A quarter way through the twenty-first century, it’s time to give some serious reflection to the reforms of the Restoration Movement as well as to her reformers.  

Where theology, tradition, and institutions – all of which place important constraints on behavior in productive ways – diminish or fade, man’s sinful nature begins to reclaim lost ground. Better stories, new ambitious narratives, spring forward to serve as guides. Inevitably, these new narratives are mirror images of popular culture.

For this reason, I must admit, I have grown to dislike most talk of church growth “innovations”—because they are very often old ideas, or even older temporal desires hidden in new disguises as they slip past the guards of sound doctrine, established norms, and social strictures. To be sure, the blind obsession some have with conventional technology, crowd size, growth velocity, and platform-scaling, often obfuscate the degree to which human nature plays a part and how that nature seeks what feels right within the context of its own era. 

Specifically, the paucity of RM leaders able to grasp – let alone trust in – the restraining aspects of the Holy Spirit (distinguishing His domain from ours) exposes our movement to some aimless, reckless, and, at times, very dark agendas. 

For men entrusted with spiritual leadership, one of the first casualties in the war against our sinful nature is self-awareness. Absent self-awareness . . . leaders drift. And, yet, we live in a day when church leaders are far more vigilant about “organizational drift” than any notions of a drifting faith.  It is, therefore, unsurprising to see a shift in ministry leaders progressively seeking identity in new narratives and inclinations. Inclinations that drive them to – above all else – gain comparative advantages as leaders. 

To be sure, few recognize the need for new narratives as a disguised craving for identity, meaning, and purpose. The old narratives – from familiar Restoration Movement slogans to more serious Biblical doctrines – no longer hold sway. And it’s not necessarily true that these stories have grown stale. Instead, our storytellers have grown hostile, apathetic, or dysfunctional. They prefer, instead, new stories and superstitions about gods they have not previously known – neither they nor their fathers. (Jeremiah 44:5,18-19)

In 2016, the NACC adopted the theme “A Better Story,” telegraphing their coming revolution. Two years later, Spire’s CEO, Rick Rusaw, appearing in a Waypoint Church Partners webinar, lit the fuse. This was no mere calibration of focus or seasonal adjustment. He proposed something far larger. Indeed, the white heat of Rusaw’s revolution was not a forging heat to steel the church’s faithful endurance, but a withering heat that would – by “unifying networks” – reduce to cinders the very idea of the local church. 

 “Let’s not fix a conference” declared Mr. Rusaw, ” . . . what if we created a platform that spread.” Later in a Christian Standard interview, Rusaw explained further. “[We] held formal and informal discussions about how best to further the Restoration Movement. . . . The Spire Network pictures church leaders as the ‘spires’ of the Restoration Movement. At one time, people looked for the church . . . in their quest to draw closer to God. Today, people look to leaders.” 

Rusaw then took his theory and followed it to its logical conclusion and insane extreme. He called (/39:00)on all congregations to begin deemphasizing Sunday worship gatherings in favor of emphasizing a more bespoke approach: “Our weekend centric focus has to shift. How do we deliver in a world that is changing? How do you network for your spiritual connection? I may [week to week] attend a different church or I may be in a different small group, [or] I might serve in a different way.” 

The fanciful conceit underpinning Rusaw’s revolution assumes that individual faith expression has no necessary connection to the local church. A heresy popularized by George Barna in his 2005 book entitled – Revolution. Even in Barna’s retirement, the eponymously named Barna Group continues to be a superspreader of this asininity.  And according to Rusaw’s (then) prognostications, it was time to find a spiritual network – like Spire – because the traditional local church is living on borrowed time. More specifically, the church’s central organizing event, highest calling, and most powerful catalyzer – local gatherings of believers engaged in corporate worship – is due for serious reduction in priority. 

Further in Rusaw’s apocalyptic vision, he compares the current state of the local church to the waning days of the Pony Express (4:08) – a sad, moribund relic, blithely unaware that it has reached the point of its own obsolescence.

What a breathtaking but telling lack of faith!

In 2003 – before Spire’s radical revolution of the NACC – Church Development Fund transformed the Northern California Evangelistic Association into Stadia – a national, church-planting operation. Retrofitted with new tribal narratives and crowd sourced beliefs, Stadia quickly debased itself eliding all doctrinal requirements for church plants under its ministry umbrella. In 2008 it launched New City Church in downtown Los Angeles, California – the first LGBTQ+ affirming congregation solely backed by RM resources. In 2010, Stadia launched Resonate Church in Mar Vista, California – a failed enterprise before it ever began. During the ramp up to launch, the worship leader, besotted by celebrity, came out in support of his transgender friend “Caitlyn” Jenner. Not long after – and needing help getting its mojo back – Stadia partnered with Compassion International. Together they maintain Stadia’s ability to proliferate its crowd-sourced orthodoxy but on an exponentially larger scale.

And like a social-contagion, many of these “new story” enterprises have materialized all across the Restoration Movement. Each equipped with its own unique brand of superstitions, market research rationalizations, and Barrabas-like alternatives to Truth. However, none was more consequential than the one that gave sanction to them all. By supplanting the grassroots continuation committees which shepherded our national convention for nearly a century, Rusaw unwittingly ended generations of deferential restraint para-church organizations maintained toward the local church. 

He simply decided to ignore the inverse correlation between dependence on centralizing networks and local church autonomy. The creation of Spire broke the blood-brain barrier. And today, without the slightest hesitation, these excessively speculative “church partnering networks,” daily encroach upon the God-ordained order of local church. 

Don’t get me wrong, not all of our para-church entities have slipped their moorings – e2: effective elders is a bracing example for optimism. They aren’t selling new narratives.  Instead, they are undaunted in their effort to salvage our timeless principles from the accretions of an agrarian past. Under the leadership of Jim Estep, Gary Johnson, and Dave Roadcup, e2: effective elders has maintained an impressive resilience, conscientiously advocating for sound doctrine and the extended order of the Holy Spirit. They understand our challenge isn’t to present everything in our movement as perfect, but rather, our challenge is to figure out how to best pass on our ideals while maintaining (not gutting) our institutions – however flawed they may be. 

Still the overall trend is disturbing. The damage sustained over the last quarter century has been significant. And it’s difficult to foresee anything that might stem the tide. Afterall, when we tear down our institutions or gut them of their long-standing protocols, we make things harder not easier. We cut ourselves off from generational wisdom, forcing us to start from scratch. It simply comes down to a choice, after experiencing good fortune, I can salute myself for my own wisdom, or recognize that I have stumbled into a fortunate time (due to Providence and sacrifices of the past) and proceed with caution.

For instance, in a very recent episode (E:73) of the Waypoint Church Partners podcast, Director Tim Cole is interviewed by his staff about his vision, work, and experience. Early on in the podcast (16:15) Cole makes disparaging remarks about the insufficient support he (and his fellow Virginia Evangelizing Fellowship recruits) received in preparation for their respective church planting endeavors. He recounts, “letting God do all the rest” simply wasn’t enough once the church was planted. Failing to recognize the difference between apathy and restraint, Cole characterized his preparation as “little more than a sum of money, a hearty handshake and . . . a ‘good luck.'” 

What Mr. Cole seemed to disdain – as something along the lines of lack of interest – was, in actuality, a profound expression of faith in the Holy Spirit and a discerning application of sound doctrine. The men of the VEF demonstrated divine discernment in maintaining a protective barrier (like Chesterton’s Fence) between the church and man’s propensity to transgress beyond God-given limits. This stood in stark contrast to Cole’s own assessment and fueled his intention to invoke – in concert with the culture – a new and improved narrative. A vision so comprehensive it could not be limited to simply church planting, it must also be applied to all of the 500+ RM churches in his region, not to mention any church planting organizations within his reach. Under his protective “umbrella,” Cole assures every local church associated with his brand access to the requisite insight for establishing a place in the modern world. To his frustration, he admits not everyone is receptive to his unsolicited shepherding. However, in the example he cites in his interview, it was unclear whether his frustration was born out what he perceived as apathy for the Kingdom or from their unwillingness to purchase what Cole was selling. Also in the episode, Cole proudly announced (18:50) a new policy – that WCP now acts as Elders for new church plants. An arrangement lasting until such time as sufficiently suitable candidates can be appointed. 

The tail now wags the dog. 

Part of the case I’m making is that the supposedly innovative “partnerships,” “networks,” and “multi-site frameworks” being offered to us as modern and cutting-edge are neither modern nor cutting-edge. They are ancient and reactionary – just another example of the church taking its cue from the world. To be sure, none of the concepts we see being offered constitute anything like a leading breakthrough. They are, instead, lagging indicators of what has existed in the broader culture for quite sometime. 

Meanwhile, we live in the greatest moment, in terms of the alleviation of denominational control, in our nation’s history. If the trend continues we may soon witness the elimination of mainline denominations altogether. And one of the things that truly breaks my heart is the mentality that says, “Now that our generational struggle against denominationalism is over, let’s put our faith in tribalism to protect and consolidate our gains.” 

I mean forgive me for saying so, but anyone who makes the claim, “I love our Restoration Movement tribe,” self-impeaches their own integrity. Throughout our history we have distinguished ourselves as being the alternative to the tribal mentality. And, apparently, we have acquitted ourselves well. 


Because we stood for unity based on a well-reasoned and shared view of scripture. Was there unanimity? No. But there used to be institutions which valued debate in the maintenance of our doctrine. 

In fact, that’s what makes our movement truly revolutionary –  it’s unnatural, right? If shared-belief unity were natural, it would’ve persisted throughout history. But it hasn’t. It disappeared for more than a thousand years, suborned by the hierarchical accretions of man. So part of what this writer seeks is getting people to stop casting aspersions on the past and just sort of look at where we are and how we got here in a slightly different way. And not to take it all for granted. Because what we are prone to forget is that, against the timeline of human history, the RM plea still has that new car smell. 

Therefore, the real threat is not from within our traditions and established institutions, but within human nature. You see, every generation of the church is invaded by pagans – we call them children. And so we have to teach the next generation gratitude for this patrimony. But to teach gratitude we need to live grateful lives. Our traditions and institutions assist in that – but only when properly aligned to the local church. Otherwise, we start lining up into these artificial networks and partnerships led by spiritual entrepreneurs, retailing new narratives, borrowed wisdom, and old superstitions. Men, who in spite of themselves, are driven by an unholy mix of messianic fervor and need for significance. Men who treat the Restoration Movement as a pie chart or territory map – avatars of their own ego – from which they struggle to enlarge their comparative shares.  

Many have turned their backs on the principles that have brought our movement essentially unprecedented advancement and prosperity, and if we don’t start reaffirming those same ancient principles of Christianity, we run the risk of seeing our movement recede back into nature. 

We need to return to this idea that  a single congregation equipped with sound doctrine is more powerful than any human convention, professional association, non-profit organization, or para-church partnership. If our history shows us anything, it shows us that this strategy produced an explosion of religious unity that has been spreading ever since. 

And we should be a little grateful for that. 

By Terry Sweany

Terry Sweany has served as senior minister of Playa Christian Church since 2006. His education includes a MA in Marriage, Family, and Child Counseling from Hope International University and a BA from Cincinnati Christian University. He is author of the book Life In Ministry and his greatest joy is helping people deepen their relationship with God. Terry lives in Westchester, California and is a member of the LAPD Pacific Division Clergy Council. He and his wife, Patty, have been married 38 years and have a daughter and granddaughter.

One thought on “The RM’s New Priestcraft”
  1. This post recently elicited the following unsolicited words of encouragement from John Mitchell, current director of the Christian Restoration Association. They are reprinted here with his permission.

    I enjoyed your article on the new priestcraft. I appreciate that you do such thorough research.

    Your conclusion is spot on that we need to return to an understanding that a single congregation is more powerful than any other wide sweeping organization. I wonder if folks think about the fact that the RM got going long before social media, para-church organizations, etc. The incredible impact of the early RM was solely the result of individual congregations getting back to the Bible with the pure New Testament Christianity message.”

    Keep up the good work. I can only imagine it’s challenging out there on the west coast.

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