I don't think I'm a sycophant. On the personality spectrum, I lean towards the relentlessly critical rather than the naively enthusiastic end, and that often ends up as the source of frustration for those I work with. On this blog, I've continually poked and critiqued the usual Newfrontiers view on all sorts of things - high Calvinism, baptism in the Spirit, the nature of apostolic ministry, "Word and Spirit", the sacraments, creation, war, spiritual gifts, and so on - although hopefully in as friendly and irenic a way as I can. I even managed recently to get called "a pain in the bottom" by Terry Virgo on Twitter (though I'm pretty sure from the context he was joking), and my views on various things have prompted a few leaders in the network to suggest I believe in cessationism, baptismal regeneration, Roman Catholicism, liberalism, and probably one or two other things. In other words, despite the melon-slice grin on my photo, I'm not the party-line, tub-thumper type.
But I love being part of Newfrontiers. I’ve been in four different Newfrontiers churches since 1990, and preached in dozens of others, and I can honestly say it is one of the greatest joys of my life to have been part of a family like this. So I thought it might be edifying for me, if not for you, to give a few reasons why that’s the case. (These will be general statements, obviously, rather than naive pronouncements that everyone who has ever been in Newfrontiers is like such-and-such, so please don’t feel the need to point out in the comments section that Harry Blowfly once preached justification by works, lost his temper with your sister and then went on a rant about the Illuminati). Anyway:
1. A genuine love for God, with heart, mind, soul and strength.
People in Newfrontiers really love God. I mean, I know that should go without saying, but they really do. They love God with their minds - they think, read, study, reflect, theologize, discuss, wrestle and meditate on truth, and all over the world they remain completely committed to the authority of God in scripture. The love God with their hearts - they are emotionally excited by, moved by, intimate with and reverent towards him, and when you participate in a corporate worship time with them, you really get that. They love God with their strength - they work hard, give lots, serve the poor, plant churches, sacrifice comforts, preach the gospel, stand firm in the face of persecution, and travel across the world to reach those who don’t know Jesus. They’re not perfect, of course; nobody is. They really do love God, though.
2. A commitment to corporate and personal prayer.
I’ve talked about this before with reference to Terry Virgo’s “I was praying, obviously”, but it’s worth mentioning anyway: Newfrontiers people pray. The hub of the movement, for as long as I’ve known it, has been the days of prayer and fasting that the leaders have together; virtually all gatherings and conferences involve prayer; and you will almost never encounter a Newfrontiers church that doesn’t have a regular prayer meeting as part of its corporate life together. Just yesterday, I was reading a vision and strategy paper for one of the largest churches in the movement, and there was an extended section in it on the importance of prayer (which doesn’t always come through from the church growth gurus), along with some superbly helpful guidelines on how to lead a prayer meeting. I love that.
3. A widespread and profound experience of God’s grace.
All Christians believe in grace. Marcion did, Pelagius did, Tetzel did. But for a tragic number of Christians across history, the experience of grace has not been in line with the experience of Peter, Paul and the rest, either through poor teaching, ungodly examples, or legalistic traditions and practices. When you’re with Newfrontiers people - and here, as throughout this post, I generalize - you’re with people who don’t just believe in grace, but who experience it. They celebrate it, contend for it theologically, write and sing songs about it, talk about it incessantly, and live in the good of it, without swinging too far into legalism on the one hand or hyper-grace on the other. No doubt there are some nuances missing here and there, and some individuals who don’t have the balance right. But in Newfrontiers churches, a lack of grace will be seen as a calamity, not a quirk.
4. A high view of the church.
Charismatic baptists have often, in our pursuit of personal experience of the Spirit alongside our belief in the priesthood of all believers, ended up with an anti-institutional, anti-ecclesial individualism, in which words like “church”, “authority”, “elders” and “membership” have been downplayed, and in some cases rejected altogether. In Newfrontiers, you’ll almost always find a high view of the local church, a commitment to qualified leadership, a desire to live out the Christian life together and not just in isolation, and a resolution to give local churches the best of our people, energies and finances - effectively, the best bits of Presbyterianism, without having to baptize babies. I remember asking one Arminian, egalitarian friend of mine why he was still in Newfrontiers despite his theological differences, and he said simply, “because they build strong churches.” That counts for a lot.
5. A willingness to learn from other denominations and streams.
Everyone does this, I’m sure. You couldn’t survive as a denomination if you didn’t. But it seems to be amplified in Newfrontiers. More pastors would own Lloyd-Jones on Romans, or Grudem’s Systematic Theology, than anything Terry Virgo or David Devenish have written. In the 1990s, the two biggest influences on the movement were John Wimber and John Piper, and I doubt there are many groups of churches for whom that would be true. In the 2000s, consecutive leaders conferences featured two people who might well have ended up in a fight with each other: Mark Driscoll, who basically said we were so obsessed with charismatic gifts that we weren’t being missional, and Rob Rufus, who told us at one point that we needed “to strap glory bombs to our chests and then go out into our communities and let them go off.” (I know). Listening to, disagreeing with and learning from such diverse characters makes a movement stronger, and although there’s always room to improve, I regard this as a real strength of Newfrontiers as a whole.
6. An uncompromising response to cultural hot potatoes.
Say what you like about complementarian theology - and I’ve got an article coming out soon in the Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which pretty much shows you where I’m coming from - but nobody holds to it because it’s fashionable or popular; in Western cultures it’s too restrictive, and in many Eastern cultures it’s too liberating. One of the delightful side-effects of the complementarianism you find in Newfrontiers churches is the almost flagrant boat-burning it requires when it comes to being invited to the cool kids’ table - if you’re prepared to say that men should lead their families and women shouldn’t be elders, the chances are you won’t cave if someone asks you whether you think abortion is wrong, or hell is for real, or gay sex is OK. I love that when Premier Radio or Christianity magazine want a robust defence of traditional evangelicalism, they talk to Adrian Warnock about Love Wins or to Greg Haslam about The Lost Message of Jesus, and I love that the Resurgence publish P-J Smyth, and Desiring God invite Tope Koleoso. In my experience, Newfrontiers leaders aren’t fluffy, and that really matters.
7. An increasing missionary zeal, both across the world and across the street.
Many movements begin with missionary fire, and then peter out as they expand, so it’s encouraging to me that the trajectory in Newfrontiers is going the other way. I don’t know many churches that are better at mobilising people to reach their neighbours than GodFirst in Johannesburg, and I don’t know many churches in the Middle East that are reaching local people better than Yasam Kilisesi in Īstanbul. Every time I hear another story of a young family who are moving across the world to plant a church in a defiantly secular, Islamic or Communist city, I marvel at the courage and passion it takes - but I am also encouraged by the fact that the churches sending them are not sitting on their hands, but taking seriously their responsibility to walk across the street, or the room, to reach their own towns and cities. It bodes well, whatever “boding” is.
For all I’ve said before about relationship being an excuse for doctrinal or missional muddle, I can’t deny the simple power of being together on a mission with friends. This is thoroughly subjective, of course, but I don’t apologize for that: I love being part of Newfrontiers because I love the people, and the gospel camaraderie that comes from shared history, shared theology and shared vision. I love being recognized, by a total stranger at midnight in Donetsk airport, because I’m wearing a standard Newfrontiers pastor’s shirt; I love having kebabs and watching football outside the Galatasaray stadium with Turkish guys I’ve known for a few hours, yet have more in common with than I have with my next-door neighbor; I love driving through the Negev in infantile hysterics with fellow pastors and teachers; I love being in hospital in another city with my epileptic daughter, and being visited by the local Newfrontiers pastor, who has somehow heard on Facebook that I am in the area; I love eating shwarma, sadza, plantain or tapas with people from nations I’ve only visited because of the group of churches I’m part of; I love hugs, and banter, and facetious tweets and in-jokes and awkward cross-cultural moments, and the international network of praying men and women who support each other in ways that only brothers and sisters can. I imagine every group of churches has those things, and I sincerely hope they do. But for me, those joys and privileges have come to me within the Newfrontiers family of churches, and I will always be thankful for that.
There, I’ve gone all misty-eyed. Anyway: if you’re part of a Newfrontiers church and you’re reading this, even if we’ve never met, I’m really grateful for you. And if you’re not, and you’re part of the massive worldwide family of which we are just a tiny fragment, I’m grateful for you too. One day we’ll meet, at the biggest party there’s ever been, and the odds are I’ll hit you in the face with a palm branch by mistake, and then we’ll raise a glass of “aged wine well refined” and share our redemption stories. See you then.
// Originally posted on Theology Matters //