The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
Published on September 11, 2013
Baptism by the Holy Spirit and Baptism by the Spirit of the Age


On September 4, 2013 there was an interesting story in The Christian Century, the banner publication of liberal Protestantism. It contained an objective account of a development that probably did not please the editors of the Century (they deserve good marks for unbiased reporting!).  The report is about a success story of a decidedly non-liberal denomination.

The General Council of the Assemblies of God met last August 5-9 in Orlando, Florida. The denomination was founded in the United States in 1914, part of an explosion of Pentecostalism in America that in the following decades became a global phenomenon. The American denomination is part of the World Assemblies of God Fellowship, a loose federation of Pentecostal churches in over 200 countries. The American membership is estimated at 3 million, the global one at 66 million. The combined figures probably make the denomination the largest Pentecostal group in the world. Most religious statistics are iffy, not because denominational officials cheat (most, I would think, are honest), but because hard figures are hard to come by – in this country, because the census is not allowed to ask questions about religion – and everywhere, with religious groups that are largely local, unorganized and with a constantly shifting membership.

This is particularly true of Pentecostalism. Its core is so-called baptism by the Holy Spirit, an ecstatic experience typically accompanied by “speaking in tongues” and, less centrally, by other charismatic phenomena – miraculous healing, exorcism, prophecy, even occasionally raising of the dead. By definition this is a spontaneous, free-flowing phenomenon. Organized Pentecostal denominations represent the top of the iceberg of a movement (given its nature, perhaps one should use another image – say, the outer rim of the volcano!).  This movement not only is largely not organized beyond the local level, but has spilled over the boundaries of its original location in Evangelical Protestantism into mainline Protestant churches, Roman Catholicism, and even Eastern Christian Orthodoxy (this spillover has been called “Pentecostalization”).  I would estimate that the figure of 66 million, taken at face value, represents at the very most 10% of the total number of Pentecostal or charismatic Christians in the world today – a staggering number.

The core characteristics of Pentecostalism have been around since the time of the Apostles. But if one dates the beginning of modern Pentecostalism from the so-called Azusa Street Revival, which occurred in Los Angeles in 1906 (it was very important, but there were other charismatic events in other places around this time), then Pentecostalism is almost certainly the fastest-growing religious movement in history. Most of the growth has taken place since World War II in Africa, Latin America and Asia.  American Pentecostalism (perhaps because it came first) has had a less explosive development. The story about the Orlando event is all the more interesting in view of this.

The Assemblies of God denomination in the US has experienced moderate (nothing like, say, in Latin America) but apparently steady growth. The real success has been in attracting young people, in addition to successful outreach to immigrants and minorities. This is very much against the trend in mainline Protestant churches. How is this to be explained? When he was asked this question, here is the reply of George Wood, reelected to the position of general superintendent of the US denomination: “We have been flexible when it comes to culture – music, dress, pulpit attire – while remaining consistent on that which has not changed, which is doctrine.” That doctrine, over and beyond general Evangelical orthodoxy (for example, on the inerrancy” of Scripture), also includes a very conservative sexual morality. Some of this is of course counter-cultural as against contemporary trends in America.

I would hesitate to call its doctrine “fundamentalist”; the spontaneity of Spirit-driven piety acts against doctrinal rigidity. The denomination is certainly not countercultural on the role of women: In some areas of the country 60% of new pastors are women. Wood further contrasts his group with other denominations which have “shifted in their doctrinal focus, and softened their reliance on the authority of God’s word.” The denomination goes against cultural trends in opposing homosexuality. But it has actually benefited on this count: Its youth group, the Royal Rangers, got many recruits when the Boy Scouts of America recently decided to admit gays.

Yet nothing changes without cost: This past year there was a doubling of “traditional water baptism” (as practiced by virtually all other Christian groups) compared with “baptism by the Holy Spirit”. In plain English: There was a decline of “speaking in tongues”. Wood explains this by a decline in Sunday evening services, where these ecstatic practices typically take place. I suspect that this explanation confuses cause and effect: With social mobility and more education, American Pentecostals are less inclined to jump up and down and shout incomprehensibly. This too is a “flexible” adaptation to the dominant culture. I would venture this interpretation: American Pentecostals have become more like mainline Protestants in some ways, but without giving up what they consider to be the core of the Gospel, which has to do with the great drama of redemption – not with politics or therapy. That, I think, is the attraction of this version of the Christian faith.

As long ago as 1972, Dean Kelley, in his book Why Conservative Churches are Growing, explained this growth by the politicization of liberal Protestantism (to which, incidentally, he himself belonged – good marks again for honest analysis!). He pointed out that anyone who wants to serve liberal causes can do this more effectively through the Democratic Party or any number of other organizations, rather through, say, the Methodist or Presbyterian churches. What has happened over the last forty years has strongly supported Kelley’s hypothesis.

I almost overlooked an advertisement in the same issue of The Christian Century. It invites applications to the position of senior minister of the Riverside Church in New York City. The cathedral-sized edifice on the Upper West Side of Manhattan describes itself at the top of the ad as “interracial – international – interdenominational – open – affirming – welcoming”. The ad lists some rather obvious qualifications for the position (“demonstrated experience”, “practices of leadership”, “imaginative”). At the bottom of the ad is the following statement: “All employment decisions of The Riverside Church are made without regard to race, color, religion, sex, age, marital status, familial status, sexual orientation, national origin, military or veteran status, disability, genetic characteristics or domestic violence victim status”.

Some of these characteristics follow legal mandates, others are expressions of a liberal agenda. But religion?? I asked myself whether a Brahmin priest, a Siberian shaman, or for that matter a militant atheist would be considered for the job. For a moment I was tempted to act like an investigative journalist, phone the Riverside Church and ask a staff person whether there are any religious limits, if any, to the qualifications required of the chief pastor of this institution (which still has some sort of affiliation with the American Baptist Convention and the United Church of Christ). I saved myself the trouble by checking the elaboration of the Century ad on the Internet. Among the requirements listed there are “a progressive theologian”, with “social-political awareness”, a “mature relationship with God”, and “certified ordination by and current good standing in a recognized denomination”. I am not sure what is meant by a “mature relationship with God”, but the rest is pretty clear: What is wanted is an individual who is politically correct in terms of left-liberal ideology. The search committee might have some hesitations about the Brahmin, the shaman and the militant atheist. But it certainly would not want a right-of-center Republican, or someone with any doubts about limit-less abortion or same-sex marriage. Theology does not seem to have been much, if at all, on the mind of the committee.

Riverside Church was founded in 1930, generously funded by John D. Rockefeller. It has been a landmark of Protestant liberalism ever since. Its first senior pastor (1930-1946) was Harry Emerson Fosdick, reputedly an eloquent preacher. William Sloane Coffin (senior pastor 1977-1987), was a well-known antiwar and liberal activist. Riverside Church has also offered social services with no discernible political agenda. I don’t know how successful it has been in its outreach to African-Americans and Latinos. But I don’t think that there is any doubt over where it stands in the political and ideological spectrum.

Orlando, Florida, is the location of Disney World. I was there only once, when my children were young, but I was impressed by the Middle-American flavor of the place and its clientele. Given this and its geographical location, I imagine that there were many Evangelicals, and possibly a sprinkling of Pentecostals, in the crowds that patiently and politely stood in line to enter this or that attraction. By contrast, I would be greatly surprised if many Evangelicals (let alone) Pentecostals attend Sunday services at Riverside Church. Orlando is hospitable to every variety of conservative religion. The Upper West Side of Manhattan probably contains more readers of The New York Review of Books per square mile than any other place in the country. The two aforementioned locations may serve as a metaphor for the ideological division in contemporary American Protestantism – between those baptized by the Holy Spirit, and those baptized by the Spirit of the Age.

  • Anthony

    “…metaphor for the ideological division in contemporary American Protestantism – between those baptized by the Holy Spirit, and those baptized by the Spirit of the Age.” You wrote in an August post that he who marries the spirit of the age will soon find himself a widower (giorno). Can relational models of Divine ethic cohere with pull of modernity?

  • Gary Novak

    Berger suggested in his early work that one function of the church may be to “domesticate” religion—neutralize its potential to produce shattering experiences—so as not to upset the social applecart. In now hypothesizing that
    Orlando Pentecostalism is becoming more like mainline Protestantism—by giving up incomprehensible shouting and jumping up and down—but without giving up its core interest in the drama of redemption, he is giving the idea of
    domestication a more positive connotation (not because he changed his mind but because a new phenomenon has emerged). Yes, social mobility and education are “civilizing” the Pentecostal
    yahoos, but they are making no pilgrimage to Riverside Church to be baptized by the Spirit of the Age. Perhaps the editors of The Christian Century are warning the faithless “faithful” of the
    emerging threat of presentable Pentecostals (Know your enemy!).

    • Jim__L

      Christ came to “upset the social applecart” — see His comments about coming to “bring a sword”.

      The function of the Church is to manifest God’s Will in the world, by spreading God’s Word and following His teachings. Much of the time it happens to do things that do neither. I’m with CS Lewis re: “domestication”… in his Narnian parables, Lewis repeatedly makes the point Aslan is “not a tame lion”.

      • Gary Novak

        Neither Berger nor I think that taming religion is a legitimate function of the church. His early work criticized the church as an obstacle to receiving the shattering message of Christ. Berger took the title of “The Noise of Solemn Assemblies” from Amos to endorse the prophetic critique of complacent religion.
        But he has never seen virtue in applecart-upsetting for its own sake. Indeed, he once pleaded guilty to having a “hang-up” about order. The ideal of “permanent revolution” is incompatible with human nature. Authentic human decisions require a bit of stability to make any sense at all. Meaningful existential choices can be lost in the tidal wave of anarchy.
        Other readers have complained about Berger’s politeness, but he’s not a tame lion. If you want to hear him roar, endorse capital punishment!

        • Jim__L

          Apologies for miscontruing your writing (and Berger’s.) I should really read more of it, though these days my reading list is long and my spare time is short. :(

          You’ve corrected my misconceptions on a number of my posts now… which of Berger’s works would you recommend, to get a better perspective on his views? (The shorter the better, I’m afraid.)

          • Gary Novak

            No apology necessary– I could easily have described domestication of religion as one “(illegitimate) function” of the church in my original post. Your difficulty with Berger seems to center on the question of why he is not a more energetic evangelist. For me, even his non-religious works have religious significance– he once described sociology as “the profane auxiliary of the Christian faith”– but I think the work you would find most engaging would have to be explicitly religious. “Questions of Faith: A Skeptical Affirmation of Christianity” (2004) would be my recommendation (176 pages). (It takes the form of a commentary on the Apostles’ Creed.) Of course, you may find the “skeptical” dimension of his affirmation challenging– but also the most rewarding. For Berger, taking atheism seriously (as a rational response to the world) is not diplomacy but effectiveness. To borrow the terminology of your other post, Protestantism is not suffering because of external “pressure from secular society to sit down and shut up about religion.” The problems are internal. Mainline Protestants ARE speaking up about the only thing they find themselves any longer able to believe in: social justice. If the salt has lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted? Mainline Protestants cannot salt Riverside church.

            Beginning with doubt may seem to be a poor way to rally the troops, but– though he sups with the devil of modernity– Berger never succumbs to that “liquidation of the supernatural” in which the transcendent is “reduced” to something natural so it will be acceptable to secular society. Even his diplomatic Christianity is a sty in the devil’s eye. (My experience– I’m a retired community college sociology teacher– was that most academic sociologists are embarrassed by Berger’s Christianity and ignore or deny it as much as possible. I did for quite a while. I would say that even to show up on the field of academia as a Christian is to “move the ball down the field.” His presence raises the question: Does Berger– undeniably a savvy sociologist– know something I don’t?)

            So, my answer to the question why Berger is not a more energetic evangelist is that, like Kierkegaard, he understands that being a missionary in Christendom requires some indirection. I think Berger sees his task as creating SPACE in a secularized Christendom for genuine religious affirmation. God Himself is the ultimate Evangelist.

  • Will

    “As long ago as 1972, Dean Kelley, in his book Why Conservative Churches are Growing, explained this growth by the politicization of liberal Protestantism (to which, incidentally, he himself belonged – good marks again for honest analysis!). He pointed out that anyone who wants to serve liberal causes can do this more effectively through the Democratic Party or any number of other organizations, rather through, say, the Methodist or Presbyterian churches. What has happened over the last forty years has strongly supported Kelley’s hypothesis.”

    I wouldn’t say that there’s nothing at all to Kelley’s hypothesis, but back in 2001 Michael Hout, Andrew Greeley and Mellisa Wilde (three Roman Catholics, I believe – good marks for honest analysis), published an article in “The American Journal of Sociology” entitled “The Demographic Imperative in Religious Change in the United States.” Their study concludes that the overwhelming reason for denominational growth or decline is related to fertility. As they put it, “There are more conservatives today because their parents had larger families than did Episcopalians, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran and Congregationalist parents.” I think that you’d find that their study is highly respected. I think you’ll also find that Pentecostals still have relatively high birth rates in the U.S.

    Besides, many theological conservatives, including Pentecostals, are hardly apolitical. I mean, just go to a Tea Party rally and listen to a lame rock band on your IPhone.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    A sociological proposition is in order to comment on Berger’s observations on “Baptism by the Holy Spirit or by the ‘Spirit of the Age.’”: one’s “social spirit” is dependent on one’s social location and the social stock of knowledge they rely on to form their precarious social identity. In keeping with this proposition, below I offer my review of a new book by German sociologist Machaela Pfadenhauer “The New Sociology of Knowledge: The Life and Work of Peter L. Berger.”

    What is the sociology of knowledge and why should we care about such a seemingly esoteric subject? One of the best ways to answer this question is with an example such as the contentious issue of global warming.

    Typically there are two cognitive camps about global warming: the “warmists” and the “deniers.” One is likely to find that academics, regulatory scientists, environmentalists, and members of the Democratic Party, the Sierra Club, the Unitarian Church, and the religious unaffiliated fall into the “warmist” camp. Conversely, we are likely to find those who fall into the “denier” camp to be practicing meteorologists (not climate scientists), retired scientists who no longer are dependent on government research grants, oil company geologists, and members of the Republican Party, the Heartland Institute, and White evangelical Christians.

    Both camps can prove or disprove global warming by selectively picking facts that can be used to support their position and interests. When we find such a social divide on an issue like global warming we can be reasonably assured that what is operating is something sociological not purely scientific. This is what the sociology of knowledge is about. We have a hunch that something sociological is operating, rather than something purely scientific or academic, when we find such a social divide between the “Knowledge Class” and the “Business Class.”

    This same sort of bifurcated response is what sociologist Max Weber found as to why Protestants were the cultural carriers of Capitalism more than Catholics whose church considered usury a sin. The reason the Protestant work ethic produced Capitalism had to do with their religious “knowledge,” not just their knowledge of accounting, banking, and what Karl Marx called “modes of production.”

    But the “new sociology of knowledge” extends to everyday issues and not just narrow scientific, technological, educational, or theological concerns. The sociologist of knowledge is as concerned about face-to-face relationships between buyers and sellers, gays and straights, progressives and fundamentalists, cops and criminals, doctors and patients, priests and laity, or men from Mars and women from Venus. Any typification scheme is of interest to the new sociologist of knowledge.

    Along with socially-constructed categories, the new sociologist of knowledge is interested in the language of different sub-cultures (the professional or the criminal con man), the “recipe knowledge” of cooks of different ethnic foods, the world view of different musical subcultures (rap, jazz, classic), the professional ideology of doctors and naturopaths, or the worldviews of “Occupiers” and the Tea Partiers.” As Berger writes in another of his books (The Precarious Vision: A Sociologist Looks at Social Fictions and the Christian Faith): “boxers, on the whole live in a less delusional world than Presbyterian clergyman, so the latter require much thicker ideology.” And so do government funded global warming scientists. All of these form the social stock of knowledge as sociologist par excellence Peter L. Berger describes in his path breaking book: The Social Construction of Knowledge: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (1966).

    An overview of this new sociology of knowledge of Peter Berger has just been written by German sociologist Michaela Pfadenhauer titled: “The New Sociology of Knowledge: The Life and Work of Peter L. Berger (Transaction Books, 2013). Phadenhauer’s very readable survey of Berger’s sociology of knowledge contains little that is really “new.” But she weaves a biographical and intellectual treatment of Berger’s sociology that doesn’t get boring or humorless.

    To make the book even more in the spirit of a face-to-face encounter with Berger, Phadenhauer has allowed Professor Berger to select certain excerpts from his writings to insert in between her chapters. The result is something akin to stereophonic sound: a blend of the biographical and the autobiographical, the experiential and the analytical, the secular and the sacred. If you want to learn more about the new sociology of knowledge and the work of sociologist Peter Berger, Phadenhauer has adumbrated and elucidated it for you in a creative and “knowledgeable” fashion.

    Phadenhauer’s approach is balanced between the first-hand knowledge of a “fan” and a “critic” of Berger’s work. And Berger is allowed to answer his critics in her book.

    In Chapter 1 we learn how Berger developed his unique sociology of knowledge from his familial and intellectual emigration from a Jewish identity to a self-made nominal Lutheranism, from Austria to America, and from a psychiatric social worker in the U.S. Army to the world’s most eminent sociologist of religion. Like a character out of sociologist Everett Stonequist’s classic book “The Marginal Man,” Berger’s unique perspective about social pluralism emanates from his own marginal social location and non-identification with any collective identity. As Berger writes in “The Precarious Vision:” God is uninterested in our description of our dramatis personae or social mask whether it be as fundamentalist Christian or a revolutionary who espouses liberation theology while living on a government stipend as a university teacher. In this sense, “God is no respecter of persons” or our social roles.

    One of the parts of Phadenhauer’s book I liked the most were the insightful notes at the end of each chapter.

    Back to global warming: Berger would tell us that there are “fundamentalists and relativists” on the issue (see his book “Fundamentalism and Relativism: Is There a Middle Ground?). Paradoxically, liberals are the certainty fundamentalists when it comes to the knowledge about global warming; while conservatives are the relativists who “deny” it as a theory. Berger’s sociology of knowledge perspective is that fundamentalists and relativists are two sides of the same coin and are more similar than thought. The modern welfare state coupled with modern pluralism breeds this divisive knowledge gap. The agnostic caught in the middle of this conflict perceives it as a Shakespearean “plague on both their houses.” But as a “cognitive minority” with a life of their own, they don’t need to obtain a social identity and social status from being a proponent or opponent of global warming. So those caught in middle as “invisible men and women” are the secular equivalents of religious “nones” (religiously non-affiliated).

    In Berger’s other classic book – Invitation to Sociology – he wrote: “I shall admit frankly that, among the academic diversions available – one doesn’t invite to a chess tournament those who are incapable of playing dominos.” We can thank Berger for imparting to us the new sociology knowledge of the grand social chess game. And we can thank Phadenhauer for capturing up in one resource book the relevance of the new sociology of knowledge to the counter-modern society we live in where knowledge elites want to revive medieval windmills and magnifying glasses to generate renewable energy to fight an unknowable global warming crisis.

  • Jim__L

    “Wood further contrasts his group with other denominations which have “shifted in their doctrinal focus, and softened their reliance on the authority of God’s word.””

    If he had been as diplomatic as our host here, this is how Luther might have phrased his objections to the Catholic Church of his time.

    As for why traditional Protestant churches are not growing — it’s very simple, and has little to do with attire or other superficiality. It’s the fact that we don’t make as much of a point to get out and spread the Word. We are too self-conscious, too responsive to pressure from secular society to sit down and shut up about religion. We have lost the urgency of our mission. If the Word is not spread — both the sweetness of the Gospel and the sternness of the Law — damnation spreads instead. (See: “Nones”.) If Pentecostals hustle to move that ball downfield, they’ll be the ones to prosper.

    I’ll be the first to admit that some of us are better at evangelism than others. All of us have different strengths. But the overall absence of energetic evangelism in support of sound, Biblically-based doctrine, is what Protestantism — Lutheranism included — must fix.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    In the Christian Gospel of Matthew 16 it states:

    The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.2 He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’3 and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.[a] 4 A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.”

    The equivalent of modern inflated and deflated prophecies of global warming have been around for thousands of years. But people still can not distinguish the zeitgeist of the times from the Baptism of the Holy Spirit.

  • gerald

    The two aforementioned locations may serve as a metaphor for the ideological division in contemporary American Protestantism – between those baptized by the Holy Spirit, and those baptized by the Spirit of the Age.
    I have come to use, as a filter, the Temptations of Christ in the Wilderness. Charismatics/Pentecostals have a tendency to say “yes” to the second temptation, leaning toward manifestations of the Spirit as a sign of legitimacy and how they will interact with the world. That usually doesn’t go anywhere since the current modern belief is that if the New York Times or a degreed scientist doesn’t report on an event, then it didn’t actually happen. They promulgate the view (which Berger swallows) that all they do is “jump up and down and shout incomprehensibly”. A Pentecostal minister of my acquaintance notes, in regard to that view, “But THEN don’t think THEY are doing anything unusual when THEY jump up and down and shout incomprehensibly when THEIR football team scores!” The flaw, of course, is that you’re looking at the fans and not where the action is actually happening…
    I believe most “modern” Protestant denominations answered “yes” to the third temptation, among which I count the United Methodists. And there are some that have a tendency to answer “yes” to the first temptation, and put overemphasis on “service”.

  • Bill

    I think this piece overlooks an important reason for the growth of Pentecostalism: the Prosperity Gospel doctrine. Arguably the notion that believers will be blessed with material wealth and prosperity (as taught in many Pentecostal churches) has significantly helped fuel the growth of Pentecostalism, especially in parts of the world already culturally inclined to a more spirited and robust manner of worship.