Are our churches ‘charismatic lite’?

Fresh Streams’ Andy Glover reflects on a visit to Bethel Church in California.

I became a Christian 29 years ago. I was quickly introduced to the idea that the healings and miracles of Jesus and the early Church we still available today. My biggest influence in my first five years as a follower of Jesus was the teaching and ministry of John Wimber. In fact whilst at Bible College the group of students I hung out with were known as the “Wimberites”: we would meet every Sunday evening for 2/3 hrs to worship God and to pray for one another ‘in the power of the Holy Spirit’.

Over the past 19 years of leading Hoole Baptist Church (HBC) the three values of (sung) worship, word, and ministry have been consistently placed at the centre of our life together. Yet I have been aware that although there seems to be an acceptance in many churches, including many Baptist churches, that charismatic gifts like healing, prophecy and ‘speaking in tongues’ are part of the normal church/Christian life, how many of us who believe this ‘stuff’ actually do it? How many churches/Christians actually practice what they believe? In my own life, my own church life and, I would suggest, across Baptist church life is there a discrepancy between the New Testament church/disciple and the Baptist church/disciple of today.

Into this context Sue and I recently attended the Leadership Advance Conference at Bethel Church in Redding, California. to see some of the things going on there and find out for myself what I thought and discerned from the experience. The Senior Pastor at Bethel is Bill Johnson and I first heard him speak and pray for people at the New Wine Leadership Conference in 2009. Since then I have read a few of his books and heard some of the amazing stories of what God is doing in and through the church at Bethel.

For us these days were some of the most powerful and intense personal encounters with God our Father that I have ever experienced! On one occasion I spent 30 minutes face down on the floor unable to move as the manifest presence of God on me was so heavy!

Here are initially three things that I am reflecting on that I believe will begin to bridge the gap in the discrepancy I observe:

  • The manifest presence of God is not an optional extra for the people of God

At Bethel the presence of God is their passion; hunger and expectancy are two keys that unlock the door enabling us to experience this manifest presence. Remember it was Moses in Exodus 33: 15-16 who said, “If your presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”

One of the first observations I made after arriving in Redding was that as I watched Bill Johnson speak about God’s presence, he was moved to tears and his voice would begin to shake. One of the challenges over two decades of busy ministry is to keep my heart tender towards the Lord and I was deeply impressed and inspired by the way  Bill Johnson has. A passionate hunger and deep desire for the presence of God expressed primarily in sung worship marks out the Bethel Church; spending time in this environment has made a deep impression on me. I can honestly say I have never seen such passion in sung worship: the musicians and singers were primarily worshippers first  and foremost, the manifest presence of God was so strong at times I was reduced to a blubbering wreck or found myself facedown before a Holy God. This hunger and desperation for the presence of God is something I want to cultivate in me afresh.

  • Sonship is not a theory, but the deepest essence of my identity and confidence in God.

Of course we all know this is true. We’ve heard it hundreds of times preached from a pulpit, haven’t we? How would it look like today, to walk this earth understanding that all of the riches and blessings of heaven are your heritage?  Galatians 4:4-7 says, “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.”

If you minister out of who you are, then your identity will determine what you see in terms of your impact. How would your perspective on God and yourself be transformed if you fully understood that He is already completely pleased with You? There’s a reason the devil confronted Jesus three times saying “If you are the Son of God…”, shortly after God himself spoke from Heaven: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I’m well pleased.”

He knew, if Jesus got that ‘sonship-thing’ nailed, he’d have access to all of his Father’s resources and become unstoppable. The same is true for us: our identity as children of God needs to becoming the overarching reality for all that I am and seek to do. (I’m using Sonship here recognising the Greek for adoption to sonship is a legal term referring to the full legal standing of an adopted male heir in Roman culture. It’s an inclusive sonship recognising both male and female, sons and daughters are fully included in this heritage as children of our Heavenly Father.)

  • We need to create a culture to live in that encourages and welcomes the King and His Kingdom.

At Bethel they call it a culture of honour; it’s what they believe has sustained the ‘move of God’ in that place for at last the past 10 years. This for me is what marks them out. In my life it’s so easy for me to lose my passion, my hope, and my faith for the coming Kingdom to invade and impact the earth I’m living in right now. I know the Bible teaches that the kingdom of God is here and now but it is also not yet and still to come. It’s a tension we live in, but surely this doesn’t mean we settle for ‘charismatic lite” where we sing the modern songs, sometime lift our hands in worship, even pray for the sick every now and then, especially when someone is seriously ill. What I am seeking is within our gatherings as church, and especially on Sunday mornings, we see the glory of God fall on us and for the Holy Spirit to do what he always does: point us to Jesus, convict us of sin, give us power to witness, make us more like Jesus in our character and give us His gifts of the Spirit so we become more competent at doing the things that Jesus did.

This is the journey of discipleship I am on, learning to be like Jesus and learning to do what Jesus could do, and as I develop these three areas in my life, in the words of  Psalm 27:13 “I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”

Further reflections

It’s now just over four weeks since Sue and I returned from our visit to Bethel Church in Redding California, I have continued to reflect on and process some of the things we saw and experienced during this trip.

I would like to add another three areas to explore which I believe could begin to address this discrepancy:

  • The whole of the church is in the Kingdom but not all of the Kingdom is in the church

One of Bill Johnson’s books is called Heaven Invading Earth; this book is a powerful statement and testimony on the Kingdom of God. Theologically sound, well supported, and extremely well argued, this message provides a carefully constructed biblical foundation for the Christian to live and walk in the full reality of the Kingdom.

My own focus for over ten years has been how to seek and advance the Kingdom over and above the growth of my own church. The phrase I have been living with is ‘touching heaven and changing earth’. It’s the outworking of answered prayer “your Kingdom come, your will be done; on earth as it is in heaven”, it’s more than signs and wonders but must include the supernatural dimension; it’s about transformation within all sectors of society and an approach to discipleship that sees much more than what goes on within the walls of a particular local church. I saw all of this at Bethel and it’s what I seek to see more of here in Chester.

  • The power of the Story…

At Bethel they love to tell stories of what God has done and is doing amongst them and through them. These stories inspire and generate faith. Revelation 19:10 “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” is a key verse. As we hear what God is doing or has done this releases faith to believe that he can do something similar in and through me.

At Bethel they value this so much they have a full time member of staff whose job description is to capture and record the stories. Sometime we can focus on what God hasn’t done or wish he would do more; a key to open the door to seeing the supernatural more in our lives is to remember and give thanks for what God is doing, especially the small signs of the fruit of God faithfulness and goodness in our lives.  We so quickly forget what God has done for us and what he is doing in and through us today, the role of the testimony is one that we need to encourage and make time for. Here at HBC we regularly have One Minute Stories within our Sunday Morning Celebration and we have just introduced a testimony book for people to write in, so we can record the small and large answers to our prayers to try and address this issue.

  • Twenty seconds of insane courage

Although this isn’t directly connected to anything we heard at Bethel its does for me sum up something of the culture of obedience and faith that we observed. On the Tuesday evening of the conference, when we got back to our hotel, we just needed some ‘down time’, so we watched a movie in our room via cable TV. We Bought a Zoo stars Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson; it is set in Southern California: a father moves his young family to the countryside to renovate and re-open a struggling zoo.

Based on a true story, Matt Damon plays Benjamin Mee, the father, and in one particular scene he is talking to his son, and says: “You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage, just literally twenty seconds of embarrassing bravery, and I promise you something great will come of it.”

When I watched this scene I felt God speak to me and say that this was a key to seeing the greater release of the power and presence of God in and through my life and the church I led. What will I do when I sense that God is prompting me to do something? The question for me is: Am I obedient to God’s prompting? Usually it takes a step of faith and the risk of being wrong, but what if I obey and as I step out something great could just come from it as God’s Spirit moves through me and I am obedient? Over these past few weeks I have been listening and responding to these prompts on a more regular basis and every time I have done it the person on the receiving end has been touched by God‘s love for them.

As I said earlier, this is the journey of discipleship I am on, learning to be like Jesus and learning to do what Jesus could do. It’s a walk of faith as I learn to live by the Spirit and keep in step with the Spirit (Galatians 5: 25)

Please feel able to leave your comments below.

8 thoughts on “Are our churches ‘charismatic lite’?

  1. This is so good, Andy. My wife and I have met Bill and read the books. It’s the doing it in my life and then teaching/leading every member to do the same – that’s the challenge. God’s been doing some good works with our folk but most just don’t have any hunger. The ones that do seem to leave for more obviously charismatic churches even though I pour out my heart week on week. I know that here is where the Lord has put me and I’m always expecting more but you do cry out for more, don’t you?

    I may read this out next Sunday. It would fit very well with what I think God wants me to share.

  2. Thank you for your reflections. I guess I have been questioning of some of the theology and approach of Bethel, of an ‘over’ realised eschatology, which seems to have little space for what to me appears to be the struggle and incompleteness of the Kingdom as it comes. But the points you make are valid and important and worth repeating. I particularly appreciate your explanation (testimony) of how you have understood and applied them. Thank you.

  3. Hi Andy,

    Thanks for the article, on which I am still reflecting. It’s disturbing me on a number of levels!

    Firstly, the biblical challenge that we may have lost our first love remains central. I have just started ministering at a church and I feel among the congregation and myself both the ache for that experience of God’s love and the fear that it might not be easily accessible. If we are not seeking God’s loving and empowering presence then what are we doing? What good news do we have to share if we don’t really know the love of God?

    However, I am troubled by the phrase, ‘The manifest presence of God is not an optional extra for the people of God.’ I went through many years without experiencing God’s presence and suffered deep spiritual depression and lack of confidence in the authority of my ministry as a result. I had prayer ministry and counselling to help me discover the secret sin that must be keeping me from God. But nothing changed. After many years of being at the centre of renewal, I found myself on the outside, looking in. It wasn’t pleasant. It was only when I read ‘The Dark Night of the Soul’ that I realised that the reason for my depression wasn’t the absence of God’s manifest presence, but the fact that my charismatic heritage had taught me that such an absence was always a sign of my sin and failure. St John of the Cross offered an alternative interpretation: that sometimes God wants to see us walk without the crutches of charismatic experience. I still don’t know what I think of this, but nonetheless I was freed from the guilt that statements such as yours had laid on me and have been able to explore my relationship with God in new ways through the discovery of other traditions alongside my own. Perhaps the most important thing has been the realisation of how much I relied on a meeting to mediate my relationship with God, forcing me to undertake the long, hard slog of building up disciplines of prayer on my own.

    Thanks for disturbing me!

    • Simon

      Thanks so much for reading and leaving this comment really do appreciate your thoughts and openness in what you reflect…

      I do think you are right with regards to the “dark night of the soul” and I have read this book myself – and I find it depressing that you were left feeling that it was your all your fault… I appreciate its never as black and white as we’d like it to be and as I travel the road longer i do have more grey!! However to know that God is with us, he loves us and he is good, is so crucial to how we relate to Him esp in thise times when we don’t feel it and life is esp hard! Praying God’s blessing and best for you this coming year of 2013…

  4. Thanks Simon. Your comment prompts me to wonder about in what sense the ‘people of God’ know and should know the ‘manifest presence of God’? Individually? Corporately? Globally? It’s challenging to read about Bethel on the same day as reading, here in the Open Doors office, about the latest Christian martyr. Both encompass the presence of God and the glory of God as known by Jesus and the early church?

  5. Last spring I was diagnosed with stomach cancer and have had my stomach removed. I believe God has been healing and touching me as I have been in His presence, but two things hit me. As you say, we need to be at His feet and Exodus 14.14 sums it up for me, `IF you remain still, I will do the fighting for you` In whatever life throws at us, IF we remain still, we can trust that God will lift us up on wings like eagles.
    For me its taken most of my life to understand that I am dearly loved by my Heavenly Father, and its only as we as a church GRASP the fact that we are loved, that we can truly trust God and then desire to fall at His feet. My hearts cry is that the bride of Christ will understand more fully that we are sons and daughters loved and accepted by the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

    • Andrew
      Thanks for your comments and reflections – as you say a key aspect in all this is our identity as children of God and knowing that he loves us – really he does love us!!

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