Forty years ago, I embarked on a mission to understand the Pentecostal brand of racism. I had come to accept that racism is endemic to American society, but I could not admit that it was rampant in my own Pentecostal tribe, a tribe that claimed to be a shining model of spiritual exceptionalism.
Out of that mission a master’s thesis and then a dissertation were born. In those days, I didn’t see how my work would ever get published, so I left it in its pre-digital state and moved to remote parts of Asia to see what mischief I could get into for the kingdom elsewhere.
Fast forward to 2019 and that body of work from the 1980s is about to roll off the presses under the title, Ethics in the Age of the Spirit: Race, Women, War, & the Assemblies of God. This is something I never could have imagined. Thanks, Darren Rodgers, Marty Mittelstadt, and Jay Beaman for digging me out of my Portland cave and connecting me with the publishing team at Wipf and Stock!
But there is something else I never could have imagined – something more disturbing. That we white Pentecostals would still be struggling with the sin of racism. (Before my fellow tribesmen beat their breasts in protest at being singled out, let me reassure you we are not necessarily worse than other groups…but since when is that a point of comfort?)
More than a century after the unprecedented Azusa Street revival (see chapter 6) and twenty-five years after the Memphis Miracle (read about it in my last chapter), we still don’t get what the Holy Spirit has been laboring to gift in us.
Granted, we don’t often hear loudly proclaimed the old forms of racism, such as “you can’t come near my church” or “if we reach them, we’ll lose our kind.” Nowadays, racism is more genteel, more subtle, more isolated. Or is it?
How well I remember people telling me back in 1979 that racism wasn’t a thing, that what I was hearing were not racist statements, what I was seeing were not racist actions. I just didn’t understand, they said. Or, I was too sensitive, they patronized.
Was I? I just spent this past year rereading and editing through the hundred-thousand words I wrote about eighty-plus years of Pentecostal history and I am here to tell you that the stuff I read in the media (social and otherwise) in 2019 sounds a lot like 1979 – which sounded a lot like 1939. (Read about thatchilling year in chapter 8.)
Sure, we’ve made progress. But the progress called for by the Holy Spirit in 1909 was lightyears ahead of what we brag about in 2019.
I’m not all gloom and doom. In fact, I am very bullish on the American Pentecostal church. You see, while we were struggling to come to grips with a revolutionary and countercultural mandate from heaven, the Spirit was at work plotting the fulfillment of that Azusa Street vision quite apart from any human plan. As we were hearing the call to go to the nations far, far away, the Spirit conspired to draw the nations – the fruit of our labors, if you insist – to our very own shores.
In 1919 we were willing to go to the ends of the earth. A century on, the ends of the earth are coming to us – and they are God’s plan for our salvation.
The American church has been shrinking (yes, including our own tribe) and American society has been secularizing. Yet within a decade, the American Assemblies of God will be majority minority. (It may take another generation before the leadership is majority minority, but we’ll take our salvation in baby steps.) And the biggest assault on American secularization is immigration. Who knew?
In 1909, we said we would not bow to the gods of cultural norms. Well before 1939, we were bowing. By 1979, the cultural norms were changing – on the issue of race, society was moving closer to Azusa Street than we white Pentecostals were, and we were playing catch up. Now, in 2019, we have finally caught up, statistically speaking, and we may even be ahead of the curve. But that is where the Spirit always is – ahead of the curve, calling for us to catch up.
We Pentecostals are forever praying for revival. The question is, do we really want what we ask for?