In my previous blog post, Presidential Fallout, I reflected on the effects of the last presidential campaign and election on the church and particularly on the evangelical and Pentecostal/ neo-Pentecostal parts of the church. I want to reflect further on the latter, asking what it was that could turn what was often a renewal from God (at least in some people’s lives) into something that often drives people from the church. Basically, my answer is twofold: (1) forgetting the tried and true ways of spiritual renewal and ministry found in church history and (2) seeking the power of God and the gifts of the Spirit rather than seeking God himself and letting him grant whatever gifts whenever he wishes.
I want to express how I developed these conclusions by presenting my own narrative:
We got involved with a German charismatic movement in 1975. There were no “power people,” no special initiation event (e.g. “baptism in the Holy Spirit”) – it was contemplative and in the context of a quiet seeking the Lord some of the named (and unnamed) gifts of the Spirit manifested. We were thankful for the results, of course, both for personal spiritual refreshment and for our joy in a work of God when my boss was healed of what doctors expected to be a deadly cancer. Yet we did not pay a lot of attention to phenomena, for our eyes were fixed on Jesus.
Over the years after our return to the USA we were involved in a variety of healing and ministry movements, including neo-Pentecostal versions, which often mixed with older movements. We were involved in Camps Farthest Out and The Order of St Luke the Physician. My first Eucharist as an Episcopal priest was a tiny healing Eucharist in a large church (and, yes, someone was healed); my one ordination gift was an oil stock that had been used in Episcopal healing ministry for something like 40 years plus before being passed on to me in 1979. We knew Baptists like Roland Brown and Catholics-in-Exile like Francis MacNutt. I doubt we had “experienced it all,” but we had experienced a lot.
But what were we looking for? We were seeking closeness to God but, other than those times that God directed us to this or that, we were seeking it affirmation of that closeness in concrete experiences, in seeing healing, in experiencing this or that gift. And that is also what the early Pentecostals sought – the gifts and the power to assure them of the presence of the Spirit – and the later neo-Pentecostal movement in mainline and Catholic churches.
In 1985, I believe, an interdenominational pastor’s renewal fellowship to which I belonged invited John Wimber and a team to come to Vancouver, BC. What struck me was (1) that Wimber was not the show, so to speak, when it came to healing but that he got prayer teams praying for people and walked off the platform, while the prayer teams drew in others around them, so that at the end of the conference it was mostly the conferees who were praying rather than the team, and (2) that Wimber saw events like that conference and healing prayer in churches as “clinic” with the real “stuff” happening in the street as people prayed for or ministered to people in the course of their daily lives. That sounded a lot like Acts and the purpose behind the manifestations of the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 12. It also struck me that the music was intimate and contemplative, especially if Wimber himself shifted to the keyboard.
A team from Anaheim came to my church the Sunday after the conference, and I had forgotten that it was Pentecost. Well, it was Pentecost that day in more ways than one. However, what I remember is the words of one humble member of the Vineyard team in a Q&A time: “Seek the Lord, seek the Lord, seek the Lord; and when are finished then seek him some more.” The various signs and wonders were simply tools the Lord hands one as one seeks him and his will and goes about sharing his love in the world at his direction.
The wisdom of that focus would come out in the next months. On the one hand, “powerful” charismatic “ministers” showed up in our church, “called by the Lord,” to “help.” They drifted in, and, wisely, the elders did not give them a platform (had they stayed long enough and humbly proved themselves it would have been another matter) and happily they were “called elsewhere.” We also realized that some of them were inspired by a dark spirit, not the Holy Spirit. Others were emotionally or spiritually wounded. That was a lesson learned. When there is a public move of the Spirit of God it attracts all sorts of counterfeits, including, as St John of the Cross notes in Ascent of Mt Carmel, the devil’s counterfeits.
Then there were some in the church who experienced the initial “wave” of the Spirit who sought ever new power experiences, what I now recognize as the instability that St Benedict, Jean-Claude Nolt, and Joseph Ratzinger talked of (the latter two under the term “acedia”). Various communities, sometimes parts of churches that had been part of inviting Wimber, sometimes home communities, started inviting “power ministers” and members of my church got involved. I often went to these events, for, while I was not drawn to the loud music (often poorly played in the smaller venues), anti-intellectual comments (not being educated was held up as a qualification for ministry), and poor exegesis of scripture, I also realized that one must go with an open mind and experience such events from within if one is to really understand them. After all, the Spirit sometimes comes in strange guises. Furthermore, it was where my friends and congregants were going, so I needed to know what they were experiencing. I always went forward if pastors and leaders were called forward for prayer and at times I was prayed over in small groups. I did have quiet experiences with God, but basically independent of what the “power minister” was trying to do – they were spontaneous, not directed. After one meeting in which a lot of people were falling (i.e. “slain in the Spirit” as the lingo goes) a week later I talked to four I knew well asked about the experience and its effects. One was indeed significantly changed for the positive with lasting effects, two felt it had affected them positively that evening but with little long-term change, and for one it “was just an experience.” Apparently, the ministry was less than infallible. But, I was where I needed to be, inside, participating, and reflecting later. However, this raised my level of concern about seeking power, or powerful experiences, or gifts versus seeking God in all humility and only asking for gifts as needed for particular acts of charity that one felt God was leading one to perform. I did not see much humility in those meetings.
The other issue that arose was “the prophetic.” While in my understanding of Scripture so-called “words of knowledge” are actually a form of prophetic speech, in seeking “the prophetic” people were looking at full-time “prophets” as models and seeking much more intense forms of prophecy, either prophecy given to groups directing what they should do or prophecy given to individuals directing what they should do. Later there would develop “strategic spiritual warfare” that was over cities and nations, often without the knowledge of said cities or nations, and which sought through performative prophetic speech to influence the course of history. But that would start in the 1990’s. We saw that leading up to and in the Jericho Marches of November – December 2020.
There was some quite responsible prophetic ministry that seemed to build up and impel people to a deeper relationship with Jesus and some quite abusive ministry that seem to build up the “prophet” or the leader the prophet was associated with or that seemed to try to control a person, church, or leader. I certainly heard of “prophets” who crossed sexual boundaries themselves. The end result in my church was that, after I had moved away to another city, the church blew apart, so to speak, with a number of wounded individuals. The cause was “prophetic” leadership. Eventually, the remnant of the church merged with a quite traditional evangelical community that needed a building. While this happened before my eyes, even if at a distance, it is also generally true that the rise and fall of charismatic covenant communities and churches because of controlling leaders or leaders who transgressed financial, sexual, or personal boundaries does litter the church landscape. I choose not to name the groups or the leaders. What I will say is that some of them had quite a positive effect upon me and my family, sometimes before they “went off the rails,” sometimes because they were at a distance and sometimes after the original leader “crashed and burned” (often without that being public knowledge) but before the church or community or organization started its decline.
The problem was, and continues to be, that of seeking the Lord versus seeking power or experiences or influence in society (the in case of those who want decree the results of elections or the rise and fall of cities or countries or the end of pandemics or any number of other things). My friend at that conference in Vancouver was right: it is about seeking the Lord. John Wimber was right, It is about drawing near to God and “doing the stuff” (proclaiming the good news, feeding the poor, and praying for the sick) with eyes and ears open to “see what God is doing” and then joining in as he invites one with the manifestation of particular acts of the Spirit being more of an “of course, God gives the needed gift when a person is doing his work in his way at his direction.” Gifts, power, experiences are not sought in themselves.
Of course, that is also the teaching of the Christian spiritual tradition. Paul rarely talks about his spiritual experiences, and when he does, he mentions that he felt forced to do so and did so unwillingly (see 2 Cor 11 – 12, but that is also going on in 1 Cor 12 – 14). What he talks about readily is suffering, humiliation, and the like. He sought Jesus, and he found him crucified, knowing that being joined to the crucified Christ meant that after Paul’s own death he would be joined to the resurrected Christ.
When one follows the story into church history one finds that the most honored (today) spiritual leaders did not talk about their own spiritual exploits, but about the miracles and the like done by others. (Although others sometimes talked about them.) They did not seek honored positions, but often had to be virtually forced to be bishops and the like (e.g. Augustine of Hippo). Sometimes they left a place of honor and authority, when they could, and retreated to a monastery for their remaining days. They wanted to seek God alone.
The neo-Pentecostal movement is, as was the Pentecostal movement in its roots, Adventist – they were the revival of the last days. But that means that they fail to see that the Spirit has been working through people over the generations, people who were humble. I think of St André Bessette (1845 – 1937) in Montreal (a porter in the Congregation of the Holy Cross), whose healing prayers were sought and who was sometimes found scrubbing floors (one of his duties) and who would not even look up at the one requesting he pray for someone, but simply say (from his recollected inner self) “He or she is well” and go on with his work. And it was just as he said.
I think of “Blessed Solanus Casey (d. 1957), a priest who served in Detroit, Michigan. He was known for helping to heal the sick and burdened through the intercession of Jesus Christ. As a member of the Franciscan Capuchin Friars, he did small, humble tasks in his monastery but would often spend his afternoons performing the Anointing of the Sick for ill parishioners. Fr. Solanus had great compassion for the sick, and through his compassion and personal holiness services, healed many people.”
These examples could be multiplied down the ages, but they have a common theme. They all were humble. They all served quietly. They all developed their closeness to God over years of classical spiritual disciplines, normally in a community setting. They all simply obeyed God and prayed or spoke as God told them (in the case of Blessed Solamus Casey using the approved form of liturgical prayer). They did not have an impartation from some other power minister nor necessarily a peak experience, let alone a peak experience that they talked about. They usually functioned outside of rallies or conferences or even church gatherings. And most would have been unknown had someone else not felt it necessary to write about them.
They (and while I have named two Catholics, there were others in Protestant traditions that I could name, such as the Rev Roland Brown, whom I met, but in Germany, not his actual residence of Chicago, and who would be unknown to me had not his translator in Germany (where he taught on prayer) published his talks. But they were charismatic men (and women) – although they would have rejected that term as setting themselves off from others too much – before, during, and I am sure after the neo-Pentecostal movement that were every bit as filled with the Spirit – without the hype.
The fact is that when the church or a church leader became involved with power, whether it be political (as Dante saw clearly in the end of the Purgatorio in the Divine Comedy) or miraculous/ spiritual power, they were (and are) at risk. Some handled it well, being as humble as bishops or abbots as they were before they were chosen for high position. Others were corrupted by money, honor, power (political or charismatic), or the pleasures that the former could give them access to.
Basically, St John of the Cross put it well especially in his Ascent of Mt Carmel and in his Dark Night of the Soul: if one is seeking God with a mind fixed upon him and in obedience to his guidance, one will have “sensual experiences” stemming from the Spirit. These could be an ecstatic experience during worship or in private prayer, a miracle as one prayed for others, or a great number of conversions when one preached. One experienced God’s presence in an outward way. St John of the Cross’s instruction is to acknowledge God’s grace and then put such experiences into the “dark night of forgetfulness.” Do not pay much attention to them. Do not seek them. If you seek them, realize that the devil can counterfeit them and deceive you. Rather, putting them behind you in forgetfulness, continue to seek God in worship, prayer, fasting, and all humility. Indeed, as one goes on in the spiritual life, to assist one to progress, God will lead one into the “dark night of the senses” in which he withdraws such experiences so one will not become attached to them (this precedes the “dark night of the soul,” which only those God chooses enter).
I chose St John of the Cross because he happens to be my most recent reading and one of my favorites. Any number of others could have been chosen. The fact is, that those who are truly spiritually great are only accidentally famous – they did not seek fame, they did not want to start a ministry, they simply wanted to humbly serve and obey God. Instead of seeking prominence, they, like St. Thomas Aquinas, when asked by God about what he wanted as a reward for his devoted service, answer, “Nothing but you, Lord, nothing but you.”