Last weekend I attended the national conference of Aldersgate Renewal Ministries, the charismatic renewal movement in United Methodism. If you have never attended an ARM conference, I strongly encourage you to do so. These are the most vibrant, optimistic, and powerful meetings I have ever attended among United Methodists.
There is an attitude of peacefulness and love at ARM gatherings. They are non-political and non-partisan. The focus is on encountering God, prayer, receiving the gifts of the Spirit, supporting other attendees, and cultivating the fruit of the Spirit.
I admit I used to be quite skeptical of charismatic forms of Christianity, but over the last several years my perspective has changed in significant ways. It is one thing to read and talk about charismatic and Pentecostal Christians. It is another thing to worship with them, listen to their insights, and open oneself to the experiences they describe. My primary encounters with charismatic Christianity have been with ARM, African-American traditions represented strongly in United’s DMin program, and Randy Clark’s Global Awakening. In each of these contexts, I have learned a great deal and experienced a deeper, richer sense of the presence of God. My theology has changed over time because of these encounters.
I don’t think that the UMC or any other Christian tradition can be renewed without the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit and demonstrations of the power of the Spirit. As Paul says of his own evangelistic work, “My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor 2:4). Demonstrations of the work of the Spirit can help people to understand that the God of our faith is a living and active God, not a philosophical construct or a deistic absentee landlord. No matter what programs we put together, no matter what great leadership skills we cultivate or what kinds of church growth methods we implement, without the power and work of the Holy Spirit, these are simply ways of delaying our inevitable demise. The Holy Spirit is the only true source of life for the Church, and we should anticipate the presence of the Spirit–which may become manifest in any number of ways–when we gather.
To be clear, this isn’t to suggest that everyone must speak in tongues, practice faith healing, utter words of prophecy, or demonstrate some other particular gift. Rather, I’m suggesting that we should not only be open to the work of the Spirit in our communities—however that may manifest itself—but expect the Spirit to show up. That’s why I believe that, of all the groups working within the UMC, ARM may be the most important for our future. There is no future for the UMC, or any other church, without the power and work of the Holy Spirit.