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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  • This is fascinating to me. As a member of the Religious Society of Friends (AKA Quakers) and a frequenter of Emergentish topics here and there I have always felt your position to be the case as well Tony, except that my thoughts went a little something like “Man… why don’t these Emergent folk ask some Emergent Quakers about the Spirit…”

    My point: I’d add a request for Friends (small in numbers though we may be) to weigh in on this topic as well, as it is something with which we have struggled (and been fed) for centuries.

  • Aaron

    This is a topic that I have been wrestling with as of late. I work as a worship and arts coordinator and leader in a Covenant Church in Kansas City. I attend North Park Seminary online and find myself to lean more to the emerging conversation for it’s robustness in thought about The Kingdom, atonement, narrative theology, etc. Being in Kansas City though means I am in I-HOP land (for those outside of the scene, I-HOP is the International House of Prayer, a large player in the pentecostal scene). The worship leader at our other campus has been heavily influenced by I-HOP and the adjacent movements over the last 20 years or so and because of that is a very spirit led leader.

    Even though this is perhaps not the adjectives that would be chosen to describe my leadership I find myself needing to be in conversations with him. Often I don’t resonate or find myself ready to accept premises he puts out there but sometimes I do. And over all, our conversation is profoundly helpful to me and my own construction of a pneumatology.

    On the flip side, he was not aware of the Church Calendar (did not know the difference between Advent and Christmas seasons, etc.) Which happens to be something I have found so much life in over the years. So our conversations have a two way learning street in many ways.

  • I find the dialogue interesting, and yet much like listening to NT Wright speak on the Gospel of John at Gordon Conwell last year, when he got to his last session and spoke about the Pneumatology of John’s Gospel the seminarians thought it was deep and challenging theology and I felt as though I was back in Bible College listening to Pneumatology 101 or Pentacostalism 101.

    I think that you will find that as a dialogue continues (assuming it will) there is more to Pentecostal pneumatology than a robust praxis, and folk religion terminology to learn from.

    Of course, there is a pile of kooky stuff to forage through as well.

    I second Callid’s remark above – not as a Quaker myself, but as someone who has admired Quaker thoughts on the Spirit for quite some time.

  • Here is the money quote:

    “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.”

    Certainly persons in the Pentecostal tradition are keenly tuned into this work of God, and recognize the work of the divine in all human endeavors. The question is how can other traditions become more aware of this work of God, and adequately name that work while at the same time not giving up their ability to discern.

  • Hi Jonathan,

    As a quick thought response to your post: It would seem to me that recognition of that work precedes discernment. If the work of God is not at first recognized as being the work of God it would seem apparent that a good degree of an individual’s discernment is already faulty: either not recognizing the work of God, or demonizing it.

    Discernment is not merely a negative behavior identifying only what is not God, but a positive one recognizing what is God. In both directions there is possibility for error, and both Pentecostals and their detractors have erred in both directions.

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  • For several years now I have been trying to bridge the emergent/pentecostal divide without success. I have been part of various brands of Pentecostalism since I met the Lord in 1970. Yet I came from a socially liberal family and I never ‘fit’ with most of the fine people I worshiped God with. So about 7 years ago I became interested in our local emergent scene. I enjoyed the freedom to ask questions and not know all the answers. Yet when someone found out my ‘secret’ that I actually believed that God talked with me, that I actually talked with God in English and tongues, and that sometimes the Lord would use me prophetically, the budding friendship was over. I’m not so sure that the emergent folks really want to know the moving of the Spirit. Why? Because they will then have to believe, without reservation, what they read in scripture. Paul wrote the Galatians that to start in the Spirit you must believe what you hear. At this stage of the story it seems to me that the emergent are still too busy trying on different ways of looking at God. Their hermeneutic of suspicion needs to become, as Richard Hays once wrote, a hermeneutic of faith.

  • Nice article. Charismatic emergent here and more than happy to help in the endeavour!

  • While there are some very good things that come out of charismatic Spirit driven worship and practice…I do not want to appear anti-spirit as I am not and, listen to the Lord speak to me often via his Holy Spirit. On the other hand, I have witnessed some very negative results from the alleged move of the spirit. People who have been called out and falsely accused by so-called modern prophets.

    The bottom line should be that, the move of the Spirit will produce and emphasize the fruit of the Spirit and there is way too much condemnation presented in the name of the Holy Spirit. Discernment is really key. A great question to ask is; –Does the movement of the sprit result in love, joy, peace, gentleness, meekness, kindness and self control?

  • Joe,

    This is a good point, but don’t you think that the probelm is nearly as severe with reformed theologians (okay theologian is not quite the word here) as John MacArthur or Hank Hannegraaf? Calling people out is problem whether one thinks they are either more spiritual or more orthodox. This is not solely a Pentecostal problem.

  • Hi Phil,
    You are definitely right. There is a very judgmental segment of evangelical Christianity which does not practice any charismata. It is definitely not solely a Pentecostal problem…and yet, I must still insist that it is a great problem in a lot of charismatic circles. Whether Pentecostal or Cessationist, it is a very negative practice and that is why I believe that the fruit of the Spirit is the best indicator to be used in discernment.

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  • Great blog post, and I’m very please people are talking about this. I identify as both Charismatic (Vineyard tradition) and Emergent and often find that ne’er the two shall meet. I was at an EC conference lately (which shall be nameless) and while I enjoyed it in many ways, I was shocked to find very little talk of prayer etc – and not once during the whole time I was there did we pray. It struck me that maybe in some EC circles people are too busy being cynical and/or deconstructing things to engage as wholeheartedly in prayer as they might do, and to me that’s not engaging with your doubts that’s *indulging* them (I know this is something of a strawman but it definitely has some root in true experience). If we are cut off from our lifesource like that how do we every expect to be effective? I’d definitely like to see some more dialogue on this subject.

    I like your follow-up post (“what pentecostals can learn from emergents”) as well. Good on you!

  • Katie Jo Vasquez

    Hi Tony, hi all,
    Thanks for your thoughts both in this post and the “what Pentecostals have to learn from Emergents” post. I’m a Pentecostal… though typing those words still makes me cringe. I go to a very liberal seminary and hid my charismatic roots for my first few years here. I think what you say, Tony, about prejudice against tongue-talkers is very true. There are, of course, good reasons for the prejudice. Many Pentecostals, are sadly undereducated about their own tradition, have “gifts of the spirit,” but few fruits of the spirit, and don’t make a good attempt at explaining their insider experiences to outsiders. At the same time, Pentecostals live most of their faith life through experiences that are hard to explain and have no secular counterparts, so the misunderstanding is, well, understandable.
    I am new to the Emergent movement, but I think there are enough correlations between what Emergents believe and what their mainline roots taught to make a few generalizations. First, I have noticed the trend among liberal main-line churches to get theological resources from Christian sources, but when they need to be able to talk about any spiritual experience, they go to Eastern thought. I always wonder why they don’t realize that there is an equally good, home-brewed Christian version of mystic spirituality found right in Pentecostalism!
    Second, in regard to your point about Emergents lacking a language to speak of the Spirit, I think the language comes from the experience. Though most Pentecostals use terms from the Bible to label the staple practices of charisma, much of the language comes from struggling to explain a move that the Spirit just made in your body or community. The language used is unique to each community and highly contextual (and I think that’s a good thing). For example, in different churches I have preached at, there were several terms for the same experience, some formal, some jovial; including: “slain in the Spirit,” “fallen in the Spirit,” “carpet time,” “resting in the Lord,” “Spirit legs,” being “overcome,” etc. These all refer to the experience when one is being prayed for by a pastor or leader and feels a rush of something from God come over them and is no longer able to stand; so they fall on the floor and lay there for a little while. (This is one of the experiences of charisma that most intimidates outsiders, but it can be a miraculous experience and can be explained in intelligent terms. For me, it is an example of how our theology comes from our body as much as from our mind- this is an idea common in feminist theology, see also the work of Melanie May, and it gives the believer a concrete experience of God’s power which cannot be controlled- which is beneficial to humility and future submission to God’s will.)
    I suppose, this is all to say, that if Emergents have never had this experience, they would never need words to describe it. But the catch-22 is that if there is no language to describe it, how will Emergents ever know about it in order to experience it? In my experience, it takes a few people who are willing to experiment with mystic experiences and do their best to describe what happened to others. As one who knows the abuses of the charismatic movement, I would caution others in adopting their language whole-hog. Much of the language is steeped in unhealthy ideas of the self and of power, and much of it is already so unattractive to non-believers as to make it not only useless, but damaging. The language wrought from your own experience seems not only timely, but faithful to the emergent worldview as a whole.
    What if the emergent movement is the place where people can both value education and let loose in mystical experiences? What if we interfaced with different types of Christians so much that there were whole bunches of people who spoke in tongues and voted democrat? Who believed in miracles and donated to medical advancement? Who balanced a hermeneutic of suspicion with a hermeneutic of commitment?
    I have been thinking for a while of writing a “guidebook” explaining the psychological benefits of Pentecostal experiences to liberals and secularists. It is rare that people ask for advice from Pentecostals, so you have given me new inspiration!

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