Pentecostal Ecumenism? – Dispatches from Converge21/SPS

Who said “revivals” all have to lead to the creation of new “movements” or even denominations? It just may be that the best revivals are those that bring people back, back home, back to their roots, back to their senses (cf. Lk. 15:17), and in some cases even back to the churches of their youth or even to breaking bread with the same.

I recently attended Converge21 (C21), an event that brought together a selected group of leaders, pastors, educators and next-geners to collaborate on “the future direction of the Spirit-empowered (a.k.a. – Pentecostal or Charismatic) movement in the United States”. On February 29th – March 3rd over 700 Pentecostal and Charismatic influencers attended the event held at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia. It was jointly sponsored by the Society of Pentecostal Studies (SPS) and Empowered21 (E21).

At first, the idea of merging these two organizations seemed to be a good one. After all, both groups have somewhat similar missions in promoting the unified development of Spirit-empowered endeavors. Intentional efforts were made to bridge the two groups in the development of the conference program and dialog. The first day or two, in fact, did involve some cross-pollination. However, as the event progressed, it seemed the two constituencies, the scholars and the church leaders, settled a bit more into their own respective learning tracks.

“The significance of this event was the convergence of leaders, thinkers and the next-geners to consider shaping the future [of the Pentecostal movement],” Mark Williams told me. According to Williams, Assistant General Overseer of the Church of God, a Pentecostal denomination based in Cleveland, Tennessee, the event’s highlights included the opportunity “to get history from experts such as Vinson Synan; to get statistics from Todd Johnson (Director of the Center of Global Christianity, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary); to hear the voices of students; and, to affirm the things that have been good in the Pentecostal movement.” He said, “I believe Converge21 is the beginning of an intentional conversation.” I would say he is right on both counts – “intentional” and “beginning.”

Financial Downturns and Spiritual Upswings

It seems to me that ecumenical movements, or movements towards unity among denominations, are often born amidst seasons of financial difficulty. Close to the time of the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles, for instance, which led to the modern Pentecostal movement, another kind of “revival” was occurring among mainstream churches, a revival of unity. While the Azusa phenomenon began in 1906, just two short years later (1908), the Federal Council of Churches (later renamed the National Council of Churches) was formed in Philadelphia. America was facing difficult times as the labor conditions were in the dregs of vastly oppressive child worker exploitation. These two movements were destined, it seems, to not get along nor see eye to eye on Gospel endeavors. While one of the groups, the Pentecostal movement, was a revival of Spirit-awareness of God; the other, the Federal Council of Churches, by some measurements appeared to be more a revival of social-awareness of human need. Some would argue that the Pentecostals focused more on the vertical dimensions of faith and, the Council of Churches, more on the horizontal dimensions.

Another move towards unity among Christians occurred during yet another difficult season in American history – World War 2. It started in 1942 and is called the National Association of Evangelicals (the organization that gave birth to Christianity Today and its various offshoots). Harold Ockenga, pastor of the famed Park Street Church in Boston, gave a pivotal speech called “The Unvoiced Multitudes.” It effectively read the mood of the hour of a segmented evangelical Christianity and called for the laying aside of denominational differences for the sake of a unified witness for Christ. The early accomplishments of the NAE drew together a new coalition of conservative Protestants from the broad ranks of Baptists and Presbyterians all the way to Holiness and Pentecostal groups.

Now, here we are again. We find ourselves in America, and worldwide, in the dregs of a recession that has the minds of our best economists in a knot. It is at such times that many turn to God and to their fellow servants of God. In times of economic hardship we not only find that we need God, but that we also need one another. The Converge movement, quite sweeping in its growth already in the past few years, may be the latest of such initiatives. The difference, however, is this gathering of Pentecostal and Charismatic thinkers and leaders adopted a conference theme this year more reminiscent of the National Council of Churches (originally the Federal Council) than of the Pentecostal gatherings of yesteryear.  This year’s theme? “Pentecostalisms, Peacemaking, and Social Justice/Righteousness.” (to be continued …)

Also … read my news story on the Converge Event at Channel.