Krista's Journal: On the Influence of Pentecostalism

June 10, 2004

The terms Evangelical, fundamentalist, and Pentecostal are often used together, and sometimes interchangeably. But there are profound historical and spiritual differences between these expressions of Christianity. "Pentecostalism" encompasses charismatic movements inside and outside the major traditions of the Church, both Catholic and Protestant. There are also Pentecostal denominations, like the Assemblies of God.

A huge and growing number of people describe themselves as Pentecostal — more than 250 million people around the world. Pentecostalism is changing the face of global Christianity. But strangely, I think, it remains shrouded in mystery, misunderstanding, and stereotype for many outside it. In this week's program, we seek to provide deeper understanding of this booming expression of the Christian faith.

A reverence for "gifts of the Spirit" brought the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement into being just a century ago, and we commonly associate Pentecostals with faith healing or speaking in tongues. Robert Duvall's 1998 movie, The Apostle, provided a vivid Hollywood image of a Pentecostal preacher wrestling with his faith and his demons. But there is an empowering theology behind Pentecostalism's very human appeal — a belief that every man or woman, rich or poor, can receive gifts of the spirit and hear God's voice directly. As it spreads through Latin America, Asia, and Africa in the 21st Century, this core impulse of Pentecostalism is reshaping political and social landscapes as well as religious lives.

I had my own revelatory moment about Pentecostalism's revolutionary character about a decade ago. I was speaking with a tremendous man of thought and faith, Mel Robeck at Fuller Seminary, a leading Pentecostal church historian and the Pentecostal co-chair of the international Vatican-Pentecostal dialogues. When Mel Robeck mentioned that Pentecostals were ordaining women nearly a century ago in this country, I suddenly "recalled" that my paternal grandmother had been a Pentecostal minister before I was born.

I grew up with great lore about my grandmother dragging her resentful children every night of the week to the country church where she preached. I was struck for the first time in my life that this was remarkable — that she, a woman born in 1900, had her own pulpit in the first half of the 20th Century. Ironically, some contemporary Pentecostal traditions are less supportive of women in leadership roles. But the fact remains that this is a vast, varied tradition of faith, with complex impulses in its history and a fascinating future as it matures into a leading world tradition.

The first voice in today's program, Robert Franklin, comes from one of the earliest traditions to grow out of the original "outpouring of the spirit" at the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles in 1906: The Church of God in Christ. This predominantly African-American denomination is one of the fastest growing in this country. But the story Robert Franklin has to tell is larger than his denomination. In recent years, as many as 40 percent of African-American churches of every denomination have embraced "neo-Pentecostal" forms of worship. Unlike Fundamentalism, he says, Pentecostal faith encourages people to hold "the Word" and "the Spirit" in a dialectical tension; Pentecostals may hold passionate biblical convictions, but they are always open to new revelation. At best, he says, Pentecostalism is tactile, vigorous religious expression — with a power to send the faithful into the world spiritually renewed and energized for service to others.

The other voice in today's program, Margaret Poloma, takes that thought further. She says human beings have a deep need for cathartic experiences that engage our bodies as well as our spirits. We used to get this from religious and other community rituals; now many of us sit up straight and quiet in pews. She is a sociologist as well as a practicing charismatic herself, of Roman Catholic origins. She has both data and insight, of depth and texture, to offer on one of the most vivid and eccentric modern Pentecostal expressions — the so-called Toronto Blessing. This decade-long phenomenon has brought people by the hundreds of thousands to pray, laugh, cry, writhe on the floor, and speak in tongues in a Toronto airport church night after night.

Margaret Poloma ventures into provocative territory. As she studied people who have taken part in the services in Toronto — which frankly sound foreign, even bizarre, when experienced through media — she heard again and again that, in Toronto, people experienced "the love of God" in a new way. More importantly, perhaps, they carried this experience back home into their relationships with spouses and family and friends. There are now grassroots social action projects in several American cities — practical forms of radical love — founded by people who went to Toronto and emerged changed.

Margaret Poloma has a critical perspective on the foibles of Pentecostal belief and practice, as there are foibles in any tradition founded and led by human beings in the name of God. But she makes the intriguing suggestion that Pentecostals are modern-day mystics. Mystics are always uncomfortable figures, she insists, but still they are necessary forces in our society so easily hijacked by worldliness and immediacy. Thinking of Pentecostals as mystics among us might engender a new respect and curiosity about the human dimension of this religion that is touching the lives of so many, both here and abroad, and literally changing our world.

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Robert Franklin

is Presidential Distinguished Professor of Social Ethics at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, and a senior fellow at the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Religion at Emory University.

is the author of Main Street Mystics: The Toronto Blessing & Reviving Pentecostalism and Professor Emeritus at the University of Akron.