Why I’m still a Charismatic…
The Experience of the Charismatic Church
I joined the charismatic church in 1989 after a life-transforming encounter with God when I was, what we call, ‘filled with the Spirit’. In the years before that, as a late-teen, I was cool towards church and by the time I left university, I had become positively anti most evangelical Christians. Fifteen months after being filled with the Spirit I was married to a vicar and my life turned on its head.
Before that I had known some great Christians in my 23 years and I loved and respected my Christian family members. I also loved the Catholics that I worked with in a day centre for the homeless. They were authentic, radical, and fun, but then so were some charismatic Christians that I met in my 20’s and in the end it was the charismatics and the Spirit who won me. Their belief in the power of God to bring about healing and change and new life seemed real and hopeful – and it was.
I’ve never really understood why all Christians aren’t charismatics, at least in theory. It simply means that we believe that God shapes his church by the power of the Spirit, moves supernaturally among us, and gives gifts to the church to give away.
I do understand why the practices put people off. Praying for healing is fraught with pastoral difficulties. How do people dare to prophesy, imagining they hear the voice of God? In addition to that the actual prophecies can be empty, nutty, or worse, manipulative and dangerous. Our style of worship can be repetitive and boring, our teaching anecdotal and shallow, our emphasis on signs and wonders over everything else, childish, the infatuation with Christian ‘magic’ silly, and speaking in tongues sounds weird. There’s no doubt, aligning yourself with the charismatic church can be acutely frustrating and embarrassing sometimes.
So I get that the charismatic church is messy, and can be off putting. That’s why I love 1 Corinthians. Just when you think Paul should have just shut the crazy Corinthian charismaniacs down, he tells them to ‘Eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy’! He was brave. I take heart from that.
But in addition to this early example of Paul releasing a church into spiritual gifts, as long as the practices are drenched with loving Christ-like behaviour, there isn’t a good theological reason not to be a charismatic. Even having studied theology for years and years and having gained a doctorate in systematic theology, I haven’t come across anything that would dissuade me from the reality of life in the Spirit. In fact, I’ve found more and more to convince me that a strong pneumatology (theology of the Spirit) is the key to understanding the nature of God and how he works in the world. So I began by being experientially committed to a practically charismatic life and church. I am now theologically committed to the same. I don’t find it particularly complicated.
I also see wonderful things alongside the embarrassing and the frustrating. In amongst the mess, I see people working tirelessly for justice, giving sacrificially, being real, and loving people, and offering hope. The sung worship at times can be amazing, the talks at times profound, the prophesies at times life-changing, and people really are sometimes healed. These are good.
‘Charismatic Discipleship’: Does it Work?
In all of this, one of the things I ponder on regularly is whether we’re any good at discipleship. By that I mean, are we good at encouraging one another in what Eugene Peterson calls ‘a long obedience in the same direction’? Does our theology and practice in the charismatic church help or hinder that? Well, in line with the good and the not so good, I’d say that some things help and some things hinder.
- A Real Relationship
Charismatics believe in a dynamic relationship with God. I guess, for me, that’s the heart of a charismatic theology and practice. In Romans, Paul talks about the Holy Spirit as the one who ‘sheds abroad the love of God in our hearts’. (Rom 5:5). We teach that this is a real experience. In Romans 8, Paul describes life in the Spirit as the knowledge of an intimate relationship with God as Father, that liberates us from the enslavement to our fears, and convinces us that we are God’s beloved children (Rom 8:14-17).
Human beings only really flourish when they know deep down that they are loved. Isolation as well as rejection are two of the worst conditions for humans because we are made for love and relationship. Unconditional and lavish love is the best, and charismatics believe that God can show us this love in a way that it is possible even to feel it. Obedience to God will never last unless it’s rooted in love, for him, and for all his ways, so this is good.
It’s not just knowing God’s love deep down though, it’s the idea that men, women, and children can enter into a real, conversational, and dynamic relationship with the one who created them, knows them, and wants the best for them. That is so attractive. Charismatics know that God speaks, and that when he speaks, good things happen. We’re good at knowing, teaching, and living this, so that’s a big plus for the foundations of discipleship.
- Expecting change
I think that most of us feel overwhelmed by the world’s problems. It’s enough to deal with our own and our family’s problems let alone terrorism, unemployment, war, addiction, crime, disease, homelessness, abuse, etc. etc. I’m always astonished and deeply moved by how resilient human beings are in the face of horror, and this seems regardless of whether they have a faith or not. Sometimes humans are just extraordinarily strong. All Christians should carry a hope that good will triumph over evil in the end, because that is the promise of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection.
But charismatics share stories all the time about change here and now, about how when God gets involved, people locked in conflict are able to forgive each other, bodies are healed of life-threatening or debilitating conditions, families are reconciled. Hope stirs. Charismatics expect God to change things around them and through them for the better. Sometimes this takes much longer and is more painful that you would know from what we teach or would wish, but I love the hope of concrete and visible newness that characterizes a charismatic worldview. Hope for restoration, new life, and healing infuses the New Testament and I couldn’t imagine a church that didn’t expect God to be willing and able to change the worst of situations.
- A taste for the unexpected and the unpredictable
Some Christians behave as if being a Christian is all about ‘doing’ the right thing. Others behave as if it’s like getting an admission ticket for heaven for when you eventually get there. Lucky for you if you have one, bad luck if you don’t. Charismatics generally believe that being a Christian is like being enlisted for a great big adventure in the Kingdom of God, which starts now.
A joyless obedience is just crushing. I always think that there are a few people who are maybe just wired to do what they are told, but most of us don’t flourish in situations like that. We like to be given responsibilities, brought in on the plan, be involved in projects where our presence matters. I love the fact that charismatics think that joining in with God in what he’s doing is possible, life-giving, fun, unpredictable, and adventurous. This ties in with my first two observations: hearing the voice of God, knowing that you’re loved, and believing in change. I couldn’t possibly have stayed for so long without all of these. On top of this, the spiritual gifts are just tools for the task.
I’m sure that all these aspects of our theology and practice help us in our discipleship. They’re positive and life-giving theological ideas that underpin why anyone might join a charismatic church, and why they might stay—even for the long haul. But what about the things we do that don’t help each other to hang in there and to walk the long obedience in the same direction? Not surprisingly, they’re the weak flip sides of the good things.
- Too` much emphasis on feeling and results
Charismatics love the immediate, the emotions, and the stories. They love the results—the testimonies of ‘This is real!’ If this dominates our life with God and our lives together, what do we do when this all dries up? What happens when we feel numb, sometimes for months, or years, on end, or when we don’t have the stories, or when our disappointments are so acute that we can’t bear to hear another story of someone else’s victory? Thankfully, many teachers and pastors are becoming sensitive to this, and the tide is turning in some places to accommodate pain, disappointment, and struggle, even in the midst of other joys. At our college, we deliberately teach on the importance of ‘lament’ and the power of expressing our disappointment and pain to God.
We have to learn not to give simplistic answers to complex problems. There is much about the message of God’s love in Christ which is disarmingly simple (anyone should be able to understand it), but learning to navigate this real life in the light of the Christian truths that we find in Scripture is often stretching and bewildering. We need the help of loving friends, Bible scholars, theologians, and saints past and present to do this well.
- Lack of study and application to learning
I was a teenager in the US, and our Jewish friends had all attended Hebrew school throughout their primary/elementary years in preparation for their Bar and Bat Mitzvah. I have no idea what they ‘learned’ at Hebrew school, but I remember being aware that we had nothing like it. When I worked with my Catholic friends, there was a culture of study and learning among them. They were thoughtful and reflective, and read theology. My own kids attended Sunday School and kids’ church for years and didn’t really get that much help in what hit them at real school with a bombardment of skeptical questions about the Christian faith. We, as parents, helped them talk this all through, gave them books to read, other people’s talks to listen to, and encouraged them to explore a whole range of answers.
Charismatics are historically and culturally suspicious of the ‘intellectualizing’ of the faith. I’ve known very bright people or people well educated in other areas who seem to think it’s okay just to switch your brain off when it comes to God. Why? The Bible is full of references to the transformation of the mind and the gaining of knowledge, as well as the heart and wisdom. I don’t know anyone who has a lot of knowledge of the Scriptures and of the Christian faith who hasn’t diligently applied themselves to learning. And often it is the learning that has given them wisdom.
I have found nothing quite like studying theology: studying and exploring and talking about the nature of God, taking time to look at passages of Scripture, and learning from others about what they mean. I remember vividly meeting a worship leader in the charismatic church who had started studying theology saying to me, ‘I just thought, why has no-one told me about this!’ He loved it. Why would you not love learning about the person you love most?
So we’re good at some things, not so good at others, and this is why I do what I do.
One of the reasons, among countless others, that I love working at WTC is that we bring these things together. It’s so rewarding. Many theological institutions are indifferent to, or even skeptical of, a charismatic worldview—is it too primitive, not sophisticated enough? Who knows? Many charismatics are suspicious of theological institutions. ‘Aren’t you worried studying theology will destroy your faith?’ We bridge the gap. In many ways, we have the best of both worlds.
There’s a lot that is right and good about charismatic theology for Christian discipleship. We have some strange practices, and we have put the emphases in the wrong places very often, but taking the good in charismatic discipleship and combining it with theological learning and depth is an exciting partnership, and a pretty good formula for an interesting and intriguing long walk.
For an updated look at Charismatic Christians facing the Coronavirus crisis, see HERE.