Academic studies of this "tourist" religion, such as Philip Jenkins' The Next Christendom, have produced a consensus: rather than disappearing from the planet, the future of Christianity is looking more and more like Southern Hemisphere Pentecostalism.
However, these broad-scale studies can obscure the fact that the American stream of the movement, particularly in its Anglo version, is experiencing significant challenges. For example, speaking of the Assemblies of God in the United States, a fellowship experiencing modest growth, Assemblies of God Theological Seminary President Byron D. Klaus observes in the spring 2002 issue of Enrichment Journal:
"If current growth trends continue, the Assemblies of God will be 30 percent ethnic minority by 2006. Over half our people worship in just 16 percent of our churches, signaling a significant dilemma for churches in smaller communities and congregations without a sense of purpose for their churches. We are facing the graying of our ministerial ranks; nearly one in four of our ministers is over 65 years old, and only 27 percent of ministers are under 40 years of age."
Plainly, the future of the movement promises to be a plural reality (futures, not future), combining multiple trends to form a mosaic of tomorrows. In many ways, when the charismatic/Pentecostal community is functioning properly, we simply are running to catch up with what the Spirit is doing. Nonetheless, Pentecostals tend to envision tomorrow as an extension of each subculture's own identity.
Supported by a General Grant from the Louisville Institute, I spent more than two years traveling in the United States, conducting interviews with younger charismatic/Pentecostal leaders. I have met representatives of at least three visions of the future. There are optimists and pessimists, wise and the unwise, great strengths and appalling weaknesses, almost endless variety and a healthy dose of irony within all the groups.
Many of those I interviewed took considerable risks in speaking with me on the record. Therefore, despite the permission of each interview partner to divulge his or her real name, I have chosen to use pseudonyms in each case. The following is a distillation of these three perspectives on the future.
The Tent Meeting
Charismatic/Pentecostals draw considerable energy from the notion that we have a direct connection to the New Testament church through historical portals like the Azusa Street outpouring. In fact, my interviews among younger Pentecostal leaders found many of them, when asked, "Are you a Pentecostal?", immediately referred to the number of generations in which their families had served in the movement.
Their first response to a question of identity was not doctrinal but genealogical. I came to call this subculture the loyalists, finding them bonded both to their doctrine and their cultural definition of "Pentecost."
Gordon, a campus minister, states flatly: "I am indeed a Pentecostal ... it's theologically accurate."
Dan, a youth minister, recalls: "I used to describe myself as a Pentecostal growing up because that's what my parents were. But I came to that point where I realized from Scripture that the Holy Spirit is real and that's a gift for all to have. I've been filled with the Holy Spirit and therefore I am Pentecostal."
The loyalist camp tends to hope for a future that operates as an extension of their understanding of history, calling for "revival" as the means by which this vision can be realized. The tent meeting stands as the symbol of this sort of revival, as God's people separate themselves from culture for a bare bones encounter with the Spirit under the canvas aimed at cleansing, healing and empowering the church and the lost.
The failure to emulate this sort of golden age (variously defined) of Pentecostal experience represents the potential collapse of the movement in their eyes. In short, the only way to be who we are is to be who we were. The irony here is that a careful examination of events like Azusa Street would reveal some aspects most Pentecostals would rather leave in the past tense.
A second subculture among our younger charismatic/Pentecostal leaders earned the name post-distinctive during my sojourn among them. Many of these men and woman grew up in a loyalist context, but have developed doubts about the distinctive experiences that the charismatic/Pentecostal community (especially classical Pentecostals) tend to rely upon to secure its identity.
Feeling the pressure to conform within his denomination, Andrew, a church planter, pleads, "We love you guys, we want to be a part of this ... give us the leeway to figure some things out. ... Don't be the Methodist pastors of 1901 that kicked all your forefathers out."
Asked if he would consider himself a Pentecostal, Mack, leading an urban church, replied, "That's tough because I hate labels." He goes on to reveal concerns about the "initial physical evidence" doctrine favored by his fellowship: "I'm not sure it's that predictable, mechanical thing we turn it into. ... And it's about so much more than initial physical evidence."
Mike, a post-distinctive from the Midwest paraphrased his subculture's basic question when he asked, "Do we have to commit intellectual suicide" to believe in these things?
Tom, a senior pastor from the West Coast, exemplified the wistful tone I encountered among his peers. He spoke with quiet frustration how "conflicted" he felt about the clash between his emotional ties to a movement (and family) and his current experience. Tom bluntly noted that in his area there are around 20 megachurches, only one of which is charismatic/Pentecostal. "Do the math," he suggested grimly.
The grip of distinctives was loosened for others by the impact of abuses committed by leaders who took hard-core positions on these issues, or the reality clash experienced when the gifts of the Spirit operated outside the envelope they were taught to expect. Bob, a campus minister, told me, "I've seen Lutherans with the gift of prophecy over someone and it's challenged my paradigm in a sense."
Bob went on to note a desire, not to abandon the charismatic/Pentecostal experience, but to see it expanded to more than a tent meeting: "Getting a word of knowledge isn't just for Bessie Lou at the altar call, but it's for John at Starbucks."
Post-distinctives envision a charismatic/Pentecostal culture that is less concerned with distinctives, a posture they see as essentially negative and defensive, and more focused on connecting with culture.
Unlike the tent-meeting vision in which the future looks a lot like the past, Starbucks Pentecostals dream of a tomorrow in which, as in the days of the apostles, the church leaves the upper room and pours out into the street. Ironically, tent-meeting visionaries would add an "Amen" to this dream; the controversy is over the means.
A third subculture of the charismatic/Pentecostal movement is prepared for even more wholesale departure from major elements of the past. I came to think of these friends as post-denominationals.
Many of those I interviewed had loyalist roots, but had passed through a post-distinctive phase to emerge into something new, a conviction that real charismatic/Pentecostal experience thrives best only when outside the conventional congregational and denominational structures.
As Mitchell, a denominational expatriate and house-church leader put it, "I consider myself post-Pentecostal but not anti-Pentecostal, taking my Pentecostal heritage and moving beyond that."
Liberation from artificial structures, post-denominationals believe, offers the potential for releasing the people of God to experience everything the Spirit desires to do among us. One proof often presented by representatives of this subculture takes the form of reciting the abuses perpetrated by those who benefit from structure.
Dale, a former megachurch staffer puts it this way: "While at [Bible college] my mantra to other students was, 'We have to change it [the denomination] from within.' When I discovered grace and reflected on the abusive churches I had been a part of (and a perpetrator in), I chucked [my denomination]."
Others, like Mitchell, cite Paul's critique of factions in Corinth, contending that, "any movement that is actually alive doesn't even have a name yet." They perceive static, isolated organizations as unable to develop ministry that makes sense in the real world.
Post-denominationals thrive on pointing out these contradictions and offer a vision of the future composed of "organic" ministry forms such as house churches, simple church, coffeehouses and so on.
They remind me of the millions of Americans participating in eBay (and the thousands who now make their living this way) as an alternative to brick-and-mortar malls, or working in a cube for "the man."
Declaring free agency, most post-denominationals would agree with the counsel of one younger leader who sees the only viable course as choosing to "Move away from destructive notions of 'power bases' in district and national offices and move toward freedom." A final irony is how closely this sentiment resembles that of some of the movement's pioneers.
The Futures Market
Will the charismatic/Pentecostal movement be a tent meeting, a Starbucks or eBay? The only legitimate answer is yes. We will be all these things and more. While individual fellowships will have to chart their own courses, the health of the movement overall depends on developing multiple futures, maximizing our ability to flow with the Spirit and adapt to culture—as long as each vision is rooted in something larger than itself.
We are called to announce the in-breaking of the kingdom of God in the power of the Spirit, not to be apologists for the particular version of tomorrow favored by our subculture, battling for "market share" with our Spirit-filled competitors.
I have witnessed the competition in this "futures market" first-hand in countless off-the-record conversations, tense staff consultations and field observations around the nation. The North American movement will rise and fall, not on the victory of one subculture's vision over the others, but on the submission of the whole movement to God's vision, expressed in biblical basics that transcend issues of time and culture.
For purposes of dialogue, I will suggest just a few aspects of this larger vision as reflected in the Joel 2 passage quoted by Peter in his sermon on the day of Pentecost:
1. Revive the revival. "'" ... I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh ..."'" (Acts 2:17, NKJV). As Margaret Poloma observes in her book Main Street Mystics, "Pentecostalism and its derivatives are in constant need of revitalization for a retention of its distinctive identity."
Charismatic/Pentecostal leaders who are committed to the idea that we already are the revival of the end-times church will need to change, not their eschatology, but the posture of their hearts. Our attitude must be one of hunger and thirst for God, crying out for new life from the Spirit—even if it means we are no longer the leaders.
2. More is good. "'" ... On My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days ... "'" (Acts 2:18). A longing for more of God will de-emphasize questions about distinctives by expanding our sensitivity to the person and work of the Spirit. When the Spirit is moving powerfully, very few people feel drawn to debate distinctives because doctrine can be observed in reality, becoming its own apologetic.
3. Marketplace mentality. "'"I will show wonders in heaven above and signs in the earth beneath ... "'" (Acts 2:19). The movement needs to concentrate on the operations of the Spirit, not just in congregational worship, but in the streets, offices and malls where lost people live.
Matt, pastor of a multicultural church writes: "Divine healing was a marketplace gift. Tongues began in the marketplace." Facing this kind of challenge would drive us to God for more love and more power.
4. Mission, not maintenance. "'" ... Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved"'" (Acts 2:21). The single most important way to stir hunger for the fullness of the Spirit is to point the church to the mission of Jesus in the world and to the utter impossibility of our participating meaningfully in that mission in our own strength.
Presenting Pentecostal experience merely as a way of establishing a certain spiritual identity does a disservice to the experience and to the people involved. We must ask ourselves, "Are we doing anything dangerous enough to require the Spirit to show up?"
The real question for the movement, then, is how to remain true to God's vision of our future. Historian Gary McGee points out that the Spirit propels the church away from the centers of power (Jerusalem) toward the margins of culture (the ends of the earth) to reach the lost and disenfranchised.
To the extent that this anti-centric movement is occurring, we are engaging in the mission of God. But anti-centric ministry is contrary to the understanding of the world (and most of the church), involving challenges vastly beyond our abilities, and requiring a tolerance for paradox that will test us beyond our strength. In other words, the only viable charismatic/Pentecostal future is an invitation to live the mission of God with abject dependence on the power of the Spirit.