Life Is Not Just Moments

Today I’ll close out mHertwecky recent series on the need for reform in youth ministry with a corollary to my last entry.  Beyond the need for smallness is the reality of authenticity, immediacy, and consistency.  For this reason, the emphasis on “coolness,” high production values, and accompanying affective moments that can characterize some youth programs and events ought to be reevaluated.

Today in one of my courses we’ll be Skyping with David Hertweck, author of a new book called Good Kids, Big Events, and Matching T-Shirts: Changing the Conversation on Health in Youth Ministry.  I’m a big fan of his work here and commend the book to you.  As the title suggests, Hertweck is also looking for a new way forward in ministry to adolescents.  Speaking on “big events,” he says the following:

“When we tell ourselves that success and health in youth ministry means delivering high-energy emotional moments, we run the risk of manipulating kids’ emotions to get them to feel something…the problem is, the moment passes, and if it wasn’t an authentic work of the Spirit, there won’t be any lasting fruit.”

Though Hertweck may approach the topic a bit differently than me, his attention to what we youth pastors and leaders hope to do with our biggest efforts comes through.  Surely, after all, there must be something more to this than what we can accomplish with a well-crafted moment or worship set or lights show or experience or whatever. worship

Focusing on “big events,” key moments, and sometimes calculated coolness is not limited only to the biggest days on the calendar or the largest youth ministries.  Trying to tie everything up into such realities can and does become a cultural shift in ministry efforts (big and small) that are modeled on this pattern.  Such undertakings can make leaders and others proud of what they’ve done, create a great optic for participants, and fire our emotions and energy level.

Despite these momentary wins and their outward appearance, I’m not sure such a strategy will actually help in the long-term. As David Hertweck notes, “You can’t sustain a moment, but you can sustain a conversation.”  Youth ministry needs to be about God’s work amidst youth and their being now and over the course of many days to come, not about cool production values or sets of spiritual moments.  Dialogue, close-knit community, and ministries spending more and more time investing in mentoring IPE-mentoring-headerrelationships will therefore be a part of my suggested future.  It will mean stripping away a lot of the big box approach in favor of smaller and more incremental work with students.

When big things come–and they will, and that’s not bad–these episodes need to be shepherded by those working with students over the course of the many small moments and non-moments that make up their faith and life.  Hertweck reflects on the notion of Spirit-dependency being key to they non-events driven youth ministry, and I have affinity with his idea.  I appreciate even moreso his holistic philosophy: “Our students need to live in the Spirit in every single arena of life.”  If whole-life discipleship is what we are trying to accomplish, many big events–even if they are high-quality and strung together pathendlessly–are not what is needed for our students. Integrated discipleship demands more.

We youth pastors should strive to be good stewards of the many tasks we are called to undertake, including the occasional events, retreats, camps, and moments where good things can and do happen.  Even so, we cannot let our center of gravity remain in these brief oases or rest stops on the way instead of in deep presence and fellowship on the long road ahead.  We need to stop getting excited about the “exciting” things many have come to get excited about and instead turn to the “boring” work of everyday discipleship, because that’s where life is lived and deep faith is formed.


Like As Of Fire

20120513144615!Icon-PentecostIn an interesting bit of recent news, the results of the 2012 National Congregations Survey has reported that nearly 25% of American churches had speaking in tongues as a part of their worship in the year previous to the survey.  This was up 4% from just 5 years before.

While I’m used to hearing stories about the growth and ubiquity of Pentecostal/Charismatic forms of worship across the globe, I’ll have to admit that this number took me by surprise.  That almost 1 out of every 4 churches includes some form of glossolalia is nothing short of astounding.  It says a lot about the state of American Christianity and the growing influence Spirit-centered forms continue to have within it.

While it is almost certain that not all of the congregations that identified as such are Pentecostal groups, this in itself is notable.  It means that the influence and effects of the trans-denominational Charismatic Movement of the 1960s and 1970s–which dissipated as an organized cohesive force in the 1980s–remains alive and well.  As a Pentecostal believer who has studied this movement and retains an abiding interest in its potential for what I call the “ecumenism of experience,” these new statistics are heartening.1e4949df7

While 24.6% is hardly a majority of churches and does not necessarily even represent 24.6% of Christians in America (you’ll have to parse the data for yourself on that one), such a relatively large number does speak to the mainstreaming of a movement that was deeply peripheral only 100 years ago.

Glossolalia, of course, itself is not the ultimate goal for Pentecostals.  A life alive in the Spirit is.  Speaking in tongues is a part of this, though, and its growing acceptance as a legitimate experience for many American congregations means that more and more believers will be open to embracing this mode of Christian faith.  Even just the other night, a former NFL star was praying in tongues on a reality TV show.  Imagine that.

What all of this will eventually mean is anyone’s guess.  As developments continue in this direction, it may very well be that more and more Christians are able to speak of common experiences of God–even if the culture, theology, politics, and worldviews of these believers may be very different.   Perhaps a burgeoning era of revival awaits, initiated by those experiencing or open to 2269catholiccha_00000001421embracing the unusual effects of the Spirit’s action in their lives.  Or perhaps–less optimistically–the growing dominance of the Pentecostal style might lead to commodification and diminishing of fervor as a once marginalized sectarian understanding rushes headlong into the world of the lowest common denominator.

Whatever happens, one thing is clear: Pentecostal styles of Christianity have now “arrived” and must be taken seriously.  The reappraisal that began during the Charismatic Movement of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations must now be expanded.  Though less a visibly organized movement than 40 years ago, the grassroots influence of broadening Spirit-centered Christianity requires that all believers to come to terms with the reality of such expression.  Because if these trends continue (admittedly a big “if,” but still) it might not be long before such Pentecostal practices become a de facto element of Christian worship across the United States.

Imagine that.

A Pentecostal Tension

photo-mainDuring my discussion of last week’s “Strange Fire” conference, I mentioned that elements of MacArthur’s critique do have some merit.  Most notable in this respect are linked strands of Pentecostalism known as the “Word of Faith” movement and the “prosperity gospel.”   The former is often focused on the power of positive confession–speaking forth a reality in faith that God will then bring about (health, blessing, etc.), while the latter asserts that financial blessing is God’s purpose and plan for Christians.

Both theologies promise a lot to those who are in need, and for this reason their teachings have grown in popularity around the world.  The problem, of course, is that they put far too much focus on guarantees of blessing and not nearly enough on the inscrutable will of God.  The place and purpose of suffering in the Christian life is largely ignored by the fiercest proponents of these teachings, in the process making a significant portion of our faith about what God can do for us in the here and now.    Even though Jesus tells us that God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous,” (Matthew 5:45) they choose to focus their attention elsewhere.

Like many Pentecostals, I have serious questions about the legitimacy of these teachings and the dangers inherent in them.  Far too often they can set people up WordofFaithShieldfor serious disappointment or focus their attention so much of the things of this world that they can be manipulated by unscrupulous ministers looking for more than a little prosperity of their own.  At their worst, such teachings can lead to the worship of blessing instead of God.

And yet: both “Word of Faith” and the “prosperity gospel” are distinctly Pentecostal aberrations.  They have their roots in the core teachings of the movement, and the line between their danger and Pentecostal reality can be a very thin one.  Consider: Pentecostals have always affirmed the power of God to heal in miraculous ways.  Not wanting to limit God and deeply aware of God’s ability to do anything, this deeply spiritual worldview means that healing may always be “right around the corner.”  Tying the promise of healing to the prophecy of Isaiah that “by His stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5), Christ’s Atonement is thus seen as sufficient for sin and, in some sense, the results of sin–sickness included.  Because God’s provision for God’s people is thus possible in areas that extend beyond just the spiritual, prayers for financial provision are (rightly) not absent from the traditional Pentecostal experience.

There are differences, of course, between these baseline indicators and what happens in prosperity or positive confession teachings, but the seeds are still there.  You can see this quite readily in some of standard phrases Pentecostals/Charismatics might use in a church service (many without thinking about what they really mean): “prayer changes things,” or  “The Lord blesses those who give” to name just two.  This is simply a part of the landscape.

prosperity-dummiesFrom these ideas it is only a short jump to potentially damaging expressions of Pentecostalism often rightly critiqued.  Though many Pentecostals are sure to distinguish orthodox biblical teaching and practice from what they see as the “extreme,” their theological worldview does move in this direction.  One scholar has called this excess an over-realized eschatology, or a perspective that understands the ultimate (heavenly) blessings of God as meant to be experienced now.  Almost by definition all Pentecostals have a realized eschatology of some sort and do rightly rejoice in the ways that God is active and working in our lives today.  This is core tenet of the movement and one of the reasons it has grown so dramatically over the past century.  People, especially the poor and oppressed, need God in their present existence. Pentecostalism offers this.  But: how to distinguish between the honest power of God in the here and now and a dangerous lapse into overt and/or manipulative focus on worldly gains or guarantees can be tricky work.

I mentioned last week that I believe in the fire of the Spirit at work in Pentecost.  I also mentioned that this life-giving fire, like all fire, can also burn.  That’s quite true here.  Making sure that fire finds itself in the right places and does not escape to burn down the house of our faith is the task to which all those around the world who call themselves Pentecostals are therefore enlisted.  Because of this tension at the center of the movement, it is a conversation we will continue to have as long as we draw breath.

Strange Fire is God’s Fire

strange fireEven as I write this, well-known pastor John MacArthur is hosting a conference entitled Strange Fire. Based on his upcoming book of the same name, the purpose of the conference is to offer a heavy critique of and warning against the Charismatic Movement. As the promotional material for the book indicates, MacArthur’s believes:

…what’s at stake is nothing less than our understanding of salvation and sanctification, and our view of Scripture’s authority. In his new book, Strange Fire, John MacArthur critiques the charismatic movement, exposing the faulty—and in some cases blasphemous—teaching and practices that are misleading hundreds of millions of people.

To further quote some of his words (as found in a piece critical of him in Charisma magazine): “As a movement, they have persistently ignored the truth about the Holy Spirit and with reckless license set up an idol spirit in the house of God, blaspheming the third member of the Trinity in His own name.” Oh my.

As you might imagine, I disagree with MacArthur. Strongly. As a Pentecostal and member of what I would consider to be the broad stream of Christianity involved in the Charismatic Renewal, I take great exception to the rather broad strokes with which he is painting my fellow coreligionists. Reading through his material yesterday and watching some of his pre-conference videos made me realize how deadly serious he is in taking aim at the movement.

While I could write for pages on this and I’m sure that many others are (for a little taste of the kinds of debate taking place, take a look at the Strange Fire Twitter feed or this takedown piece from Charisma), I’ll only list a few of my many thoughts here.

First, there is the potential that MacArthur and I agree on certain points. Even though he’s used inaccurate language to 412991_300critique the whole of the Charismatic Movement (and, it would seem, Pentecostalism as well), I concur with some of the questions he raises about aberrant or damaging theologies arising from it (prosperity gospel, Word of Faith, etc.). These teachings, though, are not uniform throughout the movement and their legitimacy is debated even amongst Pentecostals/Charismatics.  So when his conference seems to claim that the vast majority of the Pentecostal-Charismatic tradition falls into this pattern, it is off base.

It thus appears that even when I would concur with some of his warnings, the harsh, dismissive, and inaccurate way in which he chooses to interact with my brothers and sisters in Christ betrays not only a rather ungenerous Spirit but a real lack of understanding of what Pentecostalism is all about.  I want no part in this.

But this isn’t the only problem. For even as he attacks “the Charismatic Movement” (whatever he seems to mean by that), he also wants us “good” Pentecostals to know that we’re not the problem. (Whew. And here I was worried.) I take this approach by MacArthur to be patronizing at best. At worst, it is simply a lie. MacArthur is known to be a cessationist (i.e. one who believes that miraculous signs and wonders ceased after the Apostolic era). He therefore has little use for Pentecostals–“good” or “bad”–in any case.

Besides that, his conference’s stated effort to attack the problems of the Charismatic Movement actually ends up insulting all Pentecostal-style believers.  Further, it rejects foundational ideas and experiences of not only certain heretical or questionable elements within Renewalism, but the orthodox Pentecostal-Charismatic tradition as a whole. His thoughts about our view of the Bible are pertinent here.

Pentecostals can and do read the Bible differently, as I’ve claimed. We are not evangelicals in the way we interact with Scripture, even while we assert that it is the norm by which we test our doctrines and theology.  I do not think our approach marks us as heretical or subChristian.  Take a look at what this conference asserts:

To claim that charismatics do not value the Bible is patently false. To imply that they regularly or normatively receive revelations that are added to the canon the Scripture is nonsense. To assert that our tradition does not have any real biblical scholarship is laughable. Does they even know about Gordon Fee? The Society for Pentecostal Studies? The faculty members at my school?

This doesn’t even begin to touch his underlying assumptions about and rejection of Charismatic belief in the miraculous or accompanying personal experience. Strange fire? You bet it is strange fire. This is the Spirit of God we’re talking about here, and God is holier and stranger and more different from us that we can possibly imagine.

There problems within the Charismatic Movement just as there are in all streams of Christianity. We are sinful human beings. But these problems do not define us, and certainly do not warrant a wholesale “throw out the baby with the bath water” approach.

indexI think that MacArthur is upset about some legitimate abuses that have been made in the name of the Holy Spirit. Fine. It seems he has some theological disagreement with the way the Pentecostal tradition exegetes Scripture. OK. But to attack fellow believers so broadly, publicly and inaccurately? This is not charitable. Talking down to me and my fellow charismatics like a disappointed grandfather? Insulting.

There are many who will say that dialogue needs to happen here. Very well. Talking can’t hurt. I wish MacArthur were doing the same thing right now instead of whatever this is. He’s taking a combative stand for his paleo-Reformed tradition, and in the process is ignoring so much of the rich fabric of Church history–a broad stream involving Wesley, Pietism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the mystics, and more.

Disagreements between Christians are not unknown. But MacArthur’s approach isn’t helpful. How about affirming differences but seeking conversation? Working through the related issues? Why the attack?

As Pentecostal ecumenist David du Plessis once said to a gathering of various non-Pentecostal Christians in the 1950s (and I’ll paraphrase): “I believe you have the truth. But you have it on ice. You need fire.” That’s the Holy Spirit. Fire is light, warmth, heat, and life. But it is also fire, and it can burn. Pentecostals would rather have it than not. Non-Pentecostal believers would rather not take the risk. Fine.  Generally speaking, both sides have come to accept the legitimacy of the other’s perspective. MacArthur’s approach? Well, it is something else entirely. His desire seems to be that fire of a different sort rain down on our Pentecostal/Charismatic heads.

An ecumenical Spirit is needed here, even while I’m doubtful we’ll end up there. It’s funny–in my historical studies I had christianity-todayalways read about cessationists and/or those Christians who thought that Pentecostalism was “of the Devil.” But I’d never met or really interacted with any until now. I thought that in light of the Holy Spirit’s transformative work around the world over the past 100 years most if not all of these people had repented or given up. Apparently I was wrong.

So: is this the last cry of a dying cessationist movement in a world where 1 in 4 may now be Pentecostal/Charismatic, or is it being giving new life through linkage to the trendy “new Calvinism?” For the sake of the Church, I hope it is the former.

But hey–in an irony of ironies, Mark Driscoll’s on our side. So there’s that.

Charismatics and Race

charisma One of my main areas of academic research has been the Charismatic Movement (CM).  According to the strictest definition, the CM was a revival movement in the mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches beginning in the 1950s and 1960s.  During that era and after, Christians who beforehand had historically very little connection with the Pentecostal way of faith came to desire the fire their Spirit-filled brothers and sisters had.  Many embraced these experiences, and in the process this “fresh fire” spread throughout Christendom.

What marks the Charismatic Movement off from traditional or classical Pentecostalism is that charismatics, rather than departing their parent denomination for groups like the Assemblies of God or Church of God (Cleveland, TN), would instead remain within their original ecclesiastical setting.  They would embrace a Pentecostal way of thinking about the Holy Spirit and the experience of God working in their lives, but all the same would not stop being Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, or Episcopalian.  The movement represented a sea change for the way that traditional Pentecostals and outsiders alike understood the work of the Holy Spirit, and was to have important repercussions within Christianity.

One of the things that has been fairly absent in my research is evidence of any significant Neher_CCHARISCharismatic Movement inside the African-American religious community.  Though America’s largest Pentecostal denomination (the Church of God in Christ) is African-American and is counted by one list as the third largest denomination in America, blacks in this country hardly garner a mention in the historical record of the CM.  At least as usually retold, then, the story of the Charismatic Movement in the United States is a largely white tale.  I’ve considered at least three possibilities for this:  1) the historical record is racially tilted, i.e. what took place was not considered important enough to be recorded by the white hegemony, 2) I’ve missed some big things in my research and more work needs to be done, and/or 3) the general tendencies and approach of African-American Christianity was and is already Pentecostal-esque and experiential enough that whatever the Charismatic Movement offered to staid white folk had no real attraction for them.

As I consider these three answers, I am more convinced the further down the list we go.  The first, while possible, doesn’t make as much sense as it might sound.  We are, after all, not dealing here with the dim recesses of history, but a time period of only 40-50 years ago.  Modern records and the pervasive prCharismatic-Christiansesence of media even then means that the possibility of completely missing a Charismatic Movement in the black churches is unlikely.  I suppose it could have been ignored in favor of covering the civil rights movement, but this is still a somewhat hard sell.  While more research needs to be done, I suspect we’ll find at the end of the day that the CM was still a very “white” affair.

The second possibility demands some humility on may part, and I fully admit that I may have missed some important things thus far in my research.  It wouldn’t be the first time I or another historian has overlooked some key facts.  In recent weeks, for instance, I have read about the presence of the Charismatic Movement in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denomination.  I’m interested in researching this further, even while admitting there are no doubt more stories like this that I’ll need to consider.  Yet even then they seem few and far between compared to the extensive source material documenting the CM in the white churches.

The third option is, simply, that African-Americans had little need for the Charismatic Movement.  They already had just about everything it offered.  This is the solution that I consider most appealing (please note that I borrow it from a scholar I read long ago, although I don’t remember who it was).  If we understand the historic African-American religious worldview through works like The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois or Slave Religion by Al Raboteau–not to mention Pentecostal scholar William Hollenweger‘s claim that one of the cornerstones of Pentecostalism itself was the “Black Oral Root”–this should come as no surprise.  African-American Christianity has often carried with it a deep pathos and sense of emotion, influenced powerfully by native African religious practices and the experiences of their lives in bondage, freedom, and struggle.  African-negro-spirituals-gospelconnoisseurAmerican Christianity has almost by default a deep respect for encounters with the Divine that transcend the bounded lines of dry academic theology.

Call and response, the Negro spiritual, black preaching–all are hallmarks of a tradition far different from anything in Western Christianity except Pentecostalism and its immediate antecedents.  While it is true that there are probably many black churches where traditional Pentecostal/Charismatic practices like speaking in tongues are not welcome, many of the other aspects of the revivalistic movement and its emphasis on the work of the Spirit are present.  If this is true, then truly what need would most African-American Christians feel they had for the Charismatic Movement?  In many ways, it was simply an embracing of aspects of faith that the black churches had long-held and valued.

They were there first, we might say.

The Coming Pentecostal Establishment

ImageOne of the interesting things about Pentecostalism is that it is so new.  The movement has grown from basically zero about 125 years ago to one of the largest Christian groups in the world today.  A recent study by the Pew Forum, for instance, has determined that there are an estimated 584 million Pentecostals and Charismatics (we might lump them together under the term “renewal movements”) across the globe.

In addition to representing around 8% of the entire population of the world, Renewalists now constitute over 26% of Christianity.  This means that 1 in 4 Christians living right now could be considered Pentecostal or Charismatic.

While the numbers are often debated and figuring out exactly who belongs in which categories can be controversial, it is clear that Renewalism has grown to be a large and influential movement that is coming to define the Christian faith of the 21st century.

We’ve reached that point in my Church History course this semester where we are talking about Roman emperorconstantine Constantine.  His conversion to Christianity in the 4th century augured great changes for Christianity, which within one generation went from being actively persecuted by the Empire to being not only tolerated but actively favored by those in power.

This move from humility to power was a major turning point in the development of the Church.  Some have seen it through a triumphal lens.  Others have seen it as the death knell for “real” Christianity.  In any case, it was the end of an era.  Now moving into an influential position, the Church had new demands placed upon it from both within and without.

I wonder, as I consider Pentecostalism and related movements, if similar dynamics are not at work today.  Though the geopolitical and global religious climate is much different from Late Antiquity, in just a few generations the world has seen a small movement despised and rPentecostalism in Latin Americaejected by the religious elites become one of the most numerically dominant forms of religion in the world.  As there has been a growing awareness of this in the larger world, forces similar to those that attempted to direct/guide/influence the newly powerful early Church may similarly be at work.

Already in much of the literature and scholarly debate around Renewalism we see a lot of ink being spilled on defining the “meaning,” “ethos,” and “legacy” of Pentecostalism and its co-religionists.  Is it a protest movement?  A movement of the people?  Is it conservative or progressive?  How much of it is otherworldly and how much is concerned with today’s pressing social issues?  The list continues.  Descriptions and prescriptions for the movement abound, and I suspect will continue to do so as Renewalism navigates its newfound influence.  Whether this will be ultimately helpful or not is an open question…though I will say that influence, power, and money have not always been handled well by religious faiths the world over.

Union with God in the Everyday

monksIn the third and final session of a recent young adults’ retreat, I tried to move our discussion from the “sacred” to the “secular” by talking about the ways in which communion with God’s Spirit would work in the everyday.  A typical stereotype of those who value deep spiritual experiences is that they are rather otherworldly and can fail to take any action in the outside world.  Yet, rightly considered, this is not the purpose or direction intended for a life lived in the Spirit.

I think here of Grant Wacker’s landmark study of early Pentecostal belief 978-0-674-01128-1-frontcoverand practice, Heaven Below.  Within, he notes that Spirit-filled believers exhibited both piety and pragmatism in their Christian lives.  Piety in the sense that they were deeply attuned to the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives.  Pragmatism in  that they knew how the world worked and the demands of the present day.  They might be up all night at a prayer meeting speaking in tongues…but when 9am came they’d be on time for work.

Though I’m not sure it is what Wacker intends, my personal derivation of this combination of piety and pragmatism is helpful for understanding the role the Holy Spirit ought to play in our daily lives.  The powerful experiences that come with God’s presence are therefore to be valued, but not merely by themselves.  Instead, they are integral and foundational: by definition, the very base of all we do.  Being in communion with God does not keep such experience all for itself in disconnected contemplation, but rather exists in activated Christian living.

il_fullxfull.312900134I cannot help but think here of the “fruit of Spirit” (Galatians 5: 22-23): love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  I recall the gifts of the Spirit listed in the Scripture, both the profound and seemingly mundane.  I recognize as well that these lists need not be exhaustive but are perhaps illustrative of the various ways that God’s Spirit can motivate us and work through us.

Practical Christian living in communion with the Spirit of God that is in Christ means maintaining a heart disciplined to listening and willing to act.  It is a Christian life that takes serious the words of Christ in Luke 4 at least as much as the tongues of fire in Acts 2.  Perhaps even more.

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.

(Luke 4:14-21, NIV)