Experience-Driven Spirituality | thebereancall.org

McMahon, T.A.

In a recent editorial entitled "A Time to Build Bridges," Charisma founding editor and publisher Stephen Strang seemed hopeful that the Holy Spirit was doing a great work of reconciliation. He announced that historic church rifts were being mended and that fast-growing organizations such as Promise Keepers (he publishes its official magazine, New Man) were breaking down denominational barriers. Strang was particularly excited about an upcoming congress designed to bring together Catholic and Protestant charismatics and featuring as speakers Benny Hinn, Pat Robertson and Rainier Cantalamessa, the personal preacher to Pope John Paul II.1

The charismatic publisher's follow-up editorial encouraged readers "to tear down the walls between Pentecostals and evangelicals." He believes it is necessary for a "paradigm shift [to take place] in the thinking of those evangelicals who are paranoid about things they consider 'charismatic' or 'Pentecostal.'" 2 A shift is indeed in process, but it is moving from sound doctrine to a unity based on feelings and from truth to error, as God's Word is brushed aside in the current rush for the experiential.

If what has been termed "the Laughing Revival" can be used as a gauge, the shift is not only taking place; it's in high gear. Endorsed by Charisma and a host of well-known charismatic leaders, this phenomenon has been widely covered by national and international media, both secular and religious. It has been characterized by mass laughter, ecstatic trance, loss of physical control, barking, roaring, grunting, moaning, alleged prophetic utterances and claims of physical and emotional healings. Those promoting this phenomenon believe it is the beginning of "the great last-days revival" which will bring about the final unity of Christendom.

One of the astounding aspects of this alleged revival is the growing number of denominational groups involved. For example, consider what's happening at the Toronto Airport Vineyard, the flagship church of these "holy laughter" manifestations. Hundreds of thousands of seekers—including an estimated 10,000 pastors—from all over the world have made pilgrimages to partake of the "blessing." They include not only charismatics and Pentecostals but Baptists, Anglicans, Mennonites, Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Catholics and others.

ABC television featured the phenomenon on a network special, and reporter Peter Jennings shared this perceptive insight in his introduction of the Vineyard churches: "What you will see here is part of the fastest growing trend in contemporary Christianity. It is called experiential, or charismatic, Christianity. The idea is to come and have an emotional, often physical, encounter with God." Later, as cameras caught people in the church ministering to one another, resulting in the already-named manifestations, Jennings made this matter-of-fact observation: "At the Vineyard there is no doubt that emotional therapy is central to the ministry." 3

Many evangelicals who are critical of what they are observing are themselves slipping into a similar experience-driven spirituality through their involvement in various forms of psychotherapy. Many who deplore the obvious emotional bent of the charismatics fail to recognize that the psychologically influenced programs in their own fellowships have a common experiential base. Furthermore, a great many of the therapies applied in church-supported psychological counseling sessions are at least as experiential and often just as bizarre as what transpires at charismatic meetings.

Increasing numbers of noncharismatics are accepting them, however, because they're convinced that what's going on is scientifically valid. In view of this trend, Stephen Strang's hope for "the barriers between charismatics and noncharismatics" to be torn down so that a "broader evangelical community" can take shape already seems to be far along the road to prophetic fulfillment.

Jesus characterized the days just prior to His return as a time of great religious deception (Mat:24:4,11,23-24). He said that many would claim to be uttering prophecies, casting out demons, and performing miracles in His name, yet they would be evildoers (Mat:7:22,23). He declared that seeking after signs was a trait of "a wicked and adulterous generation" (Mat:16:4). Paul also warned that the last days would be a time of preparation for the takeover by the Antichrist and would involve satanic "power, signs and lying wonders" (2 Thes:2:9). Inevitably, the consequence of this religious deception will be the development of a false, experience-driven church which has surrendered doctrine to feeling.

Paul wrote, "This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves..." (2 Tim:3:1-2). These verses aptly describe our present psychologized generation, where feeling good about self is exalted as the solution to all mankind's problems. While many leading evangelicals mistakenly promote such a view, Scripture clearly shows that love of self is central to man's problem. In fact, the verses that follow 2 Timothy:3:2 detail what will erupt during the "perilous times" as a consequence of loving (esteeming) self (3:3-9). Though man's self-serving nature has characterized every generation since the Fall, none prior to this one has extolled loving oneself as the remedy for whatever ails the human race. And certainly it was never taught as a biblical truth, as it is today.

The Bible—through the ministry of the Holy Spirit—is the believers' God-given resource for discernment, a biblically mandated necessity for withstanding the overpowering endtime religious delusion. Without discernment, we're left only with fleshly reasonings, vain imaginations or subjective intuition.

In order for the false church to develop, a process must take place which undermines the objective basis for discernment. That process is well under way. The growing trend away from doctrinal absolutes, from conclusions based on scriptural examples, and from any biblical scrutiny or testing has created a vacuum rapidly being filled by experiential religion. This translates into feelings becoming more and more the measure of what is of God and what is not.

That trend may be clearly seen among those who express confidence that the "laughing revival" is of God. When pressed for an explanation and for scriptural support, the responses sound more wishful than sure. Rodney Howard-Browne, a major figure in this movement, reflects its experiential nature: "You can't understand what God is doing in these meetings with an analytical mind. The only way you're going to understand what God is doing is with your heart." 4 His sentiments are echoed by Episcopal rector Hugh Williams, who was changed by the experience and endorses it with this unwitting indictment: "Words [including God's Word?] have become meaningless in our society. Signs and wonders are what must capture our attention." 5

Attention is certainly being captured—and at the expense of preaching the Word. All concede that when the manifestation breaks forth it is disruptive. Terry Virgo, a New Frontiers International director in England, tells us that disruption is part of God's plan. He wrote in a highly supportive Charisma article that the Lord gave Virgo's church the following prophecy: "Prepare yourselves for disruption." He added, "Now, I'm a preacher who puts a very high value on biblical exposition. But I have to admit that people are being changed more radically and completely through God's supernatural touch in these meetings than they ever have been through listening to me preach!" 6

Both the prophecy and the implication of Virgo's statement run counter to the Scriptures: "Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine" (2 Tim:4:2). Sadly, Paul's Holy Spirit-given counsel is conspicuously absent in today's so-called Holy Spirit revival.

Vineyard Ministries head John Wimber, perhaps the most successful promoter of "signs and wonders" to noncharismatics today, is confident that what's taking place is from the Lord. Yet the basis for Wimber's confidence is questionable at best:

There's nothing in Scripture to support these kinds of phenomena....So I feel no obligation to try to explain it....It's just people responding to God.7

That's hardly a helpful guideline for those who follow Wimber's lead in seeking after signs and wonders! In the interview with Peter Jennings, he was asked, "Are you utterly, totally convinced that [the manifestations are] always the Holy Spirit?" Wimber replied, "No. I'm largely convinced that it's the Holy Spirit, but I believe that it's a mixture of humanity and spirit." What about the demonic, and who is pointing out the difference?

Jennings noted that "at the Vineyard church we found that people were hungry for a faith they could feel." Indeed, feelings reign supreme in this realm of "signs and wonders." People are attracted to the phenomenon because of emotional desires or feelings. They "operate" in that realm guided by their feelings, and their justification that God is involved is based upon their feelings.

Psychotherapy, whether "Christian" or secular, works much the same way. It is based upon humanistic theories that purport to explain and change human behavior, theories that deny the sufficiency of God's Word, that contradict one another and are ineffective. As one secular critic observed, "There are as many techniques, methods and theories around as there are therapists." Former president of the Association for Humanistic Psychology, Lawrence LeShan, has suggested that psychotherapy will probably be known as the hoax of the twentieth century—yet the church has embraced it as a part of "God's truth" missing from God's Word!

Similar to experiential religion, psychological counseling is promoted primarily through the testimonies of those who have experienced it. Since its goal and practice are contrary to biblical truth, psychotherapy fosters an optimum breeding ground for new disciples of the growing experiential church.

Many conservative evangelical congregations are knee-deep in experiential therapy. "Christianized" psychotherapeutically related programs and methods such as 12 steps, co dependency, inner healing, healing of memories, life regression, rebirthing, self-esteem enhancement, human potential development, visualization, self-affirmation, etc. have become ministerial supplements. Such activities successfully play to the emotional demands of charismatics and noncharismatics alike.

Nationally recognized authors promoting one or more of the above experiential methods have heavily influenced some traditionally conservative evangelical Christian colleges and seminaries. A brief list includes inner-healing author David Seamands at Methodist Asbury Seminary; psychologist Gary Collins at Baptist Liberty University; inner-healer Leanne Payne at Wheaton College; psychiatrists Frank Minirth and Paul Meier at Dallas Theological Seminary; spiritual deliverance therapist Neil Anderson and psychologists Clyde and Bruce Narramore (and a host of others) at the schools of Talbot, Rosemead and Biola.

The bridge of experientialism between charismatics and noncharismatics is firmly in place. While it appears to be bringing about the unity which Stephen Strang, the Promise Keepers and others are aiming for, it actually destroys the only biblical basis for unity—the truth. The Bible alone contains God's truth, which is revealed by the Holy Spirit to Christ's sheep (Jn:10:27; 1 Cor:2:11-16). God's Word is not only "the truth"; it judges all that is false.

Certainly experiences are not necessarily evil. They are, however, all subjective and must be scrutinized by means of the Word of Truth. Peter had a tremendous experience when he was in the presence of God on the Mount of Transfiguration, and it's worth noting that one of the experiential manifestations that took place is noticeably missing in the "revivals" documented today: falling on one's face in fear of God. Furthermore, Peter makes it absolutely clear that, although he valued his personal experience, God's Word is far more trustworthy—and more necessary: "whereunto ye do well that ye take heed" (2 Pt 1:19).

Without that absolute basis for objective discernment, the experiential—whether a claimed spiritual phenomenon or a so-called emotional breakthrough in psychotherapy—is a pathway to delusion. Even the casual observer of those who minister during today's alleged move of the Holy Spirit can see that they have little idea of what they are doing, and even less of what will result. They claim to be "going with the flow"; that is, simply trusting the Holy Spirit. Yet they disobey the very Holy Spirit they claim to rely upon by refusing His guidance through diligent use of His inspired manual for discernment—God's Holy Word.

Some charismatic leaders and psychologically oriented evangelicals who profess to acknowledge the importance of Scripture for discernment and the potential dangers of letting feelings go unchecked, are at the same time loudly proclaiming the joys of experientialism. Their rallying cry is "Scriptural or not, it must be of God." The psychologized evangelical's wishful thinking is similar: "Biblical or not, it must be of science." Both seem committed to avoiding the test of God's Word, and both are therefore joining one another on a mist-shrouded bridge of delusive unity. Pray that all those being drawn into this experiential fog will begin to see clearly that biblical discernment of what is truly of God (Isa:8:20; Acts:17:11) is an absolute necessity for the believer in these deceptive last days. TBC


  1. Stephen Strang, "A Time to Build Bridges" (Charisma, Mar. 1995), 112.
  2. Stephen Strang, "A View From the Back of the Bus" (Charisma, Apr. 1995), 106.
  3. Peter Jennings, "In God's Name" (American Broadcasting Company television special, 1994).
  4. Julia Duin, "Praise the Lord and Pass the New Wine" (Charisma, Aug. 1994), 26.
  5. Ibid., 28.
  6. Terry Virgo, "Interrupted by the Spirit," (Charisma, Feb. 1995), 32.
  7. Daina Doucet, "What is God Doing in Toronto?" (Charisma, Feb. 1995), 26.