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I feel dizzy. I just finished reading a biography of Aimee Semple McPherson. She was a nationally famous Pentecostal megachurch preacher whose career spanned from the early 1920’s to her sudden death in 1944. The story of her life is dizzying because – unlike the other figures we’ve studied in the American Religious Biography class at Pittsburgh Seminary – McPherson led a remarkably chaotic life. She was a Hollywood celebrity, and her life included many moments we would associate with celebrities more than preachers: a grand jury indictment, a sex scandal, a possible kidnapping, and an accidental drug overdose. Despite these mistakes and challenges, she was a pioneer in blending fundamentalist Christianity with American mass media and pop-culture, and in so doing, she shaped the America we now know.

Matthew Avery Sutton, the author of Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America argues that “Americans came to embrace a thoroughly modern form of evangelicalism” because of trends McPherson set in motion (p. 6). The phrase “thoroughly modern form of evangelicalism” hints at the tightrope McPherson walked between accommodating to new cultural norms and upholding fundamentalist values. Three aspects of her life reveal the difficult balancing act she tried to keep up.

(1) Gender Roles: As flappers and feminists challenged gender roles for women, McPherson challenged male leadership in the Church. Though fundamentalist in her theology, she pastored a five-thousand member church long before more liberal mainline denominations began to ordain women. (2) Mass Media: Though living near the center of the American entertainment industry, McPherson initially condemned theatrical entertainment. Yet she was eager to incorporate drama and visual-storytelling in her sermons, prompting some to say she had “the best show in town.”  (3) Faith and Politics: Believing that America occupied a special pace in God’s plan for the world, McPherson was a major political figure urging America to return to its “Christian roots.”

Today’s evangelical Christian culture can bear witness to McPherson’s influence in all of these places. Though female senior-pastors are rare even in mainline denominations, Christianity in America is much more accepting of female leadership than it was a century ago. In terms of Christian use of mass media, she laid the foundation for every pastor who has ever podcasted a sermon today. Contemporary Christian music reflects McPherson’s ambivalence about popular culture, providing an alternative to secular media while mirroring its style in every way. Commenting on her political legacy, Sutton writes:

McPherson’s most significant contribution was pushing pentecostals in particular and evangelicals more generally to rethink their mission on earth. At a moment when the United States seemed to be moving in a more secular direction, she called on her colleagues to ‘Christianize’ the United States. (p. 278)

This goal of “Christianizing” politics is obviously alive and well today in many evangelical and fundamentalist Churches. As Sutton suggests, McPherson’s blend of faith and politics seems to have set the stage for today’s alliance between the Republican party and American evangelicals.

“Successful” as McPherson may have been in balancing fundamentalism with emerging American culture, it’s worth noting that she also fell off the tightrope a few times. A mysterious disappearance which she explained as a kidnapping gave way to rumors that McPherson was having an affair. In the wake of the scandal, she began to live more like a Hollywood celebrity, alienating her followers by adopting an image of luxury and sensuality which she had previously condemned in others. Though she later returned more authentically to her Pentecostal roots, McPherson was a walking paradox who was no stranger to hypocrisy or self-contradiction. She adovcated for global disarmament even as she cheered and blessed American troops going into World War II. She both argued for racial equality and had an ambiguous relationship with the Klan. Perhaps the evangelical leaders whose careers have been tarnished by scandals and inconsistency can see their failures as part of McPherson’s legacy, as well.

I think the moral for us in McPherson’s story is that the Church needs to reflect more critically upon its own engagement with the culture around us. On the one hand, McPherson’s use of modern media in her promotion of her Church follows the example of Reformation-era Christians who used the newly invited printing press to publish their views. On the other hand, I think reckless adoption of new technology and accommodation to culture seriously can be dangerous to our spiritual health. McPherson’s love affair with Hollywood led her into the loneliest and darkest period of her career.  What will be the unforeseen consequences of today’s Church’s infatuation with our latest technologies? I wish McPherson could have resisted more strongly the temptations that accompanied stardom. What does her example of tightrope walking, and falling from the tightrope, have to say to the Church today as we interact with the world? Given the exponentially increasing rate of technological innovation and cultural change around us, this question leaves me feeling as dizzy as McPherson’s life.

“If your church disappeared overnight, would your neighborhood notice? Would anyone miss you?” More than once, I’ve heard a speaker at a church-planting conference ask questions along these lines. The speakers intend to be provocative, to ask questions which will make leaders wonder whether their congregations are making an impact on their cities by meeting real needs in their neighborhoods. The question is a simplistic test of any congregation’s connection with its surrounding, but it’s particularly relevant for church-planters. In some understandings of church-planting, the pastors or leaders of the church seem to succeed because they are great community organizers.

Take Richard Allen for one example. I’m now reading Richard Newman’s Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers. Allen is known as the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which began when Allen planted Bethel Church in Philadelphia. Allen was by nature entrepreneurial, and founded businesses and social organizations as well as his church and denomination. In all of these ventures, Allen was thinking beyond himself, seeking the good of both free and enslaved African-Americans and the new country in which they lived. Because of this, Newman even argues that Allen should be considered among the “Founding Fathers” of the new United States. He writes, 

Allen believed himself to be a member of two founding generations. He was a black leader who built reform institutions to redeem African Americans and he was a broader moral leader who wanted to redeem the American republic from the sin of racial subjugation. (p. 21)

What made Allen a successful “founder” involved more than simply his vision for change or his entrepreneurial personality. Allen had a gift for bringing people together, and he connected with his diverse community in such a way that people joined and followed him. Two events which took place early in Allen’s career display this gift:

As mentioned above, Allen founded Bethel Church and the AME denomination. These institutions started when Allen and several other black Christians walked out of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in protest of newly enforced segregated seatingAllen had been born into slavery, and it was while a slave that heard Methodist preachers proclaiming the Gospel and its liberating message. When Allen entered the ministry, he did it as a typical itinerant Methodist preacher. He was bi-vocational, preaching early in the morning and then working a variety of day-jobs to support his ministry. Once he settled in Philadelphia in 1786, his congregants were primarily the black men and women who attended St. George’s Methodist Church. The black population of the congregation grew so much under Allen’s leadership that the white leaders of the congregation became anxious. At some point during Allen’s years there, the white leaders built a balcony and declared that a new policy of segregated seating in worship would be enforced. On the Sunday that the policy was first enforced, Allen and all the other African-Americans in the church walked out as one “body” (p. 64). 

But the events of that day were not spontaneous. The date of this legendary event is uncertain, but Newman seems to favor a later date, around 1792 or 1793. Several pieces of evidence suggest that the walk-out Allen helped lead was an intentional act of non-violent activism, planned in advance in order to make a point to the white church members. Allen dreamed of leading an independent black church long before that fateful day, as evidenced by his efforts to have the Free African Society (which he also founded) consider supporting an independent black church as early as 1789. This suggests that much went on behind-the-scenes to rally the black members of St. George’s to respond together to the discrimination they experienced. The events which took place later in St. George’s were choreographed to make a point: racial discrimination had no place in the Kingdom of God, and Allen’s followers would accept it no longer. 

Allen’s response to Philadelphia’s 1793 outbreak of Yellow Fever and its racially-charged aftermath also displays Allen’s gifts in community relations. When the Yellow Fever struck Philadelphia, Benjamin Rush, a famous physical and signer of the Declaration of Independence, invited Allen and his flock to respond to the crisis. Rush did so on the basis of the mistaken belief that black people were immune to the Yellow Fever. Inaccurate as that assumption was, Allen and his friend Absalom Jones agreed to help because they believed that “black aid to white citizens would help the cause of racial justice” (p. 88). Throughout the crisis, Allen and other black leaders rallied black volunteers to serve as nurses and aid workers, often doing work that involved physically touching those who would have considered their caretakers virtually untouchable because of their skin color.

Racism resurfaced after the crisis ended, though, with whites accusing blacks of exploiting whites and profiting off of their suffering. Allen and Jones responded to the criticism in print, publishing an essay which defended their motives and documented the sacrifices blacks had made to serve their white brothers and sisters. In doing so, Allen stepped boldly into both the public sphere and the use of new media and technology. These steps strengthened his influence in the community beyond his congregation.

Allen’s leadership in each of these instances raises questions for us who claim to be “church-planters” today. First, if the leaders in our community needed something, would they call us? Today, will respected community members or civic leaders call upon us when the neighborhood is in crisis? I have a friend who pastors a church in Rockford, IL, who joined the local chamber of commerce precisely to build the relationships that could lead to such service. How can we build similar relationships in our own contexts today?

Second, Richard Allen’s life challenges us to consider if we are both confident and shrewd enough to act prophetically when necessary. When we react to injustice, are the measures we take as carefully calculated and wisely executed as those Allen took? Are we such examples of integrity that when criticized, we can respond with dignity and confidence? The more we are able to answer these questions affirmatively, the more our churches will leave a positive impact upon their neighborhoods.

Last Thursday, Eileen and I brewed beer together at Copper Kettle Brewing. My dad had given us a gift card to Copper Kettle, allowing us to use their equipment and ingredients to brew a beer from a recipe which we chose. Because we’re not very experienced in brewing, someone from Copper Kettle accompanied us through the process, guiding us as we measured and added ingredients and sharing interesting facts about brewing along the way. At one point, she said something that I think is significant for how the Church thinks about leadership, and which connects quite well with what I read for my class at PTS this week.

She said that the title “brewmaster” is becoming increasingly rare in the craft brewing world. According to what she’s learned, certified brewmasters have to have a master’s degree in the science of brewing. As more and more people have learned to brew on their own or while working at small breweries, fewer and fewer have gone to the trouble of pursuing a graduate degree in brewing, which they could only do in Germany or at one of the few American schools which offer such programs. As a result, many of the craft breweries which are proliferating across the country have brewers who were self-taught or apprenticed into their trades, rather than ones who received formal education.

Some would say the same is happening (again) in the Church. Seminary enrollment is generally decreasing, and alternative formation programs are springing up across the country. Many new churches in my denomination are led by “commissioned ruling elders” who haven’t been to seminary or completed the ordination process. I loved my seminary so much that I’m currently pursuing a second degree at it, but I do think this trend raises an important question: How do we recognize the authority of leaders in the Church? Do we look for degrees, credentials, or titles? Or do we look for something else? How can we tell that someone is worth trusting with the spiritual oversight of others? 

Francis Asbury, one of the founding leaders of the Methodists in America, had no degrees. But he had an authority that others recognized based on the integrity of his spiritual life and his abiding commitment to his flock. As John Wigger writes in his book American Saint: Francis Asbury & the Methodists,

Asbury redefined the religious landscape of America. There was no blueprint for what he did, for building a large strictly voluntary religious movement led by non-elites in a pluralistic society. Yet his understanding of what it mean to be pious, connected, culturally responsive, and effectively organized has worked its way deep into the fabric of American religious life. (p. 417)

Asbury did all of this with little formal education. He was born in England in 1745. When he was a child, his father worked a humble job at a brewery and public house. This meant Asbury was raised in what we would consider a “working-class” home. Asbury’s mother taught him to read, but the highest level of formal education Asbury seems to have completed is an apprenticeship as a metalworker. It was during this teenage apprenticeship that he began preaching at Methodist class meetings. That he had little education didn’t matter. As Wigger explains, “Most Methodists weren’t the kind of people who could attend university, and Wesley didn’t require his preachers to have a formal theological education. Instead, they learned on the job, by speaking in prayer meetings and to crowds gather outdoors” (p. 33).

Having “learned on the job” in England, in 1771 Asbury was selected to go to America to help extend the Methodist movement there.  This was before American Methodism formally split from the Anglican Church, and while it existed as something of an unwelcome renewal movement within the Anglican Church. Not surprisingly, Asbury at times received harsh treatment at the hands of Anglican clergymen. John Wigger explains part of the conflict between the Anglican establishment and the Methodists this way:

Here in a nutshell was the conflict between Methodist preachers and Anglican priests in the South. From ministers’ points of view, Methodists were unlearned charlatans seeking to break down the basic foundations of church and society. They took people away from their work and challenged the authority of the clergy, which was based largely on their superior education. From the Methodist perspective, Anglican priests were mostly lazy hirelings, too much addicted to the pleasures of this world and too little concerned with the salvation of souls. (p. 58)

Authority, by the standards of the Anglican establishment in the mid-eighteenth century, was recognized by university degrees and statuses conferred by the Church. Asbury’s sense of authority, on the other hand, came from a deeper source. Unlike George Whitefiled, Asbury did not gain a reputation for being a dazzling preacher. But he did gain a reputation for outstanding personal piety and a deep love and commitment to the flock entrusted to his care. Asbury was like other early Methodists in that he valued hard work and treated wealth and worldly goods with suspicion. His poverty and charity were seen as signs of his apostolic character. So also was his devotional life, including his fasting and early morning hours of prayer. On top of this, and even as he aged, Asbury maintained rigorous itinerary of travel in which he visited preachers and church-members throughout the entire eastern half of the United States each year. Those who knew Asbury knew him as a man of spiritual integrity, and so they trusted his leadership.

Interestingly, though he was recognized as a spiritual leader, Asbury refused to celebrate the sacraments until he was ordained. Methodism was renewal movement, existing within the bounds of Anglicanism, though it evangelized people who would have been alienated from the Anglican Church. This created tension between Methodists who wanted to baptize their converts and celebrate communion together, and those who still submitted to Anglican discipline. All of this changed in 1784 when John Wesley finally broke with the Church of England, legally incorporated Methodism in England, and began ordaining preachers on his own. One of those ordained by Wesley, Thomas Coke, came to the United States and with Asbury was elected joint superintendent of the new Methodist Church in America. Asbury, who had no degree and had never celebrated the sacraments before, was suddenly ordained a bishop in a brand new denomination. 

Asbury’s acceptance of ordination at this point raises several deeper ecclesiological questions worth pondering: Why is it that ordination has historically been reserved for the celebration of the sacraments, rather than merely the preaching of the Gospel? What did Asbury believe about ordination that gave him such respect for the authority associated with it? For our purposes here, though, it suffices to say that Asbury’s episcopacy, which he held and stewarded faithfully for decades, was conferred upon him and upheld not because of degrees or worldly status, but because others recognized his faithfulness. Wigger concludes that “If ever there was an American saint, it was Francis Asbury” (p. 417). How different would the Church look today if we entrusted positions of leadership primarily to those who we could one day call saints?

When someone first visits The Upper Room, that person may not realize they’re in a Presbyterian congregation. It’s not because we hide that affiliation. We do talk about our connection with the denomination and our Presbyterian partner churches, and we share our gratitude for their support. But our worship services deliberately don’t feel like they come from any particular brand of Christianity. The focus is on Jesus, revealed in Word and Sacrament. No one comes to Upper Room because they want a Presbyterian church. We come because we’re seeking Jesus. While this lack of exclusive identification with a particular denomination is characteristic of our younger demographic, we’ve been shaped by historical forces that have been at work for centuries. American denominational relativism has its roots in events that took place three hundred years ago, such as the surprisingly trans-denominational Great Awakenings.

This week I read The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism by Harry S. Stout. (This book – and the one I wrote about last week, and the one I’ll write about next week – is part of the American Religious Biography class that I’m taking over at Pittsburgh Seminary.) Whitefield was ordained as an Anglican priest, but his itinerant preaching ministry brought him into fellowship with all branches of Protestantism throughout England and the colonies in the middle of the eighteenth century.

One of the first true celebrities in America, Whitefield dazzled audiences – or congregations – with his dramatic flair. His sermons were so infused with skills he had honed in his youthful studies of the theater that he took the art of communication in the pulpit into the realm of acting and entertainment. But because the content of his message was the proclamation of salvation in Jesus Christ, those who heard him responded with emotionally infused conversion and repentance. These experiential responses to the proclamation of the Gospel made the institutions of the Church take a much less important role in how Americans understood their faith. As Stout explains,

In the evangelical parachurch, individual experience became the ultimate arbiter of authentic religious faith. Experience . . . came to be the legitimating mark of religion over and against family, communal covenants, traditional memberships, baptisms, or sacraments (p. 205).

Stout’s biography of Whitefield can be seen as an extended illustration of how this shift played out in the culture of the revivals. Whitefield prized his own religious experience, treasuring the exhilarating highs he experienced while preaching as evidence of God working in him. Whitefield valued this experience over family, being an absentee husband to a wife who could not come along for his endless travels. Concerning the sacraments, we’re left to assume that Whitefield deliberately chose not to over-think them. Stout disappointingly explains very little of Whitefield’s thoughts on the sacraments, but the fact that Whitefield was quite comfortable with Christians in traditions who understood the sacraments differently suggests that he saw them as secondary to the feelings engendered by passionate preaching of the Gospel.

It wasn’t that theology didn’t matter for Whitefield. He was a Calvinist who did not shy away from criticizing his friend John Wesley that Wesley’s ideas of Christian perfection. But Whitefield refused to connect his revival preaching to any one denomination. As Harry Stout poignantly observes, Whitefield also resisted the temptation to found his own denomination when he easily could have. One could be a Calvinist Anglican, or a Presbyterian, or a Congregationalist, and never feel that Whitefield was calling one to change denomination affiliation. In fact, at Whitefield’s funeral, an ecumenical mixture of pastors from those three denominations served as pallbearers for Whitefield’s body (Stout pp. 280-281). 

This matters for us today because many of these same values have been passed on through successive generations in American Christianity, for good and for ill. On the one hand, American evangelicalism still emphasizes the centrality of the Gospel rather than one exclusive institutional structure of the Church. On the other hand, these truths mean that many American Christians have a very shallow sense of ecclesiology. When we value personal experience over corporate experience, it’s easy to become consumers of religion. We “shop” for churches that meet “our needs,” or we seek entertainment in the musical or preaching styles of a congregation. This isn’t entirely bad. Whitefield did genuinely touch lives for Christ through his entertaining preaching. As the Apostle Paul wrote, what matters is that, “Christ is preached, and in this I rejoice” (Phil 1:8). But giving personal experience of faith priority over corporate experience of faith means we may under-value the importance of the Church.

While this is the legacy American Protestants and evangelicals have inherited, we should be discerning in which parts of it we pass on. To be true to Whitefield’s legacy,  we should remember that he was a loyal Anglican up to the point of his death. He chose to remain loyal even though jealous Anglican bishops actually incited mob violence against him and other revival preachers in England. Whitefield was among the early Methodists, a group which began as a revival-oriented anti-institution strain within the Anglican Church. In such a role, he challenged the institution, but did so in loyal opposition.

This suggests to me that Whitefield recognized his place in the Body of Christ. He knew the Body of Christ was larger than the skeleton of one denomination, so he could preach Christ to anyone who was willing to listen, and act charitably to (almost) anyone who believed in the same Lord. But he also knew that the Body needed structure, and that it would be inappropriate to say to that he, as a unique member of Christ did not belong to the rest of the Body (cf. 1 Cor. 12:15-20). In the face of all the individualism and entertainment that Whitefield ushered into the American Church, let’s not forget his deep sense of the necessity of connection to other believers.