6 Dangers of Focusing on Experience

6 Dangers of Focusing on Experience

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God desires that what we ultimately seek is in authentic relationship with Him.

In the Church of the Nazarene, one of the greatest tools we have to evaluate and guide our faith is the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Many different variations of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral have been introduced over the years, but in its simplest form, it means that we allow several perspectives to inform our faith: the writings of Scripture, the tradition found both within broader church history and within our unique denomination, reason found within logic and study, and the experiences of both the individual believer and the local church community.

Or, to put it another way, we read the Bible through the lenses of reason, tradition, and experience. Likewise, our reason, experiences, and tradition should always be informed by Scripture and by one another. This framework is our attempt among a plethora of denominations to be the via media or the “middle way.”

Problems arise when we emphasize one piece of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral over the other three.

SCRIPTURE: When we read Scripture without being informed by reason or tradition or experience, we easily fall into a fundamentalist, literalistic interpretation of God’s word. This is the classic position of, “the Bible said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

When taken to the extreme, this practice can lead, for example, to what we see in the snake-handling denominations of Appalachia. Through a literalistic interpretation of Mark 16:17-18, these churches took two verses out of context and built an entire system of faith around an ill-advised practice that seems crazy even to most other Christians.

More often, though, we see this oversimplification of Scripture occurring in more subtle ways, such as in denominations that refuse to ordain women as pastors or only accept certain views on creation and eschatology. Scripture without a proper understanding of the historical and biblical context (reason), without the perspective offered by 2,000 years of church history (tradition), and without the affirmation of individual believers or believers in community (experience) is careless or even dangerous.

TRADITION: Historically, we have seen how issues can arise when we place tradition over reason, experience, or the authority of Scripture. Prior to the Protestant Reformation, papal authority grew to unhealthy proportions, and the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church overrode the faith of individual believers. Because of the corruption found within that tradition, reformers like Martin Luther called for a return to Scripture (sola Scriptura) and affirmed that the experiences of all Christ-followers are important (priesthood of believers).

REASON: Modernism has shown us how a focus on reason can lead people astray from the Christian faith. During the Enlightenment, an overemphasis on reason caused many skeptics to question the truth of the Bible. Reason has led scientists and philosophers to reject Christianity or turn to atheism. This makes sense, because a Christian faith without Scripture, tradition, and experience is illogical.

Take the beauty of the Psalms, or the experience of receiving communion, or the believers’ fellowship within a tradition. These intangibles cannot be quantified or calculated. They defy reason, but they are what make our religion one based on faith and trust.

EXPERIENCE: Most recently, I have noticed a heavy push toward the experience aspect of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as there is a longing for a resurgence of an experience-dominated revivalism, or Pentecostalism. This desire for an “experience” with the Holy Spirit is expressed in concepts such as seeing the “shekinah glory of the Lord” or “the manifest presence of God.” These experiences are often marked by visions, prophetic exclamations, and acts of divine healing.

Not unsurprisingly, this push toward experience has come at the expense of the other three pieces of the Wesleyan hermeneutic. A focus on experience alone is often accompanied by a spirit of anti-intellectualism. This longing for an experience-driven faith goes against the tradition of our denomination that has made an intentional effort to separate itself from the Pentecostalism of the American Holiness Movement. It ignores the instruction of Scripture to let love be our highest goal (1 Corinthians 14:1), rather than pursuing a certain type of experience or spiritual gift.

As with an over-emphasis on reason, tradition, or Scripture, there are many dangers or pitfalls of leaning too heavily on the experience arm of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Many of these dangers are highlighted through the revivalism that is found in the charismatic stream of our denominational tribe.

Danger #1: Shallow Faith

Revivalism often results in a shallow faith that burns bright at first, but quickly flames out without the steady support of tradition, reason, and Scripture. Many of those who passionately throw themselves on the altar return to the mourner’s bench week after week, in search of the “spiritual high” that can get them through until the next altar call.

Often, their bold proclamations of faith are not followed up with personal action or consistent discipleship and mentoring. But we pastors put the tally marks on our spiritual roster, proudly proclaiming “this many were saved” or “that many were sanctified” under our leadership. We excitedly report the number of “experiences” that we were witnesses to, but we don’t do the hard word of continued pastoral guidance and discipleship.

Danger 2: Emotional Manipulation

A second danger to overly-emphasizing experience is emotional manipulation. This forced emotionalism is an attempt to regularly recreate a particular experience or produce certain emotions. It is looking for that “spiritual high” or “mountain top experience” associated with teen camp, revivals, camp meetings, and altar calls. Often, it is an attempt to replicate the spiritual fervor that comes along with a conversion or sanctification experience.

Now, in many other areas of life, the church frowns upon emotional manipulation. For example, when it comes to pornography, we realize that those who are addicted to porn are subject to false emotions: they have the “feelings” that come with love and intimacy without actually having the real love and intimacy found within true relationship. While this may be an extreme example, I find many parallels within revivalism.

Many people want the “experience” of “feeling” the presence of God without having the actual relationship with God. It is far too easy to replicate those experiences with the correct mood lighting, just the right song sung at the right tempo and volume, and an emotional plea from a powerful speaker. Once again, we want the benefits of these experiences, without putting in the hard work to make those experiences last beyond the final “amen.”

Danger #3: Powerful Personas

The charismatic leaders of revivalist movements tend to gain a large following because of their ability to emotionally manipulate those around them. We are made to feel that these leaders are “more in tune with God” and that they have the power to bring about the experiences for which we long. They may even call themselves “intercessors” or “prophetic seers.”

They like to begin sentences with, “God told me...” or other phrases that imply they alone have a “message” from God. Often, if someone criticizes these powerful leaders, they are reprimanded to “touch not God’s anointed.” The great danger of these charismatic leaders is when we place them (or sometimes when they place themselves, whether intentionally or unintentionally) on a platform higher than God or believe that they must be the “mediator” between us and God.

Danger #4: Spiritual Abuse

Another pitfall of this extreme form of revivalism is that it is prone to spiritual abuse. This often happens in subtle ways:

  • You just need to pray harder.
  • You would be healed if you had more faith.
  • Your depression is merely a sign that you need to rely more on God.
  • Maybe there is some unconfessed sin in your life.

When we come expecting God to act or move in a certain way, and God does not act or move in that particular way, we go away frustrated and disappointed. We may think that we are the problem— that there is something wrong with us. This type of thinking is particularly damaging to pastors, who—although faithful and committed to their local churches—are not experiencing the kind of growth that seems to happen among revivalists. They assume that they must be the ones at fault or are the ones to blame. They fall prey to self-doubt perpetuated by a spiritually abusive mentality found within Pentecostalism.

Danger #5: Exclusivist and Elitist Religion

Many in the charismatic camp believe that the Holy Spirit only moves (or perhaps best moves) through the type of tent-meeting revivals that marked the early days of our denomination. While I do not deny that God can and often does work in these ways, I believe that God moves and works in many other ways as well. The Holy Spirit is present in the quiet contemplation of solitude. Christ is pleased when we serve the poor and those who are hungry in His name.

God moves in the library of a seminary, in the personal devotions of the believer, in the holy conversations among friends, and in the cries for justice for the marginalized of our society. The prayer of the sinful tax collector was heard as clearly as that of the pious religious leader. God’s kingdom is not limited to one evangelical method or one type of worship experience. The Lord is far bigger than our limited human experiences of God.

Danger #6: Suspicion and Skepticism

But probably the biggest danger of extreme revivalism and Pentecostalism is that it devalues those times when the Holy Spirit truly is moving and granting us unique experiences that can only come through the acknowledgement of God’s presence in our midst. A skewed leaning toward the experiences of Pentecostalism leads skeptics to doubt when anybody says they “witnessed a healing” or “saw the Holy Spirit moving.”

I do believe that miracles still happen and that the Holy Spirit is actively moving among us and working within us. I fully affirm that we can do great and amazing things through Christ, who gives us great power and boldness. But so many false prophets have used manipulation and tactics of spiritual abuse in the name of God that I find myself suspicious. Similarly, others of my generation have seen far too many altar calls that did not lead to actual life changes. We want to believe, but we have been burned by the false promises of a movement that has not led to an actual spiritual awakening within our church.

Seeking Christ above all

Ultimately, when we seek an experience, we are not seeking Christ.

And that is neither Wesleyan, nor Christian. Holy Spirit experiences do have a real and important place in the practice of our faith. We should never discount or belittle the experiences of our fellow believers. God continues to move in incredible ways.

But let us not elevate our emotional experiences to a place that is higher than Scripture, reason, or tradition. Rather, our experiences should further propel us into the realms of Scripture, reason, and tradition. When kept in a proper balance, this framework allows us Nazarenes to be the centrists that we endeavor to be.

Shannon Greene is an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene. She has a heart for youth ministry and currently serves in Nazarene Youth International at the Global Ministry Center.