Perhaps the most glaring example is some of the witchcraft and occultism that had global attention during a well-known revival that drew multiple millions of people all over the world in the 1990s and dramatically and permanently changed the landscape of Sunday morning worship practices in the West. Because there was actually some calculable good that came from this revival—and because several of those who perpetuated the more negative aspects of it have since repented of their involvement—we will sensitively refer to this period in time as the “Charisma Revival.” (As a quick disclaimer: These authors have studied the Charisma Revival throughout the years, and we want to be clear that the Lord certainly met many seekers at those altars. The movement was popular enough that readers may recognize which revival we’re writing about. If readers of this book were among those who attended and had a real encounter with God, we are not questioning the authenticity of your experience; we merely want to look at some of the questionable origins and goings-on of the movements that began in the area at that time.)
Some may wonder why, when so much of the discussion about Protestantism has taken place across all denominations, we’re about to look back at a movement that was primarily Pentecostal/Charismatic. There are three reasons:
- Demographically, if we don’t count Catholicism, with approximately 584 million members, Pentecostals and Charismatics make up the largest population of Christianity not just in the West, but around the globe, accounting for 26.7 percent of the world’s Christian population (8.5 percent of the human population).[i] Since the Catholic Church represents 50.1 percent of the Christian population of the world, that makes the remaining 26.7 percent of Pentecostals and Charismatics an enormous part of the Body. As a result, though not all readers are Pentecostal or Charismatic, many likely are, which makes the warnings from this movement invaluable.
- The Charisma Revival, regardless of denominations, stands as a great example of what can happen when the Church forsakes her True Love (Jesus) and goes in her own direction to feed emotional phenomena. The correct teachings from the Word end, worship gets insane, the lost remain lost, God’s heart breaks, and Christians lose patience waiting for their religious identity to iron itself out, so they eventually give up and leave the Church. Everyone loses.
- Long-term damage inflicted upon the reputation of and theological trends within the Church can take eons to sort out. In this way, the Charisma Revival affected all Protestant denominations. It was such a grand-scale Western movement that egg was thrown on the faces of other traditional Christian faiths that were not involved, putting believers from all over the West in the uncomfortable position of answering for why their religion appeared absurd.
Lessons from the era of hype… Lessons learned the hard way.
This moment was marked by a resurgence of the “hellfire and brimstone”-style sermons similar to those of Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” in the mid 1700s, but this time, the messages were reprimands for not being “fired up like the folks at those Charisma Revival churches.” These charges were often followed by the obligatory “get fired up” exhortation to which the congregants dutifully responded by demonstrating their (imitated) excitement…all for the sake of appearance. There was a lot of religious propagandizing to support the idea that this was the one, the only, and the last golden age of revival—that “God wouldn’t wait on the lazy ones,” and He would “work miracles” through those willing to “punch Satan in the face” and “reclaim our territory.” But because the Holy Spirit wasn’t truly behind all this “pulpiteering,” no real fruit was produced. True followers of God were worshiping one day, then they blinked and found themselves in a cult the next; the lost had little reason to think that cult had any legitimate answers about how to be saved.
Right from the beginning, despite some very real demonstrations of God, something just “felt off” about the Charisma Revival. Stories from that congregation involved deeply unsettling “manifestations of God,” even though there was almost never any scriptural foundation for those goings-on. This didn’t seem to bother most Church leadership, though. Many people traveled to the churches that were right in the thick of it, having been instructed by their pastors to go see what’s going on and “bring the revival back with them,” as if they had been sent to pick up a loaf of bread. (One of these authors heard that very “bring it back” command in two different churches and by two different leaders. It was like they were suggesting that their ministry staff could just fling a revival in their backpack and feed it crackers on the plane.) In our opinions, these were pastors’ efforts to try to “fix” the apathy of their home congregations because they weren’t willing to do the work it would take to see a true revival of interest in following Christ.
In the following excerpt, award-winning journalist of religion, spirituality, culture, and history, Steve Rabey, describes the reputation that several churches earned during this movement:
As [churchgoers] walk down the wide carpeted aisles—aisles that in a few hours’ time will be filled with the lifeless bodies of stricken worshipers—some tread lightly, as if they are walking on holy ground.… All told, more than 2.5 million people have visited [one of] the church’s Wednesday-through-Saturday evening revival services, where they sang rousing worship music and heard old-fashioned sermons on sin and salvation. After the sermons were over, hundreds of thousands accepted the invitation to leave their seats and rush forward to a large area in front of the stage-like altar. Here, they “get right with God.”… Untold thousands have hit the carpet, where they either writhe in ecstasy or lie stone-still in a state resembling a coma, sometimes remaining flat on the floor for hours at a time. Some participants call the experience being “slain in the Spirit.” Others simply refer to receiving the touch of God. Regardless of what they call it, these people are putting the “roll” back in “holy roller.”[ii]
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Another outside-perspective report we found particularly eye-opening is by World Magazine reporter Edward E. Plowman, who documented his own observations on the spot during one of the 1997 Charisma Revival services. Bob Jones of the same magazine assisted in writing the article that would appear in the December 20 issue of that year. The article begins with an account of the opening of the service, when two ministers on stage begin to jog in place and dance excitedly, while families all over the enormous room jump about wildly. One woman in the front row of the balcony seating caught the reporter’s eye, and he took note: “Looking like a geriatric cheerleader, she crisscrosses her arms in front of her and chops wildly at the air above her head. When she finally falls to the floor and thrashes about for five minutes, her fellow worshippers burst into applause.”[iii]
The story goes on to state that this same woman, likely tired from all the physical activity, fell asleep as soon as the sermon began, staying asleep until the altar call, when she revived and resumed her frenzy…
Assigning the personnel to work specific roles in such a gathering was no small feat. For example, at one church that was centrally involved in the Charisma Revival, “catchers,” designated by the red armbands they wore, were responsible for doing just that: catching people who had been touched on the forehead and proceeded to fall. These men would lower the fallers gently to the floor, ensuring there were no injuries. There was also a “modesty patrol”: These folks draped cloths over the women who fell in dresses or skirts to prevent possible flashing of too much skin or undergarments to those nearby. An employee or volunteer served as a scorekeeper, responsible for seeing to the constant updates on the sign out front displaying the number of souls saved to date. World Magazine reporters remember the sign as a way that church could claim its bragging rights—in much the same way that 1990s McDonald’s signs flaunted how many cheeseburgers they had sold.
But, for all the trouble that these congregations went through to ensure God’s movement had organization and boundaries, the teaching—which is the part true Christians consider the most crucial detail—lacked substance. The World Magazine article includes several quotes from the ministers the evening they compiled their report; their words sounded akin to the “punch the devil in the face”-style messages we mentioned earlier. What these authors find far more concerning than the record of bizarre behavior, however—and Plowman and Jones agree—is the concentrated focus on having an experience instead of edifying the Body with correct teaching and dividing (interpretation) of the Word (2 Timothy 2:15).
In the article, the writers raised the question of whether some of the dramatic falling episodes had actually been choreographed and staged. But that isn’t even what bothers these authors the most, because that’s an issue between them and God. What we find most troublesome is that, according to Plowman and Jones, not one word of the sermon they sat through addressed any theological concepts that could be soundly traced to Scripture, the doctrine of salvation, creeds of the faith, or anything else of that nature.[iv]
Joe Horn, in his autobiographical and theologically rich book that addresses healthy use of the gifts of the Spirit, Everyday Champions: Unleash the Gifts God Gave You, Step into Your Purpose, and Fulfill Your Destiny, shares a telling testimony. This grand display of 1 Corinthians 14-style, chaotic occultism is only one of many examples of how, in many pop-culture, contemporary church congregations, discernment has left the building. The church Horn tells of was located near Portland, Oregon, at the height of the Charisma Revival; the leadership there had sent an agent to “bring the revival” back with them, as many were apt to do. His tale is similar to what everyone else was hearing at the time:
People were “getting drunk in the Spirit,” which [in this Oregonian congregation] meant that they would sway, stagger, and laugh out loud at everything they saw during service. A few times, married folks interacted with other people’s spouses in a way that could be described as flirtatious, raising an eyebrow or two, but because their actions were the result of “something the Spirit was doing in them,” the behavior wasn’t questioned. On several occasions, this phenomenon engulfed twenty or more people at once, and the only thing distinguishing the altar atmosphere from a small-town bar atmosphere was the absence of liquor.…
I’ll never forget the “birthing in the bathroom” incident. A guest speaker came to town and spoke about end-time “birthing pains of the Church Body.” I can’t remember his message, so I have no idea whether his conclusion was theologically sound. I also can’t assume that what occurred next was or wasn’t via his influence, but I didn’t need a seminary degree to immediately recognize it as bizarre heresy.
A grown man was found on the floor of the bathroom “giving birth in the Spirit.” He was moaning in agony from “birthing pains,” he said. That’s what the story was by the time it reached me…
I was as curious as anyone to hear what the pastor would say about the bathroom incident that morning.… Surely the shepherd of the flock [read “pastor”] would either denounce the whole matter as heresy that he planned to deal with or he would justify the news with a verse.
When service began, the incident was the first thing the associate pastor addressed (the pastor never said a word that I can recall), but to my surprise, he didn’t make a calculated conclusion one way or the other. He gave a quick, nervous comment…about how God works in mysterious ways, and then moved on to the announcements listed in the bulletin. I don’t know if the pastoral team was simply trying to keep the peace or what, but their tolerance made the situation worse. A few weeks later, as I was still marinating on how to react, the same thing happened again—but this time, the second man “giving birth” in the bathroom went as far as to say that he was spiritually becoming Mary in labor, and that the baby “inside” him was the Son of God.
…I was disgusted that the only person questioning these odd “movements of the Spirit” was a fifteen-year-old who earned the title “Doubting Thomas” the first time she introduced logic to the discussion. The situation was already way out of hand, and just about everyone in the congregation could do anything they wanted, as long as they described what they were doing as “in the Spirit”—and it was not only allowed, it was celebrated! This church easily fit into the category of chaos Paul referred to in 1 Corinthians 14.[v]
If those experiences were faked, they were a sacrilegious mockery of the Holy Spirit’s gifts and manifestations—nothing less than a circus in the house of God—because nowhere in the Word does Scripture suggest the Spirit would move upon His people in such a way. If those experiences were real, then, since it couldn’t have been anything “of God,” they must have been “of” something else…which is far more terrifying.
Part of what led to all of this was a war the Church was engaged in against an enemy that didn’t really exist. Let us explain.
The Church was still wrestling through the “Satanic Panic” era of the 1980s—a time when its enthusiastic rebuke of underground satanic ritual activity launched little more than moral panic and witch hunts in our country. Multiple best-selling books (such as Michelle Remembers) flew off the printing presses and into immediate fame; their authors claimed they were involved with or victims of secret, demonic cults that participated in all kinds of evils, including human sacrifice, rape, torture, blood-drinking, and every other dark thing the imagination could come up with. Of course, such claims as ritual murder and crimes of a similar nature won’t bob around society for long before being investigated. As it turned out, most of the claims did materialize in the imagination, and nothing more. This was an instance of one scam after another being perpetrated by brilliant actors who found a way of exploiting the Church for attention and royalties on a few million books.
But Christians fell into a panic. They believed they were a part of a war, but while they were preaching about pushing against the devil, the real enemy used all the hype about evil to his advantage. The Church had given so much attention to Satan that a societal/cultural platform was built upon which Satan could introduce his symbols, music, and satanic gospel to the public. Everyone was talking about him, so everyone was learning his ways. The Church, by putting aside its focus on the Great Commission to reach the lost and instead throwing its resources into waging war against the enemy, ironically helped facilitate the enemy’s publicity coverage to those who would be enticed.
This development in the Church is, surprisingly, only rarely discussed amidst Christians, as if believers either didn’t see it for what it was, or they don’t want to talk about it. The secular world, on the other hand, continues to have a good laugh at our expense. The takeaway for our purposes here is how it affected Western Protestants for many years.
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Jesus never told His disciples, “Go ye, into the world, find those who oppose me and take them down.” As His followers, we should remember that, lest we maim the Commission we were given by turning it into another gospel that has no power to save. At the very least, we were distracted. Consider this excerpt from Redeemed Unredeemable:
The “Satanic Panic.” It was an era throughout the ’80s and ’90s when interest in the occult, especially amid teen circles, was a nationwide phenomenon. Gone were the flower children of the ’60s. The twinkling disco ball of the ’70s had dulled with the dawning of the new gothic age. Kids traded in their afros and bell-bottoms for mohawks and black fishnet stockings. Dark Baphomet pentagrams shamelessly appeared on necklaces and earrings in respectful jewelry shops. Drug use landed on a much younger generation and included more powerful intoxicants than the world had ever seen. Inverted crosses and “666” became typical graffiti symbols spray painted next to gang tags on buildings. Newspaper headlines heralded a new trend in murder: ritualistic human sacrifice in the name of Satan.…
Satan loves a good distraction. While the Christian Church was pulling its focus together to wage war against a decoy called “the satanic underground,” the enemy brought a real spiritual warfare against the people in the Church, attacking them from any vulnerable angle. So many pastors put their disapproving stares against those in their congregation for the way their flock members dressed or pierced their ears or tattooed their biceps or listened to music with “that devil’s beat” that people became estranged from the Gospel, and a rebellion arose even higher and with more zeal. And what happened when people were estranged from the Gospel and feeling spiritually suffocated, losing interest in the church as a result of religious abuse, and feeling too exhausted to fight? They left their rear exposed to the dragon. When real attacks did come, sometimes now with authentic ties to the very satanic underground that the panic had assisted in establishing by this point, resulting in murder and crimes unthinkable, every fraudulent personality’s “I told you this was happening; I told you so!” diatribe caught a second wind, which begat more panic and, sadly, more adherence to misdirection.…
The more the flags of warning were enthusiastically waved by the Church, whether or not the flags were legitimate, the more children and teens felt it was exciting to shock the conservative world and concerned parents around them by living on the gothic edge.[vi]
Then, while we were vulnerable, distracted, and too consumed by the fear-mongering control of the witch hunt to bother reading more than just the “rebuke the devil” verses of our Bibles, up sprouted the popular but theologically paper-thin prosperity gospel. So, to anyone who might have otherwise been reached by the saving Gospel message, “Give us all your money and God will bless you” was likely, and tragically, the takeaway.
What a disastrous day for the Church that was. What an appalling ball-drop. How lethargic and inadequate we were in our true purpose of reaching the lost!
And what’s the result?
Well, turn back a few pages to all those inexcusable statistics we listed at the beginning of this section if you’d like to be reminded.
The “punch the devil out” services/sermons of the Charisma Revival age can be thrilling, and they do at times inspire Christians to wake up, stand against evil, and work for the Lord. But when the effort turns into a holiness competition among believers, the motivating sermon becomes a doggedly wet thing that dies under the weight of the exhausting, rote obligation of once again spending an entire Sunday afternoon swaying at the altar (on an empty stomach). And that’s not to mention all the totally weird “theologies” and “Holy Spirit manifestations” that swept through the Pentecostal Church (and then clung on for some time) as a result of the Charisma Revival. Every other Sunday, it seemed, we would hear yet another story about feathers falling from rafters and gold dust producing itself miraculously on people’s scalps. Once, a man we knew even joyfully testified that his silver tooth fillings had all turned to gold at the altar. The pastor at that church was usually a very sensible man, so we were surprised when, instead of finding a gentle way of redirecting the focus of the service, he led the congregation into several minutes of praising the Lord for the aesthetic work He had done in our brother’s now-blingy mouth. (These authors are convinced that Rumpelstiltskin had more to do with that manifestation than God.)
When the world hears this kind of crazy talk, they wonder why Jesus’ miracles went from mercy to nonsense—from raising the dead and making the blind see to transforming a gentleman’s dental work into another color. To the lost, Church becomes a godless cabaret, and even the small-town shows are able to invest in their glitter cannons because God is their declared producer. It turns into a “Spirit-led” extravaganza. A contract with the high-kicking Rockettes is the only missing element from the pageant called “church.” A whole world of the lost is dying out here, and the Church is a college of the performing arts, training its people to sing, dance, and act.
The greatest offense of excitable movements like these within the Body is when the purpose of the Church (the Great Commission) is corporately set aside in trade for experience, because that leads to emotionalism…which leads to religious ecstasy and counterfeit revival.
What does counterfeit revival produce?
Men giving birth in bathrooms, pole-dance worship, and other such occult nonsense that defiles the temple of God as much or more than any Svetovid light display. As a further assault to God’s kingdom, the victims are both believers and nonbelievers.
Regardless of the level of heartfelt sincerity anyone may have about the Lord, if a “movement of God” isn’t truly in line with Scripture, it introduces confusion, associates that chaos with the name of Christ, collapses into the history books as an embarrassing and short-lived behavioral phenomenon, and ends up leaving a bitter “religious” taste in everyone’s mouths for decades.
Meanwhile, mock revival truly does lead to spiritual death.
To illustrate this point, consider the opinion of Frederick William Robertson, the famous Brighton, England, Holy Trinity Church preacher who graduated from Oxford and went on to memorize the entire New Testament in both English and Greek while producing some of the most celebrated evangelical Anglican Bible commentaries on the planet. While relating the early-1800s “camp meetings” revivals of his own time to the religious ecstasy habits the Apostle Paul repudiated in 1 Corinthians 14:24–25, Robertson writes of not only the unfruitful ministry of those caught up in the show church, but also of the spiritual death that imperceptibly creeps into their routine. (Note that Robertson isn’t attacking the gift of speaking in tongues, but specifically the religious ecstasy that was a problem first in Corinth, and again in the 1990s.)
Respecting [the act of speaking in] tongues, note the following directions. 1. Repression of feeling in public. This state of ecstasy was so pleasurable [to the Corinthians], and the admiration awarded to it so easy to be procured, that numbers, instead of steady well-doing, spent life in “showing off.” The American camp meetings, &c., show how uncontrolled religious feeling may overpower reason—mere animal feeling mingling with the movements of Divine life. There is great danger in this, and just in proportion as feelings are strong do they require discipline. When religious life degenerates into mere indulgence of feeling, life wastes away, and the man or woman becomes weak, instead of strong. [Sounds similar to what Machen said about Liberalism…] What a lesson! These Divine high feelings in Corinth—to what had they degenerated! A stranger coming in would pronounce the speakers mad![vii]
UP NEXT: When the Syncretized Saints Go Marching In?
[i] “Global Christianity—A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population,” December 19, 2011, Pew Research Center, last accessed October 29, 2020, https://www.pewforum.org/2011/12/19/global-christianity-exec/.
[ii] As quoted in: Poloma, Margaret M. and John C. Green, The Assemblies of God: Godly Love and the Revitalization of American Pentecostalism (New York and London; New York University Press, 2010), 1. Original source: Rabey, Steve, Revival in Brownsville: [the Charisma Revival], Pentecostalism, and the Power of American Revivalism (Nashville, TX: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 4–5.
[iii] Jones, Bob, “The [Charisma] Revival: Shaken or Stirred?” World Magazine, December 20 issue, 1997, accessed online February 28, 2020, https://world.wng.org/1997/12/the_pensacola_revival_shaken_or_stirred.
[v] Joe Horn, Everyday Champions: Unleash the Gifts God Gave You, Step into Your Purpose, and Fulfill Your Destiny (Crane, MO: Defender Publishing; 2019), 90, 94–97.
[vi] Horn, Thomas, and Donna Howell, Redeemed Unredeemable: When America’s Most Notorious Criminals Came Face to Face with God (Crane, MO: Defender Publishing, 2014), 118–120.
[vii] As quoted in: Exell, Joseph S. (n.d.), The Biblical Illustrator: I. Corinthians Vol. 2 (New York, NY: Anson D. F. Randolph & Company, 1887), 365.