Streams of Living Water
Pastoral Licensing Book Review
With great care and detail Richard Foster’s Streams of Living Water outlines six major streams of Christianity. Foster contends that these streams are the contemplative, holiness, charismatic, social justice, evangelical, and the incarnational, with each stream having Jesus at its center and source. Foster describes how history has been shaped by each unique brand of Christianity and by various influential figures and movements prospectively. Practically speaking, Foster attempts to gave a summation, though by his own admission not comprehensive, of Church history by selecting specific “steams”, highlighting one historical, contemporary, and Biblical figure, and offering his insight into various strengths and weaknesses of each stream. In so doing, Foster is able to paint with broad strokes a somewhat detailed picture of Christian history. I found this reading to be most enriching, challenging, and engaging as I realized some shortcomings of my “stream” of Christianity and was encouraged to tap into the larger Christian family.
The strongest challenge I left this reading with was the challenge to grow in my understanding and communion with Church history and the larger Body of Christ. Coming from a “Seeker-Sensitive”, contemporary, Evangelical background, I relished the historical perspective Foster wrote about. Often it feels like my specific “stream” of Christianity is totally disconnected from the rest of Christendom both historically, and practically. It seems that my “stream” of Christianity is focused largely on making Jesus understandable to the modern world. Our goal is to remain constantly in-touch with the non-church world and culture so as to not seem outdated. We speak about cultural trends, read books from the latest Christian gurus, attend the hippest Christian conferences, apply current business practices, utilize the most modern technology, and attempt to be the most relevant as we can. Sometimes it feels like we’re trying so hard to be relevant that we loose touch with our identity, both ancient and recent. A guy I look up to once called church’s like ours “amnesic” because they are so unaware of who they are and where they’ve been. The focus is more frequently on where we’re going. One of my favorite lessons from this reading was that as a Christ follower in 2010, I am part of movement much larger than I was originally aware of, full of tradition, stories, heroes, and a plethora of human experience.
Personally, I found myself most encouraged by the unique stories of specific significant Christian figures. I loved learning about their humanness, their brokenness, their drive, their faith, and how God used them in the midst of improbable circumstances. Reading the accounts of people like Augustine, Dag Hammarskjorld, Laubach, Pheobe Palmer, Billy Graham, and the likes gave me an appreciation for those who came before me I just didn’t have earlier. As I read their stories and the plight of their endeavors for the Gospel, I sensed a deep longing to know more. It was as if hunger was awoken within my spirit, a deep hunger to absorb as many lessons and adventures from my predecessors as possible. As I briefly surveyed a few significant stories I realized how much I have been missing out on. In a way, I felt deprived. Deprived of an ongoing conversation I could have been having with theologians, apostles, martyrs, pastors, saints, mothers, fathers, and others who have given their life to know God and make him known. In this way I realized more and more that the lessons we sometimes feel as if we are just now learning are in actuality, age old lessons, that hundreds or thousands have weathered and persevered before us. When church leadership issues arise, division surfaces, or finances diminish – we would be wise to learn from Church history. In addition to reading about contemporary church issues in the modern magazines, journals, and self help books we should take advantage Church history and humbly glean from those who have come before us. Sometimes we feel overwhelmed by the circumstances we find ourselves in; an increasingly secular and hostile culture, an apathetic and consumer driven Christian community, budget crisis’, morale failures of leaders and the likes – these are no stranger to our church fathers, mothers, and reformers whose lessons are aptly available to our study, if we so choose.
Another significant lesson I gained from this book with was the commonality of different Christian streams and their apparent underlying unity. In our community there are dozens and dozens of churches all preaching their own particular theological bent, each isolated from one another in what at times feels like a market driven competition to win over the most congregants to their particular brand of church. While I understand the need for specific church communities and the intrinsic necessity for Christians to belong to a singular home church, I’ve often wrestled with the vast disconnect Christian leaders have from one another. On the block where our church meets each week another church meets as well. My church is largely crafted to meet the needs of white, suburban baby boomers, while the church down the street is more urban, “soul-full”, and African. My critique is not with the existence of each of these unique expressions or “streams” of church, my visceral repulsion comes from the total obliviousness of each church community from the other. Church volunteers, congregants, and leaders are for the most part void of any sort of fellowship with our Christian family down the street, even though in truth, we are on the same team. Part of me feels like we do a great disservice to the world by and the Body by not celebrating in some way, the common source of our prospective Stream. In an increasingly pluralistic world it seems reasonable for the church to shift or grow into a more co-operative perspective. What if we could in some way band together – how much more could we do ecumenically than in isolation? As Foster described each “stream” and then detailed their strengths and weaknesses I realized more and more that we have so much to learn not just from the past, but from each other.
Lastly, Streams of Living Water brought be to a new appreciation for my own personal self growth in the contemplative stream, through persistent, intentional, quite, prayer-filled connection to God. I’ve realized more and more that the pace of ministry in the context I am currently employed/called could be potentially devastating without constant refreshment, replenishment, and regeneration of intimacy with God. Like the Desert Father Anthony, I desperately need monastic living to be an integral, integrated part of my spiritual journey. Not just for my own sanity and well being, but so that I can be the best me possible for those I get to minister to.
In contrast to other writings I’ve read as part of my Pastoral Licensing Process, I found myself mostly in agreement with the premise of the book. Rather than trying to offer a new spiritual insight or leadership lesson, Foster highlighted history and challenged my view and experience of the Church itself. I’m deeply grateful that I was privileged to read his work and am excited to read it again later in life. Through this reading I felt more deeply called and committed to Church, to my calling, and to foster my own intimacy with