Note to journalists: When reporting on charismatics, please try to get details right


Pentecostals and charismatics are the world’s fastest-growing form of Christianity. Click here for lots of Pew Forum information on that.

On a trip to India years ago, I was interviewing evangelical Protestant leaders when I asked them which churches were growing the fastest there. Without hesitation, they all responded -- Pentecostals. And they didn’t even agree theologically with those folks.

On this side of the pond, most denominations – which were initially opposed to charismatics (who are essentially Pentecostals who’ve stayed in mainline denominations) -- have made their piece with such groups.

Not so with the Southern Baptist Convention, America's largest Protestant flock.

Years ago, pastors who got caught up in the charismatic renewal (which began in the 1960s) got kicked out of their churches. More recently, the opposition was more subtle; in 2005 the SBC’s International Mission Board ruled that none of its missionaries could pray in tongues. That is, candidates would be asked when applying to be missionaries if they did so, even in their private prayers.

The bottom line: An affirmative answer was an automatic disqualifier. The spiritual gift of tongues, mentioned in some detail in 1 Cor. 12-14, along with several mentions scattered through the book of Acts, is the most controversial of the gifts. But the Apostle Paul specifically said not to forbid it (at the end of 1 Cor. 14), so the Baptists’ decision in 2005 was a contested one, to say the least.

Which is why I did a double take when RNS broke this story announcing that after 10 years of  forbidding the gift of tongues, the IMB had done a 180 and was allowing its missionaries to do so. (Note from later in the day: Found out tht Christianity Today actually broke the story, but I'll run with the RNS version).

(RNS) After decade-long resistance, the Southern Baptist Convention will admit missionary candidates who speak in tongues, a practice associated with Pentecostal and charismatic churches.
The new policy, approved by the denomination’s International Mission Board on Wednesday (May 13), reverses a policy that was put in place 10 years ago.
Speaking in tongues is an ancient Christian practice recorded in the New Testament in which people pray in a language they do not know, understand or control. The practice died out until Pentecostalism emerged around the turn of the 20th century. In Pentecostal churches it is considered one of many “gifts” of the Holy Spirit, including healing and the ability to prophesize.
Allowing Southern Baptist missionaries to speak in tongues, or have what some SBC leaders call a “private prayer language,” speaks to the growing strength of Pentecostal churches in Africa, Asia and South America, where Southern Baptists are competing for converts and where energized new Christians are enthusiastically embracing the practice.

RNS had the wisdom to realize this decision was news. But what jumped out at me was the assertion in the third paragraph that people cannot control this gift.

The reporters must not have sat through a zillion charismatic services like some of us have where preachers endlessly quote 1 Cor. 14:32 that says “the spirit of the prophets is subject to the prophets.” Roughly translated, it means the speaker can very well control him or herself. Oddly, Charisma News -- which serves a charismatic audience -- picked up the RNS piece without correcting that sentence. Also, the correct verb for the noun prophecy is "prophesy" or "prophesies," not prophesize.

The article brought up more questions than it answered and let stand some amazing assertions by Bill Leonard, a church historian on the "moderate" or progressive side of Southern Baptist life. The church history professor said the reason behind the change is that the Southern Baptists are having so much competition with Pentecostals on the world mission field that they felt they needed to give in this one point.

Really? So the Baptists are so behind on their soul winning among non-whites that they made the calculated decision to dump a decision they got a lot of grief on in 2005 and 2006? Leonard is a very good source, but I would have liked more data to back that one up -- another point of view.

Moreover, the link RNS provided to the IMB web site didn’t say that at all. What it did reveal is that divorced people are also being allowed to be long-term missionaries. Christianity Today revealed some other rule changes with the IMB, such as parents of teens being allowed to be missionaries. Before, it was thought that having a teen-ager on a mission post was too challenging for a family.

The CT article did not repeat the assertion in the RNS piece that the tongues rule was relaxed because of competition with overseas Pentecostals. Instead, it gave more background on the inner workings of the IMB and how the number of its overseas missionaries has shrunk by 15 percent in the past six years.

The official Baptist Press team eventually posted a clunky piece on the topic, relegating the tongues portion to near the bottom of the piece. In other words, this is still a controversial topic.

So far, that has been it. Back in the day when heavily Baptist states had fully staffed religion sections, news of these changes would have appeared -- with big headlines -- in newspapers in Houston (where I once was part of a two-person team at the Chronicle), Dallas, Richmond, Va. and Nashville.

Sadly, this is not the case today.

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