Too much of a good thing usually ends up in a bad way. Whether it be food, drink, roller coaster rides, or sunshine, moving beyond what is necessary and recommended has a tendency to cause more harm than good.
The same can be said of Christian enthusiasm.
I’ve written elsewhere that one of the things I look for in a church is a genuine degree of passion. Nothing too extreme or unfeigned, but a real sense that what is happening here really matters and has impact. They believe the gospel message is true and exhibit a real degree of enthusiasm for it. Besides, the opposite end of the spectrum leaves us with words like apathy and indifference. Neither one of those options should appeal to us.
I realize that enthusiasm can be defined in any number of ways, but my overall definition would include aspects of zeal, fervor and inspiration. Of course, this can be exhibited in any number of ways, and every personality type should be represented. In essence, there is no one way for enthusiasm to be expressed.
In relation to Christian experience, however, we should always seek a healthy balance between enthusiasm and good theology – what I’m come to term, informed enthusiasm.
In a book embraced by many Pentecostals and Charismatics, Flame of Love, Clark Pinnock noted that,
“religious experience needs good theology the way a traveler needs a reliable map. A traveler with lots of enthusiasm but no map for the journey is a dangerous person to travel with. Together you can get hopelessly lost” (pg. 13).
The idea of religious enthusiasm without an equal and intentional focus on orthodox theology is an all too common accusation against much of Pentecostalism and the Charismatic Movement, past and present. (For additional reading on the importance of balance, see my post “Walking the Line”)
With this in mind, have we moved toward a more informed enthusiasm, one that incorporates good theology? Or, are we content to stay where we are?
For Pentecostals currently engaged in formal academic study, either as students or practitioners, the answer would be yes to both questions. From their perspective, the need for serious Pentecostal biblical/theological studies have never been stronger.
More and more Pentecostals are enrolling in graduate theological study programs in a variety of seminaries around the world, hungry to learn more about the faith they profess. They are no longer satisfied with experiential realities alone, however valid they may be, and are looking for a solid rationale for faith and practice. From this engagement with the academy, they are putting their experience to the test, while at the same time allowing their experience to shape new theological study. In such an environment, Pentecostals are allowing their distinctive theological emphases, to inform new theological discoveries, as well as provide unique theological insights to traditional doctrines (For example, how pneumatology (doctrine of the Holy Spirit) can impact ideas surrounding the doctrine of God, theology of religions, etc). From this perspective, Pentecostals are making significant progression towards formulating a more biblically faithful relationship between their experience and theology. This is great news and provides hope for the future of Pentecostalism in Canada and abroad.
Unfortunately, the same optimism cannot be extended to the Pentecostal Church at large.
Clergy need to share a huge part of the burden when their congregations emphasize experience with little regard for theological realities. If a pastor has little interest in studying theology and biblical studies, that mindset will be transferred to those in the pew. Whether we like it or not, the personal interests and biases of the pastor often end up being reflected in the congregation. If leaders consistently downplay the necessity of what the Apostle Paul referred to as “sound doctrine,” then parishioners will follow suit.
Pastors and other church leaders need to ‘step up to the plate’ and model the importance and value of ongoing biblical and theological study. Learning more about the faith they profess and communicating those ideas to their congregations can revolutionize their church’s passion and position in society.
It will not in any way downplay authentic experience with God, but will inform and shape it, while at the same time providing the support it needs to be sustained from generation to generation.
Pentecostals and Charismatics need to combine authentic experience with sound biblical/theological study if they wish to remain strong and make a lasting impression on the hearts and minds of a postmodern generation.