September 18, 2008

Krista's Journal: Finding New Ways to Understand a Growing Movement

September 18, 2008

Pentecostalism is the largest and most influential religious movement ever to originate in the United States. But its most rapid growth at present is in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Pentecostalism is not essentially a set of institutions and beliefs. It is a charismatic — in the words of believers, a spirit-filled — impulse and practice that has penetrated all of the world's Christian traditions. I hope you'll listen to the broadcast, which evokes some of this spirit in ways that words on a page never can. We trace the historical outlines of this great untold story of our time — a phenomenon that is changing the world as I write.

In much of the U.S. media, the words "Pentecostal," "fundamentalist," and "Evangelical" are often used interchangeably. And I sense that as many Americans wake up to global Pentecostalism, they are conflating it with their opinion — in some cases, their fears — of fundamentalist Christianity. This is a false equation, and one that does not help us understand the spiritual tidal wave that an African-American preacher named William J. Seymour set in motion from a makeshift pulpit in the bawdy, eclectic City of Angels in April 1906.

Seymour and his teacher, Rev. Charles Fox Parham, were products of the Holiness movement of the late 19th century. Holiness disciples were breakaway Methodists who believed that the established church had grown formalistic, materialistic, complacent, and cold. In contrast to the Puritan Christian strain that shaped early American culture, they had a relatively hopeful view of human nature. They believed that purity of life was possible. This was coupled with a strong responsibility to reform oneself and society. The Salvation Army emerged from the Holiness movement, as did some of the great abolitionists and champions for women's suffrage.

Pentecostals broke from them by insisting that Christians should claim the "gifts of the spirit" as sources of spiritual power to face the challenges within themselves and in a changing world. As described in the Bible, those gifts or charisms include teaching, preaching, healing, prophecy, wisdom, and speaking in tongues. Speaking in tongues became a kind of initiation and litmus test for Pentecostal faith. The earliest people who received this gift were said to speak in the foreign languages of often distant countries, and they sometimes bought one-way tickets to become missionaries in those places. These days, tongues are generally understood as private language that only God understands. Several voices in this program provide intriguing insight into the experience of speaking in tongues. It is a form of modern mysticism — "main street mysticism," in the words of Pentecostal sociologist Margaret Poloma — with some precedence in ancient Greece as well as the African spirituality of many of Pentecostalism's founders.

I was most struck this week on Azusa Street by the improbable mix of humanity that Pentecostalism has the capacity to touch and empower. The three-year height of the original Azusa Street revival drew people of all classes and races under one roof when that was nearly unthinkable — and under African-American leadership. Some Pentecostal churches were ordaining women a half century or more before today's most liberal Christian denominations. Like every human revolution, this one has struggled to retain its own highest ideals. Black, white, and Latino soon often worshipped apart. Nonetheless, a complex global mix of rich and poor is on display in Los Angeles this week, a lavish juxtaposition of skin colors and cultures. The transformative power of their whole-body spirituality is visible and palpable.

Here and abroad, Pentecostalism has a special appeal for people at the edges of society, authority, and religion. It has a demonstrated power against social ills that are often compounded by poverty, such as the dissolution of families, and the destructive force of addiction. The eminent Boston sociologist Peter Berger has studied Pentecostals around the world for two decades. They are, he says, inadvertent but highly effective social reformers. Pentecostalism offers its adherents a sense of power that transcends private spiritual experience. With its emphasis on the dignity of every believer before God, it becomes, in Berger's words, "a school for democracy." It also instills habits of personal responsibility that have a demonstrated effect on economic development. Scholars compare this to the impact the Puritan Protestant ethic had in fueling capitalism in the West. "Max Weber," Peter Berger likes to quip, "is alive and well and living in Guatemala" — one of the countries in Latin America where Pentecostalism is rapidly overtaking the historic Roman Catholic majority. At the same time, an estimated one in ten of the world's practicing Roman Catholics now also identifies as Charismatic-Pentecostal.

The founder of the Azusa Street revival, William J. Seymour, once said, "We are not fighting men or churches but seeking to replace dead forms and creeds and wild fanaticisms with living, practical Christianity." In such words, one hears the appeal of Pentecostalism in his time and in ours. It is impossible fully to describe or analyze this experiential faith with the scholarly and journalistic tools of rationality and objectivity. And rationality alone, my guests this week suggest, is never sufficient in the human search for truth and meaning. Outsiders often focus their attention on the aspects of this faith that they find most puzzling, especially its ecstatic forms of worship that you will hear echoing through this hour. But all of us — journalists, policymakers, and citizens — must find new ways to understand and take this movement seriously, for it is changing our world.

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is a professor of Church History and Ecumenics at Fuller Theological Seminary and a historian of Pentecostal tradition. He is the author of The Azusa Street Mission & Revival: The Birth of the Global Pentecostal Movement.

is chair of the Haggard School of Theology at Azusa Pacific University and author of Latino Pentecostal Identity: Evangelical Faith, Society, and Self.