I was recently reminded of the ongoing problems with a historical paradigm that has been with us since the Jazz Age, when fundamentalist Baptists and Presbyterians in largely northern denominations broke with modernist Baptists and Presbyterians. Given this historical paradigm, Protestantism tends to be classified into Mainline and evangelical, with historically African-American denominations being given a distinct category.
This is how the 2008 US Religious Landscape Survey by The Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life classifies Protestantism. All expressions of Protestantism are confined to three traditions: Mainline Protestant, Evangelical Protestant, African-American Protestant.
Given this classification, Pentecostals and Holiness churches are divided into Evangelical Protestant and African-American Protestant. The result is that the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), the largest Pentecostal church, is classified as African-American Protestant while the Assemblies of God (AG), the second largest Pentecostal church, is classified as Evangelical Protestant. This seems pretty strange given that both churches trace their Pentecostal origins to the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles and both churches have historic connections.
While sharing historical connections, racial issues caused division between the AG and the COGIC, which they are working to overcome. Just two weeks ago a delegation led by Bishop Charles Blake, the presiding bishop of the COGIC met with AG leadership in Springfield, Missouri. Both churches pledged to work together in the future. These denominations continue to grow and represent over 6 million Pentecostals in the United States (possibly more, but exact statistics for COGIC membership are tough to come by with estimates ranging from 3 million to 6 million). This historic gathering of the leadership of two Pentecostal denominations suggests that Pews divisions do not reflect whats happening on the ground.
A few weeks ago, when Jonathan Merritt at Religion News Service discussed the lack of diversity at evangelical conferences, I noticed that he listed only a handful of charismatic conferences, and none of T. D. Jakes’ conferences . So, how do you classify a Neo-Pentecostal like Jakes who is having an immense impact?
On November 30th Paul Crouch the founder of Trinity Broadcasting Network passed away. Most of Crouch’s life was connected to the Assemblies of God, the denomination in which he was raised. One can certainly fault Crouch for a lot of things, including some deeply problematic theological positions and an overly lavish lifestyle, but a lack of diversity on TBN is not one of them.
Finally, Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason begins with a focus on white evangelicals and then launches into a discussion of inerrancy, which is to allow the Fundamentalist-Modernist paradigm to set the agenda. To her credit, and this is one of the great strengths of the book, she includes many slices of evangelicalism normally left out or minimized in the story. For this reason alone, her account of evangelicalism is an important and significant contribution.
It is problematic, however, to talk about Pentecostals and evangelicalism when you exclude the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States, namely, the Church of God in Christ, just because it is a largely African American ecclesial body. I don’t know any COGIC folks who shun the label Pentecostal and yet they will not find themselves in Worthen’s picture of Pentecostalism. This has the added effect of creating a one-dimensional portrait of a multidimensional movement.
One wonders what would have changed in Worthen’s account if she had started with the holiness movement of the late nineteenth century that produced the Church of the Nazarene and that connected Quakers like A. J. Tomlinson the first General Overseer of the Church of God (Cleveland, TN), a Pentecostal denomination, with Methodists like Henry Clay Morrison who was president of Asbury Seminary from its founding until 1942. It has been the life’s work of Donald Dayton to argue that the paradigm would look very different from this vantage point.
To my mind, these brief examples are a further reminder that Pentecostals and Charismatics do not fit neatly into classification schemes based largely on a split that seems to be less and less helpful in explaining religious life in twentieth-century America.
It is a pickle.
Image: Leaders of the Church of God in Christ and the Assemblies of God.