A controversial conversion?
Christianity Today recently reported the “conversion” of a well-known Swedish leader within the Charismatic tradition to Catholicism. Leaving aside the slightly unfortunate language of “conversion” which is probably not helpful, it is undoubtedly true that this event has caused something of a sensation in Scandinavia.
Ulf Ekman is not necessarily a household name in the UK but he was the founder (in 1983) of the Word of Life Church in Uppsala which has 3,300 members and also led Word of Life Ministries for many years. One indication of his impact is that 9,500 students have graduated from his ministry’s Bible school. That is a huge number of graduates in relation to the population of Sweden.
The impact of Ekman’s decision would be the equivalent in the UK to Terry Virgo announcing that he was joining the Catholic church or in the USA to John Wimber making a similar move. Shifts like this are usually controversial, impactful and for some a hurtful decision. It can cause many to ask whether they had been misled during all these years of commitment to a particular cause.
But should we be so surprised? Those who found movements like the World of Life, have usually already come from another tradition. Ulf Ekman was originally ordained as a Lutheran minister in the State Church in Sweden. The original decision to leave that ministry indicates the beginning of a journey.
I don’t know Ulf Ekman and I don’t know anything about his ministry so what I am about to write is not a commentary on him but rather a comment on some difficult spiritual realities.
First, the pressures on those who lead large ministries and who are themselves dynamic, impactful leaders are huge. Those pressures can lead to burnout and so sometimes to harmful behaviours in terms of the abuse of sex, money and power. Alternatively, spiritual exhaustion can also lead to the search for a different well of spiritual renewal, which might be what is taking place for Ulf Ekman.
The Evangelical, Pentecostal and Charismatic (EPC) tradition, has a reputation for being anti-Catholic and so the news of someone “converting” from that tradition to the Catholic church always comes as something of a shock. However, it is not necessarily the case that the stream of spirituality that flows originally from the holiness tradition and then finds its expression in the later Pentecostal and Charismatic streams, is by nature anti-Catholic.
The anti-Catholic stream sometimes found amongst such groupings actually comes from sources outside of the holiness experience – from a broader Protestant hostility to Catholicism and sometimes (in Catholic majority nations) from an experience of persecution and bad treatment from the Catholic church.
Many scholars have pointed out that various aspects of the holiness tradition – especially in Wesley, in fact come from Catholic sources. In the case of Wesley, from Thomas a Kempis in particular. The desire to encounter God is deeply embedded in the Catholic mystical tradition and many from a holiness tradition find inspiration in such writings.
The ministry of David du Plessis amongst Catholic charismatics demonstrated that there was no necessary dichotomy between Pentecostal experience and Catholic tradition. Over the years the Catholic appreciation of the Pentecostal tradition has grown and is found especially in the ministry of the present Pope.
But there is a deeper reason why the connection between Catholic forms of spirituality and Charismatic experience is actually not so surprising. In a brilliant study of the high drop out rates amongst EPC believers in New Zealand, one writer has noted that there is a tendency amongst those in Charismatic churches to base their spirituality on a kind of “crisis theology”.
In other words, conversion is often experienced as a kind of crisis, and then there are a further series of “crisis moments”, which are often addressed by such events as the experience of water baptism – a spiritual high for many, and then baptism in the spirit – a further spiritual high and then a series of further crisis which are often addressed through various kinds of “ministry”. It could be healing of the memories, being slain in the spirit, or a “Toronto” type experience.
Constructing one’s spiritual life or encounter with God entirely around a series of crisis experiences is spiritual exhausting. Often those who find themselves in such a place begin to drop out and only attend occasionally – often larger events – maybe once a year – because that may be all they can manage. They still believe in God but they cannot risk too much direct encounter with him because that is too draining – emotionally and spiritually.
There is of course an alternative to a crisis theology and that is to root one’s experience of God in a more sacramental theology and rhythm of life. That is why many in the EPC tradition are turning to a variety of other frameworks. Some turn to a strongly Reformed and Word based framework which gives some solidity in terms of doctrine, thereby balancing experience with a doctrinal framework. Others find joy in a more contemplative tradition such as the Celtic tradition or possibly in a Catholic tradition.
I don’t know what has motivated Ulf Ekman but his journey is not so surprising. Some years ago I learned that a number of YWAM leaders from a very Pentecostal tradition had spent time with Coptic monks in the Egyptian desert. I can understand that. As Richard Foster has encouraged us to see, the various streams of spirituality that we see in the history of Christianity are opposed to one another – they can each help shed light on each other. They are all based in something much more important – a deep commitment to follow Christ. Ekman has not experienced a conversion to Catholicism, he was converted by Christ many years ago and that is the only conversion that counts. The only issue is how we express our desire to follow Jesus.