Lessons Learned: My Quest for the Radical Middle

Ethan on the Balance Beam
(Photo credit: BenA1974)

A couple weeks ago, I was visiting with a friend of mine, just talking about God, life, and our personal struggles and triumphs. During our conversation, my friend told me something that really struck me. He said, “You know, so much of life comes down to balance.” When he said that, I could completely identify with his statement. We take on so many simultaneous activities in life—things such as school, work, errands, friendships, marriage or dating relationships, family, church, a personal relationship with God, and a commitment to faithfully obey Him. It can become increasingly difficult to learn how to balance all these things, and I can attest that at any given moment, one thing can end up taking precedence over other things, while another thing may become regretfully neglected. Then, in an effort to bring back the balance, I often end up overcorrecting and becoming off-balance in the opposite direction.

In the past couple years, there has been a particular area of my life in which I have been seeking God for wisdom to find the right balance. Specifically, I am referring to finding balance in my Christian beliefs. You see, due to a large series of events which I will not detail here, I have found myself feeling rather caught in the middle between two prominent movements in the Christian church: Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism. Another way to refer to these movements is the distinction between the Spirit aspect and the Word aspect of the Christian walk.

All my life, I have been raised in Charismatic and Pentecostal circles, spending most of my time hanging out in such churches as the Assemblies of God, Vineyard, Foursquare, Open Bible, Pentecostal Holiness, and Independent Charismatic. Additionally, I have sat under the teaching of such movements as Bethel Church in Redding, California, and the International House of Prayer in Kansas City, Missouri.

However, my world has been rocked in the past two years, since I began attending an Evangelical, non-Pentecostal university. Prior to beginning college, I considered myself to be pretty well-versed in the Scriptures and theology. Yet, after I began college, I can remember countless times when I walked out of my Bible and theology classes shaking my head and thinking, “I don’t know anything about the Bible anymore!” The truth of the matter was that I still knew quite a bit about the Bible, but so much of what I knew was filtered through a Pentecostal lens. Many of the terms and concepts in these Evangelical Bible and theology courses were completely foreign to me.

As a result of this experience, I went through a season of cognitive dissonance—a crisis of the faith, of sorts. The more I studied, the more I began to see the stark contrasts between Pentecostal and Evangelical teachings. And the more I saw these contrasts, the more frustrated I became. What I saw was two lines of thinking, both of which had, in my opinion, amazing insights to add to my understanding of Christianity. Yet both aspects also taught some things that I could not embrace in my personal theology either. What was I to do? I felt like I could not fully adhere to either line of thinking. I just wanted to embrace the good aspects of both, rather than holding to one and rejecting the other. However, I didn’t know how to find the right balance in doing this.

That is where The Quest for the Radical Middle, by Dr. Bill Jackson, came into the picture. This book, which is actually a history of the Vineyard Church movement, offered me much more than a simple history. It offered me a whole new paradigm of looking at how to deal with two seemingly opposing aspects of Christianity: Word and Spirit. I was hooked from the Introduction, in which Jackson tells the story of his encounter with the Spirit:[1]

It was during my Wheaton days, however, that I had a personal encounter with the Holy Spirit that left me forever altered. I spoke in tongues when some classmates laid their hands on me, and I went through a tremendous renewal in my Christian life.

It was confusing to me that after such a wonderful event so few of my evangelical friends shared my enthusiasm. . . . Theologically, I hadn’t changed. I didn’t think everybody had to speak in tongues, nor did I believe that one had to speak in tongues to have power or to be saved. Even though my experience was both biblical and life-changing, it was not embraced within my evangelicalism. I consequently experienced something of an identi[t]y crisis. I no longer knew who I was.

When I read this, I could completely identify with where Jackson was coming from. I became frustrated to an extent, no matter where I was. I was frustrated with excessive emotionalism and hype that I saw in many Pentecostal circles, but I was just as frustrated with the seeming lack of emotion and lack of enthusiasm in the Evangelical circles. It seemed either that doctrine was sacrificed for passion or that passion was sacrificed for doctrine. What was I to do? As Jackson wrote, “[I] had an evangelical theology but a Pentecostal experience. In which direction should [I] go?”[2]

Furthermore, as I continued to spend time in Pentecostal churches while studying in an Evangelical setting, I became disenchanted and utterly repulsed by the ways people holding one line of thinking talked of the other. I have repeatedly heard Pentecostals point the finger at Evangelicals, and I have just as repeatedly heard Evangelicals point the finger at Pentecostals. Both have called the other heretics and false prophets. Both have been guilty of spitefully mistreating the other. And the more I observed these things happen, the more it made me sick. I began to wonder, “Am I a heretic? Have I been teaching and believing a lie?” Why do we have to pick a side and point fingers? Why do we have to be so divided over this issue?

As I continued my reading and researching, I believed the Lord revealed to me the answer to my questions. The answer was that we don’t have to be divided and we don’t have to point fingers. I now understand that God has been sending me on my own quest for the radical middle. “What is this ‘radical middle’?” is the next logical question. In short, it is learning how to live in the middle of the tension between Word and Spirit. As Jackson wrote, this tension is lived out in the following way: “The Word submits to the voice of the Spirit, and the Spirit blows in accordance with the parameters of the Word. Word and Spirit are in dynamic tension.”[3] As I wrote at the beginning, it all comes back to balance. And that is where I am at this point: seeking to find balance.

I know this blog seems short and seems to end abruptly here, but that is because this story is not finished. I still have a long journey ahead. I now more fully understand that the road ahead is a difficult, yet necessary road. It is not easy to walk in the middle, especially when you get the full weight of both the good and the bad from each side. I know not what challenges I may encounter in the future, but I know that the challenges of the past have helped to prepare me for them. I only pray that the Lord would help me to capitalize on the good from these two prominent movements in Christianity, and that He would help me not to become off-balanced in either direction. I pray that I will be led by the Spirit and driven by the Word.

[1]. Jackson, Bill. Introduction. The Quest for the Radical Middle: A History of the Vineyard. Cape Town: Vineyard International Pub., 1999. 12. Print.

[2]. IBID (p. 13).

[3]. Jackson, Bill. Chapter One: Setting the Vineyard in Context. The Quest for the Radical Middle: A History of the Vineyard. Cape Town: Vineyard International Pub., 1999. 20. Print.


3 thoughts on “Lessons Learned: My Quest for the Radical Middle

  1. You know – we have lived within this tension for many years depending on the invitations I would receive – some to highly charismatic churches and to other very traditional settings – Paul said he was all things to all people – I am not sure if that applies here but it sounds good presently at this late hour of being nearly midnight.

  2. Comment submitted by a recent blogger:

    What a great reflection on 1 Cor 12:21-26. Having grown up not “in the church”, as I visited from one to another, I also saw a tendency within the body for a lack of mutual respect. Now as part of the body of Christ, I find myself occasionally left with a distinct lack of balanced response to those who deny or disrespect one part of the body over another. Thank you for writing about this and for sharing your experience.

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