From the exploitation of volunteers and wild lifestyles, to Christian nationalism, the Charismatic movement has dominated headlines recently for all the wrong reasons. Unfortunately these incidents are more feature than flaw as these movements have produced exactly what they were designed to produce. Like all fast growing religious movements, long term planning was laid aside in favor of growth management and now the Charismatic movement is paying the price.
Most of these movements are born from a charismatic visionary. But it’s my contention that it only takes three generations to go from cult of personality to full-blown cult. Every legitimate revival produces Bible colleges. Every cult of personality produces ministry schools. The stream I am from produced a ton of ministry schools and no accredited Bible colleges.
New ministry schools focus on the ministry model of a “successful” Christian leader. This is the easiest path to cultic behavior. The center of faith has moved. It is rare that they admit that this is what’s happening but pragmatism wins out verse orthodox praxis in these schools. What they produce is revered so whatever is needed to produce it is fair game.
New Bible colleges teach a hermeneutic based on what sustained the move of God it was birthed from. Both have a skewed view but Bible colleges try to develop a systematic theology that views the text and tradition, even if they do it through a lens. Many people will be in those Bible colleges, study the text and come to very different conclusions than their tradition teaches. This is healthy and God-honoring.
In my experience, a move of God is normally started by someone who had Bible training but felt called to emphasize one aspect of ministry. They have a move of God and start a ministry school. Those students are unmoored from the text and by design find their spiritual identity in the move.
Three Generations to Birth a Cult
The first generation (the generation that were at the forefront of the movement) decided that large parts of their biblical education were irrelevant and teach a narrow orthodoxy to the second generation. They know more than they teach and their ministries are influenced by the “ancient boundaries” but don’t pass that knowledge on. So their acolytes don’t get the full picture of the text. They are taught that the ministry of the first generation is the main thing. They were taught by educated people but they themselves are not educated.
The third generation is where things get weird. The third generation thinks the move is the biblical foundation. Spiritual manifestations, conference size, social media influence, and the ability to think of “new things” are confirmation of God’s presence and favor. It manifests in a million different ways depending on the tradition but it is always the same.
We are watching this play out at Hillsong. They had a ministry school with the purpose of making Hillsong Sunday service cast members. It is starting to fall apart as it should. But like many who have gone before them, they have some decisions to make because this could go one of three ways.
1. They realize they are unmoored from the text and tradition and get some training. This is akin to deprogramming and it is painful. Disillusionment and a path to health is the result. A recent example of this was the Vineyard. Because the way Wimber emphasized education, they were able to grow and adapt. They don’t see the spiritual manifestations they once saw, but by and large they have healthy churches. What has happened at Anaheim Vineyard is a purposeful departure from this path toward the third possibility.
2. They slowly fade out. There are no deep roots and no lasting vision. The leaders of the Toronto Revival started Partners in Harvest. It had not theological roots and languished as a little more than conference mailing list. Near the end, they tried to knit them into a cult of personality group but there was no longer personalities strong enough to pull it off and it wasn’t healthy enough to move into the first group.
Since then there is a group of leaders trying to rebuild the network as a fellowship of churches. I was a part of the network when it collapsed. It was sad but not unforeseen.
3. This is the worst of all worlds. They become a full-blown cult. What the founder of their movement taught becomes the new sacred text. A recent example of this in my stream is the Branhamites, the remaining followers of William Branham. Branham was both a gifted prophet and a false prophet at various times in his ministry like A.A. Allen and Alexander Dowie. The later two were unable to leave a legacy but the WOF folks are feverishly trying to build their own.
Who is really hurt by this?
I recently met a girl who was interning at a church who had just finished ministry school at a leading church that is approaching the third-generation phase. She announced her graduation with such pride. I felt so sad for her.
Those ministry schools are never connected to a movement with career paths. Students graduate with a piece of paper and no credentials, no biblical training, and no job. Just three years of their lives dedicated to being baptized in a cult of personality. When these folks reach the real world, if they don’t have the talent to start their own cult of personality, they fail miserably.
So in my church I direct leaders to get bible classes from a place that could lead to denominational credentialing. Instead of saying, I went to famous author school of supernatural ministry. I want people to get a theological education that enables them to read the Sacred Text and interpret the timeless Gospel the world needs to hear.
Instead of being aligned with the flavor of the month teacher, I want them aligned with the historic faith. It’s that foundation that brings supernatural results, changes lives for generations, and births movements that stand the test of time.