I said I'd write this a few days ago. It's probably worth saying a bit about myself by way of introduction. I don't tend to describe myself as a charismatic, though I know I've been given gifts which I don't deserve(the word "charismata" means "things of grace" - "things we don't deserve"). On the other hand, I know a lot of charismatics; I'm at college with a good number of them, and some of the most influential people in my past have been charismatics. I've been to charismatic churches; I've sat down and chatted through a lot of the issues with quite a few different charismatic-type people over the years. I am aware that a lot of the difference between people who are more comfortable at charismatic churches and people who are comfortable at more conservative churches are actually down to temperament.
Given all of that, and given some of the situations I find myself in at the moment and from time to time, I think it would be helpful for me, and maybe at least thought-provoking for others, for me to note down some of the strengths and weaknesses that I see in modern charismaticism. Not all charismatics or charismatic churches will have all of these strengths or weaknesses. And I'm comparing them to a semi-straw man position of some very conservative evangelicals, because I think the contrast highlights some important things.
It's worth adding that I don't think the conservative / charismatic divide should exist, but it does. In some areas, the conservatives are right, and in others the charismatics are. I think the divide is largely perpetuated by both sides being too scared of the other's faults to embrace their strengths.
Strength 1 – Emotions
Emotions are an essential part of the Christian life. Our response to God is certainly meant to be more than emotional, but not less. If we do not get excited about what God has done for us, chances are there is something wrong. So when we praise God and when we preach God, our emotions should be involved. Conservatives sometimes make the mistake of forgetting that. Charismatics don't seem to.
Strength 2 – Singing
That's especially true with reference to singing. Music is a great way of expressing emotion, and it's one we are regularly encouraged to use in the Bible. We are meant to sing to God, to shout to God and to be joyful. There is a difference between singing and just saying long lists of propositions unenthusiastically, and there should be.
Strength 3 – Expecting more from God
I think at times it is too easy for conservatives to forget, or act like we've forgotten, that the Holy Spirit lives in us. I would expect the Holy Spirit living in us to make a difference to our lives. If God wants to speak to us directly, he can do. I don't see why the Old Testament prophets' experience of God speaking to them shouldn't be possible today, nor why it should be recorded in Scripture if it was not in some sense expected or useful for us. That doesn't mean that I think that God speaks today in the same way that he spoke in Scripture. It doesn't mean that our discernment of when it is God speaking and when it's just our urges is perfect, or that we should claim what we think God is saying to us to be binding on others, and of course what God says today does not conflict with what he said in the past.
Nor does it mean that everyone hears God speaking. Lots of characters in the Bible don't – many simply use wisdom and cope with what they already know, and there's nothing wrong with that. But God does speak, and he does act.
Weakness 1 – Encounter Theology
”Worship” (i.e. singing, etc.) in charismatic churches is often seen as primarily about enabling an encounter between the individual and Christ. This “encounter” seems to be a way of describing a trance-like state where the individual is particularly aware of God and not distracted by other concerns.
I think the concern for an encounter with Christ is right, but I think that to identify it with a trance-like state is decidedly unproven. Where encounter theology is dominant, there doesn't seem to be much control exercised to distinguish what may be a genuine encounter from what is essentially emotional masturbation.
Weakness 2 – Preaching as Self-Help
Strikingly, one of the places where I would expect to encounter Jesus is a service is in the faithful, passionate and applied exposition of God's word. But all too often in charismatic churches, this seems to be primarily about self-help rather than encountering Christ in his word. Where expository preaching is not the norm, or where sermons often consist of “five tips in managing your finances”, it suggests firstly that too little is expected of God speaking through the Bible and secondly that there is too little expectation of the congregation growing spiritually. I find it difficult to describe such churches as “evangelical”.
Weakness 3 – Discernment
Linked to this, it also seems much more unusual for charismatic churches to exhibit proper discernment over what is Biblical and what isn't. It is much less likely, for example, to question the theology underlying a new phenomenon. Much more likely is simply to observe that people enjoy it or say they find it helpful and to accept it uncritically.
Weakness 4 – Entertainment
I suspect that this may well be the fundamental root of the other three weaknesses, and it makes sense because this is a major feature of our culture, so it is plausible that it should have infiltrated the church.
When Christians meeting together is thought to be about entertainment, when what people find boring gets dropped, whether it is expository preaching by a rubbish preacher or quiet intercessory prayer, then entertainment seems to have become dominant. I know that as I have grown as a Christian, I appreciate time spent in quiet in prayer, or praying with others more and more. Yet the tendency among some charismatics is to make prayer more and more entertaining, for example by getting people talking at once and not spending more than a minute praying about anything, then claiming that God is doing a new thing though them.
Ditto with seeing the purpose of worship as entertainment, to be done professionally and well, and the consequent elevation of the successful entertainer / worship leader.
Praising God is not meant to be about entertainment. Of course it is not meant to be boring, but the excitement is meant to come from knowing God better, from loving him and from being in relationship with him rather than from changing what we are doing every 30 seconds or from loud music or music-induced trance-like states or novelty items or whatever.