The Legacy of Azusa Street

Has the global Pentecostal movement done enough to share Azusa's racial, ethnic, and gender diversity with the world?

Was the Pentecostal-Charismatic wave that is now sweeping the globe "born" at the Azusa Street revival of 1906, when the Spirit of God is said to have descended on a group of worshippers in Los Angeles, ushering in a "second Pentecost"? Historians of American religion have disputed this question for years and will probably do so for years to come. My own view is that indeed it was born in that swept-out former stable, especially because births don't come out of nowhere. They are the culmination of a complex series of processes—genes, chromosomes, and a nurturing environment that come together to produce a new being.

 

It is true that nearly all the qualities that now characterize Pentecostalism had appeared before in Christian history. Healings, tongue-speaking, ecstatic praise, visions, the expectation of an imminent return of Christ, and an intense personal encounter with the Spirit had all appeared periodically over the past 2,000 years. But at Azusa Street, under the gentle but inspired guidance of William J. Seymour, all these theological and worship streams rushed together into a kind of spiritual whirlpool, then flowed out to reach every corner of the world, and half a billion people, within the short span of a century.

 

There was, however, one distinct element at Azusa Street, one which Seymour himself eventually came to believe was the most important sign that a new Pentecost was occurring: black, white, and brown people were praising God together at the absolute nadir of the Jim Crow era. Indeed, in 1906, that simple frame building on Azusa Street may have been the most racially integrated address in America. For Seymour and many of his associates, this gathering was not just a project in interracial cooperation. It was a sign from God that the curse of Babel and the sinful division of the church were both being healed. Seymour believed the Lord was cleansing the bride for the coming of the divine groom at Azusa Street.

 

In one of the saddest chapters of early Pentecostal history, this racially inclusive fellowship did not last very long. The original sin of America, racism, soon intruded into the growing movement. A fissure appeared between whites and blacks that is only now beginning to be healed in Pentecostal communities. However, Pentecostal congregations remain some of the most integrated in America.

 

Meanwhile, Pentecostalism is now spreading to places few thought it would ever reach. With no hierarchy, it scatters its spores in all directions. But instead of undermining its growth, division, like the mitosis of a cell, spreads Pentecostalism further. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of small Christian groups like the "Jesus Family" are now appearing throughout mainland China. There is an Arab Pentecostal congregation in Casablanca, Morocco. The largest single Christian congregation in the world is the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, Korea. Today, Pentecostals praise and testify in Minsk, Bombay, and Caracas.

 

But has this spectacular explosion had any real impact on the rest of the Christian world? It has, and that impact will continue. Martin Marty recently commented that the future of Christianity belongs not to the fundamentalists but to the Pentecostals. One reason he is right is that what might be called "Pentecostalism-lite" has erupted within several other denominations. The Catholic "charismatic" movement is well known, and has replaced "base communities" as the heartbeat of Latin American Catholicism. There is already an organization of "Full Gospel Black Baptist" churches. Lutherans, Methodists, and Congregationalists now often pray in Pentecostal style, with their hands raised to heaven, and few mainline churches are without healing prayers and services, something left to Lourdes pilgrims and Christian Scientists (and of course, Pentecostals) until a couple of decades ago.

 

Another of the biggest Pentecostal influences may be in church music. Pentecostals were not the first, but probably have been the most successful in introducing the popular music of the people into their worship. Further, the music they brought into the sanctuary was drawn from the particular styles of each church's region: salsa, bossa nova, Filipino flutes, cabaret tunes, and rock. Now other Christian churches have picked up on this, and guitars, electronic keyboards, and trap drums often cluster in front of Methodist or Catholic altars and pulpits.

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Mainly, Pentecostals were farthest ahead of the curve in recognizing that people today are seeking a direct experience of God, the holy, or the transcendent mystery. An old Pentecostal saying sums it up: "When a man with an experience argues with a man who has an argument, the man with the experience wins." There is tendency throughout our society and many others to distrust institutions and hierarchies. Even the Roman Catholic Church, the most hierarchical of all, is now faced with widespread rebellion on the part of the laity, demanding more say in the way their church is run. The "Voice of the Faithful" movement in Boston is only one example of this groundswell.

 

Its lack of hierarchy and tendency to subdivide is, however, both the strength and weakness of Pentecostalism. With no bishops, no presbyteries, and certainly no Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, some of the newer Pentecostal offshoots can begin to exhibit questionable, sometimes even bizarre, qualities.

 

One exception to Pentecostalism's lack of hierarchy is The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, which originated in Brazil but now has congregations in more than one hundred countries. It specializes in mass exorcisms, and its pattern is more like a client-customer relationship than a congregational one. It has a kind of pay-for-services structure, but it may be the fastest-growing expression of Pentecostalism. The church, which claims 6 million members, owns the second-largest TV network in Brazil, and its temples in some cities are the largest ones, sometimes seating 8,000 people or more. The temple they have recently built in Salvador, Bahia—which I visited last summer—dominates the skyline. But many leaders of the most "classical" Pentecostal groups like Assemblies of God shake their heads and throw up their hands in despair at this development. They call the church pseudo-Pentecostal, but concede that it is bringing in people in larger numbers than they are.

 

Another problem is the so-called "health and wealth" or "name it and claim it" theology that is springing up in many Pentecostal churches both here and abroad. Its thesis is that God wants us not only to be happy, but also to be rich and successful, and if you ask for anything, you will get it. If you do not achieve wealth or health, it is your fault—your lack of faith—and not a deficiency in God's grace. I wonder what William J. Seymour and his coworkers at Azusa Street would think of worshippers who claim that God has bestowed on them a large-screen color TV, or the latest model in dishwashers. Pentecostals of a more traditional bent can argue against this blatant distortion of the message of Jesus, but can do nothing to stop it.

 

Perhaps the saddest part of the Pentecostal story is how little, after a century, they have done to bring their message of racial, ethnic, and gender diversity to the larger society. In part this is because so many Pentecostal churches themselves remain monochrome. So many congregations are all white, all black, all Asian, or all Latino. (Some of this—but not all of it—is attributable to language barriers.) Pentecostals are painfully aware of this shortcoming. They have been trying various ways to restore some of the joyous inter-ethnic unity that convinced their earliest forebears that a second Pentecost was happening in their midst.

 

In this century, relationships between and among the different religious traditions of the world will become more and more important as we strive to promote a "dialogue" of cultures instead of a "conflict of civilizations." How Pentecostals will fit into this picture is still a mystery. Will their zeal for proselytism make it more difficult to find common ground with their neighbors of other faiths, especially in Africa and Asia? Or will they begin to recognize, as some already are (including the prolific young Pentecostal theologian Amos Yong), that the same Spirit that touches their hearts may also be speaking to those who do not share their theological beliefs?

 

In any case, Martin Marty may well have been right when he wrote that the future of Christianity—in say 50 years—may look more Pentecostal than anything else.

 

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