Trends in Pentecostalism
by Chris Green
G

OD IS AT WORK in our world in large and in small ways, and the Spirit’s art is deeper and wider than we dare to imagine. We cannot identify all of the important developments within Pentecostalism or fully understand those we do recognize. Nevertheless, we must make every effort to appreciate God’s creativity.

Hopefully, the few reflections offered here can further a critical conversation, moving us toward more careful, discerning reflection on what God is asking of and promising to us, here and now. Let’s pray that together we can catch the rhythm of the Spirit’s movements.

Trend 1: The Pentecostalization of Global Christianity

Pentecostalism, in various forms, is shaping Christianity around the world, especially in parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. According to several studies, Pentecostals and Charismatics together make up slightly more than 25 percent of all Christians worldwide and more than 8 percent of the world’s population.

The growth is as rapid as it is extensive. Allan Anderson says, “The Pentecostal and Charismatic movements in all their variations constitute the fastest-growing group of churches within Christianity today.”

We delight in God’s work and rejoice at the spread of the “full gospel.” But we must reflect carefully on what kinds of Pentecostal spiritualties are spreading around the world. Are all these forms of Pentecostalism faithful to the gospel? One hears frequent concerns that much of African Pentecostalism, for example, is dominated by various forms of a “prosperity gospel” that focuses almost exclusively on empowering individuals to appropriate divine blessings through religious “techniques.” If this is true, does it not concern us? To put the question broadly: What, if anything, is our responsibility to our Pentecostal sisters and brothers around the globe?

Trend 2: Demographic Shift to the Global South

For years, researchers have been pointing out that the “center” of Christianity is shifting from the global north (Europe and North America) to the global south (Africa, Asia, and Latin America). Todd M. Johnson, a research fellow with the Center for Study of Global Christianity, explains:

While 66 percent of all Christians lived in Europe in 1910, by 2010 only 26 percent lived there. By contrast, fewer than 2 percent of all Christians lived in Africa in 1910, skyrocketing to almost 22 percent by 2010. The Global North contained over 80 percent of all Christians in 1910, falling to under 40 percent by 2010.

To this point, this shift and re-centering has been more demographic than cultural. Most forms of Christianity in most parts of the world remain indelibly marked by Western cultural mores and customs. This raises a myriad of important questions for Pentecostal denominations and movements—especially those that remain politically grounded in the West, even when the majority of their congregants live outside of the USA and Western European countries. For instance, how can those of us in the West cooperate with what God is doing in the majority world, allowing the Spirit to lead us as we need to go and allowing them to follow as the Spirit leads them? How can we allow God to affect needed changes in our teaching and practice—as well as in our political structures—so that all of us together are more rightly aligned with the Kingdom?

Trend 3: Facing Gender and Sexuality Issues

Recent controversies have shown that, as a rule, Christians in the majority world hold a markedly different view on matters of sexuality and gender from their brothers and sisters in Europe and the U.S. Philip Jenkins explains:

Christian denominations worldwide have been deeply divided over issues of gender, sexual morality, and homosexuality. These debates illustrate a sharp global division, with many North American and European churches willing to accommodate liberalizing trends in the wider society, while their African and Asian counterparts prove much more conservatives. These controversies are grounded in attitudes to authority, and, above all, to the position of the Bible as an inspired text.

Thankfully, it seems that global-north Pentecostals are not similarly divided from their fellow Pentecostals in Asia, Africa, and South America—at least not at this time and not on issues of sexual identity and traditional morality. However, a growing number of Pentecostals in the U.S. and Western Europe are beginning to think differently on these matters. But leaving that aside for now, there is a flaring, hardening difference on the issue of women’s ordination, especially as it relates to the church’s “highest” offices. If we are honest, can we say that we are prepared to face this issue? We can be grateful that Pentecostals across the board share a high view of Scripture and a common confidence in the Spirit’s power to accomplish the impossible. Still, the decisive question is, Are our churches and ministries nurturing humility, patience, and courage in us? Is our worship and teaching forming in us the character required to love one another into Christ’s holiness and the unity of the Spirit?

Is our worship and teaching forming in us the character required to love one another into Christ’s holiness and the unity of the Spirit?

Trend 4: Changing Views on Christian Responsibility to the World

Amos Yong suggests that Pentecostals fit into three classes: (1) Sectarian Pentecostals persistently distance themselves as decisively as possible from their surrounding sociocultural environment. (2) Conservative Pentecostals seek, above all, to preserve certain values and practices within a particular social/cultural environment. (3) Progressive Pentecostals strive to lead Spirit-led lives in ways that are socially viable and engaged.

Whatever we make of Yong’s descriptions, recent decades have witnessed more and more Pentecostals broadening their understanding of the church’s responsibility in and to the world. If some Pentecostals remain strictly sectarian, consumed with an “otherworldly” spirituality that regards holiness as a matter of private sinlessness and construes mission strictly in terms of “saving souls” for the afterlife, this is far from true of the majority. Pentecostals at home and abroad are deeply engaged in the sciences and the arts, in cultural critique and this-worldly political action. Pentecostal churches, colleges/ universities, and parachurch organizations are advocating a more responsible creation care and calling for immigration reform, working to combat pornography and the child-sex trade, and striving for a just peace for Israelis and the Palestinian people. The “Build a City Project” in Cambodia, sponsored by People for Care and Learning, is an outstanding example of this trend.

What are we to make of these shifts? Some of us, no doubt, are sure to bristle at the thought of being labeled “progressive” (or “conservative,” as the case might be). And it would be foolish for us to forget that Pentecostalism began as an apocalyptic movement, that the mothers and fathers of our tradition were energized and oriented by fervent desire for and constant expectation of Christ’s return. Are we now in danger of becoming overly focused on this world?

A good question, but I think the answer is simple. So long as our understanding of our responsibility to the world truly reflects God’s love as given in Jesus Christ, we can be confident that we are in step with the Spirit. Jesus taught us to pray for God’s kingdom to come, for the Father’s will to be done in our lives and our world, as it is among the angels and glorified saints. Perhaps what God wants for us and what the world needs from us are the same: a love for God that keeps us directed to the good of our neighbor.

Trend 5: Reclaiming of Ancient Traditions

More and more Pentecostal churches and individuals are drawing on the church’s rich spiritual and liturgical traditions, weaving time-proven practices into more conventional modes of Pentecostal worship and witness. For example, many Pentecostal churches are observing the Christian calendar in various ways, including lighting an Advent wreath, fasting through Lent, and observing Holy Week services. It is not uncommon to find some Pentecostals using lectionary readings in at least some of their services. Perhaps most strikingly, many congregations are moving to frequent confession of the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed and weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

Jonathan Martin, lead pastor of Renovatus Church in Charlotte, recently began leading his church in weekly Communion. He is doing this because he believes that sharing in the Lord’s Supper brings believers into continuity with what God is doing in our time. He said:

The great move of God in the early 20th century was about power. I believe the great move of God in the 21st century may well be about brokenness. Both that we recognize our own brokenness, but also come to believe all over again that the broken body of Christ is the only hope of the world. When we come to the table, both of these things happen simultaneously.

Some, no doubt, fear this recovery of tradition. Others suspect that, in the end, this will turn out to have been merely a fad, a marketing ploy, nothing more than an upshot of some “post-modern” cultural turn. Maybe, at least in some cases, these fears and suspicions are well founded. Be that as it may, time by God’s grace will afford us the perspective to sort the wheat from the chaff, to discern what in this movement is in fact God’s work. For now, we can surely say this at least: Pentecostals, like Christians of all traditions, should remain open to any practices or teachings that ground us more deeply in the gospel of Jesus and move us toward and into authentic, transfiguring holiness.

More and more Pentecostal churches and individuals are drawing on the church’s rich spiritual and liturgical traditions, weaving time-proven practices into more conventional modes of Pentecostal worship and witness.

Trend 6: Loss and Recovery of Pentecostal Identity

Marty Mittlestadt, professor of Biblical Studies at Evangel University (an Assemblies of God institution), testifies of having once felt “lost in his own tradition.” Over time, his theological studies led him to a conviction — Christian pacifism — that seemed to him hopelessly out of tune with the Pentecostalism of his experience. Years later, preparing lectures for a theology course, Mittlestadt discovered the pacifism of the early Pentecostals and found that he was a true son of the movement.

A few weeks ago, a good friend shared with me his story, one that I believe speaks powerfully about the experience of so many people in our churches. Raised by ministers and in the shadow of denominational headquarters, he remembers the intense pressures to hold certain views, to testify to certain feelings and experiences, to agree to certain values that in fact remained stubbornly foreign to him. For as long as he could, he kept his uneasiness quiet, struggling in prayer and reflection to find a way to remain honestly Pentecostal. One day, he received from God a spiritual impression of being in the back room of an old farmhouse, overhearing conversations in the front rooms. He knew intuitively that the others in those rooms were the leaders of his denomination, and he knew that he did not belong in those conversations. Already in the back of the house, he thought how easy it would be to slip out the back door. But, suddenly, forcefully, he sensed God urging him not to leave that way. He said he heard God say, “Remain as long as you can, and if you are forced to leave, I’ll make sure you leave through the front door.”

I have to admit that I’ve known these very feelings. I too have found comfort in the witness of early Pentecostals, and I have heard God urging me not to leave by the back door. We’re living in a time of intense spiritual and cultural upheaval (as demonstrated in part by the trends sketched above). So, it stands to reason that more and more of us are going to experience similar disorientation and displacement. But we do not need to be afraid. We belong not so much to the Pentecostal Movement as to the God of Pentecost, to the Spirit who is Creator and Lord. He can make room for us— and help us make room for others—if we will only learn to “tarry,” waiting in hope to be clothed yet again with the Spirit and the humility that is Jesus’ own glory.

May, 2013

Chris Green, D.Min., Ph.D., is assistant professor of theology at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary in Cleveland, Tennessee.