In a recent article for Christianity Today, Ed Stetzer offers some sociological analysis as to why Pentecostals continue to experience growth despite trends of decline or stagnation among many forms of Christianity. His three reasons coalesce around the distinctive Pentecostal doctrine of a baptism in the Spirit. Mission is fueled, he says, by leaders who recognize this distinctiveness and who believe that it needs to be shared.
Pentecostals live, in other words, by what George Weigel has called the Iron Law of Christianity in Modernity: Christian communities that maintain a firm grasp on their doctrinal and moral boundaries can flourish amidst the cultural acids of modernity; Christian communities whose doctrinal and moral boundaries become porous (and then invisible) wither and die.
So the distinctiveness of this doctrine, and its strict adherence, is certainly one reason why Pentecostalism is flourishing. But this is only part of the story. Another factor in its growth, I would venture, is its resonance with particular elements of the popular culture. Here are four areas of striking resonance:
I. As a form of Christian mysticism, Pentecostalism speaks to the postmodern thirst for ongoing encounters with the spiritual.
Early Pentecostals read the French Quietists and other mystics. They fused the mystical emphasis on penance leading to ecstatic union with a Wesleyan dynamic of holiness giving rise to Spirit baptism. The role of spiritual experience and encounter was central; grace is not “hidden” in the recesses of the soul for Pentecostals, but is a dynamic movement of divine power that bursts into the conscious mind. One might say that Pentecostals implicitly function with the Orthodox idea that grace is the outworking of the divine energies of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that permeate all of creation.
Although postmodern culture certainly tends to push individuals away from institutionalized forms of religion, this is usually part of a search for spirituality elsewhere. Take the recent premier of the NBC show Constantine, in which a detective moves between the supernatural and the naturalit is but the latest in a long line of movies, television shows, and books on the paranormal and the supernatural. There is undeniably an ongoing quest for spiritual encounter in our culture, and Pentecostalism offers a framework for just such an encounter.
2. Pentecostalism is a form of populism that thrives in folk cultures, seeking to transform cultural life from the bottom.
While Pentecostalism is often criticized as a form of escapism because most Pentecostals do not engage high culture, these critics fail to see how dramatically the movement has altered regional cultural landscapes. In the US, Pentecostals have managed to facilitate the renewal of Appalachian culture on the one hand, while also preserving the mores of African-American life in the Mississippi Delta on the other hand. By exploring the early Rock scene in Memphis, the home of the Church of God in Christ, one can see how people like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis brought those cultural forms together.
Because Pentecostalism inhabits populist forms of life, it lives on the edge between pop culture and folk culture. Now, Pentecostals have yet to develop an approach to culture that allows them to maintain the tension between these forms. Nevertheless, in an age when distinctive folk cultural forms like hip hop are going mainstream into popular culture, Pentecostalism has a certain kind of appeal.
3. Pentecostalism encourages experimentation in the development of new forms of Christian existence.
Many Pentecostals equate the call to mission with the call to become entrepreneurs; they draw strength from capitalism’s promotion of creation and innovation. Indeed, the Pentecostal understanding of spiritual gifts encourages people to see the meaning of their lives as launching outside of the church to make their own, distinctive contribution. Pentecostals can be found in store fronts, rural settings, and seemingly everywhere else.
Periods of significant reform and renewal within Christianity have usually corresponded to high levels of experimentation. The twelfth-century reformation gave rise to so many forms of religious life that the Fourth Lateran Council called for an end to new religious orders. This did not, however, stop the women’s movement known as the Beguines from developing new kinds of communal life. Francis of Assisi was an experimenter who combined a call to rebuild the church with the development of a new form of Christian existence. The same could be said about the Protestant and Catholic Reforms of the sixteenth century.
4. Pentecostalism fuses a theology of divine immanence with an insistence that God will bring about the kingdom through a final, decisive in-breaking of Christ.
Pentecostals combine a Wesleyan optimism of grace, grounded in spiritual encounters, with a premillennial perspective that places the consummation of the kingdom fully in the hands of God. While humans press toward perfection in the personal and social spheres, they cannot bring about a kingdom on earth precisely because of the second coming. The final transformation of society requires a divine in-breaking in the earthly polis akin to Spirit baptism’s dramatic upheaval in the person.
Our postmodern culture advances a theology of divine immanence, sometimes to the point of collapsing the distinction between God and the world. One can still find this emphasis on divine immanence in writers formed by Pentecostalism like James Baldwin, who equated it with the outworking of love in human life. Pentecostals find a way to maintain the tension between immanence and transcendence within a different theological frame than, say, the Reformed position on divine sovereignty.
No doubt there are many problemstheological and otherwisein the Pentecostal view of Christianity. But its emphases undeniably resonate with certain features of the broader culture, making it a “religion made to travel.” This is why we can seeand will continue to seea pentecostalization of Christian life in the twenty-first century.