The Cacophony of Silence: Rising Global neo-Pentecostalism, World Christianity, and the Southern Baptist Convention

It had already been a long journey and I still had a long set of flights out of Nigeria routing back to the United States. During my visit to the Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary in Ogobomso, I met many fine folk. They are indeed doing a tremendous job of engaging lost people with the good news in the midst of horrific conflict posed to the whole nation, and the world, from a violent stream of Islam known as Boko Haram. One of the institution’s administrators accompanied me back to Lagos, Nigeria to fly out.

Nearer to Lagos, he pointed out a long stretch of highway that had many open-air ministry facilities, one after the other, and on both sides. He mentioned how many people they were attracting to their “signs and wonders” styled meetings. Signboards all along the way advertised different ministries and their emphases clearly were on miracles, healing, prosperity, and the like. After his statement pointing out these ministries, I turned to him and said, “Indeed, there seem to be many people in the ‘miracle’ business here.” The look on his face said it all. He was dismayed as he replied, “Sadly that is true.”

Recently, I was reminded of this event when I read an article entitled Private Jets for Jesus.[1] The article’s gist is that the largest single source for orders of private jets now are Nigerian “Pentecostal preachers.” The paradox of this with the plight of Nigeria’s millions, especially the thousands that flock to their meetings, is mind-boggling. What is happening?

Anyone that travels to the non-Western world (especially areas not predominately Islamic) observes a distinct rise in Christian influence, especially in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.[2] While the statistics per 24-hour period of change is astronomical, even if discounted for the fact that every group that even claims to adhere to Christianity is counted, this kind of growth is phenomenal.

One feature that runs throughout the global South’s forms of Christianity (Nigeria included) is what scholars that are adherents of this movement now term as “Neo-Pentecostalism.”[3] The newest version of a cycling tradition that they say began in the early 20th century, at the Azusa Street Revival, now is depicted b y newer characteristics such as ongoing revelations (words of faith), health/prosperity teaching, and signs and wonders that have traditionally been less evident in their earlier history.

The emphases placed on these faith-authenticating miracles, it is claimed, make denominational identity meaningless or outmoded because doctrinal convictions should be subsumed b y the Spirit’s power, and a blended unity around these common spiritual experiences surface as the basis for Christianity yet future. However, there are alarming features here. An experiential hermeneutic, Spirit driven new revelations beyond Scripture, flourishing signs and wonders (most claims taken as true uncritically), minimizing doctrinal truth to encourage a renewed emphasis on ecumenism, prioritization of wealth, health, and lessening of concern over one’s eternal well being. These and many more are all about “experiencing God.”

Southern Baptists thought that they encountered, and successfully addressed these issues in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s as church after church struggled with identity and unity or disunity in the aftermath of the forerunner to the neo-Pentecostal elements we are encountering today on a global scale.[4] Since then we have gone on to larger and more significant battles, most significantly to reaffirm the authority of the Bible. However, accreting in again, when the compatible post-modern emphasis on experientialism is on the rise, another round of it comes morphed into a different face. Can it be that our modern disgust for an exclusively “scientific” and “rationalistic” worldview system is causing us to seek after the God behind the universe through these types of directly experiential forms of what purports to be authentication of God’s existence and power? Have we as Southern Baptists diligently stood for an inerrant Bible only to allow in through the back door, ever so subtly, a form of spiritual animism,[5] in the guise of a priority lens through which to determine and understand Christian truth claims and to evaluate spiritual experiences? Perhaps what is called for is more than a vociferous affirmation of the Bible’s truth but a reaffirmation of its precedence over any and all experiential claims.[6] Not only does this relate to the topics arising in this brief missive, but also for ethical challenges of very contemporary note regarding sexual boundaries and guidelines. Is the Bible going to critique culture and experience or will a reverse mechanism prevail? We may opt for the latter, but if so then we should also be aware of how that choice affects our overall claim regarding the Bible as the only reliable source of true Truth. Silence amid such a cacophony of competing truth claims historically has not resulted in biblical balance.

[1] See Christianity Today, “Private Jets for Jesus,” December 10, 2012 (web-only edition),

[2] Recently researchers assessed annual global statistical summaries of Christian work b y region. There is a column indicating an estimated 24-hour change in Christian population for the year 2012. Africa increased b y of 37,000 per day, Asia b y 23,000, and Latin America b y 18,000. Todd M. Johnson and Peter F. Crossing, “Christianity 2013: Renewalists and Faith and Migration,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Vol. 37, No. 1.: 32-33.

[3] See for example Allan Anderson, Michael Bergunder, André Droogers and Cornelis van der Laan. Studying Global Pentecostalism: Theories and Methods, (Berkeley: University of California Press), 2010 or Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, The Spirit in the World : Emerging Pentecostal Theologies in Global Contexts, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans), 2009.

[4] Significantly the example of Howard Conaster and the Beverly Hills Baptist Church in Dallas is a point in time when Southern Baptists acted to inhibit the advance of such practices but it morphed into several variations even after Conaster’s death in 1978 that continued to influence the SBC. See Vinson Synan, The Century of the Holy Spirit: 100 Years of Pentecostal and Charismatic Renewal, 1901-2001, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001): 187.

[5] “‘Animism’ originally referred to belief in spirit beings, and was intended to characterize all religion, including Christianity. Animism, however, has come to be used as a synonym for tribal or folk religions as over against the major world religions.” Robert J. Priest, Thomas Campbell, and Bradford A. Mullen, “Missiological Syncretism: The New Animistic Paradigm,” in Spiritual Power and Missions: Raising the Issues, edited b y Edward Rommen, Evangelical Missiological Society Series Number 3, (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1995): 13.

[6] See popular but useful evaluations of this phenomenon as related to spiritual power in Jerry Vines, Spiritworks :Contemporary Views on the Gifts of the Spirit and the Bible, (Nashville, Tenn.), Broadman & Holman, 1999.