My formative Christian years were as part of Charismatic, Evangelical churches; either Baptist or ‘New Church’. The sense that God was doing a new thing, the kingdom of God was near was the dominant culture. There were strains of course, and I emerged as someone on the side of being ‘biblical’ rather than just ‘spirit led’.
A significant development was going to Spurgeons’ college. College life moulds and forms you in a myriad of different ways so it is a bit unfair to single people out. However, three people had a significant impact on me; John Colwell who tried to teach me to think theologically, Alastair Campbell who made a valiant attempt to make me think about Scripture, and Steve Holmes who, for one Semester, taught me the ‘Doctrine of the Spirit’. Not only did they all give me tools to reflect on and critique my experience but they also pointed to possible ways forward.
About five years after leaving college, helped in part by my own research interest in the theology of the Trinity and of ordained ministry I increasingly saw my charismatic past as something I was leaving behind. The shallowness of activism, the cultural captivity of worship styles, the intellectual challenges of unmediated immediacy. [Or in plain English the charismatic tendency to focus on doing the next new thing, singing particular types of songs and thinking God is always speaking/touching my life].
No doubt some of this was exacerbated by my own mental health, it enabled me to fit my spiritual journey with how I felt. But it failed to differentiate between my understanding of God, church and world and my own feelings and the lens through which I viewed life. It is never possible to separate them completely, I only ever think, see, feel and perceive as me; and ‘me’ is not entirely logical, consistent or coherent.
Yet at heart I remain a charismatic. My experiences and theological journey mean I have come to appreciate different theological positions and styles of worship. I’m comfortable talking theology with people across the spectrum; I’ve come to appreciate forms of worship from across the church. And I am richer for this. I recognise much of what passes as charismatic evangelicalism is naff, and there are times when things are done in a way that hurts or damages people, but in essence I remain convinced that God desires a relationship with us as persons. I remain convinced that God works, by the Spirit, in people’s lives and that charismatic gifts are an outworking of this.
It’s a sort of second naivety. One that accepts Spiritual manifestations include lots of humanness, but still believes the Spirit is working in and through them. One that accepts the cultural baggage of church / worship but still believes the Spirit is enabling people to declare the Lordship of Christ and cry ‘Abba, Father’. One that recognises the activist tendency but still believes Christianity involves people becoming disciples – followers of Jesus – who share in the mission of God. It is this naivety which means I still believe I’m called to pastor churches which seek to be open to the Spirit, worship in contemporary ways, who expect God to be present and active in our midst.