In Quest of the “New” Radical Middle
At a Vineyard leadership conference held at the Anaheim Vineyard in the late 90s Todd Hunter (acting as our new AVC National Director) shared his perspective concerning John Wimber’s greatest contribution to the Body of Christ and the distinction that made the Vineyard unique to other Christian movements around the world. Todd put words to something we as leaders all innately knew. John had married the best of Evangelicalism with the best of Pentecostalism and presented it to the world as the new norm. Through John’s amazing ability to tell stories and communicate logical ideology he convinced thousands that “Spirit-filled Evangelicalism” (as Rich Nathan later put it) was the most effective form of Christianity. In its time, that concept seemed novel—even radical because it challenged people who were stuck in two opposing theological camps to see the virtue in both views. Later, Bill Jackson wrote the book, The Quest for the Radical Middle, which chronicled our history as a movement and illuminated the trials and tribulations as we endeavored to achieve this distinctive. (That is, holding two seemingly paradoxical Biblical views in tension.) John’s accomplishment was without question profound and will forever be a story worth telling, but what was once radical is no longer. Like Vineyard worship (which also had its day of unique, cutting edge distinctiveness), being a Spirit-filled Evangelical is no longer radical, but widely accepted. Those who are still on the “quest” believing that being Spirit-filled and believing in sound Kingdom theology is radical are falling behind the curve. For those of us who have participated in the Vineyard for a season of time, these issues should be a matter of elementary discipleship. The radical middle has now moved.
The Vineyard’s original quest for the radical middle was discovered between two ideological practices of the church, but the new middle will not be discovered within the safety of the Body itself, but somewhere outside between the authentic, functional church and a rapidly mutating secular world. It is a place unlike any that previous traditional efforts of evangelism have taken us. Getting there will require the courage to be seriously misunderstood and a willingness to embrace a new form of criticism and painful persecution.
Like the old Star Trek series, discovering this new middle ground will require going “where no man has gone before.” It will require diving into a few black holes that some will never return from, and although some may dabble in the discovery, only a few courageous pioneers will initially get there mapping its route for those who will wait in the safety of more familiar ground. There will be casualties of the faith as is expected in these sorts of quests. Many theorists will endlessly discuss where this new ground is and how it might be reached, but only a few bold practitioners will be willing to actually step out and chance the journey. Truth be told, not everyone (even within the Vineyard) is equipped to even take the initial journey. There are prerequisites.
In Mark 1 the story is told of Jesus healing a man with leprosy. (40-45) Moved by compassion, Jesus transformed the man’s life and then strongly exhorted him saying, “See that you don’t tell this to anyone.” He directed the man to “show himself” to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for his cleansing, as a testimony. Instead the healed man went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news everywhere. There is much to be discovered in this short account, but two things stand out to me. The first is that Jesus exhorted the man not to talk, but to “show himself.” And second, Jesus told him to go to the temple and through the proper channels of being certified as a cleansed citizen before independently and prematurely announcing himself as being clean. As we know, the man’s zealous enthusiasm got the best of him and he went to the world telling his story to everyone.
What stands out in this account is this: Jesus sternly told the man not to talk but rather to show himself. I believe that our effectiveness will not come through words like they once did, but only by showing ourselves. In today’s world there is already too much talk; so much so that words have lost impact. Eloquence might raise a crowd, but true life change is the only thing that will have a lasting impact in the world we live in today. Even within the church, the time for too much talk is over. Those in search of this new radical middle must have already experienced the transforming power of the Holy Spirit rather than still engaging in the discussion of its legitimacy in Christian practice. That conversation should be long over by now. It should be obvious to anyone who is going to reach this out of control world that that the job can’t be done without the empowering presence of the Spirit leading the way.
In the same way, the “now and the not yet” of the kingdom is also a conversation left to those who are still trying to discover the old radical middle. Kingdom theology is mainstream for those who are going to be effective in this new quest. That conversation should be happening in basic discipleship classes, not among leaders and pastors who are gearing up to transform communities. By now these issues should be, as it says in Hebrews 5, “the elementary truths of God’s word.” Now it is time to “show ourselves,” not sit around and discuss what should be already resolved theological views. Now is the time to take the old radical middle and use it for the sake of the new one. This is “taking the best and going.” It is only our actions (based on these resolved truths) and the lasting transformation of our lives that can speak for us now.
The other key point I noticed in the story of the healed leper is the importance of the church. Jesus told the man to go first to the priest. By going through the ceremony of purification the man would have been given a certified bill of health by the authority of the priest. This simple act would give the man legitimacy to speak with authority and endorsement. This is one of the roles of church fellowship—to validate those who have experienced authentic transformation.
I don’t pretend to know exactly where this new radical middle is, but like many Vineyard pastors who have been searching for it, I have discovered a few things I believe to be characteristic of it. Here are five things I know to be true.
1. The new radical middle will not be reached through outspoken political bias.
Our message must be clear that Jesus didn’t come for just the conservative right, but for all of humanity. For the church to draw lines and make enemies of the liberal left is to outwardly reject the heart and commission of God to reach all ethnos. The camp we choose to pitch our tent in must not be based on politics, but rather on biblical truth wherever we find it. Personally I see myself as very conservative in terms of the values I hold dear, but I work hard to promote my values from a biblical worldview rather than a political one. Families have left our church because of my outspoken passion for environmental stewardship and biblical justice. Sadly, they have missed my heart motives because of preconceived ideas as to what are liberal agendas. As hard as I labor at communicating the idea that biblical justice is, in fact, the ministry of Jesus and that a damaged environment will ultimately destroy humanity (especially the poor), many well-meaning and good Christian people have become programmed to understand that the issue of the sanctity of life only pertains to the unborn. Too many Christians today are setting their moral compasses more by talk radio and television commentators than on sound, biblical truth. To entrench ourselves in these very polarizing camps, even if we share many of their views and values, may disqualify us from reaching the broken world we are called to. Interestingly the May, 2010 issue of Charisma Magazine was focused on this need to meet the cultural shift. In an article written by Brian Sahnd, End of the Line, he writes about God shifting the church from one seasonal platform to another. In the article he addresses many of these issues.
“Have we embraced, due to our frightened response to uncertainty and shifting culture, an angry “Ann Coulter Christianity” and made apostles of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity without recognizing they are simply entertainers and profiteers in America’s culture war? If so, we had better disembark the protest train before we are marginalized into complete irrelevance.
Now that we are a full decade into the third Christian millennium, it’s time to take stock of a movement that in Western culture isn’t moving forward much anymore. How then have American evangelicals come to be identified?
Largely by our protests and our politics. We are mostly known for what we are against and what political positions we hold. We have unwittingly allowed our movement to be defined in the negative and to be co-opted as a useful tool in the cynical world of partisan politics.”
2. Life actions are the new statement of faith.
Not long ago we invited Robbie Dawkins, a Vineyard pastor from the Great lakes Region, to minister in our church. He had been recommended to me by a number of pastor friends whose opinion I valued. They assured me that he would be a person who could reinvigorate the spiritual gifts in our people. Robbie was a breath of fresh air for sure. He is one of the first guys I’ve met that functionally demonstrates in a very real way the ministry of the Holy Spirit working in the streets, especially among the downtrodden. Although he is a wonderful teacher and a gifted story teller, it was actually his compassion and effective ministry among the folks we met on the streets that won my heart. For years we have believed as John Wimber always told us that “the meat is in the street.” Robbie had a way of challenging us to get out of the church meeting hall, to go beyond the walls of the church to reach out to those in need. Many of our young people “caught” what he was saying and have been doing it ever since his visit.
This is a matter of “showing ourselves” vs. going and telling as is exemplified when Jesus exhorted the leper to do just that in Mark 1. To reach this new radical middle it will be through radicalized kingdom living that truly expresses the kingdom message. There must be no conflict between what we profess to be true and what is demonstrated though our behavior, attitude and actions. This new evangelism will not come easy, but rather through long-term consistency of selflessness, servant-hood, lifestyle and relationship. The era of passing out evangelism tracks is long gone; now it is our track record that counts and the world is watching.
When Jesus told the leper to show himself to the priest and undergo the cleansing ritual of Moses he wanted to validate that the healing transformation of the man was authentic and real. His ministry will never be based on hype or invalidated claims, but real and lasting change which takes us to the next point.
3. The new radical middle will come out of “communitas” not just community.
Communitas is a latin word loosely translated as a community that rolls up its sleeves together to work for a common cause. It is what authentic Christian fellowship is meant to be. It is community with a defined missional vision. It is a community that clearly exists to impact and change the world. It is a community that incorporates the value, passion and practice of Biblical discipleship. It is not focused on building a big church, but on building and growing a mature people. In the context of doing so however many churches will naturally grow in number, yet not for the sole sake of numerical growth. Radical middle churches are churches that spend every day of the week walking their people from the place of new birth in Christ to mature missional kingdom living. Like in the case of the man Jesus told to show himself in the temple, the church will become the place of validation and endorsement. It will be the place to unclothe the leper for the sake of exposing true character and change. It will not be a place to hide but rather a place of transparency and accountability. It will be the place of true ongoing transformation and spiritual growth. As in the case of leprosy, our unclean wounds can be covered up and overlooked. But the church of the radical middle will be a church that is all about doing life-changing work and not sending unsanctified lepers prematurely into society. How often have we prematurely sent people too soon? Leaders with hidden sin, unhealthy marriages or non-kingdom agendas will eventually become exposed in the context of ministry. Before the leper is sent to “tell” he must first show himself over the course of time in the temple so that his sin will not infect others. Communitas is crucial for this reason because it demands transparency and authenticity.
Discipleship must become more than a religious word if we are going to be effective in this new hour. Hypocrisy just won’t work. The old bumper sticker that used to boast, “I’m not perfect – just forgiven” won’t cut it in the world we are now being sent into. With broken promises the norm in our culture today, people are unimpressed and mistrust our words and empty credo slogans. Our track record as the church of America has caused us to lose credibility that must now be reclaimed one person at a time. Our beliefs must become believable among those we are called to reach. This requires authentically transformed and transparent people who are committed to long term consistency and the demonstration of our lives together.
4. Leaders who hope to connect with the fast-moving culture must lead the duck.
Two new internet dating services have recently come into the forefront of the news. One of these popular new services is dedicated to hooking up married people for one night affairs. Their television ad begins with a steamy bedroom scene with words superimposed over the image saying, “These two people are married – but not to each other.” Information to connect to their website then follows. The second is a site now popularly known as Beautiful People.com. This site has high requirements based on physical attributes for people to qualify and participate. It boasts that those who qualify as being “beautiful people” no longer have to fish through long lists of ugly people to hook up. CNN recently reported that this new site, which is rapidly growing in popularity, is now endeavoring to establish a sperm bank for qualified customers so that they can be assured of delivering beautiful babies.
How can this be happening? This is not only shocking and unbelievable that such things should exist in American culture but it is also downright scary. What is truly frightening is the fact that this is becoming the norm or what some are calling the “new normal.”
As politically incorrect as it might seem, I’d like to talk about shooting ducks. It is a seasonal sport that is widely accepted here in Idaho. Those who have participated in this pastime know that in order to hit a moving duck with a shotgun you have to aim way out in front of it. It you aim directly at one of these fast flying birds you will miss it every time. The faster the duck is flying the further out in front of it you must aim. Much like passing a football to a running receiver, shooting ducks on the fly is more of a feel or an art than a static well thought-out movement. Some people are better at it than others. In any case it takes experience and practice to become proficient.
Effective ministry in today’s culture is much the same. Things are moving so quickly in our present day culture that most well-meaning leaders are shooting way behind the duck. To hit the duck you have to estimate where it will be tomorrow not today. Earlier in this paper I said that a prerequisite for finding the “new radical middle” would be to have long term competence in the old one. That means not only being solid in kingdom theology (willing to live and operate in the “now and not yet” of the kingdom), but being filled to overflowing with the Spirit. Leading the duck I am talking about will require mature and refined gifts of discernment and prophecy. If our leadership in the church is to be impacting it must be ready to lead the cultural duck. I have personally experienced this, and also have the war wounds that attest to the fact that doing this is not for the faint of heart. Having pulled the trigger more than once after aiming ahead of the duck, it has caused me great pain.
After writing Saving God’s Green Earth I immediately became an enemy of both the conservative church and the liberal, unchurched world. Criticized by many in the church and called a liberal, I was perceived by the liberal world to be another self righteous evangelical with a new gimmick. In both situations I found myself being held in deep suspect. Honestly it was a very lonely and insecure place to be at that time. With my next book, Small Footprint, Big Handprint: How to Live Simply and Love Extravagantly I had a similar thing happen. This book challenged Christians in America to downsize their lives so that they would be in a position to upsize their effectiveness on the world in preparation for harder times. At that time the economy was booming and unemployment was not at record numbers. I did receive some unfavorable reviews from those who felt I was overreacting, calling people to an extreme lifestyle while being critical of those who were prosperous.
I believe the book provided a timely message and for many it was not only helpful but impacting in light of the economic times to come. We not only applied these simple principles in our personal lives but in the operation of the church as well. This has allowed us to continue to be positioned and equipped to help thousands of hurting folks. While Idaho has been one of the hardest hit states in terms of unemployment, we have been able to keep our entire staff while still carrying on effectively in our many areas of ministry. God had given us insight for what was to come and as a church leadership we acted upon it. But at the time the book was published, I was considered by many to be an extremist and radical.
Finding the new radical middle will require leaders who are not afraid to go up against status quo worldviews. It will require those who are willing to push the envelope when necessary. They will be those who are ready to not only take aim in front of the duck, but are ready to pull the trigger as well.
5. Fearless participation in the missional ministry of Jesus is the new radical middle.
Kingdom theology demands all out kingdom ministry. Kingdom living is in itself extremely radical. The New Testament told the story of twelve Apostles who gave their lives literally for the cause of the kingdom. The only exception was the Apostle John who lived a full natural life only after being exiled to a lonely island. Kingdom living requires not only proclamation, but demonstration and all out participation. We are not only called to proclaim the truth that is in Jesus, but to passionately do it. What he did and now instructs us to do is, in fact, radical—it breaks every norm of status quo living. Jesus initiated a new world view that was backwards and upside down to what seems natural. In his kingdom the greatest is the least, the first is the last, the greatest is a servant and men are called to love and forgive their enemies. It all sounds easy in a benign Bible study, but to actually practice this kind of living goes against everything the world values and endorses. Trying to live like this can be brutal. It is one thing to pray for the sick and downtrodden, but to get into their lives and show long term compassion and sincere mercy is another story altogether. It may require a total life change for most of our people.
In light of this I believe churches that want to discover the place of the new radical middle must pursue the following key points.
- Accept the messianic job description of Isaiah 61 as Jesus stated it in Luke, chapter 4. We must not only do this through prayer, but through the physical response of hands-on ministry. We must do those things that Jesus exhorted us to do in Matthew 25.
- Become proficient at helping our people discover God’s good, pleasing and perfect will for their lives and help them find their place of ministry in the world. (Romans 12:1-3) Facilitate helping our people to understand that they are saved by grace through faith and that they are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:5-10) We must help them understand that they were created for a divine purpose with special gifts and abilities that are unique only to them. God desires that they not only know they are loved by him but that he has significant things for them to do with the life he has given them.
- Pursue unity not conformity. We must celebrate the uniqueness and diversity among us and never persecute or marginalize it. We cannot push people out because they have different ways of expressing the ministry of the Kingdom. Because we have been a people of the middle ground between Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism it is natural that the Vineyard will be diverse in practice. We need to let people be who they are in this matter. Not only that but we must not demonize parachurch efforts, or any other group that recognizes Jesus as Lord.
- Be organic in nature. Because the cultural duck we are aiming at is moving fast we must be in a position to shoot spontaneously and without undo restriction. In this way we need organization that is functional for relationship, training and collaboration, but not so centralized and structured that the guns we shoot have a safety on that is too difficult to release.
- Develop disciples willing to go to every ethnos, either locally or abroad. The spirit of radical missionality must become a natural part of our DNA, especially in our younger generations.
- Reignite a youthful spirit in our churches by empowering and placing fresh, young and energetic leaders in key and significant positions, even on a national level. We must not grow old as a movement but be willing to hand the baton without fear to the emerging generation. We must allow them to make the same mistakes that we did when our movement first began.
Live in such a way that our lifestyle reflects sound Biblical doctrine while being continually filled with the Holy Spirit for a time such as this.
 Charisma, May, 2010, page 45. Link to article: http://www.charismamag.com/index.php/charisma-channels/758/28347#ixzz0uzGmBtS4