Monday, July 28, 2014

The Challenge of Pentecostal and Evangelical Movements to Apostolic of them, anyway.

Recently,  the report of Pope Francis' meeting with Evangelical leaders has made the rounds in more conservative Roman quarters. The Bishop of Rome's outreach to Evangelicals and other Protestant groups has raised the ire of more than a few in his flock; in their eyes, the Roman Pontiff placates schismatics and heretics.

Theology and Ecclesiology aside, Evangelical Christianity (in which I am including Pentecostal movements) represents a major phenomenon in Western Christianity, one which Rome must wrap its head around without falling back on dated Tridentine polemics. Evangelical/Pentecostal Christianity is, in many ways, the only Western type of Christianity that experiences any appreciable growth in the traditional geographic strongholds of Western Christianity.

There are a handful of reasons that immediately come to mind for the expansion:

1) High Grid Experience: To paraphrase a certain sociologist of religion whose name escapes me now, Evangelical and/or Pentecostal Christianity typically includes a close community experience with defined moral behavior, required beliefs and observance, and a clear social identity.  Most importantly, association with other church members is heavily promoted. Any association with non-church members should have some objective of introducing the other to the community.

2) A simple and direct body of doctrine: Western Theology often comes across as a convoluted intellectual exercise, to the point that very basic notions of religion are abstracted to a point of irrelevance. By contrast, Evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity maintain a straightforward doctrine and attempts at qualification are often seen as indications of a crypto-heresy, or, more bluntly, crypto-Catholicism.

3) There is no dinting of the supernatural: Whereas the majority of mainline Western churches are at times either embarrassed or treat it largely as a philosophical notion having little immediate impact in our waking reality, Evangelical and Pentecostal groups are unapologetic in their treatment of the supernatural. The supernatural exists and it acts -'nuff said.

4) The promise of an unmediated access to God: Although current theological fashion at most universities and divinity schools dictates that a "proper" theologian should meet claims of unmediated experience of the divine with "in so far as language is an external descriptive process used to formulate reflection upon an event or object, everything is somewhat mediated," for persons of an Evangelical or Pentecostal bent, there is no substituting an experience of the spirit with the seemingly laborious process of liturgy and ritual. God appears to be encountered head on, whilst mainline denominations seem to make such an encounter impossible.

5) You can't run away from the poor: Mainline Catholic and Protestant churches have increasingly closed their doors in urban areas and poor rural communities, increasingly retreating to cozy confines of the suburbs. Pentecostal and Evangelical churches are increasingly moving in to this spiritual vacuum and meeting the needs of groups who would have once belonged to more established religious bodies.

These are not conclusive reasons; doubtless there are many more factors at play. Nevertheless, they are very real factors behind the rise of a form of Christianity that the more established churches have yet to adequately understand. The Evangelical and Pentecostal movements represent sociological as well as religious critique of established Christianity, especially those groups which claim an apostolic lineage. This is not to say that all manifestations or Evangelical or Pentecostal Christianity are legitimate. Truth be told, these movements have been and continue to be the wellspring of some the more disturbing presentations of Christianity in recent history. The notions of near unfettered/unmediated access to God often attract some megalomaniac, if not sociopathic, personalities who invariably progress to identifying themselves with some form of manifest divinity. The results can range from embezzlement to an abusive personality cultus. This does not, however, negate that data pointing towards Evangelical and Pentecostal movements as a phenomenon within the sphere of Western Christianity (including Latin American Christianity) as the variety of Christianity that will likely continue to grow in the West.

I have offered five reasons as to why. I would like to hone in on two overarching concepts that emerge from the five. Again, I do not treat any of this as conclusive and, it should be noted, all of this is from observation and investigation undertaken in American society.

What should immediately strike anyone investigating Pentecostal and Evangelical Christian groups is the regional base of most of these churches. In the Northeastern United States, these churches are not typically found in the "posh" areas of the city or the well to-do suburbs. More often then not, they are located in working class to poor urban areas or poor rural communities. They frequently minister  to and then empower the Caucasians who never went to an Ivy league school or landed a middle wage salary, as well as minority groups (very frequently newly arrived immigrants). Among the immigrant population, they are often groups what would historically be Roman Catholic, however, they often have no spiritual home as the Roman Church continues to retreat from many urban areas via parish closings. Plainly, these churches have identified a real need in contemporary American society. They go directly to the forgotten and alienated. I want to stress this. While Catholicism and mainline Protestantism wrestle over what to do about women, divorcees and homosexual marriage, these churches are swooping in on the large number of people who seem to have been forgotten by more affluent Western denominations. This is not to deprecate the groups that seem to have most of the established churches' time and attention (be it positive or negative), rather, it is to point out that there is a mass of people who are functionally forgotten by the established churches. When the established churches do try to minister to these same people, it is so woefully inept that it serves more to sooth the nagging consciences of the congregation (or a few cliques in the congregation) than actually address the needs of the alienated. This is due, in my estimation, to both the self centeredness of American suburban culture and the self-laudatory nature of the theology offered in universities and divinity schools.

I have a brief personal anecdote of this. During a seminar, the presenter, a theologian of a certain liberationist stripe, after enunciating all of the subtle evils in traditional theology, proudly announced that we were making a difference by inserting the voice of the marginalized into theological discourse at the university and ecclesiastical level. I kindly interjected and asked how many professional theologians or ecclesiastical theologians were persons with an intimate experiential knowledge of the plight, hope, expectations, and prayers of marginalized and brutalized of contemporary society, as it seemed the only thing people could talk with any real knowledge about were matters involving genital activity. The silence was both deafening and defining.

Apart from going to the alienated, Evangelical and Pentecostal churches function within a worldview in which the supernatural or the divine is a potent and active force in the world. Mainline Christianity often qualifies the supernatural to the point of irrelevance. Conversely, these churches cultivate the belief that all of the apparent accounts of the supernatural found in sacred scripture if of crucial relevance. The knee-jerk reaction among mainline denominations would be that this is because the majority of people ministered to by Evangelical or Pentecostal churches are more superstitious than there non-alienated counter parts. My response would be twofold.

First, the tendency to qualify the supernatural results from a perspective of privilege. When routine is working for you, the notion of a reality that is not neat, compartmentalized and ordered threatens one's basic suppositions of how life works. The alienated of society have ample experience to argue against routine; either the routine does not work or the routine simply does not exist.

Second, whatever the income base of those people drawn to Pentecostal or Evangelical churches, it is worth noting that both churches are thriving at a time when literacy can be safely presumed in the West. This has everything to do with the insistence on a more-or-less direct encounter with the divine. There is little need for mediation, be it scholarly or ecclesiastical, when a founding pillar upon which one's church edifice stands is the notion that the Bible is an essentially open book. Evangelical and Pentecostal churches presume that there is a direct avenue for divine encounter, either through engaging the biblical text without much qualification or through the Holy Spirit itself.

The challenge Pentecostalism and Evangelical Christianity pose to established Christianity is very real and unlikely to go away. Again, there are doubtless more reasons for its growth than those I have briefly presented here.

Although the Orthodox are prone to think such varieties of Christianity are uniquely Western problems, I offer one brief consideration. Only a few miles outside of Boston, Massachusetts, well within the metro Boston area, there is a "Greek Evangelical Church." I have met a few of its attendees over the years. They were all, as one might presume, "refugees" from the Orthodox tradition. Men, by and large, who had enough education and literacy (including Greek literacy) to make a determination that the religion of their baptism was not sufficient.


  1. I'm so happy you posted this! I just found your blog from another source. I reposted this to some of my friends, Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox. I'll see what and if their responses are. I myself am Eastern Orthodox of a rather liberal political persuasion. God grant you and your blog many years!
    Rdr. James Morgan
    Olympia, WA

  2. Thank you for the compliment.

    I entered the Orthodox Church recently from Roman Catholicism, although I had been arguing it back and forth for about a decade (the past three years were the most intensive).

    It is what it is. I didn't enter with the romantic notion of having found the true church at last and all my criticisms would wash away. Orthodoxy, it seems to me, has many of the same challenges as Catholicism, although it hasn't, in the words of a friend of mine, "jumped off a number of cliffs Rome went over headlong." There's some truth to that, but, like I said, it is what it is.