What might the Pentecostal/Charismatic future of Evangelicalism mean?

I got my first taste of Spirit-filled higher life theology from the long-serving recently deceased pastor of First Baptist Church Atlanta, Charles Stanley. Stanley’s The Wonderful Spirit-Filled Life and its accompanying sermon series were released in 1992 at a pivotal moment in my own spiritual pilgrimage during my senior year in high school. Stanley shared how spiritual struggles in his life brought on by workaholic tendencies and a driving Type-A personality left him feeling burned out early in his ministry. He experienced a personal revival through reading a short biography of Hudson Taylor’s experience of the “exchanged life” written by former Wheaton College president V. Raymond Edman. Stanley and other Baptist “higher life” preachers like Jack Taylor influenced my early views of the potential available to believers through the “indwelling” of the Holy Spirit. They depicted the indwelling presence of Christ as a spiritual battery cell akin to the Matrix of Leadership in Transformers fandom or the blinking energy pills that turn Pac-Man from a desperate fugitive to a ghost-devouring powerhouse. If you only trusted and rested as a branch attached to the vine, you could move mountains. To say they oversold the concept would be an understatement. I eventually learned, like we all must, that spiritual growth is more daily consistency and dogged determination than ecstatic power surges.

I arrived at college in central Louisiana armed with Stanley’s encouragement to seek the power of the Spirit, but also with his warnings about other theologies of the Holy Spirit that he viewed as less scriptural. Stanley insisted that the Holy Spirit was given to all believers at the moment of salvation. He inoculated me against a belief system I didn’t even know existed at the time when he wrote, “It is not about you getting more of the Holy Spirit, it is about the Holy Spirit getting more of you.” During my freshman year of college, I met the first charismatic Christians who openly identified themselves that way. They were a close-knit group of students who attended a local Assembly of God church that had just changed its name to a more generic one to get away from the denominational label. These students were energetic, friendly, and determined to “evangelize” the predominantly Baptist and United Methodist student body of our college. They were critical of any worship and preaching that was not outwardly emotive and demonstrative. The notion of a quiet faith that could run deep just didn’t compute with them. More than once one of them slapped me on the back and made a joke about how Christ was coming back for Baptists first because, of course, “the dead in Christ” would rise first according to 1 Thessalonians 4:16.

Many of my peers went through a “charismatic phase” during our freshman or sophomore years. They would attend the local charismatic church and engage in the exciting ecstatic worship, reveling in the praise choruses, seeking healing, or being slain in the spirit, and running a few laps around the sanctuary. Some sought to speak in tongues, defined as the pinnacle experience that showed you had been truly filled by the Holy Spirit. In the brand of charismatic theology most popular in Central Louisiana, Christians could only experience the full filling of the Holy Spirit through a second experience of spiritual baptism that only came when one reached a certain higher level of spiritual commitment. That theology of a “second blessing” ran as a continuing current from the Wesleyan revivals of the eighteenth century and the Second Great Awakening of the early nineteenth to cause incredible anxiety for many of my college peers who wanted to live lives pleasing to God. Some of them sought the “second blessing” and its accompanying sign of tongues in vain. Others achieved a “secret prayer language” that they insisted gave greater depth to their spiritual lives.

I never quite embraced those ideas like some of my friends did mainly because I’d already settled the belief, due to Stanley’s influence, that the Holy Spirit came to all equally at salvation. I did later find myself briefly drawn to charismatic theologies of deliverance ministry and spiritual warfare during a difficult time in my sophomore year. I moved away from those views in a matter of months because my reemerging academic and intellectual tendencies, somewhat suppressed in that last year of high school and first year of college, raised critical questions about what I was being told. My fully grown academic self is now writing a book on Satanic Panics and spiritual warfare theologies inspired by that brief foray into that world of deliverance ministry. The general cycle for most students at our college rotated from skepticism of charismatic beliefs to experimentation for a season and then back to a more mature form of their earlier spiritual convictions. A few continued to pursue charismatic spirituality. Some, frustrated by the charlatanism they saw from alleged faith healers and prophets, left Christianity altogether.

My own experiences may help you understand why I have mixed feelings about the recent PRRI report that confirmed again what we’ve been seeing for decades. Pentecostal/Charismatic Christianities are growing faster than any other group both in the United States and around the world. Baylor historian Philip Jenkins noted in 2003 the global rise of Pentecostal theologies in The Next Christendom. Long before that, charismatic spirituality infused the Jesus People movements of the sixties and seventies with energetic vitality and imprinted itself so powerfully on Contemporary Christian Music that most mainstream evangelical worship today is an adaptation of Pentecostal/Charismatic styles with less outward emphasis on sign gifts.

As a scholar of Christian history, I now understand the historical antecedents and cultural trajectories that shaped the Pentecostal/Charismatic traditions much better than I did as a college student. Even back then, I admired my charismatic friends for their dedication and fearless proclamation of their faith even when I disagreed with their excesses. Only later did we learn how much pain and insecurity lay beneath their outward spiritual bravado. Pentecostals and Charismatics have encouraged people to be passionate about their faith since their beginnings at the turn of the last century. They grew first among the poorer classes and still retain a strong theology in some pockets of service to the poor. Pentecostals in the early years of the twentieth century embraced racial integration and egalitarianism, accepting both blacks and women as equal spiritual partners. Historian Grant Wacker chronicled many of these early legacies in Heaven Below, an engaging history worth the read. There is much in their spiritual legacy to admire and emulate, especially in this time of cultural divisions.

Unfortunately, as the PRRI report and the scholars who participated in analyzing it note, there are some troubling aspects of Third Wave Neo-Pentecostal and charismatic thought which have acted as an accelerant to the flames of Christian nationalism. I often describe these theologies to my students as particularly prone to “magical thinking.” All Christian traditions can potentially lean into the error of emphasizing the magical and mystical to the exclusion of the rational and logical. There are robust thinkers in the Pentecostal/Charismatic traditions just like in any other who can bring balance if people listen to them. The voices that predominate tend to be less responsible ones who enjoy control of the largest churches and access to powerful media networks such as the late Pat Robertson and Trump advisor Paula White. Matthew Taylor, scholar and researcher at the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies, has chronicled the rise of the New Apostolic Reformation and how the movement funnels Pentecostal and charismatic theologies of spiritual warfare and prophetic utterances into support for ultra-right wing and Christian Nationalist causes.

The PRRI report shows an interesting trend in Pentecostal/Charismatic political affiliation. While the majority tend to be officially democratic, they support conservative policies more often, and they tend to welcome policies that limit the autonomy of marginalized groups. Will their continuing rise lead to a doubling down of evangelical leanings toward Christian Nationalism? Are there resources in their spiritual heritage that can help challenge those forces?

My cynical side remembers well the Pentecostal/Charismatic examples I witnessed in Louisiana. I recall people struggling to believe they were really Christians because they hadn’t spoken in tongues. I witnessed hysteria over a pair of Native American earrings that one self-proclaimed prophet insisted was causing the local Christian college football team to lose. I’m sure it had nothing to do with the fact that they were Division III and recruiting from a pool of players that matched. Always go with the spooky Native American curse instead. Once, I preached as a college student at a Baptist mission in an impoverished community along the Atchafalaya Basin. The mission pastor took me and my fiancée on a tour of the community. Amidst all the humble dwellings, there was one ranch-style home on a sprawling property that looked like Southfork Rank of Dallas fame had been picked up by a tornado and deposited in the Louisiana Bayous. When we asked, the mission pastor said, “That’s the Pentecostal pastor’s house. They got a minimum amount you have to put in the offering plate.”

My hopeful side knows Pentecostalism is bigger than those bad actors, and it’s going to have to be if its numerical growth is to truly benefit global Christianity. Those better angels of racial reconciliation and egalitarianism need to overcome the prosperity gospel shallowness of megachurch influencers like Joel Osteen and Paula White. Voices of peace need to rise from the movement to counter the connection between spiritual warfare theologies and Christian Nationalist grievances. There are many things that the growing influence of Pentecostal and Charismatic theologies could mean for our future. What they will mean remains to be seen.

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  • Scott Sontag says:

    Excellent article and thoughts, Scott. I remember well, meeting you as a high school senior in your north Louisiana church (Lamar Skinner pastor?). And I was thrilled to see you arrive months later at L.C. I can picture the faces of some of those charismatic AG students. I did not know, of course, of your own spiritual struggles and growth. I enjoy your writings, and treasure the couple of hours we had together here in Paris, years ago, visiting the St. Sulpice church together. Let e know when you come back. Or I can meet you (and Ginger) in the UK!

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