Tuesday, August 30, 2011

From Church Growth Theology to Dominionism

Thirty-six years ago I enrolled for my first semester of studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. That was before the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention which made the seminary a ghost town. In the mid-1970's Southwestern Seminary was the largest seminary in the world with a student body approaching 5,000 students.

One of the classes I took that first semester was a required course on missionary strategy. One of the textbooks for that course was a book by C. Peter Wagner entitled "Frontiers of Missionary Strategy." That book was my introduction to a more pragmatic than Christian strategy for missionary expansion, evangelism and church planting that was associated with the "church growth movement."

I was never impressed with C. Peter Wagner or with the "church growth movement" that surrounded him at Fuller Theological Seminary. In a nutshell, church growth philosophy taught that effectiveness in ministry could be measured primarily by the number of seats in the pews and filling seats meant creating an atmosphere where "birds of a feather will flock together."

In my eyes, their "principle of homogeneity" seemed to me to bless the social divisions that made Sunday mornings the most racially segregated hours of the week. For me, that was inimical to the gospel. The gospel is about breaking down all the racial, social and economic barriers that divide men and women and that separate them from God's love.

Until recently, I never paid much attention to C. Peter Wagner or the church growth movement, but many, if not most, of my colleagues at Southwestern Seminary did. Rick Warren, who received his Master of Divinity degree from Southwestern a year behind me, got his Doctor of Ministry degree under the supervision of C. Peter Wagner at Fuller Theological Seminary. Wagner's influence on Rick Warren alone ought to be sufficient to demonstrate that Wagner's thought deserves careful examination when it begins influencing secular politics.

I started looking at Wagner's thought again when his name surfaced in blogs, news reports and interviews about the dominionist theology that permeates the tea party movement which is wreaking political havoc in our nation.

Dominionism is the belief that Christians should take control of the government and all the institutions of society. This theocratic mandate has been popularized by viewing society as consisting of seven “mountains” or key spheres in which Christians should strive to attain controlling influence – family, church, business, government, media, education, and arts and entertainment.

I have been somewhat surprised to see that since at least the 1980's, Wagner has been closely associated with the charismatic and pentecostal wing of Christianity. I suspect the impetus for that move originated in his sensitivity to critiques of the principle of homogeneity like the one above. Whatever else could be said about this wing of Christianity, it must be acknowledged that charismatic and pentecostal Christians attend the least segregated and most fully integrated churches in America.

Wagner's pragmatic approach to theology -- which can be summarized as "whatever seems to be working" to fill the pews, however, appears to me to have traded one distortion of the gospel for another. Now he is one of the key leaders in the dominionist movement that is determined to turn Christ into a political messiah complete with modern day "apostles" and disciples who "rule as kings" exercising dominion over all society.

Anyone who has read the gospels ought to know that the Dominionist understanding of messiahship and of the kingdom of God was repeatedly dismissed by Jesus.

1 comment:

foxofbama said...

Bruce:
There is a barage of material at religiondispatches.org and linked in discussion at baptistlife.com/forums SBC Trends I wish you would engage.
As you know Lisa Miller at WashPost and another person in LA Times debunked much of what you say.
Even so the Posner and Butler piece at rd.org raises a great question about how Charles Pickering of the SBC Peace Committee and former prez of Ms SBC; how his alliance defense fund has moved the fulcrum of church state discussions to the right.
I think your focus should be on Frank Page and his advisory role with Jim Demint's Tea Party. Demint's Redeemer Prez PCA church about five miles from Page's longstanding FBC Taylors is where the Baptist focus should be seems to me.
Hope you catch up at RD.org and the Fresh Air NPR by the woman raised SBC in Deep South. You will want to talk to her for sure. Her interview aired nationally about ten days ago