Charles Peter Wagner is probably best known as one of the leaders of the Church Growth movement that was a former professor of Church Growth at Fuller Seminary up until 2001. He has also founded Global Harvest Ministries and Wagner Leadership Institute. Wagner himself was a missionary in Bolivia from 1956 to 1971.
Wagner has an essay that appeared in an anthology on the Worldwide Christian Movement that I want to look at more closely:
Wagner, Charles Peter. 2009. “On the Cutting Edge of Missions Strategy.” Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds., 574-582.
What Wagner pushes forth in his essay is for Evangelicals to have a “fresh look” with incorporating “supernatural power” with missions. Wagner states this in the conclusion of his essay:
I feel that one of the callings that God has given me is to be an encouragement to traditional Evangeical non-Pentecostal and non-Charismatic institutions so that they will begin to take a new look at mission power–ministering supernaturally as we encounter the enemy” (Wagner, 582).
And also in the middle of his essay:
I believe that we Evangelicals need a fresh look a supernatural power, a fresh awareness of worldview and a fresh examination of the theology of the Kingdom” (Wagner, 579).
By “supernatural power” Wagner has in mind the ministry of supernaturally healing the sick and casting out demons. Wagner does admit in the essay that
We are still at the beginning stages of this, and we are not yet satisfied with the way we are doing the job, but we are trusting God to continue to teach us so that we can in turn teach others” (Wagner, 582).
The anthology does not say when Wagner wrote the essay but if the last few years is any indication with his institute providing leadership and training for the New Apostolic Reformation Movement, it isn’t heading in the right direction. The following are my concern for Wagner’s “cutting edge” of missions strategy:
1.) First off, concerning the New Apostolic Reformation Movement, I don’t have the time or space to rehearse the theological problems and heresies spewing out from this group but my friend Lyndon Unger has done a good job describing it in his Primer on the NAR. If NAR is the fruit of Wagner’s more mature stage of the “supernatural” that he talks about in his essay, we shouldn’t seek to merge it with missions since it is bad even for those within the church. Why export it overseas?
2.) Second, it seems that Wagner’s cutting edge approach towards missions suffer from the problem of theological integrity. Wagner is essentially a Charistmatic but doesn’t seem to own up to it. Note what he says:
The third wave involves those of us–and I include myself–who, for one reason or another, do not personally wish to identify with either the Pentecostals or the Charismatics. We love, respect and admire our friends in those movements, and we pray God’s blessing on them in all their work. We recognize that currently they represent the most rapidly growing segment of the Body of Christ worldwide. We have learned a great deal from them and desire to learn more But our style is slightly different. We minister in very similar ways, but explain what we do in alternate theological terminology” (Wagner, 579).
From the above, does Wagner distance himself from the Pentecostals and Charismatics over actual theological content? Wagner says the difference is not of essence but of “style,” which incidentally “is slightly different.” He even said “We minister in very similar ways.” The other difference between him and Pentecostals and Charismatics is an “alternate theological terminology.” I think his alternative terminology is much ado about nothing: We can have an alternative terminology for “horse” in Chinese (“ma”) but that doesn’t make it not a horse in essence. He is a Charismatic and ought to own up to it. Will God bless a strategy that does not uphold integrity?
3.) Third, the cutting edge of missions as described in Wagner’s essay has the spirit that sees doctrine as irrelevant in general and Reformed theology in particular. Wagner agreeably quotes Richard De Ridder of Calvin Theological Seminary taking a swipe of Calvinism as being irrelevant for modern missionaries, saying
One thing deeply impressed me: how irrelevant so much of traditional Reformed Theology was to these people and their situation, and how seldom this theology spoke to their real needs. The question that concern Satan, demons, angels, charms, etc., are not of great concern, nor do they receive much attention in the West
When the ‘Five Points of Calvinism’ were preached to these people, they often respond with the question, ‘What’s the issue?’ Missionaries and pastors were scratching where they didn’t itch” (Wagner, 580).
Now one does not have to be Reformed to see the problem with this attitude. First off, the professor dismisses “traditional Reformed Theology” as not address the concerns that arise from “Satan, demons, angels, charms;” but historically it was Reformed Theology that liberated Medieval Europe from the shackles of “Satan, demons, angels, charms.” It also rescued people from the shackles of superstitions. This liberation of Reformation Europe was possible because once you have a Sovereign God who controls all things, with authority over all things including “Satan, demons, angels, charms” there is no need to be overly occupied with fear of them. Also Reformed Theology is heavily Christ-Centered and a Christ-Centered Theology include the truth that Christ is the Creator and controller over everything including the forces of darkness:
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. (Colossians 1:16 ESV)
Rather then being irrelevant, Reformed Theology’s Christology and doctrine of God is an antidote to the problems and questions of “Satan, demons, angels, charms.” Secondly, who made “Satan, demons, angels, charms” the litmus test of a missionary strategy that is relevant? I think the professor here confuses felt needs with real needs. God knows what man’s real need is and has revealed it in His Word. If Calvinism’s and Reformed Theology’s proposition is true that man is under wrath from God because of man’s sin, then the discussion about man, sin, God, Jesus and the Gospel is more crucial and relevant than the discussion of “Satan, demons, angels, charms” per se. It is more “relevant” even though the unbeliever “feels” “Satan, demons, angels, charms” are more important. Thirdly, I have reservation with the claim that people’s response to the ‘Five Points of Calvinism’ is one of a question of ‘What’s the issue?’ The first point of Calvinism, Total Depravity, defines the issue: Sin. A nonbeliever might not like the issue or disagree with the issue but surely if someone presents the five point of Calvinism correctly a nonbeliever will not say ‘What’s the issue?’ One has to wonder about how truly Reformed this professor from Calvin Theological Seminary is with his incompetence with Reformed Theology.
There will always be people coming forward saying this or that is the new cutting edge strategy for doing ministry, whether it’s missions, evangelism or growing members. We must never forget to test them whether the method agrees with the Word of God and also whether it is logically sound and factually true. I think a good example of a cutting edge strategy that suffer from all three defect is Wagner’s missions strategy.
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