Kingdom Triangle Discussion

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

"Is American Christianity Turning Charismatic?"

The Barna Group recently released a report about the sociological character of Charismatic and Pentecostal churches in the U.S.

Since JP's Kingdom Triangle attempts to show the interrelated significance of a Christianity that fuses Spirit-empowerment with thinking Christianly along with cultivating an inner life through Christian spiritual disciplines, we thought JP would have something to say about this report.

Here are his comments:
Barna's study on the growth of "Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity" is interesting on several fronts. If his data and interpretation are valid and sound, then it underscores the importance for non-Pentecostals and Charismatics to pay attention to this growing trend and assess its strengths and weaknesses.

But there seems to be several missing or omitted elements from Barna's "reflection":

First, Barna seems to mostly present an emotive and cultural interpretation of charismatic expression and experience when he writes, "the freedom of emotional and spiritual expression typical of charismatic assemblies parallels the cultural trend toward personal expression, accepting diverse emotions and allowing people to interpret their experiences in ways that make sense to them." Granted, this may be true as far as obvious sociological reflection goes, but charismatics also have diverse theological reasons and evidences for cultivating the emotionality of their individual and corporate expression. Namely, Charismatics and Pentecostals expectantly confide in God with the understanding that he is alive, active, and not impotent in his world. In short, they actually believe that the presence of God is real and not imaginary; he's always active at work in mission and not impotent or indifferent to the responsiveness of his creation.

Second, Barna's research and reflection does not seem to take into consideration the growing association of what Peter Wagner has called "third wave" churches, such as the Vineyards and the Calvary Chapels. If these are taken into consideration, then their categorization is not obvious or clear in this Barna report. These movements have been, I think, the historical catalyst for change and bridge-building, if you will, between traditional evangelicals and Charismatics/Pentecostals.

Third, "third wavers," especially of the Vineyard sort, increasing make the case, theologically and practically in corporate church experience, that it is the nature and significance of the in-breaking of the kingdom of God and the ministry of Jesus and NOT whether "sign gifts" are for today, as the differentiating reason for why we can continue to expect God to bring healings, prophetic words, deliverances, etc in our midst.

Why does God do these things? Because they are signs - and not the only ones, either - of God, the presence and power of his Kingdom, and the ministry of Jesus actually our midst. If you gathered for church or in a small group with the expectation that God is in our midst, that he is alive and actually desires to interactively communicate His heart, administer his ministry, and bless us in order to make us a blessing to others, pray tell, how could your emotions and affections, let alone your mind and will, not be stirred and compelled? But this explanation, in content and tone, is omitted in Barna's research and reflection as a viable theological explanation for informing and forming so-called "Charismatic/Pentecostal experience."

Fourth, there is a growing number of church movements (e.g., Sam Storms, and other Charismatic and theologically Reformed folks), who would consider themselves "evangelical" but also charismatic. Indeed, this is, perhaps, the real news about the growth of Charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity in the U.S.: its been hugely influential in areas of theology, teaching, worship, music, and overall ecclesial practice among evangelicals, who continue to remain evangelical but with an eagerness to interactively know the living God and practice his presence.

I'm encouraged by what appears to be the genuine growth of Charismatics and Pentecostals in the U.S. Their growth also signals the importance of helping them, and all of us, develop our inner lives in the discipline of Christian formation so that the life of our minds are skilled in virtue, theological knowledge and wisdom, which I demonstrably discuss in Kingdom Triangle (see chapters 4-7).

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