Into Wind and Water
How Is American Pentecostalism Maturing?
Ryan Gregg preaching at Calvary Temple Church. Courtesy Ryan Gregg
By Ryan Gregg
Home for the summer after my first year at Harvard Divinity School, I enter the worship center of Calvary Temple Church in Concord, California, to find a swimming pool erected on the platform. The fourth weekend service is already in full swing and the 850-seat room is mostly full. While the band and choir belt out a song of sparse creedal poetry (“We believe in the Father, the Son, and the Spirit . . .”), one of the pastors baptizes new Christians in the heated water. A mood of celebration is palpable: cheering and clapping follow each splash. Church staff hand towels to the smiling, dripping converts leaving the pool on one side, while still dry candidates descend into the water on the other side. The miraculous catch of fish in Luke 5 comes to mind as I watch. Nets were cracking then, sailors hollering, boats sinking—a disorderly affair that concluded with a cryptic suggestion about becoming “fishers of people.” I ask myself: is this chaos Christianity?
I think that it is, but the brand practiced here is ostensibly quite different from the religion of Galilee. Those first, mostly illiterate believers sat on shores and hillsides, probably straining their ears and eyes to absorb the message of the distant teacher. At Calvary Temple Church, an Assemblies of God congregation forty-five minutes from San Francisco and the Silicon Valley, the parishioners sit on plush chairs while navigating electronic Bibles on their devices and watching the pastor preach from one of three big screens (or, if they wish to be old-fashioned about it, they can rest their eyes on the man himself). During the portion of the service known as “worship,” the auditorium takes on a sensually-dense atmosphere reminiscent of night clubs. Blue and purple lights, smoke drifting over the stage, a thick-pulsing bass line, and physical postures of surrender combine to achieve an aura of escape or arrival (or both). Loudspeakers from the packed children’s service taking place directly below the main auditorium are often audible during the pastor’s teaching.
When the service is not underway, the lobby outside becomes a de facto coffee shop: friends sip hot drinks and lounge in couches arrayed around digital fireplaces. Before leaving, they might check in at a kiosk or a mobile iPad for info about an upcoming small group event, then exit to the parking lot where a traffic jam under palm trees is being directed by a crew of volunteers in golf carts. Food trucks often get in on the action too, propping open their awnings in the sun and offering a quick lunch for those who want to keep the conversation going.
Such is the scene nowadays at a Pentecostal “megachurch,”1 and the congregation that calls this their spiritual home is diverse generationally, socioeconomically, and ethnically. White yuppie transplants to Silicon Valley rub shoulders with recently emigrated Filipino store-owners and African-American civil servants whose families moved to California during the Great Migration. The demographic skews younger than some other Protestant denominations: at twenty-seven, I’m probably near the median age. And I should confess to a certain uniqueness within Calvary Temple Church’s congregation: the lead pastor of this religious superstore, “the man himself” . . . is my dad.
I was born an insider to the tradition Harvey Cox identifies in his 2009 book, The Future of Faith, as being at the vanguard of a new era of Christian history. Cox argues that in the last fifty years global Christendom began transitioning into an “Age of the Spirit,” which is marked by a reversion to the value systems and norms that animated the first Christians. “The experience of the divine is displacing theories about it,” Cox writes. “No wonder the atmosphere in the burgeoning Christian congregations of Asia and Africa [and California?] feels more like that of first-century Corinth or Ephesus than it does like that of the Rome or Paris of a thousand years later.”2
Cox locates Pentecostalism in the center of this worldwide trend toward Spirit-filled activities, describing its “animated worship and concern for the down-trodden” as something of an innovative start-up. Pentecostals, he notes, who are sometimes called “main street mystics,” represent “by far the fastest-growing sector in world Christianity, and the ebullient worship of these ‘holy rollers’ still upsets the more staid denominations.” (94)
While I’m no “holy roller,” and ebullience is no synonym for mystical depth, my father is indeed a pastor in the movement Cox describes, and I am happily a member of the church and involved there in ministry. This being so, I often reflect on the future of my family’s faith. What is Pentecostalism’s appeal in America today, culturally and theologically, and where is it going? What are the hollow caricatures of Pentecostalism, and some of the ways it is maturing? What does it mean to be an intellectually responsible participant in this exploding, Spirit-focused group? My feelings about Pentecostalism are complex, and I come at these questions from the perspective of someone who rejected it outright for several years. I eventually returned, however, and today share preaching and teaching duties with my dad.
When the Pentecostal movement ignited in Los Angeles during the Azusa Street Revival in 1906, the early Pentecostals looked a couple hundred miles up the Pacific coastline at the smoldering ruins of San Francisco—devastated that same year by an epochal earthquake and fire—and incorporated its destruction into their evangelizing mission. The world was clearly ending soon, and the message of salvation had to be spread. This urgency produced the fervor that caused Pentecostalism to grow like wildfire: the movement is just 109 years old and already has some 500 million adherents (Cox, 202). Do the math, and this means that modern Pentecostalism has averaged 12,568 converts every day since 1906, over four times the number of the biblical Pentecost (the mass conversion of 3,000 people that jumpstarted the first church).3
Whereas Pentecostalism once took the destruction of San Francisco as its impetus, more than one hundred years later, Pentecostal congregations like Calvary Temple Church are investing in the life and future of San Francisco, looking for ways to serve the poor that reflect the city’s namesake. This shift in approach is a small indication of a larger sea change. Cox writes: “Something highly significant is going on in the Pentecostal movement. Its main focus was once fixed on a strictly otherworldly salvation, but now the example of Jesus’s concern for the impoverished, the sick, and the socially outcast has begun to play a more central role” (202–203). This statement maps well with the allocation of energy I see at Calvary Temple Church. My mother leads our boots-on-the-ground Compassion Ministries, which are at the heart of our community life. We do laundry for the homeless in our region, care for single parents and the elderly inside and outside the congregation, organize a social services bazaar for low-income neighborhoods, and help run a summer camp for our county’s foster children. One particularly effective idea has been “Compassion Bags”—cloth sacks containing a list of needs that parishioners pick up empty and bring back full. Through collaborations with local shelters and aid agencies, the supplies get to the people who need them.
About two thousand people are regularly involved in volunteering at our church, and this has consequences beyond the simple gratification of philanthropy. In his 2013 apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis discerns an internal logic of charity: “I want a church which is poor and for the poor,” he writes. “They have much to teach us. . . . We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them.”4 I find it both permissible and healthy for Pentecostal churches to listen attentively to the pope’s teaching, and Francis here opens avenues for considering the reciprocal nature of charity. If the church can liberate the poor in some measure from economic bondage, Pope Francis writes, the poor can also liberate the church in some measure from its potential bondage to consumerism, individualism, angst, and self-absorption. In a highly stratified region like the Bay Area, and in a church like ours, which has both wealthy and poor parishioners (and many in between), this reciprocal evangelism keeps us moving together toward a vision of being “poor in spirit” for the sake of the kingdom of God. 5
But Pentecostal volunteerism has other, more political consequences as well. In our church, I have observed the way it counters the inertia of passive citizenship and nurtures in our congregants a sense of civic agency, both in our local community and the larger world. This engagement is energized by a valuation of society that discerns promise and beauty beyond the walls of the garden, so to speak. Cox brings this to the fore in The Future of Faith, asserting that the Age of the Spirit is marked by “the rediscovery of the sacred in the immanent, the spiritual within the secular” (2). Fifty years ago Cox had already spotted this trend, in his 1965 book The Secular City, where he makes an important distinction:
Secularization implies a historical process, almost certainly irreversible, in which society and culture are delivered from tutelage to religious control and closed metaphysical world views. We have argued that it is a basically liberating development. Secularism, on the other hand, is the name for an ideology, a new closed world view which functions very much like a new religion.6
Differentiating between the historical process of secularization and the religious ideology of secularism equips groups like Pentecostals with tools for critiquing and encountering society, for being “in the world but not of the world.”7 Wholesale condemnation of “the secular world” tinted with nostalgia for a mythical past is increasingly rare, and this shift, coupled with volunteerism, is in turn affecting the tenor of Pentecostal preaching: “As their numbers increase and they see that their participation in public life can make a difference, Pentecostals preach less about an imminent return of Jesus and more about how to live in a fallen world and sometimes make it a better place” (Cox, 207).8
Although this de-emphasis on an imminent return may have more to do with the persistent little fact that one hundred years later planet earth is still here, I’ve never heard my dad preach a sermon about sensational End Times scenarios, but I have heard plenty of sermons about pursuing lives of self-sacrificial love in and for the world. This seems to me an authentic maturation. Pentecostals today are awakening to the notion that God cares more about our spiritual postures than our doctrinal postulates, which was manifest at Calvary Temple Church just after they finished baptizing in the pool. A group of youngsters came on stage next, to pray in anticipation of an upcoming trip to a Mexican orphanage. All of them wore T-shirts that read in bold letters: Live Love. Now, I am aware that Pentecostals are often portrayed as intellectual lightweights, and alliterative slogans like this may feed that characterization. Yet the question is whether a statement like “live love” is a lazy presupposition or a hard-won conclusion. As the congregation extended their hands to pray for the group, I reflected on the way that a tenacious reciprocity between belief and action has been a catalyst for many groups, religious and otherwise. Perhaps “live love” is a hard-won conclusion, the newest iteration of Pentecostalism’s original mission to change the world.
But I haven’t yet put all my cards on the table. To this point I’ve played the good Pentecostal boy, attentive to and cautiously proud of the evolution of his tradition. While on balance this is true, the substance of that truth is more complex.
In the summer of 2008, one semester before finishing a degree in biblical literature at Northwest University, a Pentecostal liberal arts college in Seattle, I was in the passenger seat of a car that transformed into a flying wing. A friend and I were on the I-90 in eastern Washington State, and she was driving . . . fast. My head was down when it happened, fixed on my laptop screen where I was composing—good Pentecostal boy that I was—a sermon. The car lost control, and when I looked up at the sound of our squealing tires, we were going sideways at incredible speed. We began to roll, and at that moment I distinctly remember being overwhelmed by a tremendous calm. It was uncanny. A spontaneous prayer fell from my lips, a prayer that would later mystify and embarrass me: “Jesus. I trust you.”
Then the car went airborne and I blacked out.
Several years later I requested the report of the accident from the Washington State Highway Patrol, and through that document I contacted a witness named Dale. In a telephone conversation, he told me that he had been behind a semi truck when the accident occurred, but just seconds beforehand, when he had been doing 75 MPH, we passed him “like he was sitting still.” After he heard the tires blow, the next thing Dale remembers is seeing our little car flying above the semi. I questioned him on this, not believing it possible, but he insisted that this is what happened. Later I learned that at high speeds a car can actually take on the properties of a wing; this is how many NASCAR drivers die.
Dale and another witness pulled over and sprinted to the car, which was mangled and steaming in a field. It smelled heavily of gas. Fearing an explosion, they tried to remove us immediately from the vehicle. They came to my side first, where my body hung limp halfway out of the shattered window. But when they repositioned my body to open the door, Dale says: “Your neck just flopped over onto your shoulder. Grossest thing I’ve ever seen.” My neck was broken. The medics soon came, immobilizing and transporting me to one hospital via ambulance, then to another via helicopter. Neurosurgery followed. A wedge of bone was harvested from my iliac crest, a part of the pelvis, and inserted in my spine between C5 and C6. The doctors then fused my realigned vertebrae with a butterfly-shaped metal plate and screws. Miraculously (not an inappropriate word here, I think), my friend was uninjured, sustaining only surface cuts and bruising. But me? Something more than my neck had fractured.
The term “conversion” implies a change of direction, derived from the Latin con- (“altogether”) and vertere (“turn”). In its religious sense, it means “turning toward God.” After the accident, wearing an immobilizing neck device and unable to lift anything heavier than a cell phone, I did indeed experience a conversion, but it was in the opposite direction. Provoked by a moment terrifyingly close to nonbeing, I forcefully sloughed off all the conventions of being a pastor’s boy and began reading in wider and wider circles, beyond the approved canons I had inherited. I cut my teeth first on Emerson and Thoreau and through them followed a bibliographic trail that would lead me to Confucius, the Bhagavad Gita, Muhammad, and Plato. Although I’d been socially active during my first years of college, when I returned to campus I became something of a hermit, locking myself in my dorm room, eating alone, taking vows of silence and cold showers. The momentum from my former life did carry me forward for a while, and I enrolled in a Protestant seminary in the fall of 2009; but I dropped out after one year, having officially signed divorce papers, not only with Pentecostalism, but with Christianity altogether.
What had become so problematic for me? Just the kinds of stereotypes that continually plague Pentecostal/Evangelical churches: The salvific huckstering. The atavistic dualisms. The commodification of mystery. The tone-deaf hermeneutic. The parasitic and manipulative aesthetic. The trenchant exclusiveness. The sanctified jingoism and consumerism. Such charges, my own stereotypes—these pushed me away. Moreover, new readings in philosophy and literature—Hume, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy—led to my disenchantment with the intellectual basis of religion. It was all such poppycock, or BS, depending on my mood.
As a son of the pulpit, rebellion may be hardwired into my DNA. After the second semester of my seminary program, which I spent abroad in Jerusalem, I simply refused to return to the United States. Instead, I remained in Jerusalem for three years, studying modern Hebrew at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and working full-time at a nonprofit (www.shevet.org) that provides open heart surgeries in Israeli hospitals to children from the Gaza Strip and Iraq. I had volunteered there during my seminary semester abroad, and with a pink scar healing on my trachea from neurosurgery, I felt an immediate camaraderie with these young girls and boys nursing six-inch scars up and down their own little chests. Staying on in Jerusalem to work with physically broken hearts in the historic cradle of Abrahamic religions eventually initiated in me a kind of teshuvah. The word in Hebrew is used in the same way that “conversion” is used in English, only the metaphor is different: whereas the Latin intimates turning, the Hebrew means re-turning. Watching scores of Muslim children blue with cyanosis flush a healthy pink after heart surgeries performed by their Jewish “enemy,” the religion I had disavowed as absurd began clicking back into place for me. Said simply (and here I must appeal to a language beyond theology, or an essence beyond language): the God of love resurrected for me in Jerusalem, and I returned.
But even a powerful encounter with love or God does not magically dissolve philosophical obstacles. Seven thousand miles away from Calvary Temple Church, I was still the son of a man with certainties, and I knew needed certainties of my own—certainties that were not boilerplate. (Not for my father’s sake, but for mine; he is a gracious man, and was an understanding friend to me through this whole process.) To use a word from the New Testament, what I needed was to experience a metanoia. Usually translated “repentance,” this Greek word is used in narrative contexts of conversion as well, and it also expresses a slightly shifted fundamental metaphor. Metanoia is a compound of meta- (“after, behind”) and nous (“mind, intellect”). The concept involves recognizing one’s mistake after the fact and changing accordingly. However, it is also possible to read metanoia as pointing to something “behind” or “beyond” the mind, almost in a spatial sense. Continuing to read while hiking Jerusalem’s sunburned mountains to the Hebrew University and watching critically ill children heal, I began to seriously consider whether what we call “religion” and “love” and even “God” are not fundamentally beyond the mind somehow. Over three quiet years, experiencing a slow-motion intellectual conversion, such musings solidified into a conviction. Being confronted on all sides with the aesthetic decay of past religious certainties can make one wonder if every religious community is not in a way incomplete, not only on the level of its culture and organization, but also on the level of its claims to doctrinal absoluteness. I soon realized that Pentecostalism’s emphasis on the Spirit can actually access and harness some of these insights. The metanoia I underwent was then twofold, corresponding to the double meaning of the word: an embrace of that which is beyond the mind, and a repentance of my previous cynicism.
During this period, I also rediscovered the Christian language of having “a personal relationship with God,” which had struck me after the accident as yet another plastic cliché. In Jerusalem, I realized that this phrase is indeed plastic, but in a different sense of the word. One challenge to any religious identity is accounting for the very different and legitimate ways that others relate to God. When I walked away from Pentecostalism, the so-called exclusivism of the group was among my foremost complaints. Only at an objective distance could I begin to appreciate the way the phrase “personal relationship with God” generates an inherent uniqueness to each person’s mode of spirituality and renders a doctrinal plasticity that is welcoming to a whole slew of possibilities. What I had thought was the language of exclusivism became my gateway to inclusivism, since this language (used by so many, not just Pentecostals) rejects the formal in favor of the personal and resists normalized conversions in favor of unique ones.
Such a move appears to be in step with a historical trend within Protestant theology. If, in the past, the Protestant message conveyed a marked reservation about the possibility of innate moral goodness, perhaps the message now is an increasing reservation about the possibility of innate epistemic veracity. These trends share a purpose as well: if the historical emphasis on depravity was ultimately for the sake of a deeper experience of righteousness, a rejuvenated epistemic humility may open avenues to a deeper order of certainty. I embrace Pentecostalism and its Spirit not as a way without epistemology but as a way beyond epistemology, entrusting myself to an undercurrent of grace that upholds the world.
If you had asked me to preach five years ago, I would have told you that the only sermon worth preaching would be about why preaching is problematic at best and a punchline at worst. In hindsight, I believe I needed to reject every Yes I had inherited and liberally wield a No in order to clear space for my own, authentic Yes. Perhaps not unpredictably, that authentic Yes is taking me into the family business. I now preach and teach regularly at Calvary Temple Church, and after completing a PhD, I hope to be both a professor and a pastor. But a specifically Pentecostal pastor? Actually, no. Among the reasons I find Calvary Temple Church and congregations like it so attractive is that were I to approach a random parishioner and ask them what they identify as, I suspect most would say simply, Christian. In recent Sunday School classes I have taught about the iconography of Eastern Orthodox Christianity and on Pope Francis’ book The Joy of the Gospel, and both lessons were received with genuine curiosity and acceptance. I want to be part of a movement that attempts to call a cease fire to intra-Christian conflicts, and replaces them with a clear mandate to live love. New winds are blowing the church forward today, and in contrast to painful histories of division and exclusion within American Christianity, I hope that syllogisms will increasingly be spliced in the rearview mirror.
Pentecostalism will continue to mature, and to do so it might further develop its understanding of biblical passages featuring the Spirit. The third chapter of John’s Gospel is interesting in this regard. It contains John 3.16 (“For God so loved the world…”), a statement powerful in its own right, yet often punctured flat by overfamiliarity. Yet just a few verses earlier, an enigmatic sentence appears: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”9 Beneath the translation “wind,” as Bible scholars will know, is the Greek word nooma, which itself sits atop the Hebrew word ruakh. Both words have a wide range of possible meanings—wind, spirit, breath, mind—all interesting connotations. Yet whatever meaning is finally perceived, the verse seems to basically assert that this “wind,” although one is able to intellectually interact with it by “hearing its sound,” has a source and destination that are ultimately mysterious. The Spirit exists between what can and cannot be known, and when I think about what it means to participate in an “Age of the Spirit,” I believe it involves squaring oneself courageously into this wind, rigorously asking what it means to live with mystery.
On my days off I like to go down to San Francisco, maybe ride a cable car, watch the tankers and sailboats out on the bay, study the pastel tones of buildings and pedestrians and sky. Born a Pentecostal and for a time deeply disenchanted, in the end I realized there was no need for me to jump ship or mutiny. Within life there is a force deeper than reason, and being a Pentecostal today, partly connected to the Christian tradition and partly creating our own traditions, feels like riding a San Francisco cable car. One hand holds the rail as the other waves in the air. Stability makes the ride possible alright, but the beauty is in that wildly waving hand. Wandering the piers and dodging seagull droppings, I often think about St. John and St. Francis, about Harvey Cox and Calvary Temple Church. So much has changed for me, is changing still. Several years ago I know I would have thought a swimming pool on the stage an obnoxious gimmick, trivializing the transformative. Now I see things differently. Now I see those plastic-enclosed waters as a portal to the great ocean, and know that I too must go into those waters symbolizing death, again and again, asking myself what it means to exist now, weightless and newborn, in this resurrection of love.
- Although it conjures images of full stadiums, the literature on megachurches usually defines them as Protestant congregations of two thousand members or more. On a normal weekend, Calvary Temple Church has around three thousand parishioners in attendance.
- Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith (HarperOne, 2009), 20.
- Acts 2:41. All scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).
- Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel: Evangelii Gaudium (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2013), paragraph 198.
- Matthew 5:3.
- Harvey Cox, The Secular City: Secularization and Urbanization in Theological Perspective (The Macmillan Company, 1965), 18.
- A common conflation of John 17:11 and 17:16.
- Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Eerdmans, 1994) offers a close and fascinating analysis of the historic vacillations in American Christian eschatology, demonstrating how they usually have occurred as a response to and compensation for shifting social realities.
- John 3:8.
Ryan Gregg is a master’s student at Harvard Divinity School (MTS ’16) focusing in Philosophy of Religion.