Errors are only compelling to the degree that they contain some vital truth, now heavily distorted. The truth is that both extemporaneity and some form of intense spiritual experience are part of true, living Christianity. The problem is when the experience of intensity is sought for its own sake, and when the method of extemporaneity becomes a tool to manipulate the Spirit.
A polarised debate goes on between different stripes of Christians over the place of experience in Christianity. One side asserts that experiential faith (what the Puritans used to call “experimental religion”) is fundamental to a living, supernaturally-empowered relationship with Christ. The other side asserts that experiential religion is of passing interest, for spiritual experiences range from the genuinely God-given to the wildly false and even demonic, and vary widely among different personality-types. Ultimately, say these Christians, what matters is allegiance to truth, both in belief and behaviour.
In moments of clarity, we agree with both sides, because we are aware of what each side is against: dead formalism (“a straight as a gun barrel theologically, and as empty as one spiritually”, said one) and untethered spiritual adventures (“glandular religion”, as coined by another). Pentecostalism’s strongest selling point has been the supposed vividness of its promised supernatural experiences, both in corporate and private worship. The idea of direct revelation, ecstatic utterances, and marvellous deliverances present a kind of Christianity that appears enviably immediate, sensorily overpowering, and almost irrefutably persuasive. Particularly for Christians coming from a religious background of set forms, liturgical routines, and even unregenerate leadership, the contrast appears to be one of old and false versus new and true.
Sadly, many true believers within Pentecostalism find out within a short space that the promise of overwhelming spiritual experiences begins to lack lustre after a time, and the corporate worship in pursuit of spontaneous spiritual highs can become as tedious and predictable as a service read verbatim from a prayer book. Pentecostalism’s pursuit of intensity and spontaneity in worship turns out to be an idol that both cheats and forsakes its worshippers.
Deeply embedded in the Pentecostal psyche is the idea that the Spirit of God is wedded to spontaneity and freedom of form. It is the very “openness” to His movements, unrestricted by an order of service or set forms of prayer, that supposedly invites His unpredictable arrival, manifested in intense, even ecstatic, spiritual experience. Being spontaneous and extemporaneous demonstrates “openness” and “receptivity”, whereas insisting upon our own forms quenches what the Spirit may wish to do.