Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Christianity on turbo charge

Jennifer Green, The Ottawa Citizen

Published: Sunday, March 04, 2007

The first time Michael Wilkinson saw Pentecostals at worship, he was a teenager, dragged along by his parents. "These people are all crazy," he came away thinking. "I'm not ever going back."

But then the kids in the youth group asked him to some concerts. The music was terrific and the teens were fun, not losers or hopeless squares. "You can be cool and go to church," he thought.

Now 41, he is both Pentecostal and associate professor of sociology specializing in Pentecostalism at Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C.

He maintains the Canadian Pentecostal Research Network and is compiling a study of Canadian Pentecostals, one of the first books of its kind. His colleagues are pressing him to finish so their graduate students can use it to undertake studies of their own.

Canada has about 4.4 million renewalists -- some 500,000 classical Pentecostals, members of churches developed in the early 1900s; 2.5 million charismatics, people who are "spirit filled" but stay within their denomination; and about 1.3 million neocharismatics, or neo-Pentecostals, a movement that began 10 to 20 years ago among people who want to steer clear of some of the strictures of traditional churches.

Renewalists don't all share the same beliefs or worship practices, but they are united by their experience of God -- "an intense, direct and overwhelming spiritual experience centred in the Holy Spirit," says Wilkinson, quoting from Frank Macchia's Baptized in the Spirit: A Global Pentecostal Theology, one of several new books coming out on the subject.

The Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements says Pentecostal/charismatic Christianity is characterized by "exuberant worship; an emphasis on subjective religious experience and spiritual gifts; claims of supernatural miracles, signs and wonders -- including a language of spirituality (as it is experienced), rather than a theology; and a mystical 'life in the Spirit' by which they daily live out the will of God."

Psychology might describe it as magical thinking. Political science or sociology might see it as "enchantment," a worldview that embraces wonder, belittled in western civilization but very much alive in other countries.

Renewal resides at the mystical end of the religious spectrum and much of it is an outright mystery, which is just fine with its adherents. For them, reason has its limits.

As one renewalist minister describes it, "When philosophers and theologians get to do enough thinking or talking, they eventually run themselves in a circle. ... They've bumped their brains on the ceiling of a mystery, but don't want to admit it, so they keep talking."

Probably the most mysterious are the "gifts" of speaking in tongues, prophecy, deliverance and healing, and the signs and wonders, or modern-day miracles, "a foretaste of the coming kingdom of God," according to Wilkinson.

Evangelicals are also turbo-charged in their worship but they believe the miracles in the Bible were intended simply to help the Apostles get the church started. Most don't believe they are available to believers today. Pentecostals do!

Since Pentecostals take their name from a passage in the Bible in which the Holy Spirit imbues the Apostles with special gifts and powers, their outlook is hardly surprising.

Acts 2, verses 1-13, describes the 50th day after Christ's death, when the Apostles were struggling with how to proceed without their leader. Suddenly, there was a great whooshing sound and they were granted the "gifts of the spirit" -- the ability to heal through prayer, hear God speak, prophesize, speak in tongues, have visions and expel demons.

The Bible says 3,000 people were converted on the spot.

When people become "revived," they don't simply approve or enjoy it, the way they might with a political party or new rock group. They literally "catch" it. Classical Pentecostals say the believers are not really part of their group until "baptized in the Spirit" -- the Holy Spirit must manifest itself somehow, most often by allowing the person to speak in tongues, an unintelligible, language-like patter that supposedly comes directly from God.

Throughout history there have been several periods of renewal. One of the strongest in recent history occurred in Los Angeles in the early 1900s, as the promise of the American west was fading.

At first, only the down-and-out came to William J. Seymour's services in a derelict livery stable on Asuza Street. But at one service in early April 1906, people spoke in tongues and fell in ecstasy. Black men and white women worshipped together, an astonishing occurrence for the time. "A weird babel of tongues," reported one newspaper headline. Soon the movement was erupting all over the world.

In the following decades, missionaries streamed out of Europe and North America to "unreached" people.

In the 1970s, a similar movement -- a charismatic renewal -- began in the mainline churches. Most adherents stayed within their churches but embraced a more joyful form of worship. In the past 10 years or so, there has been a neo-Pentecostal, or neocharismatic, movement of worshippers keen to steer clear of some of the strictures of institutional churches altogether.

Now, as Pentecostals emigrate to Canada from Asia, Latin America and Africa, they will undoubtedly spark a new form of renewalism, especially as they often feel called to correct what they see as an appalling lack of faith.

Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity near Boston, says: "In a spiritual sense, they feel they are the stronger party. They're the ones with the message now that it has been lost in the West. It's their turn."

"It's only going to get more diverse culturally, theologically and organizationally," says Wilkinson. "I don't think leaders of the (older) Pentecostals have figured that out yet."