Recently media have paid much attention to two distinct religion stories. One is the surge of global Pentecostalism. The other is the visibility of mainline Protestantism in U.S. culture wars. Yet the two stories rarely connect, and for good reason.
Pentecostals and mainliners generally glide around each other like icebergs passing in the night. Over the years, Pentecostals have viewed mainliners with deep skepticism, judging them theologically lax and culturally spineless. Mainliners, for their part, have viewed Pentecostalswhen they viewed them at allwith disdain, judging them theologically primitive and culturally unwashed. No one took prisoners.
My aim is modest. It is not to foster ecumenical dialogue (though that would be nice), nor ecumenical worship (though that would be even nicer). I only hope to suggest that the standoff should ceasenot for reasons of Christian unity, but so that each tradition can be more true to itself. Pentecostals can become better Pentecostals, and mainliners can become better mainliners, by paying attention to each other's strengths.
What Mainliners Can Learn
Healing. Pentecostals have made two enduring contributions to the Christian healing tradition.
First, along with healing as physical and psychological restoration, they have emphasized healing as release from addictions. They understand that addictions, no less than illnesses, entrap. Hence addictions too are subject to God's release.
Second, Pentecostals have esteemed healing as the first, not just the last, privilege of the Christian. Early Pentecostal preachers liked to tell a story. A young woman asked a ship captain during a storm if anything could be done. The captain responded, "No, ma'am, it is in God's hands now." To this she replied, "Oh my, has it come to that?"
Pentecostals teach that it always "comes to that." God controls our lives not just at the end but also at the beginning and the middle of every day.
Pragmatism. Pentecostals are willing to adjust principle to the needs of the moment in order to accomplish their larger aims. There are countless examples, but one stands out. Several years ago I received an invitation to talk at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri. Just before I stood to speak, the president asked if anyone needed prayer.
One woman said that she had been diagnosed with cancer. The president looked around the pulpit for anointing oil. Finding none, he turned to the students and asked if anyone had hair spray. Someone passed a small canister to the front. He sprayed a bit on his finger and touched her forehad. I do not know if the woman was healed. I do know that the service affirmed the priority of human needs over prescribed forms.
Inclusiveness. By inclusiveness I mean that Pentecostals have sought to embrace everyone, men and women, white and black, rich and poor, able-bodied and physically challenged. To be sure, the track record is mixed, but on the whole, it outshines mainliners'. At the grassroots level of higher education, for example, the Pentecostal Regent University in Virginia Beach enrolls 22 percent African Americans. My own Duke University publishes an African American enrollment of 8.5 percent. The public may perceive Regent as very conservative and Duke as very liberalbut in reality, which is which?
Fullness. Deep in the Pentecostal tradition stands an emphasis on the amplitude of God's grace. That idea, growing out of 19th-century precursors, has taken various forms, sometimes described as "deeper life," sometimes as "higher life," sometimes as the "completeness" of God's blessing. The fullness idea names the nourishing undercurrent that leads to practices ranging from Holy Spirit baptism to speaking in tongues. It names the aspiration that lies behind Pentecostals' remarkable determination to work and witness, often at great personal cost.
Submission. This word is problematic. Beyond its reference to wives' relation to husbands, it aptly describes Pentecostals' habitual stance toward the divine. At its best, submission is what Pentecostal spirituality fundamentally represents: the bending of the individual's will to God'sa deep-seated awareness that humans do not create themselves and therefore owe their lives to another source. Pentecostals' insistence on teaching scientific creationism in the public schools is less a statement about science than a call to remember the contingency of all things God has created.
Theism. All Christians are theists but, for many believers, that is a mere principle rather than a daily reality. They are, as the saying goes, "atheists of the practical sort." Though such Christians live moral lives, hour by hour they salute no transcendent reference. In contrast, no one will ever say that Pentecostals are "atheists of the practical sort"nor that they exhibit a moribund form of culture religion. Pentecostals' God may tumble into trivialization but rarely into dormancy.
Accountability. The second-generation Pentecostal theologian David DuPlessis earned recognition for emphasizing the phrase, "God has no grandchildren." For him, that phrase did not mean that tradition and the church remained irrelevant. It meant that God holds everyone directly responsible for their beliefs, attitudes, and actions. The idea that society causes individual shortcomings, widely spread in mainline Christianity, finds little resonance in Pentecostal culture. There are no ideologies of victimization, social or otherwise.
Assertiveness. Pentecostals take stands. The movement's corporate habit is to take a public position on issues of consequence. To be sure, a majority of white adherents come down on the "conservative" side of most public debates, especially moral issues like gay marriage and abortion. African American and Latino Pentecostals present a more complex picture, sometimes parallelling and sometimes differing from whites and from each other. On the whole, however, Pentecostals voice their views.
Pentecostals deserve better. No group can be equally concerned about all ills all the time.
Planting. Pentecostals evangelize. Indeed, there is a quip about it. When someone gets on a bus and says, "Is this seat savedoh, by the way, are you?" you know that person is probably Pentecostal. For lots of reasons, some more commendable than others, most mainliners have come to doubt the warrant for overt evangelization of outsiders. In contrast, Pentecostals remain invincibly convinced that a buried truth, even a shielded truth, is not a truth worth holding at all. They rarely lack the courage to share the Good News.
Urgency. For Pentecostals, time counts. This is not to say that they always use their time more wisely than do other Christians. They don't. But it is to say that when they don't, they feel badly about it. And for good reason. Virtually all subscribe to some form of premillennialism. Like most secular ecologists and globalization theorists, Pentecostals strongly doubt that history can keep on going in the same old ways. Thus they emphasize stewardship, not only of money but also of the time God has given each of us to do God's work.
Music. Hear it! Who can forget a hand-clapping Pentecostal choir singing "There's Power in the Blood" in an old-fashioned revival?
What Pentecostals Can Learn
Nurture. Mainliners know that Rome was not built in a day, and neither is Christian faith. Mainliners, especially Lutherans and Reformed Confessionalists, seriously catechize the young and reproduce the faith in denominational schools and seminaries. They use the lectionary systematically to present (and re-present) the whole of the Christian theological tradition. Mainliners understand, in other words, that the Christian God is a slow God who builds the edifice of faith one brick at a time.
Sacramentalism. Mainliners appreciate that God meets humans not only spiritually but also palpably, in material things. Bread and wine (or juice) typically come first, yet other material objectsstained glass in the nave, carved wood in the chancelbecome sites for the intersection of the supernatural and the natural. Mainliners know that Christians experience God with their senses too.
Proportion. Mainliners grasp that the antidote to extremism is not prayer for success but for balance. John Hersey captured this insight in his classic novel The Call, about David Treadup, a YMCA missionary in China who lightly resembles Hersey's missionary father. After a reckless confrontation with brigands, Treadup prays "to be given, for the love of Jesus, a sense of proportion." Mainliners know the virtue of radical moderation.
Quality. More precisely: quality over quantity. Not that quantification is always badit goes with evangelization. Indeed, mainliners seem strangely quick to discount the goals as well as the methods of the church-growth gurus. But in their better moments they sense that boasting about big numbers says more about status aspirations than spiritual attainments. Here, mainliners, blessed by the tempered sensibilities of centuries of history, have much to teach.
Community. By community I mean awareness that the corporate body of Christ precedes individual bodies in Christ. That awareness stands timelessly expressed in the Apostles' Creed: first the "communion of saints" and then "the forgiveness of sins." This litany, recited in most mainline churches every Sunday, reinforces the orthodox sequence of priorities.
The mainline also expresses its theological priorities in its preaching tradition. My colleague Richard Lischer, a Lutheran theologian, makes the point with brilliant succinctness. "Remember," he tells his students, "the Bible is more interesting than you are."
Reverence. "Overbold with God Almighty" is what Queen Elizabeth said about the upstart Protestant sects disturbing the peace of her 16th-century English church. Not the most pious of souls, the good queen nonetheless discerned the importance of cultivating a proper sense of human finitude in the face of God's infinitude. The danger that the mainline seeks to guard against, in its confessions and liturgy, is undue familiarity with God. Mainliners know that God's will cannot be confined, let alone reduced, to a calculus of human reckoning and desire.
Accountability. In 2003 the Pentecostal Evangel featured the reigning Miss America. The Evangel proudly noted that this talented young womanheaded for Harvard Law Schoolhad distinguished herself as an advocate of premarital sexual abstinence. The article admitted that some Christians oppose beauty pageants, yet failed to acknowledge that historically the Miss America pageant has traded on the objectification and commodification of the female body.
It is hard to imagine a Wesleyan Christian Advocate or a Lutheran Digest showcasing a beauty-pageant winner. More secure in its status, the mainline has better learned how to cast a critical eye on the seductive claims of contemporary middle-class culture.
Scholarship. The important point here is not that mainliners have more scholars, but that they respect their scholars' wisdom. They suppose that persons who have devoted their lives to studying the church's traditions should be consulted. The mainline assumes that their academics have earned the right to speak. They know perfectly well that academics have their own foibles and quarrels, but they are willing to take the bad with the good in order to gain the benefit of disciplined expertness.
Commonality. In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln made clear that the Civil War lasted as long as it did because the North, no less than the South, had profited from the slave driver's lash. Americans, he effectively said, were all in it together, and all had to pay. Mainliners too know that Christians are all in it together, and all have to pay. If any part of their group falls into sin, or teaches a heresy, the whole group is affected and must shoulder some responsibility, sometimes for the failing and always for the resolution. Sharing the name means sharing the burden.
Humility. Mainliners call their institutions denominations. Historically the term denotes, among other things, a group of Christians who see through a glass darkly. Each tradition, it suggests, must recover an aspect of the great body of Christian teachings and practices that others have underplayed or overlooked. (The sect, in contrast, assumes exclusive responsibility and privileged knowledge.)
Mainliners, who have been around for the better part of five centuries, know that the magnitude of the task and the limitation of the resources mean that everyone's hands are needed.
Music. Hear it! Who can forget a robed choir soaring with "O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing" in the amber glow of a Gothic nave?
Fuller Theological Seminary president Richard Mouw once told a story at Duke about a northerner who attended a conference in Durham, North Carolina. Eating breakfast at a mom-and-pop diner, the traveler requested eggs, sausage, and toast. When the server, a local woman, brought the order, the northerner saw a little knot of white stuff on the plate. "What's that?" he asked.
"Grits," she said.
"What is a grit?" he asked.
"Honey," she drawled, "they don't come by themselves."
So too with Pentecostals and mainliners. They do not, or at least should not, come by themselves. Together they can learn from each other's experiences and profit from each other's wisdom. If Pentecostals have given us the gift of tongues, mainliners have given us the gift of ears. Together they witness to the full gospel held by the whole body of Christ.
Grant Wacker is professor of church history at Duke University Divinity School. He is the author of Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture (Harvard University Press, 2001).
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Our sister publication, Christian History & Biography, also reviewed the book.
More about Wacker is available from his Duke University page.
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