The “Charismatic-Missional Tension”

I've been thinking quite a bit about the "charismatic-missional tension" recently. Some prefer not to think of it as a tension for theological reasons (since to be truly charismatic and truly missional are, surely, one and the same), and many will object to framing it as one because it makes it sound like a spectrum - highly charismatic and non-missional at one end, highly missional and non-charismatic at the other - that necessarily requires believers, and leaders, to compromise. But that said, I am confident that most readers of this blog will know what I mean when I call it that.

When David Devenish from Newfrontiers speaks of the challenge of becoming more missional while remaining charismatic, as he did recently at Together for the Nation, and when Dave Smith from Kingsgate, Peterborough talks about a shallow end / deep end approach to spiritual gifts in meetings (Sundays are shallow end, prayer meetings are deep end), they are addressing the issue I am talking about when I refer to the charismatic-missional tension, even if they don’t call it that. So I’ll use the phrase for now, because it’s a convenient shorthand, although I happily acknowledge that another way of framing it, like Simon Brading’s picture of an aeroplane with two jet engines on full blast, is probably needed.
But here’s what I’ve been wondering about. What, specifically, are the areas of concern, compromise or even conflict when we think of a charismatic-missional tension? What are the trade-offs, if that’s what they are? And what are the practical decisions we have to make about them? Because I’m not persuaded that the superficial analysis - that is, that being charismatic is entirely about encouraging spiritual gifts in meetings, and being missional means banning them - is accurate. I think the issues can be more subtle, and less explicitly biblical, than that. So here are a few areas where, in my experience, some of us can feel a tension between being fully charismatic and being fully missional.
Spiritual Gifts in Public Meetings. Having just said that this is not the whole story, it clearly is a sizeable part of the story. At the charismatic end of the spectrum, there are those who believe that encouraging spiritual gifts in public meetings is a core value, based on exhortations like 1 Corinthians 14:1 and summary statements like 14:26, and that a decision to ban them or discourage them in the interests of being “missional” is to sell out, and to directly disobey 14:39. At the missional end, there are those who argue that the Holy Spirit’s intention is always to draw unbelievers to Jesus through the gospel, and that expressions of spiritual gifts in the church are always to be subordinated to this wider purpose, on the basis of 1 Corinthians 14:23; doing this, and administering a meeting in a way that is “fitting and orderly” (14:40), might well (in some cultures) involve restricting spiritual gifts in public meetings for the sake of the outsider.
The extremes are relatively easy to see. I’ve been in Sunday meetings which are full of spiritual gifts but virtually incomprehensible to me, let alone to any unbelievers who might be present. I’ve also been in formerly charismatic churches which are so seeker sensitive that spiritual gifts have been all-but-banned in public contexts. But in between those extremes, there are lots of us who think that prohibiting spiritual gifts in a meeting is unbiblical, and that Paul sees prophecy in particular as highly missional, but who also think that everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way, that wackiness doesn’t necessarily glorify God, and that it is important for unbelievers to be able to understand what they see and hear. Navigating that one is not impossible, but it can be challenging.
Pursuing Breakthrough in Healing. This might sound odd, because healings in Scripture, as well as today, present such an excellent opportunity to preach the gospel. What could be more missional, some wonder, than seeing a healing happen in front of you? Well, yes. But the point is, it is almost incontestable that pursuing breakthrough in healing as a church - as opposed to, say, being satisfied with the occasional sick person getting well - requires a commitment to stepping out in risk-filled faith, and an openness to failure. The churches today that see the most people healed in response to prayer are, almost without exception, the churches that also see the most people not healed in response to prayer. They take more risks, pursue greater and more dramatic signs and wonders, and frequently find that people don’t get healed. As John Wimber apparently said, I’d rather pray for a thousand people and see one healed, than pray for nobody and see none healed.
So how do you handle it when unbelievers are around, and you say that God heals today, and pray for people on that basis, and then nobody gets healed? In practice, I’ve found myself in that situation on several occasions: how do you respond in a way that doesn’t fake it, doesn’t patronise the unbeliever, and doesn’t destroy faith in the church? How, also, do you handle partial, temporary or unimpressive healings: with a potentially faith-diminishing honesty (“OK, you didn’t really get healed, but people often don’t; we’ll carry on praying, though!”), or with a potentially honesty-compromising faith (“that’s amazing that you’re a tiny bit better! Praise God”)? The charismatic guys might decide to pursue and testify to healing come what may, even if unbelievers are led to conclude that they’re deluding themselves; the missional guys might shut the whole thing down, in corporate gatherings at least, for fear of making the church look weird to outsiders. What to do?
Corporate “Ministry Times” in Public Meetings. Another area where some will perceive a charismatic-missional tension is in the handling of so-called “ministry times” (I say so-called, not to cast aspersions on them, but just because the phrase itself is not a biblical one, and “ministry” simply means “service”). Fifteen years ago, any charismatic church worth its salt would have had a “ministry time” at the end of their meeting, in which people would respond to the message, pray for each other, lay hands on one another, prophesy over each other, and (often) respond to God in a variety of visible ways including crying, laughing, falling down, shouting out, and so on. These days, any missional church worth its salt would be highly sceptical of things that would appear bizarre to a visitor, and would often regard such “ministry times” as a rather self-indulgent practice that should be reserved for corporate prayer meetings. Again, in the middle, there are many who want the people of God to experience him in a deeper way when they gather together, and who suspect that if something gets bumped from Sundays the saints will instinctively think it doesn’t matter much, but who also don’t want to seem needlessly strange to visitors, and who struggle with how to fit a thirty minute ministry time into a ninety minute meeting alongside a forty minute worship time, a forty minute talk, a few necessary notices, breaking bread, and whatever else.
Even when ministry times take place, some leaders will wonder which sorts of responses should be allowed, encouraged or pursued. As anyone who has heard Kim Walker will testify, laughing out loud in the middle of a song can bring a huge sense of joy to the Christians - but then again, it might also seem strange to visitors. An individual crying out as they encounter God’s love often raises the spiritual bar significantly for believers who are present, and it can thereby foster greater openness to the Spirit - but it can also spook people who have no idea what is going on. We could say similar things of falling down, whooping, dancing, and the like. We could also say it of the lengthy silences that often precede people encountering God in power. So even if “ministry times” are unequivocally embraced as a powerful way of engaging with God, it remains the case that leaders, not to mention individuals in the church who have brought guests along, may feel the charismatic-missional tension.
Preaching and Teaching on Sundays. Preaching and teaching in such a way that is faithful to the biblical text, teaches doctrine clearly to Christians and communicates the gospel clearly to non-Christians is hard work. It’s not impossible, but it’s hard work. If you then add into the mix the need to encourage, exhort and equip Christians regularly to pursue spiritual experience, ideally by modelling it yourself, things become even more difficult. It is probably no coincidence, then, that virtually every gifted preacher or teacher I can think of excels at one or two of these (doctrine and mission, mission and Spirit, Spirit and doctrine), but not all three. It’s just an awful lot to achieve in forty minutes.
Websites and Social Media. This is a curveball, but: I know of some church websites, and some Facebook friends, that by being charismatic express things in ways that alienate some non-Christians. I know of others that, in the name of being missional, say next to nothing about what God has done or is doing in their lives. The former raise faith amongst Christian friends but risk freaking out others; the latter remain friends with everyone, but miss opportunities to testify to God’s power for the benefit of their fellow believers. Just a thought.
So there we have it: the “charismatic-missional tension” boiled down to five issues. There are some other notable examples - the planning vs spontaneity spectrum, the issue of the church’s focus in its efforts and its prayers, etc - but those strike me as the main ones. And I think they need some thoughtful reflection, particularly from those of us called to lead and pastor God’s people. Tomorrow, I’ll try and make some sense of it all.
Andrew is the author of several books including, most recently, If God, Then What?.

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