With a group of Christians hovering around the 600 million mark worldwide, one would expect such a collective to have a substantial impact. That is the resounding reality within the Pentecostal and Charismatic branch of the church. Yet, while many might begin by looking at this group’s unique perspective on the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts or their efforts in mass evangelism, and such factors should be noted as major contributions, there are a few other areas that might not be on one’s radar.
I want to bring up three positive, maybe unconsidered, offerings that Pentecostal and Charismatic churches have brought to the table.
1) Merging Theology & Practical Life
Today, there are still many leaders that see the Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches as more problematic than productive in their contributions, especially in regards to practical theology. Such was highlighted in the latter part of 2013 as John MacArthur hosted his Strange Fire Conference, while subsequently releasing his book by the same name.
Yet, even though there are noted theological problems within Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movements (as with any Christian group), as with every tradition, one must take interest in the growing theological, pastoral, and historical giants within this movement. Such include: Amos Yong, Gordon Fee, Jack Deere, Craig Keener, James K.A. Smith, Sam Storms, Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, Vinson Synan, William Kay, Max Turner, Roger Stronstad, and that is simply a short list of names to start us off!
Still, what one will find amongst these theologians is that they do not simply desire to fill up books with theories on pneumatology and charismata. Rather one sees an aspiration to merge both theology and life together. This is particularly noted by Assembly of God theologian, Gordon Fee, at the beginning of his magnus opum, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul:
“For Paul the Spirit, as an experience and living reality, was the absolutely crucial matter for Christian life, from beginning to end…For the contemporary church it seems less so, both in the academy, in its understanding of Pauline theology, and in the actual life of the church. I do not mean that the Holy Spirit is not present; he is indeed, or we are not in Christ at all. Nonetheless, despite the affirmations in our creeds and hymns and the lip service paid to the Spirit in our occasional conversations, the Spirit is largely marginalized in our actual life together as a community of faith.” (p1)
Fee continues: “…the health of the contemporary church necessitates that its theology of the Spirit and its experience of the Spirit correspond more closely” (p2, emphasis his).
Similar thoughts are echoed by Calvin College philosophy professor, James K.A. Smith, in an interview with the Evangelical Philosophical Society. He notes his Pentecostal background as he discussed the reasoning behind his writing of Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy:
“My spiritual pilgrimage has included a significant, formative time in Pentecostalism (the Assemblies of God in particular). And while I am now Reformed, I very much consider myself a Reformed charismatic. So as a Christian philosopher who is trying to work integrally from the riches of a Christian worldview, I felt I also needed to take serious what I “know” as a pentecostal—to let some of the unique “intuitions” of charismatic spirituality function as starting points for working through some philosophical issues about knowledge and reality. Because I believe Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity has a unique “apostolate” [read “mission”] in the body of Christ, I thought that apostolate should also translate into an intellectual project.”
These leaders, and many others, have paved the way for a proper forging of Pentecostal-Charismatic theology and life practice. Matter of fact, it is quite common to read of Christians across all denominational settings receiving, on some level, Spirit-inspired revelations, prayers, words, pictures, impressions, and more, all faithful to the revelation of the final word, Jesus Christ, as seen in the canon of Scripture. The church owes a lot to these formative thinkers on the work of the Holy Spirit.
2) Breaking Denominational Barriers
There is no denomination or church tradition that has opened the doors for inter-denominational relations like the Pentecostal and Charismatic branches. This is largely due to the explosive move of the charismatic renewal in the 1960’s and 1970’s, which crossed all denominational barriers. This is highlighted by historian, Vinson Synan, in his book, The Century of the Holy Spirit: 100 Years of Pentecostal and Charismatic Renewal:
“In addition to these classical denominational Pentecostals, there were millions of charismatics in the mainline denominations and nondenominational churches, both Roman Catholic and Protestant. The combined number [in 2000] now stands at more than five hundred million people.”
The most notable Protestant charismatic was Episcopalian rector, Dennis Bennett. His encounter with the Holy Spirit in late 1959, expressed through prayer in tongues, would lead people to remark such things as this: “…the major churches of Christendom were to be strangely affected in the years to come as a result of this event” (Synan, p151).
David Barrett would go on to note the detailed affects of the Charismatic movement:
“These members are found in 740 Pentecostal denominations, 6,530 non-Pentecostal mainline denominations with large organized internal charismatic movements, and 18,810 independent neo-charismatic denominations and networks. Charismatics are now found across the entire spectrum of Christianity. They are found within all 150 traditional non-Pentecostal ecclesiastical confessions, families, and traditions” (Synan, p383)
Here we see the lasting marks of a century of Pentecostal and Charismatic renewal. People from all manners of church tradition have a strong faith connection point, that being at the practical level of the Holy Spirit’s work of empowering and spiritual gifts.
3) Breaking Race & Socio-Economic Barriers
Lastly, I want to consider the contribution Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement has had at the racial and socio-economic level. Roberts Liardon offers an interesting remark in his work:
“In addition, the Pentecostal movement was birthed in racial unity – Parham was white and Seymour was black; yet the movement would eventually fragment into racial prejudice and division” (The Azusa Street Revival: When the Fire Fell, p63)
So, the door was opened very early on for race relations. However, the details seem to show that the divide easily remained in the early years. And one can simply enter the Sunday gatherings of the southern states to find the church as one of the most racially segregated places of today. We know this must change!
But what we’ve seen happen is African-Americans, and Africans as a whole, now have a strong place-marker in regards to positive contributions to global Christianity. David Daniels III underlines this sentiment:
“Throughout the 20thcentury, black Pentecostalism has been a vital movement within American Pentecostalism and Christianity. It has been instrumental in creating new options in religious music, social ethics, community ministry, preach and theology” (Synan, p266)
Not only that but, while many Christian traditions have been at work amongst the poor of society, Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians have helped forge the way forward in the care for and call to the poor and downtrodden, those to whom Jesus himself came to proclaim the good news (Luke 4:18-19). This is strengthened by their work in the “developing world” or “global south”. Matter of fact, social scientists note the massive shift taking place in our 21st century world:
“…the demographics of Christendom are being turned upside down – quite literally, because the vitality of Christianity is moving from the Northern Hemisphere to south of the equator” (Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Christian Social Engagement, loc.212)
In this book, Miller and Yamamori go on to say, “The major engine driving this transformation is Pentecostalism.” Such a Pentecostal renewal movement is positively affecting the poor of the global south! Matter of fact, in discussing the decline of missionary-founded churches, Liberation Theology, and Roman Catholicism within the developing world, the two authors note: “The root problem, said one commentator, is that while Liberation Theology opted for the poor, the poor opted for Pentecostalism.”
On many levels, the race and socio-economic barriers are being torn down through the favorable work of Pentecostals and Charismatics. This is a much needed work!
One must take a step back and marvel at all that has taken place and is taking place amongst a movement that is only just over a century old. Pentecostals and Charismatics are not solely theologizing about the Holy Spirit and merely praying in tongues, nor are they to only be marked out as a group with problematic doctrine and theology, as some continue to focus on. Rather, we have a group that is affecting all areas of life – theologically, practically, socially, economically, racially and more. I am happy to count myself amongst this beautiful group.