DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Postmodern Before Their Time

Written by: on October 10, 2014

“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.

About the Author


John Woodward

Associate Director of For God's Children International. Member of George Fox Evangelical Seminary's LGP4.

13 responses to “Postmodern Before Their Time”

  1. Michael Badriaki says:

    Dear John, I enjoyed reading your perspective on Miller and Yamamori’s book. You gave me the chance to learn more about some of your outlooks on Pentecostalism, the doctrinal rationale and your church community in light of Pentecostalism. It goes to show that God has particular ways even through the book Global Pentecostalism; through which He provides us opportunity to think through one’s life and current church communities. Your reflection on how your home church which I assume is not of a Pentecostal background or flavor was well stated. As an outsider immigrating to the US, I can attest to the programmatic, ideological and rationalistic ecclesiology largely practiced in most American churches. Nonetheless, I have also find that many churches in America use the same traits and more to become highly involved in social ministries. For example, food banks, helping with disaster responses, both short and longer stay missionary work. Many churches offer after school programs, Sunday school, small groups, feeding the homeless etc. To use the author’s terms, I believe that both whether Pentecostal or nonPentcostal are “Progressive Church” including yours. Unlike Miller and Yamamori’s representation of “Progressive Pentecostalism” in the “development world” as postmodern, the current reality of Pentecostalism in a continent like Africa is on a divergent direction than post-modernity. If most African economies to which the Pentecostal church in Africa belongs are still modernizing, how can they be postmodern? Unless believing in the supernatural means being postmordern of the authors, then that another issue.

    Ironically, belief in supernatural as spiritual formation, is a rare subject in many Western non Pentcostal seminaries, Bible school, organisations and churches. Including Churches that pride themselves of a postmodern and hip star eccelesiolgoy.

    Through research and my own experience, I am finding that churches that function in the manner you’ve alluded to are also expressing western cultural values and ideological points of view, which for some are also accepted as part of a biblical world view.
    It seems to me that Churches that are not of Pentecostalism and claim to be “bible based”, tend to be resistant to “busters”. They are usual suspicious of Pentecostalism to the extent of a labeling it a cult. Perhaps, that’s the looming conflict Miller and Yamamoris seek to alleviate, but what a miss fire on their part.

    Thank John!

  2. John,

    Thanks for your good post, my friend.

    I too have also had many different views of Pentecostals, both positive and negative. But overall, I am still confused. The Pentecostalism in Miller and Yamamori’s book is not the Pentecostalism of my experience. Granted, this week’s text shed a different light on the subject, which was quite helpful for me. However, I still find myself being reactive to the words Pentecostal and Charismatic. It is taking me a long time to accept this part of Christ’s Body. You can pray for me on this, since I do not want to reject that which God finds blessed.

    After reading Ron’s post, I am looking forward to watching the DVD that came with the book. Perhaps it will help me to see this movement in a fresh light. The book helped, but I am still a skeptic. However, my prayer is that I would be more accepting of this segment of Christendom. It constantly amazes me how the books in this class challenge my thinking and my broken worldview. I wonder who I will be at the end of this LGP program? My hope is that I would be a better man than when I came in.

    • mm John Woodward says:

      Hi Bill, thanks for your reply. Yes, we are all on a growing and learning journey…and it will never stop, I am afraid. I guess for me, a big part has been coming to accept that God works in many different ways. It may not be my way, but my way may not always be the best or truest either. So, I am taking a more humble approach. I do think you will find the DVD very instructive….especially the interviews. They are very thoughtful and insightful, and will I think dispel some of your concerns. Keep growing, Brother…we all have a long way to go!

  3. Liz Linssen says:

    Dear John,
    What a really well-written blog! And really appreciate your honesty.
    I think many of us have had negative, preconceived ideas about Pentecostalism. You’re not alone, and as you say, they are often philosophical than biblical.
    I love your thoughts on how Progressive Pentecostalism may well be able to reach the young people of this generation. That’s a great point.
    It was interesting to read where you said that if your church wanted to reaching the poor and hurting, they’d have to take a ride to find them. I think our churches are quite different in this respect: we are in a difficult neighbourhood and they are on our doorstep. Our challenge is how to disciple completely unchurched people who come to faith.
    I think it was John Wimber who once said, “The meat is in the streets”, when talking about reaching the lost. I love that comment and I have to agree. I much prefer working with those who acknowledge their pain and need of God, than those who don’t.
    Thank you John for such an insightful read!

    • mm John Woodward says:

      Liz, that is so interesting that you are working in a place where those in need are at your doorstep. I live in a very “comfortable” part of town, and most members are highly unaware of those 10 miles away in North Omaha that are living in poverty. So, yes, we have to drive them there. I think where you are at is the place we need to be. I am glad you are there (as you are breaking the mold of most Western White Christians who only want to minister to their own kind). You are doing wonderful work…keep up the good fight!

  4. Ashley says:

    John, I feel like our stories parallel! Did you have to kiss dating goodbye too? 🙂 I wonder, do you see this progressive pentecostalism in Romania?

    • mm John Woodward says:

      No, kissing dating good-bye was after my time (but was much the talk when I did campus ministry). And the Pentecostal Church in Romania traditionally is much like other protestant churches there, much influenced by communism (lack of trust, authoritative, fundamentalist) and too much reliant on Western money (the American churches flooded Romania when communism fell), leaving the church self-absorbed. Romania, I believe, could use a dose of Progressive Pentecostalism.

  5. mm Julie Dodge says:

    This is a thoughtful post, John. I appreciated your comparison of global Pentecostalism to your own church. I think that really is the challenge. After reading Michael’s post, I can see more the challenges of the research approach. But to be honest, I was simply enamored by the stories of change and hope that the author’s wrote about and stepped out of my critical mind for a bit. I wanted my church – and more American churches – to look more like the churches in the book. I found the book encouraging. And discouraging. So I pray for more.

    • Richard Volzke says:

      I am also a bit discouraged by many of our churches in the U.S. We need to break out of our bubble. In the Bible, the Christian community cared for one another – they took care of each other’s needs. We don’t do this in the U.S. Yet, we spend so much money on “projects”. If we would just concentrate on fulfilling our calling and taking care of those within our own communities, the world would be a much different place. Many times, we are more concerned with orphans or starving children in another country, and overlook the starving or homeless people on our own doorstep. While we need to help others, we should not neglect the needs of our own.

    • mm John Woodward says:

      Amen, Julie! My thoughts exactly!

  6. Richard Volzke says:

    John, Great post. I agree with you that there are styles of worship that are more comfortable to different generations. I have a son in high school, who is much more open to diversity in worship. This is, in part, due to the fact that Christian music has radically changed and is more readily available to his generation. I also see that his generation doesn’t fear those that are different. They more readily can adjust and fit into any environment…making it easier for them to minister in any context. You mention “in your 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.” When we were in Cape Town, my son was welcomed into Hillsong Church in the same Spirit. They focused on the church being the place for worship and to encounter God. My wife and son were overwhelmed at the welcome and sense of the Holy Spirit that they felt. Now, Hillsong is not Pentecostal…but nonetheless they are growing and setting the standard for Spirit filled worship. Our church, at home, is growing also as they too take the stance that church is where everyone comes to experience relationship with each other and to worship Christ together…the expectation is that they meet together in the Spirit together…God is with them. They don’t need to try to fit in or to model other churches…they are just concerned with fulfilling God’s calling in the community. Maybe that is the key…too many churches don’t seek their calling and spend too much time worried about how they look to the world. They think the world will come if they look attractive. These same churches look very different than the world they are trying to emulate…if you aren’t engaged in the world then you have no idea what the culture looks like around you. It is clear that the Global Pentecostal movement is engaged in the world around them…hence they are attracting people who want to worship and have community with others.

    • mm John Woodward says:

      Richard, thanks for your thoughts and insights. It is wonderful that your wife and son had that very experience of “worship” with Hillsong. It is something that I very much miss on Sundays…I know worship should be so much more than what my church is offering…and I know, that because our worship is so narrow and limited, that it is not have a greater effect in our lives and in our community. But, I am hopeful the Church overall is moving in the right direction.

  7. John…
    Such rich discussion on your post! As I was reading, tucked away in the back of my mind, was what we heard in one of the places we visited while we were in Cape Town. Do you remember one of the pastors lamenting the shallow teaching of the Pentecostals. What I thought of was a shallowness in worship – what has often been portrayed in as Spirit-led worship (and I confess I thought of Hillsong). Was this pastor recognizing the influence of the prosperity gospel, which sounds so hopeful but is often centered on “if you believe enough” or have enough faith all these good things will fall into your lap because God is pleased with you. I appreciated the authors investigation and what seems to be their finding of positive deviance. I was (and am) intrigued on these differences and the focus, which seems to be beyond the manifestations of the gifts. Thanks for pushing us!

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