Managing the Charismatic-Missional Tension image

Managing the Charismatic-Missional Tension

I've written before about what I call the Charismatic-Missional tension, and I'll probably write about it again. Not only is it a pressing issue with all sorts of practical implications, but it is also one of the issues over which I'm hearing the most questions within the Newfrontiers network of churches. From where I'm standing, there seems to be a bit of concern that churches within the same family, which until recently were all doing things the same way, are now drifting to opposite ends of a spectrum, with "charismatic but not evangelistic" churches at one end, and "missional but not spiritual" churches at the other. (This, not to put too fine a point on it, is bunk. For one thing, differences in style and philosophy of ministry have always existed, and for another, we are not dealing with a spectrum at all, but with a matrix: some churches are great at mission and great at expressing charismata, and some churches are neither. Few churches see as much mission in the community as Kings Arms in Bedford, often seen as at the charismatic end of things; few churches are more driven by corporate prayer, worship and prophecy than CCK in Brighton, often seen as at the missional end; and so on). My personal view is that the observable differences have far more to do with the gifts of the key leaders, and far less to do with irreconcilable theological differences, than is often thought.

Anyway: Joel Virgo gave an outstanding talk on the whole thing the other day. It was helpful, honouring, wise and practical, and it proved hugely instructive to those who heard it. Here’s the gist of it, reproduced with his permission:

Handling the Charismatic-Missional tension well requires four things, at least.

First, it requires patience: a calm head, a long fuse, and a commitment not to freak out. Resolving challenging issues of theology and practice takes time, and involves a good many swings of the pendulum, overreactions, misunderstandings and mistakes, and we need to get used to that. But we also need to make sure we don’t exaggerate the scale of the problem. I’ve seen a number of discussions on these issues, and almost all of them come down to simple differences in the way we handle corporate worship. These are important, of course. We need to discuss them. But whoever I’m talking to, we agree that the Holy Spirit is committed to mission, that we can’t reach the city we’re in without the miraculous power of God, that thinking carefully about the people we’re trying to reach is important, that prayer is indispensable, that preaching the gospel and displaying it with signs and wonders are both needed, and so on. If we’re not careful, we can think the problem is bigger than it is, merely by assuming that corporate worship is the main thing we do. If we start thinking about what the ‘charismissional’ life looks like in offices, coffee shops and universities, we’ll realise how much we actually agree on.

Second, it means we need to acknowledge (as the Bible does) that there are several different audiences we need to have in mind during our corporate worship. It perhaps sounds spiritual to say that we only worship together for an audience of one (which can be code for “and therefore we don’t need to consider how our worship is understood by others”). But biblically speaking, it isn’t true. Clearly, our primary audience in corporate worship is God. He’s the reason we gather, the focus of all our praise, our highest joy, and so on. But we are also called to pay attention to other Christians as we worship: to sing to each other (Eph 5:19), consider one another’s understanding of what we say (1 Cor 14:1-19), to teach and admonish each other (Col 3:16), prefer one another at the Lord’s supper (1 Cor 11:17-34), and the like. And we are called to pay attention to unbelievers, too, most notably in 1 Corinthians 14, where Paul gives careful instructions about how to use spiritual gifts in such a way as to serve unbelievers (which, if done well, will make them fall on their faces in awe of God). For Paul, these things didn’t conflict: we worship God, and nobody else, but we do so mindful of the other people around us, whether they follow Jesus or not. Our corporate worship needs to be thought through with that in mind.

Third, it requires laying aside our preferences, and committing not to turn preferences into standards by which the spirituality of others may be measured. A few years ago, I received two letters in the same week from different church members. One was from a long term member I deeply respect who explained that, for a few Sundays, they had not experienced the presence of God in our corporate meetings. And I thought, “ouch.” As a pastor, that’s the sort of comment that really stops you in your tracks, and makes you want to think about it, and pray about it. Then, later that week, I received a second letter, from someone who had only been around a few weeks. They said that they didn’t understand it, and they didn’t really know why, but every time they came to one of our meetings they sat there crying. And I thought: I’ve got to be really careful, as a pastor, how to handle these two very different comments. I’ve got to remember that I follow a shepherd who leaves behind the ninety-nine to find the one.

One of the things I love doing is going to the funerals of older saints who have been in the church for decades. Frequently, I find myself singing hymns which I’ve never heard, and thinking, man, these hymns are good. They’re really good. They’ve got words, and everything. Why haven’t we been singing this? And then it occurs to me: the person in the coffin is probably thinking the exact same thing. Many older people in my church haven’t sung their favourite songs for forty years! They’ve been sitting there, for decades, singing stuff they don’t really like, thinking, “what on earth is that guy doing on the piano? It’s not even a piano!” But for them, it’s enough that other people are encountering God and getting saved, so they put their preferences to one side. The only time they get to hear their favourite songs sung in our church is when they’re dead. But they don’t care, because they know that other people meeting God is more important than their preferences. That’s what I’m talking about.

Fourth, handling the charismatic-missional tension well requires seeing it as a tension, and having the capacity to cope with that. In Andy Stanley’s language, it is a tension to be managed, rather than a problem to be solved. In Christian leadership, there are lots of problems to be solved, and that’s important. But there are also tensions to be managed - sovereignty and responsibility, equality and difference, now and not yet, and so on - which you get completely wrong if you treat them as problems to be solved. The charismatic-missional tension is like that. We’re not supposed to see it as a problem. We want to be fully charismatic, and fully missional, in step with the Spirit who loves saving people, and pursuing the mission that cannot be achieved without the power of the Spirit. So it’s not a problem, but a tension. It’s like walking: you’re always off-balance, but you’re moving forwards.

God has put us in an age filled with tension: healing and sickness, provision and poverty, and so on. We celebrate healing, and we know that there’s someone in the room who hasn’t been healed for decades; we celebrate provision of a new car for someone, and we know there’s someone listening who doesn’t have two pennies to rub together. Tensions like that aren’t supposed to be resolved, and if we try, we get our theology and our pastoral practice completely wrong.

Yet the desire to resolve the tension is hard to resist, because strong and extreme statements are easier to identify with and rally around. Consider how easy it might be to fill up the Everybody Will Get Healed At This Conference conference, or alternatively the Charismatics Are All Loaded With Demons And Playing With Strange Fire - Soon God Will Smite Them conference; it’s unlikely you’ll be oversubscribed for the Many Are Healed But Not Everyone Gets Healed In This Age, And All Will Be Healed In The Coming Age conference. Yet that third conference represents the reality. And we need to teach the full range of biblical truth on these issues, maintaining the biblical tension, without feeling the need to resolve it as if it was a problem.

That’s for starters, anyway.

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