In January 2008, the following post was identified as the 10th all-time most popular post with readers of this blog. The 11th most-read post was The Atonement—Wright Attacks Both Sides of the Debate.
Of all the posts I have written, this one is probably my own personal favorite. It is a rallying call to a kind of Christianity that is not ashamed to embrace the best from many different backgrounds.
The last four words of the above title are not new to me, but they are certainly resonating with me at the moment — “I Want It All!” Why should I have to choose, for example, between being enthusiastic about theology and being charismatic?
I know what some of you are thinking as you’ve been reading my posts on the Together On a Mission conference. You’re wondering why it is that someone who is so enthusiastic about what was obviously a very charismatic conference can also be deeply committed to defending and understanding biblical doctrine. I know it’s hard for some of you to believe, but it really is the same me who wrote all those posts on the atonement who also was so deeply touched by this latest conference. For those of you who have never met one, I am indeed that rare breed — a Reformed Charismatic.
Too often, however, the temptation for me is to downplay one side of that equation or the other in order to appear “balanced.” When I am with the charismatics, my reformed doctrine often appears alien to them, although in the UK, Newfrontiers offers a major exception to that with over 200 churches that are broadly reformed and charismatic. When I’m with the reformed, I’m tempted to soften my charismatic viewpoint and not speak too much of the things I have seen and experienced. Why is it that on this issue, as on so many others, the Church seems to be split in half? Why can’t we be both radically reformed and radically charismatic? Why do we see a conflict and therefore try to play down both in order to be “balanced?” I don’t want to be balanced, I want it all!
On the one hand there are those who care about theology enough to study God’s Word in detail, weigh scripture against scripture, study great theological minds, and preach intellectually stimulating messages that would stretch even a PhD in Theology — which, incidentally, I am certainly not! Why is it that for the majority of us, if we want such a feast for our minds, we must sacrifice certain other things? Why are some leaders in the Church committed to theology almost exclusively? Is even great theology so captivating that it is the only need of the Church? I don’t believe it can be, or God would have given us a Bible that was a systematic theology and not the one we have, which is essentially a collection of lots of stories with a few doctrinal portions.
Also, why is it that those who are most committed to following the Bible in everything also seem most committed to relegating a book like Acts to mere descriptive stories to tell our children? It’s not even just the book of Acts; there are swathes of the New Testament that in some theologies become almost entirely irrelevant to us. That was for then, we are told. When I read passages like those found in the book of Acts, I find myself yearning for something more than I am experiencing currently, yearning for a dynamic sense of the supernatural presence of God, longing for God himself to surprise and astonish me by his dynamic actions. Why is it that so often I am left with the impression that we are being encouraged to merely learn about God rather than get to know him? Would I be satisfied if I had read hundreds of e-mails from my wife, but had never actually met her or seen her do anything?
On the other hand, I could find many so-called men of faith who have stories to tell of miraculous healings or of prophecies that have had a life-changing impact. Listening to them, especially if I suspend my natural British cynicism and reserve, I hear tales of powerful encounters with God. Sadly, however, theological truths don’t seem to be emphasized at all by most of those committed to experiencing the supernatural presence of God. It is often even implied that it is all right for people to make glaring errors in their teaching or show little interest in what the Bible actually says.
Why is it that so many men who seem on first appearances to have such intimacy with God, such access to his power, such supernatural giftings, and such powerful prophecies, also have much less interest in the words that the Person they often describe as their best friend, the Holy Spirit, wrote 2000 years ago? Why is it that when listening to some of these men, the greatest miracle is no longer what happens in someone’s life when they are saved, but rather the latest supernatural healing or encounter with God? Why do we put up with so much flakiness and even blatant deception from figures claiming to have an anointing of the Spirit? How has it got to the point that even hearing the word “faith” seems to raise antibodies in me and make me feel uncomfortable? Why, though, do I feel in honest moments that some of those people with whose theology I most disagree seem to have something that I haven’t got, and that I want? Is it so wrong to want to learn more about faith and experience the supernatural acts of God without becoming flaky or doctrinally suspect? Is it not possible for me to both want and get it all?
This desire to “want it all” and have it all in extreme form rather than just a little of everything so as to become “balanced” is not confined to the issue of the truth of God’s Word and the experience of the supernatural. There are so many other stalls in the modern marketplace that is the global Church of Jesus. I can see them all before me selling their wares, each of them sure they have the answer to the ills of the Church. How do I choose which one to follow? Can’t I have it all? Can’t I learn from each of them? Must I choose only one? Where is the person who will overturn all these market stalls and say, “You need a bit of everything — no, change that — you need A LOT of everything — you need it all!”
Let’s consider those in the Church who understand the reason we are here on earth. They understand that we are here to enjoy God and bring glory to him by evangelizing the world and producing more worshippers. These guys have such enthusiasm that it is inspiring. Many are also so creative. They split into different tribes, however, sitting as it were at different stalls in the marketplace. There are those who believe in old-style tent crusades, those who want to fill stadiums again, those who knock on doors, those who tell strangers they are sinners, those who befriend sinners in order to evangelize them, those who run seeker sensitive services, those who speak of being missional and incarnating the Gospel, those who run Alpha, and those who preach a certain kind of evangelical “gospel” message every Sunday morning that has to include penal substitution. The different brands may disagree about the methods, but yet they all thrill me with their determination and commitment to see more people becoming Christians. Isn’t there room for us to use some methods from almost all of these brands of evangelism?
What troubles me most about so many of these devoted evangelists and missionaries is that so few of them are also deeply devoted to and thrilled with the Church. Why does there se
em to be a dichotomy between being “out there” reaching the world and building the community of God such that we love each other so much the world knows we are Jesus’ disciples? Also, why does the message of the evangelist sometimes ring hollow in my ears and fail to inspire me like it should? Is there something wrong with me? Dare I even admit that there have been times in the past when I have felt I don’t want to hear another “simple Gospel presentation” ever again? Why do the sermons I read in Acts sound so different to the vast majority of evangelistic messages I have ever heard? For that matter, if the Gospel is a handful of reductionistic propositions that we must preach on every occasion, and those few ideas are all that matters, why does so much of the Bible even exist? Much as I believe in penal substitution, it is not to be found in every verse of the Bible. Why are some evangelicals frightened to preach the whole counsel of God? Is it wrong to want to preach the message of the whole Bible?
Why is it, for that matter, that so many of us feel we lack practical wisdom of how to live our lives? I know I have felt like this many times in my life. How can it be that I can work through the Gospel from A to Z, listen to theologically-sound sermons, read the Bible, pray even, and do all the “right” things they tell me to, but somehow not know how to live? Why is it that the breed of practical living teachers are so rare in the Church that many feel they have to learn by watching programs like Nanny 911 because no Christian leader ever taught them how to raise their children? Why are there so few places in the Church to send someone who is struggling with a breaking marriage or with mounting debt? Why, when we find someone in the Church who is valiantly teaching us practical living tips that we should have learned from our parents do they so often sound no different to someone in the world? Where is the teaching that is biblically rooted, yet shows me how to run my life in the 21st century? Isn’t the Bible supposed to teach me how to have a good marriage, hold down a job, be a parent, have friends? It’s easy to condemn those preaching “self help” in the name of Jesus, but where are those teaching me how God wants to help me live wisely?
Again, why is it that as churches we are not all stirred to activism to help the poor? Adopting a village in Africa, helping HIV victims, befriending single mothers, housing drug addicts — the list goes on and on. Christians who really care, frankly, put me to shame. Why do I so shamefully neglect this? I know that I do give some money that is channeled to such projects by my church, but why do I feel I should be doing much more? Surely we should be demonstrating God’s kingdom on earth for the world to see. And yet, why do some of the people who give themselves to this kind of work which is meant to demonstrate God’s kingdom seem more like social workers than Christ’s ambassadors? Why do we seem to allow the Gospel to be squeezed out of our attempts to help the poor?
I can go on — what of the worshippers? There are many people who love God, feel his presence, and “waste time” with him. Why do I find it so hard to squeeze contemplation into my busy life? Why should worship become an option that excludes other options? Why is meditation considered to be something for Buddhists when the Bible invented it? What about prayer — shouldn’t it be more than merely reciting a shopping list of requests to some heavenly slot machine? Shouldn’t it be something other than worrying out loud?
And what about a sense of belonging? Of a Church that loves each other and builds a community in this loveless world? Why are there some small churches that really are a family, and yet find it hard to grow? How can large churches retain the feeling that people are there for me and know me? How can we avoid merely having hundreds of superficial acquaintances and yet still feeling totally alone? How can we learn how to do things well for God without becoming just a commercial entity led only by the world’s management techniques?
I guess this all leads to a feeling that there is something wrong with the Church. I suspect many of us feel that way as Christians. But what is it that is wrong? Is it, as some would say, “Well, the danger is an overemphasis on feelings, so here we preach the truth of the Bible — that is what we need most.” That sounds so good until you hear someone else say something like, “What the Church really needs to do is to learn to care more — we have to love each other and then learn to love the world — that’s the problem with the Church,” or someone else says, “Your problem is that you know the Bible, but you don’t know God — you people just have a form of godliness, but deny its power.”
I don’t just want balance, however, and certainly not if it means we end up missing EVERYTHING. I thank God that there are those who are attempting to be balanced and have a bit of all of these things. Yet, I am concerned that in an anxiety to be balanced, we end up being mediocre at all of these things. I suppose as individuals we will always be better at some of them than others, but as a healthy local church can’t we have it all?
Social action needn’t be the enemy of building a nice community, nor should singing be a chore to get through until the preaching starts. Do we really have to wince every time someone begins to prophesy for fear of what our visitors may think? We shouldn’t have to be anxious, when preaching, that our people are being bored or that we are offending visitors. These things are not enemies of each other.
Why shouldn’t we have churches that are every bit as concerned about doctrinal accuracy and knowledge as John MacArthur, that love relational intimacy with Jesus as much as John Arnott, see miraculous healings that are every bit as dynamic as the ones the tele-evangelists claim to have seen, are as full of vision and purpose as Rick Warren, as skilled in leadership as Bill Hybels, as humble and committed to spiritual maturity as C. J. Mahaney, as relevant to practical life as the author of any self-help book you can think of, that impact social needs in the model of Shaftsbury, tackle political issues like Wilberforce, preach with both the passion for souls of Spurgeon and the passion for God’s glory of John Piper, that hear from God as clearly as any modern prophet, are as aggressively missional as Mark Driscoll, have the apostolic drive of Terry Virgo, and yet somehow still feel as comforting as my wife’s homemade apple crumble with custard?
Am I being greedy to say “I want it all, and I wish I could become an extremist for all of these things at once?”