Into the Charismatic Movement: My Story
By David L Rattigan

(2002)

At the age of about eleven I had my first taste of the charismatic movement. As I watched TV one Sunday evening, a host known for entertaining his audience with clips of bizarre and outlandish footage from television shows around the globe, played a few minutes of a typical large-scale charismatic healing meeting. The evangelist laid his hands on people who instantly, and seemingly miraculously, reacted by falling to the ground. Avuncular, white-gloved gentlemen in red evening jackets caught the swooning participants and laid them carefully on the floor. It was quite unlike anything I had witnessed before. I had no idea at the time that this was a world of which I would soon be part myself.

During my childhood years as an evangelical in a predominantly non-evangelical Methodist church in the northwest England, my contact with charismatic Christianity was limited. The local gathering of likeminded evangelical Methodists my mother took me to represented a fairly low-key sort of charismaticism: The choruses, the joyful ambience, but few of the sensational manifestations to which I would later become accustomed.

At the age of twelve or thirteen I came into contact with a local Pentecostal minister, whom I told I was part of a "dead" Methodist church that I probably ought to leave in order to seek better pastures. (I knew enough about Pentecostalism to know that the epithet "dead church" was likely to arouse immediate understanding and sympathy.) He challenged me: "Why don’t you leave, then?" And so I did. At the age of fourteen, I attended my first service at the local Pentecostal church, where I discovered a warmth and vibrancy so utterly different to anything I had experienced in my own church, that I had no hesitation in immediately announcing to my current youth leader that I was leaving for another church.

I was soon thrust into a new and exciting realm of experiences and teachings. At my new church God appeared to be taken a lot more seriously, as were Satan and his demons, to whom I had already been introduced through the pastor’s regular visits to my school to warn students of the dangers of occultism and rock-and-roll. The preaching seemed relevant -- indeed, much of it I had never heard before, though it proved indispensable in guiding the course of my Christian walk. The worship was jubilant and stimulating, and the congregation seemed willing to be a part of each other’s lives seven days a week, not just on Sunday evenings.

It was during my first year there that I learned the basics of what it was to be Christian and Pentecostal. I learned to use the right terminology to talk about spiritual things, and I quickly began to filter all my experiences through the lens of my newfound charismatic worldview. It was midway through that first year that the gospel really came alive to me for the first time: At a Bible camp, which I had rather been dragooned into attending, I suddenly felt myself becoming keenly aware of the truths about Jesus, his death and resurrection. It was a seminal point in my Christian walk, the time when I felt clearly that God was calling me to be a full-time minister. I had other plans -- to be a film director, in fact, an ambition I had cherished for years -- but I needed no coercion. From that time on all I wanted to do was serve God.

I returned home "on fire", to use the accepted charismatic term. I busied myself in all kinds of church activities and evangelistic endeavours. "Witnessing" to my classmates became a priority. For a while, science class became no more than an opportunity to open my Bible and have a study right there with my friends. They would ask questions, usually on the more complex and intriguing points of the endtimes, and I would answer as best I could with recourse to Scripture. It was my final year in high school, and I was determined to make the most of it, exploiting every opportunity to make maximum impact for Jesus.

The Toronto Blessing

1994 was a crucial year for charismatics and evangelicals worldwide. It was the year that the strange phenomenon quickly dubbed the "Toronto Blessing" first appeared. At the close of one of our morning services sometime in spring of that year, our pastor brought to our attention a newspaper article from the previous week. It concerned a church in Loughborough, England, where at the conclusion of a Sunday meeting an unprecedented move of the supernatural had apparently occurred, comparable to the events of the day of Pentecost. Congregants were overcome with laughter, many were prostrate, seemingly under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and the power of God was reportedly so strong that the service continued some hours past its usual finishing time.

Over the course of the next few weeks, reports began flooding in of this new "move of God". Within a couple of months, churches had sprung up everywhere advocating the life-changing effects of this revival/renewal (charismatic commentators were soon engaged in discussions as to which of the two terms was more appropriate). Hotspots of the current move appeared, churches noted in particular for the abundance of manifestations and late-night meetings, often on most nights of the week. Speakers and evangelists were travelling from church to church to impart the blessing; teams of people were sent out from revived churches to pass on the experience to other churches; ministers and prophets from the Toronto Vineyard Church, where the Blessing had first erupted, were travelling worldwide to explain the revival, connecting it for their hearers with various prophecies and predictions, some of which were reputed to go back several decades, and of course to bring others into this intense experience for themselves.

Our small church, which for the six or so years I was there oscillated between about 20 and 60 members, was no exception. We had visiting prophets, teachers and evangelists from every corner of the country and beyond. The first of these was a minister from that first church we had heard about in Loughborough. His sermon was replete with testimonies of strange but fruitful happenings at his own church, and he offered something of a primer on what unusual manifestations we should expect when the Holy Spirit comes. His rather superficial exposition of Acts two emphasized two factors: On the day of Pentecost, the disciples saw something and they heard something. All of this, of course, was merely a preamble to what everyone was anxious to see and participate in: The outpouring of the Spirit itself.

In general, people were not disappointed. The preacher personally laid hands on most of the congregation that night, and as we had hoped, people fell over by the dozen. When he reached me, however, I simply did not respond as I was expected. After much earnest pleading with God to come and touch me, still nothing had happened, and the preacher eventually left me with an anecdote about a man who mined for days and days and before finding the treasure he was searching for. In part it was an apologetic defence designed to assure me that something would happen in the end, even if nothing dramatic seemed to be happening there and then. I couldn't escape the uneasy feeling, however, that the preacher himself was rather embarrassed, though he went to great lengths to assure me otherwise.

Nevertheless, I was soon to enter the revival full-swing. Early in the summer of 1994, our church organized a bus trip to a large charismatic church in Leicester, one of the hotspots of the Blessing. We arrived about half an hour late for the all-day session, and consequently missed most of the short message that was preached. I was subsequently told that we had missed an impressive demonstration of the Blessing: The leader had announced that as he handed his Bible to another man on the platform, this man would fall to the ground under the power of God, a promise that was duly fulfilled. We were there just in time for the worship, which consisted of several slow, intimate choruses. It was announced that anyone wishing to be touched by the Lord should come forward and be prayed for.

I could not refuse, and stood at the front as I watched people succumb one by one to an almost irresistible power. I was beginning to worry how I would later explain myself when I didn't follow suit, but I need not have fretted: The leader's hand had barely touched the top of my head when instantly I felt as if my legs had been kicked away from under me, and was lying on the carpet in a state of euphoria. So this is what it's like, I thought. This was pretty exciting stuff! I swore to myself I wasn't even expecting to fall, but my legs literally gave way, seemingly without my consent.

The day's schedule continued until about four o'clock in the afternoon, a good six hours in all, including one hour for lunch. Only brief snatches of teaching were given. Mostly, the day's events comprised much gentle worship and repeated altar calls to receive more of the Blessing. I responded perhaps four or five times, and each time the result was the same: "Carpet time", as it became popularly known. On one occasion a minister simply blew on me with the words, "Receive it", an echo of Jesus' words and actions in the upper room (John 20:22), and also a familiar technique of many healing evangelists such as, most famously, Benny Hinn.

Other reactions, though not from me, included uncontrollable laughter, one of the distinctive hallmarks of the Toronto Blessing. In particular, I recall a young lady in a wheelchair cackling away like Woody Woodpecker! Some of our own group caught the laughter as well, much to the amusement of the staff and customers of a service station we stopped at on the way home, where they simply could not contain their hysteria.

The day provided a much-needed boost to my now waning spiritual life. My zeal and passion were restored, and I had a new experience of God which I longed to be repeated. And it certainly was, time and again over the ensuing couple of years. Any opportunity I had to receive "more" (a watchword of the movement, often repeated like a mantra over people during prayer) was welcomed. Sometimes I would fall backwards, sometimes forwards, sometimes straight down; sometimes I would have to have someone there to catch me, occasionally not; sometimes it happened as the result of receiving prayer and the laying-on of hands, sometimes before they even got to me, or during ordinary worship. A pattern began to emerge: I would get blessed, run off on a path of spiritual euphoria, then would sooner or later begin to lose the momentum, at which point I would feel I was becoming spiritually stagnant, backsliding even; but within time I would have another experience and be set in motion again. The "dry" times were periods of guilt when I was convinced I was at fault; the refillings were occasions to thank the Lord and promise not to let the fire grow cold this time. It always did eventually.

The Toronto Blessing was a source of immediate controversy within evangelical and charismatic circles. Many charismatics could not understand how any true Christian could fail to see that it as a clear sign of God's blessing; others thought it was just another example of charismaniac lunacy; still others labelled the whole thing the result of psychological manipulation or at worst demonic deception. Within months, churches had split, reputations had been made and destroyed, and the Toronto Blessing and all its associated phenomena (whether for or against) had become the defining issue for evangelicals.

I had experienced its power firsthand, of course, and was eager to defend its legitimacy. I wrote an article for our church newsletter in favour of the Blessing, mockingly deriding anyone who dared question whether it was really God at work. Even within our small church there was divided opinion, though most were happy to embrace it. Throughout that year, we continued to receive visits from leaders and speakers associated with the Blessing. On one occasion, a "prophet" came and delivered words of prediction to various members of the church (some of which later appeared to be stunningly accurate), before going on to dispense the Blessing. I will never forget the sight of one of the elders reeling around supposedly "drunk in the Spirit". Clinging to a pillar to support himself, and giggling away childishly, he was watched by an amused and entertained congregation. Later, the same "prophet" tried to provoke the elder's daughter to the same reaction, even forcibly pushing her down in an attempt to make her either stagger or drop, I am not sure which. Her stifled laughter only reflected an obvious embarrassment, which I shared.

I never expressed these reservations, however, and continued to pursue more of these experiences. A large Pentecostal church in the town next to us had enthusiastically greeted the Blessing, and had become something of a hive of charismatic activity itself. They hosted a number of conferences featuring many of the prominent names in the revival, such as Marc Dupont (the Toronto church's resident prophet at the time, who laid claim to having predicted this strange outpouring) and RT Kendall, one of the Blessing's most vigorous advocates on the British side of the Atlantic. I attended as many of these conferences and seminars as I could, hungry for God, and desperate to keep the spiritual momentum alive.

The format of most of these gatherings was predictable but exciting: A session of testimony, preaching and prophecy would be followed by "ministry". Chairs would be cleared from the front of the auditorium, and people would be invited to step forward to receive prayer. As the band led people in a time of worship (in popular charismatic parlance, "praise" is fast and lively, where "worship" is slow and intimate), the "ministry team" would make their way around the crowd, usually two to a person, and the laying-on of hands would swiftly be followed by the person falling to the floor, "slain in the Spirit", or being overcome with hysterical laughter, tears or a state of spiritual intoxication. Certain catchphrases became a part of the routine: "Touch her, Lord, from the top of her head to the tips of her toes", was one such stock phrase; "More, Lord, more", was another.

In my case, such "slayings" were becoming less frequent, and this absence of dramatic phenomena was becoming an anxiety for me. Often someone would pray for five minutes or so before subtly gesturing for another member to come and join. The clear implication, though always unspoken, was "I need help here: This one's not budging!" When it became evident that nothing was happening, I would be entreated: "Don't resist... Don't resist... Just let it come." This, of course, only ever had the effect of making me even more embarrassed and anxious for something to happen. Soon would come the assurances not to worry if there were no visible manifestations; but the ever-lengthening and increasingly intense petitions for the Holy Spirit to do something seemed to contradict this notion that "the manifestations aren't what's important." Often, a change of technique was called for on the part of the person doing the praying. The pray-er would suddenly bellow out, "Touch!" (another buzzword) after a prolonged silence, which would naturally tend to arouse some startled reaction! Or the hands would switch from the top of the head to the back or the side, occasionally the belly (the source of the anticipated laughter) or, in extreme cases, the forehead, which had the effect of causing one to lose one's balance, especially if the eyes were shut. Eventually, if all else failed, I would receive the customary promise that the inner work was the really important thing, regardless of any impressive outward signs. Such a blithe assurance seemed at odds with the frantic attempts to make something significant happen, however.

So I would return to my seat trying unconvincingly to talk myself into believing that the Spirit was at work in me despite how things looked on the outside. It was often enough just to watch everyone else being blessed. The scene sometimes reminded me of that famous image from Gone with the Wind when Scarlett O’Hara walks through streets strewn with the ailing bodies of hundreds of wounded soldiers. I would have to step over a number of prostrate bodies to get back to my seat.

Back at my own church, the renewal had failed to take off in quite the way my pastor had hoped. When visiting preachers came, the Holy Spirit apparently came with them. Other weeks it appeared to me an uphill struggle for the pastor to duplicate the same heady, charged atmosphere.

The Prosperity Preachers

I was genuinely surprised by the message of the prosperity preachers when I heard for the first time that God wanted us to be rich. Europe’s first ever Christian TV channel had recently started broadcasting, and I was ripe for its teachings. A lady from church kindly kept my mother and I up-to-date with videotaped recordings of the daily programmes. The exciting preaching I was hearing was like nothing I had been exposed to before: Kenneth Copeland and Fred Price would encourage believers to "name it and claim it" with infectious enthusiasm; John Avanzini would open up the teachings of Jesus and provide keys to getting rich; Rodney Howard-Browne’s powerful anointing would cause an entire theatre-full of believers to erupt into hysterical laughter, while causing others to freeze like statues in the middle of giving their testimonies. I soon learned to sincere amazement that God wanted us to be wealthy and that sickness came directly from the Devil himself. The new preachers I listened to would talk straight to Satan saying things like, "Get your hands off my property in the name of Jesus!" Whenever financial trouble reared its head, they would simply "stand on the Word", confessing boldly that Jesus died to make them rich, and claiming by faith the results there and then. If signs of sickness appeared, they would proclaim aloud on the spot, "By his stripes I am healed. Hallelujah!" and Satan would be obliged to get out of the way, and God to step in. Christianity was one long line of victories, all available by quoting the promises of Scripture back to God, to oneself or even to Satan. I liked it.

I remember hearing John Avanzini speak one time. He began by saying something like, "Now this is one of Jesus’ greatest parables on the subject of money and how to become wealthy" (put almost as crudely as that). He then took his viewers through the parable of the sower (Mark 3:4-8), explaining that Jesus was teaching his followers that if they sowed their money in fertile soil, they would reap a hundredfold in kind. He also added that one of Satan’s greatest schemes had been to keep the church ignorant of the important meaning of this parable for centuries. I was bowled over, although not because Avanzini had twisted and contorted the text to suit his own ends, but because Satan had apparently been able for so long to blind the minds of believers to Jesus’ greatest parable on the subject of how to get money!

Unfortunately, I did not have the wisdom to check things for myself and see if what he was saying was true. It was quite some time later that I was combing through the gospels trying to find the parable to which John had referred, and was puzzled to discover that nothing he said even remotely matched anything I found on the lips of Jesus. Eventually I concluded the reference could only be Mark 4, and I was finally awakened to the fact that Avanzini had in fact grossly misled his viewers. No one approaching the parable for the first time could possibly have construed its meaning in the blatantly deceptive way he had. Mark even tells us in the following passage (4:13-20) that Jesus was talking about the word of God, a far cry from what I had been led to believe. Avanzini had of course conveniently forgotten to mention this part of the text. How many other Christians, I wondered, had taken John and his fellow charismatic preachers at their word and not had the wherewithal to compare it with the words of Jesus for themselves?

Questions

In 1997, as I was preparing to go to Bible College, I began to study the Scriptures for myself, and cracks began to appear in some of the teachings and practices to which I had been introduced. I had long been interested in studying charismatic issues for myself, especially since a disturbing encounter with a member of a pseudo-Pentecostal cult who told me I wasn’t going to heaven unless I spoke in tongues. The chance meeting, which had taken place on the street during a weeklong evangelism campaign, provoked me to digest all the material I could find to bolster my charismatic beliefs. Some of my conclusions from this most recent period had been bothering me, however. For instance, I couldn’t help but notice the glaring discrepancy between what Paul told the Corinthians about the gift of tongues and what all the charismatics I knew actually practised. Paul said tongues were directed towards God; I had always been taught that the gift of tongues was just another way of prophesying directly to believers. Paul said not everyone had the gift of tongues; I had been led to believe everyone should speak in tongues. Paul said either speak in tongues and interpret for the rest of the church or shut up altogether; at almost every charismatic gathering I had attended, people were encouraged to and did speak and sing in tongues as if no one but God were listening.

It was also during this year that I came across a popular book debunking the extremes of the prosperity preachers. It was an eye-opener for me. The author documented some of the dangerous doctrines being advanced by leaders in the Faith movement, as it was called. Most of the names I recognized immediately from the Christian Channel: Kenneth Copeland; Fred Price; Benny Hinn; Marilyn Hickey. In retrospect, this expose of the faith teachers was inaccurate in some respects, but the overall point was clearly true: These new doctrines were hazardous to Christian faith; hazardous to emotional and spiritual wellbeing, in fact. They turned Jesus into a twentieth-century success guru who came to make us rich, a Jesus far removed from the one portrayed in the gospels who constantly warns us of the dangers of being drawn away from God by the pursuit of worldly wealth.

By September of 1998, I was already questioning much of what my charismatic background had led me to take for granted. The rest of my journey out of the trappings of the modern charismatic movement was to take place not in my home church, but in a different setting altogether.

Bible College

My three years in Bible college brought me into contact with charismatic Christians of every description. Some were zealous followers of the Word-Faith teachings. Some were "classical" Pentecostals for whom the Baptism in the Holy Spirit, accompanied by the only sure evidence of tongues, was the definitive doctrine of their type of Christianity. At least one refused to call himself charismatic or Pentecostal, though he believed in the supernatural gifts of the Spirit. Many were enthusiastic about the Toronto Blessing, which by then had come to be seen as a distinct worldwide renewal of the church, rarely viewed in terms of its Canadian origins. (The phrase "Toronto Blessing" had by then become a rather hackneyed expression.) A few were skeptical about the validity of some of the more exotic manifestations being witnessed at the time, such as uncontrollable laughter, spiritual drunkenness and animal sounds.

By this time, charismatic Christianity was becoming a much more integrated phenomenon. The impact of the Toronto Blessing was universal in scope, and before long connections had been made that allowed a lot of interlinking of different streams of the charismatic movement. In the United States, Rodney Howard-Browne was a kind of middle-man between the so-called Third Wave and the Faith movement. His theology seemed to be a mix of classical Pentecostal, mainline charismatic (Vineyard etc) and Word-Faith. Falling clearly into no particular camp, yet finding favour in all of them, he was a bridge that enabled a new kind of charismatic ecumenism.

It was now more common to hear Word-Faith terminology and thinking creeping into the language of mainline charismatics, especially preachers and leaders. The "health and wealth" doctrine seemed to be making inroads into the traditionally more conservative churches. Prophecies were often now an eclectic mixture of prosperity doctrine and the older, standard charismatic fare.

It was amid such a milieu that I found myself in Bible college. It was a challenging time for me, for many of the doctrines I was starting to call into serious question were rapidly increasing in popularity in the wake of Toronto. In particular, I had grave reservations about the triumphalistic nature of most charismatics’ worldview of the Christian life and the endtimes. The notion that we were to expect an endtimes revival was rarely challenged, and the events of the previous few years only seemed to have confirmed that the Spirit was about to launch a massive revival without precedent in history. This expectation was becoming increasingly bound up with more detailed predictions of a Christian takeover of the world, a time when Christians would take their rightful place as rulers and governors and businessmen, when the wealth of the wicked would be at the disposal of godly Christians. It was a combination of dominion theology, which claimed that God’s rule on earth would come through the church prior to Christ’s return, and the faith teaching that the world’s wealth would be transferred into the hands of the righteous in the last days. It appeared that Christians who might otherwise have rejected the faith teachings outright were seduced into it by these new variations which came from a source closer to home.

In my first year I continued my pilgrimage of abandoning many of the old teachings and refining charismatic ideas in the light of new understandings of Scripture. Some of the far-fetched dogmas about demons and spiritual warfare were the first to be rejected. I combed the Bible for any instruction for believers to walk about their cities claiming them for God, binding territorial spirits and taking authority over regions, countries and even governments, but my search was in vain.

A turning-point

My second year in college was a watershed. During that year I became fatally disillusioned with charismatic Christianity, and the seeds were sown for my eventual decision to give up calling myself a charismatic altogether. I can probably isolate three distinct strands in my journey out of the charismatic world in which I had spent most of my Christian life: My experience as leader of the student-initiated monthly renewal meetings on campus; my growing dissatisfaction with the form and content of charismatic worship; and the increasing popularity of a visiting prophetess and her expanding association with and influence upon the life of the college.

A fellow student had graduated the previous year, and had appointed me his successor in leading and organizing the monthly student renewal meetings. He was sold out on the new wave of charismaticism, having come straight to college from Kensington Temple, a London megachurch at the forefront of the current renewal. The meetings he began and organized followed the routine charismatic format: A time of worship; preaching from a guest speaker; and finally a time of "ministry". Some of the gatherings from the previous year had stuck in my memory. One time a travelling evangelist from Finland, already known to both of us, came and offered the students a severe reprimand for the lack of signs and wonders in our daily lives and ministries. The thrust of his message was that Christians ought to see miracles and healings every day, and the blame was placed squarely on our shoulders if they simply weren’t materializing. There followed the usual pattern of people crumpling to the floor, shouting and wailing, crying and laughing. A few students left, later confessing they had found it all an embarrassing spectacle, a scene of utter chaos.

I had a lot to live up to, then, when I took upon myself the responsibility for coordinating the meetings. For me, however, a renewal meeting was precisely that -- an opportunity for renewal. I had little interest in the kind of manifestations that had previously characterized the meetings. This put me at odds, however, with some of the others on the leadership team. Though it was never directly stated, the implicit assumption was always there that we were aiming for an outpouring of the Spirit along the accustomed lines. I was burdened by the expectation placed upon me, that I would, to put it rather crudely, do my best to ensure that the conditions were ripe for an intense outburst of emotion, a visible, tangible outbreak of sings and wonders and all the anticipated charismatic phenomena. Regardless of claims to the contrary, I was by now convinced that much, perhaps most, of what we had seen over the past few years was indeed the result of precisely this kind of attempt on the part of leaders to generate a hyped-up atmosphere conducive to such outbreaks. I had no desire to follow suit.

This made my position rather uncomfortable. I was clearly not the kind of man that ought to be leading such an enterprise, and thus I stumbled through the year feeling quite isolated from the aims of the rest of the group. I was glad, at the end of that year, to give up the position and put it all behind me.

The second point of contention was charismatic worship. The shallow sentimentalism and questionable ideals reflected in contemporary charismatic choruses were beginning to frustrate me. On my first day back for my second year, I was immediately halted in my desire to worship God by a particular song were were singing in a chapel service that day. The words were something like, "I just wanna be close to you… I just wanna feel your touch… Yes, I love you… Oh yes, I just wanna feel you near." As if the crassness of "wanna" weren’t enough, the song gave little clue who we were singing to or why. I wondered if anyone coming in from the outside would be able to tell we were worshipping, or whether it would sound just like another pop song. This was not a rare event. Many of the songs we sang revealed a similar lack of depth, all about feelings, but not often tied to anything substantial.

The impression I was getting was that these songs were manufactured to create feelings for their own sake, and this was not far removed from the kind of emotional and psychological manipulation that was the standard in charismatic worship: Worship leaders, of which I was one, knew just the right harmonies to provoke an emotional response, when to crescendo and decrescendo to create a sensational effect, and how to stir up the congregation into a euphoric state accompanied by tongues, shouting and "spontaneous" praise. For sure, post-Toronto charismatic worship was noticeably rowdier!

This in turn highlighted another concern with worship: Individualism. There was little sense of the corporate, the whole. The words of the songs only ever encouraged introspection and self-absorption. They were all about intimacy, "just me and Jesus". This was mirrored by the approach from the platform: "Just do whatever you feel like… Don’t worry about the person sitting next to you… If you want to dance or shout or sing in tongues, go ahead… Forget everyone else." This was in stark contrast to Paul, who rebuked the Corinthians for worshipping in precisely that way, without regard for each other, concerned for their own edification but not their neighbours’. There was little evidence of the realization that we had come to worship the Lord together.

I was also finding that many of the songs I simply couldn’t sing in good faith. "These are the days of Elijah," we would sing, going on to describe a dramatic endtimes restoration, but such a scenario was just part-and-parcel of the dominionistic, triumphalistic teaching I was starting to reject. "All the weaknesses I see in me will be stripped away" was another one, but it dawned on me that God might choose never to remove some of these weaknesses this side of eternity. Charismatics and Pentecostals had seemingly little room for weakness and suffering in their thoughts. Many of the songs would be of a quasi-mystical nature, exhorting us to climb to higher heights and plumb deeper depths, but I was beginning to question whether I wanted to keep carrying this relentless burden always to be trying to progress towards God, to become better spiritually, to become somehow more acceptable to God.
Weekly chapel meetings were rapidly becoming a chore. I would prepare myself to praise the Lord, to sing about what he had done for us in Christ, to join with other believers in celebrating the grace of God, but every time I would feel thwarted in my attempts by a barrage of inane choruses whose main purpose seem to be to get me to stop thinking about the gospel, to forget about everyone else in the room, and just to wallow privately in some vague feeling of closeness to God.

Finally, there came the prophetess. This was the final straw for me, and sealed my fate as far as my continuance in the charismatic life of the college to any degree of enthusiasm was concerned. The prophetess had visited a number of churches and conferences within our denomination, and I had heard many wonderful things about her. She was said to pick people out of the audience at random and prophesy about them on the spot, relaying many fantastic and apparently accurate details about them, and making predictions about their future ministry. When she was booked to come and host a conference for the students, she was greeted rapturously.

I was so disillusioned with college life that I did not attend her first meeting, an evening workshop designed to coach students in how to prophesy. When it was over, however, my roommate returned to the apartment feeling elated. "Prophesying is so easy, you know," he told me. "I think I could go up to anyone I didn’t know on a bus and just start prophesying to them." Naturally, I was a little taken aback by such a bold declaration from a student who had never made such claims before.

He gave me an account of how that evening’s session had gone. The prophetess announced that they would be dividing into groups of, say, five persons. Four of them would surround the remaining person in a circle. The one in the middle would be prophesied over. Three of the four would speak out whatever images or pictures came into their head ("Doesn’t matter how silly or ridiculous it sounds," she said, "Just speak out"). The last remaining person would put all the pictures together and deliver an interpretation for the person in the middle. The prophetess pre-empted the question of how the participants could be certain it was really God speaking by referring to Matthew 7:11 "Which of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? … How much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!" Thus, if they prayed and asked God for a prophecy, they were guaranteed that no matter what strange pictures might pop into their heads, its source was God.

The experience of my friend’s group had gone something like this: One person saw a tree; the second person saw a candle; the third saw the sun; the interpretation was figured to be that the person being prophesied over was like a tree, and when the sun came up she would grow, and would become like a light to people. I got the general idea. This way of doing "prophecy" was not a new concept to me. A few years earlier I had waited in line by a platform at Bible camp ready to take the microphone and announce to an audience of five hundred young people what I had seen when I closed my eyes (in reality the back of my eyelids, a very hazy mixture of light and shadow I decided looked like a ribcage!). Back then, I had been given exactly the same advice: No matter how silly it sounds, say it. Luckily the meeting had ended before it came to my turn.

I was incensed that my friend had been duped into taking his own imaginations for the voice of God, and that as a result of this seminar he had the confidence to want to go out immediately and dupe the rest of the unsuspecting world. I could not think of a better way of leading people into self-deception than encouraging them to elevate their own imaginations to the level of God. I decided to check out the prophetess for myself the next morning when she was scheduled to speak at chapel.

Needless to say, I was unimpressed. She gave a few prophetic words about various countries of the world, and then proceeded to relate a series of visions and revelations she and her daughter had had on the subject of the wealth of the wicked. Just as I had heard John Avanzini, Creflo Dollar and Benny Hinn tell me a few year earlier during my passing infatuation with the Faith movement, this lady told us that the world’s wealth was ready to be passed into the hands of believers. Very soon, she predicted, all the businesses, financial institutions and governments would be dominated by Christians. Every bank manager would be a born-again believer. The biggest companies would be owned and controlled by Christians. In other words, the world economy would be in the hands of the Church. At one time this notion was merely a "teaching" which could be refuted by a quick examination of the Scriptures being cited in its support. Now it was "endtimes prophecy", and God’s prophets all over the world were apparently getting the same message.

It was more than I could stomach. Mainly on the basis of her accurate "words of knowledge", the majority of the students and faculty were swept up in enthusiasm for the prophetess. Everyone was talking about it. She was booked for further seminars and meetings, and plans were being made for her to return the following year to teach an entire module on prophecy.

I was not the only dissenter. A few other students had alerted me to their alarm over what was happening, and where the college seemed to be heading as a result. Others had been on a similar journey to me, gradually losing their passion for charismatic Christianity.

The individualism, sentimentalism and subtle legalism of charismatic Christianity was becoming apparent. By the end of that second year of Bible college, I was on my way out of things charismatic. I felt foreign to the spiritual talk of my charismatic friends who seemed to be inhabiting a different world from me, a world where revival was just around the corner, where new waves and moves of God were coming along all the time and our obligation was just to go with the flow, getting deeper and deeper into the "river of God", by now a favourite charismatic metaphor for this strange "new thing" God was apparently doing. It seemed to me that the new fads that came around regularly -- first spiritual warfare, then Toronto, and then a few years later Tommy Tenney’s mystical "God-chasing" -- were increasingly defining what it meant to be a charismatic. It was no longer enough simply to be interested in following Jesus and being led by the Spirit day by day. You had to jump on whatever the latest bandwagon was to come along. Apostles and prophets, endtimes revival, wealth transfer - if it was in vogue, you had to get with the programme. That was the legalism of it.

In my third and final year I declined to worship regularly at a Pentecostal church. Instead, I sought solace in the local Anglican church. It was a breath of fresh air for me. The liturgy was rich and meaningful, centred around the proclamation of what God had done in Christ, and designed as a corporate response to the gospel, an act of worship the congregation could partake of together. When I took the bread and wine, I felt I had been truly fed, that Christ had truly met us in the Eucharist. It did not matter to me that the same words were repeated week upon week, for it was full of significance for me, and provided exactly what I needed: A regular reminder of the love of Christ, a fresh proclamation of the simplicity of the gospel. It was the perfect antidote for a young man who had grown tired and exasperated by years of sitting, standing, waving, wailing, performing in charismatic services. It sustained me through that difficult final year of Bible college.

Into the real world

Despite my disenchantment with the charismatic movement, I nevertheless left college to minister as associate pastor of a smalltown Pentecostal Church in western Canada. The senior pastor’s version of Pentecostalism seemed to be fairly low-key. He didn’t appear to be given to many of the worst charismatic extremes. I was however to find myself in conflict with the rest of the church at various points.

One of the earliest of these occasions was when a lady in the church came across a book by Paul Yonggi Cho entitled The Fourth Dimension. I was familiar with the book, a classic by charismatic standards, and was appalled by its contents. In the book, Cho claims that God will not answer unspecific prayer. Rather, we must give as much attention to detail as possible when we make our requests to God. He recounts the tale of a lady who came to him asking for a husband, whom he castigated for not being specific enough. After she told God exactly what she wanted, however, right down to the height, hair-colour and career, among other things, God answered her. He also says we must visualize our prayers, and "incubate" the vision before giving birth to whatever it is we want. His claim, similar to that of the Faith teachers, is that whatever we see, we get, and what we confess, we possess.

Within a couple of weeks, a substantial number in our small congregation were talking about the book. Copies were being passed from person to person, new copies were being bought and read, and it was being credited with revolutionizing prayer-lives. But at what cost? I felt powerless to do or say anything, because the pastor’s wife was part of the enthusiastic throng!

This was a pattern that repeated itself again and again. I found I could not challenge one doctrine without upsetting the whole worldview of my congregants. It wasn’t a case of saying, "Keep this teaching, but throw out that one", for everything was interlinked and bound up with a whole scheme of looking at and interpreting the world.

I identified the following elements to this worldview: The Christian journey is an ascent towards God, and therefore any keys or principles that might unlock new ways of getting closer to God were sought after and welcomed; the world is a battleground between God and Satan, light and darkness, and the believer’s job is to join in that battle on every level, over and against unbelievers, who are unwittingly on Satan’s side; God is going to bring a worldwide revival and, moreover, he intends to make the western world "Christian" again. Thus, any suggestion that fell outside the parameters of this narrative would hardly be worth weighing up, for it belonged to a wholly different way of looking at things.

During my year and a half at that church, I often felt like a stranger in a foreign land. Every discussion and conversation would betray this worldview, and thus I was forced to shut up altogether or to speak out and rock the boat. I reasoned I was the outsider here, and also subordinate to a senior pastor who, despite his rejection of its most extreme manifestations, nevertheless held to the same basic worldview, or at least never challenged it. So, I went for the former option, and it bred much frustration.

My thinking at that time had been provoked by a book I had come across some years earlier and rejected, but which I had recently rediscovered and which resonated with me. Its title was In the Face of God: The Dangers and Delights of Spiritual Intimacy by Michael Horton, a Reformed pastor and theologian from California. It was this book that helped me understand that the charismatic movement had a whole philosophy underlying it, and this philosophy was a mystical view of the Christian life as an ascent to God. Such a view, Horton argued, was at odds with the gospel of God’s descent to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Modern charismatics and many evangelicals had come to see the Christian life as an ongoing climb nearer and nearer to God’s glory; the gospel, however, declared that we could never hope to ascend to God, but that God would descend and had descended to us in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus. Though I've come to reject Horton's Reformed Calvinism just as I've rejected charismatic Christianity, the main thrust of his book rang immediately true to my experience: The charismatic movement had birthed a new, albeit often subtle, form of legalism. All the talk about getting deeper into the river and climbing in higher heights resulted in people taking their eyes off Jesus, the author and perfecter of their faith, and inwards to their own performance, their own attempts to get nearer to God, a God they didn’t realize was already brought near to them in Jesus: Was I praying enough? Did I speak in tongues often enough? Did I have the right keys to a victorious Christian life? Was I at the right level of self-denial necessary for the Spirit to be able to work in me? Was I "in the right place" with God? These were the questions that obsessed charismatics.

One evening, sitting at the church computer writing a letter, I decided I no longer wanted to be called charismatic. I could no longer share my fellow charismatics’ enthusiasm and excitement each time a new book or "move of the Spirit" came along. I was loathe to remain indefinitely among such believers, where my presence could only ever appear to be that of a killjoy, determined to destroy the work of God’s Spirit.

Despite that, I remained in that church for over a year, and it was a frustrating time. When confronted directly with charismatic practices and teachings I now abhorred, I could only ever remain silent and bear with it.

My discomfort reached its peak when a few others and I were ministering to a young man who, though professing faith, continually battled with drugs and alcohol. A number, again including the pastor’s wife, had concluded that the answer was to arrange daily meetings for the purpose of laying hands on the young man and praying for deliverance from demons. Though some years earlier this might have struck me as a sensible suggestion, it was poles apart from any approach I might nowadays consider. I undertook a search of the Scriptures once again, but was at a loss to find even a hint that anything like a sustained campaign to seek deliverance from evil spirits might be the solution to a believer’s problems. Everything I read suggested otherwise: For Paul (especially in Romans), the key to sanctification was the realization that in Christ we were set free from the law of sin and death; God had already worked to accomplish our deliverance, and we were simply required to walk in its light. In this case, however, the search was on for "generational spirits", supposedly demons passed on from one generation to the next. Some of these were (unconvincingly) identified, and the appropriate prayers and commands were offered. Then it was decided that the young man needed to speak in tongues, and so he was surrounded by three of us, one of whom would pray in tongues herself, and who for about ten straight minutes encouraged the obviously embarrassed young man to open his mouth and speak in tongues. He was not the only embarrassed one.

What had happened to the gospel in all of this? Where was Jesus? These complicated deliverance sessions were only detracting from the simplicity of the gospel, and ultimately from Jesus. By that time, of course, I had firmly decided: I wanted only to get back to simplicity. The charismatic movement had placed a heavy load on me, and I was always under that pressure to ascend to higher levels in the spiritual life. I was watching others being placed under that same kind of legalism. It was not a burden I wanted any longer to handle. Moreover, I was totally unconvinced it was a burden God had ever asked me to handle.

It seemed to me that the charismatic movement had started off with its heart in the right place, with a simple desire to be open to the more extraordinary gifts, to let God speak and encourage the Church through the ministry of the Spirit. But it had wandered far from its roots. The demands of this relentless pursuit of greater experiences of God’s glory were obscuring the wonderful, liberating truth that in Jesus we were already brought near to God. When I left my associate pastorate, all my ties with charismatic Christianity were finally severed. I walked away from a Pentecostal church for the last time, glad to be free.

 

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