Pentecostalism and the Emerging Church

Recently I tuned in for a webinar by Phyllis Tickle with the United Church of Canada’s Edge program. She was talking about the emerging church and one of her comments was that for the first time in history, the emerging church emphasizes the Holy Spirit more than the Father or the Son. This quickly made me think of Joachim of Fiore’s Three Ages theory, and I suddenly wondered if it actually had some validity and was just off by 800 years or so, but that’s an aside. I tweeted this comment from Tickle, generally agreeing. Somebody responded by asking me, “what about Pentecostals?” which is an obviously valid question to ask when speaking about the Holy Spirit. My basic thesis in reply is that Pentecostalism could be understood as a precursor to the emerging church, or even as one of the early stages of the emerging church if you want to press the movement back that far. A big preliminary question, of course, is how to define the emerging church. Without getting into the reasons why I’ve accepted this definition, I’ll use Tickle’s framework, which is that it is a ecumenical conversation at the centre of the four quadrants of Christianity: Liturgicals, Renewalists, Social Justice Christians, and Conservatives. Others define the emerging church only as those who call themselves emerging, which is primarily North American white post-conservative evangelicals. I think the reason my Twitter conversation partner and I disagreed on some of the finer points of classifying the connection was that he was working from the latter definition while I was from the former.

So how are Pentecostalism and the emerging church similar?

  • They both tend to emphasize the Holy Spirit, although as Pentecostalism (in North America) became more wedded to evangelicalism, I’m not sure I’d say that they emphasize the Holy Spirit any more than they do Jesus.
  • They both were/are very focused on social justice in their beginnings, although again as North American Pentecostalism became more tied to conservative evangelicalism this has faded (but not disappeared). Early Pentecostals were the first to have mixed-race churches and to have women in leadership. Emerging churches are largely tied to issues challenging greed as well as to questioning (sometimes outright rejecting, sometimes not) traditional ethical no-no’s like homosexuality.
  • Pentecostalism, or more accurately, charismatic Christianity, crosses denominational boundaries as the emerging church (by my/Tickle’s definition) does. There are Catholic charismatics, Orthodox charismatics, evangelical charismatics, social justice charismatics, and straight-up Pentecostal charismatics.

There is a lot of connection, to be sure. It is probably even fair to say that a lot of contemporary emergings got their ideas on the importance of the Holy Spirit from Pentecostalism. If the emerging church is only a subset of evangelicalism, but as a protest against it with more of a Holy Spirit emphasis, it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that it really is just an extension of Pentecostalism. There’s also the (soft) postmodernism factor, though, which most who have more explicitly studied the emerging church movement would define as its central characteristic. This is related to the Pentecostal movement in one sense – there’s authority other than the denomination’s interpretation of Scripture. Early Pentecostalism as I understand it was still fairly modernist – one objective truth. Pentecostalism today as I know of it is typically soft postmodernist, like the emerging church is, but I think it is fair to say that both Pentecostalism and the emerging church got this philosophical shift from the general culture shift rather than one from the other.

The other problem is that I’m with Phyllis Tickle in defining the emerging church as a whole lot bigger than just a protest movement within evangelicalism. If you think of emerging Greek Orthodoxy, for example, it is hard to see how that was caused by Pentecostalism. More realistically, again, it was caused primarily by the general cultural shift to postmodernism. Pentecostalism was probably one very important step along the way, but it is hard to see the emerging church as purely a consequence of Pentecostalism. Pentecostalism is big in terms of numbers – about a quarter of the world’s Christians are Pentecostal or charismatic (often within another denomination). But it isn’t as big in terms of ideology as the emerging church is. The emerging church isn’t just about allowing more room for the Holy Spirit in theology. It is a complete paradigm shift on the substance of truth, which is why it transcends multiple denominations and has created many “emerging” Christians who don’t even realize they’re a part of this shift and often who don’t have any Pentecostal influence.

So, all that to say, I think that Pentecostalism is a pre-cursor to the emerging church. To put it differently, I think it is a cause – even one of the more significant ones – but the emerging church is a complete culture shift like the Reformation was. The world has changed and the church (all of it) is changing with it, at various paces.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.