Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Arun Jones: How Pentecostals can be a global church

This blog post is the second in a two-part series by Arun Jones, Dan and Lillian Hankey Associate Professor of World Evangelism at Candler School of Theology. In these two pieces, Dr. Jones examines how other Christian traditions function as global churches for the sake of making comparisons with The United Methodist Church.

Several months ago I offered some suggestions about how Roman Catholicism is able to hold together as a global Christian body in today’s world, and said that the other Christian tradition (perhaps “stream” is a better word) that accomplishes this well is Pentecostalism.  As in the case of Roman Catholicism, my observations do not come from an in-depth study of Pentecostals, but from personal experiences in various parts of Asia, Africa and North America.

To be clear, I do not think Catholics and Pentecostals understand “church” in the same way (they have very different ecclesiologies). The contrast between Catholicism and Pentecostalism is instructive, and shows us that there is no one sure way to be a global church. Paradoxically however, I think that often their different ways of being “church” accomplish similar ends when it comes to being global.

First of all, what is it that unites Pentecostals? I would venture to say that whereas the Roman Catholic Church is held together by an organization and regularized liturgies, Pentecostalism is held together by personal relationships. Certainly there are important international Pentecostal denominational bodies, such as the Assemblies of God, but personal relationships are the real glue that binds together Pentecostals worldwide. Networking is what makes for the global nature of Pentecostalism. So Pentecostals who are part of a world-wide connections get along with each other, and are generally of the same theological/ecclesial disposition. If things don’t work out on a personal level, they leave the network and join/form another one. Roman Catholicism, held together by organization and liturgy, can embrace people who really don’t agree (or at times even like!) each other.

Secondly, both Catholics and Pentecostals have a counterweight to the authority of Scripture, and this counterweight can provide for much needed flexibility. For Catholics, it is Christian tradition; for Pentecostals, it is the work of the Holy Spirit who can lead us into new and uncharted territory (as the scriptures attest). So Pentecostals can improvise as they form new global connective bonds. This is not to say that Scripture is unimportant for Pentecostals: quite the opposite is true. Yet Scripture always needs to be interpreted, and Pentecostals can quite rapidly give fresh interpretations of Scripture, based on their understanding of what the Holy Spirit is calling them to do in new situations.

Thirdly, I have been surprised at the amount of English used in Pentecostal services (both in the singing and speaking) I have attended in non-English speaking parts of the world. I think that many (certainly not all) Pentecostals who are part of thriving global networks do not simply use English for convenience sake, but the language is a sign of connection to American evangelical Christianity. In other words, contemporary American evangelicalism is a mythic vision of church that helps to bind together Pentecostals around the world. This binding occurs first at the level of ideas (“that vision is what we aspire to”) and then at personal and material levels (“let us meet others who aspire to that vision, let us imitate the American evangelical lifestyle in some way”). The worldwide popularity of the prosperity gospel is, I believe, another manifestation of the connection that the mythic vision of American evangelicalism provides. It seems to me that this mythic vision functions like the idea of “Rome” for Roman Catholics – the vast majority of whom have never been to that city, but revere it all the same.

Finally, Pentecostalism takes seriously the claim that spiritual forces are not merely existing but are active all around us, and within us. This give Pentecostals a theological language and certain religious practices that are simultaneously easily understood and shared around the world, but also are open to thoroughly local interpretation. In ways that are analogous to Roman Catholicism, Pentecostalism has developed language and gestures that are common and shared, but can mean very different things in different places and cultures.

For at least these four reasons, it seems to me, Pentecostals are at the forefront of creating worldwide Christianity, albeit through a multiplicity of organizations and fellowships. Pentecostalism provides a radically different alternative to Roman Catholicism to be a global church. (The Catholic charismatic movement, interestingly, draws on both traditions.) However, the different alternatives respond in their own way to some common requirements, which I have hinted at above, for a truly global Christianity.

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