“We want power”, “But we don’t know what it’s for.”
The power of God’s Spirit is given to us to be witnesses to God’s transforming love. “We’re not here,” Christine Claine proclaimed, “to entertain ourselves.”
The rise of pentecostalism
Pentecostalism is spreading throughout the world like a spiritual tsunami.
One out of every four Christians in the world is Pentecostal or charismatic. One of four Pentecostals is an Asian, and 80 percent of Christian conversions in Asia are to Pentecostal forms of Christianity. One out of three Pentecostals is in Africa. In Latin America, Pentecostalism is growing at three times the rate of Catholicism.
Think of it this way. One out of every twelve people alive in the world today is Pentecostal.
pentecostalism and the marginalized
“the extraordinary success of the Pentecostal movement is largely due to its reach to those on the periphery of society.”
Early Pentecostalism had a deep, intentional social outreach embedded within its ministries.
Too often Pentecostalism is associated with mass media “prosperity preachers” and “health and wealth” ideology. These movements, though not dominant, are persistent. Where they flourish, the gospel is poorer and positive social contributions are few.
The rapid growth in forms of Christian practice that place a strong emphasis on religious experience as well as the cohesive value of Christian community. These expressions of faith are full of spiritual vitality and highly contextualized to local culture.
Pentecostalism, especially as it is emerging in the non-Western world, is a postmodern faith. I’ve often said, “An evangelical wants to know what you believe, while a Pentecostal wants to hear your spiritual story.” Perhaps it’s an oversimplification. But Pentecostalism embodies a strong emphasis on narrative and finds reality in spiritual experiences that defy the logic and rationality of modern Western culture.
Understanding Pentecostalism, especially as it is emerging in the Global South as a non-Western religion thriving in a postmodern world, also includes understanding how to grasp the power of its worship and preaching.
Most of the famous Pentecostal preachers I’ve heard at world conferences would fail a homiletics class at any Reformed seminary. But the purpose is not so much to expound well-reasoned theological truths as it is to incite an intensity of spiritual experience.
those worshipping are longing for, and experiencing, a direct, corporate participation in the presence of the Holy Spirit resulting in their spiritual empowerment and giving glory to God.
The Pentecostal movement in Africa today, he argues, is marked by inclusion, promise, and fulfillment.
Todd Johnson and Kenneth Ross, put it this way: “Pentecostalism . . . became the main contributor to the reshaping of Christianity from a predominantly Western to a predominantly non-Western phenomenon in the twentieth century.”
As Christine Caine said in her address, quoting from Isaiah 43, God “is doing a new thing.” The question for those in Babylonian captivity at that time and those in captivity to modern Western culture now is whether we will see it.
bringing together separate worlds
with Pentecostalism’s dramatic growth now being driven largely from outside of the West, new opportunities arise for building bridges. In my estimation, this is the most pressing challenge to building unity within the body of Christ in today’s world. Creating such bridges will uncover some unexpected points of connection. One is the link between contemplative prayer and Pentecostalism.
The recovery of the contemplative tradition in the West, interpreted most powerfully in the past fifty years by Thomas Merton, and more recently by writers like Thomas Keating and Richard Rohr, focuses on restoring the primacy of spiritual experience.
In this light, Richard Rohr sees an affinity to Pentecostal experience: Pentecostals and charismatics are a significant modern-era exception to this avoidance of experience; I believe their “baptism in the Spirit” is a true and valid example of initial mystical encounter. The only things they often lack, which keeps them from maturity, are some good theology, developmental psychology, and social concerns to keep their feet in this incarnate world. Without these, their ego-inflating experiences have frequently led to superficial and falsely conservative theology and right-wing politics. . . . But the core value and transformative truth of initial God experience is still there, right beneath the surface, in many people who were “baptized in both fire and Spirit,” which is Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:11b).
While some may assume that the distance between the solitude and silence of a Trappist monastery with monks in contemplative prayer at 4:00 a.m. and the robust, clamoring, hand-waving worship of Pentecostals with mantra-like shouts of praise could not be further apart, they are united in a deep quest for the experiential knowledge of the living God.
Growing opportunities for theological dialogue is one of the hopeful ways that the walls between Pentecostalism and the other parts of global Christian family can begin to break down.
pentecostalism and theology
Pentecostal theology is now plentiful, creative, rigorous, growing, and global.
Certainly, it’s true that the distance between the pew and the “academy” in Pentecostalism is a formidable problem. But critics of Pentecostalism often fail to recognize the serious theological development that has been emerging in this community, especially in the past three to four decades.
Put simply, while spiritual experience is the starting point for Pentecostalism, this movement is now demonstrating the capacity to reflect critically on the meaning of that experience and how it informs the continuing theological task.
a spirit of openness
All this means that Pentecostalism is becoming prepared to make a theological and ecclesiological contribution to world Christianity that is commensurate to its growing size.
As long as Pentecostalism’s image in the United States is shaped by glitzy television preachers with private jets preaching a prosperity gospel, it will be difficult to create the mutual encounter with one-quarter of all Christianity that is so needed.
Growing far faster than Catholicism, Pentecostals are drawn largely from poorer and marginalized communities.
Frank Chikane summarized his convictions simply: “When the Spirit comes, people go out.”
A major test for the future of Pentecostalism is whether its roots among the marginalized and its gift of spiritual empowerment will nurture more than rich personal spiritual fulfillment and be directed toward community and societal transformation.
The struggle for the non-Pentecostal Christian world, particularly in the United States, is to overcome its deep spiritual prejudices and its sense of inherent theological superiority.
Immigration, the unexpected and largely unrecognized vehicle of God’s ongoing mission, is making the realities of the global church local.
The new ecumenical frontier, in many ways, can be found in building bridges close to home that cross the major global divide between Pentecostal and non-Pentecostal worlds.
In that journey, we will be asked whether we believe the words of Paul in First Corinthians: “we all have been made to drink of the one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:13).
- When you hear the term spirit-filled communities what do you envision? In what ways is your faith community spirit-filled? In what ways is it not?
- What did you learn about Pentecostal communities in this chapter? What example or perspective stood out for you? Why?
- In what ways does the author say that Pentecostal communities of faith sometimes live within a bubble, insulated from other Christian communities?
- One critique of Pentecostalism is that it focuses on experience but is lacking in good theology, and even disdains academic theology. What is true about this critique? How is this changing?
- What can be gained by “recognizing and affirming the spirit-filled gifts of the global Pentecostal world”?
- What more do you want to learn or do based on reading this chapter of the book?
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