Yesterday I promised some further thoughts on the BBC Radio Ulster documentary ‘Tongues of Fire: How Pentecostals are Changing the Church.’
Listeners might be forgiven for being surprised, even confused, by the variety of perspectives on offer in the programme, ranging from pastors and people at churches like the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in North Belfast, to Exchange Church in East Belfast, Vineyard in South Belfast, Life Church in Belfast, Green Pastures Church outside Ballymena, and more.
There were pastors like Whitewell’s James McConnell lamenting that other charismatic churches weren’t preaching enough about hell and judgment, people recounting healings, and dancers explaining how God directed their steps as a form of worship.
You can listen to the programme here, or catch it again on Radio Ulster on Thursday at 7.30 pm.
By definition Pentecostal and charismatic churches employ a wide range of practices and even theologies, seeing themselves as led by the Holy Spirit rather than following what they might call the dead traditions of established churches or denominations. They can be as small as a handful of people meeting as a house church or as large as Whitewell or Green Pastures, whose buildings are reminiscent of American ‘megachurches.’
Although all Pentecostal and charismatic churches can be characterized by expressive worship and the exercise of the gifts of the spirit, there are some key differences in their practices and theologies, which can translate into different social effects.
‘Tongues of Fire’ touched on a few of these differences in a brief discussion about how some of these churches could be hierarchical and authoritarian, especially if they lacked formal structures (like traditional denominations have) to bring maverick leaders into line.
As a rough guide to Pentecostal/charismatic churches’ diversity, I’ve identified some other key differences. These differences can be found in Northern Ireland, and in Pentecostal and charismatic churches elsewhere:
- The leadership in some congregations is authoritarian and controlling, while other congregations have egalitarian leadership models that encourage wide participation in running the church.
- People can feel unrealistic expectations about being ‘up’ all the time, filled by the spirit, and then feel guilty or dejected if they don’t experience this or go through a ‘dry period.’ In my own research I have found this can cause psychological distress and contribute to people leaving these churches (see my book co-authored with Claire Mitchell, Evangelical Journeys: Choice and Change in a Northern Irish Religious Subculture, for examples).
- Some theologies are inward-focused to the individual and their immediate congregation, leading to a self-centred pietism that doesn’t seem to care very much about the world around them. This is especially the case if a church has a theology that stresses that the Second Coming of Christ is nigh.
- Some leadership nurtures and encourages women’s leadership. In these cases both women and men seem to feel they can participate in their congregations much more than in traditional denominations.
- Some theologies are outward looking, striving to express faith by serving people in the communities around them. This can be seen in the ‘coffee shop’, ‘thrift shop,’ and ‘drop in centre’ phenomena. In these cases, trying to transform the social world for the better is seen as an outworking of their faith – it is not just about getting people ‘saved’ or to experience speaking in tongues or miraculous healing. Someone who exemplifies this approach is PUP Councillor Dr John Kyle, who attends Christian Fellowship Church and is on record as explaining his political involvement in terms of his Christian faith (see Kyle’s testimony in Philip Orr’s book, New Loyalties: Christian Faith and the Protestant Working Class).
- Some charismatics were very involved in ecumenical and reconciliation work during the Troubles, through groups like the Christian Renewal Centre in Rostrevor and the Lamb of God Community in North Belfast. Their activities focused mainly on prayer and bringing people from different backgrounds together in ‘safe spaces.’ There was not the time to pursue this aspect of Pentecostal/charismatic faith in Northern Ireland during the programme; indeed, this could be the subject of another programme in and of itself!