Returning a Hallelujah

Returning a Hallelujah

The experience of an embodied faith, which infuses the whole person in a transformative spiritual encounter, is portrayed beautifully in Dr. J. Terry Todd’s presentation of the Pentecostal, or renewalist, tradition. Within my own Reformed family, my conviction is that the two Christian traditions understood the least, and which each have the most to offer to us, are the Orthodox and Pentecostal traditions. Therefore, I warmly welcome what Dr. Todd has presented and found it personally inspiring. He conveys so well the intense, interior spiritual encounter experienced at the altar in Pentecostal worship—experiences which are often discounted through external stereotypes by Reformed and other mainline Protestant Christians, whose responses often are projections of their own anxiety about emotionally expressive forms of spirituality.

Dr. Todd wisely and honestly conveys the often-confusing diversity of the Pentecostal tradition(s) in today’s world. Within the United States, the public image of Pentecostalism is conveyed by widely popular megachurch pastors preaching versions of the “prosperity gospel” which fuels their own prosperity as they fly to speaking events in private jets. Many are undone by the age-old trifecta of temptations, namely, money, sex, and power. All this makes it more respectfully convenient to dismiss the entirety of Pentecostalism as emotionally immature, anti-intellectual, spiritually manipulative, and socially regressive. It’s easy to poison the ecumenical well in this way, and many do.

Yet, each of the Christian traditions represented in these Respectful Conversations would not want to be stereotyped and judged according to our most publicly popular and often problematic figures. We should accord that same respect to the Pentecostal tradition, being mindful of its expansive diversity which Dr. Todd portrays so well. The expressions of the ”renewalist” movement holding far more authentic promise than televised prosperity gospel preachers are found in Hispanic storefront churches in Los Angeles, in African immigrant congregations in the outskirts of Washington D.C., in Korean speaking churches in the near north side of Chicago, and countless proliferating examples. Added to this are Mexican-American Catholic parishes infused with charismatic practices.

Far more significant is the global growth of the Pentecostal movement, which is expanding at four times the rate of Christianity’s overall growth. 80% of conversions in Asia are to Pentecostal or renewalist forms of Christianity. In Latin America Pentecostalism is growing at three times the rate of Catholic growth. One of every three Pentecostals in the world today is found in Africa, and one out of four persons throughout the globe who identifies as a Christian is a Pentecostal. Or think of it this way. One out of every 12 persons alive in the world today would describe themselves as a Pentecostal. For a movement whose modern beginning can be traced only to 1906, this is one of the most astonishing stories in Christian history.

In much of the non-Western world, small Pentecostal communities often independent of any wider belonging, are found among those who are marginalized by their wider society, as if forgotten and disrespected. Thus, in the barrios of Rio de Janeiro, in the slums of Kampala, and around garbage dumps in the Philippines, Pentecostal communities mushroom and often thrive. Those whose lives were deemed as worthless find a place of affirmation, empowerment, and a supportive community.

Of course, global Pentecostalism has middle and upper-middle class expressions as well, such as the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, Korea with its 500,000 members. But the power of Pentecostalism to empower the marginalized in socially significant ways around the world is key to its growth, and often overlooked and misunderstood by with wider Christian community. That’s why it is so ecumenically imperative to deeply engage the Pentecostal tradition, and to learn richly from the experiential insights presented by Dr. Todd. This tradition is having a profound impact in shaping the future of world Christianity.

Some promising initiatives are seen on the ecumenical horizon. A Joint Consultative Group between the WCC and Pentecostals has been working quietly for more than two decades to build some bridges of understanding. This is essential because the WCC’s member churches include only the smallest fraction of Pentecostals. A report and proposals for the future will be presented to the forthcoming WCC Assembly this September in Karlsruhe, Germany.

Even more encouraging is the full engagement of the Pentecostal World Fellowship with the Global Christian Forum, designed as an inclusive platform for all traditions shaping world Christianity. The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the World Council of Churches, the World Evangelical Alliance, and the Pentecostal World Fellowship comprise the “four pillars” of this platform creating a new ecumenical space. Each of these four have equal status and power, sharing in all decision-making, and the involvement of the Pentecostal World Fellowship has been robust and enthusiastic. These developments and others are hopeful harbingers of a future for world Christianity where the chasm between Pentecostals and the wider Christian community may become easier to cross.

Historic Protestants and others often tend to place evangelicals and Pentecostals into the same grouping of Christian traditions. Respectful Conversations is wise to have presented these separately. While overlap exists, spawned by the elasticity of terminology, the distinction between evangelicals and Pentecostals is important to understand and honor. Simply put, in my experience an evangelical will be most interested in knowing what you really believe. A Pentecostal will be genuinely curious to hear the story of your spiritual experience.

This focus on the narrative of embodied experiences of the Holy Spirit carries its own challenges of discernment and authority, as Dr. Todd conveys. But it holds the gift which the Pentecostal tradition has to offer to the wider church—a gift which, in my view, is deeply needed by parts of the church with altars that appear spiritually arid, whose rigid traditions can immobilize authentic life, and where worship feels repressed by predictable routine. Those gifts of the Spirit broke forth with explosive power at the Azusa Street revival in 1906, creating both an attraction and a hostile enmity among other Christians, enduring for a century.

Dr. Todd helpfully describes Azusa Street as a “transgressive space,” a term used by Gaston Espinoza. The barriers which fell in that outpouring of the Spirit are often not recognized by the non-Pentecostal community and frequently forgotten by some present Pentecostal leaders. In fact, firm divisions not only race, but also of class and gender where transgressed and broken down during that time. The similarity of the Spirit’s actions in the earliest Christian communities described in Acts and documented in the New Testament epistles is impossible to ignore.

This focuses the question, posed by Dr. Todd, of the “real effects” of the Holy Spirit’s empowerment for the church’s presence and witness in the wider society. It’s a question which, at present, has bewildering and contradictory answers. As mentioned in the essay, many of the religious sycophants cynically gathered around President Donald Trump were Pentecostals. The toxic theological brew fomenting Christian nationalism today is imbibed by countless Pentecostals.

Yet there is this confusing and nearly chaotic diversity among Pentecostals. Many are convicted that nurturing communities infused by the Spirit which overcome trenchant division of race, class, and gender is the strategy for wider social transformation, and they work earnestly to embody this new social reality. I’ve been with other charismatic communities whose experience of the Spirit’s empowerment is channeled by intention into social outreach meeting pressing human need and modeling alternatives which hold forth God’s intentions of justice and peace. At global Pentecostal gatherings I’ve witnessed workshops on prophetic social witness from renewalist communities, rooted in solidarity with the poor and marginalized.

Dr. Todd’s own experience of Pentecostal communities that are welcoming and affirming of LGBTQ persons and their stories, which he courageously shared, is a dramatic example of what a “transgressive space” empowered by the Spirit in today’s culture can look like. Many yearn for such an embodied expression of Christian community, infused with the radical, disruptive, inclusive, transformative power of the Holy Spirit as it continues to beckon the body of Christ into God’s intended future. Today, as Dr. Todd notes, such expressions are a small outlier in the wider Pentecostal world. But remember, even 40 years ago no one would have predicted or foreseen the uncontrolled growth of renewalist movements around the world. Who can say where this may lead, and what the “real effects” might eventually be?

In 2010 I attended the Pentecostal World Conference in Stockholm, Sweden as an ecumenical observer. At the time I was trying to discern whether I should bring my service of 17 years as General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America to a conclusion. A world-famous Pentecostal preacher whom I had never met delivered a sermon about the Spirit’s power to beckon us to take the next step in our journey. As he concluded he cited possible examples. And suddenly he said, “Maybe you are a leader of an important denomination trying to decide if God is calling you to a new chapter.” I was stunned. Then, in a prayer time that followed, I discovered myself speaking in tongues. A few months later I announced that I would be stepping down.

I for one will never doubt the potential for the gifts of the Pentecostal tradition to reach beyond its boundaries and contribute to the life and witness of the whole church. So, I’m glad to offer back to Dr. J. Terry Todd a “Hallelujah.”

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