The side-lining of spiritual gifts?
In an increasing number of charismatic churches in the UK there appears to be a move away from encouraging the use of spiritual gifts (especially tongues) in public church meetings where unbelievers are likely to be present. This move is contrary to the historic position of the charismatic movement, including NewFrontiers, where contributions and the operation of spiritual gifts form a normal part of church gatherings in the expectation that unbelievers will have powerful encounters with God leading to salvation. The change seems to me to be based upon 2 main drivers:
Contributions disturb the flow of ‘worship’
On hearing tongues unbelievers will think Christians are mad
Therefore, (at least implicitly), if you want your church to grow you should restrict such contributions in public meetings. As this view is gaining momentum, a discussion seems ripe.
Style or Principle?
At the outset we must question the presupposition that churches which encourage spiritual gifts in their meetings will inevitably put unbelievers off rather than draw them in, because it is simply not borne out in history. A most obvious example (perhaps after Pentecost itself?) is the Pentecostal Church which was one of the largest and most influential Christian evangelistic (in contemporary jargon ‘missional’) movements in history and yet was built on the use of spiritual gifts. This at least demonstrates that the use of spiritual gifts do not inevitably deter unbelievers from the church. One might even argue from this evidence that the converse is true?
Moreover, out of a right desire to be ‘missional’, there is always the temptation to be the kind of church people want rather than being the church they need or that we should be according to scripture, regardless of whether it is ‘attractive’ or not. This is, of course, a fine line since we are passionate to reach the lost and bring them to Christ and therefore we want to be as accessible as possible to seekers, while at the same time not compromising who we are meant to be as the gathered people of God. For this reason, looking at which churches are growing (ie charismatic/non-charismatic) is a study which should be undertaken extremely carefully since there are no formulas for church growth and attendance alone is not necessarily a measure of health. Might we even concede that changing our pattern of worship to attract greater numbers could be merely pandering to the consumer culture of our age? The key factor is whether contributions in church worship are a matter of Biblical principle or merely style.
In connection with this I would raise some questions:
Do our worship times have an individual or corporate focus? In my experience, many seem to asses worship times according to ‘how I felt’, whether I enjoyed the songs or whether God spoke to me, rather than whether we functioned properly as the community of God’s people. Therefore, contributions, especially ones which don’t involve me, are merely an interruption to my flow of worship, rather than an expression of togetherness as the body of Christ. I wonder if the appeal of some worship styles today simply reflects the individualism prevalent in modern society, and is therefore something to be confronted rather than conformed to?
Are our worship times primarily musical times? It seems to me that worship and music are now almost synonymous to the point where contributions can be seen as an interruption. ‘Worship’ flows from one song into another, often without any musical break, and if there is room for contributions they typically have a musical accompaniment. Now, I love music and lead the worship team at our church and while I am not advocating a return to the ‘hymn-sandwich’ I wonder whether we have swung too far and much church worship is dominated rather than served by music?
How does meeting size affect ‘charismatic worship’? In 1Cor 12-14 Paul is bringing teaching concerning the use of gifts when the church gathers together. However, how and in what ways are the practises here transferable regardless of meeting size? In what sense does ‘everyone have a… [contribution]’ if the meeting is 1000 strong? We cannot be sure of the sizes of church gatherings in New Testament times and while it is suggested that some churches numbered in their thousands, it is likely that they met in homes where gatherings were considerably smaller (although could still number up to 200). Of course, the question might be reversed: if contributions in worship are a fundamental NT principle, should this determine the size of our gatherings, before we plant out or go to multi-site?
So, I remain convinced that the Bible teaches spiritual gifts are for the church today, although I would acknowledge that we still have much to learn about the usage and handling of such gifts in our meetings, and I am concerned about the dominance of music in worship potentially to the exclusion of ‘body ministry’. In the second post we will consider 1Cor 14:21ff and explore whether Paul is really discouraging the use of tongues in seeker friendly meetings.