The Pentecostal and Charismatic world has been atwitter (a phrase with new meaning these days) about the conversion of Ulf Ekman, Sweden’s foremost Charismatic pastor, to Roman Catholicism. My friend Dale Coulter has a more “respectable” take on this, and he’s right: it’s easier to make the Tiber swim from a Full Gospel start than it is, say, from other parts of the non-Catholic world. What I want to do is to look at from the viewpoint of someone who basically did the reverse, and went on to actually work in a Pentecostal church.
Probably the most popular stop on this site is my piece about conversion between Anglicanism and Catholicism. Some of my comments there probably apply to a process such as Ekman’s too, so I won’t repeat them here. My willingness to talk about conversion has gotten me into trouble with sites such as TitueOneNine, but I think it’s important to be open about such things.
I also addressed some issues between prosperity charismatics (as Ekman was) and Roman Catholicism in this piece, and won’t go through all that again either. But there are two things I do want to discuss here: the spiritual state of Roman Catholics and the point in Ekman’s own life when he made his Tiber swim.
One thing that Ekman has discovered is that many Roman Catholics operated on a higher spiritual plane than he was led to believe. That’s no surprise to me: some of the most Christ-like people on earth I have ever met are Roman Catholics. The Church is perfectly capable of producing people who follow the path that Our Lord has laid before us in a very beautiful way.
The problem is that the Church is also capable of producing a great crowd of “box checkers,” people who have “made a business deal with God” (as my first parish priest put it) and, observing the formalities to varying degrees, believe that they’re okay. In addition to the expected variations of wheat and tares, there are many reasons why the Church is good at this: a weak pastoral care system, a gradualistic view of our place with God, an overreliance on the sacraments as conduits of grace to the faithful (and especially, since Vatican II, with baptism) and an institutional aversion to enthusiasm, which means that renewal movements tend to get smothered in the system.
I think that the trends are in favour of the Church because it is becoming harder and harder to be a Christian, especially in the West. This will tend to shake the box checkers out in a way that anything the Church does cannot. The Roman Catholic Church is experiencing a “Gideon moment” in the West–and it is not alone in that regard.
The other thing I want to mention concerns the appeal of his past and present form of Christianity with regard to stage of life. Ever since late Patristic times the Church has recognised the distinction between the “active” and “contemplative” life, with a distinct preference for the latter. In that respect Roman Catholicism has a strong escapist thread running through it.
Modern Pentecost has neatly solved the dilemma by pitching the contemplative life altogether. Yes, there’s a renewed emphasis on prayer and the return of the prophetic. But these, in good revivalistic tradition, are handmaidens to The Mission of spreading the Gospel and growing the church. Modern Pentecost is the supreme “ants in the pants” religion, always in motion, almost never looking back. When the Assemblies of God were offered the house on Bonnie Brae in Los Angeles where the Azusa Street revival started, they turned it down: they didn’t want a monument.
That makes Pentecost the young person’s religion par excellence. Unfortunately those who stay on the earth for an extended period (in our sense) have a change in priorities. The time of the Great Day of the Lord is unknown, but as we age our own Great Day’s approach looms larger. This means that Pentecost is a great religion to live in but perhaps not such an ideal one to die in. That tendency has only gotten worse of late as much of contemporary ministry has become a big, post-modern business, with our ministers unprepared to deal with the success they have prayed and worked for. The last is something that Ekman saw with some of his colleagues.
It never occurs to our ministers, constantly seeking aspirational members who will find prosperity both for themselves and the church, that a religion with a strong intellectual tradition and a well-trained focus on the exit strategy would have any appeal. But it happened the last time our civilisation went in the tank, why not again?
Ekman isn’t the first high-profile Swede to “swim the Tiber” and doubtless won’t be the last. And, chances are, there will be others in the Pentecostal and Charismatic communities who will take his example seriously. We would do well to consider why this is so and perhaps take some positive steps and not simply complain.