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Monday, August 15, 2011

The Paradoxical Paradigm Shift of Pentecost

Trends come and trends go, and often some strange evolution of circumstance results from the influence of such trends.  The Church world - fortunately or unfortunately, depending on the situation - is no different.  In some reading I have undertaken recently, I have felt led to reflect on a couple of issues I have been reading up on.   I have mixed feelings on some of the stuff I have read, as I can see both positives and negatives, but nonetheless this whole subject does interest me and that is why I feel the importance of addressing it.

Two recent articles I have read in Christianity Today chronicle some shifts that are occurring in the Pentecostal/charismatic tradition of the Christian faith.   I have a personal interest in this, for although I am a Catholic myself now, I was raised in an Appalachian Holiness/Pentecostal environment, as well as graduating from an Assemblies of God college and ministering several years in another Pentecostal denomination, the Foursquare Gospel Church.   And, although I am now Catholic, there are many facets of my Pentecostal upbringing I still hold to spiritually if not theologically, so I guess if I could be categorized by terminology, I would be what is called basically a "sacramental Pentecostal/Primitive Catholic."  The changes and shifts discussed in both articles I have read affect me in many aspects, albeit in different ways, and that is another premise for my own address of this subject.

The first article of note was from the current (August 2011 as of this writing) issue of Christianity Today entitled "A New Kind of Pentecostal."   Written by Dr. Robert Crosby, a professor of theology at my old alma mater, Southeastern University,  he establishes his premise by noting the following trends that have taken place in Pentecostalism over the past several years, and they are as follows:

1.  A marked decrease in the public practice of glossolalia (speaking in tongues) in the public worship of the typical Pentecostal church.

2.  "Fresh" developments in eschatology (some of this is not so good, but I digress...)

3.  A broader engagement in compassion ministry and social concern.

In regard to the third trend, Dr. Crosby devotes a considerable amount of attention in the article itself, and what he writes has both positives and negatives.   Another thing he notes in th article too is that Pentecostalism's center has shifted more to the Third World, an observation I feel is valid.   The same thing is pretty much happening across the board with all Christian traditions, and one of note aside from Pentecostalism is the mainstream Anglican Church, which at this point is both doctrinally more conservative and numerically stronger in what is called the "Southern Cone," encompassing Africa, the Middle East, and south Asia (many disaffected Episcopalians, correctly assessing the apostasy of the Episcopal Church in the US, are seeking out bishops now in Rwanda, Uganda, and Nigeria for spiritual covering, resulting in a whole new communion of Anglican conservatives in the US) .  This is ironic, as we in the "enlightened" West often call these people "backwater" and "under-developed," yet apostasy is rampant among European, American, and Canadian churches, which are emptying - even conservative churches, as noted in one of the articles I have read, are starting to level off in membership in the US and other "developed" nations.  Although the situation is not as dramatic as among American Episcopalians, Pentecostals have been affected by this too - as Crosby notes, there is a leveling-off of membership in many larger US Pentecostal groups, although minority/ethnic churches are experiencing a growth trend.  As he continues, Dr. Crosby sees this trend being a result of ethnic/minority churches ministering more to temporal needs as well as being more urban in demographic - I beg to differ here with a couple of points of my own.   First, the reason numbers are leveling off in predominantly White Pentecostal (as well as other Protestant Evangelical) churches is due to the fact many of them have lost their spiritual vision, and a spirit of entertainment (thanks in part to this Emerging Church/Purpose-Driven/Seeker-Friendly movement) has taken over many churches and their people are hungry for the truth.   And, as a result, many are starting to seek out a more sacramental/liturgical form of worship that re-introduces Christ as the center rather than chasing fads - that is my own story as a matter of fact, and there are thousands of others with similar experiences.  As a matter of fact, if any of you were asked which Christian denomination has the most effective outreach to people dispossessed by Evangelicalism, what would you say it is?  I can tell you exactly what it is actually, and it has been something this body has been doing for close to 30 years - the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese!  The disaffected are also finding new homes and spiritual growth in the Continuing Anglican Churches, as well as independent Catholic communions that have arisen over the past several decades.   THAT is where people are getting fed and ministered!  And, for those of us who are former Pentecostals, it has both restored something we have lost as well as giving us a renewed vision for God's plans in our lives.   Many Pentecostal and Evangelical denominations will not admit this fact too readily, but the evidence speaks for itself.   The other thing that Crosby may have overlooked - although to be fair he may not have thought of it, which I can concede - has to do with the focus on urban growth.   People who focus too much on urban ministry and trends tend to neglect that in certain areas of the country, classic, traditional Pentecostal and Baptist churches are not only alive and well, but they are thriving!  I am a native of West Virginia, for instance, and am part of the whole Appalachian Holiness/Pentecostal ethos, as that is how I was raised and many of the convictions it gave me I still hold dear today.   According to some very credible Appalachian scholars - Deborah Vansau McCauley, Dr. Loyal Jones (a personal mentor of mine), and Dr. Howard Dorgan - the Holiness/Pentecostal tradition, by plurality, is the largest Christian denominational presence in the mountains, and is the product of rural, agrarian communities.   Although consisting of small congregations (a significant percentage don't even average a membership of 100 parishioners) they are numerous nonetheless - megachurches and church growth techniques learned at expensive seminars don't always apply, as God's Holy Spirit tends to measure success differently from us.   And, this despite the stereotypes, condemnation, and assaults by generations of "agents of uplift" trying to "evangelize and civilize" (interpretation - trying to cookie-cut us in their image) our people while they themselves often did not have a vibrant faith in the Lord.   My fellow Appalachians, as a matter of fact, are very much on par with the non-White "Developing world," yet it is us and the "developing world" churches that are alive, vibrant, and growing while a lot of the White urban demographic is apostasizing.   Yet, excepting the good efforts of capable scholars of Appalachian studies (most from a sociological rather than a theological perspective), it seems as if the Appalachian Holiness/Pentecostal traditions have been largely ignored, snubbed and deemed not worthy of scholarship yet subject to unfair stereotypes (this despite the fact one of the largest Pentecostal denominations, the Church of God, has the same roots!).  This is something I would love the chance to sit and chat with Dr. Crosby over coffee about sometime, as I feel it would be a stimulating discussion.

The other article of interest was published in April 2006 and entitled "Pentecostals:  The Sequel," and was penned by noted Pentecostal scholar Dr. Grant McClung, whose work I am very familiar with and have a high regard for.  He notes that Pentecostalism is on the verge of crossroads as it enters its second century (2006 was the centennial of the Azuza Street meetings, which in 1906 was where many Pentecostal denominations trace their heritage).  McClung more or less corroborates Crosby's article of previous note with a considerable amount of statistical/demographical data, and also noting Dr. Cecil Robeck's observation of the centrifugal growth of the movement from Azuza Street to the rest of the world.   At the conclusion of his article, McClung shares some of his concerns for the future of Pentecostalism, which he shares in the form of prayer - I especially was interested in his petition that the Pentecostal movement continue to have Christ at the center of the movement, as well as anacknowledgement that Pentecostals don't have a monopoly on the Holy Spirit and His work or His giver (Jesus Christ) - in other words, there are other Christians with the same spiritual passion who can proclaim the Gospel to the nations (see Acts 1:8).   That all being said, time to share my thoughts on these issues.

McClung is a highly capable Pentecostal scholar whose books and other writings I have read and I acknowledge that his caliber of scholarship is high.  I express the same admiration for Dr. Crosby whom, although he was not at Southeastern when I went to school there, nonetheless is a man who knows his material and has a good perspective on the issue, although on some points I would surely differ.  Again too, as a former Pentecostal myself I can still appreciate much good that came from the movement, as it has offered much to me personally and I am indebted to it for a lot of things.   That being said, here are my observations.   Dr. McClung expresses, in so many words, a desire to preserve the best of Pentecostal distinctiveness while moving forward, which I also feel could benefit the movement as a whole.   That being said, I wish to build on both Crosby's and McClung's thoughts as I realistically note a couple of things that concern me.  Over the past few weeks, Barb and I have been unable to attend Wenesday Bible study at our parish due to the fact our vicar is recovering from bypass surgery and the service has been cancelled until September.   In lieu of the formal Wenesday study at the parish, Barb and I have been either listening to a CD teaching or watching some teaching DVD's I have in my library, as it is important to keep the spirit fed.  Any rate, many years back I had gotten a series from a teacher/evangelist named Roberts Liardon called "God's Generals," which focuses on the lives of about a dozen Pentecostal/charismatic pioneers and evangelists from ages past.  I have long since given away the VHS copies of this I used to have, and a few months back I got one of the best ones of the series, on the life of Kathryn Kuhlman, on DVD.   Many of these great evangelists of the past, though not without shortcomings, did have a tremendous calling on their lives, and Kathryn Kuhlman has always been someone I have admired and respected for the unique ministry she had.   Back when I was very little, Mom used to listen to her on the radio when she had a show many moons back, and even then I found her fascinating - her speaking style sounded funny to me, but once I became older and understood the power behind the speaker, I grew to appreciate her unique mannerisms and also came to identify with many of them - she was a person who believed the Holy Spirit was her best friend, and the meetings she conducted were always first-class by even worldly standards because she didn't want to make the Holy Spirit's presence offended.  That is something, as a sacramental/liturgical Christian, I can understand and identify with well - and, I am about to address this as a point shortly.   Another thing about her ministry that really impressed me was a quote she often repeated - "God doesn't want gold or silver vessels, but yielded vessels!"   These things about Kathryn Kuhlman's ministry, as well as viewing the DVD the other day, basically got me thinking about something in relation to these two articles - it is tragic that many of today's Pentecostals and charismatics have lost this unique but very real dichotomy; a simple Gospel message of salvation acompanied by signs and wonders, something that often followed many of the earliest Pentecostal and charismatic pioneers.  The great evangelists of the past - Kuhlman, Oral Roberts, H. Richard Hall, and many others - were really not necessarily people who "claimed" special gifts, but rather they did what the Spirit told them and things happened.  This was also true at the Azuza Street meetings, where it was said that William J. Seymour, the pastor of the Mission, often spent most of the services kneeling with his head inside the pulpit, yet great things happened as a result.   Today, it is as if most Pentecostals are ashamed of this heritage, and even Dr. Crosby notes that there has been a decrease in public practice of glossolalia and other traditionally Pentecostal manefestations in the public worship of the average mainstream Pentecostal church today.  A good friend of mine, evangelist Perry Stone, has noted this as well, as he has stressed in many of his books that affluence and comfort have brought as sort of staleness to many Pentecostal churches.   Unfortunately (I should say tragically) as a result strange things have happened.   Many churches in the Western world, for instance, seem to be hell-bent on adapting rock music, tactics from the corporate world, and even outright New Age/occultic practices (via Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, the "Emerging Church" movement, and James Rutz, to name a few), yet they are ashamed of healings, deliverances, and the display of prophecy or tongues in their churches!! And the results are dramatic as to what has happened to the average Pentecostal church in recent years - there are high percentages of divorces, adultery, homosexuality, dabbling in occultic practices (horoscopes, for one thing), and alcohol abuse among Pentecostals that rival even their secular counterparts at times.   The correlation between the demise in Holy Spirit presence and the rise in unbiblical behaviors cannot be overlooked, and although some would deny it, the evidence speaks volumes.   Another area Crosby notes is a "fresh" perspective in many sectors on eschatology - many Pentecostals today are so worldly that they don't even preach about the Second Coming anymore, and even TBN has censored prophecy teachers on its network.   However, they forget something - Pentecostalism is an apocalyptic movement, and its early proponents saw the supernatural move of the Holy Spirit being tied into the soon-coming of Jesus Christ in glory; as a matter of fact, a whole discipline called the "Latter Rain Teaching" grew up around that.   And, it is Biblical - the Church has taught for centuries that one sign of the Lord's coming would be Christians being gifted in supernatural ways by the Holy Spirit to proclaim the Gospel, in particular heralding the soon coming of the Lord.   More importantly, early Pentecostals paid a hefty price for that message - many of them were persecuted, their churches burned, their persons egged, and they were often denounced as "cults" and as being heretical by the established churches of their day.   Many of their early missionaries were martyred too - they share much in common with the early Church of the first four centuries.   Again, we go back to Kathryn Kuhlman, who often said that to accept the call of God, there is a great cost - everything!  To be great in God is to be humble in self, dying to self, and diverting attention from self, and a true servant of God who moves in supernatural signs of the Holy Spirit will understand it, because ego can be boosted thus opening the temptation for us to take credit for the Holy Spirit's work.  And, that is the big problem with the Rick Warren movement and the "seeker" churches - in their arrogance, they think they can do the Holy Spirit's job better than he can, and that is where they make a fatal error.   Unfortunately, that is an error many Pentecostal congregations have become caught up in, and that is going to be the undoing of the movement in latter years, should the Lord tarry.  Ambitious programs and megachurches may draw people, after all, and rock music with a "Jesus" or two thrown in may make people jump up and down to its seductive rhythms, but in the long run the question must be asked - does it truly reach people??  As Dr. McClung points out, we need to look back to Zechariah 4:6 - "not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit saith the Lord."  

The bottom line here in this whole discussion is simple - in order to move ahead, we need to look back to the landmarks that have guided us as Christians over the centuries.   We need to rediscover them, know what they are about, and then restoration will happen.   Our witness is measured by what we remember, not by what we abandon.   May we take this as a valuable lesson and begin by really seeking the face of God in our churches, and thus by allowing members to be yielded to the Holy Spirit, God can be revealed in us.   Therefore, his revelation in that way will empower us to reach the world with the Gospel and its life-giving truth.   Our time is short, and may we begin to get back to our roots - that is my prayer for you today.  God bless until next time.