Pentecostalism and Emergence: Origins

Pentecostalism and Emergence: Origins February 19, 2010

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I have been charged by the Society for Pentecostal Studies to present a paper at their annual conference that addresses what emergence and Pentecostalism have to learn from one another.  The first thing to consider, I think, are the origins of the two movements.*

Azusa Street Mission, 1907

The Wittenburg Door moment of Pentecostalism, of course, is the revival that took place at the Azusa Street Mission in Southern California in 1906.  What I did not know was that there had been other manifestations of glossolalia for about a century prior to that, including little bursts of tongues among some Prussian soldiers, a Presbyterian church in Scotland, and a Bible college in Kansas.

The origin of emergence has no parallel date-certain.  Neither does it flow from one confessional stream, as Pentecostalism did from Wesleyan Holiness.  And, of course, movements spread a lot differently, and more quickly, in our era of new media (on this, see Dwight Friesen).

In the end, I don’t see many similarities in the origins of the movements, unless some of you can enlighten me.

And I’ll admit here and now that I am relatively skeptical revival in general and tongues and healing in specific.  This is an intellectual hurdle for me as I prepare this paper.  I’m not proud of that fact, and I don’t admit it to demean my Pentecostal friends, and the scholars whom I will be addressing in a couple weeks.  I just admit it in order to get it out there on the table.

*I do consider emergence a “movement,” at least as understood in the classification of New Social Movements.  I go to some length in my dissertation to argue that.

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  • Dave H

    “And I’ll admit here and now that I am relatively skeptical revival in general and tongues and healing in specific. This is an intellectual hurdle for me as I prepare this paper.”

    Would love to hear more about this as your thinking and friendships develop. I’m also there, and am horrified by the prospect of this hurdle isolating me from Pentecostal friends with whom I want to remain connected. Please let us know how you navigate this with the SPS, and elsewhere.

  • I think there is one similarity: both movements began on the fringes, to varying extents. William Seymour, who led at Azusa Street, was a son of slaves. There was an intentional passion for racial reconciliation and for egalitarianism, and many of those folks were poor and marginalized. I don’t think these are the only reasons their movement was on the fringes, but certainly it helped.

    Anyway, I’m of the opinion that emergence in the church can be traced back to things like the Jesus Movement and the folks who did church among the punks/hippies/goths in the 80s, but whether that is the case or not I do think we can trace it back to the fringes as well.

    They are different fringes, of course, but noteworthy nonetheless. Pentecostalism is no longer on the fringes, but in the process of moving away from that it did lose a good bit of its distinctiveness.

  • The emerging movement is a product of the communication revolution of the last ten years, allowing small pockets of communities and leaders to learn of each other and communicate in a way not possible before. Cohesion developed out of nonconformist communities who might have otherwise become discouraged in isolation. In a way we could say these communities were, separately, asking what it meant to be Christian in our era. What is the Gospel? What is the sign of the work of God? They responded with forms of holistic community and missional practices.

    Pentecostalism does have more of moment of beginning, or two beginnings, the latter one taking advantage of early 20th century forms of mass communication, like newspapers and wire services. People from all over were able to learn what was happening and see if it could be replicated. The movement started by asking what are the signs of the baptism of the Holy Spirit?

    Each movement began, essentially, by perceiving the church experiences of their era were not complete or satisfying, either personally or Scripturally. However, whereas Pentecostals focused on their answer in the beginning of Acts 2, Emerging churches seemed to have found more interest in the chapter. Though, to be sure, Pentecostals are far and away much more advanced in the numbers of people being added each day.

  • We could also maybe see emerging as a continued thread of the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition. Around the beginning of the 20th century, there was a developing split between the Holiness (moral code emphasizing) and then the experiential (Pentecostal) both of which arose out of Wesleyan emphases on holiness and Spirit baptism. Sanctification meant something different for these two.

    What was somewhat lost was the Wesleyan emphasis on social action. As Wesley said, ” First, God works; therefore you can work. Secondly, God works, therefore you must work.” He was a leader in social activism in his era, with good news implying a holistic good news in moral, experiential, social, and communal ways.

  • Is there some sense of intangible awareness of spiritual malaise or something? It sounds stupid even when I write it that way–and may indeed be true of any/all religious movements, but if I was hard-pressed for a similarity, that would be it.

    Whenever the institution(s) seem dead and stale, there’s a longing for something new and vital–like St. Francis seeing the ruins and hearing God say “rebuild my church.” I feel like that’s one of the lingering streaks of the P/C movement, and I think it’s the emergent evangelistic appeal–to look at folks and say “doesn’t something seem just a little off in this picture we’re calling church?”

    It may be grossly oversimplifying, but even after all the past discussion (and what you’re putting down here), it’s the one thing I just can’t shake–there’s a feeling to it.

  • Robb Blackaby

    I think your “hurdle” might be a key to a mutuality in the movements. I see tongues and healing as trans-rational- intentionally so. It is God breaking into our lives where we have reasoned (enlightenment) God out. I can also see in expressions of emergence where people are looking for a trans-rational experience, through the mysteries of the sacraments for one, and even perhaps in relational epistomologies over and against modern/intellectual epistomologies. This is just initial thoughts on this. I look forward to our time at SPS. Blessings.

  • I’m very much looking forward to the details of your conversation, Tony. Thanks for admitting your difficulty with the meat and potatoes of pentecostal revivalism. As a confessed Pentecostal, I share these concerns: not because it lacks biblical precedent, because it does; but primarily because the movement has become trapped – and confused with – a particular cultural model (men in suits, altar calls, emotional swells of melodramatic song and oratory). I would be very interested in a discussion on Pentecostalism as a 20th century cultural expression of Christian mysticism.

  • I think initially, early Pentecostals were seeking a return to the practices of the early church. “Primitive Christianity” is often the motive driving many “revival movements”. As a part of the return to NT Christianity, mission became a prominent theme for these early Pentecostals. This return to Christ’s mission, also seems to be a prominent theme for emergence.

    I also don’t know that tongues was the central issue of early Pentecostals. Many saw the Baptism of the Spirit (with speaking in tongues) as empowerment for mission/ministry. They were not seeking tongues but seeking a way to accomplish God’s mission. These spiritual gifts were used (initially) as a means to further that mission. The affect was the countless number of missionaries sent all over the world from Azusa and other break out locations.

    I agree with a previous comment that the unusual manifestations that occurred in the Pentecostal worship services were “trans-rational”. I think there was a rejection of modernity and the rational forms of church that were taking place in fundamentalism. These miraculous manifestations were seen as signs of God’s Kingdom which not only stood in contrast to the “normal” culture of that day but were in fact “breaking into” the present age. Again, I think there are parallels to the counter-cultural theme present in emergence.

  • Josh Butcher

    In relation to origins of the movements, both movements are in some form reactions to, and critiques of, the modern era with its focus on reason, autonomy and reductionistic methods. As one comment noted above, they both began as “fringe” movements. It just so happens that both Pentecostalism and Emergence were “fringe” to the same modern ethos of the Enlightenment project. You can see this in the similarities of their response. Both movements are known for their emphasis on contextualized communities (against the modern idea of basic Christian imperialism). Both are incredibly narrative in nature, rather than propositional. Both emphasize a maximum level of participation in all levels of reflection, prayer and decision-making rather than participation by the elite few who hold the corner on revelation through reason. Both exhibit an understanding of the correspondence between the body and mind, where physical experience is valued. This is unlike the typical modern understanding that the mind was central and the body (at best) was indifferent or (at worst) something to be escaped and destroyed.

    There are many more similarities. And I’m sure you will unearth others that will help facilitate even more discussion. Looking forward to it all.

  • True confession time, Tony: I haven’t been actively part of a Pentecostal church in fourteen years, but I speak in tongues. Quite nearly daily. It’s a bit weird, to be sure, but (some Jesus-friendly religious naturalists would say) not as weird as you might think.

    It might be helpful to think of glossalalia (which Pentecostal biblical exegesis distinguishes as having many diverse types and manifestations, as Paul writes in I Corinthians – not just the multiple-languages at Pentecost), when habituated as a regular gift, as a spiritual discipline not too different from the Jesus Prayer or Centering Prayer. For me praying in tongues serves a similar function – when I have no words for prayer, the Spirit prays through me. I can rest my cognitive function – my mind rests while my tongue (and, seemingly, my human spirit) are engaged.

    There have been a number of neuroscientific studies of glossalalia these past few years – Here’s a summary of one. I’ve read others that compare brainwave patterns during glossalalia and those of centering prayer. They’re both altered states, but quite different areas of the brain were engaged/calm in tongues-talkers versus apophatic center-ers. Since I practice both, that might be why I’m so confused. 😉

  • Oh… I just remembered that our dear friend Moltmann has a section on tongues in his Spirit of Life… chapter 9.