The Quest for the Radical Middle by (the late) Bill Jackson: A Review

I’m presently, (amongst other stuff) researching the relationship between “Word and Spirit” within the Christian church. In the process I’ve discovered a number of interesting books. The great thing about good books is that they refer you to other books. One such book I have stumbled upon is the The Quest for the Radical Middle. I couldn’t put it down. This says a lot because I usually juggle several books at the one time and very few hold my attention to the end. This one did.

I think there are two reasons that made this book an engaging read. One is that it is an account (possibly the first and only account at this stage) of the history of the Vineyard Church. Consequently it is also a historical account of the late John Wimber and the ‘Third Wave’ movement. The second reason is that it sets forth something of the theory and practice of John Wimber’s attempt to navigate the tension between Evangelical theology and Pentecostal spirituality. Of course, this is not an easy task, despite the fact that many have tried. Was Wimber successful? I’m going to reserve my judgement on that for now – I need to read more and think more before I come to a definitive conclusion. However, for any readers interested in this area, this is a must-read.

What is the thesis behind Vineyard’s existence? The clue is in the title, The Quest for the Radical Middle. However, I have to confess, despite engaging a little with Wimber and the Third Wave during my Honours dissertation in 2007, I did not fully appreciate then the rationale behind Wimber’s approach. I could see that the ‘Third Wave’ was more compatible with evangelicalism[1] and that many evangelicals were embracing the spirituality of the Third Wave.

So what is The Quest for the Radical Middle exactly? Jackson claims it is the attempt to pursue the “best of both worlds”. What does this mean? Jackson says,

Satan’s strategy, as we have hypothesized, is to pull a person, church or movement away from the radical middle toward one pole or the other. In this case he pits Word against Spirit, reason against experience, organization against organism.

So the Quest for the radical Middle is an attempt to avoid these kinds of pit-falls.

What I love about the Jackons’s reflections is that they are not naïve. Jackson, whilst writing from the perspective of an insider and a self-professed “company man” is not afraid to recognize the weaknesses of his own company. He says,

History shows that the Word without the Spirit quickly becomes dead orthodoxy, and the Spirit without the Word quickly becomes cultish.

Jackson’s account of the Vineyard demonstrates the reality of this. Particularly helpful is his account of the Toronto Blessing, the IHOP Prophetic movement led by Mike Bickle (and Bob Jones) and the influence of the radical Lonnie Frisbee.

There is no doubt that Vineyard churches, at times, have opened the door to some of the most extreme expressions of the charismatic movement. And it is easy to write them off on this basis alone – however, I don’t think Jackson allows us to do this too easily. Like the early churches addressed through the apostolic letters, the Vineyard comes across as a young church movement with the same struggles and difficulties that the early believers had. And, more importantly, the Vineyard, (and John Wimber), have not shrunk away from being self-critical as a movement. At times they have had to make adjustments and corrections. For example, the Toronto Airport Vineyard (home of the Toronto Blessing) was eventually told they could no longer be part of the Vineyard because of their emphasis on extra-biblical and exotic manifestations. The Kansas City Church was also asked to leave because they were pursuing a different direction – a direction that Wimber feared was too extreme.

Make no mistake, Vineyard’s history is messy. And it is easy, if coming from a reformed perspective, to reject it completely, but having read this book with great interest, I don’t think that is fair. Yes, the Vineyard is messy, but so was the early church. So was Corinth, so was Thessalonica and so were many others.

I’ve avoided an in-depth analysis of the theology and praxis of Wimber and the Vineyard for now (I’m still processing a lot of the material). But at this point I want to highlight the usefulness of the book from a church history and Christian beliefs standpoint.

So, for church history geeks, especially those with an interest in the developments of the charismatic movements, Jackson’s book is a must-read. It is also a must-read for anyone who wants to untangle the knots between the ‘Toronto Blessing’, the ‘Kansas City Prophets’ and ‘Vineyard’.

For those who are interested in the dynamics of Word and Spirit and the relationship between Reformed Evangelical theology and Charismatic Pentecostal Spirituality it is also a must-read.

I’d also argue that it is essential reading for anyone who is involved in or interested in church planting. Vineyard is a church planting church-movement. Whilst many readers will have concerns about their emphasis on pragmatism, the Vineyard history has a lot to teach us about church planting whether it be through their successes or mistakes.

I hope to get round to an in-depth analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the theology of the “The Radical Middle”, but for now it suffices to say that sometimes I read about Wimber and the Vineyard and thought – “This is spot-on!” Yet at other times I thought “this is utter madness!”

And therein lieth the tension of The Quest for the Radical Middle!

[1] Third wave Christians do not believe that baptism in the Spirit is a subsequent and separate experience from regeneration. They hold to the evangelical view that baptism in the Holy Spirit takes place at conversion. Further, they do not insist that ‘speaking in tongues’ is the evidence of the Baptism in the Spirit nor do they insist that all Christians must speak in tongues. From this perspective, John Wimber, Vineyard and the Third Wave are distinct from classical Pentecostalism and the early charismatic movement.