The Common Good
September-October 1995

The Spirit Speaks

by Aaron McCarroll Gallegos | September-October 1995

Celebrating the power and importance of Pentecostalism.

I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. - Joel 2:28-29

Ecstatic utterances and miraculous healings, baptisms in the Spirit and in fire, discerning of spirits and interpretations of tongues, "holy laughter" and "slayings in the Spirit." These are some of the characteristics that have caused many Christians to look with suspicion at those sisters and brothers who consider themselves pentecostals or charismatic. Indeed, in the original outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the grieving followers of Jesus in Jerusalem - when devout men and women of "every nation under heaven" heard the disciples speak in their own languages - the exuberant expressions of the Spirit caused some to say they were "full of new wine" or even crazy (Acts 2:1-13).

Yet with more than 450 million adherents worldwide, pentecostalism is starting to be taken seriously by many religious and social scholars, as well as by other believers. Pentecostalism has now become the fastest-growing Christian group in the world, and there are many signs that a global revival is taking place in their circles.

It isn't just the numbers that are turning heads; also attracting attention is the effect that these zealous pentecostal congregations are starting to have on their surrounding communities and the signs of the future of the church that these groups carry within them. For along with expressions of the Spirit, pentecostals are increasingly becoming known for their radical ways of living and worshiping that are contrary to mainstream social and religious sensibilities and that transcend barriers of race, class, and gender to build hopeful bonds of unity among believers.

THE AZUSA STREET REVIVAL of 1906, which marks the beginning of the modern pentecostal movement, was not considered unique at the time just because believers spoke in tongues and were healed of their diseases. Even more scandalous to the turn-of-the-century establishment was the racial mixing taking place in the small Los Angeles livery stable turned into a mission. The vision of William J. Seymour, a one-eyed, self-taught African-American preacher who brought the message of the outpouring of the Spirit to Los Angeles, was of a new level of Christian unity that - similar to the first Pentecost - brought together believers of all colors in a community modeled after the new heaven and earth that was to come.

While speaking in tongues was seen as one of the signs of the infilling of the Holy Ghost (Acts 10:46, 19:6), Seymour and the others knew it could be faked and considered more certain characteristics of the Spirit to be holy living and unity among believers - whatever their race. The evidence of love and purity could not be manifested over the long term unless one had had a true renewal of the heart.

The Azusa Street Revival, which lasted until about 1909, was primarily attended by poor and working-class African Americans, whites, and believers of Mexican and Filipino descent. Los Angeles at the time was rapidly changing from a predominantly Mexican-American ranching and agricultural town to an industrial Anglo-American city. Similar to our society today, it was a place where many faced unemployment and poverty because for one reason or another they weren't able to adapt to the changing conditions quickly enough.

The power that was being poured out on Azusa Street offered those who attended a sense of liberation and a strong alternative to a world which they saw as falling apart around them. Seymour's revival brought Joel's prophecy to life for unemployed agricultural and industrial workers, oppressed domestic servants and maids, and those marginalized because of their race - making them into a common family with a new mission to share the news that God was pouring out the Spirit upon "all people." It was the diversity of those who participated in Azusa Street, in part, that contributed to the amazing speed with which the news - and power - of the revival was carried around the world.

Today, many of the world's poor and dispossessed are becoming part of the pentecostal movement for some of the same reasons people were attracted to the original Azusa Street revival nearly 100 years ago. In times of dissolving paradigms and melting polarities, many pentecostal congregations offer a solid assurance and vital community that are more and more difficult to find in secular society.

In mainline and historic churches, such as Episcopal, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and others, the pentecostal fire was stoked by the charismatic movement that rose in the 1970s. Charismatics adhere to many of the same spiritual beliefs as pentecostals, yet maintain their identity as members of traditional denominations. Although it is difficult to estimate the number of charismatics because of their affiliation with various churches, their movement, like that of the pentecostals, is growing at a rapid rate. During the last several decades, the shared experience of charismatics has contributed to new connections across denominational lines.

Fire From Heaven, an important new book by Harvard professor and theologian Harvey Cox on the rise of pentecostal spirituality and the reshaping of religion in the 21st century, points to several critical factors in our changing society that have contributed to pentecostalism's growth and strength.

First, for a religious movement to appeal to people in modern society, it must address in some way the challenges that they are negotiating in the face of rapid urbanization and swiftly changing economic realities. Pentecostalism is largely a phenomenon of the exploding urban centers that are now found on every continent. As people flee traditional village areas to look for work in metropolitan areas, pentecostalism provides many with a sense of community and purpose in the midst of the harsh city. Also, the discipline and training that pentecostal congregations instill in their members as preparation for a mission of evangelism and service provide some of the skills needed to function in urban life.

My own introduction into Christianity and pentecostalism came when I moved from a small town in California's high desert after high school to a much larger city on the coast. Though it wasn't a major metropolitan area, the city's preponderance of strange faces and loud noises, and my inability to find a role in it all, led me to join a large pentecostal church associated with the Assemblies of God. The new-found church community and religious worldview I found there made it possible for me to find my place as a resident of the city. The geographic transition I had made became a spiritual one as well.

Cox says that another factor that contributes to the success of pentecostalism is its ability to help people hold on to some elements of the traditional culture and religion that they fear are falling apart around them. Pentecostalism does this essentially by appealing to what Cox calls our "primal spirituality." This is the religion of the heart that looks beyond human-made ecclesial structures to seek a personal experience with the living God.

As conventional science, politics, and religion became more and more discredited in the late 20th century, people began to look for a more certain hope on which to rest their beliefs. The direct manifestation of the Holy Spirit in the form of speaking in tongues, healing, and visions perhaps offers some firsthand assurance that what they believe is indeed true - they know, for they have experienced it themselves. A common expression among pentecostals contends that "a person with a doctrine doesn't stand a chance against one with an experience."

WHILE THESE SIGNS AND wonders continued among the participants in the early American pentecost at Azusa Street, unfortunately, the racial unity that distinguished the revival fell apart after several years. Apparently disturbed by the media squall that criticized the racially mixed worship services and the leadership of African Americans at Azusa Street, dissention developed and many of the white participants left to form their own congregations. While William J. Seymour and the other African-American members were beginning to see racial harmony, rather than tongues, as the most reliable sign of the Spirit's work, many of the white pentecostals began to prefer maintaining the racial status quo to God's work of building a community of believers modeled after that in heaven.

"The color line was washed away by the blood," one white observer at a revival had noted, but now it was being redrawn. By the time Seymour died in 1922, almost all public instances of interracial worship among pentecostals had ceased.

Also suspect in the eyes of detractors of Azusa Street was the fact that women held positions of leadership and exercised spiritual gifts in the mission. Seymour considered gender inclusivity to be another sure sign of the Spirit's presence, and the momentum of the pentecostal movement has been carried over the years predominantly by women.

Female evangelists and healers, such as Aimee Semple McPherson and Kathryn Kuhlmann, were playing major roles in the pentecostal churches during times when the leadership of women in other denominations was subjugated to that of men. The understanding in pentecostal theology that all individuals have the potential to be used as a vessel for the gifts of the Spirit created space for leadership roles for women and people of color unlike those that were available in other Christian churches.

The racial schism between black and white pentecostals continued to grow as each group formed their own churches, denominations, and associations. Just after World War II, the Assemblies of God, Pentecostal Holiness Church, International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, and other white pentecostal denominations formed the Pentecostal Fellowship of North America. Black pentecostal denominations, including the Church of God in Christ - which now has more than five million members - were not invited to join.

There were times when pentecostals of different races came together - most notably for the healing crusades of the late 1940s and 1950s - but for the most part the chasm between the races was as great in the church as it was in society. The separation's nadir occurred during the civil rights movement, when many white pentecostals sided with the segregationists, while black pentecostals were active with the freedom fighters.

The split of pentecostals along racial lines was also the occasion when many white pentecostals began to associate with the more socially acceptable fundamentalists and took on many of that group's worship and cultural characteristics. Though this alliance is being increasingly challenged today, fundamentalists and those on the Religious Right did offer white pentecostals a more familiar cultural setting for worship in place of the early chaos and spontaneity that typified the Azusa Street services.

This relationship between pentecostals and fundamentalists also has had a continuing effect on the role of women in the pentecostal denominations. Though women took early leadership roles in the Azusa Street congregation, many pentecostal churches today reject the formal ministries of women as pastors. Yet because it is central to the belief of pentecostals that the Spirit distributes gifts without regard to gender, race, or class, women in many congregations exercise informal but leading positions as prophets, evangelists, and healers. Harvey Cox writes that the primary role that women have fulfilled in the pentecostal movement has been to help bring out a much more mystical concept of God as lover of our souls - rather than emphasizing God as judge and lawgiver as some other denominations do.

EVEN IN THE MIDST of division, black and white pentecostals have still seemed to be moving toward the biblical call to reconciliation. As the pentecostal denominations grew and started becoming more mainstream and less insulated, members brought with them an increased social awareness. Many new pentecostals believe that living by the "full gospel," which they claim to do, should include the oneness in spirit that Christ calls believers to (John 17:21). Now, some 30 years after the civil rights era, the understanding of racism as sin is starting to become part of the theological worldview of many white pentecostals.

Last year's "Memphis Miracle," as it has become known, brought together some of these currents of reconciliation between black and white pentecostals. The October meeting was called by the Pentecostal Fellowship of North America (PFNA) in order to start the process of forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation between the groups of pentecostals that have been marred by more than 80 years of racial estrangement.

In order to start anew, the PFNA disbanded during the meeting and formed, along with African-American pentecostals, a new inclusive alliance called the Pentecostal/Charismatic Churches of North America. "If we really meant business, we'd have to be totally willing to disband and start fresh with a new organization," said the former head of the PFNA, B.E. Underwood, in an interview just after the gathering.

Though there was some initial mistrust on both sides, the Memphis meeting ended with participants pledging to fight racism in the body of Christ as "a blight in the Fellowship [that] must be condemned for having hindered the maturation of spiritual development and mutual sharing among Pentecostal-Charismatic believers for decades."

This new wave of unity in the Spirit is beginning to be felt on the congregational level with greater and greater frequency. Groups of pentecostal believers from diverse backgrounds are now placing racial reconciliation among the top items on their agendas. For pentecostals, both here and abroad, the gift of healing is becoming much broader than the glitzy, throw-down-your-crutches variety of the television revivals. Now, healing not only includes physical wholeness, but also social wholeness. Especially for those pentecostals based among the poor, the healing of social diseases such as racism, poverty, and substance abuse is an integral part of the work of the Spirit today.

Yet for all of the hope that is evident in the work of the Spirit in pentecostal congregations, there are also many signs that the movement could still drift away from the unity of all believers and the power of healing and reconciliation that we are now beginning to see. Many of the excesses of modern American religion - including the actions of Jim and Tammy Bakker, Jimmy Swaggert, Oral Roberts, and Pat Robertson - fall into the lap of the pentecostal movement. The possibility still exists for the movement to be taken captive by forces that are more nationalistic than biblical and more fundamentalist than Spirit-led.

As pentecostalism has moved into the mainstream of U.S. Christianity, some of the early zeal around what was perceived to be a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit has dissipated. Many affluent pentecostals are accommodating to the culture of consumerism and the "health-and-wealth" gospel of some churches. However, the vast majority of pentecostals around the world are poor and fervently hope for a spiritual revolution that will turn the existing order of the world upside down.

Azusa Christian Community in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, profiled by Harvey Cox in Fire From Heaven, claims the original congregation on Los Angeles' Azusa Street as their spiritual forebears. With their emphasis on personal conversion and the work for justice in some of America's poorest communities, Azusa Community represents the strand of pentecostalism that perhaps comes closest to the original fire envisioned by William J. Seymour (see "In Jesus' Name," May 1993).

In the next millennium, the old paradigms and institutions of society will need to be transformed if they are to be relevant to the spiritual and social needs of the next generation. Perhaps the pentecostals, with their emphasis on direct engagement with the Spirit, can point the direction toward creative new solutions.

The impact of pentecostals on religion and the world depends on whether or not they continue their legacy of challenging the status quo or begin instead to conform to it. It is up to all of us, both pentecostals and other believers, to clear our hearts of all narrow-mindedness, bitterness, and hate in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of God (Acts 3:19).

Aaron Gallegos was an assistant editor of Sojourners when this article appeared.

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