Reaching the charismatics

Reaching our own brothers with the gospel; that should be our goal, even our first priority, as a family of believers, right? As reformed Evangelicals, we want to reach everyone everywhere with the gospel; shouldn’t we then especially want to rescue what remnant might by God’s grace be given us from among the Pentecostals, those of our own ‘race’?

Sadly the rift between the charismatic movement / Pentecostalism and reformed Evangelicalism only seems to be deepening and widening as the decades have rolled by in Australia. And there are good and perfectly understandable reasons why this has occurred. It is in fact biblical, in the sense that the Bible does call for disunity in such situations. But we wish it would be otherwise, don’t we? We want to be united with our own brothers, first and foremost, more than any, right? After all, Pentecostalism arose from within Evangelicalism itself. While we do ministry to the world, and seek to save the pagan, we surely and especially want to earnestly minister to our own, and seek to save the members of our own household, our broad and wide family that we call Evangelicalism.

In this interview, Phillip Jensen makes a great point about the importance of ‘reading charismatics’ before preaching to them: As reformed evangelicals we can be too harsh in our condemnation of the errors of charismatic theology when we're speaking to Pentecostal or charismatic Christians who have come to Christ through their experiences within that movement.

To quote part of that interview:
"Tony Payne: Throughout the 80s and 90s, there was significant conflict within Christian circles over the charismatic movement. In fact, as a young charismatic arriving at your church many years ago, I found your strong stance on those issues a difficult thing to wrestle through. Do you think you made any mistakes in the way you responded to charismatic issues?

Phillip Jensen: This may sound strange, but I think we should have fought harder quicker. By the time we understood what was going on, we had already lost a lot of ground and a lot of people.

But I also made mistakes by taking too long to realise that there were two basic kinds of charismatics. There were the ex-evangelicals who became charismatics, and who were moving away from evangelicalism. And then there were non-Christians who were converted in a charismatic or Pentecostal church, and were moving towards evangelicalism. The problem when you met a charismatic was that you had to work out which direction they were travelling, in order to know what to say.

Rarely did the ex-evangelicals ever come back to the Bible. They tended to keep going into more and more charismatic extremes and often out of Christianity. But for the non-Christian who became a charismatic… usually that was their first ever taste of the gospel of Jesus, and when they had it explained more clearly to them they continued on a trajectory away from charismatic theology. So there were several years in which I was preaching as if the congregation were ex-evangelicals, when they really were ex-non-Christians. I was being too harsh in what I was saying because I was misreading the people who I was speaking to."
(The Mistakes of Phillip Jensen, The Briefing, Matthias Media, 12 March 2012)
It’s a great reminder; we need to read people before we speak to them. Too often I have bypassed the charismatic as an individual, associating with them all the beliefs of Pentecostalism as a doctrinal system. But very rarely will a charismatic or a Pentecostal completely hold to the theological system called Pentecostalism, even if they identify themselves as part of that movement. And when I assume these things, I’m misreading and ‘judging’ incorrectly the person; it’s no wonder if they then feel ‘condescended’ upon.

How I speak to the doctrinal system which is Pentecostalism must be different to how I speak to a charismatic Christian; how I speak to a leader or a teacher of the theologies of Pentecostalism must be different to how I might speak to a member of his/her church. This is partly because teachers must be critiqued and indeed will be judged more strictly. But it is also because, as Jensen points out, a ‘Pentecostal’ (or a Catholic for that matter) may not at all be on the road away from the truth of the Bible. But via Pentecostalism he or she may actually be on a trajectory towards maturity in Christ; and my task is and must be to help them onward and toward that destination.

However, there is an undercurrent in some of these sentements that concerns me. The comments of Jensen might be read by some to infer that ministry to evangelical converts to Pentecostalism is likely to be unprofitable and ineffective. We might read Jensen implying "Rarely [do] the ex-evangelicals ever come back to the Bible. They tended to keep going into more and more charismatic extremes and often out of Christianity. "

But that can't be right. First of all, I was an ex-Evangelical myself who after a long lead-time into the charismatic movement, became fully committed to the Pentecostal system, both theologically and practically. And yet, by God's grace, I am now as 'reformed' as they come. To borrow a Pauline phrase and mis-quote out of context with a paraphrase:

"Did God reject his people? By no means! I am now a reformed evangelical myself, out of the tribe of Hillsong."
And are not all Pentecostals ultimately ex-Evangelical? The whole movement is ex-Evangelical by its origin. And still today, by virtue of its unprecedented growth, most new Pentecostals are converts from within Evangelicalism. So the question is simply, is ministry to Pentecostals worthwhile, or likely to bear fruit?

But who would dare to ask such a question? It is the wrong question, because of course, all ministry is as unlikely to be fruitful because our own human inability against the power of sin, but is equally as likely to be fruitful because of the Spirit's power in the gospel.

So where do these undercurrents come from, if not shared by Jensen then generally by our overall laziness in our efforts towards charismatics and Pentecostals as a family of reformed Evangelicals? Why do we make so little effort; why do we reach out so little? Why are we not planting churches to reach the charismatics? Do we lack the faith?

As I began by saying, how can we deny or ignore our own? We believe in the power of the gospel; that God speaks with power to save whenever the Scriptures are read and proclaimed. So it's not a matter of power; but of love. Is it grace that we are lacking?

And of course, true to God's mercy, there are some beginning to do it; there are reformed Evangelicals who are leading the way by reaching charismatics.

I know of one respected evangelical minister who has been proactive in adapting his ministry to care for charismatics. They are the Central Coast Evangelical Church (EV church), under Andrew Heard. While retaining his reformed edge, Andrew Heard's church has grown in part as a result of Pentecostal transfer. And it would probably be fair to say that this may not have occurred unless they had considered carefully how to properly love Christians from Pentecostal backgrounds as they began arriving. I'm told they don't set out to attract ex-Pentecostals; but they do make every effort to ensure that charismatic explorers of their church are not culturally cut off when they come and encounter reformed theology for the first time. Ironically, many of these newer and 'weaker'/'younger' brothers come to experience a deeper Christianity, and seem quite struck with the God of the Bible for the first time.

What EV under Andrew Heard seem to be doing a bit better than most of us, is seeing that love towards our suffering brothers, weakened by the charismatic focus, is a beautiful expression of maturity in Christ. I want to hear more from these guys, and hear more about what they’re doing differently, and it seems effectively, by way of evangelical ministry in a charismatic context.

In many ways, this was the reason for my other blog, Talking Pentecostalism. My blog to Pentecostals might be criticised for failing to begin with the Bible itself; Talking Pentecostalism starts first in seeking to understand Pentecostalism itself, before then critiquing the basic beliefs of that movement and system against the Scriptures. My philosophy was to first seek to understand, then to be understood (Stephen Covey). I also wanted to acknowledge the vital influence that historical developments in Christian subcultures have on our understanding of theology, and the importance of deconstructing our presuppositions if we want to get beyond reading the Bible through our own modern frames of reference. I thought that if Pentecostals could see for themselves how their movement has been a reaction to developments in historical theology, which were themselves a result of historical and cultural developments of our time, they would see that their reading of the Bible itself has been biased.

Phil Colgan has said in this excellent review of Sinclair B Ferguson's book entitled, The Holy Spirit,

“One of the great difficulties in dealing with this issue [the charismatic view of the work of the Holy Spirit] is that most of the literature on the Holy Spirit is polemical in nature. Much recent popular work on the Holy Spirit begins with the phenomena associated with the charismatic movement and then seeks to support or deny its authenticity from the Bible. My experience of these books, sermons or articles is that they become a study in proof texting: both sides line up verses that support their position and then explain why verses that appear to support the other position actually don’t. All these sorts of studies tend to do is confirm people in the position they already hold.”
(The Holy Spirit, The Briefing, Matthias Media, 15 April 2010)
This criticism is fair in part, particularly about arguing with a proof-texting approach. In fact, I have elsewhere recommended the same approach as Colgan and others in answering Pentecostalism, which is Biblical Theology, Goldsworthy style. So thank you Phil, and I recommend this article and the book it reviews to everyone.

However Biblical Theology itself is influenced by one’s own perspectives and presuppositions that we bring to the text, even when aiming to do Biblical theology, and exegesis from Genesis to Revelation. In the end, apologetics needs to get to the point of properly understanding any theological system such as Pentecostalism on its own terms, and then proceed by moving back and forth from the Scriptures seeking to sincerely weigh up and review and eventually evaluate the presuppositions behind it and the notions it puts forward according to the weight of evidence from the biblical data.

So I don’t go all the way with what Colgan implies in his critique, “All these sorts of studies tend to do is confirm people in the position they already hold.” If Jensen is right, by pointing to the importance of reading charismatics in terms of the one of two directions they will be heading, a charismatic thinker after reading Ferguson's The Holy Spirit will still in general react by seeking an alternative Biblical Theology of the Holy Spirit written by a Pentecostal (who reads and exegetes Genesis to Revelation from a charismatic perspective). Ferguson himself has been deeply influenced by John Owen, as a frequent digest of his writing on the same subject (See preface to John Owen, The Holy Spirit—His Gifts and Power, Christian Focus Publications’ 2007 edition).

Although Jensen may at present be generally right in his approximation, that “rarely [do] ex-evangelicals ever come back to the Bible,” it must be said that it in fact is not as rare as he implies that ex-evangelicals do come back. And it would be awful if these sentiments were to discourage earnest ministry to the Pentecostal movement with the aim of bringing holy and evangelical reform.

To be fair, Jensen is actually only reflecting from his experience of what he has observed, and largely in the past. "Rarely did [he witness or notice that in the short term in his time that] ex-evangelicals ever come back to the Bible." But I think it is fair to say that many 'tend [not] to keep going into more and more charismatic extremes and often [not] out of Christianity.'

We must be careful not to dismiss our charismatic brothers; not to overlook them; not to ignore our enduring an abating debt to love them (Romans 13). Are they not worth the effort? Have they gone too far to warrant our concern? Or do we doubt that in another 100 years, Pentecostalism Proper might barely exist under the sovereign mercy of God if by his grace that were his decree to bring them back into our fellowship?

As someone who was once an ex-Evangelical, who after my exit into Pentecostalism has now found deep reform in true evangelicalism, this is of course slightly ‘personal’. But also, I know now, after some years of ‘talking Pentecostalism’, that good ministry to Pentecostal Christians is not only much needed, but it has in small measure across Australia yielded very beneficial fruit over recent years.

And going forward, ministry to ex-Evangelicals in Pentecostalism is an unavoidable and essential aspect of Christ’s mission with the gospel to save his church. As now the second largest family of Christianity next to Roman Catholicism, in 21-st century Christianity there is now no part of the world that we can go and not encounter the effects of Pentecostalism.

If we go to reach people with Christ in South America, we will encounter the effect of Pentecostalism there. If we go to Africa, or India, we will encounter it there. And in many places, the significance of Pentecostalism will far exceed what we are dealing with here in Australia.

Pentecostalism is here and everywhere, for now at least. And just as Christ’s mission involves calling atheists and liberals, Catholics and Mormons, Muslims and Jews, back to the God of the gospel in the pages of the Bible – we need to keep doing this to Pentecostals and charismatics too.

But what I’m interested to learn is how I can be moving from the ‘negative’ approach and paradigm of first seeking to critique, to a philosophy that first seeks to affirm and accept – an approach to ministry that first identifies the grounds for the unity that we do already have; and seeks to build onward and outward from there toward the common and mutual goal of fullness of love in the truth.

Perhaps a trip to EV might be in order?

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