Interview — Pentecostalism’s Global Language
Why is Pentecostalism so popular? It is nearly half a billion strong worldwide, and has been and continues to be the fastest growing Christian movement in the world. It has made inroads not only in third-world regions like Africa and Latin America, but it also continues to attract huge followings in the United States and Europe.
Walter J. Hollenweger is the leading expert on worldwide Pentecostalism, which he has been studying for more than 40 years. Having grown up in the Pentecostal church, he later became ordained in the Reformed Church of Switzerland. From 1965 to 1971 he was executive secretary of the World Council of Churches, then served as professor of mission at England’s University of Birmingham for 18 years. His seminal book The Pentecostals (Hendrickson, 1972) was recently followed up by Pentecostalism: Origins and Developments Worldwide(Hendrickson, 1997).
What is a Pentecostal?
Worldwide there is so much variety that about all one can say is that a Pentecostal is a Christian who calls himself a Pentecostal. Though Americans tend to focus on the gift of tongues, overall Pentecostals emphasize that God has given several gifts—not just speaking in tongues but also healing and the so-called rational gifts like organization or building a school. Diverse gifts to diverse people. It’s not a strictly theological definition but a phenomenological one.
Why is speaking in tongues the focus in America?
There are many reasons, of course, but one is that American and other middle-class cultures, as in Switzerland, find tongues an extraordinary phenomenon, so these experiences get a lot of attention. In Africa or Mexico, on the other hand, speaking in tongues and healings are not considered extraordinary—they can even be found in some indigenous pagan religions. (Speaking in tongues is not even “supernatural,” as many Pentecostals have found out.) Tongues aren’t even spoken in a lot of third-world Pentecostal churches. Instead, third-world Pentecostals focus on corporate worship, singing together, and Christian education. American Pentecostals don’t seek education as much as an experience of the supernatural.
Our issue covers Pentecostalism up to about 1950. What have been the key changes in Pentecostalism since then?
First, more and more young Pentecostals are becoming scholars through reputable universities. It’s true for Pentecostals in Europe, North America, and Latin America. It’s also true for Africa and for Asia.
There are now several hundred young Pentecostal scholars with doctorates, and that, of course, changes the breadth and depth of Pentecostalism. Most of them have maintained their roots in Pentecostalism, so they are now bilingual. They can speak in the university language, in the language of concepts and definitions, but they can also speak in the oral language of Pentecostalism, and I think that is an extremely important part of their success.
Second, this increase in education has led in many places to more ecumenical openness. In the past, nobody wanted to talk to the Pentecostals, and the Pentecostals didn’t want to talk to any of the other churches because they saw them as a lost cause. Now, for instance, there is a worldwide dialogue between Pentecostals and Roman Catholics that has been going on for 20 years. There have also been many contacts with the World Council of Churches, and the latest example is a global dialogue with the Presbyterian churches.
David du Plessis, a pioneer in ecumenism, has been instrumental in both these changes. He went to the Catholics. He went to the World Council of Churches. He went to all the universities. And the fact that he was a reasonable man and also a Pentecostal astonished many people. They thought Pentecostals were all a little crazy and could not think properly. But when they got to know him, they realized that it is possible to speak in tongues and be a critical scholar.
Another change, of course, is the worldwide explosive growth to nearly half a billion adherents. Why is Pentecostalism so popular?
Some scholars think it has to do with its theology and doctrine. But Pentecostal theology is not homogeneous. Others think it’s because of Pentecostals’ aggressive evangelism. That is partly true because a real Pentecostal is by definition an evangelist, whose faith is as infectious as the flu.
The most important reason is that it is an oral religion. It is not defined by the abstract language that characterizes, for instance, Presbyterians or Catholics. Pentecostalism is communicated in stories, testimonies, and songs. Oral language is a much more global language than that of the universities or church declarations. Oral tradition is flexible and can adapt itself to a variety of circumstances.
Can’t oral tradition drift off into sub-Christian and even heretical beliefs?
Certainly, but overall there is a basic evangelical consensus among Pentecostals. They are similar to the early church in this respect. Early Christians didn’t have a formal, written confession of faith, as Presbyterians and others do today. They had the stories of Jesus. Even Jesus didn’t spell out doctrine; he gave his followers stories of miracles, and taught through proverbs and parables.
The earliest church was united, but not as much through their theology as through the Lord’s Prayer, Paul’s collection for Jerusalem (his theological “enemies"), baptism, and the Eucharist. Their statements of faith were simple, and the simplest was “Jesus is Lord.” It was a very different way of achieving togetherness, and it was achieved through these oral forms.
Ironically, when the ecumenical confessions came later, they did not unite the church. They divided it, as propositional theology always does. But across divided theology, it is possible to pray together, to sing together, and to act together. That’s what Pentecostals do at their best.
Is it fair to say that when you convert to Pentecostalism, you are converting not to a certain theology but to a new experience of faith?
Yes, and that has important evangelistic consequences for Pentecostals.
In many circles, when you become a Christian, you talk about gaining a new understanding of the Lord’s Supper and baptism (they are either more or less sacramental), but other people are not terribly interested in that. When you become a Pentecostal, you talk about how you've been healed or your very life has been changed. That’s something Pentecostals talk about over and over, partly because people are interested in hearing that sort of thing.
Pentecostalism today addresses the whole life, including the thinking part. More mainline forms of Christianity address the thinking part first and that often affects the rest of life, but not always.
Yet it seems most Pentecostals are far more right-brained and intuitive than left-brained and rational.
Indeed, the “orality” of Pentecostalism—the singing, the dancing, the speaking in tongues—accents the intuitive. But a mature Pentecostal will try to connect the intuitive and the rational. Always emphasizing the analytical will destroy faith. But only emphasizing the intuitive leads to chaos. A challenge of the Pentecostal movement is to combine rational thinking with its spontaneous emotional side.
This is the challenge for all Christians, really. The rationalist needs the Toronto Blessing and has to be slain in the Spirit to realize that. It sometimes seems silly to me, but you’ll notice that it is rationalists and intellectuals who fall down. People who have a balanced emotional and intuitive life don’t need that. True, some rationalists dance, sing, go walking in the mountains, or play a musical instrument, but then they go back to their science, to rational lives, and the two are not connected.
What most concerns you as you think about Pentecostalism in the coming century?
First, Pentecostalism must confront its tendency to segregate and separate into countless denominations. It’s happening all the time, and it really is a scandal.
The other challenge is common to all Christian churches: What do we do with the ecological threat to the world? What do we do with the threat of hunger and the plight of refugees? It’s a challenge that will hit Pentecostals harder than any other churches because their largest churches are on the poor side of the world. But as Christians, we have a contribution to make —not just in money but in prayer and in developing solutions that politicians cannot.
But Pentecostals are not known for their social activism.
That’s true in some ways, but it is a misconception in others. Many of Martin Luther King’s marchers were black Pentecostals. In Brazil there are many Pentecostals sitting in parliament. And in many third-world countries, Pentecostals are trying to develop new ways of gaining political influence without the game playing we have in the West. In Latin America, for example, they try to work with sectors of the Catholic church to get water or a school or a new street for a poor district. So there are quite a number of places where Pentecostals take up the structural issues, but they do not take them up by founding political parties. They start from the local needs and the local misery people experience every day.
By Walter J. Hollenweger
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #58 in 1998]Walter J. Hollenweger is a leading expert on worldwide Pentecostalism.
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