The Confessions of a Post-Charismatic Christian

Over a decade ago, on the cusp of my teenage years, I plunged myself head first into what I later came to know as the Charismatic Movement (CM.) I had been attending a Pentecostal church all my life but returning to my motherland after spending a good deal of my childhood in the UK reignited my interest in the Christian faith. I remember the first church service we attended in an unfinished church building in my parents’ hometown. I was struck by the freedom of expression in the service, particularly the lively music and dancing. It was so good, so infectious, I found my body beginning to rhythmically jerk and before I knew it I was dancing. I hadn’t danced in church for so long and in that moment everything felt just right about what it. Living in the West the expression of faith is politely stifled but here in Ghana you are given the utmost freedom. In some sense you’re even expected to display it. In the Ghanaian religious furnace my passion for Christian faith had been reignited and I abandoned myself to the Pentecostal flames.

I remember attending a church camp in that early period of rediscovery that introduced me to the experience of the Holy Spirit. As cliché as it might sound I learnt about and experienced the baptism and gifts of the Spirit in the meeting for designated those things. It was a profound experience for me. It was a bit weird and esoteric yet existentially satisfying, representing vividly in a strangely alluring manner a valid biblical aspect of the Christian experience. Looking back, that was the decisive moment which sucked me into contemporary Charismatism or at least the Ghanaian expression of it. From this bright, dewy eyed beginning, I write here today a few hours after sitting in a thoroughly Pentecostal service that I failed to enjoy.

I wish I could say that was a rare occurrence. At least today I almost liked it. On most days I just go through the motions, stoically unconvinced that I should be emotionally invested in whatever is going on. The strange thing is I do not really have anything against the church I attend. I have been attending it for most of my life. By and large they are a good community, genuinely interested in God and people. Whatever things I may disagree with them I feel no need to express, after all they are not peculiar to them anyway. My fairly recent charismatic ennui originates from something that happened almost two years ago. It was my catastrophic exit from a campus fellowship I had been involved in for almost a decade.

I formed the small campus fellowship with a couple of my friends and in those early days it seemed all my dreams had come true. Reflecting on those early years they were actually good. Coming from a Pentecostal background there was, and still is, a strong restorationist streak in me. I sincerely believed the entire narrative that until a believer or church had been soaked in the quintessential Pentecostal baptism experience, their Christianity was dry and barren. Only the charismatic spirit could bring genuine joyous productivity in all areas of life. One thing restorationists forget is that the early church, like every church since, had its issues. As the years wore on disillusionment set in as everything the group began with and aspired to be turned into a cruel self-parody. Something that was supposed to be exceptional yet ultimately normative became stereotypically bad. I guess this is representative of the global Pentecostal/Charismatic movement (CM) in general. We were supposed to be “it.” We were be to what the Christian church was supposed to be, a true return to the book of Acts, initiating the global end time evangelistic harvest that upon its conclusion would immediately usher in Christ’s return. After a 100 hundred years it has delivered in some ways but with respect to all that it promised, you can’t help but wonder.

In the period that inevitably led to a mass exodus from a small fellowship, dissatisfaction had sufficiently set in and I was seeking answers beyond what that particular brand of Charismatism could possibly offer. I was watching an interview of R.T. Kendall by John Paul Jackson. The late John Paul was someone I really admired. Though I didn’t always agree with him his care and attention to teaching the scriptures was exemplary among the charismatic neo-prophetic movement. Though he moved in genuinely supernatural giftings he had the mind of a scholar. I have even written on that unique mix which is the reason I look up to someone like him or a John Wimber. Up to that point I had never heard of Dr Kendall but what he said stuck with me. [1]He talked about a presentation he delivered in the early 90s where he critiqued the CM. After Azusa Street, the Latter Rain, and countless prophecies of being a chosen generation, he asked, is this really it? Is this truly the best the CM has to offer? Is this really what God had promised? He then made the profound analogy, the CM thought it was Isaac, the promised child of the Spirit, but in reality it is Ishmael. Mind you R.T. Kendall is no stranger or distant critic. He is a prominent figure, a former pastor of Westminster chapel, who is also heavily involved in the CM, even in the more controversial elements. Yet even he has noticed that not all is right.

Part of the reason why I started this blog was to create a platform for the internal critique of the CM which I have mentioned several times is severely lacking. Of course I do understand it is a natural human reaction to get defensive when you perceive you are under attack. However, in the CM we are way too defensive, to the point we can’t imagine that there could possibly be something lacking with us. Now I have not totally renounced the CM nor do I consider myself “hurt” by it. I was hurt by the group I was in. Like many others who left along with me, we had literally invested our lives into it and they swindled us. I am careful not to over generalize my particularly experiences to the whole fantastically diverse movement, even though I am fully aware the problems I saw were in no way unique. I am not bitter about Charismatism but I confess I am a bit cynical, probably more so than I would care to admit. So when I am not able to enjoy a perfectly enjoyable moment in church, it is my decorous generalised disdain that is at work. I had an awkward breakup with normative Pentecostal/Charismatic practices and the best reason I could come up with was, “It’s not you, it’s me.”

I used to believe that a church is not truly spiritually alive until it moves at a frenetic pace and is dramatically emotive. The irony is through my subsequent experiences and a better understanding of the scriptures I have realised that such expressionism could equally be spiritually barren. Lips may honour while you genuinely believe your distant heart is near the Lord. This constant distrust of the veneer of CM practices among other things and my preoccupation with the core reasons of why we do what we do, has put me in charismatic limbo. Though I  consider myself a charismatic, I am coolly detached from what we might call orthodox expressions of it in my local context. I am not throwing the baby out with the bath water but I am very suspicious of the bath.

I reflected on my odd posture in relation to the CM and wondered how best to describe myself. If not anything, my Charismatism for the last two years has been marked by a hermeneutic of suspicion. Post-charismatic is in my estimation the best way to describe myself. Just like postmodernism it is not really a defined position but a mood. This orientation does come with the danger of collapsing into wanton scepticism. I do not want to be like Chesterton’s description of the modern sceptic who rebels against everything and therefore is utterly useless for meaningful change. I want to walk the fine line between cavalier dismissiveness versus uncritical acceptance. I want to be involved but wary and very circumspect about Charismatism, not being afraid to ask the questions that need to be asked.

For some strange reason I thought I was relatively alone in my sentiments. I should have known better and not have pulled an Elijah. In doing research for this post I was pleasantly surprised to discovered people like [2]Kendall who I previously mentioned, [3]Robby McAlpine and [4]Andrew Perriman, were already using the term ‘post-charismatic,’ some of them in ways quite similar to how I do. These things reinforced my conviction that in spite of its flaws, the global Pentecostal/Charismatic movement is truly a much needed move of God. If this thing belongs to the Lord, I can have confidence that he is at work to bring reform where it is needed. Though we are a minority, I have encountered various peoples who wonder about what is going on and these questions need to be encouraged and addressed. Unless we are open and honest with our shortcomings we cannot change.

One area of change I think the CM needs is humility. Pentecostalism was supposed to usher the church into a post denominational age. They thought their approach and would be met with enthusiasm only to discover a lot of suspicion and sometimes outright rejection, so some of them formed their own congregations. In an attempt to not succumb to denominationalism they became like any other denomination. I think one of the problems to begin with was the idea of exceptionalism, that somehow what they were doing was totally unique. Those notions are still very much present today, sometimes sneering at other churches as lifeless and unspiritual. It is true that Pentecostalism is an unprecedented phenomenon in church and world history. However, we should not think that somehow it all depends on us therefore we are right and everyone who does not do things like us is wrong. It is a move of God and has nothing to do with our brilliance or lack of it. It is certainly not a repudiation of every other church tradition. After all we did come from somewhere and did not emerge in an ecclesial and theological vacuum.

Other denominations do have their short comings, as we manifestly do as well, but there are many things we can learn from them. For instance much of the Christian scholarship I have encountered is from Evangelicals and it has been very helpful in reforming my view of the charismatic. I have learnt that at least doctrinally speaking Pentecostalism is very similar to Evangelicalism, except the latter has the addition of a more developed experience and theology of the Spirit. We have a fair bit in common which presents an opportunity to learn from each other, even where we differ. We are not as special as we think we are and we should not isolate ourselves from the larger church fraternity. We cannot have the kind of influence and impact we want to have if we are aloof and consider ourselves so superior that we are above scrutiny.


In diagnosing my own charismatic apathy, wondering why I just wanted excited anymore even though arguably had good reason to be, I realised the issue wasn’t cerebral. I like to think I take a more measured approach to Charismatism due to cool, clinically detached, rational analysis of the CM through the lens of scripture. To be sure there is that academic component to it but it barely tells half the story. Over the last two or three weeks, meditating on what makes us human no less, I have recognised more and more the Western Enlightenment ideal that humans are thinking machines, given the right information they will always make the rational choice, is just not true. Various disciplines from neuroscience to anthropology and recent global events show how untrue this is. Emotions play a more leading role in our behaviour that modern man would dare confess. [5]One psychologist suggested we cannot actually reason properly without emotion. In most things we tend to feel first than rationalize later. Looking back I realise the reason why I am in my current state, why I decided to reassess my entire worldview was actually a change in my emotional disposition.

The romance of my journey in Charismatism had waned and I no longer found it existentially robust or satisfying. Once you get to that stage the questions and doubts naturally start gushing forth. Pentecostals criticised their denominational peers for being wooden and unresponsive to the Spirit. Yes, in many respects that was a valid assessment yet it wasn’t a full account of why they behaved that way. It isn’t that they denied their emotions, as if it is humanly possible to do that, but rather they chose to express certain emotions. There are also cultural factors involved (e.g. Africans are far more expressive of their religion than Europeans) but the sombreness of the liturgy of older churches is not the same as antipathy. I have come to appreciate that too is a legitimate posture of worship. The overt emotionalism in the CM is often mistaken for joy or sincere participation. However, excitement is only one aspect of the emotional spectrum and though it is good to have, it has its appropriate time and place.

Sometimes I am in the midst of a very loud, emotional worship session, people babbling away in tongues, some on the floor, and I just wish for a moment of quiet, to take in the awesomeness of the moment that God is real and he cares, without the distraction of “spiritual gymnastics. Like many people I used to pray in tongues all the time but it got to a point where I realised I was using it as a substitute for real communication with God. Sometimes you need to say the words and be confronted with the reality of what you want and what it says about who you are as you bring your petition before the Ruler of all Creation in quiet solitude.

Perhaps, the greatest deficit of the CM is not theological but rather emotional. I believe great change can happen if the CM gains emotional width, to learn to be ecstatic and not get carried with it and also know when to be austere and reflective. We also need to know how to be vulnerable and introspective, not being so defensive and reactionary all the time. Like with any people group, if they are not in a place emotionally to consider certain things, no matter how well you reason it out, it will be hard for them to accept it. It is a lesson to people like myself who are both apologists and critics of the movement. We need to know we are dealing with people, God’s people, and act with prudence and sensitivity, as we pray, study, teach and share, looking to God to make his church in his image and likeness.

 

[1] R.T. Kendall, Charles Carrin, Jack Taylor, Word, Spirit, Power: What happens when you seek all what God has to offer, p. 46-69, Chosen Books , 2012. Kendall expands that presentation into chapter 3 of this book.

[2] Ibid. p. 20.

[3] Robby McAlpine, Post Charismatic 2.0: Rekindling the Smoldering Wick, David C. Cook, 2013.

[4]  http://www.postost.net/2014/05/how-might-post-charismatic-missional-church-rediscover-gifts-spirit, 2217h, 28/05/14.

[5] http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2012/05/orthodox-alexithymia.html, 2116h, 16/05/12.

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