We had an interesting session on the gifts of the Spirit last night in Harlesden. Many in the church are from a charismatic background but seemed wary about pursuing the conversation. One young woman put the choice rather starkly—she could spend her time praying that someone’s back-ache would improve, or she could work for social justice.
For many in the missional, postmodern-evangelical—or whatever we want to call it—camp the whole charismatic phenomenon appears now as a claustrophobic, self-indulgent, sensationalist, stultifying, and all too often abusive aberration. If we are not bored with it, we are confused by it. If we are not confused by it, we have been let down by it. If we have not been let down by it, we have been badly burnt by it. The bottom line? We don’t want to go back there. Can we please now just get on and do something useful in the world?
The problem is that charismatic experience is so central to the New Testament understanding of what it means to live by the Spirit that it does not really seem an option to discount it, no matter how disillusioned we may feel. My view is that the problem has to do less with the fact of charismatic experience than with how it is framed. The missing component in most of our thinking about the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit, I suggest, is what we would probably now call the “missional” dynamic. That begs the question of what we mean by “missional”, of course, and how it relates to the mission of the New Testament church. But here I want only to highlight the narrative context of four of the main New Testament arguments about the Spirit, because I think that this will at least get us moving in the direction of a healthier and more meaningful “charismatic” theology.
1. The Spirit and mission
The pouring out of the Spirit at Pentecost had a very clear purpose in view. It was to enable the community of disciples to continue the prophetic ministry of Jesus to Israel. The Spirit of visions and prophecy empowered all within the community of Jewish disciples to see what Jesus saw—a coming day of divine judgment on Jerusalem—and to proclaim what they had seen, not only to Israel but also to diaspora Judaism.
2. The Spirit and the wisdom of the cross
Paul’s preaching of “Jesus Christ and him crucified” to the Corinthians was backed up by a “demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor. 2:4). But more importantly, it was the Spirit which enabled the community to understand how the cross was the “wisdom of God”: “these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit” (2:10). This was not merely a theoretical knowledge about the means of salvation. The Corinthian believers needed to grasp this counter-intuitive wisdom of God because, like Paul, they would have to endure mockery, vilification, and persecution; they would have to share in Christ’s weakness and suffering. The miraculous works of God through the Spirit were confirmation that Paul’s testimony was genuine. But the Spirit also gave to the “mature” the “mind of Christ” so that they would be able to think like Christ when things got difficult (2:6, 16; cf. Phil. 2:1-11).
3. The power of the Spirit is the power of God’s new creation
The charismatic movement has tended, I think, to regard the miraculous as personal blessing, on the one hand, and proof of the reality of God, on the other. In other words, it has largely responded to the individualistic insecurities of our culture. The large-scale eschatological dimension has been neglected. The gifts of the Spirit tap into the power of the resurrection (cf. Rom. 8:11), and the resurrection is a precursor to eschatological transformation, whether the renewal of the people of God in the first centuries or the final renewal of all things, the new heaven and new earth. The gifts of the Spirit are signs of things to come, and specifically I would suggest that they ought to be a central part of how we communicate confidence in the future of the people of God in the secular western context.
4. The activity of the Spirit builds and sustains missional communities
The Spirit of God is not Father Christmas. Forget all the over-excited me-talk about who’s got what present and have they unwrapped it yet. Apart from some sense of daunting missional purpose which stretches community to breaking point there is little need for the charismata. Jesus gave the Spirit to his people to enable them to get beyond the pooled ignorance, bad habits, immaturity, and self-centredness that they brought to the task (cf. Eph. 4:1-16). God gave manifestations of the Spirit for the common good because only tightly knit, united, mutually supportive communities would be able to live out consistently, over time, under considerable duress, the corporate witness to the coming reign of God to which they were called.
Re-imagining charismatic community
The missional church today, in its various guises, is largely a prophetic movement. It is a sign to the world that the creator God is present, that he is a God of justice and compassion, and that he will ultimately make all things new.
The missional church needs to be taught by the Spirit that it is grounded not in cultural competence or socio-theological theory but in the wisdom of God, which starts and ends with weakness, vulnerability, and self-giving.
The missional church should be oriented towards the renewal of all creation, which is why social justice—and everything else that goes into being human—has to be part of the programme.
And missional community, as many have discovered, is a difficult thing to develop and sustain. At every level, the missional movement needs the Spirit of God, not just in theory, but in practice. The challenge is simply to re-imagine charismatic community as something that carries the missional church forwards rather than backwards.