A Commercial Ecclesiology?

The contemporary evangelical church employs a nearly endless array of philosophies of ministry. This is, for the most part, the result of an unthinking adoption of marketing principles from the world of commerce. Almost all evangelical churches are good at talking about their “distinctives.” Few are very good about—or much interested in—talking about the things that are or should be the same in all local expressions of the body of Christ. In business school we had a name for this: market differentiation.


One of the market niches in this endless array is occupied by those who claim special supernatural means. People come to Christ, they assert, when they see a live demonstration of His power in a healing or a psychic revelation or an ecstatic experience. But this approach is also essentially utilitarian: It’s good if it works, and it’s working if it attracts large numbers of people. Peter Wagner, long-time professor of Church growth at Fuller Seminary and co-founder of the Vineyard Christian Fellowship, reflects this view, sometimes called the “signs and wonders” movement and sometimes “power evangelism.” In his book The Third Wave of the Holy Spirit, Dr. Wagner writes:

I am proud to be among those who are advocating power evangelism as an important tool for fulfilling the great commission in our day. One of the reasons I am so enthusiastic is that it is working. Across the board, the most effective evangelism in today’s world is accompanied by manifestations of supernatural power” (p.87).

It’s hard to argue with “success,” but is a utilitarian philosophy of ministry biblical? “The pragmatist,” according to John MacArthur, “is concerned with what appears to work. The biblical thinker is concerned only with what the Bible says. Those approaches are usually in fundamental conflict” (Charismatic Chaos, p. 171). Writing to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul expresses a similar concern about using the appearance of results to evaluate ministry:

For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not mere men? What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth” (1 Cor 3:4-6).

Now these things, brethren, I have figuratively applied to myself and Apollos for your sakes, so that in us you may learn not to exceed what is written, so that no one of you will become arrogant in behalf of one against the other” (1 Cor. 4:6).

Paul is arguing here against the idea of evaluating and comparing his own ministry vis a vis that of Apollos on the basis of their apparent effectiveness or human attractiveness. He urges a biblical approach (“not to exceed what is written”) over pragmatism.


All of this begs the question, what is a biblical philosophy of ministry? Is there a proper biblical ecclesiology (doctrine of the Church), or is it as flexible as the fractured contemporary landscape would lead us to think? Does the Church have any actual authority in the lives of believers, and if so, who exercises that authority? I hope to address these and other related questions in future posts, but I’d be interested in your reflections now.


5 Replies to “A Commercial Ecclesiology?”

  1. As far as the “signs and wonders” movement- with some(depression,ADD) medications, the greatest highs (focus or feeling better about life, not “high”) are matched with the greatest lows (less focus than before or more depressed). I wonder if a crazy emotional start to personal Christian faith could lead to a dry shallow ending? hope this made sense

  2. It does seem to me that it might tend to one of two ends: (1) disappointment, or (2) fakery. And yes, I think emotionalism in religion has a lot of characteristics similar to the patterns created by some psychotropic drugs.

  3. By the way, it seems to me that each and every instance of effective evangelism is in and of itself a “manifestation of supernatural power,” even if no other miracles occur at the same time.

  4. One of my problems with this movement is there is really no proof that it works. I need more than some happy folks doing crazy “miracles” or having “special direct routes to God” to prove this to me. When did the idea of Church turn into a Dungeons and Dragons real life game? Next thing you know there will be people dressing up like wizards and sorcerers. By the way,anyone ever heard of the fruits of the spirit?

    I think that there is a reason we are suppose to try and be like Jesus. He had followers not just for the fact they were going to see a show, but because the followers saw “genuine” love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,gentleness, and self-control. These are qualities that even the most worldly of folks knew were different.

  5. I think Dr. Wagner would probably be able to come up with some “proof that it works.” That is his point: miraculous demonstration “works” to bring people to faith in Christ. The trouble with this approach is that it determines method according to what “works” rather than according to what scripture commands.

    We have another example of this in the history of the church. It’s called the inquisition. There’s no doubt that in that case, threatening people with their lives resulted in lots of “conversions.” Had Peter Wagner been around in those days, he could have said something like this: “I am proud to be among those who are advocating the inquisition as an important tool for fulfilling the great commission in our day. One of the reasons I am so enthusiastic is that it is working. Across the board, the most effective evangelism in today’s world is accompanied by coercive threats of execution. It’s plain to see that burning a few heretics at the stake leads many to believe in Jesus.”

    Obviously, the methods of the inquisition are cruel compared to the methods of power evangelism, but either could be justified on the basis of apparent effectiveness. What this shows is that “it works” is not an adequate measure for judging the strategies and practices of the church.

    And that is the point I’m trying to make more broadly. Power evangelism is just one example of a very widespread mentality that is more concerned with what works than with what the Bible requires. In my estimation, evangelical theology has never developed a robust biblical ecclesiology, and the consequence is a make-it-up-as-you-go-along ecclesiology that leads to all kinds of other problems.

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