Interactive Table of Contents
Why did I write this article?
I wrote this article for three main reasons. The first is to fully respond to my charismatic evangelical Christian friends who often encourage me to attend their churches, and who cannot understand why I personally do not choose to go to a charismatic church. The second is respond to my non-Christian friends who often ask me why I do not attend the charismatic churches which all of their other Christian friends attend. The third is to clearly demonstrate to non-Christian students that it is possible to be a Christian student but to also not attend a modern, lively, charismatic church every week.
Now that I have set out my motives and aims for this article, I would like to note a couple of further points. Firstly, I have a lot of knowledge and experience of this wing of the Church, and I am thus not just criticising from the outside without any knowledge, understanding or experience. Most of my Christian relatives are charismatics and I attended the annual charismatic evangelical Summer festival New Wine for 16 years in a row. I want to make it clear at the very start of this piece that I have nothing against those who attend charismatic churches, indeed some of my closest friends are charismatics, and I greatly admire the work and scholarship of charismatic academics and writers such as Revd Canon Michael Green and Revd Canon Charlie Cleverly. Furthermore, at home, I often privately listen to modern worship songs written, performed and produced by charismatic evangelical Christian artists and bands (such as Matt Redman, Chris Tomlin, Tim Hughes and Hillsong United) and generally for charismatic churches. So please believe me when I say that I do not at all intend to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’. I’d also like to emphasis the fact that this article is based on my own personal experience of Charismatic Christianity.
I, as a central Anglican, just want to try to help redress the balance between the different traditions within the “broad Church” that is the Church of England, Christianity, and especially with “student Christianity”. We must all learn and benefit from other Christian denominations, traditions, and styles of worship and should not just admire or idolise one particular one in isolation. If we don’t learn from other traditions, we come insular and narrow. Charismatic churches dominate on university campuses, leaving little room for non-charismatics and promoting a narrow, limited, distorted, disproportionate, and false image of Christianity and of what it actually means to be a Christian, especially what it means to be one at university.
‘Come, just as you are to worship
Come, just as you are before your God’
(From Brian Doerksen’s modern Christian worship song “Come, Now is the Time to Worship”, 1977)
The above quotation shows us very clearly, and from the horse’s mouth, that there shouldn’t be any pretences, facades, faking, pretending, or ostentatiously putting on heirs, masks or fronts in worship. We shouldn’t pretend to be someone we are not, and we shouldn’t pretend to have a spirituality we do not; we come just as we are to our churches to worship, no one else and nothing more and nothing less. Now, please do not misunderstand me here, I am not saying that all charismatics fake their experiences. I am simply saying that they should not pressurise those who do not experience in their way to experience in their way. They should respect the special, God-given individuality of human spirituality, worship, prayer, and identity. As Polonius rightly says in Hamlet:
‘This above all — to thine own self be true;
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man’
(Polonius in Act I, Scene III of the play “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare)
Sophocles put it thus in Oediphus Rex,
‘I ask to be no other man than that I am’
(From line 1079 of “Oediphus Rex” by Sophocles)
or as the God in whose image we humans are all made put it,
‘I am who I am’
One year at New Wine, in worship, a guest speaker said, there is no reason why everyone should not experience the Holy Spirit tonight. On the surface and at first glance, this seems to be an innocent statement but the speaker clearly had a very narrow, limited and solely charismatic definition of what it means to ‘experience the Holy Spirit’. We Christians and we humans are not all clones and so we do not all connect, engage, pray or worship in the same way. That would be very boring and unbiblical. No, there is a marvellous uniqueness and variance to our God-given human spirituality which is sadly often overlooked by many charismatic evangelical Christian church leaders and pastors.
The Potential Dangers of the Charismatic Movement
I personally have often found the atmosphere and ambience in charismatic worship settings distracting, off-putting, ostentatious, sometimes fabricated, faked and put on, and always uncomfortable for me personally. It is not an atmosphere where the God-given individuality of spirituality is acknowledged and respected. I feel pressured to try to somehow be ‘zapped with the Spirit’ and experience the Holy Spirit in one particular, very specific, clear, noticeable, physical, and visible way. As the below quotation puts it:
‘The greatest [danger of Charismatic churches] is the assumption that “we have something you haven’t got, and you’re not a proper Christian without it”. The belief can too easily arise that if you don’t speak in tongues or collapse into a twitching, laughing, barking heap on the floor, then you do not really have the spirit of God in you’
(The Venerable George Bernard Austin, the then Archdeacon of York, writing in the “Daily Mail” on Wednesday 30th August 1995)
This view of particular physical, visual expression of the Spirit being more important than other different ones, the idea that visual expressions are the only true ones, and the idea that they are the only real indicator that you have the Spirit of God in you is dangerous and clearly unbiblical. This is highly ironic as the churches which always only worship in a modern, lively, charismatic way label themselves as “evangelical” with a strong belief in the authority of what they naively see as “the infallible Word of God”. They seem, however, to largely ignore what this book they so admire actually says about spirituality. St Paul says:
‘I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue’
(1 Corinthians 14:19)
‘[T]ongues are a sign not for believers’
(1 Corinthians 14:22)
Why therefore do these churches full of believers so often emphasise the gift of unintelligibly speaking in tongues? The mantra of the ambience of these modern, lively, charismatic student churches often seems to me to be ‘Look at me receiving this special spiritual from God’, or ‘Look at God specifically singling me out with this experience of the Holy Spirit, I bet you’ve never had that before’. This can lead to boastfulness, cockiness, self-righteousness, and almost to a sort of ‘salvation by the receipt of certain spiritual gifts’. I have a friend who is an introverted charismatic who rightly says that we Christians, in the worship setting at church, should be open to receiving all kinds of spiritual gifts from God. However, I think we should not promote, advocate, advertise or emphasis certain spiritual gifts over and above others, and I do not think we should pressurise, whether visibly or audibly or not, people to try to somehow experience the Holy Spirit in a particular way. Whole churches and whole services should not regularly have their worship time dominated, predicted or based upon the receiving of particular visible, physical and noticeable gifts of the Holy Spirit. That is alas what the order of the day is in the charismatic churches and worship sessions that I have attended. Sometimes lead worship singers, who by the way ought to be leading the lyrics of the songs, ostentatiously and confusingly speak through their microphones in tongues, without the knowledge that anyone who can hear them can interpret their speech. As Paul writes,
‘But if there is no one to interpret, let each of them keep silent in church and speak to himself and to God […] For God is not a God of confusion but of peace […] all things should be done decently and in order’
(1 Corinthians 14:28,33,40)
‘Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.
One Body with Many Members
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body”, that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body”, that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”, nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honourable we bestow the greater honour, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honour to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?’
(1 Corinthians 12:4-30)
Or as Francis Chan put it:
Charismatic churches and introversion
Almost all of the Christians I know who regularly attend charismatic evangelical churches are extroverts. I have no problem at all with extroverts or extroversion but I do think that it dangerous to have a church where the emotional, psychological and spiritual demographic is so narrow as is alas often the case in charismatic churches. I have found in Durham that, when one is in a room full of Christian students, it is easy to tell who goes to the charismatic churches and who does not, because of their near-unanimous lively extroversion. There is also another danger to this which is the pretence and facade of many extroverted charismatic evangelicals that they are constantly joyous and convivial and that everything is always fine. They often fail to acknowledge that it’s OK to not be OK. It doesn’t make you less of a person, less of a Christian, or less of a Christian witness. Be honest with yourself and to those around you and people will respect you more and you will become more believable. Sometimes it almost seems as many of these people have huge Cheshire cat grins permanently super-glued onto their faces! Life is not easy and the Christian life certainly is not easy:
‘And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it”’
I don’t have anything against extroverts, but I just find it worrying that I don’t really know of many introverts or people with Autism who attend charismatic churches. The demographic of charismatic congregations is therefore quite narrow and limited.
It is often easier for leaders to exploit charismatic churches
This has been shown through the example of Revd Chris Brain who was a non-stipendiary Anglican minister at the underground rotunda at the Ponds Forge Leisure Centre in the centre of Sheffield, the first Anglican Extra-Parochial parish. Through the success of the Nine O’Clock Service (“N.O.S.”, 1986-August 1995) and through the lack of accountability in the service’s leadership, Brain became a manipulative, exploitative, and emotionally, spiritually, psychologically and sexually abusive cult leader and his church effectively became a personality cult revolving around him. In the embedded YouTube video below, a member of the N.O.S. leadership talks of how ‘the charismatic movement empowered Chris Brain beyond measure [… sending] him ballistic’:
There are alas other examples. The most recent of these is Revd Mark Bailey, formerly the national leader of the charismatic New Wine movement and formerly the incumbent priest at Holy Trinity Church, Cheltenham, who had an affair. Even Revd Mark Stibbe, who himself founded the Watford charity, the Father’s House Trust (FHT – specifically set up to end fatherlessness) and who was Vicar of the charismatic evangelical church, St Andrew’s in Chorleywood for 12 years, had an affair. Overseas examples of charismatic leaders who had affairs and saw themselves as above the standards they preached to their own congregations include the well-known charismatic evangelical leaders Ted Haggard, Benny Hinn, and Todd Bentley.
The unique danger of movements and local churches which specifically, regularly and strongly focus on and emphasis certain physical, visible, noticeable gifts and manifestations and expressions of the Spirit is that opinion is required to discern and derive meaning. If I were to suddenly be zapped with the Spirit or randomly and spontaneously have a feeling of the Spirit sending electric shock right through my body, I would want to know why I suddenly experienced this. I would then ask for the subjective opinion on this question of my church leader. This gives him/her extraordinary power and influence. The same is true for “words of knowledge” and prophecy – those church leaders who possess these particular spiritual gifts can abuse, misuse and exploit them to gain power to control their churches and congregations. In fact, the Royal College of Psychiatrists recently published a document all about this potential danger entitled Spiritual Abuse: The Next Great Scandal for the Church. This is how the charismatic movement can empower and embolden church leaders. They then feel as if, and are sometimes even told that, they are a prophet with specially granted and more important gifts and powers and that they are a mediator between God and humanity or even the voice of God. They start to see themselves as invincible, as free from sin, as being above morality and ethics, and above the moral standard they themselves set for their own congregations. However,
‘For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all’
(1 Timothy 2:5-6)
Charismatic churches can start to idolise their prophetic pastors/leaders/ministers, certain spiritual gifts in and of themselves, and musical worship leaders and bands. We can indeed worship God through modern, lively Christian worship music but fundamentally, we worship God through the way we daily choose to live our lives. Do we choose daily to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus above all, as Luke 9:23 and Matthew 16:24 put it? and As worship leader Matt Redman put it,
‘I’m coming back to the heart of worship
And it’s all about you
It’s all about you Jesus
I’m sorry Lord for the thing I’ve made it
When it’s all about you
All about you Jesus’
(Some lyrics from the song “The Heart of Worship” by Matt Redman)
By Ben Somervell
Thanks for reading this article. If you enjoyed it, you might be interested in the following book:
The Introvert Charismatic: The Gift of Introversion in a Noisy Church by Mark Tanner
You might also be interested in some of my earlier articles on this subject: