I received the gift of tongues when I was just eight years old. An older woman in our small charismatic church introduced us Friday night Bible study kids to the idea of a “prayer language.” I don't remember how my teacher explained it, only how she gently placed her hands on our heads, one after another, while quietly praying in tongues herself. My mouth filled with syllables I didn't know and didn't understand; I lifted my skinny arms to the ceiling, and I spoke in tongues like a mystic.
I was raised in small charismatic churches in western Canada, long before the Internet made it easy to keep tabs on what other Christians were up to. I grew up believing that our experiences—speaking in tongues and then the interpretation, healing, miracles, prophecy, words of knowledge, and faith—were utterly unremarkable.
As I look back on my childhood, although the gifts of the Holy Spirit were dear to us and we deeply believed in their practice, the real difference was that we expected God. We wanted the wild and the untamed Spirit to disrupt us. We lived out of an assumption of God's good gifts and overwhelming love. We yearned to see the Kingdom come on earth, right here, as it was or would be in heaven. We figured that was what God wanted, too. Believing power would come from on high to see the lost found and the sick healed and imprisoned set free, our church operated on a first-name basis with the Spirit.
Later, when I began to spend time with other Christians outside of my tradition, I discovered that we were considered fringe. A bit suspect amongst the establishment. People thought charismatics were dangerous, the weird ones, controversial. Who knew?
Over the years, I'd seen my share of damaging abuses done in the name of the Spirit. I've been on the receiving end of some weird practices. I look back on some of the things I used to believe and cringe a bit. Think of an over-realized eschatology, and I've probably heard it preached beautifully.
Anytime I get defensive about how charismatics are mocked or stereotyped, I am presented with something like this article from Charisma “news” referring to Donald Trump as “God’s Trumpet to America,” and I have renewed sympathy for cessasionists. In my upcoming book, Out of Sorts, I write about how I've learned to make peace with having an evolving faith, which means that, like most of us who grew up in some form of Christianity, I’ve had to sort through what I was taught and figure out what I want to carry with me and what I want to lay down. Being a charismatic provides a lot of material.
But there is something significant about the movement of the Spirit that causes me to continue to identify as one of those happy-clappy Jesus followers. The roots of today's charismatic movement stretch back over 2,000 years of Christianity (Book of Acts, anyone?). Our more modern family history begins with the Pentecostal movement of 1901 moving through to the Charismatic movement of the 1960s and then into the Third Wave or renewal movement of the 1980s, when I joined our tribe—a skinny kid with a sensitive spirit and a thirsty heart and a mean dance-kick.
A decade after I began to speak in tongues, I encountered a teacher in a basic high school religion class who utterly despised charismatics. Perhaps he had read one too many Hank Hanegraaff books. But he was convinced that not only was I deceived, but it was his job to set me straight right there in front of the class. It was a miserable term.
Yet as the years have passed, I witnessed the shift in how charismatics are received in the larger church. Our movement has gone from being a fringe aspect of Christianity, to an invited and respected guest at the evangelical table, to holding a position of leadership and influence.
When my husband started seminary ten years ago, we were worried about how he, as a charismatic, would be received in a more traditional evangelical classroom. He was prepared to be the odd-man-out yet again, to defend himself or mute his experiences. But instead, he found welcome and inclusion and curiosity. Anglicans, Baptists, Mennonites, Alliance, representatives from all sorts of Christian tribes gathered around him with deep interest...not despite his background as a charismatic, but because of it. They often had their own spiritual experiences to share. In just a few short years, our practices had gone from adversarial to familial.
There are many reasons for this, of course, culturally, historically, practically, globally, artistically. While many strains of the church decline in influence, Pentecostals and charismatics continue to grow by leaps and bounds, particularly in the Global South. The church overall is looking more and more charismatic. Even more traditional denominations recognize charismatic experiences and awakenings worldwide. The Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board recently lifted their ban on members speaking in tongues. The two of the biggest movements in Christianity right now, Hillsong and Bethel, are staunchly, unapologetically, and deeply charismatic/Pentecostal in their language, theology, expression, and passion.
Even as their theology widely differs, more and more churches around the world are worshipping like charismatics. Then there is the one-woman powerhouse, Christine Caine. A self-described “fast-talking over-caffeinated Pentecostal” from Australia’s Hillsong, she is preaching in churches across all theological divides (including major US congregations like Saddleback and Willow Creek); fighting human trafficking with her husband through their A21 Campaign; and inspiring women leaders with a new initiative called Propel. As Harvard theologian Harvey Cox said, Pentecostalism is “reshaping religion in the 21st century.”
After a season when I walked far away from our traditions, gathering the greater story of our church, I eventually found myself corkscrewing back over and over again to the teachings of my childhood, the songs, the practices, the theology, even the emphasis on empowerment of the Spirit for living. I’m learning to reclaim my tradition’s great gifts to me.
Though I still cringe over how our more extreme wings may gain the spotlight for over-the-top behavior or remarks, I’ve also seen how our charismatic communities have welcomed greater nuance and education and training to our midst. The church has grown up beautifully together, finding the holes in our theology and beginning to round out our understanding of the Spirit with justice, with strong teaching, with discipleship, with humility, with an eye on challenging the powers and principalities of our world like racism, patriarchy, war, poverty, systemic injustice, mindless evil, callous hearts, cruelty, and the dehumanizaion of our most vulnerable. We are empowered for a purpose.
We need the power of the Spirit now, perhaps more than ever as we seek to live into the Kingdom of God, to set up outposts of the Kingdom here in this culture. I am encouraged by the growing maturity and thoughtfulness and wholeness of our no-longer-fringe movement.
We’re no longer the outsiders. Now we’re the influencers, and with that influence comes great responsibility.
Sarah Bessey is the author of the bestselling book, Jesus Feminist. She is an award-winning blogger and writer. Her new book Out of Sorts: Making Peace with Evolving Faith will be out in November. She lives in Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada with her husband and their four tinies. You can find her on Twitter at @sarahbessey.