Why “Charismatic” always tends to become “Hypercharismatic”

When I put up my three part offering on Pentecostal/Charismatic theology in March, I had no idea it would lead to such a long series (twelve posts prior to this one). That’s how relevant issues multiply when you start researching something.

In the first post I began by noting how Charismatic theology has, for half a century, or over a century if you include the whole history of Pentecostalism, failed to deliver on its promises of a return to the supposed New Testament norm of genuine healing ministries, regular miracles, authentic prophecy, tongues that are real languages, and more, leading to a widespread revival of Christianity. Today I want to explore that theme some more, to show why the theology almost guarantees the excesses that many Charismatics recognise as abominations. This may bring my series to an end (but who knows?).

Remember how the Pentecostal Movement began, with the belief that there was a post-conversion Baptism in the Holy Spirit to be had, which would open the door to the supernatural gifts in worship and evangelism. The expectation was determined by the theology and quite circumscribed. From the start, as I laid out in subsequent posts, much of what emerged can be seen, by a dispassionate observer, to have been the product of suggestion by strong leaders, and the manipulation of emotions by now well-recognised techniques: long meetings soaked in soft music, the raising and constant repetition of specific expectations, and when all else failed the suggestion that doubt, or even failure to experience what was expected, was at best a failure of faith or, at worst the sin against the Holy Spirit or even a “religious demon.” Akin to this, the ubiquitous role of the leading revivalist/prophet/apostle could only be questioned on pain of offending “the Lord’s (self-proclaimed) anointed,” even if their theology was completely off the wall and their lifestyle unholy or criminal.

These things were, sadly, true from the beginning, and are still all too evident in a host of examples of megachurch pastors and lesser mortals, well exposed from the inside by defectors like Benny Hinn’s nephew Costi. These recurrent scandals have rightly led to a public disdain for the whole breed, exemplified in popular culture by the Genesis song Jesus He Knows Me. In Redding, California, the local population refers to the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry as “Hogwarts,” which is a bit of an insult to the latter as it can at least claim some genuinely supernatural results.

Now, many “moderate Charismatics” will be the first to condemn such excesses over the pond. They will readily accept (though they are unlikely to hear) the testimony of missionaries that evangelism in countries like Nigeria has been rendered far more difficult because Kenneth Copeland and Reinhard Bonnke got there first, and told the people that Christianity is all about getting total healing, that smart car and a lucrative job, if only they tithe and have unwavering faith. Since they are still sick and poor (though Copeland and Bonnke’s estate are extremely rich), they want preachers to tell them how to have more faith for more stuff, and they require the confirmatory evidence of ever stranger experiences of “the Holy Spirit.”

“An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.”

Matthew 16:4

But it is noticeable how many reasonably moderate Charismatics do not condemn these spiritual abuses, partly because they have been well-trained in the idea that God is “doing a New Thing” (ignore the biblical context of Isaiah 43:19!), which we have no right to expect will not include hysteria, animal noises, angel feathers or even a new kind of super-apostle proclaiming hitherto unknown doctrines. When I worked for Prophecy Today many readers’ letters condemned any criticism of Kenneth Hagin acting drunk, or Todd Bentley kicking women in the face to “heal” them. Even people in my own biblically sound church expressed such thoughts (against sceptics like me) before jetting off to Toronto to get the blessing and fall over.

The main reason for such a loss of critical thinking, I believe, lies in the primary fault-line of Pentecostal theology. And that is the teaching that the principal goal of Christian faith is a direct experience of the power of God, in a tangible way, rather than the biblical ideal of assured faith in the finished work of Christ and the promises of God leading to a holy life. If the doctrine were limited to the original Pentecostal idea of a post-conversion “baptism with the Spirit,” then whether rightly or wrongly interpreted such an experience would not be a great issue.

Many, or most, Christians, have had various experiences of the closeness, the awesomeness, or the love of God, through the Holy Spirit. But it is of relatively minor importance if, say, some purely natural experience is interpreted that way. Two years after my conversion, at another Christian camp, I had a near-death experience which to this day I interpret as a spiritual vision (the kid who accidentally strangled me is actually in one of the photos I posted last time, but I won’t identify him!). But if I’m wrong, and my angels and heavenly city were just the effect of endorphins or something, so what? My faith does not depend on it. It would be of more importance if my experience had been induced by deliberate suggestion and I was told it was proof of my salvation, but let’s not go there just now.

Instead, let’s go to the start of the Brownsville, Pensacola, Revival of the 1990s, which sprang from the Toronto Blessing though it distanced itself from it. There’s stuff on YouTube about the similarities and differences, and whether it was truly spontaneous or carefully manufactured. But here I want to refer to the start of it, when the pastor was beginning to work his Assemblies of God (Pentecostal) congregation towards the eventual manifestations he wanted. He describes with great pathos how he yearned, with almost unbearable suffering, for God, prostrating himself in tears at night in the empty church, and so on. But here’s the thing: in his description, he explains how he’d experienced the baptism of the Spirit, how he prayed in tongues (he was a Pentecostal pastor, after all), how he’d witnessed people being slain in the Spirit – but yet, he groaned, there must surely be MORE than that.

Well, there is, of course – the beatific vision is the historical Christian hope for the eschaton. Every Christian has the indwelling Holy Spirit as a deposit of that – in God’s eyes, a sufficient deposit. But to judge by the results over the next few years, “more” for him meant the whole church falling over, convulsing, and all the usual gross stuff, whilst people flew in from round the world to get in on it (and between 200 and 800 of the original members left in disgust owing to their “religious spirit”). When the revival eventually subsided, all the leaders had moved on to new, lucrative, ministries and Brownsville Church was in debt to the tune of millions of dollars.

I should probably point out in mitigation that unlike Toronto, where precious little gospel preaching took place, Pensacola did preach the cross and repentance, so no doubt some were saved – in the former case a different gospel was preached, whereas in the latter, unbiblical doctrines were added to the gospel. Neither is desirable, according to New Testament teaching. Since then, though it’s hard to keep track of revivals, Brownsville was succeeded by Lakeland, and near-identical phenomena are being hailed as end-times New Things at Bethel Redding and other NAR outfits, as well as the cross-fertilising Word of Faith organisations and other megachurches.

But let’s return to the earlier Toronto events, based on the Airport Vineyard church. Things got so out of hand there that John Wimber, founder of the Signs and Wonders Movement, washed his hands of the church. But despite that, as I said, even members of my Essex fellowship went out to “get blessed,” and returned full of enthusiasm but (I have to say) otherwise no different from before. But that is not all, because this example of the “Hypercharismatic” excesses took over the heart of British Evangelicalism.

Eleanor Mumford was, with her husband, leader of a Vineyard offshoot in London (and incidentally the mother of Marcus Mumford of Mumford and Sons). She went out to Toronto to investigate the “Blessing,” and brought it back to her church. Then Sandy Millar, vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton, caught it from her, so that when the American pastor who was to be the principal revivalist at Brownville visited HTB, he reported that the whole congregation was laid out on the floor. That’s where he caught the phenomenon that he passed on at Brownsville.

Now, I was actually a member of Holy Trinity Brompton, as it merged with St Paul’s Onslow Square, when we lived in London. Indeed, I was asked to join the PCC in 1976, but declined as I was just qualifying and leaving London. The vicar then was Raymond Turvey – a sound guy. At that stage it was a Bible-centred Evangelical church, one of three such Anglican preaching centres in Inner London, the others being John Stott’s All Souls, and Dick Lucas’s St Helens. It had a lively church life and a great evangelistic coffee bar, at which I played a few times. Had it fostered falling over and laughing, though, we would have been off like a shot, quenching the spirit or not, since then as now we knew that God’s Spirit is not in the business of loss of self-control.

HTB is not, though, any old church. It is the source of the famous Alpha Course, whose first incarnation was written by curate Charles Marnham, a Cambridge contemporary of mine, who arrived the year after we left HTB. It was after he moved on that the course became Charismatic and introduced the “Holy Spirit Weekend,” becoming associated with the name of Nicky Gumbel and spreading across the globe. The Holy Spirit weekend, though adapted or even dropped by some local course leaders, has the usual basic elements of Pentecostal praxis – targeted expectations and a theology of the experience of tangible power. In some cases, I’m told, the weekend is even presented as the real heart of the course, the teaching of the gospel being a mere appetizer, and the experience being of more “relevance” to many wanting a tangible encounter with God. If one experiences something numinous, or speaks in glossolalia, then the Alpha context demands that it must be assumed to be the work of the Holy Spirit’s baptism, and hence evidence that you are saved. This, to say the least, is problematic.

When Sandy Millar passed on the Toronto experience, he was already teaching Charismatic filling with the Spirit and “moving in the gifts.” That makes the “blessing” something above and beyond Pentecostal baptism with the Spirit: his congregation had all that, but needed MORE. Since I’m unaware that HTB has ever renounced what happened back then, it follows that those converted through the Alpha course would be justified in seeking whatever New Thing God is doing, beyond whatever old-hat substandard experience Toronto had to offer back in the 1990s, which didn’t even bring the much heralded World Revival. So where are they going to get this end-times blessing? Clearly from somewhere that out-Torontos Toronto Vineyard. The point is that even the Baptism of the Spirit is never, ever, enough. “There must be more than this – always more, MORE, MORE!”

And where is this greater experience of God to be obtained? Fortunately for those hungry people, the Christian worship music market has been cornered by Hypercharismatic Megachurches: the vast majority of new songs are written or published by Bethel, Elevation, Hillsongs or Vineyard. Contemporary worship music is, essentially, nearly all Hypercharismatic in origin. A quick surf on YouTube will take them to where it’s all happening, unlike their own boring church where they just teach the Bible (probably under the baleful influence of a Religious or Intellectual spirit). At best, many Evangelicals are going to be led, by unsatisfied desire fostered by Charismatic “power encounter” teaching, to expend their energy on gaining experiences they believe to be God rather than Kundalini energy. (Don’t laugh – most of the world’s religions, Christianity being an exception, focus on tangible religious experience: LSD users, disciples of Guru Mahara-ji, TM devotees, self-flagellators, witches and mystics will all tell you they’ve experienced the supernatural by their practices, which are often produced by much the same techniques as those of “revivals”. Christianity’s “experience-lite” spiritual power is an exception to the pagan norm.)

At worst they will, because of the experience or the promise of the experience or even just the music, buy into whatever ungodly theology the particular false apostle is preaching this week, whether kenotic theology or little gods teaching or grave-sucking or whatever, at the expense of whatever genuine gospel teaching remains. They will end up either in permanent deception, or very likely in disillusion with all things Christian when the bubble of delusion bursts – because they never understood what true Christianity is about.

Furthermore, because one thing the false teachers don’t lack is evangelistic zeal, many of those deceived will be working hard to exorcise the “spirit of religion” in their local churches by whatever means they can, all in the name of filling them with the Holy Spirit, if not with gold glitter or duck feathers. And so this teaching is a danger not just to the individual, but is maybe the greatest danger to Evangelical churches in particular – perhaps greater than attacks from outside:

Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may have zeal for them. It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always, not just when I am with you. My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!

Galatians 4:17-20

This is something the Church cannot afford, at a time not only of challenge, but of many troubled souls gravitating towards Jesus Christ. These wandering sheep need the gospel of truth, not yet another sensual high.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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