Renewal: the Hype, the Hope and the Reality

by Len Hjalmarson

"When the sky is the limit, it's easy to neglect foundations." Jimmy Long, Generating Hope

For a French version see Renouveau: le Trip, l'Espérance et la Réalité.

   The renewal has been a source of blessing to hundreds of thousands of believers world-wide. We've had great parties and learned to enjoy God more. Many have deepened their love for Christ. These are the best results of renewal.

   Yet unprecedented blessing shouldn't make us blind to the problems raised by renewal. As I was reflecting on this issue recently I read an old article by a Brethren brother. He comments that unusual spiritual experiences are like super rich food: wonderful for the taste-buds, but dangerous when they become regular fare. The truth is that one can feast on calorie rich foods, but starve to death while getting fat.

   Almost a year ago I unsubscribed to one of the most popular prophetic lists on the Internet. I did this with great reluctance, in part because I had had some contact with the principals of the list, and I knew them to be believers of integrity. There was no doubt in my mind about their motives or their love for the Lord and His people.

   Why then did I unsubscribe from the prophetic list?

The Evangelical Church in North America: Touched but not Transformed?

   It wasn't an easy decision. Even the decision to write this article was a difficult one. I love the church, and I love what God is doing in the world. After 8 years within the Vineyard movement, I love renewal, and that love compelled me to write this article.

   I had two primary motivations for ending my subscription to the lists last spring. First, I felt that I was relying too much on others to hear from the Lord. I felt like I was losing objectivity, and learning to live on regurgitated food. I felt like I was feasting yet getting more hungry all the time.

   Second, I felt that there was an unbiblical emphasis in the prophetic and apostolic movements at large. Somehow the lists were contributing, unwittingly, to a climate where certain gifts were exalted above others. I felt that that emphasis was contributing to the loss of something essential in the church, and eroding the foundation that the Lord had built.

   "When the sky is the limit, it's easy to neglect foundations." Jimmy Long, Generating Hope

   Two years ago the Lord highlighted this phrase as I read from Jimmy Long's book on reaching the postmodern generation. At the time it was like a lightning bolt to me… I was shocked as the Lord showed me how renewal, while giving new strength to the church, was at the same time threatening to erode biblical foundations of love and community.

   How could this be?

Twelve Problems with the Renewal Movement

   Renewal has touched but not transformed the church. This has two dimensions, both structural and personal.

   1) While many have been inwardly renewed, the new wine has not been allowed to reshape our wineskin for church and ministry. As a result, many have been deeply touched but find no way to express that new life. We need new models of leadership and ministry, but many leaders fear change. John C. Maxwell, in a recent newsletter, points out that leaders hesitate to give away power because..

  • I won't be indispensable any more.
  • My authority might be challenged some day.
  • Their influence could surpass my own.
  • They might receive credit due to me.

   When we think of renewal, we generally think of change within our current paradigms. But God wants to put the old things to death to raise up new things. Graham Cooke comments,

   "We cannot hold onto our old order and still progress to a new level of anointing. When a new paradigm unfolds before us, it will always take us back to ground zero. Paradigms do not build on each other; they replace each other. God loves this! We start again with a new dependency rising out of fresh inadequacy." (A Divine Conspiracy)

   2) While many people have been renewed, too few are being discipled. Many have been touched by the Lord, but they have not been vitally connected to other believers, grounded in the Word and involved in ministry. A recent survey by the Barna Research Group (March, 2001) found that four out of 10 Christians do not attend church or read the Bible in a typical week, while seven out of 10 are not involved in a small group that meets for spiritual purposes. As a result, believers come back to the well again and again, not recognizing that the focus has become "what can I get" rather than "what can I give?" We have neglected the foundation of discipleship.

   3) The renewal movement feeds into our western cult of personality. We announce the coming speakers in advance, listing their achievements, titles, and their publications. Jesus pointed away from himself to the kingdom. Instead of accepting every speaking engagement, we should be equipping others to go and encouraging local churches to develop their own people.

   Sadly, we measure the greatness of Christian leaders in the same way as we measure the greatness of worldly position: by popularity, influence, the number of books and tapes that are sold and the number of conference bookings. We exalt our leaders to prominent positions and bestow honorary doctorates, participating fully in the same methods of honor that the world uses. We do not measure by the measure that Jesus' advocates: "whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your slave."

   4) A related issue, professionalism and specialization have created ministry models that encourage passivity and dependence, with a few leaders always prominent and the few "doing ministry" to the many. We disempower the laos of God, and then wonder why believers are slow to take initiative or walk in authority.

   Releasing only the most dynamic gifts ensures that ordinary people feel ineffective, constantly comparing themselves to the most gifted among us. Graham Cook writes, "People who feel insignificant remain ineffective and small. They become grasshoppers in their own sight and may never inherit all that Jesus died to give them." A Divine Confrontation. Jean Vanier comments that "we have to create structures which encourage everyone to participate, and especially the shy people. Those who have the most light to shed often dare not show it; they are afraid of appearing stupid. They do not recognize their own gift.. perhaps because others haven't recognized it either."

   5) Centralization of ministry limits diversity. Those constantly on the platform become the model for gifted ministry, impacting our willingness to release other gifts and other styles of ministry. Furthermore, leaders tend to affirm those like them. When only a few leaders are empowered to lead, they tend to build an empire in their own image, limiting the freedom of other gifts and styles. One reason that the arts are not alive and well in most evangelical churches is because our churches are not places that support creativity or diversity, though we give lip service to these things.

   6) We have emphasized gifts over character. As a result we become performance driven and push people toward burnout, at the same time failing to recognize the importance of trials and testing as part of the normal Christian life. Years ago Michael Green described this danger as being "infatuated with a theology of the Spirit while neglecting a theology of the Cross." In fact, ministry and Christian growth are more about ordinary everyday life than about the mountaintop experiences.

   7) We have emphasized a few charismatic gifts over the need for balance in the body. As a result, the leadership gifts that are most needful, in particular relational (community building) gifts and gifts of wisdom, are sadly neglected. Prophetic and miraculous gifts are exalted beyond their importance while other balancing gifts are less visible.

   8) We have disconnected certain gifts from the life of the body and from Christian community. In particular, prophetic and healing gifts are trumped to draw people, mostly believers, to extraordinary meetings and conferences. As a sidelight, we have merchandised the gospel, using renewal as a means to build personal businesses (Every popular teacher has a tape ministry. While this isn't always wrong, it becomes very difficult to draw the line between ministry and profit motives, and many ministers fall into a snare and give ministry a bad name. Equally dangerous, we learn to value information more than formation as believers increase their knowledge of God without increasing their obedience.)

   9) Renewal and God's work is often hyped. In exalting what God is doing "out there" we put the spotlight on unusual activities of God, instead of holding up the ordinary and everyday acts of love as the primary means of the gospel. Every believer can love their neighbor. Every believer can be a listening ear and a voice of compassion. Not every believer is anointed for prophetic or healing ministry, and Paul cautions us that it is the "weaker gifts" which are the most needful (1 Cor.12:22).

   The issue of hype is also relevant to performance. Our motivation may be good, but misdirected. We don't need to work people into a lather in order to reach godly goals. By doing so we feed a performance orientation and lead people rapidly to burnout. St. Exupery wrote that, "If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea."

   10) We have moved from Christianity as lifestyle to event driven Christianity. Recently Chad Taylor wrote of Timothy's House, a discipleship house in Boise, Idaho.. "What does it really cost to see a whole region shaken by God? Is it more than infrequent conferences and prayer meetings? Could it cost us our lives instead? Our dreams and aspirations? Would it require that we take up our cross and follow Him wherever He may be going?"

   11) A related issue, renewal tends to relegate spirituality to the mountain-top experience, and neglects the spirituality of the ordinary. Yet 99% of our lives as believers are lived in the everday, mundane work-a-day world in the valley. "Heaven is My throne, and earth is My footstool." All of creation reflects the glory of God, and we need a spirituality that reflects that truth. CS Lewis wrote that,

&Nbsp;  "There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God.God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why he uses material things like bread and wine to get the new life into us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it. (Mere Christianity, bk.2,ch.5)

   12) Perhaps the greatest indictment of all, we have reinforced the fortress mentality and neglected the poor. More and more money is invested into renewal and renewal conferences, events that separate Christians into their own ghetto parties, while less and less time and resources is put into the poor and needy. We keep Christians so busy getting touched and renewed that they have no time to impact the lives of unbelievers around them.

Seven Correctives

1) A Revival of Wholeness and Love

   Where at one time the church needed the message of the whole gospel, including the charismatic gifts, now we need a new message of the whole gospel, including the message of love and community. We need saints of the everyday, the main and the plain, loving their neighbors and practicing hospitality, more than we need more saints focussed on gifts and miracles.

   We need less emphasis on healing and salvation, and more emphasis on shalom and transformation. No, let me clarify. Physical healing is just one manifestation of the kingdom, it's part of the broader circle of redemption and is too often used to build territory rather than strengthening community. Worse, healing has become part of the consumer gospel. We need the gospel in its fullness, not a patchwork gospel where we feed consumers the most popular elements. We need believers with a renewed understanding of the corporateness of Christ, willing to give themselves for the gospel and their neighbor. We need disciples, willing to walk in the way Jesus walked, not mere converts who come to the trough for another feeding.

2) A Revival of Community

   If we really want revival, then we need a revival of true community. John Driver, the Anabaptist scholar, comments that, "To be or not to be a community is not an option for the church. By nature the church is a community and experiences communion. The question before the people of God is: what kind of community will we be? The New Testament invites us to formulate a theology and practice of communion based on the nature of the Body of Christ." Community and Commitment, Herald Press, 1976.

   We need a gospel of presence as much as a gospel of power. Failing to establish the gospel of presence, where Christ dwells in and among the faithful community, the gospel of power will only be a flash in the pan. The renewal in John Wesley's time lasted almost a hundred years because it was also a renewal of love and community where "the whole body, joined and knit together by that which every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love." Eph.4:15

3) A Local Gospel

   We need the miraculous gifts to be rejoined to the life of the church. Those with unusual anointing could do less travelling, and more equipping in their own towns and cities. If we can transform our local Christian communities into healed and loving bodies of disciples, we will take our country for God. "The only way to propagate a message is to live it… Community is the place where the healing of our own lives becomes a foundation for the healing of the nations." Jim Wallis, Call to Conversion

4) A Corporate Gospel

   We need to exalt character over gifts, and reestablish the more excellent way of love. We need to renew our focus on Christ's life in the body, with all gifts functioning to build the church (Eph. 4). The ministry models we see most often are individualistic, and "apostles" are too often self-appointed, or determined by popularity or the size of their tape ministry. Frank Viola writes,

   "What does a contemporary apostle look like? Many who claim to be apostles lack the goods of the genuine worker. True apostles hide themselves rather than hustle themselves. Their work is largely unseen, their service frequently unnoticed. They do not build denominations, programs, or organizations; they exclusively build the church of Jesus Christ." (Who Is Your Covering? Present Testimony Ministry, 1999, p.92).

   A.W. Tozer, in 1948, wrote that, "The self-sins... dwell too deep within us and are too much a part of our natures to come to our attention till the light of God is focused upon them. The grosser manifestations of these sins -- egotism, exhibitionism, self-promotion -- are strangely tolerated in Christian leaders, even in circles of impeccable orthodoxy. They are so much in evidence as actually, for many people, to become identified with the gospel. I trust it is not a cynical observation to say that they appear these days to be a requisite for popularity in some sections of the Church visible. Promoting self under the guise of promoting Christ is currently so common as to excite little notice." (The Pursuit of God)

5) A Decentralized, non-Specialist Gospel

   James Denney wrote that "you cannot suppress the prophet without creating the priest." Centralization of power disempowers the laity and squelches freedom and creativity. Rick Joyner, in The Morning Star Journal (Vol.11, No.1) writes,

   "There is a vast movement coming that is going to unify around organization that actually displaces the leadership of the Holy Spirit in the church… this false unity movement [is] "organized crime," and will seek to preempt the Lord's true unity movement in every place. In this case, the wheat and the tares will be growing up together… the Lord's work was not a movement toward greater centralization, but from centralization to greater dispersion." P.57

   Where centralization allows leaders to direct larger and larger organizations, it also tends to fragment relationships, the very glue of the church and the foundation of intimacy and personal growth. Size per se is not the issue, but wise leaders recognize that bigger isn't always better.

   Consumer oriented Christianity has been reinforced by our current ministry models and leadership cult. This in turn has reinforced individualism and centralization. Men and women who don't have clear boundaries between the kingdom and personal goals use public platforms as a way of building personal kingdoms and advancing personal agendas, while at the same time exalting Christ and doing ministry. But should a spring put forth both muddy water and clear?

6) An Empowering Gospel

   Passivity and dependence on leaders are HUGE issues when believers gather. There is little point in talking about the wonders of our inheritance and identity in Christ when our models clearly demonstrate that the "priesthood" is limited to the few.

   The problems are foundational and the solution is not to simply open up the meetings. Have you heard the story about the scientist working with fleas? He used cellophane to cover a container loaded with fleas and then heard the "tick-tick" as the fleas continually bounced off the cellophane. After a few days he didn't hear the impacts, and curious, he removed the cellophane. To his astonishment, the fleas did not leap out of the container. They had adapted to the limits of their environment. Just opening our meetings is not a solution.

   Neither is adding small groups a solution. Small groups commonly mirror the ethos of the larger gathering, recreating the same set of problems with passivity, dependence, and inevitably, boredom. (Read "The Connecting Church," by Willard and Frazee.) In fact, it is probably impossible to create community in large churches apart from a complete transformation in ministry models.

7) A Sacramental Gospel.

   Sacrament is defined by the Westminster Confession as "the visible and outward form of an inward and spiritual grace." The incarnation teaches us that God loves to work in the world in the flesh. Love is the way, and the Lord meets us in ordinary things: Listening to a symphony; ice skating under moonlight; bouncing a small child on the knee. The ordinary things are frequently a means of grace, but we need ears to hear and eyes to see. "The world is charged with the glory of God." Henri Nouwen writes that,

   "Our task is to help people concentrate on the real but often hidden event of God's active Presence in their lives. Hence, the question that must guide all organizing activity in a parish is not how to keep them busy, but how to keep them from being so busy that they no longer hear the voice of God who speaks in silence." (Way of the Heart, p. 63)

   A sacramental understanding can help safeguard us from the errors of the mountain-top. God is alive in the valley and even in the desert. I recall a scene from Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Little Prince" where the pilot and the Prince are walking at night in the desert in search of water. Antiphonally, they sing a song…

Prince: "What makes the desert so lovely at night?"
Pilot: "What makes the desert so lovely at night?"
Prince: "Millions of reasons, lovely to tell, because the desert is hiding a well."


   The only renewal that will last is one that deepens our connection to Christ and His body. If we fail to grow in love and the knowledge of God, the renewal will fizzle and fail and will never become revival. Only the whole body, connected and knit together in love, with every part contributing its share, will build the church in lasting and transforming ways.

   Recently Dallas Willard, in The Divine Conspiracy, argued that consumer oriented Christianity is killing the church. We are so accustomed to being spoon fed that we no longer know how to go deep.

   No one can build muscles for another. We need to teach people to dig in and dig deep. Furthermore, we need to lead in such a way as to minimize dependence on leadership. We need to empower people out of the fortress and into the world where they can impact their friends and neighbors for God.

   In the midst of our celebration of the Holy Spirit we must rediscover the call of the Cross. Jesus chose the way of suffering and in the midst of healing and miracles we can make the mistake of the Corinthian church and feel that we have already arrived (1 Cor. 4).

   Finally, we desperately need to learn to find God in the ordinary. Evangelicals need to rediscover a sacramental view of life.

   May the Lord reconnect us to biblical vision and values as He releases new wine in His church worldwide. May His kingdom come!

See also the related article on the Restorationist Movement

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• © 2005 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on March 16, 2005