Where We Pray
Pentecostalism and the (Mis)location of Power
(This post has been recorded for your convenience. So, read…or listen. The choice is up to you my friends)
Is there a wrong place to pray? Of course not. And yet, I’m convinced that we should pay close attention to place because place often acts a sign (a thing which points to another thing, as I mentioned in the previous post). It sounds strange to say that I’m concerned with where people are praying, but the truth is that I am concerned with a particular place of prayer that has become a trend amongst some Pentecostals (and others) in recent years which I believe speaks to a very dangerous (mis)location of power.
Growing up, we would often pray at the front of the church, the place we called the altar, and would do so together. There can be a danger here, I suppose, as it is possible to locate the power of the Spirit at a particular location in the church and think that God works there, and not here. While acknowledging the potential for misunderstanding for why we pray up front, I don’t think this space traditionally trained us to believe that God was not working in other spaces. I would frequently witness, for example, the Spirit working between us long before we came forward to pray. People, from various locations in the sanctuary, would give a message in tongues, an interpretation, or a prophetic word. This work, taking place from various physical locations/perspectives in the room, is itself a wonderful sign of the beauty of the dialogical and ecumenical work necessary for interpretation. But I digress. My point is simply that we largely recognized that the Spirit was not contained to a particular place in the building, but was working throughout. It also strikes me that part of the beauty of the “ altar” space was that we would move closer together and pray for one another.1 In our healthier moments, power dynamics were leveled as the Spirit worked through others – regardless of age, gender, class or qualification – to us, and also through us to them.2
More recently, and prior to Covid restrictions, I’ve noticed that we tend to pray together less in many of our congregations. At the same time, however, I’ve also watched how some people call for Christians to gather and pray in places of secular power. In the US, for example, I recall people being summoned to pray at the state Capitol. In Canada, people have sometimes been asked to gather and pray at Parliament Hill. This troubles me. I want to be careful here though. Clearly, it is neither wrong to pray for political leaders nor to pray in these places. But praying in these places has, for many, become an intentional sign of a particular “top-down” theology. This “top-down” belief is rooted in the idea that if people in places of secular power have an encounter with God, or change particular policies, this will “trickle down” and impact the rest of the country. Revival, in this view, becomes tied to people and places of secular power.
Willie Jennings, in the opening line of his Acts commentary says,
“The book of Acts speaks of revolution. We must never forget this. It depicts life in the disrupting presence of the Spirit of God.”3
I’ve become convinced that when the wild Wind of the Spirit blows, disruption indeed occurs. I’ve also become convinced that we seem to only be able to sit with this disruption for so long before we seek to work against it. Estrelda Alexander, in her book Black Fire, writes about the astonishing thing that happened when the Fire of Pentecost burned in the early 1900’s.
Formed during the height of a period when racial separation tainted every sphere of American society, earliest Pentecostals of all races vigorously and conspicuously fought segregationist urges, initially developing a pattern of inclusiveness and interracial leadership that had been unprecedented in American religious history. The earliest Pentecostals openly touted the movement’s racial inclusiveness, and in a short time several denominations came into being that not only had interracial constituencies but also drew their leadership from the ranks of capable men (and sometimes women) without regard to race, culture or social class.4
William Seymour, the true father of Pentecostalism, equated the baptism in the Spirit with a baptism into love. As Ivan Satyavrata writes,
“For Seymour, the Pentecostal experience of baptism in the Spirit is about immersion in love, with ‘. . . the power to draw all people into one Church, irrespective of racial, ethnic or social diversity.’”5
In the early 1900’s, this was nothing less than a miracle, and it is a miracle that we desperately need in our time. The Spirit, in our early days, disrupted the deeply rooted ugly divisions of “race, culture…[and] social class.” Yet this pneumatological destabilization was the miracle we couldn’t sit with for long.
“These intense early impulses,” writes Alexander, “which went far beyond tolerance to involve actual embrace of persons of diverse ethnic groups, soon capitulated to surrounding racial realities. After the initial period, race became an issue and separation was soon to be the norm.”6
Part of why I am writing this series is because I believe that at best, Pentecostals and Charismatics have have often misunderstood what the Spirit was doing in our midst, and at worst, we have worked against the Spirit, quenching the Fire that burned our boundaries of racial division, cultural division, and social classism. So strong was the impulse towards racial equality in our early days that one group, “The Evening Light Saints,” changed the words of the oft said “saved, sanctified and filled with the Holy Ghost,” to “saved, sanctified, and prejudice removed.”7 But we, frail and forgetful, quickly move away from the power of the Spirit and gravitate towards the lure of secular power. Yet to do so is to forgot where we came from and what the Spirit did amongst us. We trade the beauty of our birthright for lentils.
When the Spirit stirs us to revival, the Spirit usually does so from the margins. This was certainly true in Los Angeles in the early 1900’s at Azuza street. It was also true in the often neglected earlier history of Pentecostal stirrings. Satyavrata writes of the “Makti revival,” for example, which took place prior to Azuza among “hundreds of young Indian women…most of these…outcasted child-widows.”8 The Pentecostal experience which should inform our theology is not “top-down,” but “margin-out.” The Wind seems to blow on the embers which exist at the margins of our societies, and spreads from there, challenging our assumptions about how God works, and our assumptions about the nature of power, not to mention the institutions which feed those assumptions.
All of this to say that it is a strange thing for Pentecostals to pray in places of secular power as a sign of what we are hoping for. We would be far more true to our roots if we prayed in the ghettos of our cities instead of the centres of secular (and often profane) power. I want to be careful here. I am not suggesting that we pray on the margins thinking that we are somehow bringing something to “those poor people.” Rather, we are praying with the recognition that these are precisely the people that God seems to love to visit in special ways and the people often chosen by God to be used in our midst (even when we, like Charles Parham, try and stop this from happening).
Am I imploring us to stop praying for political leaders? I am not. Am I seeking to limit the places we pray? Also, no. What I am doing, however, is imploring us to stop praying in places of political power and for people with political power with the assumptions of a top-down theology. This is a (mis)location of power and is antithetical to the witness of those who have gone before us.
There are critiques for calling this space “altar,” but it is not my intention to engage that here.
I’ll talk about some of the unhealthy power dynamics at work here in future posts.
Willie James Jennings, Acts. Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible series (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2017), 1
Estrelda Y. Alexander, Black Fire: One Hundred Years of African American Pentecostalism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 20
Ivan Satyavrata, Pentecostals and the Poor: Reflections From the Indian Context (Baguio City, Philippines: Asia Pacific Theological Seminary Press and Ivan Satyavrata, 2017), 10. Seymour quoted in Iain MacRobert, “The Black Roots of Pentecostalism,” Pentecost, Mission and Ecumenism Essays on Intercultural Theology 75 (Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Peter Lang Gmbh, 1992), 9
Alexander, Black Fire, 20
Satyavrata, Pentecostals and the Poor, 10