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

Society for Pentecostal Studies Paper: What Emergents Have to Learn from Pentecostals March 8, 2010

It’s on this very point that I’d like to suggest that emergents can learn from Pentecostals how to talk about the Spirit of God.  In yesterday’s theology session on the emergent church, there was much talk about the need for emergents to develop a “robust pneumatology.”  I agree, in part.  For I think that emergents have a robust pneumatology, but I don’t think that we’re very good at talking about it.

As I argue in The New Christians, I think that most American Christians are “binitarians.”  That is, while they profess a belief in all three persons of the Trinity, their practice of the faith betrays that the Father matters to them, and so does the Son, but the Spirit is an afterthought.  As reflected in hymnody and praise songs, sermon titles and prayers, the Spirit gets far less than one-third of the time in the spotlight in most churches.

I think that emergents know, in our guts, that the Holy Spirit needs to make a comeback in our churches.  But we’ll need some brothers and sisters in Christ to show us the way.  I ask you who are Pentecostal and Charismatic to help us in that way.  Give us guidance in putting words on and legs to that pneumatology that lies latent within our movement.  I do believe that you will find willing dialogue partners in this endeavor.

And that leads to a second area in which Pentecostals have something to teach emergents: I ask that you teach us how to discern the movement of God’s Spirit.  For over a century, Pentecostals have been speaking with confidence about what God is up to in the world, about how, in the words of the Separatist Pilgrim pastor John Robinson, “There is more light and truth yet to break forth from God’s Word.”

Let me speak personally.  I grew up, not far from here, in a mainline, Congregational Church.  On the walls of the narthex hang copies of the Mayflower Compact, the Declaration of Independence, and the U.S. Constitution.  In other words, we took our Congregational roots seriously.  And a big part of those roots is education – as a youth, I often heard that in Jonathan Edwards’s day, the minister was the most highly educated person in a village.  My own pastor had degrees from Harvard University, Union Theological Seminary, and the University of Edinburgh.  The faith in which I was reared was both rational and reasoned.  Nary a hand was raised in the church of my youth.

So it came as a bit of a shock to be exposed, first in college and then in seminary, to Charismatics and Pentecostals who spoke easily of the Lord’s word to them for the day – heck, they even received words for me for the day!  Even more mindblowing to me was speaking at a YWAM conference in Chico, California years ago, and being introduced to “Bible Roulette,” in which the scripture is flipped through until one’s finger lands on a verse, and that verse is God’s word for you today.

I realize that’s an extreme example that’s probably not taught by any of the biblical studies professors with us tonight, but it nevertheless bespeaks the ease with which Pentecostals talk about God’s activity.  And if it is extreme, so is my tradition, in the other direction, far too often talking of God in the abstract and overly reticent to testify to God’s activity.

I consider theology to be reflection on and articulation of the nexus of divine and human action.  And I have a suspicion that Pentecostals are more viscerally aware of this nexus than most Christians.  I believe that theology lies latent in all human enterprise, from the most poignant to the most mundane, and my hunch is that Pentecostals more readily acknowledge this fact than the believers of my tradition.

I can tell you that I and other emergents experience God’s activity today, but we need help in finding the language to articulate that experience.  As Pentecostals, you have worked for over a century to forge a theological language that articulates divine action – what you likely call a “fresh movement of the Spirit.”  My hope is that emergents can learn from Pentecostals how to discern the movement of God and articulate that in ways that will build God’s kingdom.


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