choose the route of trying to empower ordinary members, they need to be able to communicate with those members. In order to make a case that renewal and advocacy for biblical Christianity are possible, necessary, and worthwhile, you need to be able to get a hearing. In order to be responsive to the beliefs and needs of ordinary members, renewal groups need to have two-way communication. Currently, factors of inertia, clericalism, and greater denominational resources are rendering that communication difficult. This is an uphill battle, but several things will help: craft your message in clear, simple, and accurate terms; make your case about empowerment; and avail yourselves of all technologies that permit wider communications.

> Where your beliefs are compatible, do not be afraid to cross denominational lines. I am persuaded that denominational organizations are the way of the past. Progressivists seek organizational unity; biblical Christians seek organic unity around common belief in and commitment to Jesus Christ. Many of your goals are the same in different denominations; your opponents are the same in different denominational settings; the tactics employed against biblical Christianity are the same. It only makes sense for the response to be one of cooperation.

I realize what I am saying constitutes a restructuring of the organized renewal movement, but I am persuaded nothing less is called for. [When I was young, the popular term for this was perestroika – and it was paired with glasnost – openness. However that may have worked out for Russia, I think these two things will give legs to an almost moribund renewal movement.] Much is already in place that could be very beneficial; but there are many forces that work against those benefits. I am persuaded today’s need dictates that an effective renewal movement will form around advocacy for biblical Christianity, will stop thinking small, and will primarily be about empowering ordinary members and local leaders.

Will Spotts

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