From the Fringes

September 17, 2007

My wife and I joined the crowds thronging towards the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam on Saturday evening to celebrate 100 years of the pentecostal movement in The Netherlands. We looked forward to an inspiring concert by Sydney-based Hillsong United and recognition of one of the most significant developments of the twentieth century.
From high in the tribunes, we watched the audience swell to a full 25,000 as late-comers streamed in through the main gates and across the athletic track to fill up the centre field. Huge video screens placed strategically around the stadium carried images of an empty stage awaiting the action.
Then Hillsong United appeared, swinging instruments and coaxing their public to sing along, clap along, jump along and dance along. The band were on a tour of countries where the Pentecostal movement first gained a foothold in Europe soon after the extraordinary events in Azusa Street, Los Angeles, around 1906: Germany, Holland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway.
We waited expectantly for some reference to what it was we were celebrating that evening. But while the music was spirited and the crowd was supportive, as we later left the stadium, it was yet with a feeling that a great opportunity had been missed.
For what we had come to celebrate was one of the greatest stories of all time, and a movement poised to be the single most significant factor shaping the 21st century!
These are not the wild speculations of ‘raving Pentecostals’. They are the considered observations of some of today’s leading theologians, historians and sociologists.
For the pentecostal movement is the story of God at work, starting on the fringes of society, at the edges of respectability, and moving inexorably towards the mainstream of the World Christian Movement.
While the twentieth century, in terms of mankind’s inhumanity to fellow humanity, has been the worst in history, it has also been the best century ever, witnessing the greatest and most far-reaching work of the Holy Spirit globally.
The first stirrings of this movement were felt in Topeka, Kansas, in 1901 when students at the Bethel Bible College began speaking in tongues. In 1904, revival broke out in Wales with young Evan Roberts as the key figure. Shortly after that, more tongues, healing, exorcism and the Baptism of the Holy Spirit were experienced at the Apostolic Faith Mission, Azusa Street, Los Angeles.
For the first half of the century, the movement appealed largely to the marginalised of society on both sides of the Atlantic. It gained a reputation for emotional and experiential forms of worship–‘swinging from the rafters’–and lacking intellectual sophistication. Mainstream churches and seminaries simply ignored Pentecostalism as an aberrant, albeit traditionalist, ‘sect’.
A new phase developed in the 1960’s as pentecostal practices and teaching took root within Protestant churches, including Anglican, Lutheran, Baptist and Brethren circles, even jumping the Reformation divide over to the Roman Catholic Church. At first called ‘neo-pentecostal’, this fresh and unpredicted development became known as the Charismatic Movement, rapidly taking on truly global dimensions.
Today Pentecostalists, in the broadest sense of the word, are estimated to number 500 million worldwide: one in every twelve persons on the face of the globe; one in every four professing Christians. Now that is phenomenal!
The movement has grown rapidly in South America, Africa and Asia. Sociologist David Martin explains the growth as related to an ability to adapt to local cultures. Martin has done extensive academic research on how pentecostalism has raised poor classes to new levels of prosperity and social usefulness.
Theologian Alister McGath (The Twilight of Atheism, 2004) recognises that Pentecostalism is ‘already the most significant Christian alternative to Roman Catholicism’. The pope’s recent visit to South America was a clear acknowledgment that Rome understands this reality.
McGrath adds that the movement has sidelined those Protestant groupings that once saw themselves as mainline. A massive transformation in global Christianity is under way, according to such world-renowned theologians as Harvey Cox (Harvard). While famous for advocating the adaptation of the Church to ‘The Secular City’ in the ‘60’s, Cox has come to believe that Pentecostal spirituality will be central to 21st century religious life. In Fire from Heaven (1996) he describes the movement as ‘a spiritual hurricane that has already touched half a billion people, and an alternative vision of the human future whose impact may only be at its earliest stages today.’
This move of the Spirit has been the driving force behind a global and growing ecumenism of the heart, spreading a unity of spiritual experience despite doctrinal differences. Despite Rome’s apparently backward steps recently, this unity remains the hope of the future.
Historian Philip Jenkins (God’s Continent, 2007) sees new Pentecostal life reinvigorating Europe via her immigrant churches. Immigrant worshippers already make up the majority of London’s church-goers. Jenkins also notes that the growing families of migrant believers significantly offset Muslim population growth in Europe.
Experientially grounded and socially activist, Pentecostalism undermines the traditional appeal of atheism, writes McGrath. ‘Its sense of the immediacy of God’s presence through the Holy Spirit is of immense importance in repairing the felt loss of the presence of the divine in everyday life in the West.’
Now that’s worth singing, clapping, jumping and dancing about!
Till next week,
Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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