Acts 29: Missional or Charismatic? Engaging with Newfrontiers/Sam Storms/Steve Timmis

Andrew Wilson has written an interesting blog which interacts with a diversity of views within the Acts 29 network. Andrew is a leader within the Newfrontiers movement. His ministry is marked by theological thoroughness, missional engagement and charismatic commitments. His stuff is always worth a read.

Wilson begins by noting: “There’s an intriguing discussion taking place within Acts29 at the moment over whether, and to what extent, miraculous spiritual gifts (like prophecy or healing) continue today.” What is the discussion? Sam Storms (an Acts 29 leader has written a book which promotes charismatic practice; Matt Chandler (Acts 29 President) endorsed the book and wrote the Foreword; but Steve Timmis (CEO of Acts 29) has written a friendly but critical review of Storms’ book.

Wilson says all of this “intriguing.” I’ll come back to this later. But for the moment I’ll simply add that there is nothing really unusual about this. From what I understand, Acts 29 has always been diverse, and by and large, “continuationist”. For example, Mark Driscoll (Acts 29 Founder) always described himself as “charismatic with a seat-belt” although, towards the end of the Mars Hill era was moving towards a more explicit charismatic position as could be seen in in his infamous ‘Sixth-Sense-esque’ moment when he declared “I see things” and when he gate-crashed John MacArthur’s Strange Fire conference.

However, as far as I understand it, Acts 29 have always had a “continuationist edge” but they have never been “charismatic”. In fact, when I attended an Acts 29 Boot Camp in London (it was the one where Steve Timmis was brought in as the director for Acts 29 Europe), I happened to be sitting next to a guy from Newfrontiers. We had a discussion about the nature of New Frontiers and Acts 29. Both of us were “charismatics” and we noted that the Acts 29 conference was great in its emphasis on mission, but not so good in worship (worship being defined through a charismatic grid).

So, from my experience, Acts 29 (and Mars Hill where it derived its origins and ethos) have never been overtly charismatic. And there is a reason for this too. Acts 29 was always missional, and it was understood that charismatic practices often hindered mission rather than enabling it. The whole premise underpinning Acts 29 was contextualization and biblical faithfulness. Consequently, churches which made the charismata a central tenet tended to be not very missionally minded . Very often they would create church cultures that alienated people because of the various charismatic practices (en masse tongue-speaking, Toronto Blessing style manifestations, people being slain in the Spirit and so on). At least this is my analysis of the Acts 29/Mars Hill philosophy.

Wilson views the difference between Storms and Timmis as “intriguing”.

It’s intriguing because, as a local church, it is not an issue on which you can sit on the fence: you either “eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophecy,” or you don’t (although the degree to which you do this can obviously vary).

I think there are two issues here. One is a difference in tradition/worldview held by Wilson, Storms and Timmis. The second is a contradiction in Wilson’s understanding of the ongoing charismata.

First the difference in worldviews.

Tradition/Worldview difference

Wilson, develops his point about not being able to sit on the fence. He says the diversity of views on the charismata within Acts 29: “reflects a fairly important difference in ministry philosophy, not to mention theology, which in turn reflects a rather broader theological bandwidth than I am used to within Newfrontiers.”

Of course, this is correct. The charismata does have a different emphasis in Newfrontiers than it does in Acts 29, and in fact as it does in the worldview/experience of Sam Storms.

Charismata in Newfrontiers

New frontiers was pioneered by Terry Virgo and was a product of the charismatic movement of the 60s. The charismatic movement took different forms. One stream flowed into the Old mainline denominations, other streams flowed into the historic pentecostal denominations and others flowed out into new churches. One particular expression of the new churches was the restoration movement. New Frontiers, however else it may have evolved over the years (e.g. from a house church movement to a mega-church movement) has an ethos that is firmly rooted in the charismatic and apostolic restorationist movement. You can get a grasp of Newfrontiers’ history and core values, and development by reading Terry Virgo’s books on the church: ‘Restoration of the Church’ (1985); ‘No Well-Worn Paths: Restoring the Church to its original intention’ (2001); and ‘The Spirit-Filled Church: Finding Your Place in God’s Purpose’ (2011).

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To understand Newfrontiers’ theology of the charismata you need to understand its pneumatology and its ecclesiology. In terms of its theology of the Holy Spirit, in line with its charismatic history and tradition, Newfrontiers still seems to operate within a framework which understands the baptism in the Holy Spirit as a distinct and separate experience from conversion (however, given their lack of Statement of Faith, this is more assumed). It is not clear whether they make speaking in tongues “an” or “the” evidence, but Terry Virgo’s connection between baptism in the Spirit and speaking in tongues  is clearly emphasised in his latest book.

For restorationists there is a direct link between ‘baptism in the Spirit’; ‘operating in gifts of power’ and ‘expression of gifts within the context of the local church’. For the consistent restorationist, gifts must be expressed in the context of public worship. It’s a primary distinctive.

This is why Wilson argues that charismata “is not an issue on which you can sit on the fence: you either “eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophecy,” or you don’t”. What this means is, ‘miraculous’ gifts must ne normative if we are to be faithful to the New Testament Church pattern for public worship.

It is no wonder that folks in the Newfrontiers camp will be encouraged by Storms book. (I haven’t read it, although I agree with the points that Timmis makes in his review of it). However, Sam Storms’ theology of the charismata has been formed in a different context to that of Newfrontiers. Sam Storms’ background is the Vineyard church. Or, if you prefer to think in terms of movements, the Third Wave (see ‘Riding the Third Wave: What Comes After Renewal?’ edited by Kevin Springer and introduced by John Wimber).

The ‘Third Wave’ was really a major revision of the pentecostal and charismatic theologies. Pentecostalism made baptism in the Spirit and tongue-speaking essential – it was polemic and divisive; the charismatic movement made these things normative, and more widely accepted; the Third Wave returned to a classical evangelical understanding of baptism in the Spirit (happens at conversion) and separated the gifts of the Spirit from the baptism. It also placed ‘gifts’ or rather ‘power tools’ in the context of mission. Miracles, in this context, (in theory) were not so much about the church service, and more intended as signs to accompany the preaching of the gospel. In other words, they were a missional tool. (However, many charismatic churches, including Newfrontiers’ have been influenced by the Third Wave and vice versa).

The ideology of charismata as a missional tool was not always realized in the Vineyard movement. When the Kansas City church (Mike Bickle), where Sam Storms was based, joined the movement, a lot of emphasis was placed on spiritual manifestations. The movement really went off the edge during this stage. There were false prophecies, sensationalism, and scandals (See my review of Bill Jackson’s The Radical Middle).

Since we are thinking in terms of Waves. It is worth noting that the current missional movement is probably the next stage in the evolution of contemporary evangelicalism. With each development, ‘charismata’ is given a slightly different emphasis. In the missional context, mission, contextualization and the gospel are what matters. And, where and when charismata can serve this purpose – that is good and well. And if it doesn’t, then it shouldn’t be the focus. This is why Steve Timmis can disagree with Storms yet say: “although I’m not a cessationist—nor even a functional cessationist—I’m not and would not describe myself a charismatic.”

It’s also why Timmis can say:

I’d love to see the dead raised. I want to see cancers healed with thrilling frequency. I covet testimonies of multiple people having their hearts’ secrets exposed so they acknowledge God is indeed among his people. But I don’t. The anecdotal evidence cited by good friends is underwhelming. I can and do ask. I can and do expect. At times, I could even be accused of pestering my heavenly Father for these things.

But as I wait, the Lord continues to work powerfully by his Spirit in transforming lovers of self into lovers of God and others. I see many evidences of lives changed, and of sustaining grace. I hear God speak directly and pertinently through his Word as it’s faithfully taught. So, brothers and sisters, press on with the daily task of following Jesus with joy, even amid sacrifice.

Contradiction

This is where there is a contradiction in Wilson’s response. If we look at his statement in the light of Timmis’ comments it is clearly seen:

It’s intriguing because, as a local church, it is not an issue on which you can sit on the fence: you either “eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially prophecy,” or you don’t (although the degree to which you do this can obviously vary).

On the one hand, he is saying you can’t sit on the fence with the pursuit and expression of charismata yet on the other hand he is saying the degrees to which this outworked can be varied. Yet, it seems as if Timmis’ position is excluded from the scale, despite the fact he says he is not a cessationist. How is that possible? It’s possible because Wilson’s ecclesiastical and theological moorings demand a more central place for charismata. For Wilson (and probably Storms) charismata/miracles must be normative. But this is exactly the reason why Timmis must reject the premise underpinning Storms book – and also the premise underpinning charismatic theology.

The real issue here is not cessationism versus charismatic theology, the issue is how a theology of the Spirit is worked out in practice. It is a question of what is considered to be normative in church life and what is not. From a New Testament point of view, what is central, the gifts of the Spirit or the Gospel of Christ and the Word of God? If you try and make both central tenets, what is at stake? I would argue that you end up with two competing authorities. You end up with the authority of scripture, and the authority of individual experience. Sola-scriptura will be undermined, despite our best efforts to make that not the case. Further, Nobel Prize winning scientist, Francis Collins, makes the following observations about miracles.

The only thing that will kill the possibility of miracles more quickly than a committed materialism is the claiming of miracle status for everyday events for which natural explanations are readily at hand.

In my experience, this is problem that charismatic practice can create. When everything is miraculous, nothing is miraculous. As Timmis highlights, on the one hand charismatics claim that the same miracle-power that the Apostles walked in is available to all, but the reality is most charismatics are “happy to accept a lower standard of “success”.

Collins further makes the point, regarding healing:

More difficult to evaluate are the claims of miraculous healing from medical problems. As a physician, I have occasionally seen circumstances where individuals recovered from illnesses that appeared not to be reversible. Yet I am loath to ascribe those events to miraculous intervention, given our incomplete understanding of illness and how it affects the human body. All too often, when claims of miraculous healing have been carefully investigated by objective observers, those claims have fallen short. Despite those misgivings, and an insistence that such claims be backed up by extensive evidence, I would not be stunned to hear that such genuine miraculous healings do occur on extremely rare occasions. My “prior” is low, but it is not zero.

The importance of these issues is often overlooked in charismatic contexts. I overlooked them myself for many years. But we need to be realists. Faith cannot mean the redefining of reality. Again, it would seem to me that a biblical understanding of miracles and charismata is to recognise that God does work supernaturally, but at the same time it is not normative. There is no ‘key’ to ‘unlock’. There is no secret technique to discover. Charismatic theology ever forces us to embrace the next solution. Why? Because reality does not match ideology. If miracles are to be normative, why do we not see them more? And to answer that question, there is always the next book, the next method and the next strategy about how to become more supernatural. The irony being we end up less supernatural because we have substituted confidence in God’s sovereign power with a human methodology.

Further, in the constant search for the supernatural element in modern ‘prophecy’ we lose sight of the supernatural element in the ordinary means of grace. God in the midst of his gathered church, his grace conveyed by the means of Word and sacrament. This is supernatural. Maybe the problem is we are in search of the signs, rather than the reality itself – which is God in the midst of his people.  

Acts 29 in many ways is reflective of contemporary evangelical culture. In contrast to the pentecostal churches, and charismatic movements (like Newfrontiers), a diversity of views of spiritual gifts and miracles exists. Movements that make charismata a central tenet in some ways, I think, in decline. Certainly, in the UK, with the shift towards contemporary missional churches, charismata is becoming less and less part of the bread and butter of public worship. Participation in collective praying and prophesying has been replaced by worship that is driven by a professional band, or rendered almost impractical where the church is large. Consequently, in practice, many pentecostal and charismatic churches are indistinguishable from any other evangelical church.

What does this mean for Storms book and Acts 29? I don’t know, I’m not in that movement. Will some Acts 29 churches become more actively charismatic in practice? Maybe. Will all of them? I doubt it. Not if Timmis’ review is anything to go by. In that sense, Acts 29 will just be like every other network of independent churches – some will be more charismatic than others. Whilst this may be a “broader theological band-width” than is the norm at Newfrontiers, it is more reflective of the global church scene. And, I have a sneaking suspicion that it is more reflective of Newfrontiers – or certainly where Newfrontiers is heading. Ever since Newfrontiers split into spheres, my understanding is that some have headed down more charismatic routes (e.g. Bethel) whereas others would be more focused on expository preaching, and would be sceptical of anything as extreme as Bethel.

What will Acts 29 look like in the future? Who knows. If we can learn anything from the past though, the Vineyard movement suffered when it allowed the Kansas City church (which Storms was a part of) to set the trend in terms of a ‘supernatural’ emphasis. As a result, church planting and mission suffered. It would be a great pity if Acts 29 suffered the same fate – that is, if charismata took such central stage that it begins to hinder rather than enable mission.

 

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