Why Aldersgate Renewal Ministries may be the most important thing going in the UMC

ARM_LOGOLast 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.

18 thoughts on “Why Aldersgate Renewal Ministries may be the most important thing going in the UMC

  1. David, I agree. Over the last 20 years I have attended their meetings and spoke at a few, and I have always felt that ARM was the best kept secret in the UMC. I think they have the right idea. We need to be turned towards God in an attitude of humility and prayer and seek the face of God and the power of the Holy Spirit to revive us and even to turn our denomination around. It has been great to watch this same Holy Spirit fire touch United Seminary. I believe this is just the beginning. I am not sure what will become of the UMC, but I guess I am more focused on what the Holy Spirit is doing today.

  2. So, this topic makes me think of discerning the spirits. Would either your or Pete Bellini comment on how you see the need for discernment of spirits in our current situation? Reason for asking: lots of people claiming to ear from/of the Spirit of God. How do sort out these claims?

    • Steve, you have addressed a very significant and sophisticated issue that cannot be answered in such limited space. Maybe you can narrow down your question to a specific issue due to space and the need to be precise in my response, but I will still try to provide a response. In general, of course, discernment is always needed in everything we do as believers, including discernment in doctrine, in moral issues, in church polity, in practical decisions, etc, and even in matters of spiritual manifestations. The obvious – spiritual manifestations need to: line up with and be subordinate to Scripture; be subject to and consonant with the fruit of the Spirit; be ministered to the congregation by those who have been called, trained and certified by the leadership of the local church; be tested by authorized local church leadership; be given in times and places designated by the leadership in the local church; and be confirmation when given, that is the recipient must test the spirits and receive the gift if it is confirmation to what they have already discerned and leadership has discerned. Steve these are just some general practices off the top of my head that have served as guidelines when I have pastored in charismatic congregations. It is important to have guidelines and ground rules. Wherever I pastor it is not the wild wild west, no cowboys allowed. Trust me I have seen enough charismatic granola, of fruits, nuts and flakes in the “Spirit-filled” church. I have no romanticism about my tribe. The greatest safeguard of all when leading in such churches is to place the fruit of the Spirit above the gifts, holiness above power, and character above charisma and model it. You cannot prevent everything from happening. Stuff happens. I do not want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. I have seen too much charisphobia that is paranoid against charismania and so as a result charis-absentia. A church needs to provide teaching and training on the subject and not promote fear and forbidding. Good guidelines, ground rules, gifts training, and holiness theology have been the best prevention to the spread of charismatic granola. Hope I touched on some of what you asked, unless there is something more specific that you would like addressed. Thanks for the excellent question.

    • I am not going to try and fully flesh out this question either but the short answer would be that the Spirit never leads/says things that are not according to the Word.

      Another thing I will add is charismatic movements in churches that have deep roots in the Great Tradition (liturgy, creed, holy days, etc.) often fare better in the long run than churches that are not. Movements of the Spirit among Catholics, Methodists, Anglicans, and other Great Tradition churches usually run deep, wide, and far while other traditions have a bad tendency to go to one extreme and land in some kind of heterodoxy.

  3. Amen to this. I consider myself a charismatic. I have never spoken in tongues nor do I buy in to a baptism of the Holy Spirit subsequent to justification that is neat and tidy like the Pentecostals. I guess I am kind of a Third Wave kind of guy (if you’re a charismatic or know of the movement then you what I’m talking about). But I sure do believe in the power of the Holy Spirit and pray regularly for manifestations of his power. Probably the most influential person in my life in this matter has been Gordon Fee. He is a top notch biblical scholar who also comes from a Pentecostal background. He pointed out that the pouring out of the Holy Spirit is one of the core themes of the NT – it’s really front and center, a sign of the “age to come” breaking into this present “evil age.”

    This Fall, I am going to have my first experience with Aldersgate ministries. We are having a Lay Witness mission at my two churches. I was having a conversation with a fellow charismatic in my church and he rightly said that what we need more than anything right now is a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Amen to that.

  4. Steve, my response to your question focused more on the discernment of spirits among charismatics in the local congregation. I will leave it to my colleague David Watson to address discerning the spirits concerning the various positions on the current issues that are dividing the UMC, which for me simply need to be checked by Scripture. In my opinion, Scripture already gives us guidance and direction on this particular issue. – pb

    • Thank you both, for the comments. Like PastorJ, I rather think of myself as charismatic without ever having spoken in tongues. In fact, one of the times that I felt God spoke to me strongly was to say that the gift of tongues is not for me – a story for another time. I myself have spent quite a bit of time with charismatic/pentecostal/prophetic folk and love their company, community and commitment. I raised my initial question out of the worry of how even to get started having a conversation in United Methodism about these topics. In an odd way, we have a version of “enthusiasm” at work, claiming the Spirit’s guidance and inspiration for ideas and actions for which I can find no justification beyond personal consciousness about perceived divine action.

      • Thanks Steve. It is difficult to begin this conversation because we do not have a common understanding of Scripture (its nature, use, and interpretation) within the UMC. Personally, in regards to the issue that divides us, I believe the Book is clear, and Scripture is our guide when it comes to discerning personal impressions as to what we believe the Spirit is saying to the church.

  5. My concern is not so much liturgical but theological and ideological. Most of the Methodists I have known who associate themselves with ARM or other charismatic/Pentecostal organizations can often come off as less than Wesleyan in their doctrine and other commitments.

    • Most of the United Methodist I know come off as less than Wesleyan in their doctrine and commitments. I mean, how do you define “Wesleyan.” Wesley was all about making disciples, helping people to receive all the fullness of God’s grace, and was very open to the working of the Spirit. In fact, I would call him the original gansta’ of present day charismatics. He just used a lot of common sense, his training in the Word, and the wisdom of the Great Tradition to deal with the nuttiness that can accompany movements of the Spirit (you know, like what went on in Corinth).

      I probably know what you are referring to when you say “less than Wesleyan.” There are some bad traits among some charismatics (not all). Many UM’ers from the right and the left are very uncomfortable around charismatics – but then when we get to praying in the Holy Spirit for them, speaking deep words of Spiritual knowledge to their hearts, and testimonies to our passionate love for our risen Savior. . . well, let’s just say that things change.

      UM’ers might ought to start loving the charismatics among them and paying attention to what they’re saying and doing. Pentecostals and charismatics are about the only Christian groups in North America who are not withering away.

      • Don’t get me wrong, I think the rest of the UMC and the Mainline more generally has much to learn from the charismatics. In fact, I think the charismatic movement is best best housed in denominations with historic Christian commitments, because an almost exclusive focus on the Spirit can lead to a faith so centered on personal experience that faith becomes purely emotive and not subject to any constraints. As a sidebar, an elder statesman pastor in NC once told me that the most difficult ministry he ever had was at a charismatic UM church – in his words, it was almost impossible to minister to people who were convinced he was a second-class Christian because he didn’t speak in tongues. So, as David points out, there is a danger of a kind of spiritual hierarchy when we start insisting on particular works of the Spirit in the lives of believers.

      • Yeah, I agree. My wife was raised up in a crazy charismatic household and she has some pretty bad stories about it. To me though, Methodism is not Methodism without a strong, scriptural experience of the Holy Spirit. When Wesley spoke about experience, he was primarily speaking about the experience of living in the knowledge of the cross, the love of the Father, and the power of the Spirit. Many UM’ers in my location and others that I have encountered seem to understand this experience as only the experience of life. This sort of experience is indeed important in the life of a Christian (we want our life with God to be rooted in the real world) but we really shortchange ourselves and miss out on the power available to us when we fail to experience all the blessings that God graciously gives us through the Holy Spirit.

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