Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Hearing God Differently: A Pragmatist’s Reaction to Luhrmann

Written by: on February 14, 2019

T.M. Luhrmann, a social scientist[1]and psychological anthropologist[2], drops her readers down a rabbit hole and then challenges them to utilize their theological theories to climb up from the darkness. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God presents an argument that is built on the facets of a Luhrmann’s four-fold theological viewpoint, which includes, original sin, man’s ability to choose, transformational conformity and a high emphasis on pneumatology. It’s also evident that Luhrmann’s personal experience with religion colors her perception and her portrayal of Christianity, the supernatural and the voice of God. The author suggests that God’s voice is felt, heard and seen through the training of one’s mind and absorption, which “helps the Christian to experience that which is not materially present.”[3] Luhrmann believes that hearing God’s voice is not only contingent on seeking his Word, but training our minds to go against evolutionary tendencies. 

According to her TEDx Stanford talk, “Many Americans are involved in a renewalist spirituality. A kind of spirituality in which they want to experience God intimately, personally, and interactively. They want to reach out and touch the Divine here on earth.”[4] She goes on to suggest, “…coming to a committed belief in God was more like learning to do something than to think something.”[5] Therefore, according to the author, Christianity is something that one experiences through disciplined practices, rather than personal belief. 

Luhrmann’s text is not simply an anthropologic perspective, but a theological argument that dares one to question the omnipresence of God and the person of the Holy Spirit. She reveals, “Some people told me that I should come to the second of the two Sunday morning services because more Holy Spirit builds up the longer people pray.”[6] The author is suggesting that the Holy Spirit is somehow moveable based upon the voracity of one’s prayers. How can the Holy Spirit build up when the Spirit of God is omnipresent? Worship enables one to become aware of God’s Spirit, but it doesn’t conjure something more than what already is; which is everything. 

The author describes an experience where she was told how to be a conduit for the Holy Spirit. She was advised to: 

Look for indications of the presence of the Holy Spirit (crying, peace, warmth, tingling, muscle spasms). The idea is that you make yourself ‘available’ for the Holy Spirit to work through, and the Holy Spirit will enter the other person through your prayer and (often) make them cry.[7]

Luhrmann describes prayer as an automatic reaction from God that’s contingent on one’s perceived emotions. If one doesn’t cry, does that limit the potency of prayer? If one is not healed, does the limit the power of God? According to the author, God’s voice is present through the supernatural; however, what about the mundane? 

Luhrmann asserts: 

Belief is no longer about a moral state but an epistemological conviction. It is my belief that the God of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century has become imagined as magically real because that way of imagining God helps those who wish to hang on to God to manage the doubts that surround them.[8]

T.M. Luhrmann speaks from a place of authentic experience and preference; however, I can’t help but wonder if her perception is tied to her generational leanings and personal preference towards emotive experientialism. I found it interesting that she stated that “95% of Americans say that they believe in the existence of ‘God or a higher power’ a percentage that has remained steady since Gallup began polling on the eve of the Second World War.”[9] This differs drastically from more recent polls. According to a recent study by Pew Research: 

When asked to choose their preference between a church sanctuary and a church auditorium, 77 percent chose sanctuary. When shown four different kinds of church windows ranging from modern and least “churchy” to traditionally ornate, over a third of all respondents chose the most ornate stain glass window common to chapels.[10]

Many Millennials are finding God’s voice within ritualism. They find the presence of God through old hymns, stained glass windows and traditional service. Luhrmann talks about the importance of hearing God’s voice and training one’s mind to enter into a place of supernaturalism; however, according those surveyed by Pew Research, Millennials and Generation Z are gravitating to churches that are traditional, applicable and steeped in advocacy. 

Luhrmann presents a valid argument within her text; however, if taken to the extreme, one could easily create God in their image and view their poor choices as God’s sovereign will. If one trains their mind to hear God in all things, then all choices mankind makes apart from God can easily be blamed on God. This gives people the ability to escape consequences and not take ownership of their choice. 

I’ve seen God sober someone within seconds after speaking the name of Christ and see them on their knees asking to know Jesus; however, I’ve also seen God speak through apologetic reasoning. Yes. Miracles are for today; however, God speaks in multiple ways, not just through the supernatural. Luhrmann speaks to the effectiveness of the supernatural that occurred during the Jesus Movement; however, I found that her preference towards charismatic belief and behavior colored her presentation of God’s diversity in expression. My greatest frustration with the text, is that it left readers seeing the voice of God as one dimensional and Christian maturity tied to one perspective. 

[1]T M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), xv.

[2]Ibid., xx.

[3]Ibid., xxii.

[4]“When God Talks Back | Tanya Luhrmann | TEDx Stanford: Www.youtube.com,” www.youtube.com, June 29, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DloTO-SwFZA.

[5]T M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012),xxi.

[6]Ibid., 12.

[7]Ibid., 50.

[8]Ibid., 320.

[9]Ibid., xi.

[10]Stephanie Samuel, “Study Shows Millennials Turned Off by Trendy Church Buildings, Prefer a Classic Sanctuary,” www.christianpost.com, November 14, 2014, https://www.christianpost.com/news/study-shows-millennials-turned-off-by-trendy-church-buildings-prefer-a-classic-sanctuary.html.

About the Author

Colleen Batchelder

I speak at conferences, churches, companies and colleges on intergenerational communication, marketing, branding your vision and living authentically in a ‘filtered’ world. My talks are customized to venue needs and audience interests. My passion is to speak with organizations and bridge the intergenerational gap. I consult with companies, individuals, churches and nonprofit organizations and help them create teams that function from a place of communication that bridges the generational gap. I’m also the Founder and President of LOUD Summit – a young adult organization that presents workshops, seminars and summits that encourage, empower and equip millennials to live out their destiny and walk in their purpose. When I’m not studying for my DMin in Leadership and Global Perspectives at Portland Seminary, you can find me enjoying a nice Chai Latte, exploring NYC or traveling to a new and exotic destination.

17 responses to “Hearing God Differently: A Pragmatist’s Reaction to Luhrmann”

  1. Dan Kreiss says:


    Thanks for your post. I am so glad that you have rejoined the program with our cohort. I was struck by your comparisons between Luhrmann’s assertions and the Pew research you cited as an alternate perspective. I am not sure that those are mutually exclusive. Can the minds of believers, particularly emerging generations, not be ‘trained’, as Luhrmann suggests is occurring in Vineyard communities, in more traditional settings? The ‘training’ may take a different tack but she may perceive it similarly. I think the fact that she utilized the Vineyard movement exclusively for her study does bias her writing toward the charismatic end of the spectrum of Evangelicalism, but possibly if she had connected to a more traditional denomination, say the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), her conclusions would have been similar just with different reference points. What do you think?

    • Thanks so much, Dan!

      I’m so glad that I rejoined the program with your cohort too! It’s been such a blessing!

      We recently held our first board meeting of the year for LOUD and we brought on three more members. Two of the guys are in their forties and the other is in her early twenties. It was amazing to see the differences! We all had the same passion for young adults, but our definition of church and purpose was presented through multiple lenses.

      Our Gen Z board member recounted her story and shared how she grew up in a charismatic church but chose to attend a more traditional church that resonated more with her passion for advocacy and individuality. Another board member in his late twenties shared about his passion for community and charismatic church culture. Both were close in age but differed drastically in the way that they heard the voice of God.

      T.M. presented evangelicalism as highly conforming and unified. I would venture to state that forced community does not work for millennials or gen z because they’re not looking for a place to belong, but a place where their doubts are validated, and their voice can differ. What has been your experience?

  2. M Webb says:

    While I like Luhrmann and have high hopes that she will catch Christianity before she dies, or Christ returns, I also grieve for her, like so many who do not know Christ as their Lord and Savior. It is a fascinating anthropological take on Christianity, from a non-Christian. The feedback to the Vineyard must be worth the price of admission. I enjoyed seeing her examples of the more charismatic side of evangelicalism. It humbled me to think about non-believers watching me and my life and interpreting who God is based on how I live, struggle, lose, and win in life. That reflection alone is worth the price and pain of this week’s review.
    Do you think we will see Luhrmann in Heaven? Wouldn’t it be great to see another book, same ethnographic immersion, written by a evangelical Christian?
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

    • Thank you, Mike!

      I was encouraged by Luhrmann’s exploration into a facet of evangelicalism because she approached with questions and ventured into the unknown with openness. I think that we will see Luhrmann in heaven if she’s able to see evangelicalism from varied perspectives and denominational traditions. If her only understanding of God’s voice is tied to charismatic culture, then she’ll doubt the presence of God in the mundane. The gifts are definitely for today, but I could easily see T.M. seeking after supernatural experiences instead of seeking after the presence and place of God and leaning towards Buddhism as an alternative to Christianity.

      Years ago, someone attended Liberty University and described their anthropological experience. They were a progressive atheist that differed with many of Liberty’s doctrine; however, they talk about their experience within a Baptist environment that was much more conservative than their own. I wish I remembered the title! What other ways does God speak to us that T.M. did not touch on?

  3. Jay Forseth says:


    I should have asked you first, but I reposted my blog, and cut/pasted your comments to my new posting. I commented back there, but not sure you would get to see it.

    You are very good at your responses and depth to every one else’s Blog. Thanks for your insights…

    • Thank you, Jay!

      No worries. I saw your reply and it was super insightful! Thanks.

      T.M. describes her experience as, “…a theory of attentional learning – that the way you learn to pay attention determines your experience of God” (Luhrmann, xxi). How does this translate into your denominational context? Are pastors expected to be highly similar in their experience and expression of God’s voice, or can they differ?

  4. Chris Pritchett says:

    Do you think it’s helpful for Christians to experience worship and prayer from traditions other than what is familiar? For example, for low church folks to experience high church traditions (including contemplative prayer) and vice versa? What do we gain and/or lose from doing this work as Christian leaders?

    • Thank you, Chris!

      I think it’s helpful for Christians to have a diversified background in worship, experience, and theological framework. I’ve seen many become highly dependent on denominational expectations and live out their faith inauthentically simply to appease certain standards. For instance, many churches touch on the idea of reverence and see prayer as a way to tiptoe into God’s presence. They never experience the freedom of speaking plainly with God because they’re too focused on keeping up with the Jones’ per se, then building a relationship with Christ. What have you seen?

  5. Jason Turbeville says:

    Because you work with so many different traditions have you seen a resurgence one way or the other in experiential vs theologically based faith within the emerging generations? How does hearing from God differently in different situations affect your work?


    • Great question, Jason!

      I have seen that Millennials and Gen Z thrive off of being different and individualized in their experience and their theological views. They stray away from churches that are highly conforming or don’t offer them the ability to agree with the major and disagree with the minor. I would say that those in their twenties and thirties resonate with churches that are more like platforms than pulpits. This doesn’t mean that they stop sharing the gospel or preaching truth, but they don’t force everyone in the congregation to be the same. What have you seen?

  6. Kyle Chalko says:

    good insight colleen. Your right that her voice was limited to the more charismatic evangelicals. I liked your input about the millennials enjoying rituals etc. That’s totally right. 🙂

    God certainly has many ways to speak to us, but im concerned when Tanya calls our imaginations as God speaking to us. Thats such a risky grey area terminology.

    • Thanks so much, Kyle!

      Her view of charismatic evangelicals was viewed much more from an immersed cultural position than a church choice. She expressed the demand for ‘deeper’ growth and communal expectation. Each chapter brought T.M. deeper into the facets of the church culture and demanded more from her.

      You mention, “God certainly has many ways to speak to us, but I’m concerned when Tanya calls our imaginations as God speaking to us. That’s such a risky grey area terminology.” Absolutely agree! This frightened me as well.

      There’s a strict difference between entering into a trance and seeing God as transcendent. When someone enters a trance, it’s based upon emptying one’s mind, removing all barriers and reaching a place of nirvana. This occurs through visualization and practiced meditative exercise. I find it suspicious that she connected the Holy Spirit to her use of imagination. The Holy Spirit can speak boldly and truly bring us to a place of insight, discernment, inspiration, and awe, but it’s the Holy Spirit taking us there; not our imaginations. T.M. challenges the age-old question of what came first, the chicken or the egg. In her mind, imagination always comes before the Holy Spirit.

  7. Jean Ollis says:

    Hi Colleen! Great perspectives in your blog this week. I needed the reminder that Gen Z’s and millennials appreciate ritual. So many of us are being persuaded by “the world” that they all want the same contemporary spin on worship…and that’s just not accurate! How does this research help with your LOUD mission? My guess is one of your group’s goals is to help attendees experience God in a deep, intimate way?

  8. Hi Colleen,

    My understanding of anthropological research is that one must begin with the particular and then make assumptions more generally. So when Luhrmann zeroes in on the Vineyard as her focus group, she was using it to develop thoughts on how they operate, think of God, and interact with God. It is unfortunate that the publisher subtitles the book as applying to all American evangelicals, because the Vineyard culture is not shared across all evangelical churches. That said, however, I think there are general observations that could be applied to American evangelicalism that are more acutely manifested in the Vineyard. Treating God as my best friend may be one example.

  9. Shawn Hart says:

    Colleen, I loved the quote you listed; “Holy Spirit builds up the longer people pray.” This proves that Luhrmann did not really understand Christianity at all…that’s not the Holy Spirit…that’s the caffeine kicking in; give a Christian an extra hour of sleep and an extra cup of coffee and I guarantee the singing will be better every time.

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