Society for Pentecostal Studies Paper: What Pentecostals Have to Learn from Emergents

I don’t know that we’re far enough into this thing called emergence Christianity to proffer any definitive statements in the other direction, so I tender these suggestions humbly and tentatively.

First, while Pentecostals have, as I said, excelled at listening to the voice of God open the scriptures, particularly to individuals, the emergent church has worked at listening to God’s voice in corporate environments.  As my own community of faith, Solomon’s Porch in South Minneapolis, the weekly sermon is both prepared and presented communally, with contributions from those of us with PhDs to those us with GEDs.  Every member of the community is considered an “expert,” albeit one is an expert in Greek or Hebrew and the other in lawn mower repair.

Yet there is a presupposition that all voices are valid and important.  To put it another way, each individual believer is equally capable of being used by God’s Spirit and a vehicle of God’s truth.  God’s ability to use an individual to speak truth the community is neither enhanced nor hindered by number of letters after one’s name, how much is in one’s bank account, or which set of genitalia one has.

It seems to me that this egalitarian sense of God’s activity among humans, this “communal hermeneutic” would resonate among Pentecostals and would even hearken back to the early days of your movement.

Second, and also related to the genesis of modern Pentecostalism, is the emergent church’s commitment to a fully-orbed gospel, encompassing both kerygmatic proclamation of the salvation message and activist transformation of the sinful structures in our society that oppress so many of our fellow human beings.  From what I understand, early Pentecostals were groundbreaking in their commitments to racial diversity and harmony, women’s suffrage, and care for the poor.  Much of the power of Pentecostalism, and what seems to be driving much Pentecostal growth in the Global South, is the fact that Pentecostalism has always appealed to those in society who are often overlooked and taken for granted by the older (and stuffier) versions of Christianity.  I believe that the emergent church will be a willing partner with you in this commitment to the poor.

Third, emergent can challenge you to develop a populist theology.  A Reformed theologian once complained to me that, in the Global South, liberation theology “lost,” and Pentecostalism “won.”  He thought this was tragic because, although he had issues with some aspects of liberation thought, at least it was a “theology.”  He considered Pentecostalism to be a/theological.

The very existence of this group tonight defies that opinion.  However, you all have a massive and daunting task on your hands: You have to provide modes of theological reflection (not to mention philosophical and epistemological reflection) for the fastest growing movement in the history of Christianity.  Although on a much, much smaller scale, the emergent church has excelled at provoking theological conversation far beyond the walls of the academy, and we’ve seen an overwhelming interest across the board in deep theology.

My challenge to you is to learn from the mistakes of your Presbyterian, Episcopalian,  and Methodist forbears: Don’t let your theology migrate north – and by “north,” I mean up, from the heart to the head, from the streets to the ivory tower.  Forget about trying to impress the Ivy Leaguers – they’re the past, not the future.  And forget about “trickle-down” modes of theological education, where the smartest person in the room teaches the next one down, and so on and so on.  That, too, is the past.  Instead, learn how to blog.  Tweet your theology.  Write popular books instead of monographs.  In other words, teach everyday people how to think theologically.

Fourth, and finally, I think that the emergent movement might serve as the conscience of Pentecostalism.  I know that it hasn’t always been easy to be Pentecostal over the past century.  Often, Pentecostals have been misunderstood, caricatured, and even sinned against by the rest of the Christian church.  I imagine, for instance, that it’s harder to get tenure at a public university if you speak in tongues.  And I bet it’s harder to get elected to political office.  I know that recently, the Southern Baptist Convention has attempted to purge itself of Pentecostals.  And it doesn’t take much time in Google to discover that the very elements of faith that you consider spiritual gifts, others within Christendom regard as marks of the devil.

To me, this kind of behavior among fellow Christians borders on blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.  I take Jesus’ admonition against blasphemy of the Holy Spirit in Matthew 12 extremely seriously, as should all Christians.  So much so, that I think our default response to novel movements within the church should be that they are of God, not that they are diabolical.  Because if we get it wrong – if we point to something that is the work of the Spirit and instead claim that it’s the work of the devil – well, I don’t need to tell you that kind of mistake comes with consequences.

And yet, as evidenced by the controversy surrounding my invitation, it doesn’t take long for those who were once excluded to become the new gatekeepers.  In only a century, the tables have turned, insofar as some from outside this group, self-appointed “theology police” it seems, attempted to interfere with the academic discourse fostered by SPS.  It’s just ironic to me that it wasn’t so very long ago that the “tongue-talking holy rollers” would have been the ones moved off campus.  In other words, don’t forget your roots, and don’t forget what the experience of being the outsider, the misunderstood one.

  • http://christiannonduality.com John Sobert Sylvest

    From a postmodern catholic charismatic emergent w/tongues but w/o letters – sheesh, yes, those definitions …

    Thanks, Tony. I’ve been lurking on this thread as you slow-dripped your SPS paper onto our cybersidewalks, slurping it slowly, waiting for this particular post. Well done. Please direct us to your respondent’s paper should that become available.

  • http://brgulker.wordpress.com brgulker

    I second pointing us to the respondent’s paper, if available. I’ve enjoyed this, and I’m sure I would equally enjoy that.

  • Brad Nelson

    ***God’s ability to use an individual to speak truth the community is neither enhanced nor hindered by number of letters after one’s name, how much is in one’s bank account, or which set of genitalia one has.***

    Arguably one of the greatest threats to our freedom (religious freedom, political freedom, or social freedom) is what they call the “administrative state.”
    http://www.heritage.org/Research/Thought/fp16.cfm

    The idea that there are specially-excempted and specially-ordained experts is likely as old as humanity. Where there is power to be had, people will rush in to fill it and claim then claim the everlasting right to that power. But anyone who has ever been to the dentist, the auto repair shop, or a doctor knows that expertise is extremely important. Those letters after one’s name are no guarantee of anything, but they do show a process of learning, if the accreditation process is one of integrity. (Not a mail-order PhD, for example.)

    The idea arises: If one can have expertise in tooth-pulling, can one have expertise in the area generally defined as “spirituality”? That’s where it gets trickier because we’ve just made a leap into an area that is an inherently subjective and personal. We are all our own patient to a great extent when it comes to what we think about reality itself. Oh, humanity has been very good at devising top-down hierarchies for such things, but the ideas themselves have resonance and importance primarily inside of the human head and inside the human heart. No expert can definitely tell me how I should think about god any more than an expert can tell me that I should prefer Rembrandt rather than van Gogh.

    But for those who equate religion with getting one’s Afterlife Ticket punched through dedication, commitment, obedience, and observance, that is an entirely other thing. Then hierarchies matter. Then the letters after the name do indeed matter. But if those with the letters consider themselves guides, rather than having ownership of us, then those letters can be of use like they would be in choosing a doctor. No one should be disqualified for being smart and experienced. It’s just that in the field of spirituality, the normal somewhat ego-based attributes of status, rank, reputation, and expertise do not necessarily apply. A doctor doesn’t (or shouldn’t) consider himself a better person because he has specialized knowledge in the medical field. But in the area of spirituality (because we’re dealing with supposedly Ultimate Concerns), it’s very tempting to think that one is closer to God, thus has the authority of God, and thus can speak for God. That’s heady stuff. And I think it is quite arguable that in the humble one will find a much better and brighter light about Ultimate Concerns.

    I think there is a very good congruence between the idea of egalitarian (non expert-based) government and non expert-based spirituality. We can too easily over-rate the letters and undervalue real-world experience. What tends to happen when supposed expertise is given disproportionate value (and it usually is because this is a function of the experts self-reinforcing each other) is that we fall into a class-based way of thinking. The experts are our betters, and we just need to shut up and listen to them. As the ego and power flows to the the experts through this process, they become ever more remote and distant to the nuts-and-bolts workings of life itself which themselves tend to give a person character and wisdom. We have politicians in DC right now making huge decisions on our economy when they have may have rarely, if ever, worked a job outside of government. So it can be in the spiritual fields as well. Those letters behind the name are all well and good, but the letters behind people’s names that generally aren’t given much credit are “LE” — life experience. Such a thing can produce amazing wisdom in people.

    Perhaps, in the end, the message is that people are inherently capable of handling the spiritual part of their lives (or their government) to a very large extent unless we turn this process into one of self-serving “experts” and everybody else. We can too easily rob people of their confidence and retard the development of their own expertise. But if the expert is a teacher and/or good listener then, to my mind, that is a good thing to be.

    People can live up to, or down to, the expectations we place on them. Why tell people from the get-go that they are less than some other person, especially regarding something as personal as spirituality? We can see people as “works in progress” where the end results is either a very cramped image of who we think they should be because we know better, or where the end result is mostly contained within themselves and we aid with the expression of that. But we are likely not doing anyone much of a favor by flaunting letters and supposed expertise, whether talking spirituality or politics. Instead, I think we do people a great service when we help to develop their capabilities rather than, in many subtle and sneaky ways, making them more and more dependent on us.

  • Jo Ann W. Goodson

    “My challenge to you is to learn from the mistakes of your Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Methodist forbears: Don’t let your theology migrate north – and by “north,” I mean up, from the heart to the head, from the streets to the ivory tower. Forget about trying to impress the Ivy Leaguers – they’re the past, not the future. And forget about “trickle-down” modes of theological education, where the smartest person in the room teaches the next one down, and so on and so on. That, too, is the past. Instead, learn how to blog. Tweet your theology. Write popular books instead of monographs. In other words, teach everyday people how to think theologically.” I think that each of us can learn from our mistakes no matter what denomination we are associated with. I am a Northern Baptist that used to be Southern Baptist and I always explain why when I say I am Baptist. Wish we could change our name but I love the Baptist beliefs. I think every church should teach courses in theology. Until I became interested in theology and others thinking, I had too many questions but at least I am finding some answers that suits me. There will always be questions but it is nice to come to some understanding, at least for the moment, about some critical points of theology, etc. “Every member of the community is considered an “expert,” albeit one is an expert in Greek or Hebrew and the other in lawn mower repair.” I love this about your community and long for it to be true in every congregation regardless of denomination.

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  • Brad Laird

    I am now a Quaker were the notions presented here are very close to the way some of us think. There is an emergent Quaker movement too. I will hold thee in the Light.

  • Chris

    “My challenge to you is to learn from the mistakes of your Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and Methodist forbears: Don’t let your theology migrate north – and by “north,” I mean up, from the heart to the head, from the streets to the ivory tower. Forget about trying to impress the Ivy Leaguers – they’re the past, not the future. And forget about “trickle-down” modes of theological education, where the smartest person in the room teaches the next one down, and so on and so on.

    It’s funny, this comment almost has the feel of the anti-scholarship fundamentalist sentiment of the early twentieth century. I don’t think you meant it that way (I hope) as you are the beneficiary of an ivy-league education. It does though suggest to me that one way to stay at the top of the heap is to encourage others to dismiss formal educations, systematic theologies, and “trickle-down” modes of education so that we may provide our deeper (and formally gained) insights to fill in the sizable holes that blogging and tweeting are prone to. Do you feel the same way about Phyllis Tickle when she teaches or lectures? Do you consider it trickle-down when she teaches others with fewer years under their belts?

  • http://gustavofrederico.blogspot.com Gustavo K-fé Frederico

    Tony, what was that tool that you used to chat about your speach on Pentecostalism & emergents in your web site?

    thank you,
    Gustavo Frederico
    gcsfred@gmail.com


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