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Chapter 3: Understanding the origins and nature of neo-charismatic fellowships

It is often erroneously believed that neo-charismatic groups and Pentecostal churches are similar in origin. Whilst there are enough similarities between neo-charismatic and Pentecostal fellowships to lead people to believe that they are tributaries of the same broad stream, they are not. They do not share a common origin and there are significant differences in their core doctrines. A potted history of these movements hardly does justice to these expressions of the modern church, but the overview that follows, helps us to understand the processes that encourage spiritual abuse within some of these groups.
    Throughout church history there have been documented cases of small groups embracing the supernatural and reporting manifestations of spiritual gifts such as tongues and prophecy. These gifts are popularly associated with the dramatic events that befell the disciples at the feast of Pentecost shortly after Jesus was crucified and resurrected. Pentecost, though, was more than spiritual gifts; it was the energising or powering up of the fledgling church to begin the task of spreading the good news of Christ to the whole world. Pentecostalism, as we know it, began in North America in the early 20th century. It has its origins in the Azusa Street revival that began in a small Apostolic Faith Mission church in Los Angeles, California.
    Originally a small group meeting, patterned after the style of similar meetings in the slightly earlier Welsh revival, the Azusa Street revival brought together several theological threads that had been independently woven during the 19th century. Added to this was a conviction that power was available to make Christian ministry more effective. It was taught at Azusa Street AFM that this power was the work of the Holy Spirit in a believer's life and that there was , in effect, a second baptism; the baptism in the Holy Spirit - an occurrence that was quickly linked to the experience of speaking in tongues. These teachings, combined with fervent worship sessions, vociferous preaching and reports of miracles and changed lives offered a new church experience to the poor, the downtrodden and those simply fed up with mainline protestant churches. The result was that thousands of new converts flooded in. New churches were established; and within forty years, a number of Pentecostal denominations had emerged who by and large, could be traced back to the single work of the original Azusa Street AFM. Pentecostals have long since acquired an air of respectability and their denominations are well-established world-wide. Their doctrines are fixed and their liturgies and ceremonies have acquired the status of church tradition. The Charismatic Movement does not have the same origin.
    The Charismatic Movement / Renewal is popularly thought to have its origins in the early 1960s when an Episcopal [Anglican] priest, Dennis Bennett, announced to his congregation that he spoke in tongues by the power of the Holy Spirit. The New International Dictionary of Charismatic and Pentecostal Movements however, suggests that the movement started earlier, in the 1950s; when the "Pentecostal" type spiritual gifts began to be explored outside of the Pentecostal churches by preachers who either had very loose affiliations with Pentecostal churches or who had entirely independent revival-type crusade ministries. By and large the Charismatic Movement influenced people within traditional protestant churches (though there was also a Charismatic Renewal within some parts of the Catholic Church) and no significant denomination was untouched by the Charismatic Renewal. The major thrust of the Charismatic Movement into the traditional churches was to spread teaching on Holy Spirit Baptism and speaking in tongues. By the middle 1970's, the Charismatic Movement had arrived world-wide. The next step is the rise of the neo-charismatic groups.
    Neo-charismatic is a term given to describe a phenomenon that began in the late 1970s and which continues today. Whereas the Charismatic Movement was largely an influence within existing churches, the neo-charismatics began as totally separate new religious groups, styled as independent non denominational fellowships and with no ties to existing denominations, either Protestant, Catholic or Pentecostal. The neo-charismatics embrace many of the doctrines and practices of the Pentecostals and the Charismatics but tend, also, to pioneer new paths; particularly in experience-based "revivals" and "signs and wonders" ministry.
    There are a bewildering array of groups that fall into the category of neo-charismatic and they are a potent force who outnumber the Pentecostals and Charismatics combined. The neo-charismatics are heavily influenced by the theology and doctrines of the Word-Faith teachers. A strong note of caution must be sounded here. D.R. McConnell's seminal study of the Word-Faith teachers, A Different Gospel, points out that the Word Faith teachers are not rooted in classical Pentecostalism (as most assume) but rather in the occult teachings of metaphysical cults like Christian Science, Theosophy and Swedenborgism. McConnell, amongst others, has also made a watertight case for saying that Word Faith is heresy. Hence the "Different Gospel" of his book's title.
    Neo-charismatic groups are, by nature, strongly hierarchical. Somehow, the modern church has grasped (and refuses to let go of) the idea that a successful church is the one which has a strong leader with a strong support group. It is an idea that the apostate Catholic Church seized upon centuries ago and which they continue to practise today as popery. It is the overwhelming pattern of leadership dynamics within neo-charismatic churches and may be described as pyramids within pyramids.
    Within a neo-charismatic group, one is likely to find the senior pastor, the man with the supposed initial vision from God. The senior pastor will command a small body of elders or advisors; men (and sometimes women) who will function to support the senior pastor accomplish his vision and ensure that the group is ruled and coached towards the fulfilment of their founder's vision. Although the neo-charismatic groups are mostly independent operations, almost all claim some kind of allegiance to a larger ministry run by a neo-charismatic celebrity who assumes the role of a modern apostle; some of these apostles are even given to speaking with infallible authority to the groups under them.
    Given that neo-charismatic groups are strongly hierarchical, have a heavy leaning towards authoritarianism and tend to teach doctrines that are not accepted by mainline churches, it is sometimes a little surprising that people flock to these groups in the numbers that they do. It is worth a small digression for it helps us to understand the mindset that allows abusive situations to flourish in these groups.
    By and large, people in traditional denominational churches attend such churches because of family tradition. Their church affiliation is often an accident of birth rather than a conscious decision to accept the gospel of Christ and find a church home. By way of contrast, many of those who enter neo-charismatic groups, tend to join following a radical "born again" experience that itself follows in the wake of trying personal circumstances such as divorce, alcohol abuse and emotional trauma. Thus many of the people entering neo-charismatic groups do so at a low point in their lives and it must be said, there they find emotional fulfilment from the exuberant praise and worship and the many opportunities they get to attend meetings with apparently loving and caring people. This creates a powerful social dynamic; they feel part of a group and derive worth and status from their belonging to a group that is not only a surrogate extended family, but is also perceived to be on the cutting edge of God's work in the end times. For many, the group and its goals becomes the filter through which all of life's interactions are seen. They have acquired a new set of values and beliefs which have become logical and internally consistent to them. This is a powerful mindset and it creates a willing, compliant attitude in the group. No one wants to rock the boat, no one wants to be out of favour, for to do so is to incur the displeasure of the leader, who will, likely as not, call into question the member's commitment to God.
    The neo-charismatic group is thus an elite; a closed group. Entry to the group is via a born again experience or through transfer from an existing group elsewhere. Members of a neo-charismatic group spend a lot of time in each other's company, so much so that most are unlikely to have friends outside of the group and will probably have no "unsaved" friends at all. The neo-charismatic experience allows members to be part of the larger world (through the odd carefully supervised evangelistic outreach), but not great partakers in the world's daily interactions. For staunch neo-charismatics, there is Christian TV , films and videos to watch, Christian books and magazines to read, Christian web sites to surf to, Christian music to listen to, Christian schools and colleges for the children to attend, Christian businesses to patronise, Christian investments that can be made and even (in America) Christian real estate that can be bought. It is a small wonder that some enterprising neo-charismatic Christian businessman has not yet begun marketing Christian frozen peas!

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