Twenty years ago, a friend invited me to attend a worship event at a church that had been experiencing revival. The church was once a standard-issue Bible church that held the position that the sign gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as healing, prophecy, deliverances, and tongues, had ceased with the death of the final disciple named in the New Testament. Then those things started happening in the church in around 1999 or so. There was crisis and controversy as some long-time members left, but the church’s numbers exploded with weary seekers like our family.
We’d been looking for over a year for a new church home after our last church imploded. This congregation seemed to have what we thought we longed for in a church: passionate spiritual community, a hunger for the things of God, and a pastor who’d been willing to thoughtfully, systematically reexamine the cessationist theology he’d learned in seminary. We’d been in Charismatic churches before, and it seemed those congregations valued signs, wonders, and goosebump-inducing experiences over thoughtful and faithful Bible study. We were hopeful that this church would be different.
The early days were a little like stepping into a whirlwind. Some of that wind was the activity of the Holy Spirit. And some of it was toxins stirred up like trash in a tornado. We ended up staying at the church for four years until we moved from the area. I served for two years on staff. My husband was an elder. My kids, teens at the time, witnessed some beautiful moments of grace during those years. But sadly most of it was buried underneath the debris of an environment filled with much emotional and spiritual excess that left each one of them with some serious wounds. I continue to grieve that deeply.
It may be more accurate to call what happened at the church a renewal and theological redirection instead of a true revival. Though most of the staff from those days, including the pastor, are no longer at the church, the church is now firmly entrenched in the Charismatic world – taking its theological and praxis cues from the New Apostolic Reformation crew, Bethel Church, the International House of Prayer, and a variety of traveling Charismatic circuit preachers.
Though I am still connected with a few of the people from the church during the years we were there thanks to the signs and wonders of Facebook, I don’t know any of them well enough today to ask them what their reflections are of those days. (If any of you from that Milwaukee-area church happen to be reading this, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how those heady days two decades ago affected your life.)
Here are seven lessons I learned from worshipping in the whirlwind:
(1) Displays of spiritual power tended to trump sound theology. Those who questioned were too often silenced with the equivalent of a “Get thee behind me, Satan!”
Lesson: This attitude shut down spiritual formation and created a culture of spiritual immaturity.
(2) Instant, dramatic results were valued above perseverance and faithfulness. Transformation was exalted, discipleship minimized.
Lesson: Even those who’d experienced a dramatic result could not sustain a spiritual life from that transformational moment. Fireworks dissipate. Candles have the fuel to burn for a long, long time. The fire of revival/renewal should be lighting candles, not setting off fireworks.
(3) Prosperity preaching, in the form of naming Scripture’s promises and claiming/demanding results from God over everything from problems to desires, didn’t leave any room for mystery, waiting, or a flat-out “no” from God because the notion of delighting in God and being given the desires of one’s heart (Ps. 37:4) seemed to reduce prayer into a transaction between equal parties.
Lesson: This grave error malforms our understanding of who God is and who we are. There’s much more to say about this one, but for the purposes of this summary, let’s just say that this grave error is not limited to the Charismatic streams of the Church, but is everywhere in American Christian culture and it is a SERIOUS PROBLEM. It is leading people astray.
(4) Concurrent to prosperity preaching, a heightened focus on spiritual warfare tended to communicate to people in the pews that God and Satan were fairly well-matched combatants in a cosmic battle, and we are pawns of one side or the other.
Lesson: Yes, spiritual warfare exists. But the focus, underlying practices, and unexpressed fear of losing conditioned the congregation to see the world in terms of us versus them. It was a logical next step to apply the hubris of this thinking to American politics, and to look for a champion who could protect them and guarantee them a “win”, rationalizing away the leader’s blatant immorality in the process.
(5) Though the pastor was seminary educated, there was a huge disdain for the life of the mind. The mind was viewed as being in opposition to the life of the Spirit.
Lesson: This is the old heresy of gnosticism, repackaged for a modern audience. Jesus called us to love God heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. He never, ever elevated one over the others. Nor should we.
(6) Things happen fast and with greater intensity in a whirlwind.
Lesson: As a result of this speed and intensity, it is easy to fall into the temptation to be reactive, not responsive to events as they unfold. A culture of reaction sets up innocent people up to get hurt – and they did. As my husband and I learned when we challenged some of the reactive practices that emerged in the church, whistleblowers (and their children) get hurt, too.
(7) When God moves, a mess often ensues as he upends the status quo.
Lesson: The status quo can be an idol, and it needs to be toppled. We can do this whether the wind is blowing or whether the weathervane is still every time we choose humility and repentance on the daily.
If you’ve been in a church experiencing renewal, or been a part of a revival movement, what would you add to this list?
Cover image by Jonny Lindner from Pixabay