:: Wednesday, March 29, 2006 ::
The Pentecostal movement at 100: still a democratizing force
The latest issue of Christianity Today devotes several pages to an assessment of the Pentecostal-slash-charismatic branch of Christianity as it prepares to turn 100. Grant McClung's cover story, Pentecostals: the Sequel, is worth a read, as is the panel discussion among three Pentecostal leaders (which is not yet posted on the CT website but is referenced in David Neff's "Inside CT" column).

In his cover story, McClung notes that the movement has come a long way since its humble origins in prayer meetings in a "tumbledown shack" on L.A.'s Azuza Street in 1906.

"They now talk about us (and even to us!) on CNN and in the halls of Harvard," McClung writes, in a tone of incredulity. For many longtime Pentecostals/charismatics (and I guess I'm one of the "longtimers" by now, having been involved in a charismatic church for 21 years now), it's tough to accept the fact that our branch of the faith -- with our tradition of unlearned, backwoods preachers; talking (often shouting) ecstatically in tongues; the showy televangelists; the unadorned congregants (long denim skirts and no makeup for the women and simple, clean clothing for the men); the scandalous behavior of some of our most visible leaders, from Aimee Semple McPherson to Jim Bakker; our focus on the experiential at the expense of the intellectual; and our stubborn, anti-cessational stance that despite much evidence to the contrary, we still believe in healings, miracles, prophetic utterances and other "gifts of the Spirit" -- has somehow gained respectability.

It seems McClung struggles with accepting Pentecostalism's newfound respectability. I do, too, but perhaps not for the same reasons. I struggle because Pentecostalism's excesses bother me. I'm a disgruntled charismatic. Perhaps post-charismatic is the right term. I don't know.

Anyway, despite my feelings or McClung's, there's no denying that pentecostalism has become a global force to be reckoned with.
With more than 580 million adherents (growing by 19 million per year and 54,000 per day), the Pentecostal/charismatic movement has become, in just 100 years, the fastest growing and most globally diverse expression of worldwide Christianity. At the current rate of growth, some researchers predict there will be 1 billion Pentecostals by 2025, most located in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
As Philip Jenkins pointed out in his excellent book of a few years back, The Next Christendom, the future of Christianity is not in the west. The United States and Europe have had their day. The future is in Asia, Africa, and Latin America -- precisely where the Pentecostal fire is spreading the most.

'The democratization of Christianity'

One of the most important aspects of Pentecostalism -- and one of the things that most appeals to me about it -- is that it broke down the false barriers that had been erected in traditional Protestant Christianity. The movement was founded by a black man, William J. Seymour, and it became a movement that appealed to the poor, the downtrodden, the outcasts -- precisely the people Jesus came to connect with.

McClurg quotes Allan Anderson, who explained Pentecostalism's appeal this way:
Cerebral and clerical Christianity had, in the minds of many people, already failed them. What was needed was a demonstration of power by people to whom ordinary people could easily relate. This was the democratization of Christianity, for henceforth the mystery of the gospel would no longer be reserved for a select privileged and educated few, but would be revealed to whoever was willing to receive [it] and pass it on.
While I appreciate the egalitarian spirit of this movement, the thing that bugs me the most is its anti-intellectualism. This is one of the shortcomings mentioned by Russell Spittler, one of the three experts quoted in that panel discussion not yet posted on the CT website.

"Abiding anti-intellectualism is one of our flaws," says Spittler, provost emeritus at Fuller Theological Seminary. "In the Assemblies of God, when you apply annually for credentials, you have to identify your ministry: pastor, chaplain, missionary, evangelist, other. For years, I had to check 'other.' I was always an 'other' because a teacher is not highly respected [so it's not on the list]. If the Holy Spirit is teaching you, why would you have any regard for this or that teacher? There's a kind of theological independence that scoffs at education. Yet you can't do theology without intellect. You can't."

As for what the future holds for the Pentecostal/charismatic movement, that's anyone's guess. But my fear is that as it continues to move toward respectability, it will become more and more like other Christian movements and will lose its uniqueness. Maybe that's not a bad thing. Spittler notes that the movement has "widen[ed] the openness to the supernatural in the Christian tradition" and adds, "I think Pentecostalism will absorb into the life of the church."

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:: Andrew 06:42 + ::

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