Engaging with charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity today – Kevin Ward

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In this article by Kevin Ward, senior lecturer at Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, Kevin discusses his realisation that re-engaging with the charismatic movement is critical for our future as a Church. Find out why.

We are all only too aware of the explosive growth of charismatic and Pentecostal churches in New Zealand and elsewhere since the 1960s, and the decline of most other forms of church since the 1960s. The 60s have been called the “expressive revolution” which lead to the significant culture changes that came to be labelled post-modernity in the 1990s. This can be seen as “the recovery of the experiential to complement the cerebral”.

Some have said “testimony is the poetry of Pentecostal experience” and a significant engagement with the charismatic movement was a critical part of my coming to faith as a young adult after leaving church in my later teenage years. It was also central in my ministry in a Baptist church. I ended up on the Board of Christian Advance Ministries, which was my introduction to ecumenical Christianity, and we developed a close relationship with neighbouring Knox Presbyterian Church Lower Hutt.

The charismatic movement itself has actually passed and, like many others – reflecting on some of the various negatives in it as well as benefits – I have moved some distance from the movement. However, over the past decade I have come to see that re-engaging with it is critical for our future as a Church – not re-capturing particular forms in which it was expressed last century, but engaging with the experiential and aesthetic dimension of faith that is the domain of the Spirit.

Part of the reason for that is the change in western culture that means younger people are more open to spirituality than older generations, as the recent McCrindle research, Faith and Belief in New Zealand confirms. But, just as strong a reason has been the dramatic rise of world Christianity, especially in the global south – African, Asian, Latin American. Christianity is now predominantly a non-Western religion and the spirit is alive and well and active within the global church, and most of it is charismatic and Pentecostal.

  • There have been particular difficulties for the Reformed tradition in engaging with this. I think a number of factors have led to this.
  • Calvin himself is a problem in his limiting the gifts of the Spirit, apart from pastors and teachers to the early period of the establishment of the Church when there was no Church.
  • Then there is the problem of the enlightenment. I remember Leonard Sweet, when visiting New Zealand, said the Presbyterian Church is the Church that is most wedded to the enlightenment.
  • There is a deep suspicion of experience and the personal, and I wonder how much this a consequence of the Scots suspicion of emotion.
  • A focus on correct doctrine, liturgy and books of order squeezing out the immediacy of the Spirit.
  • An over focus on Christology, which squeezes out the Spirit. Both are needed in balance: Christology for unity and the Spirit for creativity and diversity. It can result in a binity rather than a trinity and Christ becomes the law-giver rather than a life-giving presence.

Two theologians have been enormously helpful for me, both of whom I was introduced to while doing theological study in the 1970s. The first is Tom Smail who was a Church of Scotland minister. Tom was chased out of the Church of Scotland because of his charismatic experience (a la Andrew Irving). Tom’s reformed theology, which was inclusive of the work of the spirit in this dimension, was a Godsend for me and many others, especially in the Presbyterian Church here, where he visited more than once.

The second is Jurgen Moltmann who’s movement out to A Broad Place from the German reformed tradition though his engagement with global Christianity, including Eastern Orthodoxy, Pentecostalism and non-western Christianity, has led to him becoming the global theologian.

The movement ran into significant problems from the mid-80s into the 90s and basically petered out, although leaving much good fruit. For me, basically it moved from being an empowering and releasing of the people of God for mission, to concern about their own internal life.

  • A focus on enjoying the experience of worship.
  • John Wimber’s engagement with the Kansas City prophets and a number of what turned out to be false prophecies all around the world, which damaged people enormously.
  • Our own inner healing and the Toronto blessing.
  • And in many places a prosperity gospel.

So many, like me moved away, some throwing out the baby with the bathwater and becoming deeply cynical calling themselves post-charismatic, something I was never quite prepared to do because there had been so much good in it. Helping me as I have sought to re-engage have been the writings of James K A Smith, reminding us we are not just “brains on sticks”. Particularly an article: “Teaching a Calvinist to Dance” and Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Theology. He sees the gifts they bring to us that we need are:

  • An openness to God’s surprise – “Most Reformed folk have learned habits of worship in ways that effectively constrain the sovereignty of God by adopting highly defined and narrow expectations of the Spirit’s openness”.
  • A kind of enchanted theology of creation that sees the Spirit continually active in the world.
  • An affirmation of embodiment as seen in the emphasis on physical healing as well as the “physical” shape of charismatic worship.
  • A special place for story, narrative, and testimony in how we know.
  • A unique emphasis on eschatology and mission.

So, with all this in mind what does it mean to be charismatic today? Well, in one sense, it is to be post-charismatic because the movement of the 60s to mid-90s is over, but it is not to be a-charismatic or anti-charismatic – it means being in the “chastened” stage. I have found the idea of a second naivety that Paul Ricoeur articulated in reading the bible: a naïve reading of the biblical text gives way to a critical reading, which in turn gives way to a second naivety characterised by greater wisdom coming from this critical awareness, but still reading it as the Word of God for us today.

In this case, it will be a re-embracing of the movement characterised by great wisdom and discernment and minus the hubris and triumphalism. It will also be minus the dualism that characterised much of the charismatic movement. God works through our humanity, not bypassing it. We are not just empty conduits through which God’s spirit passes. The mind is part of that and so the complementary nature of the cerebral and experiential needs to be kept in balance. Also, a focus on only the immediacy of the charismatic can lead to a down-grading of the more ordinary means of grace. As Paul Fiddes puts it:

“Grace perfects rather than abolishes or overrides nature, working with the grain of our created human nature to glorify and serve God. Spiritual gifts happen in the realm of human intuition in response to the inspiration of the Spirit.”

And James K A Smith claims:

“It should be our aspiration that our humanity is laid open to God in every dimension, body, soul and spirit. Both cognitive and intuitive aspects of our nature are involved in this and inform and shape each other mutually.”

One of my concerns in all the missional church talk, and much of the writing, is that this dimension is missing. When Jesus said to the disciples: “As the Father has sent me so I am sending you… he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20). They were sent into God’s mission in the same way Jesus was, in the power of the Spirit: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me…..” (Luke 4).

I have found the most helpful writer on the missional church is Craig van Gelder, more latterly with Dwight Zscheille. In The Missional Church in Perspective, recognising the global trends indicated above, they write:

“These developments point toward the vibrant role of the Spirit in the missional church in cultivating a Spirit-shaped imagination. Focussing primarily on Christology in the missional conversation has tended to lead the church toward a backward-oriented vision, one that emphasises imitating what Christ has done in the past. We can lose our sense of what God is doing in the present and will do in the future. The Spirit is the primary way in which God acts in the world in the present. Living within God’s trinitarian life means the continual discernment of the Spirit’s movement. The missional church is a community led by the Spirit. It is a community that constantly looks for signs of the Spirit’s leading in its own life and in the surrounding neighbourhood. Its communal life must be pregnant with anticipation of the Spirit.”

I believe a critical question for us as we move into a very challenging period ahead is: Are we willing to be open to what God in Christ is doing through the Spirit in many parts of the world today, joining in partnership with the people in those places and also those from there who are already here with us?

7 thoughts on “Engaging with charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity today – Kevin Ward

    • I agree Adrian, and that is a part of my journey – but it is essential we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Wisdom often comes out of learning from the experiences in which we are bruised, and going back into the fray.

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  1. Hi Kevin, much like yourself, I have been on the journey of ‘rediscovering’ the Holy Spirit after the disillusionment of certain experiences of the past. I fully believe that God is calling his church back to being a Spirit-led body of people. One of the outcomes I would like to think we have learned is that being led by God’s Holy Spirit is both an individual experience and a corporate one.

    I wonder, if you have the time, would you mind exploring the connection between the individual and corporate experiences in terms of accountabilities and responsibilities please?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Pretty simple to me Gene, the spirit gives gifts for the good of the body not for the delight of the individual, so it must always be brought into the community in terms of discernment and accountability. It does come through the individual but for the sake of the community.

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