When I first moved to Boston some thirty years ago, The Boston Globe prided itself on being the most liberal newspaper in the country. A joke I heard about then: What will be the very last headline of the Globe? – “World ends tomorrow—women and minorities hit hardest.” Since then the newspaper has been taken over by The New York Times. The editorial stance of the Globe is as liberal as ever, but it has greatly reduced its national and international reporting. It can still be relied to cover state and local news, as well as occasional curiosities from the Boston scene.
On April 18, 2011, the Globe carried a report of an odd event at a bar and nightclub called Church. The reason for the name was not explained. The event was a Palm Sunday service by the Fenway Church, self-described as a “nondenominational and neocharismatic” congregation, which has been holding Sunday services at the bar since fall 2008. It is not clear why the Globe decided to carry this story now. The editors decided that something should be reported about Palm Sunday? The oddity of a church service at a bar that was already called Church? And perhaps the name of the congregation, Fenway Church—perhaps celebrating the Fenway stadium, home of the Red Sox and thus the temple of what may be described as the civil religion of Boston?
The meaning of the two adjectives in the self-description of the congregation is a bit ambiguous. “Nondenominational” presumably means that the congregation is not affiliated with a large ecclesiastical organization. “Neocharismatic” is one of the terms used to differentiate groupings within the vast, worldwide Pentecostal phenomenon. I am unsure as to whether these terms are very useful, but the prefix “neo” implies that this particular group is of recent vintage. The Fenway Church is clearly Pentecostal. An companying photo provides the proof. It shows a woman praying with uplifted hands—as much a signature posture of Pentecostals as genuflection is for Catholics and the lotus position for Buddhists. (Apropos joke: What do you tell a meeting of Pentecostals if you want to know how many want coffee during the break? – “Will all those who want coffee during the break, please lower their hands.”)
David Hill, the twenty-eight-year old pastor, explained the mission of the Fenway Church: “When we started the church we were hoping for a nontraditional place. We hadn’t really realized that a club would be an option. But when we saw that the Church has just opened up, we thought, Whoa, that’s kind of cool. It really fits with our whole nontraditional-type theme that people could come and experience Jesus in a bar. It’s a pretty neat concept, one that especially attracts young people.” The Globe story bears the pastor out. The Palm Sunday service was attended by about sixty-five people in their twenties and thirties. Pictures of naked people, which normally hang on the walls of the club, were removed for the service. And no drinks are served—lesser spirits not allowed to compete with the putative presence of the Holy Spirit.
The story is not exactly hot news in itself. But it illustrates once more the extraordinary adaptability of Pentecostalism. David Martin, the acknowledged dean of Pentecostal studies, has used the word “transportable” to describe this feature. Free of authoritative hierarchies or dogmatic creeds—the Spirit blows where it wills—many if not most Pentecostals still worship in storefronts, garages or private homes, very much in the tradition of William Seymour, the African-American preacher whose ministry stood at the beginning of modern Pentecostalism—in 1906 in an abandoned stable on Azusa Street in Los Angeles. But there are also highly organized national and cross-national denominations, like the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, with its headquarters in Brazil, and with branches established in Africa and throughout the Americas. And the largest Christian congregation in the world is a Pentecostal megachurch, in Seoul, South Korea—the Yoido Full Gospel Church, which claims one million members at its central sanctuary and in widely scattered branches.
What unites all these diverse social formations is one central experience—the presence of the Holy Spirit, manifested in such charismatic gifts as speaking in tongues and miracles of healing, and in the overwhelming sense of the immediacy of the divine. This experience links poor people gathering for worship in a Brazilian slum, with Korean missionaries fanning out across Asia—and with cool young people in jeans praying exuberantly in a Boston nightclub. A “pretty neat concept indeed! Whoa!”