Three Streams Converge
Perhaps you have heard the term “three streams” before. Or maybe you haven’t. The term has become more and more popular over the last several years in describing a particular type of church. Some may even call “three streams” a movement. But at the very least, it is a description of a type of church that embraces the “three streams” of Christianity.
What does that mean?
About 50 years ago, a bishop and missionary named Lesslie Newbigin said that the church was “one river, three streams: Catholic, Evangelical, and Pentecostal [or Charismatic].” The image depicts the Church as one great river flowing through time, from which three particular streams have emerged. These streams are much broader than traditions or denominations.
The first is the Catholic stream: sometimes otherwise called the Sacramental or Liturgical stream. This is the church stream that places a high importance on the form and order of worship, on the meaningfulness of sacraments, especially Communion, and on the rich heritage of church tradition.
The second is the Evangelical stream. This is the church stream of the Reformers, who emphasized the importance of Scripture, of biblical preaching and teaching, of a personal faith and a relationship with Jesus Christ. There is also a major focus on mission and evangelism within the Evangelical stream.
The third is the Pentecostal, or Charismatic, stream. This is the church stream that emphasizes the person and work of the Holy Spirit in the church today. This includes the belief in miracles, healing, and the supernatural gifts of the Spirit, such as speaking in tongues and receiving prophetic words from God. There is a strong emphasis on experiencing the power of God, worship, personal ministry, and transformation.
These three descriptions are grand stereotypes of the three major segments of the Church. But the reality is that none of these three streams is limited to its own descriptors. There’s certainly a mix of these “streams” within any Christian church or denomination.
For instance, by and large Catholics certainly believe in having a personal relationship with Jesus, and many Evangelicals believe in the continuous work and gifts of the Holy Spirit, and Charismatics have the utmost value for the authority of Scripture. None of these operate in exclusion of the others.
Where the “Three Streams” movement comes in is at the intentional and purposeful inclusion of all the aspects of all three of these streams of Christianity - a true fullness of the Church.
There are some churches who flat out reject one of these streams. Cessationists reject the continuation of the supernatural gifts of the Spirit. Some mainline progressive churches have disregarded Scripture as merely inspirational literature and mythology. And there are some churches who think anything that stinks of ancient liturgy is Roman popery.
Too often, well-meaning churches get stuck in one or two of these streams; or perhaps all 3 streams are somewhat present but in an imbalanced way. Being “three streams” means being intentional in bringing these 3 aspects of the church into a convergence, into a full, mutual, and synergistic existence. Each of these three streams is fully and simultaneously expressed and experienced, and there is a richness of church’s worship, community, and mission.
So what does that look like?
Well a three-streams church would embrace Church tradition. It would utilize the ancient worship form of Word and Table that has been present in the church since the 1st century. Rather than 5 songs and a sermon, it would utilize liturgical elements such as creeds, prayers and collects, public Scripture reading, and Communion.
A three-streams church would embrace scripture as the Word of God. It would be focused on the Reformation’s scriptural truth of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. It would be intentionally missional and evangelistic, seeking to reach others with the transforming love and truth of Jesus.
A three-streams church would embrace the Holy Spirit. It would have the freedom and liberty in worship for God to move how He wants. It would emphasize personal ministry to people and an experiential encounter with God in worship. It’s far more than hand-raising or tongue-speaking, but rather an attitude of expectancy that God is present, His Spirit tangible in worship, and that he’s able to move, speak, or act at any moment.
Three-streams churches embrace the three major movements of Christianity across the ages, with the goal of integrating all the good parts of each to find that sweet spot of centrality in Christian tradition and worship.
In upcoming posts, I will address each one of the streams in more detail and how to integrate them into a three-streams church model.