Occasionally I’m in a position where my faith journey intersects or becomes relevant to a friend. Part of my story involves my experience back when I used to be a charismatic Christian. During those years I encountered the beginnings of what has been dubbed the “Fourth Wave” of the Holy Spirit. For the uninitiated, that’s just code for the modern day movement of new apostles and prophets reintroduced to the life of the worldwide church. This movement arose from charismatic circles in the mid- to late-1990s. I was there and had a first-hand view of how it crept into my church and wrecked havoc among my friends and family. What follows is not exactly a “testimony”. I had come to faith in Christ several years before I lived this story. But I don’t mean to minimize the importance of what I learned during my time as a charismatic. In fact I saw a great zeal for worship and service in many sincere charismatic Christians–positive characteristics that I hope will stick with me forever. And yet there was a darker side to it all that affects me to this day. I share my story with the hope it will encourage people who are stuck in the middle of the movement popularly dubbed the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR). Others have called the movement Independent Network Charismatic (INC). A good place to start for understanding the movement is Geivett’s and Pivec’s book A New Apostolic Reformation. I pray my story may be a window to sanity and a catalyst to see some of the serious problems that exist in this branch of the church. Without further ado…
My parents both grew up in the Church of Christ tradition, and we settled in southern California, but when my family moved to Virginia after my freshman year of high school, my mom was looking for something different that felt more alive. So in 1989 we ended up at a different kind of church than we were used to. Back then it was a typical third wave charismatic evangelical church. Some of the practices were a little floopy and feminized, but I remember the preaching being pretty good (especially from 2 of the 3 pastors) the music was awesome, and the youth group was vibrant and having an impact locally. Classmates were getting saved. But when I went away to college in the fall of 1992 things started to change in terms of church direction. Forays back home during school breaks, and for longer stretches in the summer, were my window into the changes rapidly taking place.
There had always been an openness to speaking in tongues in that church and an occasional public prophetic utterance (usually done in a reserved kind of fashion), but the pastors tried to strike a balance of respectability and tastefulness, including requiring a public interpretation if the tongue was public. Something like the prophetic expression that later became common in Sovereign Grace Ministries churches. But eventually we began to hear about the Kansas City Prophets, whom the pastors shared glowing stories about, and a few guest speakers from those circles made their way into the pulpit. Men like Rick Joyner (back then a rising star in the American charismatic church and nowadays a big shot), who I recall preached several times at my church over the course of a couple years. These were no ordinary guest speakers, but were presented as stars in the charismatic world. The sermons were mostly about signs, wonders, miracles, and healings that the speaker had either witnessed or performed (!) in some far-off place where it was hard to confirm the sensational stories. Some accounts were pretty wild—even stories of people raised from the dead—but mostly healings from psychosomatic illnesses or other unseen/unconfirmed diseases. My favorite stories were about legs miraculously lengthening. “Hey, my right leg is slightly shorter than my right–can I get in on that?” I remember joking to myself.
These were the years when the third wave of the charismatic movement was in full swing and the nascent fourth wave was beginning to emerge. Crazy, high-profile revivals were breaking out in Pensacola, FL and at the Toronto Airport that were drawing the attention of the secular national media. It seems every Christian I knew was talking about the Holy Spirit waking up to do new signs and wonders. Charismatics from all other the world, including reps from our church, would visit these famous manifestations of revival to witness the Holy Spirit doing a new thing and hope to bring the revival back to the home churches. This was before the internet and Youtube could assist your research. But that wouldn’t have been enough anyway because in charismatic teaching you have to be there to see, believe, and “catch the spirit-revival” yourself. So when reps came back to my church, they brought reports of thousands slain in the Spirit, manifestations of Holy Spirit laughter, and drunk in the Spirit, people uncontrollably writhing on the floor, some foaming at the mount and barking like dogs. It was super creepy to me, but understand that to a sincere charismatic, it is entirely plausible that this stuff is really what God is doing! And if you’re skeptical then you’re in flirting with Pharisaical unbelief. Seriously. For example, there was the time I went to a local meeting in a neighboring city one summer with friends to a “Holy Ghost Bar” where a woman prophet, imitating the famous-at-the-time Rodney Howard Brown, dispensed the Spirit like it was “spiritual booze” that made you sloppy drunk on the floor. One of the girls who went with us willingly succumbed to her spell, and while me and one friend frowned with skepticism at the whole spectacle, the woman prophet stared us down like we were Pharisees about the crucify Jesus. It was bad enough that this stuff was close enough to home to access via a short drive. But then “it” came to our church.
First the youth group got spiritually weird when the youth pastor started allowing kids to act like the crazies in Pensacola and Toronto. It wasn’t long before such antics killed the evangelical effectiveness of the youth group, and many people, including some of my family members, stopped going to church altogether. Then the youth pastor and his A-team of kids “filled with the Holy Spirit” were invited by the main church pastors to present to the congregation on Sunday morning the “revival” that was happening in the youth group. So these manifestations started popping up in the church service on Sunday morning. Whereas people used to go forward during the service (like an altar call) for prayer, now we were going forward and leaving having been slain in the Spirit. One time I was being prayed over and the person praying gently tried to push me over to fall down as if the Holy Spirit zapped me with overwhelming power. I resisted, but he responded by pushing harder. Losing my balance and footing, the designated “catcher” behind me caught my body to break the fall, then laid me down with the rest of the slain crowd. Hallelujah! What a spectacle. I seethed with anger like I never have before or since. I remember thinking this must be what spiritual abuse in public feels like. And I came thisclose to hopping up to declare I was pushed and that the whole thing was fake. But better judgment overruled since I didn’t want to cause a scene.
These are just a few of many stories I could share from those years. Not that I’m proud of it, but I’ve held friends spellbound recounting things that I saw or happened directly to me. I could tell of the time the youth pastor took my friend and me back into his office to coach us how to speak in tongues by priming the pump. Or the time the pastor started channeling Benny Hinn and knocking people over in the Spirit who had come forward for some kind of spiritual blessing. Or the time the youth music leader roared like a lion and everyone praised God on the spot for filling him with the Spirit. Instead the leader appeared to swell with pride as his stock rose in the church. Or the time I brought my girlfriend to church and the pastor said from the pulpit that he sensed a darkness indicating the Holy Spirit was absent—he was trying to wake up the lethargic congregation but my newly saved girlfriend was literally freaking out, like we were sitting in some den of Satan. That was the moment I knew I had to leave because I couldn’t bring guests to church with any confidence. I’ve got lots of strange but true stories.
But I didn’t leave yet. Instead I set out to understand what was going on since my family (except my dad) was entrenched at the church. So as I researched I began to listen to the Bible Answer Man broadcast by the Christian Research Institute. Their ministry used to be based in southern California (a NAR geographic hub), so they had a lot of interaction with INC/NAR. I started reading their Christian Research Journal which published critiques of the Pensacola and Toronto revivals, and other counterfeit Christianities in the charismatic movement. Back then the movement had its prophets: self-appointed men and women (usually husband-wife teams) who declared God spoke new and direct revelation through them which gave them a higher authority than pastors, teachers, and evangelists. In fact, the prophets claimed they were only accountable to God—not even under the authority of the local church where they worshiped. I didn’t know it at the time, but C. Peter Wagner, professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA, who is considered the theological godfather of the INC/NAR movement, took upon himself the mantle of a prophet. First in the 1990s he provided the biblical and theological case for the reestablishment of the prophetic office (of course one not under any human or institutional authority or accountability). In the early 2000s Wagner took the final step to declare a reestablishment of the apostolic office (of course he was the first of the new breed, and therefore self-appointed!). Today the organization he founded (International Coalition of Apostolic Leaders) runs an apostolic attestation agency that certifies an apostle’s current license to apostolize (or whatever you want to call it that apostles do) for an annual fee. No joke!
I read a few more books and articles that helped me understand what was happening in my church and the NAR movement it had latched onto. Research was tough because literally no one I knew was on the same journey and no one had any recommendations for me. Shortly after college graduation and my full-time move back to northern Virginia, I left that church, though my family stayed for a few more years. It was a hard time because I was labeled divisive, judgmental, and arrogant by my own family, but thankfully we’ve all come out of the movement now, most of us in healthy churches. But I can’t get completely away from it because from time to time a friend or family member falls under the spell of these spiritual charlatans. Just in the last 2 days I’ve had conversations with 2 friends who have encountered charismatic weirdness in their churches. One of my friends believes it, another is skeptical. Over the years I’ve seen too many friends and family have their faith in God and the Bible shipwrecked in the fallout from exposure and belief in neo-charismatic theology. So inevitably I get sucked back in to share my story with them, to warn them of the dangers and excesses that frequently befall people who get sucked in. In my observation, the door is wide open and exciting that leads into this stuff. People feel alive, that they’re part of something really big and eternally significant, but when the depression, disillusion, and burnout settle in, the back door is well-trod with the spiritually wounded who are forgotten. When people figure out they are not allowed to be an ordinary Christian with an ordinary life with ordinary doubts and emotions, they throw in the towel and say goodbye, sometimes even to Jesus. Tragic.