My childhood in an early charismatic church

My childhood in an early charismatic church January 12, 2024

To begin at the beginning, I was fortunate enough to be born to Christian parents. In fact, the story goes back further than that since on both sides my grandparents (and I think their parents going back several generations) were all Christians. They all went to solid Evangelical non-conformist churches—in the case of my father’s parents the Open Brethren.

My grandfather, Edwin Millington Warnock, lost his father when he was relatively young, and later told my uncle he had been called into his dying father’s room to be told of Proverbs 3:5-6: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” He was encouraged to make that something of a life verse. That passage from Proverbs has been precious to my whole family being mentioned at several weddings. It has been a verse I have tried to live by in good times and bad.

My grandfather became a tent preacher and was involved in Rutherglen giving lantern shows in the Evangelical church there. He drove around the Scottish countryside with a tent and set it up to preach. Then he felt called to come to pagan England and share the Gospel. He came to Suffolk and preached there.

In village after village Edwin Warnock was involved preaching in his tent and helping to establish local assemblies. These groups aimed to reflect biblical doctrine and practice. They had elders, body ministry, sharing in the meetings as the Lord led you, and believer’s baptism. My grandad spoke of going where he felt that God called him to preach. Ultimately he left the Counties Evangelists when they told him that he had to focus on just one County rather than be free to follow that leading from the Lord.  This sense of God communicating with us has always been important to me.

Sadly, by the time I was old enough to remember my grandad, he was suffering from Parkinson’s and dementia. He would rarely say anything much, although he could always pray clearly at dinner time.  We enjoyed playing a hand game with him. I only have one vivid memory of him, which I will describe later.

My father and his brothers have all preached, some more than others. So much so that there is one church in Sudbury that, including some of my cousins and I, has had seven Warnocks preaching there over the years.

My grandfather on my mothers side was also a part time preacher and served for a while as an elder in a church.

The extended family were a little concerned about my parents, however, as when I was very young, one day my dad had been intrigued to see another tent erected for a Christian meeting near where they lived. He attended that meeting, which turned out to be the Capel Bible Week— which was an early British hotbed for the charismatic movement.

Later when we moved from Billingshurst to Haywards Heath they would meet a group of young adults who had been told to leave an Evangelical church because they now spoke in tongues. Dad and Mum agreed to join this group while Nigel Ring began to form a new church with the help of visits from a young pastor called Terry Virgo. This was really the first Newfrontiers church, though we didn’t call it that at the time.

This church was led by David Coak for many years and I have many fond memories of my early childhood there.  As you get older you often remember even more fondly the times of your youth. Dave was always kind to me as a precocious child who gave him problems like wanting to be allowed to be baptised young, and stealing evangelicalistic leaflets so I could go and find the oldest people in the park so I could try and share the gospel with them before they died. Dave was a godly pastor and led well the church as we tried to restore gifts of the Holy Spirit without throwing out the word and those traditions which are helpful. Thankful to God for his life and all that first ever Newfrontiers church has led to. At the end of this month I will be attending a memorial for his life.

At the age of about four, we were staying with my mother’s parents. On Good Friday I asked my dad, “Why is today called Good Friday?” Dad answered, “Because Jesus died.” I couldn’t understand that and asked how could it be good if someone died? I even asked him why it wasn’t bad Friday and good Sunday to mark the resurrection.

My father told me that God would one day punish everyone for all the wrong they had done. Some people say it will be as though a video screen plays back all those hidden things we have said, done, or even thought. The whole universe will see, nothing will be kept secret, and the Bible says that all will be made to pay for their wrongdoing.

The message my father explained simply to me that day is a radical one, cutting our respectability to the core. We all stand deserving punishment from a holy God. What do we and this perfect God have in common? Even if we would search the world for an answer to the problem of our guilt before God, we would find none that satisfactorily deals with the guilt we secretly all feel, other than the one my father went on to describe.

Jesus was perfect and did no wrong. He was punished in our place. Because of this you can know that God has forgiven you. The video can be wiped clean. You can be let off. There is a way out. And, because he rose from the dead, Jesus is living and active and wants to have a relationship with us today.

I immediately knew that I wanted to become a Christian that day. But, of course, the moment I decided to follow Jesus was just the beginning of my story, and although it was almost my earliest memory, there is no doubt that it changed the rest of my life. I never regretted that choice, and thanks to God’s hand of restraint on me, I never really wandered away from that faith. God allows some people a longer leash than others. I had a very short leash, for which I am eternally grateful.

I wonder if my father thought that what had happened the night I said I wanted to become a Christian had been real. I was so young; could I really understand it? Could this short conversation which ended in me praying really make such a difference to me? Could it be true that I had accepted Christ at such a young age?

I do remember being in no doubt about it the next morning when I had an argument with a member of my family. I wanted us to tell my two year old sister, but this grown-up believed she couldn’t understand yet. “No one is too young,” I argued.

Arguing. Sadly, there’s a theme for my life. For not only did I accept the gospel as true, I would spend much of my young adult life arguing about it, and about just what the Bible says, but more of that in another post.

I am sure my parents at times doubted the reality of my conversion- what parent of a sometimes-rebellious child wouldn’t? But I resolved that day to prove anyone who ever doubted my determination to follow Christ wrong.

There was something inside that was driving me towards and not away from God. It would never go away. Years later I would realize that it was God who had put it there.

From a young age, as I mentioned before, I was fortunate enough to attend a new church in Haywards Heath, Sussex. It was part of what was eventually to be called Newfrontiers. The group originally met in Nigel Ring’s house. It was what was then called a house church, now like many of those early charismatic churches it has grown to become a “warehouse church,” now meeting in a converted commercial building in nearby Burgess Hill.

Nigel had struck up a friendship with a pastor called Terry Virgo, who had trained at London Bible College and been exposed to Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ teaching as well as the charismatic movement. We joined the group just as they started to meet in the same building they would go on to meet at for decades – Clare Hall in Haywards Heath.

As a young child that church made a massive impact on me. Nigel’s wife was my Sunday School teacher and I watched her prophesy on Sunday mornings. Soon I desired to prophesy also, and at one stage wrote my life’s goals on the back of a postcard- one was to prophesy, and another was to score a goal in football- the second of which I never did quite manage.

Around this time, and while still very young I started to ask to be baptized. I wanted to join the many that were regularly baptized in what was a growing church. My parents and the elders were at first reluctant.

Then, one year, at the first ever Downs Bible Week, I had an experience of the Holy Spirit. I remember the experience vividly to this day. With arms raised to God during the worship, I was surrendering to him, adoring him, and seeking him. I suddenly felt as though my arms had become a funnel. The love which had been flowing from me to God, now returned much more strongly from Him to me. My heart raced. I felt a warmth. I was enveloped by God. I was caught up in an incredible sense that he accepted me. I was being filled with the Spirit.

As the meeting continued, I found myself feeling that the English words of the song we were singing just were not expressive enough to express what I was feeling back to God. I found myself sounding incoherent, but I didn’t care.  The words themselves were just not important any more. I just wanted to praise God, and found that sounds and words I did not understand were coming out of my mouth. I was overwhelmed.

What we called “tongues” wasn’t the most important bit, rather it was the sense of being loved by God and marked out as being one of his. Somehow I knew that at that moment he was putting a seal on me, and I would be his forever. In Ephesians 1 it says “ In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, 14 who[d] is the [guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory” (Ephesians 1:13-14, NASB).  Other translations use the word deposit suggesting that receiving the Holy Spirit and becoming aware of his activity in your life is like banking a deposit when you are about to sell something.  The deposit assures you the full amount is coming. 

I believe that receiving the Spirit is always a conscious thing, and it always has this element of “now I really know God loves me.” Many have described this as a form of direct assurance, or empowering for service.  All Christians have the Holy Spirit working in them, but not all Christians are aware of that or explicitly welcome and seek for more of the Spirit’s activity.  In fact all too often we limit the activity of the Spirit to regeneration, and I fear that we all too often find ourselves in the place of the Galatians:

How foolish can you be? After starting your new lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort? Gal 3:3, NLT

Although I will never forget my first experience of the Holy Spirit, I have been blessed to have many such experiences since. Even as I write this I feel a yearning in my heart to know more of God and a greater sense of his empowering. Send more of your Holy Spirit, Lord, to me and the readers of this. As William Booth wrote years ago:

God of Elijah hear our cry
Send the fire
To make us fit to live or die
Send the fire today.
To make our weak hearts strong and brave
Send the fire today….
Look down and see this waiting host
And send the promised Holy Ghost
We need another Pentecost
The revolution now begin
Send the fire today

I am aware that this remains controversial today, but I am thankful that in many churches which were originally very hostile to the charismatic movement there is an openness and most Christians today, even if they have slightly different perspectives on this matter, have a mutual respect.

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