Pentecostalism has always been very dear to my heart. Having said that I have developed something of mixed response to some of its excesses over the years. I came to a faith in Christ through the ministry of a pentecostal pastor called Terry Hanford.; his particular brand of welsh revivalist preaching is something I shall always be grateful for.
The following decades have, however, seen some changes in the way I view much of the Christianity that I was handed and I am more ready to offer a critique of some expressions of the charismatic experience than I once was.
I suppose by the time you have heard the 'your life is like an onion with many layers' prophecy numerous times you start to get a little weary. Added to this are the various ways people are taught to exercise the spiritual gifts.
Some years ago we were present at a charismatic and pentecostal leadership conference and attended a seminar where a senior prophet of one of the movements taught us how to develop in this ministry. We were all encouraged to think of an every day object or scene and then see if we could find something positive to say to the person next to us; using the said object as our reference point.
Needless to say there were plenty of onions, trees, rivers, valleys, and mountains. My wife and I were less than impressed and felt as of we had witnessed a lesson in how to use our creative thinking to get people to believe we were hearing from God.
It seems that this is not all that uncommon and I can recall many instances where a preacher has fished for prophetic words hoping they might land on some willing participant.
'Has anyone here got a sick relative?' - in most congregations the answer would be yes!
'Does anyone feel that they are in a dry and thirsty land?' - well life is hard so again yes!
'Is anyone here experiencing financial problems?' - there is a global credit crunch at the moment!
You can no doubt think of your own examples. The answer often involves the participant being encouraged to 'go deeper' or 'go to the next level' or even 'show your trust of God by giving more in the offering as a seed of what you might get in return'.
Now I need to say here that I do believe in the prophetic and I do know that God speaks though many ordinary objects, stories, and symbols: often using them to get our attention in the busyness of life. The problem I have is that the examples above present the prophetic in such a narrow way that we have almost abandoned our responsibility to both the gospel and to the world.
In this context the prophetic tends to move towards an experience that one might have in a meeting and at the hands of some anointed individual. In some ways this can become our touchstone of hope in a dry and barren land. The sadness is that the model often looks for trophy testimonies aimed at proving the validity of the ministry or church in question. In its wake can be a whole host of effectively invisible people who, for what ever reason, didn't know the steps of the charismatic dance; probably because they didn't say yes to the prophetic at the right moment.
The biblical examples of prophets seem to be so very different from the picture I have often seen in the church. Here I am not just speaking of individuals but of churches, ministries, and movements.
Firstly, It seems to me that prophets had an internal ache for the kingdom of God that drove them to speak even at the cost of their own lives. The question here of course is what constitutes the kingdom and what is it that we see as the goal of our cry.
In all of my time in the pentecostal and charismatic movement I have never, and I do mean never, heard a prophecy that expresses an ache for the marginalised and poor in what one might call an ethical context. All of the prophecies I have heard have been directed towards churches and members: seemingly aimed at helping them to 'get through' what ever bit of life they have found themselves in.
Secondly, I would suggest that biblical prophets walked a fine line between both identifying with those to whom they spoke and dislocating themselves from the group.
The idea of sackcloth and ashes for example symbolises repentance and prophets where often the first to enact this sense of remorse thus hoping to kick start the same in others. In a sense they remained as a member of the disobedient group but also repented of their behaviour.
Thirdly, there seems to be a continuing theme where communication was based upon more than just words. In this regard wearing sackcloth, eating locusts, turning tables, and breaking bread become dramatic examples that speak louder than words.
In the pentecostal and charismatic environment the self-preservation construct of the experiential meeting can become an end in itself: such that individuals now see the prophetic as being an antidote to their own insecurities and lacks rather than a call for the church to abandon its support of empire and a rallying cry to begin acting out kingdom principles.
So does the Holy Spirit to people today; yes. Is guidance given through flawed ecclesiological patterns; yes. Are individuals comforted by messages of comfort given by those with an ear for the prophetic; yes.
Is this the some total of what the prophetic is meant to be; I think not.
Now before you think I am merely offering an antithetical argument on this subject I am not. This is not a case if either/or but both/and. We have however travelled so far in a particular direction that I think we need to drag ourselves back to some better biblical foundation.
In this regard I will happily trade the layers of an onion for the resounding call for the church to feed the poor, clothe the naked, and give shelter to the homeless.