Here’s The Comment

November 22, 2007 in Sovereign Grace Ministries

Here’s the comment that was originally posted on a blog entry that has now disappeared.  Although I do remember that the author of this comment had originally included his real name, unfortunately I did not copy the name when I copied and pasted the comment into an email.  But here it is:

I was in C.J. Mahaney’s home church (Covenant Life Church, nee Gathering of Believers 1978) from 1981-2000, and in its predecessor teaching-meeting, so maybe I can add something to this discussion.

CLC grew out of a full-blown charismatic teaching ministry called TAG (Take and Give) in the D.C. area, which ran from the mid-to-late 1970s. C.J. Mahaney and Larry T became the young teachers, as TAG outgrew Lydia Little’s living room and moved from one school auditorium to another before maxing-out at over 2,000 participants & finding its Tuesday-night home at Christ Church on Mass. Ave. in Washington, DC.

Mahaney was a former high-school class clown, pothead and college dropout who was radically saved after being busted for possession of illegal substances. T, from an industrial immigrant family in Cleveland, had come to Washington DC with plans to become an AFL-CIO labor organizer. However, his life was changed after stumbling into a black church and being confronted about his spiritual condition by an elderly man.

At TAG there was enthusiastic worship, a wide mix of people ranging from high-school hangers-on to all denominations of the churched, including Catholics (I saw some dancing nuns back in those days of joyful worship). The Holy Spirit was present and did baptisms, healings and deliverances. There was excitement and tons of youthful energy. The centerpiece was the teaching, however, which was full of humor but focused on turning scriptural truth into real-life, everyday practice.

CLC was started because Mahaney and T were being given truths by the Lord that are now taken for granted in much of US Christendom: emphases on belonging to and ministering through a local church of committed believers; small groups as the core unit of the church; family-oriented focus including practical teaching of the Christian roles of husband, wife and child; personal holiness and integrity among leaders and laity; discipleship and development of spiritual giftings, as pastors train the members to do the work of ministry, rather than doing everything themselves. The existing churches had no such vision, so a teaching fellowship turned into a church.

CLC and Terry Virgo’s New Frontiers International have been close friends since those early days, with leaders visiting one another’s churches and conferences, and input from the late Arthur Wallis another strong influence on both streams.

As CLC became successful in the ’80s at pursuing its vision, cassette tapes spread Mahaney and T’s teaching literally around the world. People began coming to Maryland from around the USA to join CLC, which grew from a few hundred in the early 80s to over 2,000 around the year 2000. In the mid-to-late 80s, CLC started planting churches in other cities (T’s Cleveland being the first), and some churches began joining the church-planting ministry, called People of Destiny International (PDI, now Sovereign Grace Ministries).

During this time, CLC and PDI began writing their own worship songs, filled with scripture-based themes, to reflect the movement’s vision and understanding of the gospel. Though New Frontiers picked up on these songs, until just the last few years the rich & creative PDI music has been a hidden jewel.

The transition from charismatic to Reformed was gradual but real, as Mahaney and the PDI leadership (T, Brent Detwiler, Steve Shank and others who were pastoring PDI churches) continued to develop their theology. Over the years, PDI rejected the prosperity gospel, the word-faith gospel, the therapeutic-faith gospel and other fads that tended to diminish the authority and holiness of God, the inherently sinful nature of man, and the individual’s responsibility for his own actions and response to the gospel. By the early 90s, however, the Reformed element was beginning to kick in, with more emphasis on the Puritans’ and Jonathan Edwards’ teachings, and a sudden emphasis on the Puritan teaching of “indwelling sin” rather than a victorious, power-filled faith which had previously shaped the culture.

Also during this time, CLC became not only the home of the movement, but also the home of a new PDI pastors school to train pastors for current and future PDI churches. PDI also began publishing People of Destiny (now Sovereign Grace) magazine, and a series of small books on discipleship, small groups, and other topics. These publications got the movement’s ideas known to even more people, leading to more growth in the PDI churches and more established churches’ joining the movement.

As it grew, PDI’s focus seemed always to be on the utterly practical, rather than on impressing anyone outside the movement. When questions needed to be answered regarding how to build a church building, how to organize children’s ministry, etc., CLC pastors would visit other churches in other movements (Cho in Korea, Vineyard in Anaheim, CA, etc) to learn from the successful. It seemed that 20 years spent in obscurity, working out their message and methodology, made it possible to emerge in the last few years as something that suprised many people.

In the 90s came a chapter that I wonder if Sovereign Grace would even like to talk about today. In 1994, C.J. Mahaney visited a New Frontiers-related church in Missouri, which Terry Virgo was overseeing personally following a pastoral replacement. As Mahaney began to preach a sober message on the sad ending of Solomon’s reign, “holy laughter” began to break out in the church. Mahaney could no longer continue speaking, as the entire congregation was hit with the same renewal that currently was underway in Toronto, and being dispensed by Rodney Howard-Browne. The renewal affected both NFI and PDI, and throughout 1994 renewal — what PDI called “a time of refreshing” — held sway at CLC and other PDI churches. The high-water mark came at the Memorial Day 1995 Celebration conference in Indiana, PA (theme “Passion for His Presence”). In addition to prolonged periods of worship before the main evening meetings — punctuated by powerful prophetic songs — personal ministry was done after one evening meeting. As at Toronto or other renewal spots, the Holy Spirit came in power, and bodies were on the floor by the hundreds as prayer ministry produced laughter, tears, shaking in most of thoese receiving prayer (including myself).

Though there was never any official public pronouncement given, it appeared that PDI began distancing itself from the Toronto-associated renewal after John Wimber expelled TAVC from the Vineyard in December 1995. While in 1994 and 1995 Mahaney was defending the renewal from its critics, including Hank Hanegraff, within a couple of years a PDI pastor, Craig Cabaniss, stated in a public debate that PDI had chosen “Geneva” (i.e., the Reformation) over “Toronto” (the current renewal/revival, and all the negative connotations associated with it).

By 2000, when I left CLC for a smaller church that was more open to the ongoing move of the Holy Spirit, any participation in the 90s renewal had been officially forgotten, and there was a total emphasis on the Cross of Christ, the writings of C.H. Spurgeon, and on identifying and rooting out “indwelling sin” in each member. There was, to me, an unhealthy, guilt-producing, emotional reminder, nearly every week, of how awful our sins were that nailed Christ to the cross. What was unhealthy, to me, was that we were always left at the cross, whereas the Bible clearly teaches that Jesus rose again (having conquered death and sin) and now sits at the right hand of God — full of authority which he now shares with redeemed men and women for whom sin is not a continuing stumbling block, but something that should be less and less frequent in a maturing believer’s life.

So like the Vineyard, PDI (renamed Sovereign Grace early in the 2000s — after co-founder Larry T had been forced from leadership in a dispute over whether he had properly overseen his family) had been established following one charimatic renewal, but had then gone on to reject the following charismatic renewal, instead turning back to a 500-year-old foundation in the Reformation.

Yet PDI/SGM continues to want it both ways: to have charismatic “distinctives” such as believing in the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and charismatic-style worship, while embracing Reformed theology and rejecting the charismatic wing of US Christianity. Today, SGM identifies with Baptist pastor and author John Piper (who, BTW, believes the gifts of the Spirit are for today), and anti-charismatic John MacArthur, while still maintaining contacts with Virgo’s NFI (which has maintained more openness to Toronto-associated signs-and-wonders ministry), and having nothing to do with any ministry clearly recognized as charismatic.

All this to say that C.J. Mahaney has not suddenly become a “reformed charismatic.” What *is* sudden is the SGM movement’s sudden appearance on the “radar screen” of the church, now that his and his wife’s books, plus those of grafted-in Joshua Harris, have become Christian bestsellers. In addition, areas in which PDI/SGM were once too out-there for many (local-church & small-group emphasis) are now popular, and SGM has over 20 years of experience to share.

What’s interesting to me is that in rejecting the Toronto-Brownsville style of renewal, PDI/SGM led to the birth of other very successful ministries. Lou Engle and Che Ahn, now leaders at Harvest Rock Church in Pasadena and other related ministries, were both part of TAG and CLC from the earliest days. They moved to Pasadena after Ahn had a dream in which a black man called him to California, much like Paul’s dream that led him to Macedonia. Ahn started a PDI church there but was eventually forced out of the movement — events that Ahn refers to obliquely in his 1998 book, INTO THE FIRE. Ahn and Engle continued to minister in the LA area, however, and when the 90s renewal hit the Vineyard churches, both were radically changed. Locating Harvest Rock Church at Mott Auditorium in Pasadena allowed Ahn to welcome the Toronto and Brownsville streams to California, and HRC hosted a number of Catch the Fire conferences since the late 1990s. Both men went on to found The Call and related youth/revival movements, including a new prayer-based ministry in Washington DC focused on social justice.

Meanwhile, after T chose to break with PDI rather than continue submitting to a potentially never-ending period of correction, he was welcomed at Brownsville AG and became a member of the teaching staff at their revival school of ministry. He now pastors Christ the King church in Atlanta, and has published books that explore themes he has been advancing since the 1980s — divine appointments and being a spiritual pioneer.