Confessions of a Lapsed Charismatic, pt. 1


{summary: Though rooted in a Reformed tradition that usually spurns this, I am very much a theological charismatic. I believe in the full, contemporary exercise of the Holy Spirit through his Church, including all of the manifestations this has had throughout Church History. And yet, though I “believe” these things, over the past few years, they’ve played a smaller and smaller part in my life. In this piece, I reflect on that.}

UPDATES: Part 2 is up, where I go through a brief history of tongues in a corporate church context. I’ve also posted Part 3, where I focus in on the why and how of individual praying in tongues.

Several days ago, the New York Times had a wonderful Op-Ed piece called “Why We Talk in Tongues“, by a researcher who is exploring this phenomenon. (It was also appropriate, as it is still sort-of, but not really, still Pentecost.) The piece seems to have been pretty popular. Playing around with Google Trends a bit, it seems that this article made the topic of talking in tongues more popular than it has been since “Speaking in Tongues” by Justin Bieber popped up on YouTube a few years ago. This article made the topic more popular than even Megan Fox’s revelation that she speaks in tongues (and is still a practicing Pentecostal).

It got some play all over my Facebook feed, and a couple of friends asked for some of my thoughts. That they asked for my opinion was both flattering and dismaying; it reminded me of how little I talk about this part of my spirituality among my church community.

I remember years ago, when I first found my church in Richmond, Virginia, right at the end of my first semester in college. I walked into this special evening service and I immediately knew this was where God wanted me. I joined the church and was exposed to a beautiful display of charismatic theology.

If you’re not familiar with it, the word “charismatic” comes from the Greek word charismata, which is usually translated “spiritual gifts”. “Charismatic” Churches (or Christians) are those that think the Holy Spirit–even today–shows Itself in and among Christians in very outwards, expressive, miraculous, powerful, emotional, and yes, even very strange ways.

The church I joined had two very strong streams in it. There were leaders and members that were Charismatic with some Calvinist thought mixed in (but definitely not dominant), and the other group of leaders and congregants that were much more “Bible-based” and Calvinistically “theology-minded” who had some charismatic leanings. At the time, I found myself “allied” with the “Bible” group, and at times butt heads with the “Spirit” group. (Note all of my use of quotation marks to stress the false dichotomies and the immaturity of my thinking at the time.)

And then I went to a seminary that thought–along with a huge portion of theologians–that these stranger, more radical displays of the Holy Spirit ceased at some point in Church History after the first generation of Christians. I vehemently opposed this view, and still do. I honestly have less patience with those that think this way than I do for other issues that are probably far more important. I’m working on it. Pray for me.

But anyway, it was still odd. At my church in Richmond, I was thought of by many as the cold, heartless intellectual theologian, whereas at seminary, I was thought of as the “crazy charismatic guy” who was all feel-y and mystical. They’re both right, if I’m honest.

And yet, over the past few years, as I have been increasingly rooted in my church, I haven’t “kept up” with my charismatic side. Perhaps it was simply the over-emotionalism of college (or that church), but during those four years, I saw healings, cast out demons (on two separate occasions–yes, seriously), prophesied over people, had accurate words of wisdom and knowledge spoken over me, experienced the Holy Spirit on both small and large scales, and… I prayed in tongues.

And I still do.

If you go to church with me, you’ll find me praying in tongues as I approach to get the bread and wine for Communion, trying to let the Holy Spirit prepare my heart. In times of emotional hardship when I’m lost for words, I have walked along the western river of Philadelphia and prayed in tongues. When I know I should pray, but don’t feel like “figuring out” what to say, I’ll default to tongues.

But this post isn’t about that. Tomorrow, I’ll talk more about how I view tongues, how it functions in my life, and what I precisely think is going on there. Here, I just wanted to reflect a little on this change I’ve seen in my spiritual life.

I am firmly rooted in a theological tradition–Reformed Theology–that is stereotypically seen as very stoic, academic, cold and hostile towards these more emotional or experiential moves of the Holy Spirit in her Church. (Presbyterians are not teasingly called the “Frozen Chosen” for nothing!)

At the end of the day, I’m realizing that I don’t know how to be a Reformed Charismatic. Luckily, my particular “flavor”, the Dutch Reformed tradition, allows for a great diversity of opinion in this area, and so I have it in good authority that there’s a solid contingent of Charismatic Dutch Reformed folks, but I’ve yet to meet them or live life with them deeply to observe this.

Sure, sure, there is a “Neo-Reformed Charismatic” thing going on in American right now, but that “movement” is neither Neo, Reformed, nor Charismatic. It’s good old-fashioned theological, biblical, and cultural fundamentalism with some Calvinism sprinkled in (“Reformed” is a much bigger idea than just Calvinism) and maybe some arms raised during the loud musical worship. But that’s about it.

(A true Reformed Charismatic movement would be baptizing babies while praying over them in tongues. Now that I’d love to see!)

And so I still don’t know what place my charismatic beliefs hold in this tradition, especially as it pertains to my corporate church identity. I’ve had to realize that these gifts are all still being exercised in our church, but just less dramatically so, and with different names: preaching, shepherding, informal counseling, medical care, and liturgy have all taken the place of the usual charismatic terminology for how the Holy Spirit is made known. I’ve also been stretched to discover the profound charismatic intensity of simple liturgy, solitude, and silence.

So there’s been growth and grace, to be sure. But there are times I miss being able to dance in a service, or stretch my arms out, or hear the quiet rumble of hundreds of voices praying quietly in tongues among themselves; to walk over to someone you barely know during the service and offer them a “word” of prophecy, or knowledge, or encouragement; to cry–no, weep; to have group prayer times that are hours in length, where everyone feels free to actually pray more than once.

Don’t get me wrong, I feel so at peace right now where I am theologically and “church-ly”. My conscience and heart are more at rest in those things now than they ever have been. I have been nourished and challenged more than you can know, and my over-reliance on emotionalism and “quick-fix” Christianity has been starkly exposed. I’ve finally begun to internalize a Christian life that is slow, honest, grace-filled and progressive in its development. No Holy Spirit “zap” is going to come fix me of all that weighs me down. I just have to walk humbly with my God and love His World and People.

Yeah, I can cultivate this stuff on my own, but that’s hard. I don’t want this side of me to shrivel away, but I fear I sense it growing smaller. That’s probably why–though it’s still not with the frequency I’d want–I still cling so closely to praying in tongues. It’s one of those precious, intimate places where I can touch the Divine and experience It flowing in and through and to and from me–even when I’m not fully “engaged” in the moment at all.

It’s one of the only things I can do that’s entirely not about me. It’s my participation in a promise, that I am His, and He is Mine, and the Spirit is there knowing me, and offering me and my cries to the Godhead from within my very soul.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk more specifically about tongues, and why I think there are very reasonable “non-weird” ways to think about it, engage it, and understand it.

In the meantime, though: can you offer any words of encouragement (or prophecy, haha)? How have you been able flourish in places that felt like home even when they didn’t speak to every way in which you’re wired?

Bonus points if you type in tongues.


12 thoughts on “Confessions of a Lapsed Charismatic, pt. 1

  1. I can relate to this in some ways. And, our worship team just had a conversation about The Holy Spirit, manipulation, emotionalism, etc. The main thread was, “How do we know we’re conduits of the Spirit and not peddlers of our own emotion?” And, even if we are, “What is wrong with that?” Yeah, there’s a lot more I could say about this. Thanks for sharing.


  2. Nicely laid out thoughts as usual. This hit the nail on the head -> “A true Reformed Charismatic movement would be baptizing babies while praying over them in tongues. Now that I’d love to see.” I always have these ideal pairings of different theological traditions in my head that are never implemented so idealy in the real world. I have a couple of distant friends in the Catholic Charismatic movement and would be interested in how they combine the two worlds.

    While I don’t have this particular problem – I am content to not speak in tongues and are therefore content with my Presby worship – I have not counted them completely out and am interested in your thoughts in your next post.

    The main area that I differ from my theological tradition is in the visual arts. Presbys are not know for their rich traditions of visiual representation and I am doing my best to instill some appreciation and application where I can.


  3. Pingback: Charismatic Confessions, pt. 2: Tongues Don’t Have to be Weird | the long way home | Prodigal Paul

  4. i get annoyed when i hear some reformed people say they are “charismatic with a seat belt” when they really mean to say they are not charismatic at all – MARK DRISCOLL SLAM!!!!


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