In his book on the Holy Spirit Flame of Love, theologian Clark Pinnock suggests that the presence of the Holy Spirit within the church takes two modes: sacramental and charismatic.
The sacramental emphasises the presence of God recognised or reflected through symbols and signs. It is, of course, more generally denoted through the ‘official’ sacraments of the church, baptism and communion. Through these means of grace the presence of God is powerfully acknowledged amongst the people.
However, the church has always valued sacramentals, that is, other signs by which we are reminded and celebrate the presence of God with us. These include candles, songs, stained-glass windows, crosses, icons and art.
They are strong reminders that God is with us through and present in all of life, and the sacred is named in spaces and places all over. They are particularly symbolic of the incarnation of Christ in flesh to a lowly, dirty manger. God is present in our physical world, reflected through common objects given a scared purpose. We must not separate the sacred and the secular.
The Charismatic, however, emphasises the work of the Holy Spirit in the church. It is a strong reminder that God is not only present with us, but is active. This is clearly evident throughout the New Testament of profound encounters and experiences of God which include, but are not limited to, supernatural healing, prophecy and tongues. Their prevalence invites Paul’s specific guidance on their appropriate use in several places.
The charismatic work of God facilitates profound experiences, which confront our current life, and provoke transformation.
Throughout history, churches tend to emphasise one or other of these modes. Churches that expect and participate with the charismatic tend to leave traditional sacramentals behind along with various other ecclesiastical traditions. Outside these, our propensity is to be reminded and celebrate God’s presence through physical means, surrounding ourselves with sacramental objects, iconography and symbols. We also become more specific about creating specific sacred spaces.
In the last thirty years, Australia has seen a cycle of both the sacramental and the charismatic. From the late sixties and into the seventies, the Charismatic Renewal spread across the church, with distinct, widespread, charismatic, experiential ministry of the Holy Spirit. No mainline denomination was untouched.
It unleashed incredible apostolic and evangelistic zeal and activity, with widespread church planting, evangelism and church growth as key elements. It was likewise marked by large church gatherings, many interdenominational, where the charismatic gifts operated as the norm. Mainline denominations were forced to theologically reflect on the phenomena.
By the 1980s, as the momentum of the movement subsided, left in its wake were new denominations, and some key pockets of renewed congregations. As the movement bedded into sustainable church, many of the leaders looked to figures such as John Wimber and Peter Wagner who’s teaching fused the charismatic with church growth theory, with resultant impact. Some of these churches are now the largest congregations in Australia.
It also left some with a bruised disillusionment through naive ministry, some bizarre experiences, and extreme personality-driven leadership. At the centre of the broader charismatic movement, the pentecostal churches advanced significantly, a push which has seen it become the fasted growing in Australia today.
Over the past decade, however, the charismatic influence itself has decreased significantly in Australia, and a new sacramental mode has re-emerge, explicitly expressed though, though not limited to, the emerging missional church.
This next-gen sacramental renewal has rediscovered icons, art, liturgy, crosses, and ancient spiritual practices, combined with new use of technology and a more general engagement with contemporary culture.
Even in many Pentecostal churches, it is interesting to note the decline in overt charismatic expression of spiritual gifts, and their strong engagement with mainstream contemporary culture – iconic imagery and pop-worship music being just two examples.
In emerging missional churches, history and contemporary culture have been jointly mined for their ancient symbolic, almost totemic, integration of sacramental expression.
This Sacramental Renewal certainly contains within it a reaction to the church growth style which followed the charismatic renewal. And just as many deserted sacramental churches during the Charismatic Renewal, many Christians are heading the other way, seeking out the sacramental – not back in traditional sacramental churches but in emerging faith communities – or in a reframed personal spirituality.
This raises a a real question for the church: Why is there this hunger for a more integrated sacramental expression of faith? Has their spirituality become too systematic, or homogenised? Why has a call to a holistic so called ‘missional’ lifestyle resounded so strongly with current Christians?
But while the dangers of the extreme charismatic end are pretty well understood, I wonder if the new sacramental has some limitations too? A reframing of spiritual expression to contemporary sacramental orientation to suit their lifestyle.
There is a reaction within the style, and reactions risk losing essential elements, and making old mistakes. Next-Gen sacramentalism can fall into the individualistic trap.
Worship that is all imminence. All me. A spirituality without a Spirit.
It is interesting because it is subsumed within missional rhetoric when there may be nothing missional about it. It can be marked not by Christians going the extra mile led by the Spirit for mission, but increased attention to personal lifestyle through quite ordinary and un-radical practices. That’s the temptation at this end.
It understandable why. Missional instinct contains the instinct to engage with the real world, not separate from it. When applied to our personal spiritual expression, and a critique of larger established church, we are left deconstructing experiential spirituality. And that can be trapped in intellectual asceticism, vulnerable to making participants stylistic connoisseurs.
I believe a call to mission is a call to radical discipleship, and missional churches requires higher, not lower, levels of commitment and discipleship.
Either way, there is one dangerous question worth exploring: What would it mean to reframe the charismatic in new missional terms?
I don’t long for the good ol’ days of the charismatic renewal as a desirable way forward. But that phenomena was different from the Great Awakening, imagine what else God might do in history?
I do believe the way of full-blooded mission allows greater room for extraordinary experiences and transformative encounters. Are we radical enough for that?
I do also think the missional church needs to rediscover a fuller pneumatology (But more on that at another time).
But another crazy question: What if we knew another charismatic movement was just up ahead?
How would our missional churches be oriented by that in anticipation? Would we be thrilled, or wrong-footed? Would we be open to the new work of God, or annoyed by the intrusion?
What if these were the days prior to another Awakening?
What if this is precious time to refocus, realign, rethink, retrain, and re-engage with the real world?
Our talk of mission rightly takes us to the Book of Acts, but have we overlooked the main character?