Continued Reflections on “The Dangers of Experience”

Continued Reflections on “The Dangers of Experience”

In my brief and humble writing career, I don’t think I have written a blog post that has received such a widespread variety of responses as “The Dangers of Experience.” I was honored that this piece was picked up and published by my denominational publication, the Church of Nazarene’s Holiness Today.

Since it’s publication, I have received grateful emails and Facebook messages from both friends and strangers thanking me for writing this article as it confirmed their own observations and gave a voice to their concerns. It has sparked several social media conversations where my piece was either directly or indirectly referenced and discussed. And it has garnered a fair amount of negative feedback–although these criticisms were mostly shared with grace and love. Because of these recent conversations, I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect a bit more on my original piece and add to the on-going discussion.

In my job working for Nazarene Youth International, the global youth ministry branch of my denomination, I am privileged to get a glimpse at what is happening in Nazarene churches all around the world. I am always fascinated by the things that unite us as Nazarenes, and also the things that give us beautiful diversity within our unity. Because of the global perspective I have gained, when I was writing this piece, I did not have a singular context in mind. I wanted it to be applicable and relevant to Nazarenes in rural Alabama, inner-city Johannesburg, and the mountains of Peru. I think that some who read my piece thought that I was unfairly targeting a specific group of people or those in a certain geographic context. This was certainly not my intent.

I wrote this piece because I had learned of “the dangers of experience” in some Latin American and African churches, where a charismatic influence has overtaken the values of sound Nazarene teaching and doctrine. I had heard many stories of defeated and dejected Nazarene pastors who have been made to feel “less than” because their sermons and revivals did not generate a certain type of response or experience among their congregants. In several conversations, I had seen the desire of some to return to the glory days of our denomination’s origins countered by the realism and skepticism of others who long for God to move in an entirely new way.

As the responses to my piece indicated, this is a conversation that is happening among many people and in many parts of our small denominational tribe all over the world. My hope for this piece was to speak into the topic in a way that was both gracious and firmly rooted in our Wesleyan-Holiness theology and doctrine.

Words Matter

In my writing, I tried to be conscientious of the terminology I used. I believe words are important and powerful, and even the slightest differences in words can drastically change their meanings. As such, I think it is vital that we distinguish between terms like “emotion” and “emotionalism,” or “revival” and “revivalism.”

For instance, I was always taught that tradition can be a powerful and useful tool for pastors. Religious traditions in particular can draw people closer to God as “they transmit shared values, stories, and goals from one generation to the next. Traditions encourage groups of people to create and share a collective identity.” Christian traditions such as placing ash on the forehead to mark the beginning of Lent, praying the prayers of the Divine Office, and participating in a candlelit Christmas Eve service have enriched my faith and strengthened my relationship with Christ. (I’m grateful for the perspective of my dear friend, Pastor Brent Neely, on using ancient Christian practices in his spiritual life.) Local church congregations even have their own rich and celebrated traditions that strengthen the community and bring people together in Christ. Tradition can be a great thing, and that is why I’m grateful for it’s place in the Wesley Quadrilateral.

Traditionalism, however, is a completely different matter. Traditionalism tends to uphold traditions that are no longer helpful or necessary for the community or individual. Traditionalism lives in the past and resists or rejects change. Traditionalism is found in the “sacred cows” of a church congregation and in the unwillingness to try something new because “this is the way it has always been done.” Traditionalism is what happens when we over-emphasize the tradition portion of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.

In the same way, there is a marked difference between emotion and emotionalism. Emotions are natural human responses, and they may be expressed within the church through a variety of experiences: singing, crying, raising your hands, hugging others, laughing, clapping, and shouting “Amen!” Since Jesus was fully human (as well as fully divine), he experienced the full-range of human emotions. Indeed, our emotions are an expression of God’s image in our lives.

Emotionalism, however, is a strong or excessive appeal to emotion. It is a manipulation of the normal, natural human emotions that may be experienced in a given situation. It is often undue or morbid emotion; it is emotion for emotions’ sake. Emotionalism directs attention to the human self, rather than to the worship of God. I was referring to this harmful “emotionalism” in my original article.

Similarly, I believe revival is something those of us in the Body of Christ all long for and desire. Who among us wouldn’t want to see the Spirit of God moving in a great way? However, revivalism is defined as “the idolatry of the immediate.” Revivalism is often characterized by those who are “longing for the old days” and are outrightly opposed to how God might be working in new ways (which, ironically, is what revival is all about). Once again, it was this skewed definition of “revivalism” that I addressed in “The Dangers of Experience.”

Learning from Others

As an added bonus of the continued discussion on “The Dangers of Experience,” I have since engaged in further research and study into both John Wesley’s characterization of Christian experience as well as the beginnings of the American-Holiness movement and our denomination’s place within those roots. The life-long student in me believes that anytime a conversation leads to further learning, a good outcome has been achieved!

Finally, I want to emphasize my deep love and respect for my brothers and sisters in Christ who are in Pentecostal or more charismatic-leaning Christian traditions. You occupy a beautiful place in this great Body of Christ. Your fervor and longing for the Holy Spirit is inspiring and refreshing. I do not want to discredit or discount your experience of faith even though it is different than my own. To quote Rachel Held Evans,

“Our differences can be cause for celebration when we believe the same Spirit that sings through a pipe organ can sing through an electric guitar, a Gregorian chant, or a gospel choir–though perhaps not at the same time!–and that we each hear the Spirit best at a different pitch” (Searching for Sunday, 200).

But I am grateful for my own denomination and her commitment for believers to live out their sanctification not by expressing certain gifts or having certain emotional experiences, but by living lives consistently modeled after the love and holiness of Christ.