Friday, October 31, 2008

Why I (Still) Belong to the Assemblies of God

It has been documented on this blog and in several studies (here, here) that the evangelical pastorate in general and the Assemblies of God in particular are losing young pastors. Much is being said and written on the topic of why this is happening, and my denomination has even started to study the phenomenon and prepare a response. Personally, I came to a serious crossroads about 5 years ago where I had to decide between staying with the AG and planting a church, or changing my life’s direction and moving forward with something more like the Calvary Chapel movement. Through it all, I remain AG.

This, however, does not mean I think the AG has everything right either doctrinally or culturally. In fact, one reason I keep my credentials and pay my dues is I think the AG is a worthwhile organization to pour my efforts into, even if they are reforming efforts. In the light of some of the things being said out there, I would like to reflect for a few minutes on why I stayed with the AG.

Doctrine of the Holy Spirit
Let’s get the 800lb gorilla out of the way first. I believe in the basics of the AG position on this doctrine. Scripture shows believers have the expectation of a second baptism after conversion in which there is a special filling of the Holy Spirit. The apostles taught it, practiced it, and Paul corrected its use without stopping it. My stance on the book of Acts is that it is not just historically descriptive, but indicative/prescriptive of church practice through the ages. I do not pretend to believe there is a 1-to-1 dynamic between the early church and contemporary church, but it contains theological guideposts nonetheless, and this means one of those guideposts is the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

That being said, we need to do some serious theological and hermeneutical work on this doctrine. The practice of this doctrine has largely been left in the hands of charismatic and sometimes wild and crazy ministers who set the pattern of what it means to “receive the Holy Spirit.” Instead of a culture of practice, we need a theology of practice—an orthopraxy focused on speaking in tongues and baptism of the Spirit in general. Most people who reject the doctrine of baptism of the Holy Spirit are primarily rejecting the poor practice of receiving the Holy Spirit. As a pastor, I cannot tell how many times this comes true once one or two layers of resistance to this doctrine are peeled back. Parishioners tend to have a problem with the doctrine because they have been burned by the practice.

I suspect the same thing is true of many ministers. I grew up in the AG, and though my personal experience was far from the stereotypical “fire and brimstone,” I have seen and cleaned up after my share of rotten practices. After a few years of the wrong youth camp speakers, confused kids, and a lack of doctrinal correction, I am not surprised when a young pastor moves on without the AG.

The AG is one of the largest and most influential denominations on the planet (one of the largest worldwide denominations in the second largest Christian movement—Pentecostalism is second only to Catholicism across the globe). And in all honesty, this puts a ton of pressure on us to get it right. We can’t be satisfied with a “shoot from the hip” mentality when it comes to any of our doctrinal positions, much less the ones we consider our distinctives.

The Denomination
Much is also made of whether denominations are of any use anymore, or if they naturally and necessarily lead to divisive denominationalism. To the first count, I think denominations broadly understood will always be with us and will always be necessary. To the second count, I think the answer can be no.

There are some, primarily among the emergent movement, who are rigidly anti-doctrinaire and who see the doctrinal divisions of denominations as a sin. Once a little thought is applied, however, I think this view is a little na├»ve. To take a stance on, say, the uniqueness of Christ is to align yourself with others who think the same way. (I will deal with the topic of irenic encounter below.) If you refuse to take a position on this issue, you align yourself with those who do the same. If you consider Christ unique, you stand with orthodox Christianity though the ages. In other words, any stance on any issue—even if it is a “non-stance”—aligns you with some group of people. And in broad terms, all denominations do is put those people together for similar causes.

There is nothing inherently wrong with doing this. In fact, I think it can be argued from Scripture and from reason that the only logical and rational thing to do is to align with what you think is the truth of the matter. Even those who don’t want to take a stance on truth believe that their position is the true position. There is just no getting away from doctrinal fraternity, no matter what set of positions you want to take.

Though it is true that denominations are sometimes used to exclude others or make other Christians look less holy than ourselves, denominations do not necessarily lead to this behavior. In fact, the traditional and healthy Christian position on doctrinal truth is humility, not arrogance. I really don’t care if First Church of Such and Such down the street creates an atmosphere of us versus them, I won’t do it.

In addition, I do not see an elitist attitude among the current AG leadership, and I don’t see it on the local level among the pastors and leaders I respect. This tells me—and my own practice tells me—I can belong to a denomination and love my brothers and sisters in Christ all the same. To young ministers who complain about denominationalism because they know some divisive pastors—get over it.

Freedom Within These Bounds
I like what others have called the pastoral entrepreneurship valued in the AG. We were born on the backs of church planters and missionaries, and we had the DNA of innovation bred into us at an early age.

[Insider’s note: I have always said the departments in the AG that have this right are World Missions and Chi Alpha, both of which are very focused and highly motivated missionary endeavors.]

One seasoned pastor told me more than once that no matter what happens at our denominational meetings, we can go home and do church the way God called us to do church. This, I believe, is a strength.

But we may be struggling to maintain this vision. In my opinion, much of the AG culture became stuck somewhere in the 1950s-1970s, and has not yet become comfortable with moving ahead. This is certainly a generalization, but it is a significant enough reality to make some things hard on younger ministers. Why should a younger pastor be expected to look like a young pastor 30 years ago? Are we keeping a forward-looking focus as we train young ministers to do what God called them to do in this culture and not another? I don’t know if I have any clean answers to these questions, but I think they should be dealt with.

The Arminian/Wesleyan Tradition
For those who are more theologically inclined, I have always appreciated the doctrinal atmosphere given to us by our broader theological heritage. The more I study it, the more convinced I am of an Arminian/Wesleyan view of the doctrines of God, Christology, and salvation. Among other things, we are pressed forward into the world with the Gospel of Christ to preach the truth to as many as possible. I like being part of a denomination where I can have just about as many missionaries from around the globe as possible come and interact with our congregation. It is true I can become an independent pastor and maintain this practice, but I would then lack the network created by the AG. And if I want to maintain the AG’s network of ministry and leave the denomination, is that not a kind of ecclesiastical welfare?

Here again is where I think the denomination as a whole can provide better grounding for the AG and for evangelicalism. I believe our schools should pour more effort into the theological development necessary to answer the issues we face today. What of the doctrine of hell? How can we articulate this difficult doctrine in our world in a way that is faithful to Scripture and enlightening to our culture? What about open theism? Some believe the Arminian view naturally leads this direction, and I disagree. The AG needs to take a serious stance on the future knowledge and efficacious activity of God. What about other religions and salvation through Christ? The smaller our world becomes (and the more influential Oprah becomes) the more this is a serious problem for our people. Why hasn’t the AG set forth a thoughtful and pastoral effort on this front?

I think our theological heritage provides the resources necessary to move ahead in theological and pastoral development, but I just don’t see much of it happening.

In the end, I will sign my papers this year and pay my dues. I do not believe we are perfect, but neither will I make a “best of the possible options” argument. I think there is more to us than that.

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