Rally aimed at spreading spirit of Pentecostalism

Bergen Record, June 27, 1999
By David Gibson

For much of this century, the fire-and-brimstone sermonizers of the Bible Belt viewed the Northeast as a heathen realm populated by libertines whose hearts were hardened against the Gospel. A "preacher's graveyard," they called it. It was easier, the pastors figured, to fulminate against this modern-day Sodom from their own pulpits than to go up North and convert the place.

Not anymore.

This week, the largest Pentecostal movement in the country, the Florida-based Pensacola Outpouring, will arrive at the Meadowlands -- Sodom's suburbs, you might say -- in an effort to spread its exuberant style among people who, when they do go to church, favor a more buttoned-down form of godliness.

It is a daunting task, since even the most Bible-believing Northerners can find Pentecostal traditions such as miracle healings and speaking in tongues more than a bit odd.

"It almost comes off as weird, and those things get the emphasis," said an organizer of the Awake America crusade, Pastor Don James of Bethany Church in Wyckoff, a leading Pentecostal congregation in North Jersey.

But James and others promoting the Awake America rally shrug off such bad omens and say they are hopeful that after the rallies Monday and Tuesday nights, the spirit will take hold in the metropolitan area.

"The scriptures say that God will send his rain on the dry ground. And I think most people would recognize this as dry ground, more so than the South," said Walter Healy, pastor of the Church of Grace and Peace in Toms River and state chairman for the rally. "It is the dry ground that soaks up the rain." And, he added, "It is time."

The confidence of the rally organizers hardly seems misplaced when one considers Pentecostalism's enormous growth in recent years, and in particular huge charismatic revivals such as the Toronto Blessing, which began in 1994 and continues to draw millions, and, most recently, the Pensacola Outpouring.

This latest Pentecostal revival began on Father's Day 1995 at the Brownsville Assembly of God in Pensacola. A visiting pastor, Steve Hill, was praying to the assemblage when the resident pastor, John Kilpatrick, said he heard a sound like rushing wind and felt a sensation like flowing water.

Suddenly, congregants began falling and shaking as Hill prayed for them. Then Hill touched Kilpatrick on the forehead. Kilpatrick fell to the ground, struck dumb by the Holy Spirit, he said, and paralyzed for hours by "God's hand," as he recalled.

When he stood up, he said he felt "like somebody had stretched my bones."

The experience -- Pentecostals call it being "slain in the spirit" -- sparked a revival that church leaders attribute to an "outpouring" of God's blessing. Whatever the reason, the results were indisputable.

Thousands began arriving for daily services that feature ecstatic prayer and healings and speaking in tongues -- "glossolalia" is the term. "It's probably running about 3,000 a night on average," said Rose Compton, a spokeswoman at the Brownsville Assembly of God.

So far, officials say, 3.5 million have made the pilgrimage to the Brownsville church, coming from around the country and from overseas. They are both charismatic Christians and the curious, and they line up for the 2,000 seats in the earlymorning hours. The rest stand or sit where they can.

Religious experts point out that the Pensacola Outpouring came at an auspicious time for Pentecostalism. The grass-roots spirituality favored by Pentecostals is in vogue, fueled by everything from millennial fervor to the angst of aging baby boomers who are seeking a religious experience to help them come to grips with their mortality.

The result is popular movements such as the evangelical men's crusade, Promise Keepers, and its female counterpart, Women of Faith, which is coming to the Continental Airlines Arena next month. The Pentecostal style is even crossing denominational lines so that one now finds Catholics and Episcopalians who call themselves "charismatic."

Yet in spite of all this activity, there are some signs that the fervor is abating, and the slowdown is especially critical for Pentecostals, who feed off the emotion of the moment.

Numbers are down slightly in Brownsville, and the service schedule has been curtailed while church leaders focus on "discipling," or mentoring, those already saved. The evolution is not unexpected. Experts say most charismatic movements burn out eventually, or transform to survive.

"If there is no institutional base to channel into, they have no staying power," said Peter Williams, a professor of religion at Miami University in Ohio and a leading expert on Pentecostalism.

The problem, Williams said, is that Pentecostal-style religion "is not easily captured in a denominational form because of its stress on the impulse of the moment and on experiential behavior like speaking in tongues."

As part of the transformation, Hill started the Awake America crusades to export the Pensacola experience. Since 1997, Hill has held 14 Awake America rallies attracting 168,000 people; the largest was an event in Dallas drawing 25,000. Increasingly, Hill is focusing his efforts on the Northeast.

"I believe the Northeast can lead the United States," Hill said in an interview last week before his appearance at the Continental Arena.

He noted that previous great revival movements in America started in the Northeast: The first Great Awakening in the 18th century was begun by Jonathan Edwards (who is buried in Princeton), and the second Great Awakening in the early 19th century centered in the "burnt-over" district of New York State.

"I would love to see that happen again," Hill said.

Religious historians are dubious. Modern-day Pentecostalism grew out of the Holiness movement of the 19th century, itself an outgrowth of Methodism. The Holiness movement built on John Wesley's teachings about the importance of inner sanctification and placed a premium on a personal experience of God.

For Pentecostals, that came to mean a supernatural experience akin to the original Christian Pentecost, when, the New Testament says, the Holy Spirit descended with "tongues of fire" on the apostles 50 days after Jesus' crucifixion (Acts 2:42). This original "pouring out" of the spirit caused the disciples to speak in foreign tongues previously unknown to them and to behave so unusually that observers thought they were drunk.

Modern-day Pentecostalism dates from Jan. 1, 1901, when a young woman, Agnes Ozman, began speaking in tongues at a Topeka, Kan., revival. The movement exploded a few years later in Los Angeles when a black Holiness preacher, William Seymour, started preaching out of a converted stable on April 9, 1906.

The Azusa Street revival, as it came to be known, spread across the nation as part of what is considered America's third Great Awakening. Pentecostals eventually settled into two main denominations, the largely white Assemblies of God and the predominantly African-American Church of God in Christ. Together, they total as many as 10 million believers in the United States.

For all of its power, however, the revival had only sporadic success in the Northeast. (A notable exception was in Atlantic City, where, after a long-running revival, the newspapers of the time reported that just 11 city residents had been unaffected by the Holy Spirit.)

Some of the same obstacles that prevailed then also are likely to mitigate against a massive "Meadowlands Outpouring" after this week's gatherings, according to religion experts and some church leaders.

For one thing, New Jersey's Christians are largely traditional, middle-class Roman Catholics and old-line Protestants who tend to disapprove of displays of religious emotionalism such as barking like a dog or miraculous healings, experiences that Pentecostals say are integral, even necessary, to prove that a believer has a true relationship with God.

"I think in the North, for the most part, we're a little more reserved," said Wyckoff's Pastor James. "Those things don't wear as well."

Another issue is that in the North, especially, Pentecostals still face suspicions left over from the television evangelist scandals of the Eighties, when high-flying Pentecostal-style preachers such as Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were brought down by tawdry fiscal and sexual trangressions.

But the organizers are undaunted. They are expecting at least 12,000 people from 250 churches, most in New Jersey. Hill says the movement is just beginning.

"There are 250 million people in the United States," Hill said with the optimism integral to a movement such as his. "We have had 3.5 million come through Brownsville. So what? We haven't even begun to tap this nation."

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