Too Reformed for Revival?


In the Christianity of my Midwestern Baptist upbringing, the Holy Spirit was a part of the Trinity I acknowledged but hardly understood. I recall hearing murmurs that one of my classmates in third grade was a “charismatic,” which meant they were just as misled as the one Catholic family on our block. When we visited churches where people raised hands in worship, we assumed they were liberal or in some other way cooky. In junior high I remember hearing my sister describe the trauma of attending a charismatic church service with a friend. There were healings and speaking in tongues. The horror! In our minds this was essentially a cult.

Though I gradually loosened up a bit in my fear of “charismatic” expressions of Christianity (college and post-college travel abroad aided in this), until very recently I was still quite skeptical of the Pentecostal strain in evangelicalism. As a reserved, academic-bent believer with a fondness for liturgy and theology, “Spirit-led” meant unwieldy emotionalism and dangerous anti-intellectualism. Talk of “hearing from God,” “receiving a word” or sensing the Spirit “doing a new thing” seemed to me lazy apathy about Scripture at best and stepping stones to heresy at worst. Though I wasn’t as militant about it as some people, I was functionally a cessationist.

Things have changed since I started attending my current church in 2012. Here I encountered something I had no paradigm for: A Word-centric, Reformed-minded church that is also “Spirit-led.” A church where John Calvin is quoted alongside John Wimber; a church where the gospel is preached via expositional preaching for 45 minutes but space is made in worship for spontaneous bursts of prayer and prophecy, within limits. Part of the church’s Spirit-led DNA comes from its global orientation and emphasis on church planting and partnership in Africa, Asia and Europe… which I love. But I’d be lying if I said the Spirit stuff has been easy to stomach. There are times when my old skepticism flares up, fearing the abuses of emotionalism and the prophetic. But more and more I am growing to appreciate that within the bounds of Scripture and community (as “bumpers” in a bowling lane, so to speak), leaving room for the Spirit to move is a good thing.

In his 1974 essay “The Lord’s Work in the Lord’s Way,” Francis Schaeffer wrote this:

Often men have acted as though one has to choose between reformation and revival. Some call for reformation, others for revival, and they tend to look at each other with suspicion. But reformation and revival do not stand in contrast to one another; in fact, both words are related to the concept of restoration. Reformation speaks of a restoration to pure doctrine, revival of a restoration in the Christian’s life. Reformation speaks of a return to the teachings of Scripture, revival of a life brought into proper relationship to the Holy Spirit. The great moments in church history have come when these two restorations have occurred simultaneously. There cannot be true revival unless there has been reformation, and reformation is incomplete without revival. May we be those who know the reality of both reformation and revival, so that this poor dark world in which we live may have an exhibition of a portion of the church returned to both pure doctrine and a Spirit-filled life.

Too often churches focus on one or the other: reform or revival, Word or Spirit. But we need both. This is a truth I am seeing more and more clearly as I experience and observe church culture in its various late modern manifestations. I believe Schaeffer was right. Churches that will flourish in the 21st century will be those centered upon the “dual restoration” of reformation and revival. In the midst of threats from Scientism, new atheism and disintegrating theological consensus, a strong bent toward doctrinal foundations and theological sturdiness will be essential going forward. Yet robust theology stripped of supernatural power will make no difference in the vitality of the church in the face of growing persecution and the inertia of secularism. In the face of these threats we must seek the Spirit, commit to pray and rely on the power of God.

The life we were designed for as humans, and also as the church (the body of Christ), requires both the head and the heart, knowledge and passion, structure and spontaneity, rationality and mystery, contemplated principles and enacted power.

The more I think about the complimentary beauty of Word/Spirit balance, the more I see how fundamental it is not just to the DNA of the church but to day-to-day human flourishing. One cannot live as a cerebral thinker without the hard-to-harness emotions and energy of the body; one cannot thrive by focusing on either predictable rhythms or freewheeling improvisation. We need to allow for a little bit of both.

Perhaps being married for the last two years has shown this to me in a deeper way. My wife is more emotionally intuitive, flexible and spontaneous than me. I am more logical, steady and systematic than her. We need each other. Together we are stronger, richer, more vibrant in our witness.

You start to see corollaries to the Word/Spirit dynamic everywhere when you begin to look. Left-brained and right-brained. Prose and poetry. Classical music and jazz. A trellis and a vine. Nature and nurture.

There’s a universality and existential trueness to Word/Spirit complementarity that lends it credibility, in addition to its ample biblical support.

As globalization blurs lines between western and non-western Christianity and mutual skepticism between “charismatic” and “reformed” traditions ease, the church today finds itself in a moment where a biblical balance between Word and Spirit can be restored. I am convinced that such a balanced, non-pendulum approach is the way forward for sluggish, fragmenting and ineffectual evangelicalism in post-Christian culture.

In my own faith I’m learning to make more room for the Holy Spirit, just as some in my church family are learning to make more room for the Word. Together we are stronger, richer, more vibrant in our witness. And that is my prayer for the larger body of Christ.

3 responses to “Too Reformed for Revival?

  1. I am so thrilled to see you writing on this topic. I have wondered many times why so few have addressed this need for balance between the “Word/Spirit,” as you put it. I had an almost mirror opposite upbringing. I grew up in the Central Midwest, but in very Charismatic/Pentecostal leaning churches. I went to Christian schools that were Baptist and always felt I needed to keep my church life to myself or be accused of heresy. Needless to say, I have seen it all. There were many times that I witnessed wonderful acts of God. People’s lives were changed for the better. Yet there were other times when what I saw was most definitely not of God, but rather people trying to make something happen.

    Anti-intellectualism was indeed very prevalent in the churches I grew up in, and even to a certain extent in my own home. Ironically, my parents were very pro-education so I of course went to college and eventually on to grad school. During college, I first started to feel this Word/Spirit tension and found it very difficult to find a church that I felt was both robust theologically and also sensitive to the Holy Spirit. Most churches swing too far one way or the other. After many years of searching, my husband and I have found Vineyard Overland Park in Kansas City to be a very good blend.

    I cannot agree with you more that this balance is essential to the health of the church today. Thank you for tackling this sometimes sensitive topic so well. I look forward to checking out the books/articles you linked to.

  2. This feels so familiar to me. I grew up Baptist. I remember when my mom was hesitant to like Frank Peretti’s “This Present Darkness” because it was so charismatic. In my twenties, I fell in with a Reformed church and spent most my time dissecting how much everything lined up to that (I’ve come to firmly believe, as some have joked, that Calvinists should be quarantined for the first 10 years they hold those beliefs).

    I met my wife almost six years ago. She comes from a Methodist background. She has close friends who are very charismatic; her sisters speaks in tongues. She very much believes in blessing homes and in overt spiritual warfare. It’s been a struggle at times for my pragmatic beliefs and her more emotional ones to work together, but I’ve found it in recent years to be such a blessing. Like you said, you need both (coming from Detroit, I’ve often thought of this as ‘faith like an engineer’ vs. ‘faith like an artist.’ The church needs both). Thanks for this.

  3. Love the Francis Schaeffer quote. I wonder if unity in the Spirit is about honouring the things that other “factions” understand or practise better than we do. At least it might keep us from trying to draw attention to the logs in their eyes whilst ignoring our own.

    And we all have them.

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