I have been a Charismatic believer immersed in charismatic church culture beliefs, value systems, leadership modalities, and worship expressions for forty years. For thirty-five of those years I was a worship leader and “pastor” in a variety of charismatic constructs. Our train has jumped the track, there are fatalities all around, and prominent charismatic leaders seem to want to keep tooting the whistle and playing engineer. The carnage must stop.
I do not like the term “charismatic.” For me it has come to carry too much musty baggage of negative associations, assumptions, and stereotypes. For too many people, and for too many good reasons, the public face of things “charismatic” has become synonymous with:
- Controlling authoritarianism
- Shoddy scholarship, anti-intellectualism
- A love of money
- A love of power, fame, notoriety
- Rabid subjectivity
- Leadership privilege and immunity from criticism and evaluation
- A lack of a disciplined commitment to scripture
- Sycophantic followers, blind obedience
- Triumphalism, a lack of a theology of suffering
- Psychic manipulation
- Fraudulent “miracles”
- Shameless unaccountability for personal behavior
- Shamelessly extravagant lifestyles
- Worship and veneration of leadership
- Frenetic emotionalism
- Sexual promiscuity and judgmentalism toward others for the same
- Uncrucified ego on steroids
- Empire-building, nationalism, right-wing politics
- Christian Zionism
I have written about these things, and more, in my other books and in other articles on this blog. Beyond the confession of “Jesus is Lord, risen from the dead,” I have very little in common, in either belief or practice, with the public face of many things charismatic today. However, since there is no other widely recognized word to describe those who believe that all the gifts or the Spirit and all the ministries of Ephesians 4:11-13 function until the end of the age, I will, with a sigh, reluctantly self-identify as such.
This mini biographical disclaimer is necessary for three reasons. First, what I am about to say comes from the perspective of an experienced insider, not an uninitiated critic with a theory. Secondly, some may attempt to dismiss what I say, thinking I am just a grumpy, old, embittered, intellectual, rationalist, theologian who just doesn’t get “the anointing,” or the “realm of the Spirit.” On the contrary, I have seen the best and the worst that charismatic expressions have to offer. I “get it.”
If I had to validate my credentials in the “things of the Spirit” by carnally boasting like Paul to the Corinthians, I could hold my own in the “manifest presence of the Lord,” “signs and wonders,” “third heaven,” “mystical and supernatural experiences” category. The New Testament is demure about such things. Jesus would frequently admonish those to whom something supernatural happened to say nothing and tell no one, but to “go and do what Moses says.” In other words: “Keep quiet about the supernatural stuff and just go obey (under the terms of their covenant) like you know you should.”
In charismatic-world we set up a cottage industry for these things, write a book about our supernatural experiences, market them, franchise them, commoditize them, and display them like chevrons on our spiritual shoulders. Like Mary, our Lord’s mother, who experienced the supernatural experience of all experiences, I prefer to hold these things in my heart rather than build a resume with them, merchandise them in social media, and build schools around my persona, gift, and supernatural experiences. I refuse to sell my soul and purchase charismatic cultural credibility by boasting of supernatural things.
Finally, it pains me to watch my own heritage drift further and further into Gnostic and New Age beliefs and practices, seemingly indifferent to the drift–unwilling or unable to recognize the ditch they are in. It is like watching someone you love decline into spiritual Alzheimer’s. It is not easy to say that your loved one is out of his or her mind. Much of what is considered normative today in charismatic cultures has drifted into unsound beliefs and practices that pander to an addictive and co-dependent need in people to be stimulated and entertained.
How Did We Get Here?
The beliefs and practices in charismatic churches did not develop in a vacuum. They have roots in the Latter Rain Movement of 1948. The influence of the Latter Rain Movement is orders of magnitude greater than the significance of its profile in a typical history of revival movements. Its influence stretches around the world, even into the beliefs and practices of non-charismatic Evangelical churches, especially regarding praise and worship practices. Most mainline Christian church histories wouldn’t even mention it. That is misleading and reflects several biases, not the least of which is an anti-charismatic one.
The Latter Rain Movement began in 1948 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan. It was considered by adherents to be the great last day move of God that would precede His return, fulfilling typology associated with the Feast of Tabernacles. It was strongly anti-organizational, anti-denominational, and anti-intellectual. Its leaders believed that previous revival movements were ruined when organizational structure and scholarship were “imposed on the river of God’s Spirit by the hand of man.” Any motion toward formal organization, planning, structure, or education was viewed as the “calcification of the Spirit” at the hands of man. The visceral reactions to these things contributed to the movement not being easily recognizable as a historical “entity.”
The movement ultimately succumbed to the inexorable pressure on all recovery movements to franchise itself through a non-denominational structure. The result was often more sectarian and elitist in spirit than the denominations it opposed! Thinking your generation is the generation chosen by God to usher in His return by working miracles and doing wonders as the final act of the age is an intoxicating, and deluding, proposition.
Exceptional (and in my opinion, mostly legitimate) supernatural manifestations characterized the movement in its beginnings. Doctrinal emphases included, personal prophecy, the laying on of hands, the alleged restoration of David’s Tabernacle and Davidic/Psalmic expressions of praise and worship: spontaneous “free praise,” song of the Lord, singing “in the Spirit,” impartation of gifts through the laying on of hands, prophetic presbytery, the restoration of the Ephesian 4 ministries of apostles and prophets, and so forth.
It was during the Latter Rain Movement that the song service portion of a meeting took on as significant a dimension as the preaching. What had previously been limited to a few hymns, sung with gusto, became 45 to 60 minutes or longer of singing mostly simple and repetitive choruses. A core conviction of the movement was associating God’s manifest presence directly to the song service, based on a proof text from Psalms 22:3: God inhabits the praises of His people.
Corporate gatherings became centered on subjectively experiencing the presence of the Lord. The ministry of preaching was still prominent and often rich, but the real business was engaging the presence of God before and after the preaching, through prolonged times of praise and worship. This remains the explicit expectation of many corporate assemblies in restorationist or Charismatic churches to this day. Well-intentioned or not, it sets up a culture of expectation of sensory experience where the difference between a manifestation of God’s presence and an increase of endorphines in our blood stream is lost.
I have known scores of individuals whose kingdom existence centered entirely around having a subjective sensory experience on a weekly basis. They could not function in church, or in life, without it. They openly confessed to me things like: “I just can’t make it without a touch from His presence,” as if this was a spiritual virtue, a higher form of spirituality, or a manifestation of spiritual hunger. It’s not. By definition it is addictive and narcissistic behavior. Jesus becomes our heavenly therapist obliged to meet our psychological and emotional needs if we just sing the right song long enough or loud enough until something happens to me or for me. It’s psychic codependency based on a woeful lack of understanding of the change that has taken place from the Old to the New Covenant. Here’s an example of how bad it can get.
I once visited a fellowship with strong Latter Rain/Charismatic/Apostolic Prophetic leanings. I endured an agonizing, marathon, two-hour song service of the alleged “song of the Lord” and “free praise.” It was torturous and dead, albeit sincerely so. I also noted that there was a lot of gray hair in the room. The median age was fifty-plus (roughly my generation or older).
During our lunch and fellowship time I very gently mentioned the fact that it was apparent that they had not seen a new young convert in some time. I asked them to explain that to me, in the sense of how were they so devoted to “Davidic worship and God’s manifest presence” yet no one under fifty-years-old was present. One of the elders of the fellowship responded to me this way:
“Oh no, we don’t want any unbelievers in the service, because their presence will ruin the anointing. We are pursing a relationship with God in the Holy of Holies and there can be no sinners there.”
That, my friends, is deeper-life, “restored Davidic worship,” crazy Charismaticdom gone to seed. It is institutionalized narcissism. Seeing a congregation of mostly fifty-plus year-olds, who did not fall off the turnip truck yesterday, singing songs with themselves and their needs at the center for two hours, is not exactly a pleasant sight any more than seeing a fifty year-old man in diapers is something you would enjoy. For my crime of daring to ask the obvious of the leadership, I was cut off and never spoken to again by anyone in that fellowship.
Its time for anyone who has been in the kingdom for more than ten years, to grow out of infantile narcissism encoded in song, practiced in worship services, and enforced by leadership authoritarianism. Our first love for Christ should be pure, current, and innocent, but not infantile.
This example may seem extreme, but it is NOT isolated. (I have written extensively elsewhere on the problems with so called “restored Davidic” worship: http://www.stevecrosby.com/Praise-Worship-Presence-New-Covenant-p/pwpsc.htm.)
In some cases the Baby-boom generation of hippie converts of the 60’s and 70’s were lead and mentored by people who were heavily influenced by the Latter Rain Movement. Those converts are now my age and in positions of senior leadership and influence within the Charismatic church. We brought with us certain emphases and philosophies reflected in our psychology, beliefs, and music.
In the early days of the Jesus Movement I can remember hearing (not totally tongue-in-cheek): “I used to get high on drugs, now I get high on Jesus.” In terms of the language and rapture of naïve new love, it is understandable, and should not be judged too harshly as such. The incarnation of Christ is the eternal example of meeting people on the grounds of their condition. However, doing so validates neither the condition nor the values sustaining it.
It was fundamentally a subjective, interior, and experiential dynamic and language. Fill me, touch me, meet me, cover me, wash me, heal me, bless me, I need, I want, I desire, I need more, etc., was the language of deep devotion and intimacy, not so much theological as psychological and experiential. It was the language of newborn babies in love. They had been found and set free from the brokenness, nihilism, and relational alienation of the culture of their time. An identity-less, purposeless, spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically orphaned, addicted, and codependent generation came into Christ’s kingdom longing for love, acceptance, and a reality outside of their parents’ materialistic pursuits and the soul-barrenness of western empiricist rationalism.
In Christ in God, they found home at last, and they were passionate about Him. The generation of free love had discovered True Love, and they sang about it the only way they knew how: through the prism of their own brokenness and need. The sound of new love will always be—the sound of new love. It’s pure. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it is obviously individualistic, sensory, stimulative, and me-centered: appropriate for babies. Not so much in adults.
As that generation has assumed leadership and authority, they have brought with them the theology and practices that were so vital to them in their youth, not realizing that the theology was questionable to begin with, and the vitality has long departed. What remains are outdated and empty spiritual mechanics and techniques designed to keep the spiritually addicted masses fulfilled, attending, and giving. The corporate service now provides the same sort of psychic “fix” formerly provided to broken people by drugs or other addictive behaviors. Transformation into the image of Christ is the center of the New Covenant gospel message, not an alleged need for a “touch from the presence of the Lord” week after week, after week. What God may do in us and for us, must have a corresponding output toward others, or that which is intended beneficially for purpose, becomes fetid, mind-numbing, self-absorption.
The Manifest Presence of God
There are only six verses in the New Testament that mention the “presence of the Lord.” None of them have anything to do with praise and worship or what happens in a corporate gathering. They are:
- Acts 3:19 – associated with repentance and conversion.
- 1 Cor. 1:29 – walking before His face; God observing us.
- 1 Thess. 2:19 – His presence at His return.
- 2 Thess. 1:9 – His presence at His return.
- 9:24 – the presence of God in heaven.
- Jude 24 – the presence of God in heaven.
That is the entire New Testament record on the subject. How have we made so much out of so little? We have done so through selective use of poorly-exegeted old covenant proof texts from the Psalms that feed an addictive need in broken people. I find it hard to understand how people who claim to have direct encounters with the presence of the Almighty, the Spirit of the resurrected God-Man, multiple times a week, can have so little of the aroma of Jesus on their lives.
Charismatic/Apostolic-Prophetic churches are some of the most relationally fragmented, relationally alienated, relationally hostile, unsafe places on the planet: split, after split, after split. How can this be? Something is not as it should be. Both the theology and practices surrounding the presence of the Lord in charismatic churches need a thorough, New Covenant, update.
What About Subjective Experiences?
I am not saying that the Lord never subjectively speaks to us or never does unusual or supernatural things. Nay, Nay. He does. It is the privilege and the norm of those who are His to really hear His voice. While I believe God still subjectively speaks, I believe He is speaking far less then people presume, and when He does, He speaks in, through, and by the Son, as Jesus was the last word of God to humanity. Any subsequent subjective impression must be on the frequency of the Son of God, not merely the subjective affirmations of what I want to hear or already believe. What He may “speak” to us is meant for private consumption and benefit, not for export as dogma. Running around constantly saying: “God told me, God told me, God told me, is more about insecurity and need for ego validation than anything spiritually advanced.
Neither am I saying that we are prohibited from enjoying transcendent supernatural experiences. God forbid! I enjoy subjective encounters and experiences as much as anyone else! I sing, praise, worship, and I have been known to dance, run, jump, and shout. I just do not assign significance to these things! My liberties are not another’s requirement. They are not a metric of spirituality or maturity. I do not build with them or for them. They are not the centerpiece of my faith, nor what motivates me. They are enjoyable attendant features of serving the Lord, but never the main course. There is only one star, one spotlight on the kingdom stage. It is Jesus Christ and Him crucified, not supernatural manifestations, signs, and wonders.
I am saying that our subjective experiences are not dogmatic. They do not carry the weight or authority of scripture properly exegeted. They are not suitable material for building the foundations of a sound life in Christ. We do not project our experiences onto others requiring conformity to them. We do not measure others by them. We do not present them to others as a form of higher spirituality to which they should attain.
The cruciform life of love and service to others is enough to keep us all busy all the days of our lives if we should ever really get serious about it. We just don’t want to because it isn’t “flashy” and the simple cruciform life won’t “keep ’em comin,” “keep ’em happy,” “keep ’em entertained,” and “keep ’em giving.”
Individual supernatural experiences are like gas for our tank: they help keep us fueled for the trip. However, gas is meant to be kept in the tank, not poured around the neighborhood and ignited.
 Jesus’ admonition concerning becoming as a little child has nothing to do with infantile emotional qualities or eternal juvenility. It has to do with being guileless, innocent, truthful, unassuming, without agenda and adult pretentiousness associated with significance and rank. Children have a way of “telling it like it is” because they have not yet been conditioned into socially acceptable codes of conduct.
 2 Cor. 3:18, and others.
 Hebrews 1:1
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