Another Look: My Journey Alongside the Spirit-Filled
I have a distinctly non-Pentecostal/Charismatic/Third Wave Christian heritage. (For the sake of easier reading, these three waves of “Spirit-filled” movements will be simply called “charismatic” in the rest of the post) The steps of my ecclesiastical journey look like this:
United Methodist (before charismatic influence) — Southern Baptist — dispensationalist Bible college — traditionally mainline Baptist church in New England — Evangelical Free Church seminary — non-denominational Bible church in a fundamentalist association — non-denominational (unofficially non-charismatic) Community church — ELCA Lutheran church.
Yet, since my journey really took off in the early 70’s during the charismatically-fueled Jesus People movement, I have witnessed the second and third waves of the charismatic movement from a close vantage point. In this post, I simply want to share some of my remembrances and reflections about what I’ve seen and experienced.
It wasn’t long after my spiritual awakening in my late teens that I became aware of Christians who were emphasizing the work of the Holy Spirit and the gift of tongues. I recall one of the first Bible studies I ever taught under the tutelage of my youth pastor. A man attended who was involved in charismatic renewal in his mainline church. We were studying John, the part about Jesus’ baptism. When we read about the Spirit descending on Jesus and the voice from heaven, he asked, “Was that when Jesus was baptized in the Spirit?” Knowing full well that he had a certain understanding of what that meant, I simply said, “Yeah, I guess,” and moved on to avoid getting off on a tangent.
My youth pastor was a gifted Bible teacher, and we used to record his studies on cassette tape. One of the fellows who attended was from California, where the Jesus movement was strong. He sent some of the tapes to his friends, who listened to them and then wrote back, “He’s pretty good. Imagine how much better he would be if he had the Spirit!” When my youth pastor heard it, he replied, “I’d rather have Jesus.” He wasn’t impressed with the emphases he was seeing in the movement.
I remember a couple of occasions when I prayed in groups with charismatic friends. The first was a Teen Challenge Bible study (David Wilkerson’s organization) that was full of people who had been saved out of the drug culture. I’ll never forget that meeting, because it was the first time I literally saw people “high on Jesus.” They were seeking ecstasy and they achieved a certain level of it. I even remember one of my friend’s eyes. They were actually bloodshot and his pupils dilated as though he had smoked several joints. When prayer ended, it was like a whole room of people awoke from a trance.
On one Easter Sunday morning, our little folk music trio that sang for Jesus opened a sunrise concert for Rez Band in a park in downtown Baltimore. The prayer circle before we went on stage was so intense, I thought we were literally going to take off and hover over the city.
The Bible college I attended considered the charismatic movement unbiblical, schismatic, and dangerous. As a dispensationalist school, they argued for cessationism, though I always found their reasoning bogus. Their approach in this area was one reason I ultimately found dispensational theology wanting. It was also one of the reasons I found a group like the Evangelical Free Church more attractive. They took no firm position from a charismatic or non-charismatic perspective, and there were pastors and teachers in the EFCA who argued for various points of view. And so, I thought, when I’m ready to go to seminary, I’ll check out their school.
But first, I made a foray into ministry to get my feet wet and to dry the wetness behind my ears. The little village church we went to in southern Vermont (200 years old in 2014) had been a mainline Baptist church. Charismatic influences were springing up all around them in the late 70’s. Vermont is one of the last refuges of the hippies and other counterculture folks who fled the flatlands and moved to the hills to “get back to the land, set our souls free,” as Joni Mitchell sang. It made for an interesting mix of folks, and most of the old conservative Vermonters had little clue how to relate.
Some of these seekers came to our steepled church to hear the young pastor preach. There was also a Bible study going in a nearby town where they joined others who were seeking the Spirit. One night when I joined them, I asked a lady where she lived, and she told me she had moved up to Wilmington from Brattleboro because, seeking for guidance one day she opened her Bible and read, “Get thee up to the high mountain.” I didn’t have the heart to ask her why she hadn’t relocated to Jerusalem, since that’s what the text was talking about. Another gifted woman who was quite artistic and dramatic told me a story of her young daughter walking through the woods and encountering a deer. I can’t recall if the deer spoke to her or not, but it led her to where she was going and then bowed down before running off.
If I’m remembering correctly, it seems to me that in those days, the charismatic folks I encountered didn’t speak so much about healing but more about tongues and visions and guidance. It was about God touching their lives and making them new and then praying for God to touch their friends in the same way. It was also about “experiencing God.” Many of us in those days had sharp hunger pangs. We longed to know and touch and sense what was real and authentic. We found it in different ways. People like me found it in the study of Scripture. The Spirit illumined the pages of the Bible and made Jesus real to us. The charismatics, on the other hand, seemed to want more — a felt experience of God in prayer, visible signs of his presence, direct guidance for their lives. One thing we shared in common was music.
Those were the days when we began singing Scripture and praise choruses in addition to hymns in church. Most of the new songs were coming out of the (charismatic) Jesus People movement, and they were simple, Scripture-based if not quoted from the Bible, melodic, and heart-felt. In our congregation, we mixed old and new in worship, Bible studies, and fellowship gatherings. At least where I lived, there were no “worship wars” at that point, because no one was trying to force anything upon the whole church. We were simply including expressions of newness in the midst of the historic faith.
I did occasionally have arguments with my charismatic friends. The main point of contention was second-blessing theology. Was it essential for Christians to have a separate experience of being “baptized in the Spirit”? If they did, was this consistently marked by speaking in tongues?I always thought the wall between us might be broken down if we could agree that God is free to grant such experiences, but they are not essential to salvation or sanctification. I was not a cessationist and I was willing to grant that God could still bless us with his gifts. I was not able to agree that certain gifts were for everyone to experience in the same way and that they were necessary for a complete relationship with God.
In my studies as a young pastor I would occasionally come across material that would encourage me to think more about the place of the Spirit in my life and the Christian life in general. I read D.L Moody’s testimony of how a couple of ladies had prayed for him to receive “the power” and he did. I was challenged by A.W. Tozer’s words on how the 20th century church had rudely ignored the Holy Spirit. One of the most powerful presentations of the Holy Spirit’s work came to me through David Martyn Lloyd-Jones and his commentaries on Romans. He linked the powerful experiential work of the Spirit with assurance of salvation and revival. One contemporary popular book, Birthright: Christian, Do You Know Who You Are?, by David C. Needham, was also influential. Among other things, Needham argued (in non-charismatic terms) that the experienced presence of the Holy Spirit is fundamental to NT teaching about the Christian life. These men affected my thinking deeply. Though none of them were pentecostal or charismatic, they taught about the Spirit in such a way that made me much more open to his work in my life and ministry.
By the time I went to seminary in the 80’s, a lot of the controversy about the charismatic movement had died down. We seemed to be in a bit of a lull before the Third Wave (some prefer the term neo-charismatic movement) really hit. D.A. Carson taught a class on Corinthians that I took at TEDS and he got very little discussion when the topic of gifts and tongues came up from 1Cor. 12-14. I remembering him expressing his surprise at how quickly things had changed. In those years, he wrote a book on the subject called, Showing the Spirit. In my opinion, it remains the most thoughtful, insightful, and pastoral study of these chapters available. Carson includes a narrative of his own experiences as a pastor trying to help a church deal with growing conflicts between pro-charismatic and anti-charismatic groups in the congregation that I find exemplary.
Why did the controversies die down and things change?
Maybe one reason was because the church growth movement was encouraging charismatics to start their own congregations, and they were. Also, from my perspective, the fact that so many new leaders, teachers, and pastors were coming out of parachurch ministries that were focused on mission more than dogmatics played a great part in making these matters less contentious. Furthermore, the culture war discussions enabled Christians to agree on moral and political concerns and pushed some of these doctrinal matters to the back-burner. It seemed foolish to argue about the gift of tongues when so many babies were dying and the world was heading down a fast track to hell. I also think that evangelicalism’s embrace of contemporary music and emotive worship diminished some of the special attractiveness of charismatic emphases for many seeking a more experiential Christianity.
In my experience then, over the past 20 years or so, I have relatively little interaction with charismatics where we’ve talked about these things. We seem to live in largely different worlds now. I have friends in Vineyard and Assembly of God churches, I have appreciated some of the music from reformed charismatic circles, I appreciate charismatic Biblical scholars like Craig Keener and Gordon Fee. But charismatic doctrine and practice has not been an issue in any of our churches or in my personal relationships for a long, long time. The public problems and excesses of contemporary neo-charismatic theology and practice that Michael wrote about in this piece, some of which are even more apparent than when he posted that article, remain troubling to me, hence my own critique and opinion post.
It’s been a long and strange journey alongside my Spirit-filled friends. Given the fact that studies show one in four Christians around the world report themselves to be charismatic Christians, and that pentecostalism is one of the most rapidly growing forms of Christian faith, especially in the global south and east, our journey together is not yet over.