“Hi! My name is John! I am a recovering Pentecostal-critic!” Or, should I say, “I am recovering Fundamentalist”?
You see, my first awareness of anything charismatic came during college years, when a number of friends involved in my Inter-Varsity campus group jumped ship to join a Pentecostal Church student group. This was both shocking and frankly heretical. Coming out of a high school youth group that was lead by young men influenced by Campus Crusade, I was brought up with a strong emphasis on Bible study, Bible memorization and clear biblical thinking. We were groomed on Josh McDowell, Francis Schaeffer and C.S. Lewis to rationally argue for the faith. A close walk with Jesus meant a regular quiet time, attending small group Bible studies and church, praying before meals and calmly signing Wesleyan hymns. As you can imagine, my first contacts with a Pentecostal church was a shock to my theological and religious paradigms.
As I read Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Christian Social Engagement, I was brought back to those troubling and uncomfortable college years as I sought to come to terms with the practices and thinking of this strange, new movement. It also reminded me how far removed I now am from that early, narrow and very rational form of Christianity. Miller and Yamamori helped me to clarify that my issue with Pentecostalism was more philosophical than biblical. While reading this book, I came across an article that described the buster generation. It suggested that busters have a “strong reaction to the modern mind-set of previous generations which enshrined rationalism, busters want to be ‘whole’ people, to explore the mysterious.[i] They have a openness to the other and a deep sense of concern for those who are most vulnerable. They also have “a deep interest in spiritual things” and “work very well among relationship-oriented people and understand very well the concept of being embedded in one’s own community”[ii] In short, busters are highly post-modern in their thinking. As I read this description of busters, I felt I was reading a summary Global Pentecostalism. In the conclusion of their book, the authors make this connection, suggesting that “there is a sense in which they (Progressive Pentecostals) are postmodern—or at least post-Enlightenment rather than premodern.”[iii] I now see that much of my discomfort and disagreement with Pentecostalism during college years came from my very modern and logical imaginary fighting against this new and often irrational and unexplainable story that others were experiencing. My Christianity had little room for mystery or emotion, for miracles or movement. Thankfully, I have moved far from this early position after many years of friendships with charismatic friends and a deeper awareness of authentic spirituality.
However, if Pentecostalism does represent a more postmodern mindset (even though it has been around for over a hundred years), one must wonder if Pentecostalism will now find a greater resonance among Western youth, as it has found fertile soil in the Global South. Here is a Christianity that can speak more to our newest generation, where they can find authentic connection with the divine; where community and loyalty are deeply held values; where opportunities for healing and love are readily available. It seems that no other movement today has a better imaginary to reach the minds and hearts of Western young people.
This study highlights a number of common practices of Progressive Pentecostal churches that are often absent in many churches in the West. For instance, in my church, any work of reaching out to the “other” (especially the poor or hurting) requires a special program to be developed and rides provided to go to where the poor and hurting can be found (usually far outside our neighborhood). In Global Pentecostalism, the church is among poor and hurting, where they have opportunity to address “the human needs that confront them on a daily basis.”[iv] The poor are not outsiders but are their community. In my church, the goal is to fit into today’s social structures and institutions, to look like we belong (we don’t want to stick out too much!). Where Progressive Pentecostals see most social structures as fallen and ineffective, so the church “is inclined to create alternative institutions…”[v] They understand that you can never put new wine in old wine skins. In my church, exceptional outsiders are brought into leadership to grow the church. In Global Pentecostalism, the leaders are home grown, or as one pastor stated, “our leaders smell like sheep,” suggesting that everyone can participate in the work of the Kingdom. Finally, in my church, worship is all about making new comers comfortable. In Progressive Pentecostalism, worship is creating space for encountering the living God, where members come with expectations of a supernatural event. Worship “provides the opportunity to experience an alternative reality,”[vi] completely different from anything found outside the church. These differences would suggest why my church sees so little in the way of radical Christian discipleship, of disruptive social involvement, or real connection with least of these. We have lots of people who attend our church, but I am not so sure we see a lot of God in midst of it all.
This book is truly hopeful. It illustrates that Global Pentecostalism is a powerful force for evangelism, spiritual awakening and social change, but it just might provide an important correctives and insights to re-awaken the Church in the West.
[i] Kath Donovan and Ruth Myors, “Reflections on Attrition In Career Missionaries: A Generation Perspective Into the Future,” Too Valuable to Lose, ed. William D. Taylor (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1997), 44-5.
[ii] Ibid., 45.
[iii] Donald E. Miller and Tetsusunao Yamamori, Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Christian Social Engagement (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007), 217.
[iv] Ibid., 216.
[v] Ibid., 214
[vi] Ibid., 221.