Ecstasy as Personal and Performative Spirituality – Defining Terms
- feeling or expressing overwhelming happiness or joyful excitement.
- involving an experience of mystic self-transcendence.
- relating to or of the nature of dramatic or artistic performance.
In this third part on looking into how the theology and praxis of American Evangelicals informs their current political choices, I will be looking at an issue, which predominantly relates to the Pentecostal and Charismatic expressions of Evangelical Christianity. As described in part two of this series, I am using this broad definition for Evangelicalism, because this is definition used by the media concerning the Evangelical vote.
I will similarly broaden the definition of the ecstatic. I will blend both the sacred and the non-sacred use of the word. Within the sacred definition, I will expand the meaning of the “experience of mystic self-transcendence” to include things that according to Christian theology demand the activity of God to move individuals into the expressions of the charismatic gifts. In this context, a prophecy is an ecstatic expression, whether at the moment of its declaration it is spoken under an altered state of consciousness or not. The fact that it is believed to be a word given by God, makes it inherently otherworldly and therefore in that sense, “ecstatic.” The inclusion of the non-sacred definition expands this word to include overly emotional displays in tears, fears, hilarity, and desire, as all these are common Evangelical ecstatic responses. States of transcendence will be discussed without concern for legitimacy. This paper is not particularly concerned with the validity of the ecstatic as it is with the extended effects of ecstatic experience upon the Evangelical community groupthink.
It should be acknowledged that the ecstatic is easily counterfeited, and our ability to tell the difference between the real and the counterfeit is limited. It is God who reads the heart, and our attempts to make judgments are often faulty. Nonetheless, this season of American life demands discernment, and within this work I hope to offer insight to help make sense out of the competing beliefs and politics.
Brief History of the Ecstatic in the Evangelical Church
Ecstatic experience is nothing new to Christian spirituality, or to the Jewish spirituality of the Tanakh before it. Dreams, visions, ecstatic utterance and fainting are common to the text of Jewish and Christian religious experience, and it did not end with the resurrection of Christ or the passing of the original apostles. The wildness of ecstatic religious experience has been with Christians from the Desert Fathers and Mothers, and the third century Messalian controversies to the visions and barkings of the American Great Awakenings. Jonathan Edwards responded to ecstatic experiences occurring in the First Great Awakening in A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, and the Second Great Awakening drew fervent supporters and critics––particularly after the wild emotional display at Cane Ridge, Kentucky in 1801. But, these earlier historic events would turn out to be small flashes of ecstatic religious experience in comparison to what was to come at the turn of the 20th century.
Near the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve at the end of 1900, bible student Agnes Osmond would be the first in her small group to speak in tongues (glossolalia) at the prayer gathering in Topeka, Kansas. The founder of Bethel Bible College in Topeka, Charles Parham, began his traveling ministry the following year, and news of the experience spread as a developing Pentecostal theology of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit was being formed. Beginning in 1906, this movement would be catapulted into a quickly spreading international phenomenon through the influence of William Seymour (the one-eyed black preacher) and his Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles, CA. By 1930, a number of fast growing denominations had been born, and revival gatherings were drawing thousands. Church of God in Christ, The Assemblies of God, Church of God (Cleveland, TN), and The International Church of the Foursquare Gospel are just a few of the many denominations birthed in this season.
Azusa Street was Pentecostalism’s first great revival. It lasted two to three years as a series of packed meetings at the Apostolic Faith Mission on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, California, and it tapered off to small meetings around 1912. William Seymour “led” the meetings, but was typically found on his knees praying, with his head “between wooden milk crates”, also described as shoeboxes. The manner in which the teaching occurred appears to have been as simple as Seymour opening a Bible at the pulpit, and people coming forward to speak as they felt led. Within those first three years, missionaries had gone out from the small meetinghouse to take the gospel to at least 50 nations.
These meetings were open and unorganized gatherings of people from all walks of life and all ethnicities. This humble beginning reads like a page from the upper room in Acts 2. People prayed, and crazy things happened.
News reports of the Azusa Street Revival went on for years, but in the initial explosion of interest the LA Times was already looking into the event just nine days into it’s first ecstatic experience:
“A Times story on April 18, 1906, was headlined: “Weird Babel of Tongues. New Sect of Fanatics Is Breaking Loose. Wild Scene Last Night on Azusa Street. Gurgle of Wordless Talks by a Sister.” The article went on to state:
Breathing strange utterances and mouthing a creed which it would seem no sane mortal could understand, the newest religious sect has started in Los Angeles. Meetings are held in a tumble-down shack on Azusa Street, near San Pedro Street, and the devotees of the weird doctrine practice the most fanatical rites, preach the wildest theories and work themselves into a state of mad excitement in their peculiar zeal.
Stories describe people loudly speaking in tongues during the services, swooning and falling, and physical healings occurring. In July of 1906, the LA Times reported again on the wildly ecstatic activities of the people attending the meetings:
The ‘holy kickers’ present a problem which the local police department has not as yet been able to solve. Every night worn-out kickers and shouters are seen stretched out on the dirty floor of the meeting room apparently unconscious and the meeting goes on just the same, those who still have breath jumping, kicking and making the night hideous with their yells and squeals.
The revivalist nature of Pentecostalism, and its direct lineage from the Holiness movement, eventually led to traveling ministries of large gatherings, tent revivals, and stadium and convention center events. In various forms, this has continued unabated since Azusa Street. William Branham, Aimee Semple MacPherson, Oral Roberts, Kenneth Hagin Sr., Kathryn Kuhlman were the earlier names of Pentecostal revivalism. Today, Benny Hinn, The Call organized by Lou Engel, and Hillsong Worship team from Australia have been more recent expressions. And of course, with these examples, I am primarily referring to the American Pentecostal experience.
Pentecostal theology begins with the belief that the Baptism with the Holy Spirit comes to an individual with the initial physical evidence of speaking in tongues as seen in Acts 2:1-4. This is considered to be a “second work of grace” (or third in Holiness Pentecostal traditions) following salvation. Along with the release of the gift of tongues, a whole body of charismatic gifts is granted to individuals, giving them power to do miraculous things, and thereby become powerful witnesses for Christ in evangelism. Despite the ecstatic excesses, the overwhelming drive behind Pentecostal theology was intensely evangelistic. Its goal was to reach the world with the gospel. (Acts 1:8)
Variations on the theology of the Baptism with the Holy Spirit cover a broad spectrum of beliefs. They have included the belief that speaking in tongues was only one possible evidence of the Baptism in the Spirit (most Charismatic groups), which means that not all people will speak in tongues upon receiving the Baptism, or that the Baptism with the Holy Spirit with the initial evidence of speaking in tongues is necessary for one’s salvation (United Pentecostal Church, Assembly of the Lord Jesus Christ…). This Baptism with the Holy Spirit is not to be confused with water baptism. Rather it is an experience of the Holy Spirit falling “upon” an individual and empowering them, sometimes in an overwhelming experience. In the earliest days of this movement, people “tarried” in prayer until they received the Holy Ghost as was modeled in Acts 1 and 2.
The primary purpose of the gift of tongues is that of personal edification. (1 Cor. 14:1-4) The one speaking is not intellectually benefitted in the act, because they don’t understand the words they speak, but according to Paul, the human spirit is strengthened. The edification is mysterious and extracognitive (beyond understanding). (1 Cor. 14:14-18) All the other charismatic gifts are given for the sake of others; either for the purpose of edifying the church (1 Cor. 14:12), or as an empowered witness to the world (Acts 1:8).
The emphasis on gospel mission to the world, which marked the Azusa Street Revival, was perhaps seen most passionately in Aimee Semple McPherson:
Friends, I know as God is my Judge, that I don’t amount to anything in myself. I know I’m just a girl from the farm. But I know as sure as God ever called anyone, God’s called me and God’s put it on my soul, you’re to see the Foursquare Gospel go around the world. Do you say, “Do you mean, you’re a denomination?” Not especially. I mean: Savior, Baptizer, Healer and Coming King. The preaching of the whole Word of the Living God!”
In this quote from her message, This is My Task, Sister Aimee lays out the four part doctrinal emphasis of Pentecostalism: Jesus saves, Jesus baptizes the saved with the Holy Spirit. Jesus still miraculously heals today, and Jesus will return again. The emphasis is clear: the sinner is saved, empowered to go out to others with the message and miracle working power to offer the same healing they have received, and then announce that the Lord is returning. This message by Sister Aimee on March 12, 1939 was based on Luke 2:49. “And Jesus said unto them, How is it that you sought Me? Wist ye not that I must be about My Father’s business?”
In this sermon, she described her task, “What is my task? To get the gospel around the world in the shortest possible time to every man, woman, boy and girl!”
And, she called all Christians to participate in it in some respect. This was every Christian’s task, and that evangelistic drive was at the heart of Pentecostal theology. Even the experience of the ecstatic was fundamentally an outwardly focused event. Just as God did miracles to benefit the individuals in the meetings, the Pentecostal was called to pray, serve others, and expect God to do miracles for others in the wake of that empowered service. But, as with all things requiring human participation, the focus is easily twisted inward toward self-serving passions.
Along with tens of thousands of self-sacrificing pastors and preachers around the world, who do what they do for love and not for money or self-aggrandizement, there are others who with subtle manipulation turn the focus away from the primary tasks. And, when subtle manipulation comes from charismatic voices, this manipulation can be just enough to encourage small changes with long lasting ramifications.
As we fast forward to more recent years of Pentecostal and Charismatic events, we discover a celebrity based authority structure rising from the strange mixture of the charisma of individuals and the charism of the Holy Spirit, and many of us have bemoaned––sometimes, even mocked––the circus-like behavior of TV Evangelists and Faith Healers.
In 1986, James Randi debunked Faith Healer Peter Popoff. On the Johnny Carson show, it was revealed that Popoff used a radio receiver stuck in his ear to get information from his wife about people attending the meetings. She had questioned people as they came into the meeting, or had them write their information down on prayer cards. Popoff then used the information to pretend that God was speaking to him about the individuals. Since that time, others have been debunked for either unethical fundraising or fakery. In 1991, Diane Sawyer and the ABC News uncovered fraud and exploitation by pastor Robert Tilton. Benny Hinn was under investigation by the Senate Committee on Finance from 2007 through 2011, although the investigation did not result in penalties or findings of wrongdoing. Other “health and wealth” televangelists Paula White, Kenneth Copeland, Eddie L. Long, Joyce Meyer, and Creflo Dollar were similarly investigated at the same time.
A Change in Focus?
This brief rehearsal of the recent checkered history of televangelism is not to point out that Pentecostals and Charismatics are greedy hypocrites. That is not something that anyone should believe––especially when so many small church pastors and struggling missionaries are sacrificing everything they have, to do what they believe in. It should be noted, that the evidence of these Senate investigations came to no conclusions of wrongdoing. The purpose of that short rehearsal is to note the change in focus from evangelism-based ministry to an inwardly focused church edification-based ministry. Each of these individuals was being investigated for their money raising activities, and the target audience of their large fundraising events was not a non-Christian population, but people who already believed in Jesus, and had committed to the cause.
As Pentecostalism grew, it transitioned to a loose network of churches and eclectic believers. Stars were born in the wake of this growth. Charismatic individuals like McPherson, Branham, and Oral Roberts attracted thousands. As might be expected, fandom grew, and crowds gathered in hopes of receiving something from these faith healers. Angelus Temple, the church Sister Aimee pastored, used to keep a collection of the crutches and wheelchairs left behind after people were healed in the services. Stories of ambulances bringing sick people to church services, and leaving empty were common.
Celebrity culture is a clash of public interest, media attention, and financial interest. Greg Jenner’s new book (2020) Dead Famous: An Unexpected History of Celebrity from the Bronze Age to the Silver Screen outlines the development of celebrity culture. Jenner attempts to define “celebrity” more specifically that previous writers on the subject. In the introduction, he sets the definition for his study:
CELEBRITY (noun): A unique persona made widely known to the public via media coverage, and whose life is publicly consumed as dramatic entertainment, and whose commercial brand is profitable for those who exploit their popularity, and perhaps also for themselves.
The fledgling Pentecostal movement with its faith healers and charismatic preachers was explosive enough of a force to generate dramatic national attention. The diminutive Canadian redhead, Aimee Semple McPherson was the largest of these personalities in the earliest days of the movement, and with her campaigns we already see public interest, media attention, and financial benefit meeting together in one place. Aimee was a force to be reckoned with at every level, and a scandal surrounding her mysterious disappearance kept her on the front pages of national newspapers.
The Pentecostals were now taking over where more traditional Evangelicals had left off. As Billy Sunday’s massive evangelistic campaigns began to lose steam, the faith healers picked up where that left off. Throughout the remainder of the 20th century, fellow Evangelical Billy Graham and visiting Popes would be among the few religious leaders holding spiritual gatherings reaching crowds in America in greater numbers than the Pentecostal faith healers.
As we move into the latter end of the 20th century and into a new millennium, faith healing crusades, and large revivals with ecstatic experiences of swooning, falling, speaking in tongues, and prayer for the sick continued. But, during this season, the audiences would slowly become a subculture set of society. They were primarily Christian Charismatic believers, and were increasingly isolated from the world around them. The desire for healing, prophetic words of guidance, and ecstatic experience in worship settings would create these new Christian subculture pop stars. Encouraging believers, praying for the sick, gathering for emotive worship, and speaking prophetic words of direction to the church would often supersede evangelism, and the community slowly became an echo chamber disconnected from the greater world around it.
The sociological dynamics of the latter half of the century certainly had much to do with the transition toward an inward focus. Americans were progressively becoming less religious, and apart from the popes and Billy Graham, religious celebrities were unknown to the general population. The large Christian campaigns went relatively unnoticed by the surrounding culture. This movement toward the secularization of the general populace has only increased in the last 20 years. Consequently, it is not the celebrities but small church pastors and lay leadership who have quietly been doing the most serious work in evangelistic efforts, but they have been doing it while swimming against the stream of popular culture. Meanwhile, faith healers and popular worship leaders keep preaching to the choir, and the clanging in our Christian echo chamber resembles lying down for an MRI.
A Robust Pneumatology
My outline of the trajectory of Christian celebrity in the 20th century, and the loss of effective large-scale evangelism in America is only one side to the story. Even while denominations were formed, grew, and were being organized, they developed a standardized Pentecostal theology. Statements of faith had been framed in the earliest days of the newly forming denominations, but it wasn’t until 1983 when Duffield and Van Cleave compiled the Foundations of Pentecostal Theology for L.I.F.E. Bible College and local church Foursquare Bible Institutes that a systematic theology was written for Pentecostalism. I was in Bible College in Escondido, CA that year, and we received the first printing of the book. It was so new off the press, that the students were asked to find typos, and assorted errors in the text. Up until last year, when I finally and sadly got rid of my non-electronic library, because I was traveling full time, I still had my copy of the first printing with the circled edits, which I submitted to the publishers.
That first systematic Pentecostal theology was a simple book. It was a layman’s description of the basic teachings in Theology Proper (The doctrine of God), Christology (doctrine of the person of Christ), Biblical Anthropology (a scriptural view of man), Soteriology (doctrine of salvation), Harmartiology (doctrine of sin), Eschatology (doctrine of the last days)…but, the important topic, which set Pentecostal theology apart as unique, was the chapter on Pneumatology (doctrine of the Holy Spirit). There was nothing new about the traditional Trinitarian view of God, the divinity of Christ, the Arminian view of sin and salvation with its Methodist leanings, or the premillennial eschatology. These beliefs were all firmly rooted in one Evangelical tradition or another, but this simple tome had outlined Pentecostalism’s robust Pneumatology, and framed it within the greater Theology Proper.
The Holy Spirit had a relationship with the individual that was described in three prepositions used by Jesus: “with”, “in”, (Jn. 14:17) and “upon” (Acts 1:8). The doctrine of the Baptism with the Holy Spirit was highlighted for its importance to the life of the believer. Christ spoke of the Baptism with the Spirit in the Gospels, and Pentecostals highlighted its deep importance, due to the unique fact that it was mentioned in all four Gospels. This doctrine established a precedent for interaction with God based upon the both the movement of the Spirit and its subsequent empowerment. Christians now were passionately praying for the baptism and pursuing the “best gifts” (1 Cor. 12:31) in a manner described by the Apostle Paul, and their passion was to fulfill the mandate of the Great Commission. There is not space in this study to describe Pentecostal Pneumatology in any more than this cursory glance. Suffice it to say, this theological category would have profound ramifications in Christianity. It brought the miracles of the first century church forward to the 20th century, and anticipated them as a norm.
A personal anecdotal incident highlights the uniqueness of Pentecostal pneumatology. I was attending an NT Wright lecture series on the Gospel of John at Gordon Conwell Seminary 12 or 13 years ago. Over the weekend series, he lectured on themes in John. I took quite a few notes during the lectures, but I also noticed that while the seminary students were enjoying the series, they were taking few notes during the popular Anglican Bishop’s teachings. On the final day, in the last lecture, Bishop Wright spoke on the pneumatology in the Gospel of John. As my pen went into my pocket, I noticed students furiously taking notes on papers and computers all around me. I leaned over to my friend Jim Hogue and said, “This is Pentecostalism 101, but everyone here looks like they’ve never heard any of this stuff.” The crowning conclusion of his lectures was something any Christian attending a mildly charismatic Calvary Chapel, or a Pentecostal denomination might have heard from the pulpits for years. Yet, in this non-Charismatic Evangelical institution of higher learning, NT Wright appeared to be offering something completely novel.
Pentecostal denominations have helped maintain a robust but moderate pneumatology along with keeping traditional Evangelical beliefs solidly embedded in many Pentecostal churches. The Assemblies of God particularly led the way in this stand for orthodoxy. As early as 1916, they drew up a statement of faith, which included a stand on the Trinity. This was in opposition to the rise of a group of Oneness Pentecostals, who then started their own denominations. Again in 1949, the Assemblies took a doctrinal stand, and rejected the Latter Rain Movement’s eschatology, and affirmed a premillennial position.
Over the following century, Pentecostal theology morphed. In the same way that eschatology was becoming eclectic, other categories of Pentecostal theology were becoming a pick and choose religious experience. Celebrity preachers, revival events, and the believer-centric crusade gatherings drove much of this theological eclecticism, and a great degree of that eclecticism was based in the developing pneumatology of Pentecostal theology.
“I have an anointing for offerings.”
That’s what the local pastor, who fancied himself an apostle over the rest of us, told the pastor’s group meeting on a Tuesday morning. I keep a pretty stoic face when someone does something weird. Strange things are the norm when working among subcultures, or working as a Pentecostal pastor, but I know the eyebrows in my mind went up at the pastor’s words. If I was to interpret them, it sounded like he had just told us that he was empowered by God to fleece the flock.
This is not unique in Charismatic and Pentecostal circles. A subset of Charismatic teaching had been growing in popularity since the early 1980s. Kenneth Hagin Sr. (1917-2003) and Kenneth Copeland were primary voices in the early Word of Faith movement. It has been suggested that Kenneth Hagin developed his theology from the teachings of E.W. Kenyon (1867-1948). Some people believe that Hagin plagiarized Kenyon’s writings.
A combination of ideas contained in the Word of Faith teaching was making its way through the ecstatic expressions of Evangelicalism. The idea that God’s plan for our lives on earth was financial success and perfect health was the first part of this school of thought. A second concept was that we, like God, have the power to create and change reality by speaking it into existence, in the same way that God spoke creation into existence ex nihilo.
The Word of Faith movement grew rapidly in Pentecostal circles. Kenneth Hagin founded Rhema Bible Training College in 1973. It has since had over 80,000 graduates. The ministers who were investigated by the Senate Committee on Finance were all leaders influenced by this variation of Pentecostalism. The Word of Faith teachings have been controversial in Evangelical circles. Although it has infiltrated every Pentecostal denomination to some degree, it continues to be treated as a heretical variation on Pentecostal theology by many pastors and theologians. In spite of this, its influence has been worldwide, and it is a major force in televangelism.
The more you give, the more God will bless you with financial success. The more you truly believe and confess your faith with the words of your mouth, the more you will see health and prosperity come your way. You believe and speak your health and wealth into existence. Similar thinking has made it’s way into the popular self-help movement with motivational speakers like Tony Robbins and author Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. Helping you to visualize your own health and prosperity has become a multi-million dollar industry. This is true both inside and outside the Christian faith, and critics suggest that we are harming ourselves with presumptive magical thinking.
One of the key points of this movement is that faith is a force that we use to transform the world around us. Faith is not a relationship of trust with the creator, but an energy we direct toward our desires. Prayers, speaking things into existence, and commanding things to obey have become ecstatic performative activities of spiritual discipline.
The recent presidential election has given us a plethora of examples of performance spirituality by leaders in the Word of Faith and prophetic movements. Perhaps most circus-like among these was Kenneth Copeland’s November 8th sermon filled with laughing fits about Joe Biden’s election to the presidency. In this sermon, Copeland is teaching about the healing power of laughter, and mentions studies by John Hopkins University. He mentions the theory that our human physiology may not be able to tell the difference between a real laugh and one that is faked. This falls in line with the Word of Faith, ‘fake it till you make it’ approach to believing and speaking things into existence. During the message, he says, “The Associated Press said that Joe Biden is President”, and then he breaks out into what appears to be a phony laugh, he laughs until it becomes something sounding and appearing more natural. His audience joins him in laughter, and he adds, “Yeah, he’s gonna be President. And Mickey Mouse is gonna be King. Ah, ha, ha.” This purposefully manufactured ecstatic performance was directed by Copeland to model the Word of Faith’s belief in the individual’s power to bring about self-healing from physical ailments and emotional struggles such as depression. Yet, Copeland used the moment to include an act of spiritual warfare. I will describe elements of Spiritual Warfare later, but for now it is worth noting that in some Charismatic circles, laughter in prayer (particularly corporate prayer) has become a weapon against demons. Copeland appears to be using this approach in conjunction with his “laughter as medicine” teaching.
Alongside the growth of the Word of Faith doctrine, another set of influential teachings emerged within Charismatic settings. Its initial influence was small and controversial. The Assemblies of God rejected their eschatology in the 1949 convention, and shortly thereafter, the Latter Rain Movement became a byword in Christianity rather quickly.
In 1947, the newly formed Bible College at the Sharon Schools and Orphanage in North Battleford, Saskatchewan was caught up in a season of passionate fasting and prayer. This appears to have been in response to a William Branham crusade in Vancouver the previous November. The ecstatic passionate meetings lasted for months, and a prophecy was given in February of 1948 in which it was declared that, “we are on the very verge of a great revival, and all we have to do is open the door, and we could enter in.”
From this point forward people began laying hands on one another and prophesying over others. Individuals were healed, and repentance spread through the student body and leadership. The results of this gathering would be influential in Pentecostal/Charismatic theology in a number of ways, but it would take decades before it slowly edged its way into mainstream practice and theology.
The laying on of hands (Acts 8:17; 1 Tim. 4:14), and prophecies giving personal direction are now standard practice in many Charismatic and Pentecostal meetings today. The Latter Rain Movement believed they were restoring the laying on of hands to the church, and with it the act of personal prophecy. Previously, Pentecostal churches taught that a person needed to “tarry” in prayer and passionately seek the Baptism of the Holy Spirit in order to receive it. Now it was being granted by the act of laying on of hands. Today, Latter Rain practices are common in ecstatic Pentecostal and Charismatic circles. The aforementioned pastor who believed he had an “anointing for offerings” had hands laid upon him, and he was declared to be the apostle over our city, which highlights a third doctrinal addition that has been passed down to us from this movement. They believed in the restoration of the five-fold ministry gifts of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher. Now, Christians were being assigned ministry titles, ordained by God, through the laying on of hands by the Presbytery.
An Apostolic-Military Authority Structure
In recent years, apostolic movements have become common in Charismatic circles. C. Peter Wagner (1930-2016), who is considered one of the founding leaders of a loosely formed fellowship of churches, referred to it as the New Apostolic Reformation. Wagner was merely identifying a movement within what has been described as Neo-Charismatic, or Third Wave Pentecostalism (also a Wagnerism).
In the early 80s, I met a group of Nigerian Christians living in the San Diego area. They hovered around Morris Cerullo’s School of Ministry. Each time I met one of the Nigerian Christian leaders, they would hand me a business card with a title of Apostle, Prophet, or Evangelist-Pastor-Teacher. This practice of having business cards with five-fold ministry titles felt out of place in the 1980s America. Most American Christians looked on the self-identification as a prophet or an apostle as an act of braggadocio. Today, the titles of prophet and apostle are common in Charismatic circles. The coming of the New Apostolic Reformation has released people to feel confident in declaring themselves Prophets and Apostles. I moved to Salem, Massachusetts to plant a church in 1999, and within the first year and a half there were at least seven different individuals who had approached me to suggest––or outright declare––that they were assigned to be the apostle over the city, and therefore my personal apostle.
Today, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok are filled with Christian leaders giving prophetic words of encouragement, or direction for the nation. During the recent Presidential election Dutch Sheets gave a perfect example of this type of ministry. Dutch Sheets’ website describes that ministry, “Dutch is known for his apostolic and prophetic anointing and gifted teaching….” After the apparent election losses by Donald Trump to Joe Biden, Sheets began podcasting about the fact that God is not done with the election, and that Donald Trump is God’s man. In one YouTube video, Dutch talks about other prophets. He says they are communicating with one another, and that they are all saying the same thing about Donald Trump.
This example from Dutch Sheets highlights a few points common to the New Apostolic Reformation and prophetic ministries within Charismatic circles. First, titles like apostle and prophet are common within certain circles in the movement. Second, their words are considered directional and authoritative for individuals, the Christian church, and nations. Third, they are interconnected, and self-moderating. Often, the evidence for their prophetic correctness is their agreement amongst themselves.
Lance Wallnau, an author and the prophet who was one of the earliest to predict Trump’s election in 2016 responded on November 10th, 2020 to the question of whether the prophets were wrong about Trump winning a second term, “just get away from the whole stupid conversation, ‘did the prophets miss it?’, because that’s a dumb conversation right now, because right now, it’s not about ‘did the prophets miss it.’ It’s about seeing the prophets hit it.”
Wallnau’s words show evidence of a circular self-validation potentially working in today’s prophetic movement. The prophets speak to one another about their experiences hearing the voice of God, and as they stay in regular fellowship with one another, they move along a similar path of ideas. Then when things look like they may not add up, we do not watch with impartiality, but rather we are asked to prove that the prophets are correct.
We should not be surprised if the prophecies being validated between prophets are then discovered to be inherently self-promoting for the prophets themselves. In studies of business psychology this has been called the Mutually Assured Delusion principle. It is Cognitive Dissonance theory working its way in a circular self-delusion among managers, agents, and investors within financial institutions as they mutually justify high-risk practices:
When interdependence among participants is high enough, this Mutually Assured Delusion (MAD) principle can give rise to multiple equilibria with different “social cognitions” of the same reality. The same principle also implies that, in organizations where some agents have a greater impact on others’ welfare than the reverse (e.g., managers on workers), strategies of realism or denial will “trickle down” the hierarchy, so that subordinates will in effect take their beliefs from the leader.
This phenomenon of Mutually Assured Delusion is what we call “groupthink”, and is defined in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as, “a pattern of thought characterized by self-deception, forced manufacture of consent, and conformity to group values and ethics”. Groupthink has been studied in the corporate business setting, and appears to be occurring in the religious world. Religious leaders have been using the developing business strategies to run their churches and ministries for decades. Yet, religion does not need to be modeled after business structures to fall into self-delusion. It has a tendency toward delusion without the capitalistic tensions. But, when the power of money meets the power of ecstatic experience, the tensions rise even higher. Unfortunately, the ecstatic is more easily counterfeited than money. We should not be surprised that ecstatic religious experience models a circus in the same way that a multi-level marketing program models cheer camp.
Prophet Jeremiah Johnson closes many of his videos with the words from 2 Chron. 20:20, “Believe the prophets and you shall prosper.” He is not speaking about the Old Testament Prophets or the writings of the New Testament. Jeremiah Johnson is telling you to believe today’s prophets. He and his prophetic friends are your lifeline to success and prosperity. He recently stated that if Donald Trump is not re-elected, “every prophet that I know will have to give an explanation…” and yet, he asks you to keep believing, “If I’m you, I’m going to go with the prophets.”
Prayer and Ecstatic Performance
Prayer, Evangelical mission, and the ecstatic have been intimately connected from the beginning of the movement. Evangelists like Charles Finney (1792-1875) and D.L. Moody (1837-1899) believed prayer was fundamental to evangelistic power. Finney’s revivals were preceded by the prayers of Daniel Nash and Brother Abel Clary, who traveled ahead of him to pray before he arrived in town. Finney so deeply respected the power of prayer in revival and evangelism that when Daniel Nash died, he ended his revival tours. D.L. Moody considered prayer to be a necessary component to the power of his preaching. It was the words of John Wesley (1703-1791) that most closely connected prayer to evangelism with his well-known maxim, “God does nothing except in response to believing prayer.” But, perhaps nothing else has connected prayer to the Evangelical impetus more than the 100-year prayer meeting at Herrnhut, Germany under the oversight of Count Zizendorf (1700-1760). Not only was there 24-hour round the clock prayer going for 100 unbroken years, but the community was also the impetus for one of the most well-organized early missionary movements. This community at Herrnhut became a model for prayerful Evangelical mission.
As seen in previous examples, prayer is not only connected to evangelism, it often joins the ecstatic as well. Prayer is not necessarily an ecstatic experience in and of itself, but as seen by Evangelical history, it is dotted with ecstatic moments. The audience of Jonathan Edwards’ sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, were overcome with fear, and cried out passionately for mercy. Some fell to the ground, and others clutched the pillars of the church for fear of falling into Hell. The earliest Pentecostals were caught in the throes of passionate desiring prayer prior to experiencing the Baptism with the Holy Spirit, showing evidence that the ecstatic preceded the release of the gift of tongues. This similarly occurred with the students of the Sharon Schools.
In 1904, the Welsh revival broke out under the gentle guidance of Evan Roberts. The revival was marked by prayer and deep repentance. It drove the small nation into dramatic change that has become a model for ecstatic passionate repentant prayer in revivals around the world, and it did so primarily through the medium of the Welsh language.
I bring this particular non-American phenomenon into the picture, because in its aftermath another strange fire of developing Pentecostal theology began to rise. Evan Roberts experienced physical and emotional breakdown in 1906, and spent the following years recuperating in the home of Jessie Penn Lewis. Together they wrote the book, War on the Saints, now considered a Christian classic by many, and heresy by others. It described the warfare of the Christian against demonic powers. Although written in the infancy of the 20th century, it would lead the way for a tidal surge of books on the subjects of spiritual warfare and deliverance from demonic influence.
The 1970s through the 1990s would see the tide of deliverance ministries rise dramatically. Frank and Ida Mae Hammond’s book, Pigs in the Parlor (1973) would be the most influential writing on the subject, and soon, deliverance ministries were popping up around the world in Charismatic circles. Habits and addictions were attributed to demons wrestling within the Christian soul, and the solution was exorcism through prayer. This brought the experience of the ecstatic to everyday struggles like overcoming smoking or lust. The most ostentatious example of this practice may have been Bob Larson, whose radio program helped exacerbate the late 80s early 90s Satanic Panic. Larson cast demons out of callers on his radio program, while on air. These callers often spoke in strange guttural voices, rejected the words of the gospel, and would say that they were controlling the person they spoke through. Larson would pray, speak words of scripture, and command demons until they appeared to leave the caller.
Spiritual Warfare and Territorial Spirits
In 1990, C Peter Wagner and F. Douglas Pennoyer compiled a tome born from a symposium of Pentecostal, Charismatic and traditional Evangelical scholars and missionaries about the work of the Holy Spirit in missions and evangelism. The writings of John Wimber (Vineyard Fellowship), Neil T. Anderson and others highlighted the effectiveness of Charismatic activity in world missions. Here scholarship met Spiritual Warfare, and ideas like the belief that arch-demons were responsible for maintaining demonic influence over regions of the globe was one of the topics presented in Wagner’s chapter entitled Territorial Spirits. Now prayer against specific regional demons and their activities was seen as a necessary activity for revival. Prayer was not only communication with God, but here, as with the deliverance ministries, it included commanding and rebuking assorted evil spirits, and academia was supporting the activity.
Pastor Paula White, who is currently the chair of the President’s Evangelical Advisory Board, recently made the YouTube hit list with a wild ecstatic spiritual warfare prayer. The focus of her prayer was the election results, and in the prayer, White repeatedly screams, “strike, and strike, and strike, and strike, and strike…” in reference to 2 Kings 13:18-19. In the passage, King Jehoash is told to strike the ground with arrows, and he does so three times. Elisha is angered by this action, because the striking of the ground correlated prophetically to how many times Israel would strike down their enemies, and so Elisha replied, “You should have struck the ground five or six times; then you would have defeated Aram and completely destroyed it. But now you will defeat it only three times.” Here, White is using the striking reference as an annunciation of victorious prayer against the “demonic confederacy” aligned against Donald Trump’s presidency. This is an example of both the Word of Faith doctrine of speaking victory into existence, and the combative activity against forces of darkness that is central to much Charismatic warfare prayer.
As White continues with her prayer, she declares that “angels from Africa” are coming to help in the warfare. This is a clear reference to the doctrine of Territorial Spirits. Both demons and angels are assigned local authority according to this teaching. Paul White makes a declaration that they are coming to help overcome this “demonic confederacy”, which apparently has been winning. So angelic forces are being called from their assigned territories in Africa and South America.
Since the 1990s, Christians were increasingly performing prayer walks in cities and counties, they were standing on “high places”, and they were commanding territorial spirits to release their grip upon the region. Christians were following ley lines in prayer in the UK––much in the same way as Witches and Druids. In Salem, MA, they anointed the doorways of Witchcraft shops, and rebuked the “spirit of witchcraft”. They prayed against the powers of darkness. They asked for the finances of the witchcraft shops to dry up, and for the celebration of a month-long Halloween event to end. From the early 90s through the 00s, I personally heard these fervent prayers, the attached prophecies, and saw the activities of spiritual warfare come to naught. The Halloween season grew dramatically in size, and the Pagan community became even more established, and more popular. Despite the anecdotal evidence from regions around the globe found in Wagner’s chapter on Territorial Spirits, this particular practice had almost no effect in Salem. The spiritual warfare approach was not an approach that worked.
Instead, over the last twenty years, Christians were active on the streets in gentle and affirming prophetic ministry that both visitor and, surprisingly, even many in the Pagan community appreciated, and it happened in tandem with the celebrations of Halloween on the streets. In this particular instance, Spiritual Warfare had given the Evangelical community a bad name in the city. While the church shouted, danced, prophesied, yelled in tongues, and shouted at demons in their churches, things outside went on as usual––except for a bold band of simple believers willing to gently and peacefully mix it up on the streets. Over the years, thousands have joined me in these outreaches. Perhaps God was doing a new thing (as it is common to hear in Charismatic circles). Perhaps the stories from successes of spiritual warfare in other places fell into the category of a Mutually Assured Delusion, or perhaps more simply, God doesn’t do the same thing in every place or with every person.
Closing Thoughts: From Personal to Performative and Protectionist
The ecstatic experience in Evangelical traditions was primarily centered on evangelism in the early days of the movement. Christians were often moved to passionate, emotional, altered states of prayer for the un-redeemed, and other people found faith during emotional outbreaks of sorrow for sin, fear of hell, or joyful acceptance of divine love. With the growth of the movement, celebrity preachers and ministers were born, and with it a consumerist culture of Evangelicalism. A large number of these celebrity leaders were Pentecostal and Charismatic pastors and faith healers. Due to the ecstatic nature of Pentecostalism, large gatherings sometimes resembled circus events. Preachers shouted in tongues and crowds joined in together. In wilder settings, people barked or roared like animals, and crowds laughed uproariously for no particular reason. They spastically and uncontrollably ‘danced in the Spirit’, picked angel feathers out of the air and ate them, pogo-sticked (jumped up and down like a pogo-stick) for extended periods, labored in birthing prayers as though they were in labor pains, and swooned en masse and fell to the ground in waves. Much of this occurred in well-orchestrated gatherings with leaders working the crowds like circus Ringmasters. Though such phenomena happen in small groups and individual experiences as well, the most common events are large gatherings with celebrity leaders.
This is not to say that all Charismatic expressions are inward focused. Churches like Bethel in Redding, CA focus on training their young people to go out on the streets and take the ecstatic expressions of ministry to people who do not yet believe in Christ. This participative model represents Bakhtinian carnival power. But, the trend is fairly clear; the ecstatic expressions of Christianity have celebrity leadership tendencies, and circus-like performative events. This runs counterintuitive to the fundamental Evangelical belief that every Christian is a minister of the gospel.
Here we discover the simultaneous benefit and harm in ecstatic expressions of the faith. On one hand, the individual is empowered to do the works of God. On the other hand, followers are prone to celebrity idolization, and the potential manipulation that comes with personally charismatic celebrity leaders.
I was a pastor in the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel for just over 20 years. During those years, the four principle points of the ministry of Christ were listed as Savior, Healer, Baptizer with the Holy Spirit, and Coming King––in that order. This was different than the original listing by Aimee Semple McPherson, which was Savior, Baptizer with Holy Spirit, Healer, and Coming King. Some of us believed that the subtle change was the difference between a service-focused Christian life, and a consumerist Christian life. It is interesting to note that the order has reverted to the original in the last 10+ years, but consumerism still infests Charismatic Christianity.
The strength of Pentecostal pneumatology is the focus upon empowerment by the Spirit and the believer’s participation in the work of God. This makes Evangelicalism a force to be reckoned with in politics. Evangelicals will be involved and will be passionate. But the weakness can be devastating. It would be no surprise, if the trend toward celebrity idolization bled into the political life of the Charismatic and Pentecostal expressions of Evangelicalism. This demands that we should be wary of the circus ringmasters of politics who have learned to ‘fool some of the people all of the time’, because they may look hauntingly like our spiritual leaders while being void of godly value.
When this circus approach to religion is mixed with the temptations of capitalism the challenge to remain faithful to the core values of the gospel are even greater. It was the Democrat President Bill Clinton who gave us the line, “It’s the economy, stupid.” But, it was Donald Trump who most perfectly married America’s preoccupation with financial success with the Evangelical Right. We voted for the ultimate expression of crass self-serving American capitalism. Is it practical and good to live by the world’s values in order to maintain our position as leaders of the world? Is it godly wisdom to make our political choices on the basis of worldly wisdom, or is something dark and selfish happening in the souls of Jesus’ followers? Is it fundamentally Christian to make economic success a measure of leadership, or are we serving Mammon in doing so? These are questions we need to be asking ourselves. Is this a moment to compromise on such issues? On one hand, the Word of Faith movement helps individuals to develop positive affirmations about life’s struggles. But, on the other hand, it causes us to focus upon temporal values, and measure true success with dollar signs and human strength.
One of the more prominent prophetic words being acted upon in Evangelical circles is what has been called the Seven Mountains Mandate. A supposed prophetic word that was co-experienced by the leader of Youth with a Mission, Loren Cunningham, and Campus Crusade founder Bill Bright in 1975. They both believed that God was telling them that Christians needed to become leaders of seven categories of global influence, which are Media, Government, Education, Economy, Religion, Family and Celebration/Arts. There are churches, ministry training centers, and Bible Colleges that have focused on training people to become successful in these categories for a couple decades now. This prophecy did not receive fuller attention until the 2000s, but in responding to the importance of this mandate the late C. Peter Wagner appeared to justify the temporal focus of the prophecy, “the chief producer of influence in the six non-Religion mountains is not spirituality but success”.
As we have seen with the above examples on contemporary prophets in the New Apostolic Reformation, people are seeking to hear from God for the benefit of others, the growth of the church, and the success of nations. There is a long biblical tradition of prayer for governments, and government leaders. There is also solid evidence for the continuance of a New Testament activity of prophecy. Yet, we have also seen that the current popular American prophets and apostles have a tendency to validate their accuracy by consulting one another. The Apostle Paul suggests this method as an internal correction system for prophetic accuracy in the church. (1 Cor.14:29-31) Yet, it is possible for prophets to, “speak a vision out of their own heart, and not out of the mouth of the Lord.” (Jer. 23:16) And, according to Jeremiah 23 this was not just happening with one prophet, but with a large group of the so-called prophets in Israel. Groupthink was working among the religious leaders in Jeremiah’s day. This was true in days of the prophet Elijah as well, and it was working overtime among the Jewish religious leaders who condemned Jesus to death. This Mutually Assured Delusion may well be a psychological description of a biblical equivalent. In 2 Thess. 2:11, the Apostle Paul speaks of those to whom God will send, “a strong delusion, that they should believe a lie.” Once again, we see that in the politics of the Evangelical church, we are precariously balanced on a thin line between truth and serious error. Is it possible that our prophets are staggering drunk-with-power down that line, and have stopped their ears from hearing valid correction from both external and internal sources?
The Evangelical church is being asked to join the bandwagon of political powers, and the prophets of the church are leading the way. In a strange mixed metaphor it appears that they are simultaneously celebrating on the circus-like political bandwagon, and circling the wagons in defensive posture against the onslaught of critique.
Now, none of this is meant to dissuade you away from your particular set of beliefs. Rather, it is to note that there has been an eclectic set of trends in the ecstatic movements of Evangelical Christianity. Many of the trends are treated as the only way to do things right, but often they are merely techniques––not doctrinal fundamentals. The fact is this: the ecstatic (as I have broadly it defined here) is eclectic, diverse, marbled through the whole of Evangelicalism, and in some cases, is moving away from the self-critique that is necessary to healthy Christian orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy.
More than ever, we need to be discerning, and with the trend toward political action, we need to ask ourselves if we are becoming too earthly minded to be any heavenly good.
 The influence of Azusa Street Revival in the early developments of the Apostolic Faith Mission of South Africa, http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0256-95072016000300006 (Oct. 31, 2020)
 http://www.spirithome.com/pentecostalist-history2.html (Oct. 31, 2020)
 Acts 1:8
 Jenner, Greg. Dead Famous (p. 11). Orion Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 In 1965, Pope Paul VI was the first pope to visit America.
 Exceptions to this include scandals and political controversy, but we will visit that more fully in following posts.
 Natural Church Development, Christian Schwartz, pg. 38
 Non-Trinitarian Oneness Pentecostals are the exception to this rule, but they comprise only about 5% of the total Pentecostal and Charismatic numbers worldwide.
 https://www.kenyons.org/plagiarism-of-ew-kenyons.html (Nov. 5, 2020)
 See Sham: How the Self-help Movement Made America Helpless by Steve Salerno, and Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich as just two examples.
 Groupthink: Collective Delusions in Organizations and Markets by Roland Benabou (pg. 430)
 https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=294528798296830 (Nov. 15, 2020)
 I describe Bakhtin’s theory of Carnivalesque as it relates to Christianity at length in Burning Religion: navigating the impossible space between religion and secular society.
 This quote has variously been attributed to both Abraham Lincoln, and P.T. Barnum. There is no solid evidence for either actually using this famous maxim, so it remains unattributed.
 Marxist Parallels withthe Seven Mountain Mandate, Richard Tanksley and Marlin Schaich (pg. A7)