The Charism of the Charismatics: Part 1, Holy Ghost Conga Lines

As regular readers know, I worship at a church, Freedom Fellowship, that reaches out to the poor and homeless.

Freedom is a church plant of the Highland Church of Christ. And while Churches of Christ have tended to be pretty unemotional and undemonstrative, due to our historically impoverished theology of the Holy Spirit, worship and life at Freedom are distinctively charismatic.

Worship at Freedom is full-bodied. Hands are raised and people sway and dance in the aisles. Once, a sort of Holy Ghost conga line broke out as worshipers formed a line and danced around the sanctuary. (I stayed in my seat and just gave people high fives as they passed me.) At Freedom we lay hands on in prayer. We anoint with oil. Praise veils are waved. We pray to cast out demons. We relish in personal testimonies of God's work amongst us. At Freedom we expect miracles.

Things happen at Freedom that are just hard to describe. Darrell, one of the elders at Freedom, and I have a joke about how when stuff happens at Freedom we just have no words to describe it to those back at Highland. We say to each other, "How could we possibly describe this to people at Highland?" Because there is no describing it. Or if you did describe it it would sound crazy or incomprehensible. You just have to be there. I never want to miss Freedom as I'm afraid I'll miss something.

At Freedom we are not Pentecostal, we don't speak in tongues, but we are very charismatic.

Needless to say, this has been a huge culture shock for me. Born and raised in the Churches of Christ the spirituality of Freedom was foreign and at the beginning I often felt uncomfortable. Theologically, I didn't know how to process what was going on. Holy Ghost conga lines left me a bit flummoxed.

And to be honest, I still struggle with my inhibitions at Freedom. I still feel self-conscious to the point where I've never raised my hands in worship. I sway. I clap. But I don't raise my hands. Not sure why. Some of it is how I've been raised. Some of it is embarrassment. Some of it is my excessive rationality. Some of it is my fear of losing a critical distance where I can "discern the spirits." Someone needs to keep their wits about them, right? If everyone is drunk on the Spirit don't we need someone to be the designated driver? And some of it, I'm sure, is my sin, my holding something back, my wanting to keep or control something and to not let it go.

And yet, I've never been more spiritually alive than when I'm at Freedom. Spiritually speaking, outside of my bible study at the prison, Freedom has been the best thing that has ever happened to me. Though I'm still inhibited and doubt-filled, I love the charismatic worship and spirituality at Freedom. Freedom has filled me with the Holy Spirit. I'd even say that Freedom has saved my faith.

And so I've been trying, over the last few years, to make theological connections between my "liberal" and existentially-oriented faith with the charismatic genius of Freedom. There is a charism--a spiritual gift, a location of grace--in the spirituality and worship at Freedom that I want to welcome into my life, faith and theology.

Well, it has already affected me and I'm trying make sense of it all.

If you're regular blog reader you've already seen the effects of this theological collision--a progressive, doubting Christian worshipping with charismatics. It came out in my "On Warfare and Weakness" series (see the sidebar) when I tried to make connections between spiritual warfare and progressive theology which generally eschews belief in literal angels and demons and finds the whole "spiritual warfare" notion to be spooky and superstitious. Who would have ever attempted such a ridiculous project? Well, someone like me. Someone who struggles believing in literal demons but who worships with people who do and who pray over others asking God to cast out demons. I'm trying to reconcile and make sense of these things in my own life. I'm not a professional theologian. I don't write about theology to publish in academic journals or go to academic theology conferences. This blog isn't an academic outlet. This blog (and the three books that flowed out of the blog) is my spiritual memoir, the theological pebbles I've collected along the way as I try to make sense of my own life and faith.

So, how do I make sense of my life with Freedom?

Well, to help me with all this I finally read James Smith's book Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy. In this book James (I think his friends call him Jamie) describes what he calls a "pentecostal worldview." James then goes on to unpack the features of this worldview, describing the logic and genius of Pentecostal and charismatic worship and practice. According to James, Pentecostal and charismatic spirituality and worship provide a way of knowing and living in the world, a way of knowing and living that functions as a critique to a lot within Christianity and in the secular world.

I've found James' analysis to be very helpful in helping me make sense of my experiences at Freedom. And while I'm more theologically "liberal" than James, his philosophical analysis of Pentecostal spirituality and worship has helped me uncover and articulate what I've found to be so profound and life-giving in my life with Freedom.

And so, in the next six posts I'd like to share from Thinking in Tongues, making connections between James' analysis and my life as a progressive, inhibited and skeptical Christian sharing life with charismatic brothers and sisters, and how these brothers and sisters--with their Holy Ghost conga lines--have become my teachers and mentors in the faith.

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15 thoughts on “The Charism of the Charismatics: Part 1, Holy Ghost Conga Lines”

  1. Don't forget that Jesus gave wine to drunk people (John 2:1-12, esp. v. 10)! So, maybe Jesus wants us to be drunk on the Spirit—at least occasionally.

  2. While I was becoming more liberal in my theology, politics and social views, I made the mistake of lumping those who were of the Pentecostal spirit with the legalists I was trying to escape. I deeply regret that now. I said things that hurt some people in my criticism of the Pentecostal faith, and I wish they were here in front of me to hear me say, "I'm truly sorry. Please forgive me".

    I made the mistake of assuming that most Pentecostals were of the political and social right wing, like many legalists and fundamentalists. But once I left the ministry and the "religious bubble" I had been living in for years and began to mingle with others in the work place, I found that many Pentecostals had a desire for social justice, along with their deep desire for God's touch. I again experienced a new birth.

    No, I am not a Pentecostal. I would call myself a Christian Humanist. But the few times I have been in the presence of a Pentecostal expressing her or his faith, I found myself fascinated rather than fearful. It fed my own faith that speaks to me, "The heart that reaches beyond itself in love sees God"; and the diversity of such is what now keeps me in awe.

  3. I have to admit, I bristled at this post initially. I was raised in a charismatic church and am intimately familiar with the dark sides of it: The shame of not feeling what others feel, the pressure to imitate what those around you are doing so that you aren't found out, the emotional manipulation, the addiction it creates for the weekly emotional fix. All that said my tremendous respect for what I have read on this blog makes me willing to travel with you through this when everything inside of me is screaming to head for the exits. Perhaps you can show me a perspective I currently lack,

  4. I spent 15 years in a "lively" Baptist church and am currently in one that is not so lively. Very little clapping, raising hands, but good people. I struggle not with the charisma or lack of charisma, but with the idea that God is part of one and not the other.

  5. Thanks for the reply. I did not mean to imply anything about your church or experience, just commenting on my own experience. I recognize that there are different manifestations, and there are risks of abuse in all of them. The lack of speaking in tongues in your tradition is already a big differentiator from my experience [which, consequently, was also the biggest stick they wielded since if you didn't you weren't 'filled with the spirit.']. I love your Warfare and Weakness series, so I'm just interested to see where you go with this..

  6. "Once, a sort of Holy Ghost conga line broke out". This made me laugh. Sounds like something I read in a David Foster Wallace book a while back.

  7. I started writing down why I want to hear all this, and it quickly turned into telling my life story. So let me just say that I'm only 26 but I've grown through 3 extremely different kinds of Christianity - Free Methodists, rational liberals and Charismatic Pentecostals, with things I've gleaned from each side that the other two think are wrong, or even borderline insane. Throw universal reconciliation in the mix, which no major denomination believes, and I feel incredibly isolated - not just from others, even from myself, because it's hard to settle down and even approach God for some things because I have no idea what to think any more. I don't belong anywhere and there is no one who agrees with all three thirds of me. My internal narrative doesn't make sense to even myself.

    In my heart, I believe ALL of them. But I can't believe all of them - that doesn't make any sense. Maybe I should believe this part. I'd be naive for believing that part, that part is indefensible to the other side.

    So this is all to say, I really really want to hear what you have to say about merging with Charismatics. I've become someone who believes in miracles while also having a hard time mustering hope in basic prayer.

  8. I've been a longtime reader but never posted to the discussion. Love the blog, and this struck a chord with me. I was raised strict southern baptist and always felt something was missing. Long journey in and out of various types of churches and finally have settled on a "non/denominational/Pentecostal leaning" church mostly because the people are genuine and the pastor doesn't take a dime for his leadership and also believe women can have equal roles as men in the church and in life in general. As much a I love the church I have really struggled with one thing- and that is the use of speaking in tongues. I personally have had the experience where I was praying and uncontrollably started speaking in tongues so I know it is "real" but I certainly do not believe that you aren't full of the spirit of you don't have that same experience. So I am really looking forward to this series! Thanks for your honesty here- it really shows. And ps. I also had major hand raising anxiety and once I got passed it and started lifting my hands something really changed for me.

  9. @wbarnett55

    And maybe Jesus just wants us to be drunk - at least occasionally. ;)

  10. Thanks for this, Richard. I too come from an inhibited Restoration background. I now find myself working for a ministry where "charism" is a central part of what we do. I can't understand it yet and can't explain it. I only know that it's real. Something powerful is happening through these people that just doesn't fit in my old framework. I'm trying my best to change out my wineskin to allow myself to incorporate this power. I look forward to this series.

  11. My first experience of charismatic-pentecostalism was in a church that was outwardly calvinistic. Now that was interesting for this old dog of a CofC'er....

  12. Worship-wise, whatever floats your boat? No, that's not right. Worship is not about self-expression. Rather worship is about assuming a posture in which you are open to the presence of God and attentive to the word of God, such that you may both fear and enjoy God, expect to hear God speak in both consolation and contradiction, and, finally, are primed to obey God when the praise ends and the service begins. The ultimate test of true worship is neither spontaneous movement nor solemn immobility, neither raised arms nor folded hands, neither sprightly tambourine nor sonorous organ, but whether, after worship's final "Amen!", justice begins to flow, rage like the Snoqualmie in flood.

    So the affections? By all means - as long as we understand that "spiritually alive" does not mean intellectually dead, and that expressive displays as such - rather obviously, I should think - are no guarantee of divine inspiration. Interestingly, Martin Luther King, when he was at Morehouse College, went through a period of being embarrassed by the expressiveness of most African-American worship. Indeed, concern about the theological respectability of black churches was the main reason that King had second thoughts about his ministerial vocation, thinking instead, for a time, of going into medicine or law. He got over his inhibitions (PTL!). But think of it - the intellectual weight of King's sermons combined with worship at once attentive and exuberant. Terrific!

    So no liturgical legislation. The Conga is acceptable as the Book of Common Prayer. Only one thing is forbidden: worship songs. Please, God, no worship songs!

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