A polarised debate goes on between different stripes of Christians over the place of experience in Christianity. One side asserts that experiential faith (what the Puritans used to call “experimental religion”) is fundamental to a living, supernaturally-empowered relationship with Christ. The other side asserts that experiential religion is of passing interest, for spiritual experiences range from the genuinely God-given to the wildly false and even demonic, and vary widely among different personality-types. Ultimately, say these Christians, what matters is allegiance to truth, both in belief and behaviour.
In moments of clarity, we agree with both sides, because we are aware of what each side is against: dead formalism (“a straight as a gun barrel theologically, and as empty as one spiritually”, said one) and untethered spiritual adventures (“glandular religion”, as coined by another). Pentecostalism’s strongest selling point has been the supposed vividness of its promised supernatural experiences, both in corporate and private worship. The idea of direct revelation, ecstatic utterances, and marvellous deliverances present a kind of Christianity that appears enviably immediate, sensorily overpowering, and almost irrefutably persuasive. Particularly for Christians coming from a religious background of set forms, liturgical routines, and even unregenerate leadership, the contrast appears to be one of old and false versus new and true.
Sadly, many true believers within Pentecostalism find out within a short space that the promise of overwhelming spiritual experiences begins to lack lustre after a time, and the corporate worship in pursuit of spontaneous spiritual highs can become as tedious and predictable as a service read verbatim from a prayer book. Pentecostalism’s pursuit of intensity and spontaneity in worship turns out to be an idol that both cheats and forsakes its worshippers.
Deeply embedded in the Pentecostal psyche is the idea that the Spirit of God is wedded to spontaneity and freedom of form. It is the very “openness” to His movements, unrestricted by an order of service or set forms of prayer, that supposedly invites His unpredictable arrival, manifested in intense, even ecstatic, spiritual experience. Being spontaneous and extemporaneous demonstrates “openness” and “receptivity”, whereas insisting upon our own forms quenches what the Spirit may wish to do.
Similar to this is the notion, almost unquestioned in Pentecostal thinking, is the idea that for a spiritual experience to be real, it must felt. That is, intensity is the mark of authenticity. When the Spirit manifests Himself, the worshipper should expect some kind of moment of feeling deeply loved, close to God, or intimacy. The pursuit of a Pentecostal worship service is the experience of intense intimacy.
Errors are only compelling to the degree that they contain some vital truth, now heavily distorted. The truth is that both extemporaneity and some form of intense spiritual experience are part of true, living Christianity. The problem is when the experience of intensity is sought for its own sake, and when the method of extemporaneity becomes a tool to manipulate the Spirit (whom we supposedly agree cannot be manipulated or controlled – John 3:8).
Intensity of spiritual experience ebbs and flows, like all emotional intensity. The man who is forever in pursuit of his fading feelings of dizzy infatuation with a woman is an infant in an adult body, trying to hang onto what is meant to lead him on to loves that are both stronger and more serene. In wanting to pickle an experience so that we may open and enjoy it at any time, we distort and destroy the very experience. We make an idol of a pleasure, and its revenge upon us is to become less pleasing each time. Trying to capture intense spiritual experience in every corporate worship service is as tiresome as a man trying to reproduce the precise circumstances of his first date with his now-wife, and doing so every Friday night, in hopes of “re-capturing the spark”. Sentimentalism is more than feeling; it is trying to “feel our feelings”, and lather in the pleasure of a feeling. But unavoidably, and ironically, when we pursue intensity in worship, we have shifted the focus from God Himself to a supposed experience of God.
Similarly, some kind of extemporaneity represents engagement with and understanding of what we are doing and saying in worship. Rare is the preacher who prays and preaches without the slightest deviation from his scripted prayers and fine-tuned manuscript. Such a man soon begins to sound like a spiritual jukebox, and his congregation tunes him out. However structured our services, we must be in them, and mean them, and speak in our own voices. Extemporaneity, like intensity, is a good thing in moderation.
The Pentecostal error is to confuse preparedness with independence, thinking that extemporaneity represents trust in God, a willingness to say and speak only as directed in the moment, while preparedness is rooted in pride and self-reliance. In this way of thinking, preparedness is actually an affront to God, or an act of pride, or an unwillingness to be childlike and pliable during corporate worship. Of course, no Pentecostal congregation are absolute purists in this regard. That is, a consistent application of the principle would mean singing songs without pre-set lyrics with music composed in the moment, sermons made up on the spot, and so on.
Again, we can acknowledge the truth: some preparedness can be a refusal to pray and trust God. But the correction of that error is to prepare and pray, not to eschew preparation altogether. Indeed, the Spirit of God rides best in His own chariot, the Word He inspired. Therefore, the more the Word of God dwells richly (Col. 3:16) in our hymns, prayers and sermons, the more filled with the Spirit we will be (Eph 5:18-19).