One final thing that supernatural ministry may require of you is what you might call the faith to discover—or to rediscover, as the case may be.
I’m often asked this sort of question: if supernatural ministries are so useful and have been as prevalent as many claim, then why don’t all churches and traditions use them today? It’s a good question that actually reflects a profound historical reality. The truth is, while supernatural ministries have been both common and enormously fruitful in church history, they’ve never been what you would call steady. Over the centuries we see great renewals of supernatural ministry followed by long droughts of disuse. It’s up and down, here then there, a consistent inconsistency. You can focus on regional revivals and conclude that supernatural ministries have been constant, but you could just as well focus on down times and conclude that supernatural ministries ended with the first apostles. Really, it’s the variation that needs explaining. Why do supernatural ministries surge so often only to dwindle so frequently?
Since supernatural ministries have never been entirely absent, it’s hard to argue that God decided to stop empowering them, so the cause for variation must lie with us. My theory is this: groups of believers frequently figure out how to do supernatural ministry, but they have a hard time figuring out how to live with the ministry. Revivals come with great exhilaration and fruitfulness; downturns come when people tire of the level of weirdness, vulnerability and sacrifice that supernatural ministry demands.
One result of this variation is that very few believers have had the benefit of what you could really call a tradition in supernatural ministries, so each new generation has to do the work of rediscovering the ministries for themselves.
It’s always been this way. For example, the use of supernatural ministry by first-century believers is well-chronicled in Scripture and elsewhere, but by the late second century the church father Irenaeus in his Against Heresies actually had to reassure his readers that supernatural works were still practiced fruitfully in his jurisdiction. “For some do certainly and truly drive out devils,” he wrote. “Others have foreknowledge of things to come: they see visions, and utter prophetic expressions. Others still, heal the sick by laying their hands upon them, and they are made whole. Yea, moreover, as I have said, the dead even have been raised up, and remained among us for many years.”
In the next century the seminal theologian Origen wrote from Alexandria of “traces of that Holy Spirit” among Christians who “expel evil spirits and perform many cures, and foresee certain events,” but it was only “traces.” A century later, in the same city, Bishop Athanasius extensively documented the miracles of his Egyptian contemporary, Anthony of the Desert, but his whole project was based on the notion that only exceptional monks were doing such ministry.
The great Augustine of Hippo totally dismissed the possibility of supernatural ministries initially, but then he encountered them during a fifth-century revival in his native North Africa. In the last section of The City of God he offers gushing accounts of healings, concluding “even now miracles are wrought in the name of Christ.” He reportedly collected accounts of recent miracles for pastors to read aloud in the churches he supervised in order to rekindle the ministries.
We have rather detailed accounts of the use of supernatural ministries by Patrick, Columba and other monk evangelists of the western European outreach. In a wonderfully personal letter to Augustine of Canterbury in A.D. 601, Gregory, bishop of Rome, acknowledged the use of miracles to attract English natives to Christ, and even offered advice for handling the pressures of being a supernatural minister. But by the later middle centuries, as central church leaders focused on governance rather than outreach, supernatural ministries seem to have survived only on the fringes.
Early Reformation leaders strenuously dismissed miracle stories as a ploy by Catholics to legitimate their dominance, but it didn’t take long for Protestant pioneers to rediscover the usefulness of supernatural tools. Scottish Reformers John Knox, Alexander Peden and George Wishart had highly regarded prophetic ministries in their day. (Wishart even predicted his own murder.) John Welch, a leading Reformer at the turn of the seventeenth century, was recognized as a man of “prophetic utterance” and was credited with raising a man from the dead. Seventeenth-century biographers of reform clergyman Robert Bruce systematically collected eyewitness accounts of the many healings, deliverances and other supernatural manifestations linked with his evangelistic meetings.
And yet less than a century later, the great British revivalist John Wesley was shocked to find “that signs and wonders are even now wrought by his holy child Jesus.” His revered journals are spiced with accounts of deliverances and healings , and also of the opposition he experienced from “formal, orthodox men [who] began even then to ridicule whatever gifts they had not themselves and to decry them all as either madness or imposture.” Wesley’s New England contemporary, Jonathan Edwards, often called the dean of American theology, wrote some of his most ardent essays to fend off Christian critics who didn’t trust the supernatural manifestations that characterized his revival ministry. Even her wife was called to defend what was called her “joyful view of divine things.”
Francis Asbury, the first American Methodist bishop, was so passionate about supernatural ministry that he used to command his preaching protégés to “Feel for power, feel for power!” Two Methodists and a Presbyterian touched off the Cane Ridge Revival on the American frontier in the early 1800s—a movement that popularized the phrase “slain in the Spirit.” But today few Methodists or Presbyterians are aware of this movement, and neither of those denominations is known for practicing supernatural ministry.
Supernatural ministries played a big role in the establishment of the early church, the birth of monasticism, the expansion of the faith to Western Europe, the spread of the Reformation, the great revivals of the Atlantic and American frontier evangelism. And yet in each instance, practitioners had to discover it anew for themselves.
So, what does this pattern of atrophy and rediscovery mean for you?
Well, it mean that while you may or may not have had some supernatural experiences with the Lord, you probably haven’t benefited from a lot of examples of living with supernatural ministries. If you’re at a church that practices supernatural ministry, the church is probably relatively new to it. And even if you church does have a strong supernatural tradition, chances are the congregation has experienced some dramatic waxing and waning in the effectiveness of its supernatural ministries. In all, if you’re interested in supernatural ministries, it’s likely that you’re in a place of rediscovery or renewal, and that requires a certain sort of faith.
There’s a style of Christian discipleship that is conservative, in the literal sense of the word: its emphasis is on preservation, affirming what’s proven and familiar. There’s another sort of discipleship that presumes new things and experiences—not liberal, in the sense of giving license to violate the old or established, but progressive, in the sense of Jesus’ teaching on “new wineskins” for “new wine.” To embrace all the works of the kingdom, we have to be willing to expand our containers of knowledge and experience. To pursue supernatural ministry, we need the faith for this progressive sort of discipleship. We have to be willing to try things, to reach for things we’ve only heard of, to explore and discover, to act without being totally sure how to act. Supernatural ministry entails adventure.
*Could have been entitled, “renewal of a supernatural people,” in keeping with the titles of the chapter and section quoted, but that raises questions which are not answered well by what is quoted here, though in my view are indeed answered well in the book as a whole.