Multi-culturalism from the early Pentecostals

May 8, 2009

emergent / emerging church / pentecostal / charismatic

I talk fairly often about the early characteristics of the Pentecostal movement, especially its ardent pacifism. I think often about what this movement, along with the Anabaptists who started out in similar ways, have to offer to the broader emerging church, and Emergent in particular.

I’m convinced there is a great deal that we can glean from this movement, as we create a generous orthodoxy, and I want to raise some more of these things. This is partly in response to a seminar on The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity that I attended the other day.

The seminar was led by the book’s author, Soong-Chan Rah, and discussed how the church has bought into the dominance of Western Christianity. Possibilities were presented to us, from the idea that, as whites in a position of power, it can be good for us to submit ourselves to other forms of church and theology. My thinking took me to those first years of the Pentecostal movement, when “the color line was washed away in the blood,” as well as gender lines and economic lines that still do dominate most of Western Christianity.

The Pentecostal multi-culturalism

So think about this: in 1906, when there were still Jim Crow laws, and women couldn’t vote, a movement began that was led by a black man who was the son of slaves. It allowed women to hold leadership positions. It served the poor to dramatic extents, especially considering that many of its members were poor. It really lived the way of Jesus in the power of the Spirit.

Now, of course in the coming decades, Pentecostalism faced a dilemma: would it move toward the social gospel and liberalism, or would it move toward fundamentalism? I can sit here, looking back at the 1920s and 30s, and say that they should have created a third way and moved forward in it, but that is easier said than done. Regardless, they didn’t do it. They moved with fundamentalism, seeking to gain respectability in the broader church, while maintaining a high view of Scripture.

In the years that followed, of course, they moved with evangelicalism as it developed, and there they sit now. Much of the National Association of Evangelicals is made up of Pentecostals and charismatics. They have, in general, left behind their emphasis on serving the poor.

While they may be more likely to have multi-racial congregations, they still have basically shaped their worship and ecclesiology and theology after Western, white culture. They are often among the biggest proponents of political conservatism, including the abandonment of their pacifism even to the point of advocating torture.

Emergent multi-culturalism

Many of us within Emergent are concerned about the issue of multi-culturalism, among other things, and there are great signs that it can and will do that (this post has a great discussion about the book, and the issues that it brings up, both in the post and the comments).

A common part of the discussion shaped by books like The Next Evangelicalism seems to be concerned with the ways that we, as the dominant people in culture, can move to join with non-Westerners in our churches and our theologies. I think we can learn much from early Pentecostals in doing things like this, and we can learn much from the choices they made in later decades, as well.

Another part of the discussion that is being brought up from those within Emergent is that many other-ethnic churches and denominations and theologies are at least as patriarchal and/or as conservative as the evangelicalism that many of us have left behind. Again, early Pentecostals can show us a way to move forward in this, as they were among the first groups within Christianity to fully embrace egalitarianism.

My hope for Emergent, and the broader emerging church, is that we will begin to understand the dual sides of the coin that are postmodernism and post-colonialism, and begin to move in both. I think books like Everything Must Change, and similar books and events and thoughts with which many of us have been involved, have the potential to help us do that.

As we move in these directions, it is essential that we take into account the issues that books like The Next Evangelicalism bring. We must, for example, not take these kind of ideas of submitting to other forms of church into our minds as a form of pity, or of us doing something for the Other, or we have missed the point that Emergent is trying to seek.

In activist circles around organizations like Invisible Children, Falling Whistles, and Acholi Beads, among others, there is a powerful quote that is often said and genuinely meant:

If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s