Pentecostalism in a Postmodern Culture

Molodec / Shutterstock.com
Molodec / Shutterstock.com

“It’s a new form of Christianity,” explained Opoku Onyinah, “now also living in the West.” He’s the president of the Ghana Pentecostal and Charismatic Council, and also heads the Church of Pentecost, begun in Ghana and now in 84 nations. Onyinah was speaking at a workshop on “How Shall We Walk Between Cultures,” and explaining how African Christianity is interacting with postmodern culture. It was part of Empowered21, which gathered thousands of Pentecostals in Jerusalem over Pentecost.

I’ve found this idea intriguing. Pentecostalism, especially as it is emerging in the non-Western world, is a postmodern faith. Often I’ve said, “An evangelical wants to know what you believe, while a Pentecostal wants to hear your spiritual story.” Perhaps it’s an oversimplification. But Pentecostalism embodies a strong emphasis on narrative and finds reality in spiritual experiences that defy the logic and rationality of modern Western culture.

So speaking in tongues makes its own sense in a culture where words can’t be trusted and rhetoric is always being de-constructed. Opoku Onyinah stressed why it was important to trust miracles in the postmodern culture. In these settings, “the Gospel must be incarnational.” You have to touch it, taste it, feel it. That also means an active involvement in arts and culture, the full use of the technologies of social media, and involvement in politics.

Onyinah seems as an example of many Pentecostals here from the global South with the spiritual self-confidence and integrity to define their Christian faith out of the context of the gospel’s interaction with their own cultures and experiences. Such non-Western forms of Christianity are then lived and shared within Western cultures, often propelled by the modern movements of global migration. At dinner, a Pentecostal leader and friend from Asia said to me, “We don’t want to be condescended to anymore.”

John Francis, founder and pastor of the Ruach Church in London — the title from Hebrew means “spirit,” “breath,” or “wind” — spoke of the meaning of being given power and authority, from Acts. His congregation is one of London’s fastest growing, now at 7,000, and part of the majority of worshippers in London’s churches on any given Sunday who are non-white.

Such congregations blossoming in Western societies do feel like a “new form of Christianity.” But their roots are in the ancient process of the gospel’s fresh interaction with cultures outside of the West, in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In my view, both evangelicals and historic Protestants in the global North — people like me — tend not to recognize, and underestimate, the ways in which indigenous Pentecostalism in the global South is freeing Christianity from the heritage of Western, white colonial baggage, producing forms of faith indigenous and often highly contextualized to non-Western cultures. That thesis is not original to me. It’s one of the conclusions of the Atlas of Global Christianity, the most comprehensive academic study of the changes in world Christianity over the past century. Its authors, Kenneth Ross and Todd Johnson, put it this way:

Pentecostalism … became the main contributor to the reshaping of Christianity from a predominantly Western to a predominantly non-Western phenomenon in the twentieth century.

Such contextualization is always theologically challenging and often messy. But personally, that’s what I find so exciting. Christianity is moving not just geographically, but theologically and spiritually, out of the comfortable cradle of the Western Enlightenment that has been its home, and also the place of its creative and contentious theological journey, for the past 400 years. But now a new agenda is being set. As Christine Caine said, quoting from Isaiah 43, God “is doing a new thing.” The question, for those in Babylonian captivity at that time, and those in captivity to modern Western culture, is whether we see it.

It’s not that this is always seen clearly by those engaged here in Empowered21. Pentecostalism today, growing faster than any expression of world Christianity, lives in its own messy diversity, often struggling to find its unique voice. But its resolute reliance on the Spirit is its liberating, epistemological pathway. At the same time, the rapid rise of Pentecostal scholarship, in theological and biblical study around the world, provides its own capacity for critical self-reflection that is essential to growth in claiming the distinctive voice and witness which it has to offer to the world church. When I listened to Bishop Clifton Clark, for instance, who has taught in Ghana, England, and now Regent University in Vancouver, give a theological paper about how the African concept of Ubutu can contribute to a Pentecostal understanding of Christian-Muslim relations, I saw another glimpse of how this process is searching for its voice.

Whether the wider church will hear this voice, and honor this witness for its own integrity, remains my worry, and shapes my prayer. Many non-Pentecostals from traditions like my own need to repent for decades of theological and spiritual condescension. That doesn’t remove sharp areas of difference and the essential need for honest and rigorous dialogue on any number of theological, ethical, economic, and political issues. But we need is a fresh starting point where we recognize and practice the truth of existing interdependently as members of one body, requiring such unity for the sake of God’s witness to the world. As Paul says, “we all have been made to drink of the one Spirit.” (I Cor. 12:13)

Can we believe that this is so? And can we experience what it would be like to drink of this same Spirit together?

Wes Granberg-Michaelson is the author of From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church. For 17 years he served as General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America, and has long been active in ecumenical initiatives such as the Global Christian Forum and Christian Churches Together. He’s been associated with the ministry of Sojourners for 40 years.

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