Before we look at the life of Charles Peter Wagner, 80, let us find out a bit more about his mentor, Donald McGavran (1897-1990), who served as Dean Emeritus and former Senior Professor of Mission, church growth, and South Asian studies at the School of World Mission, Fuller Theological Seminary.
McGavran and church growth
McGavran was born around the time my late paternal grandmother. That cohort — and this has been discussed by theorists of generational studies — had an openness towards new ideas, new ways of thinking and keeping abreast of the times. Like McGavran, my grandmother died in her early 90s and our family concluded that, whilst she was conventional in so many ways, she always had a zest for life and an interest in what was happening in the world.
So it was with McGavran, the child of missionaries to India, who later became one himself. He observed that the country’s caste system often acted as a barrier to conversion to Christianity. He devised a system of evangelising and categorising potential converts. This later became known as the church growth movement. He explained these theories and methods in Understanding Church Growth, The Bridges of God and How Churches Grow. In 1965, he instituted the School of World Mission at Fuller. In 1970, McGavran gave an address in which he discussed church growth, aligning it with methods used in industry (emphases mine throughout):
We devise mission methods and policies in the light of what God has blessed—and what He has obviously not blessed. Industry calls this “modifying operation in light of feedback.” Nothing hurts missions overseas so much as continuing methods, institutions, and policies which ought to bring men to Christ—but don’t; which ought to multiply churches—but don’t. We teach men to be ruthless in regard to method. If it does not work to the glory of God and the extension of Christ’s church, throw it away and get something which does. As to methods, we are fiercely pragmatic—doctrine is something else.
Thus, we see why many critics of church growth say it is more about numbers than faith.
For McGavran, borrowing quantitative methods from the secular world of industry must have had great appeal. It tapped into the zeitgeist, had pizazz and was revolutionary. Not unlike my grandmother’s penchant for the latest styles of the period, like being the first (and only) woman I knew who had a Pauline Trigere style A-line coat, a chic design which served her well for many years, and her eagerness to try the latest household products and eat at the newest restaurants. I mention these things because she, McGavran and many others born around the same time seemed to think the same way.
Whereas my grandmother’s penchant for the new was harmless, McGavran’s church growth movement ended up giving birth to seeker-sensitive churches, man-centred services and a postmodern interpretation of Scripture.
Wagner follows in McGavran’s footsteps
C Peter Wagner attended Fuller in the 1950s. He and his wife served as Congregational (United Church of Christ) missionaries in South America. A year after McGavran gave his talk above, Wagner became a professor at Fuller’s — McGavran’s — School of World Mission, now known as the School of Intercultural Studies. In 1981, he replaced McGavran as the head of the school and continued in that capacity until 1998 and was also a professor of Church Growth.
The Church Growth Movement has always stressed pragmatism, and still does even though many have criticized it. It is not the kind of pragmatism that compromises doctrine or ethics or the kind that dehumanizes people by using them as means toward an end. It is, however, the kind of consecrated pragmatism which ruthlessly examines traditional methodologies and programs asking the tough questions. If some sort of ministry in the church is not reaching intended goals, consecrated pragmatism says there is something wrong which needs to be corrected.
Implied in that is the idea that a church is unsuccessful when it does not grow, that there is something inherently wrong. It must be fixed. This is, frankly, unbiblical. Better a small, faithful congregation than a large one of lukewarm quasi-believers who think their involvement in church programmes will bring them salvation.
In 1 Corinthians 2:5, St Paul wrote:
When I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. And my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.
The Third Wave of the Holy Spirit
Wagner categorised the Holy Spirit’s work in the 20th century and came up with the term, the Third Wave, which he discussed in his 1988 book, The Third Wave of the Holy Spirit: Encountering the Power of Signs and Wonders Today. The first wave was during the Pentecostal Azusa Street Revival, the second with the charismatic movement in churches during the 1960s and the third took place starting in the mid-1980s.
Growth is good
One of Wagner’s friends was the late John Wimber, former keyboardist for the Paramours and the Righteous Brothers, who began attending a Quaker church during the 1960s. Wimber later became an adjunct professor at Fuller for their controversial ‘Signs and Wonders’ course. By this time, he was already the pastor of the Anaheim Vineyard Christian Fellowship, affiliated with the Vineyard Christian Fellowships, which became an international Vineyard Movement. Wimber would go on to write Power Evangelism.
Wagner admired Wimber’s church as well as Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral. If a church was growing, it was good. So, it is no wonder to read that he was the advisor for Rick Warren’s 1993 D.Min. project, for which the abstract reads in part:
NEW CHURCHES FOR A NEW GENERATION: CHURCH PLANTING TO REACH BABY BOOMERS. A CASE STUDY: THE SADDLEBACK VALLEY COMMUNITY CHURCH (CALIFORNIA)
A People magazine survey found that only 11% of Baby Boomers regularly attend church. The basic argument of this dissertation is that most Baby Boomers will never be reached by traditional churches. We must establish new churches to reach this new generation of Americans. It will require new churches that understand the Baby Boom mindset and are intentionally designed to meet their needs, tastes, and interests.
During the past thirteen years, I have been researching, testing, and implementing principles and programs to reach Baby Boomers. I began the Saddleback Valley Community Church in January, 1980 in my home … when I moved to the area. My target was to reach Baby Boomers. Today, the church averages about 6,000 in attendance. Over 50% of the members are Baby Boomers and nearly 70% were saved and baptized at the church.
Our church has sponsored 20 daughter churches since it began. In each of these new churches we have used the same strategy with good results. I believe the strategy we’re developing at Saddleback is reproducible in other new church starts.
… if one follows the felt needs agenda, the church will inevitably have to take resources and attention away from gospel preaching and Bible teaching in order to create programs to meet these needs. When people are asked if they are “good people” and whether they think they will go to heaven when they die, the answer is nearly always “yes.” They feel no need for conversion. So hearing gospel preaching will not be one of their felt needs. Therefore the felt needs of the unregenerate will determine that the church puts the proclamation of the gospel on the back burner …
The New Apostolic Reformation for a new Millennium
In 1999, Wagner wrote a book, Churchquake, in which he posited the need for a New Apostolic Reformation (NAR). DeWaay explains:
The New Apostolic Reformation is based on the idea that apostles and prophets as the foundation of the church were never meant to be only the Biblical ones, but that living persons should occupy these offices until the church is perfected.35 Wagner argues that the church has made remarkable progress for centuries without apostles and prophets, but that so much more will happen with them …
Wagner himself claims to be the recipient of this type of apostolic revelation. He claims to have been given marching orders for the church to concentrate on the 40/70 window (missiologists use that term for the part of the world with the greatest numbers of non-Christians). He claims further that he knows that a principality of darkness named “The Queen of Heaven” is responsible for “neutralizing the power of Christianity in that area.”39 The long and the short of it is that the release of apostolic power through later day apostles and prophets with new revelations for the church will bring about the success and triumph of Christianity in the world.
Wagner was energised by the apostolic church and missional growth in Africa, South America and China. He praises the high number of volunteers these churches have. He likes the fact that the congregations yield up new ministers, ‘like cream on fresh milk’. In an excerpt from The Transforming Power of Revival which Talk to Action reproduced, Wagner noted that, for practical reasons, seminary formation would be out of the question for many hopeful preachers in the developing world. Therefore:
New apostolic ordination is primarily rooted in personal relationships, which verify character, and in proved ministry skills.
Continuing education for leaders more frequently takes place in conferences, seminars and retreats rather than in classrooms of accredited institutions. Little aversion is noticed for quality training, but the demands are many for alternate delivery systems. A disproportionate number of new apostolic churches, especially the large ones, are establishing their own in-house Bible schools.
On the other hand, new apostolic church leaders are vision driven. In a conversation with a new apostolic senior pastor about his church, I once asked, “How many cell groups do you have?” I think that was sometime in 1996.
He replied, “We will have 600 by the year 2000!” I can’t seem to recall ever finding out how many cells he did have in 1996. As far as the pastor was concerned, though, that apparently didn’t matter at all. In his mind, the 600 cells were not imaginary, they were real. The 600 was what really mattered.
For many, praise marches, prayer walking, prayer journeys and prayer expeditions have become a part of congregational life and ministry. For example, 55 members of one local church, New life Church of Colorado Springs, recently travelled to Nepal, high in the Himalayas, to pray on-site for each of the 43 major, yet-unreached people groups of the nation.
What concerns me is what sort of biblical interpretation and teaching these people are receiving. Also, for some, is there a danger that syncretic religious practices will creep in? My reservations are many. How many pastors are saying, ‘The Holy Spirit told me today that you should …’ Whilst it’s always a blessing for people to receive the Gospel message with open and joyous hearts, there is a real possibility that such zeal could be misunderstood and misused.
New apostles and dominionism?
As part of the NAR effort, Wagner founded Global Harvest Ministries. The idea was to infuse the seven mountains of culture with Christian ideals and zeal, working closely with governments and business as necessary. In August 2010, it morphed into a new organisation with the same objectives, Global Spheres. On the Global Harvest site, Wagner tells us:
I officially turned GHM over to Chuck Pierce of Denton, Texas. Instead of continuing GHM, Chuck organized Global Spheres, Inc. (GSI), a new wineskin for apostolic alignment which will carry Doris and me into the future. Chuck is President and I am Apostolic Ambassador. As a part of this transition, we have closed the GHM website, and transferred our material to the GSI website.
On Global Spheres, Chuck Pierce says:
We must not slow down but accelerate, review, regroup, face giants, gain strategy, and “go up!” I have a team praying for you as you pursue a new level of dominion in your sphere of authority. We are presently designing an interactive Global Spheres website so we can post your current mission thrusts …
Then we will have the monthly report — Global Spheres: Expanding Our Dominion Month by Month in 2010. I will post these on the website and we will keep them updated for you to see. Another reason for doing this is that we want to support on a monthly basis each mission thrust that one of our associates have …
John Dickson and I are working on another Worship Book (As It Is In Heaven) with Regal Books. I am working on my third book for Charisma, Let Your Spirit Soar: Overcoming the Enemy’s Power of Vexation. Then as Glory of Zion International Ministries publications, I am working on two books. The first is The Triumphant Reserve, the vision the Lord gave me of every state in the USA and the 153 Sheep Nations …
As I write in November 2010, there is only one month of Global Sphere monthly reports — for January 2010.
Wagner was also the Presiding Apostle (2000-2009) of the International Coalition of Apostles (ICA). He is now their Presiding Apostle Emeritus. The Wagners and Pierce are council members. Its mission is as follows:
ICA is designed to connect apostles’ wisdom and resources in order that each member can function more strategically, combine their efforts globally, and effectively accelerate the advancement of the Kingdom of God into every sphere of society.
No comment. Talk to Action lists a number of offshoots of this movement, many of which have some connection — direct or indirect — back to Wagner or his organisations. Among them are prayer warrior groups, such as the kind which prayed for Sarah Palin in 2008. Also ‘Bishop’ Thomas Muthee who prayed over Palin at the Wasilla Assembly of God Church. He returned to speak to the church in October 2010.
Wagner Leadership Institute near Fuller
Wagner also founded the eponymous Leadership Institute. It is located in Pasadena, the same city where Fuller is based. Here’s a bit about the WLI which, by the way, does not ordain or licence students for the ministry:
Founded in 1998 by C. Peter Wagner, WLI reflects a new paradigm for unique training in practical ministry. Students learn in a creative, revelatory atmosphere of teaching, impartation and activation with opportunity for hands-on practical application and ministry. WLI provides the highest level of training and spiritual impartation through a successful faculty of internationally known leaders who walk and minister powerfully out of the five-fold ascension gifts. Students obtain a living, functioning impartation and activation from the Holy Spirit to walk in their divine destiny.
This may have even more implications than church growth. Take a look at the courses, which include:
– Apostolic Breakthrough!
– Exploring the Nature and Gift of Dreams
– Biblical Entrepreneurship
– Current Topics for Kingdom Advance (this one taught by Wagner himself).
Dominionist? You decide
C. Peter Wagner wrote a letter to Dr. Orrel Steinkamp on June 5, 2001 before Orrel wrote his article called “Spiritual Warfare Evangelism – How Did We Get Here?” in The Plumbline, volume 6, No. 5, November/December 2001. Here is the salient quote from that article:
“So I never even heard of the Latter Rain, Kingdom Now .. Manifested Sons of God or any of those things…
However, in a conference called “Global Harvest Ministries Presents: Apostolic Church Arising” held at the Atlanta Metropolitan Cathedral, Atlanta, GA, June 14-16, 2001 C. Peter Wagner claimed that he was drawn into the process and started hearing about the Latter Rain back in 1993 …
… I myself knew nothing about those previous efforts I mean I couldn’t even spell “latter rain” … but in 1993 then God drew me into the process and I began hearing about these things even though I never experienced them now.
‘Never experienced them now’ is an interesting turn of phrase.
Deception‘s Sandy Simpson concludes:
… I have already pointed out, one of the two living proponents of the New Order Of The Latter Rain, namely Paul Cain, associate to William Branham, visited John Wimber and C. Peter Wagner in 1989 according to Wagner on the DVD series, and he had to have explained the apostolic movement to them at that time.
I leave you to draw your own conclusions on C Peter Wagner. However, church growth plus NAR plus dominionism is a frightening combination. This post illustrates why many Christians are suspicious of Evangelicalism. To bring us back to Gospel truths, here is Dr Michael Horton, Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary California and author of several books. He says:
Long ago, the evangelist D. L. Moody responded to criticisms of his message and pragmatic methods with the quip, “I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it” … Yet the answer is not “deeds over creeds,” but to be re-introduced to the creeds that generate the deeds that are the fruit of genuine faith. Getting the gospel right and getting the gospel out, as well as loving and serving our neighbors, comprise the callings of the church and of Christians in the world. However, confusing these is always disastrous for our message and mission.