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.