High-speed Religion -- The Flames of Pentecost on the Web

By the Rev. Marlon Millner - April 14, 2009

Then the LORD replied: "Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that whoever reads it may run with it. (Habakkuk 2:2, NIV)

College is a time for growth, exploration, and formation of identity. This path of maturation in college often happens through reading books that have a lifelong impact. Such was the case for me at least. Two books, both published in 1995, stand out over all the rest and shape why I am today working at the intersection of religion on the web.

The first book was Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the 21st Century by theologian Harvey Cox. You see, I was a third-generation Pentecostal, raised in the foothills of North Carolina. We never handled snakes (a more popular exaggeration of our practices), but we did dance and shout under the power of God, speak in unknown languages, prophesy and pray with folks by anointing them with oil and faithfully asked God to heal, deliver, or save them. When I was a young kid, my uncle (a Pentecostal bishop) had studied theology at Howard University, and turned his master's thesis into a book. So as I became older I was looking for information on Pentecostalism. I scoured the college library and discovered authors such as Margaret Poloma and Walter Hollenweger. But Cox was different. Here was a liberal theologian -- at Harvard no less -- writing from a positive perspective and suggesting that Pentecostalism was pretty important in our world. Pentecostalism was born in the twentieth century, but it was a twenty-first century religion. With our viral marketing of global evangelism, maybe 600 million people on the planet (about one-tenth of the global population) could claim to be Christians filled with the Spirit. And now even Harvard was taking notice.

The other book was on an equally global phenomenon that was starting to be understood -- convergence in media and technology. The book, Megamedia Shakeout: The Inside Story of the Leaders and the Losers in the Exploding Communications Industry (by USA Today technology writer Kevin Maney) was a fascinating study of people like Barry Diller and John Malone and emerging players such as America Online, the Baby Bells, and wireless and Internet technologies. I was attracted to this book because I was starting my journalism career. My plan was to be a muckraker in the Upton Sinclair tradition: I would expose corruption and graft at City Hall. But during my first internship, at The Atlanta Journal & Constitution, the paper had just hired some hot shot editors from USA Today who were talking about the decline of the newspaper industry and the growth of something called the Internet. They were pushing their Prodigy compact disc. The disc helped people log on to the internet by telephone and access things like the newspaper online. Right at the beginning of my career I had to take the business of media seriously. I had a twenty-first century faith, but now I needed a twenty-first century profession.

Rather than cover corruption at city hall, I found greed on Wall Street much more interesting. I worked by day in Manhattan's financial district at Dow Jones & Co, writing for their news service, excited by the first BIG Internet IPO -- Netscape, which would revolutionize access to the web. And I started consulting this channel on AOL for news tips -- The Motley Fool. By night I lived in Harlem and on the weekends attended a Church of God in Christ in Brooklyn, with a seminary-trained bishop who was as likely to quote Jurgen Moltmann, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Henri Nouwen as he was to speak in tongues.

As time evolved, I got a Yahoo! email account, started a Pentecostal theology listserv, built my own ministry website, and took my high-voltage faith to MySpace and Facebook. I even worked for a start-up business news website on the decline of the dot-com craze, and the "category killer" America Online before it got killed.

I also ended up at Harvard myself, mentored by Harvey Cox, as I earned a master of divinity degree. And after graduate school, I merged work and faith, spending several years with American Baptist International Ministries. At this mission agency, I helped them revamp their communications strategies -- including more effective use of the Web. Missionaries now blog and stream videos from even the remotest parts of the earth. I'm certainly not among the first adopters (I still don't have any gadgets beginning with an "i," like iPod or iPhone...). However, I have watched as Pentecostal Christians, in particular, intuitively embraced the power of the Web. Sure, there are some more fundamentalist types who will argue that the Internet is the Beast (think dispensationalist, rapture, The Left Behind series), or the Anti-Christ. But many others see it as the next Azusa -- a clickthrough to your breakthrough.

For me, I have come to understand it is a wonderful, ever-evolving world, where that which matters most -- my faith in Jesus and my life in the Holy Spirit -- can be shared in inspiring and innovative ways.

Marlon Millner is a third-generation Pentecostal preacher and manager of the Evangelical Gateway for Patheos.com. Marlon still has his Yahoo! email and about 10 other accounts. He's been published in The Wall Street Journal, Black Enterprise, The Atlanta Journal & Constitution, and worked for the start-up website LocalBusiness.com.