Amos Yong, J. Rodman Williams Professor of Theology and Director of Philosophy Program at Regent Divinity School Virginia Beach, VA
As a pentecostal theologian, why would I not go back to the Pentecost narrative to respond to the question of what is needed for church renewal? In that narrative, I see that the explosive beginnings of the church featured phenomena that suggested something out of the ordinary was taking place, characteristics associated with drunkenness. But, as Peter intoned: “Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning” (Acts 2:15, NRSV). But what was it that led to such associations? Might I suggest the following?
First, there was the rushing sound of violence (v. 2). We sometimes think the Holy Spirit works in a very ordered (Victorian, even!) manner, when perhaps we lack renewal in our churches because we have domesticated the Holy Spirit!
Second, there was definitely a multiplicity of languages. But this assumes a willingness to open our doors to embrace “the other,” the “alien,” the exile, the refugee, the foreigner, which begs the question: can renewal take place in just one language? Or is renewal catalyzed in part by the cacophony of tongues that constitute our human existence?
But, third, it’s not just about pluralism but about the particulars involved in that: there were Cretans present at Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. These were well-known by the civilized as those who were undesirable as neighbors, associates, or partners: “Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons” (Titus 1:12). Might it be possible that the presence of liars, barbarians, and sinners is precisely what precipitates renewal?
There were also Arabs present. Wait a minute – those from the lineage of Sarah and Esau?! Aren’t these now dominated by Islamic cultures, values, and religious sensibilities? Yet why might it not be possible that these turn out to be not just those we need to missionize and evangelize but those from which we can learn how to be a revitalized people of God?
In fact, it might get messier. Even after Luke gets done cataloging various ethnicities and nationalities present, he records Peter’s explanation which simply explodes any supposition that we might be able contain renewal. Rather, renewal happens because of God’s intention to “pour out my Spirit upon all flesh” (v. 17). Ouch – I don’t feel too comfortable with my enemies next to me – but isn’t that what the Good Samaritan also felt as he wound his way down the road?
And for those evangelical (gender) complementarians among us, it is potentially even more threatening since the gift of the renewing Spirit enables sons and daughters to prophesy (v. 17). For those of us comfortable in our middle class lifestyles, there is the additional admonishment: “Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy” (v. 18, again, emphasis added). Renewal included not just women prophets but those who didn’t have a seminary education to boot!
In the end, the promise is that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (v. 21, emphasis added), no matter who they are, how far away they live, or how far removed they are in space and time from this site of the Spirit’s renewing work (v. 39). Is God really serious? Aren’t there some boundaries to this renewing work of the Spirit?
Maybe one of the main reasons why we are not experiencing renewal is because we are really not ready to appear as drunks before a watching world. We have too much status to keep up, too much acceptance to compromise, too much respect to preserve. We have too many assumptions that get in the way. We have too many achievements to protect. After all of our hard work of building up the church, why would we now want to turn things loose to aliens and strangers who don’t even speak our language, not to mention women, the poor, and those who are uneducated?
Maybe that is precisely why we need more drunkenness, although not as the world supposes. Rather, we need a fresh outpouring of the Spirit that can shake us free from our inhibitions and renew us and the world along with it. Even so, come Holy Spirit.
This site is a resource for church renewal offered by United Theological Seminary.