Emerging Charismatics

The latest Barna report is entitled, “Is American Christianity Turning Charismatic?” The report is made up of two different studies showing that “Pentecostal perspectives and practices has grown significantly in the past two decades.” While conversations about Pentecostalism tend to bring up images of snake-handling or Elmer-Gantry-inspired televangelists, the reality is that Pentecostal/charismatic doctrines, practices, and spirituality is spreading in the United States.

Any discussion of Pentecostalism requires definitions. What exactly is Pentecostal and charismatic? In their research, the Barna group classified a charismatic or Pentecostal as respondents who “have been filled by the Holy Spirit and believe that the charismatic gifts, such as tongues and healing, are valid and active today.”

Here is what the report revealed:

  • Half of evangelical adults (49%) fit the charismatic definition.
  • Nearly half of all adults who attend a Protestant church (46%) are charismatic.
  • One out of every four Protestant churches in the United States (23%) is a charismatic congregation.
  • Four out of every ten non-denominational churches (40%) are charismatic.
  • Almost one-quarter of all charismatics in the U.S. (22%) are Catholic.
  • 7% of Southern Baptist churches and 6% of mainline churches are charismatic.
  • Charismatic ministries are more likely than other Protestant churches to use five of the seven technological applications evaluated dispelling the myth that charismatic churches are only rural or unsophisticated.

Barna notes that the growth of Pentecostalism in the United States coincides with cultural trends. This includes the emerging generation’s lack of interest in the debates of Pentecostal doctrine from the past. Barna notes, “We are moving toward a future in which the charismatic-fundamentalist split will be an historical footnote rather than a dividing line within the body of believers. Young Christians, in particular, have little energy for the arguments that have traditionally separated charismatics and non-charismatics. Increasing numbers of people are recognizing that there are more significant arenas in which to invest their resources.” I agree. Doug Banister declared an end to the war between evangelicals and charismatics years ago in his wonderful book, The Word and Power Church (1999).

Charismatic doctrines and practices are spreading throughout evangelical churches in the United States. And yet, I find myself redefining my own faith and ministry in ways that seems less charismatic. I first began to wrestle with this in a November 2006 blog. Subsequent to this blog, I declared to my congregation that I had “packed my bags” and left the charismatic movement. The declaration was awkward and a bit over-stated, but “packing my bags” was the only metaphor that seemed to fit. I found it much more honest to define myself as a Trinitarian Christian than a charismatic Christian.

As I have reflected for more than a year on the reclassification of my Christian experience, I have come to find that I haven’t left Pentecostal/charismatic doctrine as much as I have left a Pentecostal/charismatic subculture.

A subculture can be indenified by a number of things, but I would define a Pentecostal/charismatic subculture by the following eight values: anti-intellectual, hyper-emotional, ahistorical, spiritual elitism, selective hermeneutic, pragmatic spirituality, cultural disdain, and over-realized eschatology. Here is a fuller explaination:

Values of a Pentecostal/charismatic Subculture

Charismatics typically do not value an intellectual approach to the faith. Systematic theology and scholastic methods of biblical study are ignored or viewed with suspicion. Rigorous academic training is considered unimportant for ministry training. Reason is not out-right rejected, but it is subordinate to “spiritual revelation.”

Charismatic worship typically evokes an emotional response. However within the subculture, emotional reactions become the sign of spirituality. It is assumed that a person’s connection to the Holy Spirit is measured emotionally. Frequently charismatic worship services are valued in terms of how the congregation is moved emotionally.

Pentecostal/charismatics have prided themselves for more than 100 years that they are free from the constraints of “traditionalism.” They tend to celebrate their own history within the Christian story, but do not lend value to Church history unless it reflects charismatic distinctives. There is little discussion of the creeds or the ecumenical councils.

The ugliest side of the Pentecostal/charismatic subculture is the subtle arrogance that those who are “Spirit-filled” are somehow more advanced in those spiritual journey than those who are not “Spirit-filled” (as defined by charismatics). This value prevents some charismatics from reading books from other Christian traditions or entering into to Christian community with non-charismatics.

Selective hermeneutic
Charismatics, like any Christian subculture, have their favorite Scripture verses. A good charismatic has the verses on the Holy Spirit, healing, deliverance, prophecy, spiritual gifts, blessings, and prosperity underlined or highlighted in their Bible. This obsessive highlighting causes them to overlook the verses on suffering, self-sacrifice, contentment, and hardship that are a part of the Christian life.

Pragmatic spirituality
The Pentecostal/charismatic subculture has a way of discussing life in the Spirit that is subjective, personal, and consumer-driven. The blessings of God (spiritual, physical, or material) are proclaimed for the use of the individual. You can order your own blessings through Christian television or by entering your credit card into any charismatic ministry’s website. For any size “love gift” you can receive all sorts of “ministry resources” that will (of course) bless your life.

Cultural disdain
The Pentecostal/charismatic subculture grew out of holiness revivals. The downside to this holiness background is a disdain for culture. The term “secular culture” is synonymous with “the evils of Satan.” Art, beauty, music, etc. must carry with it a Christian label, without which it is simply sinful. Such a disdain for “secular” culture isolates charismatics from the rest of the world, creating a challenge for the missional life of the Church. It also makes charismatics look weird.

Over-realized eschatology
This theological extreme includes an over-powering apocalyptic vision, triumphalism, and the like. The essential problem is that many charismatics believe that the end has already come. The power and victory that is waiting for us at the end of the world has come now and thus Christians should live “in complete victory as an overcomer.” The truth is that the kingdom has already come and yet is still coming. In other words, we do get to taste moments of “victory,” but complete victory will not be secured until Jesus returns. We have not arrived. We have a long way to go.

Rejecting these values and leaving the charismatic movement does not mean that I have lost any of the charismatic doctrinal distictives that I picked up while I was in the movement. I still pray in tongues (i.e. speak in tongues). I still believe in prophecy. I still lay hands on the sick and pray for miracles of healing. I am just no longer a living in the subculture.

I have struggled with vocabulary to describe what this is that I am moving into. It is an emerging charismatic journey of sorts. The emerging church is a conversation of like-minded Christians within evangelicalism. They are asking questions and challenging the assumptions of fundamentalists. I find the language of the emerging church to be helpful in explain what this is that I am moving into…it seems that I am becoming a emerging charismatic.