Pentecostalism stepped into its second century this month. To mark the occasion, CT associate editor Madison Trammel and associate online editor Rob Moll met with three noted Pentecostal leaders for a "state of the union" discussion.
Derrick Hutchins pastors two churches, New Life Church in Orlando and the Family Worship Center in Columbia, South Carolina, and also serves as elected chairman of the general council of pastors and elders of the Church of God in Christ. Predominately black, the Church of God in Christ is the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States, claiming a membership of more than 4 million.
Lee Grady is editor of Charisma, the flagship magazine of the Pentecostal/charismatic movement with a circulation of 250,000 readers.
Russell Spittler currently serves as interim provost of Vanguard University, an Assemblies of God college in Southern California, and he is also provost emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.
At the beginning of the 20th century, no one could have predicted the explosive growth of Pentecostalism. How do you explain it?
Hutchins: Bishop Mason, the founder of the Church of God in Christ, actually did foresee this phenomenon. He said that the Pentecostal movement would grow until no building could contain those who would embrace this newfound spiritual expressionspeaking in tongues and the baptism of the Holy Ghost.
Spittler: By the end of the 19th century, the mood overall in American culture was notably optimistic. There was the growth of classic Christian liberalism and the formation of the social gospel. [But] that optimism was sharply modified by events like the First World War and the sinking of the Titanic. There were three reactions to liberalism: fundamentalism, neo-orthodoxy, and Pentecostalism.
Fundamentalism was a rational reaction. Neo-orthodoxy was also rational, but it had different presuppositions. Pentecostalism was experiential. So what Pentecostals value highly is personal experience of the Holy Spirit.
Hutchins: But when I look at Pentecostalism and its history, I see it through the lens of race. In the 1900s, my people were not in a situation where they were optimistic. They were trying to survive and believe that God someday would deliver us like he did the Israelites. A black man, William Seymour, was the instrument [leading the Azusa Street revival]. Why would God use this relatively uneducated black man?
Also, I think the reason Pentecostalism survived is because there were some people who really organized it. John Maxwell says everything falls or succeeds on leaders.
What about Pentecostalism's growth beyond the West? Why has it taken off in Latin America, Africa, and other places where the context is altogether different from the U.S.?
Grady: In Azusa, it was very clear that God came and the playing field was leveled. All of a sudden, people were transported back to Acts 2 and Joel 2. It wasn't about class, gender, or race. It was about God drawing his people together, and all of a sudden, those things didn't make any difference.
That is an attractive message anywhere. And it's a biblical message. Whether you're in Rwanda with Hutus and Tutsis, or in Latin America with social structures that are oppressive, or wherever you are, the message of inclusiveness and being leveled at the foot of the cross is very attractive to poor people, impoverished people, and oppressed people.
Hutchins: We offer you an experience: "Come on in." We go after you. We're taught to go after people.
What are Pentecostalism's strengths?
Grady: If you look at churches that have broken through in being interracial, it is charismatic and Pentecostal churches that have made the greatest strides. No question. But we're painfully aware of where we still need to go. There's also the issue of women. In the early Pentecostal movement, you had women ordained, preaching, going out as missionaries, evangelizing, doing crusades. Where do you find the most ground taken by women ministers today? Charismatic and Pentecostal churches, no question. But it's the same thing. We've gone backwards. [Encouraging women in ministry] is a strength, but it's also still a weakness.
Hutchins: Okay, what is it that's negative [about Pentecostalism]? It usually boils down to individual vessels and their imperfections and their inability to match word with practice. Whether we're talking about racial issues, integrity in the appropriation and application of funds, or the exorbitant lifestyles of the rich and famous among us. But the light of the gospel and the message itself is always pure. When I get to heaven, I've got to ask God why he used imperfect people to do his perfect will. I suspect his answer will be he could find no other [people].
How has Pentecostalism affected the church as a whole in a positive way?
Grady: What happened at Azusa came back around in the '60s and '70s and hit mainline churches. The benefit of that was untold. The number of ministries birthed in that period, the number of ministers who experienced personal renewalso therefore their churches grew and reached more peoplethat's historic.
Spittler: One of the visible influences of Pentecostal tradition is in worship style. I have clear memories of people raising their hands in chapel at Fuller Seminary. A lot of Pentecostal music has its origins in African American tradition, so there's been a cross-fertilization, it seems to me.
Grady: I feel like the charismatic/Pentecostal movement has also forced the death of cessationism. It used to be entrenched. It used to be a very commonly held view that God doesn't do miracles anymore. But with the advent of Pentecostalism and then with mainline Christians experiencing things like healing, there are only a couple of institutions that still teach cessationism religiously.
As a Pentecostal, what do you most want to say to non-charismatic Christians?
Grady: Pentecostals and charismatics struggle with a mentality that we're ostracized. We're the stepchild or the strange cousin. When my Southern Baptist mother found out I had become a Pentecostal, her first question was, "Do you speak in tongues and go to those strange meetings where people roll in sawdust?" There's a need, I believe, for some relational healing in the body of Christ. It would be wonderful if evangelicals could reach out to charismatics and Pentecostals.
Bill Bright was a neat example of a leader who decided not to look at labels. Early on with Campus Crusade for Christ, he had a statement that said you couldn't speak in tongues and be in his ministry. Later, he set that aside. He became good friends with Pentecostal/charismatic leaders. Also, R. T. Kendall had a charismatic experience while he was a preacher at Westminster Chapel in London. Today, he says that he feels we are coming into another period of revival that's going to require the evangelical camp and the charismatic camp to come together. That's when we're going to see another Azusa.
Hutchins: To increase our impact, we need to unite. Our greatest challenge [worldwide] is coming from Islamand that is your challenge and my challenge as Christians. We have something that we need to come together around, and that is the evangelization of the lost.
Even though speaking in tongues is part of my practice, I've got to realize that God was doing something before 1906. I can't deny that, because God never leaves himself without a witness at any time. The thing God really wants to do today is what Jesus prayed for before he left: that he could move in various places in various ways in a oneness [among his people]. Right now, Pentecostals have the larger portion of the media, the largest Christian magazines, etc., so let's use them to unify the body of Christ.
What are some weak areas within the Pentecostal/ charismatic movement?
Hutchins: I'm talking about the racial issue. We seem to have a problem when it comes to leadership. Whites do not follow organizations led by blacks.
Grady: Part of my job is to watch what's going on in our movement. I have love and affection for the movement and consider it my spiritual family. But I am horribly embarrassed by some of the things that go on. Financial and sexual immorality are not unique to charismatics and Pentecostals, but in the fluid independent charismatic world, we have some unaccountable leadership. At times, scandals are created by that.
Also, the charismatic movement has a number of young leaders who aren't tested. They go out, and they don't have a lot of spiritual mentoring first. So they end up hurting people. I was in a movement in the '80s led by young leaders. It was very dynamic, very evangelistic, very aggressive spiritually. But because the leaders were young and not really accountable to anyone, it ended up with some spiritual abuse and some hurt people. That's a danger in our movement. Hopefully, we're learning from our mistakes.
Spittler: Abiding anti-intellectualism is one of our flaws. In the Assemblies of God, when you apply annually for credentials, you have to identify your ministry: pastor, chaplain, missionary, evangelist, other. For years, I had to check "other." I was always an "other" because a teacher is not highly respected [so it's not on the list]. If the Holy Spirit is teaching you, why would you have any regard for this or that teacher? There's a kind of theological independence that scoffs at education. Yet you can't do theology without intellect. You can't.
Hutchins: There's a danger of heresy really having a field day.
Grady: Another weakness I see is what I'm going to call a propensity toward selfishness. The nature of our message is that the Holy Spirit is personal, he cares about what you've gone through, and he wants to heal your problems. It's about getting your hurts healed, getting your problems sorted through, getting you out of poverty. Those are all good things. One thing that drew me to [charismatic Christianity] was finding out that Jesus really cared about me and had solutions for me. But at the same time, in our movement, I see a lot of self-centered gospel, rather than "I'm getting healed so that I can become whole and help heal others." The ultimate goal should be to become ministers, to become givers and servers of the community and the lost.
Sometimes it seems as if prosperity teaching has found a safe harbor within Pentecostalism. Is that a fair assessment?
Hutchins: It becomes necessary for those who build beyond their means. One televangelist recently said that he reached a conviction that he was not going to allow [prosperity teachers] whom he knew lacked integrity to get on his program, even though they would enable him to amass more money to sustain his telecast. That's admitting, first of all, that you were doing it. It also admits you were doing it to stay on tv by any means necessary. God has to bring you into conviction.
Spittler: What is commonly called the "prosperity gospel" is a corruption of the gospel. I cannot accept that God wants me to be rich. I don't know how to align that with the words of Jesus about the poor. I would say, if you're going to talk about prosperity, let's also talk about poverty. At least equal time, maybe more.
There are varieties of Pentecostalism where the finest examples of Mother Teresalike social ministry are being done.
Grady: There are many camps of charismatics and Pentecostals. Whole sectors do not endorse [prosperity preaching]. Some people think all charismatics are into prosperity preaching; that's absolutely not true.
How big is the prosperity, Word-Faith part of the movement?
Grady: It's not like you can count them. Their influence seems to be disproportionate because of their media. But you have other charismatics who have written and spoken diametrically opposite messages.
If you go to southern Nigeria, however, the majority of Christians are, I would say, in the prosperity camp. Part of it is because there is a strong need for them to be empowered and to move up in society.
What does the future hold for the Pentecostal/charismatic movement?
Spittler: In 1962, I heard an address at Harvard [during which the speaker] said the charismatic movement must disappear into the life of the church. The more I think about it, the more I think he's right.
What the Pentecostal movement has done, overall, is widen the openness to the supernatural in the Christian tradition. You've got prayer for healing now; you've got openness to the gifts of the Spirit. I think it's too triumphalistic for Pentecostals to start celebrating our size and all that jazz. That's why I think Pentecostalism will absorb into the life of the church.
Grady: I believe the future of the charismatic movement in the United States is going to be more and more reflected through ethnic and immigrant communities. That's the future of Christianity in America. All the Pentecostal denominations are reporting that the fastest sector of growth in their movements is either Hispanic or various immigrant communities. In the next ten years, I see that exploding, and most of these [ethnic church communities] will be charismatic.
Also, I believe that globally we're poised to see the largest spiritual harvest in history during the next few years. You look at China and India; you look at some African countries; you look at what is about to happen, it seems, in the Middle East: We're getting ready to see the spiritual equivalent of the Berlin Wall [coming down]. In the next decade, I see possibilities of Christian revival or awakening in Islamic nations, and I think it will have a strong charismatic/Pentecostal flavor to it.
Hutchins: It shall not be as it has been. That's my prophetic word. The coming of the Lord is imminent, more so than we recognize. What is the only thing hindering his coming? That the Word has not yet covered the globe. Then comes the Lord.
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Our full coverage of Pentecostalism on the 100th anniversary of the Azusa Street revival includes:
Full Gospel's Fractured Thinking | The problems with shunning the life of the mind.
Our Anti-Intellectual Heritage | The history and beliefs of the Pentecostal movement, often shared by evangelicals, hold the seeds of a bias against the life of the mind.
A Wind that Swirls Everywhere | Pentecostal scholar Amos Yong thinks he sees the Holy Spirit working in other religions, too.
Africa's Azusa Street | East Africa has experienced Pentecost continually for nearly 80 years.
Stepping to Success | One reason Without Walls is one of the country's fastest-growing Pentecostal congregations.
Pentecostals: The Sequel | What will it take for this world phenomenon to stay vibrant for another 100 years?
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