A lot of people I know have spoken about the Bethel movement out of Redding, California. It’s a charismatic/pentecostal group but also highly controversial; some say it’s a cult. It’s obviously been a help to many people, but it’s also true that Bethel’s ways have harmed others. Their music is widely sung among those who benefit from and enjoy current worship music, and I like some of their songs as well. The harm done has to be noted too, but I do that with sympathy not only for the wounded but for the people in Bethel who are serving there with whole-hearted love and super-gifted ability.
Why? Well, I know where they’re coming from because, sitting in one of their conferences this week, I heard exactly what I was hearing in similar groups twenty and thirty years ago. The message isn’t new, even if the music is.
One of the toughest lessons to learn is to avoid being overly enthusiastic about all forms of enthusiasm. That’s especially true in regard to renewal movements that sweep up lots of people into new and often passionate devotion to God accompanied by authentic zeal. I learned a little late that passion doesn’t always mean authenticity, zeal isn’t always accompanied by wisdom, and renewal that isn’t sustainable is usually unhelpful in the long run.
I led charismatic churches for twenty years and attended a lot of events – and sometimes spoke at them too – that were genuinely designed to encourage Christians to embrace a deep commitment to follow Jesus Christ and live as a faithful believer. That also meant being ‘equipped’ to bring ‘signs and wonders’ to people every day, as well as expecting them in a worship service. We held that Apostles and Prophets were still active in the Church, and expected miracles and revelatory words on a regular basis. That got weird, very weird, very quickly. A genuine desire to see God move and see the Church filled with his presence eventually degenerated into a desperate search for the next big thing, the key that would unlock the great final outpouring that would usher in the kingdom and sweep thousands up into faith in Jesus. More often than not, such movements end up producing as many atheists, cynics, and de-churched Christians as converts. Why? Many reasons, but factors like an attendant lack of humility, a constant dependence on personal, subjective experience, and a disconnect with the Church in history in favor of the elite ‘informed’ supergroup eventually becomes an emotionally, intellectually, and relationally untenable way to live.
Before noting issues I find problematic, let me say at the outset that my Pentecostal movement friends, generally considered, are being beautifully used by God all over the world to share the Gospel of Jesus with people and they’re seeing large numbers of conversions to the faith, as well as producing disciples that love Jesus Christ, the Scriptures, and the Church. So before some typically severe Reformed critic starts bashing charismatics and Pentecostals, we should be able to humbly say that we could use a dose of that fire and fruitfulness in our service too. Let me also say that I think the worship services in largely charismatic scenes are often far more biblical not because they’re more spiritual but because they’re more physical. People move. Hands, feet, arms, legs, and mouths are given to express devotion and praise. People sing and shout and weep and kneel. That’s good! There is silence too, contrary to popular prejudice. It’s all good because worship engages the whole person. The problems with its radical individualism (with a deep antipathy to liturgy for a unified voice) and dangerous emotionalism (that can be deeply off-putting to saint and skeptic alike, not least because of the potential for manipulation) are apparent, but let’s give honor where honor is due. Passionate praise is a good thing. In short, there is a lot that is good in charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity and this foot cannot say to that hand, “I don’t need you.”
What I Found
Because I wanted to see first hand what Bethel was doing, especially in terms of the response of young adults to their ministry, I attended their LA Conference to learn what I could. I chatted briefly with Bethel Leader Bill Johnson and with lots of conference attendees. Some were Pastors but most were just everyday saints who were eager to be refreshed in their walk with and work for Christ. They were also predominantly young, white (some Latino, Asian, and African-American representation but very slight), and very cool in an LA/SoCo hipster kind of way that as an old bald dude I could only look on with envy. I really liked all the young people I met here and pray they’ll all go on to be faithful followers of Jesus.
- Who’s Reached? While I met a couple of folks who’d been converted to Christ, the vast majority of people attending this event (and Bethe) are people who grew up in the Christian faith. What is on display is a not an atypical expression of faith from young people whose experience of the church was fairly boring and grim: in Bethel’s high-charged atmosphere those people would come alive. They have a big school of ministry as well that’s attracted eager students from across the globe; they want to all learn the craft of a more spiritual ministry and how to use music to reach this rising generation. That means a lot of people with superb musical chops are attracted to Bethel… and from sound to lighting to songwriting and performing, they do it very well indeed.
- What’s the Message? You can’t miss it because it’s printed right on the T-shirts. The mission of Bethel is about worship music and what they refer to as the ‘Manifest Presence’ of the Kingdom. Through music they want to bring the manifest presence of God into everyday life, showing the kingdom in supernatural ways. This is not dissimilar to what the Vineyard movement was embodying for some time. In fact, the Southern California affinities between Bethel and early Vineyard are compelling. Bethel is really more of an Order of Creatives, Musicians, and Mystics than it is a Church. That’s not a new phenomenon in history, but this is a new embodiment of it; as such a movement, it is of necessity unbalanced and extreme; it also exists as a rebuke to spiritual dryness and lethargy, and as a center of welcome and instruction.
- What’s the Teaching? It’s diverse, but in short is old school Pentecostal fire, new school revivalism that has very similar practices to the Toronto Revival movement, and a heavy emphasis on everybody is somebody in ministry, especially with supernatural power. People need to get baptized with the Spirit and speak in tongues; people need to cultivate a sense of the divine presence by ‘soaking’ in it (Laying on the ground while worship music is played over the group – kind of a mass meditation event, though it can be done personally too); people need to be equipped to perform miracles. Problematic? Yes, for lots of reasons. First, Spirit-Baptism just doesn’t work that way; there is no every person gift of the Spirit; some gifts are spectacular and some are supportive but both are to be cherished; finally, searching for mystical experiences may lead you to one, but there’s no guarantee it’ll be the right spirit you meet. The approach to ministry in the word and the practices of ministry to people in this setting leave a great deal to be desired. I wouldn’t want this as a steady diet of instruction for anyone; in that regard, it’s distinctly unhelpful.
- What’s the atmosphere? Charged! This gathering was attended by several thousand people. I saw real passion for and devotion to Jesus, for which I was thankful; I saw massive numbers of 20-35-year-olds in attendance and was again thankful. BUT…I’m pretty sure the rock-concert-like feel to the event, complete with a brilliantly produced light show, was, while appealing, potentially misleading too. You can get the same or better at a U2 Joshua Tree event. There were also outlandish claims made for prophetic words and unverifiable reports of healings. That kind of thing is deeply troubling.
I was deeply involved in the charismatic movement and saw first-hand the claims made by people to defend the supposed presence of the Spirit in revival. Whether it’s gold dust falling from the ceiling or the ability to give personal prophecies and raise the dead, exaggerated testimonies of healings, ‘angel feathers’ falling on people (no, really), or simply the cult of personality developing around a great leader who cannot be challenged, all such ‘manifestations’ are nothing new, even if they’re new to people who are new to Bethel. The same is true for people saying we still have new Apostles today with new revelations, new spiritual fathers who must be obeyed and honored but never questioned or held accountable. This stuff always ends up somewhere in the ditch and the casualty count is usually pretty high.
The answer, however, isn’t a retreat to a merely cerebral or contemplative faith that eschews the ardent. We have to have Orthodoxy that is vibrant and devoted rather than simply correct, which is its own spiritual cul-de-sac of frustration. So before someone simply turns away from the extremes I’d suggest a bit more thoughtful reflection. Yes, this has dangerous extremes, and no, it’s not going to last. The massive numbers of young people attending, however, show that real spiritual hunger is palatable in this generation and Gospel ordered ways of meeting that head on must be cultivated. That’s going to include creativity and radical commitment.
It’s true that every member has a ministry and that our witness in the world brings the presence of the Kingdom where we live and work and play. That doesn’t mean that laying hands on people or prophesying at them in Krogers is the way that’s expressed. It’s true that worship in these settings can be a long lesson in manipulation and mere entertainment; it’s equally true that if our faith in the Ordinary means of grace means we never make room for the extraordinary or quenches the desire that our extraordinary God can and will do amazing things, we are deeply mistaken.
We need to be shaken at times, and maybe right now is such a time. The weirdness of some Bethel practices (see I almost managed to get through this without mentioning grave-sucking and fire tunnels) is heretical and dangerous. But don’t miss this: like many such movements it’s also a rebuke to the cold-heartedness that can afflict us all, a summons to repent of our faithless lack of expectation that the Creator of all things would be pleased to sing his song again in life-giving ways over a new generation.
I Can Sing the Song
I’m not a Wesleyan but I love the hymns of John and Charles Wesley. I’m not in any danger of joining Hillsongs, but I think ‘What a Beautiful Name’ is as moving a lyric as I’ve ever enjoyed in worship. I feel the same about Bethel. I’m a lot more committed to the regular ministry of word and sacrament than ANY musical form or worship style. In that regard, I long to see the ancient rhythms of the liturgy that culminates in the Feast of Heaven be married to the current sound of ten thousand voices raised in devoted praise. I pray that Bethel’s passionate commitment to bring the living presence of God into everyday life could be married to a wider and more precise view of mission that Tim Keller and his tribe could bring them, noting that how they live and repent and serve with their neighbors will be an effective witness too, and often far more so than having an orgasmic worship experience. I can hope that far from a dominionist ‘take over’ view of culture, which appears threatening to our world, the Bethel people will eventually adopt a more full-bodied servant theology of faithful presence in the world.
I don’t think this is a revival in the Biblical or historical sense. I do think it’s a rebuke to a careless, weary, politicized evangelicalism, that supposes yet one more book or clever marketing scheme will change hearts. Nor is it sustainable: these kinds of movements die out or go off the rails completely with the teaching and practices showing up again, somewhere else, some other time down the road. Sadly, a lot of wounded people will be left in its wake. I guarantee it because that’s what always happens. That said, note this: deeply Biblical congregations with deeply Biblical practices die too. In fact, Jesus himself takes their lampstand away, and all because they’ve lost their first love. So don’t miss this fact: returning to that first love, to the flaming passion of the purity and simplicity of devotion to Jesus, is something a Bethel song might actually help you do. Lift your voice!
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