Thursday, May 15, 2008

Falling Among The Charismatics: Living In A Pentecostal Reality

I haven’t really had any marked changes in my theology during the past few years, but I have had to reconsider my personal feelings and comfort level with Christians who worship and live according to a Pentecostal or charismatic expression of Christianity. Charismatic Christianity is rapidly becoming the most prevalent form of self-understanding in Protestantism today. It is the overwhelming form of Christian expression in South America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia (including China). According to some Christian prognosticators, charismatic forms of Christian belief and practice will be “normal” Christianity by 2050, and will include Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and whatever is left of the Protestant traditions. So, all of us in one way or another must decide what our personal approach will be to those who call themselves charismatic or Pentecostal, since this is most like the future of most our congregations.

In my time in Cedar Rapids, I have been a leader in building inter-denominational coalitions for serving and reaching this community. In doing this, I have become very close to many of the Pentecostal and charismatic leaders. After finishing my time at Hus Presbyterian Church, my wife and I have become regular worshippers with a local but world renowned charismatic ministry, River of Life Ministries. My close friendship with a local charismatic Methodist pastor has led me to work with him in his "prophetic" retreat ministry which helps people enter into a deeper walk with Jesus through basic spiritual disciplines. While I have never been opposed to the more “Spirit-led” expressions of Christianity, it is only recently that I have been challenged to think through my own beliefs regarding this phenomenon due to my own proximity to those who are part of it.

Therefore, I have learned that the traditional Pentecostal/charismatic groups have matured in their use of Scripture for understanding the work of the Spirit. Most charismatic denominations, such as Assemblies of God, emphasize the biblical maxim that “manifestations of the Spirit” must be for the common good of the church’s ministry of demonstrating the power and presence of Christ. Speaking in tongues is to empower prayer for not only the person praying but for the work of the whole church (which is actually a very ancient emphasis in Christian experience). Being “slain in the Spirit” (again a known occurrence in Christian experience over the ages and in many forms) is to provide for a special work of grace in a person’s life to overcome a problem or perform a special ministry. As Larry Sohn of the Assemblies of God says, “It isn’t what happens when you fall on the floor that matters. It’s what you do when you rise up and face the world.” Francis Frangipane, a major charismatic leader and good friend of mine, points out that the most important manifestation of the Spirit is not speaking in tongues or performing healings, but becoming a Christ-like person whose life bears the “fruits of the Spirit,” such as love, joy, peace, humility, and patience.

I have experienced the manifestation of God’s Spirit primarily in my giftedness as a preacher and teacher who awakens others to the adventure and excitement of following Jesus. To see people respond and discover the call of God in their lives is exhilarating to me. I have never spoken in tongues, but I have had the Spirit speak to me in visions when I particularly needed encouragement and hope. These make for interesting stories, but in each case God was enabling me or preparing me to be faithful in a challenging situation. Recently, in the Grand Canyon, God revealed more clearly than ever before my abject sinfulness and incapability to seek God in my own strength. This wasn’t through voices or visions, but through the use of the geophysical characteristics of the Canyon in the light of the Scriptures I was meditating on (and this includes one beaucoup incredible lightning storm incident).

I am usually around people who have very amazing and affirming experiences of God’s Spirit. This, I believe, is one way God speaks to His people when the Word and the Spirit are allowed to form the church community according to God’s desires. The principle, that Word and Spirit must be together, is critical in understanding the various manifestations of the Spirit; otherwise churches can become so focused on the spectacular that they even begin to “tempt” God, such as when Satan dared Jesus to throw himself down from the Temple to gain people’s allegiance. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s warning in his book, Life Together, is to be heeded.
It is, therefore, not good for us to take too seriously the many
untoward experiences we have with ourselves in meditation. It is here that
our old vanity and our illicit claims upon God may creep in by a pious
as if it were our right to have nothing but elevating and fruitful
and as if the discovery of our own inner poverty were quite
below our dignity.

Every church I have ministered in has had very trustworthy people who humbly say they have had amazing and miraculous things happen in their lives. Yet, this has never been about elevating the importance of dramatic or spectacular events, but affirming the greatest manifestation of all: the presence of the risen Christ with us His people. The most dramatic spiritual experience any of us can have is to realize that we carry “this treasure in earthen vessels,” (II Cor. 4:7) that Christ’s mission continues through us!