Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Who are the Pentecostals?

Catholics often tend to group all other Christians together under the label of Protestants without fully appreciating the significant differences and nuances in theology and practice of one Protestant group from another. Here's an interesting article by Matthew Del Nevo, published in Terra Spiritus, an online magazine (September 23) that helps us understand a significant segment of Christians and demonstrates the major differences and similarities with other churches or ecclesial communities.

Pentecostals are always local congregations. Last year the Assemblies of God (AoG) – the biggest Pentecostal network – to the annoyance of various Protestant groups – rebranded themselves, Australian Christian Churches (ACC). The reason was because ‘Assemblies of God’ sounded weird and old-fashioned, which I think is quite true.

Catholics tend to know as little about Pentecostals as Pentecostals know about Catholics. Each has stereotyped views of the other, and stereotypes which, rather than being helpful, are largely mistaken. At the personal level, most Pentecostals will know some Catholics. Normally they will see Catholics as somewhat ‘unconverted’. But most Catholics, being good humoured and not fanatical, wouldn’t deny this either. Most Catholics would consider themselves, I imagine, ‘sufficiently converted’. Also, Pentecostals would be likely to regard being Catholic as like being Jewish, because Catholic is something you are born into – or so it would seem to them. Whereas, Pentecostalism is something you ascribe to; it is a choice. So, for instance, a Pentecostal doesn’t attend church by habit or custom (generally) or because of parentage, but because their experience is that church is the best thing happening on Sunday morning – perhaps the best thing that happens all week.

Catholics tend to think of Pentecostalism as emotive Protestantism. Most Catholics know a Pentecostal or two. In Sydney, Hillsong church has such a large congregation that it is said everyone in the entire city knows someone who attends services there. The mass media has a lot to do with shaping our misconceptions. While Catholicism is well represented in the press, and we even have our own newspapers like the Catholic Weekly, Pentecostalism – more particularly Hillsong, as the most visible sign of it in the Australian landscape – have been consistently under vitriolic attack, at least in Sydney. Only if you know something about Pentecostalism and then you read the newspaper attacks, do you know how wrong they are.

The fact is that Catholics have something in common with Pentecostals which Pentecostals don’t have in common with Protestants – and this has to do with spirituality. At the basis of Protestant churches is a ‘Confession of Faith’. These Confessions look like the ancient creeds and are modelled on them. However, whereas the ancient creeds are ‘symbols of faith’, and essentially circumscribe the limits of faith, the Protestant Confessions are dogmatic and ideological statements that particularise and specify faith with certainty. All the old Protestant Confessions of faith have an intentional anti-Catholic stance. Later Protestant Confessions are often pitched against other Protestant Confessions in imitation of the original Confessions that pitched themselves against the Catholic Church. By contrast to all this, Pentecostal churches are not Confessional. This is how their ‘non-denominationalism’ differs from Protestant non-denominational churches. They are not essentially confessional; instead, Pentecostal churches are Spirit-led rather than belief-based. Being ‘Spirit-led’, becomes not a fundamental ideology, but a guiding vision for the local congregation, put into the heart of the Senior Pastor by the touch of God. This way of saying it is itself ‘spiritual’. Today, Pentecostal academics speak in the plural of ‘Pentecostalisms’, but one thing this plurality shares is that Christianity is about real relationship with God, specifically with Jesus. By contrast, the Protestant focus is on right belief.

While Protestantism is belief-based, Pentecostals by contrast will discover their beliefs through their experience of God. For Protestants, belief comes first and foremost; for Pentecostals, belief is discovered. So, for example, on the touchiest of issues, the Bible; while both Protestants and Pentecostals will say they are ‘Bible-based’, this is true in completely different and incompatible ways. Pentecostals approach the Bible in the Holy Spirit, expecting God to speak to them and lead them and show them, expecting revelation and encouragement and guidance. Not unlike Catholic lectio divina. And most Pentecostals will read the Bible like this devotedly and daily. Protestants, by contrast, although they claim to be ‘Bible-based’ always approach the Bible within the parameters of the Confession of Faith of their church. They will find their Confession of Faith confirmed and elaborated in the Bible, but not contradicted. What is happening is that though they are ostensibly ‘Bible-based’, they are reading their Bible in the first place in terms of their Confession of Faith. Protestant Biblicism remains fundamentally ideological in stance. Theology is deployed to deal with anything that contradicts the Confession of Faith – and this marks the ideological basis of Protestant theology, by and large. So, for instance, in the conservative Reformed tradition, ‘justification by faith alone’ as taught by Paul in Romans is regarded as the key to the whole Bible and thus Romans is the most important book. The fact that James says faith alone doesn’t justify us, but that we need works (James 2:24), is either played down, as not an important letter, or as relatively true in particular circumstances, but never in any way that could mitigate the fundamental truth that we are justified by faith alone – and Protestants of this stamp will be able to tell you exactly what ‘justified by faith alone’ means, if you are not sure. Pentecostals, on the other hand, talk about real relationship with God. This relationship is an experience not a doctrine. The Bible will not confirm their beliefs but point them into real relationship with God and set them up for that experience.

I have been publishing articles on Pentecostalism – and am soon to complete a book on the subject – in which I argue, put bluntly, that Pentecostalism is as different from Protestantism as Protestantism is from Catholicism. I believe this to be true. I hope an effect of my writing (whether direct or indirect, it doesn’t matter) will be to loosen Pentecostalism from the throes of Protestantism, particularly in North America which is such an influential sector on both scores (of Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism).

There in North America, Evangelical Theology dominates the Pentecostal mentality. This is not such a bad thing in some respects as the church should always be evangelistic (mission oriented), but the dominance of Evangelical Theology, of the Calvinistic Reformed variety primarily, squashes and flattens the truth of Pentecostalism; the truth that it is Spirit-led before it is belief-based. This Evangelicalism can be dangerous to Pentecostalism as a movement of the Spirit, because it leads to an ideological style of Christianity and a theology dominated by academic Professors of Theology, rather than a community of people with a Spirit-led leader. Of course, there are dangers in charismatic leadership, as we know all too well. If Pentecostalisms can theologically and philosophically free themselves from Protestant Evangelicalism, this can only enable them the better to move in the Spirit, which is what Pentecostalism does best and what Pentecostalism is fundamentally about. Pentecostals are never fundamentalists, unless you call the Holy Spirit itself ‘fundamentalist’, which would be an absurd thing to say. Pentecostals are spiritual realists who take the real presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives and churches with absolute seriousness, and not, therefore, as a nice idea but as an experience.

While I have referred to Pentecostalism as a movement of the Spirit, it is different to the Catholic charismatic movement. The Catholic charismatic movement presupposes that the person involved is well churched to begin with. To someone off the street, charismatic Catholicism would seem pretty weird and (to put it positively) ‘super-spiritual’. Pentecostalism, by contrast, is marked by its secularity. It is not super-spiritual, its spirituality is very normal. So, for instance, at a Catholic charismatic meeting someone you have never met may prophecy over you and the person sitting next to you may suddenly stand up and start singing for no apparent reason right in the middle of proceedings, or to pray aloud; whereas at a Pentecostal meeting you are more likely to hear something encouraging and empowering for someone living a hum-drum existence. One of the things Pentecostal churches pride themselves on, and in fact stand upon, is the fact that Joe Blow can come in off the street on a Sunday morning and find it fun, energising and exciting, and not be put-off by any weird ‘religious’ antics. Pentecostals have a very matter-of-fact sense of the miraculous and supernatural, one which actually gels with popular culture and ordinary life. They don’t theologise a lot about it, but their churches lean wholly on it. An outcome of Pentecostal secularity is that it keeps the church leadership grounded, and prevents it from becoming charismatic in that cultic sense that we get in religious cults and often in politics. But the downside is that it can lead to (and does in fact lead to) a celebrity culture within the churches. Although, that said, the celebrity preachers and leaders, like any secular celebrities, need ‘star quality’ and need to sustain that star quality in everyone’s eyes, particularly, presumably, God’s.

Another marker of the secularity of Pentecostalism is popularity. Secularity thrives on popularity and ‘demand’ and spreads to every corner of the globe on this basis. Pentecostalism has only really taken off in a big way since the early 1970s; before this it had much narrower focus and more cultic characteristics. But in a few decades global Pentecostal numbers are double the entirety of the Protestant world, including every shade of Protestantism, and including global Anglicanism. If to this number you added the entire Orthodox world, including every shade of Orthodoxy, the Pentecostal numbers are still slightly greater. These stupendous numbers have been achieved only since the 1970s. Take one extra-ordinary example. The ‘Christ for All Nations’ ministry led by Reinhard Bonnke in various parts of Africa, including Muslim countries, has brought nearly 100 million people into local Pentecostal churches since the year 2000. His witnessing ministry alone has shaken whole nations and is of historic proportions; but I’ve never seen one mention of it in a newspaper here.

Only Catholics outnumber Pentecostals. But in the 1990s, in one decade, 44 million people left the Catholic Church in Brazil, numerically the world’s most Catholic country. Not all, but the vast majority of these joined Pentecostal churches. They wouldn’t have joined typical belief-based Protestant churches, because a Catholic comes from an apostolic church, not a belief-based church. I believe that a shift like this – from Catholic to Pentecostal – can only happen if in Pentecostal churches there is something already there – a consonance – that Catholic people recognise, appreciate, and can appropriate. And this would be the emphasis on spiritual experience and the strong emphasis on the real presence of the Holy Spirit – indeed the exciting and palpable presence of the Holy Spirit in worship. It would be my guess that this is what would attract Catholics in Latin America. Pentecostal churches are making big inroads into secular Europe too. While in England church-going Catholics now outnumber Church of England attendees, the second biggest Sunday congregation in the British Isles is Hillsong London, which only started in 2001 and attracts such crowds to its services in the Dominion Theatre on the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road in W1 that there are queues to get in and crowds left outside after the venue has reached capacity. This signals vitality as well as popularity. The biggest congregation in Britain are the African Pentecostals, which is another story. According to The Times, the growth in Catholic numbers at church has mainly to do with migration, while by contrast the growth in Pentecostal numbers has to do with Christian evangelism. Yes, even cynical, secular, stay-at-home Brits are actually deciding to go to church on a Sunday morning.

I will have to leave these thoughts here. They may raise many questions in my reader. Does Pentecostalism pose a crisis for Catholicism? What should be the proper stance of the Catholic Church toward Pentecostalism? Indeed what is the stance of Catholic Church towards Protestantism? My comments point to the fact that it needs to be a different kind of dialogue with Pentecostals than with Protestants. The reality is that Catholic-Pentecostal dialogue is going on in Rome and is very fruitful.

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