Following Jesus: The Pentecostal Tradition

A year after we started with the oldest Christian tradition, Eastern Orthodoxy, this month we concluded the Following Jesus conversation with the newest branch in the family tree: Pentecostalism.

Drew University professor J. Terry Todd alluded to the familiar origin story of Azusa Street in 1906 and quoted its most famous figure. But even as he identified some common experiences and impulses clustering under the heading of “renewalism,” Todd also pointed to new sources of Pentecostal diversity, including his own participation in “a network of mostly queer and mostly black Christians” rooted in the Church of God in Christ.

July’s Tradition: “Following Jesus to the Altar

“There are certain common experiences shared by many if not most renewalist Christians– family resemblances within this thicket of diversity. One of these resemblances is the experience of worship as a theater of divine encounter, a space of intense emotion and intimacy where God meets us at the altar… not just a place but a space within the assembly. To be sure, Pentecostal altars might include material objects such as a table or a prayer railing at the front of the worship space where the faithful kneel, but as an experience, the Pentecostal altar is more than that.  The altar is the space where Pentecostals learn what it means to follow Jesus through encountering the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. As the early Pentecostal leader William J. Seymour taught, the altar is where ‘the great Shekina of glory is continually burning and filling with heavenly light'”…

“As a theater of divine encounter, the Pentecostal (or renewalist) altar can be a ‘transgressive space,’ a term Gastón Espinoza has used to describe the altars at Azusa Street, the 1906 Los Angeles revivals that helped put the Pentecostal movement on the Christian map. As Espinoza argues, Azusa Street’s altar was transgressive for many reasons, not just because of its intensely embodied practices but also because black, white, Latino, and Asian-American Christians gathered there. Together. Transgressive indeed, this race-mixing in Jim Crow America, and certainly one of the reasons the earliest Pentecostals were despised by the mainline white Protestant establishment. Azusa street [sic] represented a fleeting but powerful moment of cross-racial comity, itself a sign of life.”

My Response: “Making All Things New

“Like Pentecostals, Pietists emphasize religious experience, but any ‘intense emotion and intimacy’ is found in the private space of personal conversion, not the public space of worship. And while some Pietists have described the Bible as ‘an altar where we meet the living God,’ that encounter is typically — to use Todd’s words — more subtle than the kinetic; most familiar to the Pietist tradition would be Todd’s description of the altar as ‘a place of expectation, waiting, a place of surrender and reception, before it becomes the place of transformation.’

“If the Pietist experience of encountering God is rarely kinetic, it’s even less commonly another of Todd’s terms: transgressive.”

Additional Responses

“Early Methodism also manifested this encounter with overwhelming physical reactions, such as falling to the floor and crying aloud or moaning. This, of course, violated English propriety and Wesley did not encourage such behavior. He did, though, call people to powerful experiences, seeking the witness of the Spirit that would assure them of God’s love…. I think we share the idea that knowing God deeply through the Holy Spirit shatters the ego and transforms us to have the mind of Christ. For Methodists, the structure of the societies provided accountability so that one was not left to deal with this experience all on one’s own, but could understand and cultivate it in community. I would be very curious about what support Pentecostals typically receive in this regard.”

– Sarah Lancaster, “HALLELUJAH” (The Wesleyan Tradition)

“If… you can grant that all the faithful are following Jesus to the altar, filled with the Spirit, then can you grant with your Episcopal and UCC roots (along with mine) the prevenience of grace, that coming to the altar and faith are works of the Holy Spirit?  When you yield to Jesus your body and soul, is that the Spirit’s work too?  If Pentecostals cannot make this step, I fear that fellowship as Christians (though not human and social engagement) is not possible from my end (or from the viewpoint of Protestantism, Catholicism, and perhaps not from the side of the Eastern heritage).”

– Mark Ellingsen, “Can You Only Follow Jesus to the Altar if you Speak in Tongues” (The Lutheran Tradition)

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