Spirit Breakout: Unexpectedly Encountering God at an Academic Conference

Holy Spirit dove
(Kevin Carden/Lightstock)

I felt the power of God in that room more heavily than I ever expected to experience Him at an academic conference. When the Holy Spirit invaded our afternoon session earlier this month during the 43rd annual meeting for the Society for Pentecostal Studies in Springfield, Mo., it was a moment I will never forget.

Both men and women were stripped of all titles, letters, positions and prejudices. The men in the room entered into the pain I and other powerful women in ministry had experienced for so long. God’s heavy, weighty presence caused us to become vulnerable together. In this moment, this community of “scholars dedicated to providing a forum of discussion for all academic disciplines as a spiritual service to the kingdom of God” was transformed into a family. I believe that what happened with this community of more than 300 scholars of Pentecostalism from around the world during this conference is a foretaste of what God is going to continue to do within the church.

The night before everything changed, the Spirit was already preparing hearts. Toward the end of worship during the Thursday night session, someone broke out in tongues in the congregation of scholars. Following this, someone else gave an interpretation. I could feel the presence of God powerfully when this happened. I remember hearing people speak in tongues and then waiting for the interpretation when I grew up in John Wimber’s church at the Anaheim Vineyard. However, for the past several years in my church circles, for whatever reason, I have not witnessed this happening much at all. I believe that this outbreak of tongues is a prophetic sign of what we will begin to see more of in our churches.

The next day, our society was forever marked. It all began when Kimberly E. Alexander had to switch sessions to do a plenary address alongside Cheryl Bridges Johns, a powerful scholar at Pentecostal Theological Seminary. That pairing was divine. After Cheryl gave a moving plenary address, Kimberly followed it up with a talk based on the research from her latest book, What Women Want: Pentecostal Women Ministers Speak for Themselves. The Holy Spirit was brooding in the room over this topic of women in the ministry. Rather than closing the session himself, which was the original plan, Kenneth J. Archer, the active SPS vice president at the time, felt led to give space to Cheryl to close with a prayer.

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With the conviction of a lifetime of paving the way for women in the academy and in the church, Cheryl was vulnerable in front of an audience of academics. Against all odds, she pioneered the way for many when she was the very first woman to join SPS years ago. She admitted that she was tired of having to continually contend in relation to the issue of women in ministry. Then, with tears in her eyes, she prayed in tongues over the whole group. When that happened, the presence of God fell powerfully in the room. I could feel the weight of His presence upon me.

The sound of one weeping could be heard in the audience. Women who have fought so long to have a voice, who were tired of being put on the sidelines because of their gender, were experiencing a release of that pain. Archer followed Cheryl’s prayer by inviting young women to stand who are called to the academy or to ministry. I responded. Through their tears, I saw the deep pain these women scholars had to endure for so long. Knowing the price they paid for me to have a place broke my heart. When I saw Kimberly pray for my friend Alicia Jackson across the room, I saw this as a passing of the torch.

Then I felt the power of God fall on me in an exceedingly great measure. A Baptist minister and colleague of mine from England, Tim Welch, offered to pray for me. I couldn’t stay standing. Tears streamed down my face. I could feel the burden being released and healing flood that room. Estrelda Alexander, one who has pioneered on behalf of women and the marginalized, came to pray for me as well. The transference that occurred between these legendary women scholars to the newer generation, along with the beautiful space shared between men and women in that room, stripped us all of our armor in the form of titles, letters and Ph.Ds and reminded us what it is like to be family.

As people started to clear out of the room, I could still feel the presence of God powerfully upon me. I couldn’t move, and I didn’t want to leave that atmosphere. This was a holy moment, and I didn’t want His presence to lift. I found myself alone in the hall. In a busy world where we have to fight for pockets of silence, He gave me a chance to linger with Him a little longer. I felt tingling on my whole body. Even as I write this now, I can feel His presence upon me as I did in that moment. He came and I was undone. It was a sacred time.

Upon reflection, I recognize that it was the moment Archer stepped back to share his platform with Cheryl that the Spirit broke out powerfully in the room. He created space for one who was under great conviction and anointing to release the kingdom. In a similar way that A.B. Simpson created space for the early divine healing movement leader and Pentecostal pioneer Carrie Judd Montgomery to soar, Archer did the same for Cheryl. I praise and thank God for Archer’s sensitivity to the Spirit. If he did not yield to the Spirit right then, I believe we may have missed what God wanted to pour out within our community. This divine moment became the tipping point for the whole conference and maybe even for the society as a whole.

This precious moment also moved our community from simply being members of a society to being a family in a greater way. Academics who sometimes don’t quite fit in the world or even in Christian institutions or in the church found comfort, understanding and love amongst other forerunners, pioneers and prophetic voices for the church. The men in that room loved, honored and gave space to the women. They sought understanding and stepped into our pain with us. This act alone brought such healing.

Since I believe that artists, musicians, creatives, entrepreneurs and even academics are prophetic voices for the church, I believe that what happened to us there is also a sign of what’s about to break out at in unprecedented measure within the church. (See my article “Coloring Outside the Lines: Pentecostal Parallels With Expressionism. The Work of the Spirit in Place, Time, and Secular Society?” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 19 (2010), pp. 94–117 for more on this.)

I am proud to be a part of a society that marries both the academy and spirituality and allows freedom and inspiration to not only love the Lord our God will all our hearts but also all our minds. With mixed views, denominations, genders, races and other diversities, the society thrives because it is a family of believers who love God first and foremost. When a bond of love is created within any community, love supersedes disagreements and also provides a safe environment for stimulating conversation to take place. Everything changes when a society, church or community becomes family.

This is my testimony of what happened when the Spirit broke out this year at the Society for Pentecostal Studies conference. I pray it blesses you and inspires you to speak in tongues more, to give space to who the anointing is on regardless of gender or age, and to move beyond structural barriers to become family with those in your circles.

Jennifer A. Miskov, Ph.D., is the history interest group leader for the Society for Pentecostal Studies, founding director of Destiny House and author of several books, including Life on Wings: The Forgotten Life and Theology of Carrie Judd Montgomery, Spirit Flood: Rebirth of Spirit Baptism for the 21st Century, Silver to Gold: A Journey of Young Revolutionaries and others.

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