Much attention has been devoted to a fundamentalist religious movement called the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR). NAR is a network of charismatic Christian ministries that rose from the independent Charismatic movement, known as Third Wave Christianity. C. Peter Wagner was responsible for constructing its basic theology, and figures such as Lou Engle and Cindy Jacobs have expanded and marketed the movement. During the 2008 presidential election, the movement received media attention because of Sarah Palin's reported ties to a NAR preacher.
As Bruce Wilson at Talk to Action explains, the New Apostolic Reformation has a far-reaching and radical fundamentalist agenda:
The major tenets of the adherents of this sect include the belief that we are living in the final years before the return of Christ. However, they differ from dispensationalists in their belief that they must defeat evil on the earth and purify the existing churches before Jesus can return. Furthermore, the building of this “Kingdom of God” is not to be delayed until after the Rapture, or to be built in a heavenly sphere. They believe that they have a mandate to build the Kingdom in the present and in the physical realm. In preparation for this task, this final generation is being “imparted” with special supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit that will allow them to wage spiritual warfare and take control of the earth from the devil and an array of demons. The church must be unified under the leadership of their apostles and prophets. The mandate for building the Kingdom includes their current Seven Mountains strategy for the taking control over government, arts and entertainment, media, education, family, religion, and business.
This effort includes extensive mission work around the globe featuring their well developed spiritual warfare strategies which have been published in books and videos. The goal of these spiritual warfare tactics is to take cities and communities from the territorial demons that control theses geographic areas and that they believe prevent their efforts in planting their own Apostolic churches. Spiritual warfare around the globe includes the goal of taking control of cities through the expulsion of witches and demons, and the conversion of Roman Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and all other religions. They also believe that there must be a civil war in the Protestant church in order for them to purify that institution before Jesus can return. The movement has an extensive focus on youth, with several leaders specifically prophesying that those born after 1973 are to be the trainers and warriors for God’s army.
For me, the NAR movement is not a nebulous faction somewhere far away, but a movement I've seen in my own region with my own eyes. I normally don't discuss my personal life on the blog, but for this topic I'll make an exception. Years ago, my former friend Derek* became a born-again Christian, and his faith grew increasingly fundamentalist as the years went on. After joining a rural Apostolic church, he started attending an Apostolic prayer group that some of his Christian friends were frequenting. When I visited Derek in summer 2009, he invited me to attend the prayer group with him on a Saturday evening. Curious, and knowing how eager he was to participate, I agreed.
The prayer group was held at the home of his friend Jason*, who lived in a nearby rural town. When we arrived, Christian rock music was pouring out of stereo speakers, and about seven people were scattered through the living room and dining room in bizarre positions. One woman was kneeling in front of a sofa, her face buried in the cushions. Another woman was standing with eyes closed and hands raised, swaying to and fro with an intoxicated smile on his face. A man sat on a love-seat, eyes closed and hands raised, his lips moving occasionally in silent prayer. Everyone appeared to be in an ecstatic trance, and I was baffled.
In the dining room, I found a man lying face down, motionless. Pointing at the prostrate man, I shot a worried look to Derek. Before I could kneel down and tap him to see if he was all right, Derek smiled and raised a reassuring hand. The man was praying in that position, I realized.
Moments later, a resounding THUD-THUD-THUD-THUD shook the house, but no one budged from their trances. The sound originated in the kitchen, where I found a young woman standing by the refrigerator, panting. She'd been jumping up and down.
Surrounded by worshippers in strange positions, I sat down in a rocking chair in the living room. Derek sat in the chair beside mine, closed his eyes, and folded his hands in his lap in prayer. Staring at the strange scene, I realize that these people were probably having intense spiritual experiences, so it was best not to disturb their ecstasy. I pulled a book out of my backpack and started reading.
This went on for about half an hour. When the Christian music went silent, people opened their eyes, stretched, and arranged themselves in seats. Derek smiled and shook his head when he saw me reading a book. What? What'd I do? I thought.
Jason initiated a discussion about the power of Christianity in people's lives, in which people gave enthusiastic accounts of faith healing and conversions of non-Christians. The conversation quickly turned to miracles, which people were all too eager to describe. Jason told a story of how he and his friends drove around in a van during a downpour, visiting local spots to pray away evil influences. (I later learned that this practice, called spiritual mapping, is common in NAR circles.) Whenever they stopped at a spot to pray, the rain would miraculously stop, only to resume once they boarded the van again. This, he claimed was a sign from God.
The young woman jumping around in the kitchen earlier, Abby*, chimed in. At a revival months earlier, she claimed, golden glitter spontaneously appeared on her hands and the hands of other worshippers. There was no glitter on the chairs or walls, so it had to be a miraculous sign from God, she claimed.
I later learned that some itinerant preachers use heat-sensitive dyes to create these illusions. In the documentary Marjoe, Marjoe Gortner describes smearing heat-sensitive dye on his forehead in the shape of a cross before a preaching gig. During the sermon, his body heat would cause the dye to turn red. Worshippers thought that a bloody cross had miraculously appeared on his forehead, unaware of the parlor trick. In retrospect, the glitter that appeared on Abby's hands was probably from heat-sensitive dye smeared on strategic surfaces beforehand.
"Healing oil has also oozed out of my palms. One time, I felt God telling me to heal the woman next to me with it. I put my hands on her head, and she said she NEVER got headaches after that. I'm not making any of this up. I'm not a liar, Ahab," she insisted, growing increasingly agitated.
I stiffened my back. I never called her a liar. I haven't said one word this whole time. Why is she getting angry? I thought. Her husband, sitting next to her, put a gentle hand on her arm to calm her down.
The conversation later wandered to converting non-Christians. Jason lamented that Christians were having a difficult time bring non-believers to God in this day and age. When I asked why this was the case, his answers floored me. Jason first claimed that people were ignorant of Christianity (an unlikely state of affairs in the faith-saturated U.S., I thought). Next, he stated that seminaries were teaching corrupt ideas that did not conform to true Christianity (translation: his version of Christianity). Finally, he claimed that modern Christians were unable to perform miracles like the early apostles did in the Bible, which would provide compelling evidence for Christianity. Miracles such as raising the dead simply weren't occurring in the West anymore, although they were occurring in Africa right now because of their single-minded faith. Powerful missionaries in Africa were converting Africans away from their pagan gods, who were really demons (!), Jason claimed.
Jason's superstition and intolerance stunned me. To claim that seminaries were teaching the wrong ideas was questionable enough, but to literally demonize other religions was deeply offensive (and dangerous). In the 21st century, he and the others literally believed in demons, faith healing, and raising the dead!
I wanted to speak up. I wanted to censure him for his intolerance. Something in the back of my mind stopped me, saying, Don't. Remember where you are. Keep your mouth shut. When I talked with a friend days later, she assured me that I did the right thing. "If you'd spoken up, you could have found yourself in the middle of a spontaneous exorcism," she said. To this day, I still wonder if it was common sense or cowardice that silenced me.
The prayer meeting dragged on, with more talk of this kind. My mind wandered, and I rested my head on the back of the rocking chair, rocking back and forth absent-mindedly. At the end of the session, a middle-aged woman named Maria*, apparently noticing my boredom, asked me a question.
"Ahab, I'm getting a feeling from God that I should pray for you. Would you be all right with me praying for you right now?"
As an ex-Catholic, I associated praying with pressing one's hands together and silently addressing God. I assumed this was what she wanted to do, and not wanting to appear rude, I consented. Bad move.
Suddenly, everyone got up from their seats and surrounded my rocking chair. Maria put her hand on my shoulder. Another man put a heavy hand on my back. I froze.
What's going on!? Why are they touching me!? She said she wanted to pray! I thought.
Everyone but me closed their eyes, and the man with his hand on my back prayed out loud.
"Lord, we pray that Ahab will come to accept you as his personal savior. May he have a conversion experience like Saul did on the road to Damascus. May he be your follower and come to know the peace that comes from devotion to you . . . "
WHY DIDN'T I SEE THIS COMING A MILE AWAY!? I bellowed inside my head, resisting the urge to run screaming from the house. After the prayer, the worshippers let go and dispersed, hugging each other and offering goodbyes for the night.
I sat there, furious. Why did I freeze? Why didn't I push their hands off and break away from the huddle? I'm assertive about my boundaries, so why had my mind shut down at that moment? Why did Maria trick me like that, telling me she was going to pray, then faith-bombing me with the whole group? They probably knew from Derek that I was agnostic. Was all of this planned?
On the drive back to Derek's house, I told him how angry I was that they prayed for me like that.
"You could have just said no," Derek replied bitterly.
"How? I didn't know they were going to do that! If someone had bothered to tell me that's how they pray, I would have said no," I rebutted.
"They did it out of love. Go easy on them."
"Love? If you went to a Muslim's house in good faith, and the Muslim prayed out loud for you to reject Christianity and embrace Islam, how would YOU feel?"
I complained about Jason's offensive "demon" comment, arguing that this kind of faith was superstitious and theatrical. Derek replied that he found it cerebral -- arguing for the merits of avoiding hell was very cerebral, he believed. I had watched Derek plummet into fundamentalism, but having seen his faith up close that night, I finally realized how far he'd fallen.
Although discussion at the prayet group hadn't been overtly directed at me, in a sense, it had been. Talk of miracles and conversion seemed intended to show me the wonders of their faith, and the night felt like one long high-pressure sales pitch. To this day, I wonder if this is how they spontaneously react to a non-believer, or if they had anticipated my presence.
Unpleasant as the experience was, it taught me a great deal about the deranged thinking of the NAR movement. NAR followers live in a magical world where demons must be driven from spiritual wastelands and the faithful perform astounding miracles through God. How can you argue rationally with people like this? These are not people who will heed logic or respect non-fundamentalist points of view. To boot, the NAR followers I met had little understanding of their target audience, as Jason's monologue demonstrated. If non-Christians avoid the NAR movement, it isn't because the faithful have failed to raise the dead, it's because they come across as intolerant and completely divorced from reality.
Later, when I learned more about the NAR movement, memories of the prayer group came flooding back, this time with context. Having seen the impact of this movement among people I know, I am convinced that it is an unhealthy movement that we should pay attention to.
* = Not their real names. I have changed names and withheld geographic locations to protect their privacy (and mine).
To read commentary on the New Apostolic Reformation and practices such as spiritual mapping, visit the following links:
Talk to Action: Palin's Churches and the New Apostolic Reformation
Huffington Post: Media Gives Palin's Strange New Global Christianity a Pass
Religion Dispatches: The New Christianity: What the Mainstream Media Has Missed
Religion Dispatches: Fighting Demons, Raising the Dead, Taking Over the World
UPDATE: Infidel753 had a similar experience at a dinner party full of believers, and he handled it very gracefully. His account can be read here.