March 13, 2012 Permalink
This is the kind of post that demands multiple disclaimers, starting here: I am first and foremost a part of the kingdom of God that knows no denominational or ecclesial barriers. One of the reasons we say the apostles’ creed regularly at Renovatus is that I want our congregation constantly reminded that we are part of one catholic (universal) Church, so much bigger than our local body or our tribe. But that being said, in the words of Dr. Steve Land, “There is no such thing as a generic Christian.” We all have a particular context and social location within the body of Christ that marks us (including non-denominational Christians who claim to “just love Jesus” and “just believe in the Bible.”) It just so happens that I was planted neck-deep into the Pentecostal tradition, with a grandfather and father who are Pentecostal ministers.
I’m here not only by tradition but by choice, despite my lifelong lover’s quarrel with the Pentecostal movement. I’m in in, and it is in me. It reminds me of when Stanley Hauerwas was asked why he at the time was still Methodist despite his robust and frequent criticisms of the United Methodist Church. “I’ve just always believed you stay with the people who have marked you,” Hauerwas said, and that pretty much sums it up for me–though I do find plenty to love about our quirky tradition.
Doing an unusual amount of travel in the last month, I’ve had the opportunity to see different expressions of the movement a lot as of late. In Germany, I spoke at the Church of God’s European Theological Seminary, and had the opportunity to experience the unique community of students there from 16 nations. I was able to experience the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic Solid Rock Church in Ireland led by my friend Nick Park, the overseer of the Churches of God in Ireland. And last week, I was humbled to be around a truly remarkable cross section of Pentecostal leaders and scholars from around the world at the Converge21 conference in Virginia Beach, VA.
Thus I continue to have a ringside seat to see the unique gifts at work within the Pentecostal movement. Not unique in that they are not accessible to other parts of the body of Christ, but unique in that their distinct gifts are cherished gifts that can bring renewal to the global Church. I am so encouraged not just by the charisms but the creativity I see among young Pentecostal believers. And yet for all the ways that the movement continues to re-shape the face and character of global Christianity, I find that Pentecostal Christians (at least in my North American context) are especially reluctant to drive the kind of robust theological conversation we most need, settling instead for a reactionary posture to other segments of the body of Christ. To be more direct, I was amazed at how many of my colleagues in recent weeks have commented that they feel like the younger resurgence of Reformed Christianity impacting young Pentecostal leaders. It is fascinating (and a bit alarming to me) to see us consistently swept up into conversations within a Protestant framework that allegedly the Pentecostal movement has kind of already blown up! In a session I led last week, Dr. Cheryl Johns said it well: “Pentecostals still seem comfortable being the icing on the cake, when we ought to be baking the cake.” (I am of course partial to any analogies that involve cake)
Case in point: a couple of weeks ago I wrote an entry in response to Mark Driscoll regarding women in ministry. I wrote it not because of any particular interest in or dislike for Driscoll, but because that is one of the issues within the body of Christ I care about most deeply and feel most required to speak into.. It is the most widely read blog entry I’ve written, and its been especially encouraging to hear from women in ministry around the world who felt they were well represented. I have had no second thoughts or regrets about anything I said in the piece per se, save this one overarching problem I have with myself: that by writing it at all, I fear I somewhat entered into that peculiar evangelical airspace in which everyone seems to be reacting, positively or negatively, to what is happening in neo-reformed world. I do not wish to express undue negativity towards my reformed colleagues. I think they have their place and their contribution to the larger body of Christ. I just don’t think so many of the important conversations within the American Church need to be shaped by a monolithic voice.
One of the reasons I felt the need to respond initially was that I felt that on that issue, as well as a host of others, the distinct vision of Pentecostal spirituality was largely underrepresented. I consider the modern movement to be the third great historic movement in Christianity, neither Catholic nor Protestant but an entirely different way of being with God in the world. As Land notes, global Pentecostalism operates both in continuity and discontinuity strands of Christianity in a variety of contrasting ways. (As I have argued elsewhere, I personally think that if comparisons are to be made, Pentecostal spirituality is if anything perhaps more fundamentally catholic in character than it is Protestant—but that’s another story for another time.) For the purposes of this piece, I just think it should be established that Pentecostalism provides a very different approach to spirituality than Protestantism in any form (Land argues this brilliantly in his landmark Pentecostal Spirituality: A Passion for the Kingdom). It is not, as popularly conceived, garden variety of evangelicalism with the addendum of speaking in tongues (and maybe divine healing), though Pentecostals have done more villainy than any of their critics ever could in feeding this reductionist approach. Because we like sitting at the big table with other evangelicals, we have been happy to play down our differences so that we can have a seat within the Protestant conversation.
We do this because we have a rather brazen inferiority complex. Pentecostals were birthed on the wrong side of the theological railroad tracks, persecuted from virtually all sides from the beginning of the movement for our emotionalism, apocalyptic urgency, and radical deconstruction of racial and gender barriers. Since we have superficial commonalities with other fundamentalists, that’s where we’ve sought acceptance. In our need for acceptance, we have softened the more edgy and more interesting contours of our way of understanding God, church and world, minimizing our potential to be a renewal movement for the entire body of Christ. There is really no one to blame but ourselves for all of this, and I could go on for days about the maddening tendencies towards self-sabotage that are so pronounced within the movement itself, especially in North America.
Yet even given all of this, the fact remains that on the ground, this renewal movement is sweeping the globe. It isn’t sweeping the blogosphere or the evangelical coffee tables quite so much, and that is not really an indictment. Those circles are predictably white, North American (and not always that interesting). I do not think Pentecostals should be so preoccupied with what is going on in these circles as to be distracted from making their own distinct contributions to the body of Christ and set the agenda for theological conversations they are uniquely qualified to further.
A couple of days after I wrote that piece I took my staff to watch this year’s Elephant Room seminar, put on by James McDonald. I went largely in support of my friend Steven Furtick, who handled himself with great grace and humility. There was a lot to like about the tone and tenor of the conversations that day (yes, even from Mark Driscoll). I appreciated the warm, conciliatory tone that underwrote robust theological discussions. I appreciated the inclusion of slightly more diverse voices from across the body of Christ. It was less focused on the young restless and reformed, and while of course there were no women present (that would have gotten a really stern letter from the little high Jedi council of the gospel coalition I bet), there was more racial diversity. There were many reasons to be encouraged. Yet my central critique remains thus: that given the theological backgrounds of key figures, the neo-reformed/baptistic circle still really set the agenda for the kind of conversations that were being had.
That’s by no means all bad, mind you. It is just fine to have a theological dialogue that, while incorporating some other voices, is largely representative in tone and scope to one part of the body. I have no complaint with that, only frustration that Pentecostals are so beholden to such forums and never attempt to drive or steer these conversations ourselves. Perhaps it is as natural as the fact that Reformed people, more systematic by nature, are more intentional than we free-wheeling Pentecostals in our approach to such things.
I like the Reformed guys fine enough. I’m fine for them to have their gospel coalition and even their gospel coalition Jedi council. I do think that in posturing themselves as the arbiters and guardians of truly orthodox theology, they can be smug and self-referential, but Pentecostals can also be (and often are) smug and self-referential of course. The neo-Reformers can have a new Vatican if they want to. I just don’t think it has anything much to do with me. Since I see the Pentecostal movement as no more Protestant than it is Catholic, I have no reason to feel any particular kinship to say, John Piper than Pope Benedict. (While Pope Benedict hasn’t been the friendliest to the charismatic renewal within the Catholic Church, I actually find him to be a far more interesting and nuanced theologian for that matter-but of course I have room for both.)
I just wish Pentecostals would step up to the plate and be as bold and creative and provocative as people of the Spirit ought to be, instead of just following these guys around and carrying their bags—that’s all. I though the Elephant Room was a great event. And I’m sure TD Jakes can rest a lot better at night knowing that Mark Driscoll offered him the fist bump of fellowship after quizzing him on the apostles’ creed. (Because between the two of them the honorable and generally gaffe-free Jakes is the one who needs to be asked hard theological questions?! Naturally. Now I have permission from Protestant white people to listen to Jakes preach without guilt. Thanks for that guys!)
The Pentecostal movement is not just the future face of global Christianity, it’s the present one. We produce great leaders, great preachers, and I’m sure much to the surprise to some of the Reformed Jedi, great scholars. If we aren’t doing the same thing in the blogosphere and the coffee table or the pages of Christianity Today, that’s not a major tragedy. But what would be a tragedy is that if young leaders within our movement neglect the resources within their own tradition in order to emulate those outside of the tradition—especially if its motivated by a theological inferiority complex and a desperation to be accepted. We’ve got a unique, particular message that not only the world but the Church in these times desperately needs to hear. I think its high time we start saying it instead of stumbling around in Saul’s armor, not trying to convince cherished brothers and sisters who need our distinctness that we are actually just like them.
Pentecostals don’t just need to be contributing, they need to be conducting. We need to be driving instead of just glad to be along for the ride. We are long past the days where, feeling shunned by the Protestant establishment, we should walk around feeling lucky to be invited to anybody else’s party. (There are an awful lot of metaphors flying around here. I may feel guilty about that later.) We’ve got our own party and we are baking our own cakes. People who make a claim to be people of the Spirit should be among the most creative voices in the Christian world. Too many of the conversations that are dominating the landscape of North American evangelical Christians are either redundant or asking the wrong questions. I am by no means presumptuous enough to assume that Pentecostals have all the right questions or answers–we need the whole Church. But I do think we have some of them. At the very least, we’ve got interesting claims because we are an odd people. And in the increasingly monolithic caricature of Christianity in North America, I think our oddness is called for.