Friday, August 15, 2014

Future Evolutions of Pentecostalism

I had the opportunity yesterday to share a few thoughts (15 minutes worth) in regards to how I might imagine or envision future evolutions of pentecostalism. The presentation was to a wonderful and passionate group of Pentecostal pastors and leaders from around New Zealand.  On the off chance you might be interested here are my thoughts. My thinking here is focused on pentecostalism in a 21st Century postmodern Western context. 

The Pentecostal church was birthed of the Spirit, there is no doubt of this, at least not among Pentecostals. Its historical roots trace back to The Day of Pentecost some 2000 years ago and its modern roots to Azusa Street 1906. While appreciated by many as an exciting move of God for the dawning of a new century, perhaps the beginnings even of an 'end time' revival, others were not so convinced. Pentecostals have thus been labelled many things over the years; chandelier swingers, holy rollers, fruit loops, and of course, a cult. During the charismatic renewal of the 70's it continued to be a movement that many were suspicious of. In fact, it was only two weeks ago that Pope Francis publically apologised for the persecution of Christianity's Pentecostal Movement by the Catholic Church.

Appreciating this it is not surprising that the Pentecostal Church, in good Protestant tradition, quickly found itself as something of a protest movement on the fringes of the wider Christian church. Certainly not mainline, and even within the evangelical world something of an enigma. It lived on the margins as its own thing. Very quickly it recognised itself as an 'experiential' movement. If one imagines the Wesleyan Quadrilateral of theological reflection, the Pentecostal church has certainly camped out in the experience sector of the quadrant. Tradition, reason and scripture are often considered after thoughts. At times, the Pentecostal church has even defined itself against these things. Traditions are viewed as dead religion, engagement with 'secular' science an unnecessary sideline distraction. And theological training? Well that just confuses promising young pastors and plants within them seeds of doubt or dissent. After all, the bible says it, I believe it, that settles it. Go and live it, what more could you want?

I know I am using stereotypes and caricatures but the genius of a caricature is not its exaggeration but rather the truth that the exaggeration is built on. While the Spirit birthed Pentecost, it's these kind of caricatures that have created the ever evolving culture of pentecostalism. I'm not old enough to remember 100 years worth of cultural variation, but my memory bank does include; hankie twirling, some sort of a 'Pentecostal' two step, special use of the Old King James for prophesy or prayer, action songs (something about going to the enemies camp), open microphones, visions from the North, the South, the East, and the West, modesty blankets and of course, who could forget late night attempts to map, find and expel territorial demons, (an activity that I am convinced would be a hit with today's postmodern youth).

There is more to it of course than these amusing characteristics. Our embracing of the work of the Spirit and gifts of the Spirit is to be celebrated whole heartedly. That we believe everyone and anyone can be used by God is a strength in our bow. However the Pentecostal experience and pentecostalism are not the same thing. It would be a mistake to equate Pentecost with today's pentecostalism; a contemporary church, a positive vibe or atmosphere, charismatic personalities in leadership, triumphalism, special events, altercalls, conferences or album recordings. These things all have their place but none in themselves are the actual Pentecostal experience of the Holy Spirit's infilling. An infilling for empowered living in the world as God's people bearing witness to Jesus and evidenced by inspired speech and inspired deeds. (Here I steal a phrase from a well regarded Assemblies of God New Testament Scholar).

My Pentecostal movement has always prided itself on its Pentecostal distinctive. When filling in the current credentials application form, you more or less fill in your name and address, and then you are asked when you were baptised in the Holy Spirit and spoke with other tongues. The other questions are secondary. Are you a criminal, a member of a sect or secret organisation, theologically trained? Perhaps the answers here don't matter. You studied as a Buddhist monk for 12 years did you? Hmmm. Not to worry you were baptised in the Holy Spirit and spoke in other tongues on the 12th of June! We'll sign you up and give you a Missionary Credential, you'd be brilliant in Chiang Mai. Approved! While I joke, the joke does highlight that in this instance we rightly understand the Pentecostal distinctive as empowerment for life and ministry as opposed to a particular doctrine or some current particular from of cultural pentecostalism.

I say all of this in order to suggest four ideas we should consider embracing as 21st Century Pentecostals that might help us craft our way forward into a better future. In the past they've not been ideas we've championed all that much, and in fact, they may even offend stereotypical pentecostalism. This need not be a concern though as they do not in any way impinge on what it means to be Pentecostal.

1. We should embrace a complex faith as well as a simple faith.
2. We should embrace the hard work of formal theological training for ministry as well as God's call to ministry.
3. We should embrace the different insights, wisdom and perspectives of other professions and other tribes within the Christian church as well as the more likeminded relational 'networks' that are currently popular.
4. We should embrace some of the established rhythms, prayers and reflections of the traditional church as well as the guiding, leading and free blowing wind of the Spirit.

The Pentecostal movement no longer exists on the fringes of Christendom. We're no longer a protest movement needing to define ourselves against the 'other.' Roughly 25% of Christians around the world are Pentecostal, about 300 million of us. With so many of us, a new willingness to embrace Christian traditions, reason and scripture (the other already mentioned categories of The Wesleyan Theological Quadrilateral) will not result in the loss of any Pentecostal distinctive. I feel it would lead to the discovery of a complex faith, a deep faith suited to the complexities of the 21st Century world we live in.

In the New Testament those filled with the Spirit of God were likened to drunkards. Pentecostals drunk on the Spirit of God, caught up in a new era of the Spirit, the water had been turned into wine! The best red wine is known for its complexity, never its simplicity. Different elements come together in perfect harmony. Perhaps 21st Century pentecostalism is an opportunity to see Pentecostal experience join forces with tradition, reason and scripture in a manner where they come together balancing and enhancing each other; a complex Shiraz. The simplicity of our faith is important. But so is complexity.

We live in a world of ever increasing complexity. We're offered more overarching stories from which to make sense of life than ever. At the same we're suspicious that there even is a true story from which to make sense of life. It is tempting to offer simple answers in a complex world, and they are often appreciated. However they run out of steam pretty quickly. More is required. Today's contemporary culture is rightly considered 'spiritual' but this is often wrongly equated to simply mean a desire for the 'supernatural' for an 'encounter' for an 'experience.' This is an important piece of the puzzle but it misses a 'spiritual' person's desire for a larger-than-their-life framework by which to make sense of life in its totality; the marvellous and the mundane. Issues such as life-after-death, sexuality, global suffering, wealth distribution, atonement theories, environmental ethics, failure, depression, loneliness and so all need to be addressed. Alter calls, album launches, anointing services, and alliterated sermons starting with 'a' - won't often meet this need.

This doesn't mean all Pastors need complete PhD's but we should seek to lift the bar across the board. Our Presbyterian friends complete a three year degree in theology and then a two year post-graduate internship before ordination. While the average pew dweller wants to be encouraged, inspired, loved and cared for, they also have deep questions, plaguing doubts and painful life experiences they'd like to reconcile with a God of love. Education, experience, gifting and calling all aid in this and should equally be championed. 

Suspicious of experts today's postmodern world is also inclined to give ear to a multiplicity of voices. They know it is impossible for one man up front to have all the answers. The Pentecostal church would do well to create space for voices other than a 'pastor' to speak into the life of the community; counsellors, psychologists, social-workers, nurses etc. This doesn't necessarily mean adding them to the preaching roster but it does mean allowing them to shape the culture, values, practices and methodologies of the local church. It might mean an invitation to speak to the church leadership team or preaching team or pastoral care team. Their perspectives and wisdom, at times critical and at times encouraging, would only make ministry within the Pentecostal church a more healthy and life giving reality. For example we've not always done well with issues to do with grief, loss or mental illness. These other voices would only make us stronger. The same could be argued for more ecumenical openness as well. There is wisdom, strength and insight to be gleaned from across the spectrum of the Christian church that stereotypical pentecostalism has dismissed. Imagine an Anglican Bishop speaking at a Pentecostal conference - in robes. We'll be sharing eternity with these brothers and sisters maybe we could share a stage every now and then, or at least a coffee. There is more going on in the Christian world than our own favoured networks or conferences.

The 'spiritual' person of our 21st Century postmodern Western world also has a deep hunger for an anchored life, for roots (to use a very American term). The modern world has systematically striped tradition from our lives, after all aren't traditions simply backwards looking habits of yesteryear? Society has moved on. No one opens doors for ladies, no one asks to be excused from the table, who even has dinner at the table these days? And yet traditions, when their meaning and significance are understood, add a richness to our lives. They remind us and refocus us on what is important when we are so often tempted to flick from one thing to another, never truly engaged. There is an alternative way to live in the world not tied to individualism or consumerism but anchored in the rhythms of Christ's life given for us. Christian rhythms of life, death, resurrection; the life of the cross, cruciform living. 

The traditions of the church, particularly the Christian calendar, slows us down and orientate our life with the life of Christ. Advent helps us to steer clear of the debt and stress of a materialistic Christmas and offers us hope. Christ came, Christ comes and Christ is coming again. Lent calls us into a season of prayer, of fasting, of repentance. It calls us to acknowledge that life is at times dark and difficult. We don't wallow in this but rather than always try to escape the storm we pause and we find that God is with us in the storm. Pentecostalism, so often committed to overzealous triumphalism, would be better for Lent. It is only 40 days. There's another 325 to be more than conquerors. More could be said.

Our 21st Century postmodern context is a complex one. When I think of future evolutions of pentecostalism I think of a Pentecostal church more equipped than ever to engage with the surrounding culture. A Pentecostal church overflowing with the new wine of the Spirit, blending experience, scripture, reason and tradition together; each aspect balancing and enhancing the others. I imagine a deep, intelligent, robust, informed, connected, anchored and empowered faith that overflows with the love of God, the life of Christ and fruit of the Spirit.