The Charismatic/Pentecostal movement is here to stay. Get used to it. Earlier this month The Pew Forum released a new study titled “Spirit and Power: A 10-country survey of Pentecostals.” The survey contained a number of interesting facts:
- At least a quarter of the world’s 2 billion Christians are Charistmatic or Pentecostal
- In five of the nations surveyed (Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, Kenya and the Philippines) more than two-thirds of Protestants are either pentecostal or charismatic
- In three countries (Brazil, Guatemala and Kenya) Pentecostals and Charismatics as a percentage of the total population approaches or exceeds 50%
According to the survey, Pentecostals are more likely than other Christians to view the Bible as the actual words of God, to be take literally, and to take a conservative position on social issues. They also are much more likely to report having experienced of witnessed divine healing, casting out of demons, or “received a direct revelation from God” (I have real concerns about this last question). Interestingly, in 6 of the 10 countries surveyed, at least four in ten penentecostals say that they never speak or pray in tongues! I think that this alerts us that viewing the pentecostal movement as focused primarily on tongues is far too simplistic.
What are we Evangelicals to make of these facts? First of all are the usual concerns that have been expressed about the movement:
- There is a tendency to focus more on emotional experience than the truth of God’s word
- Some in the movement seek the gift (or experience) rather than the Giver
- The belief that speaking in tongues is the indispensible sign of filling with the Spirit is not biblical
- Some Pentecostal groups have serious theological problems, such as the “oneness” pentecostals who deny the Trinity (most Charismatics and Pentecostals would not accept the teaching of these groups).
Perhaps you can think of others. But we must also ask what we can learn from the movement. Some points that come to mind:
- Our faith should lead to a vibrant, personal experience with God. Our faith is not based on experience, but it should lead to genuine experience of God.
- God’s power in the world is real, and He can accomplish what is impossible by human effort. We need to depend on His power, not merely our own abilities and strategies.
- A life of prayer and constant communion with God should be the norm for the Christian life. (When I was a missionary, I sent urgent prayer requests to my Charismatic friends first, because they tended to have more effective prayer lives than my other Christian friends.)
- We need the faith to take God at his word, and not give in to the temptation to nuance and qualify our theology to the point that we really don’t expect to see God actually work in our daily lives.
When I studied at Talbot Seminary in the 1980’s there was a special series of chapel lectures by Evangelical patriarch J. I. Packer. In his messages he evaluated the strenghts and weaknesses of the Charismatic/Pentecostal movement. In the final message he stated his conclusion that although there were legitimate areas of concern, God was using the movement to speak to the church and provide a corrective to the tendency toward intellectual “head knowledge” without a passionate personal faith. He said that overall, his conclusion was that the movement was definitely from God. From where I was sitting in the chapel, I could see several of my professors shift uncomfortably in their seats.
This is not the place for a general evaluation of the Charismatic/Pentecostal movement. But this survey is a reminder that a significant portion of the Body of Christ is Charismatic or Pentecostal, and that we should engage in conversation with our Christian brothers and sisters from different traditions because God might use them to teach us something valuable. That does not mean that we need to agree with everything that they say, but neither should we automatically reject it all. As always, we must return to the Scriptures as the final arbiter for both Christian beliefs and practice.
That’s how I see it. What do you think about this issue? (Some of those on either extreme might not be very happy with what I have written, so I’ll keep my flame suit hand.)