America...and Decline?

      The United States of America became a fledgling nation via the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Its citizens, with this new beginning and new nation, desired most of all a constitutional freedom to worship their Creator in the manner they deemed proper without fear of governmental intervention, along with the freedom to govern themselves without intervention from any foreign power. This new nation, devoid of any prior heritage or tradition and created from an amalgamation of immigrants from every section of the globe, created a democratic institution unlike any other on Earth…fiercely independent, strategically located with a wealth of natural resources, and with a government which placed a value on every citizen.
     Through divine intervention or unbridled imperialism, depending upon your point of view, the United States in less than 200 years became the most powerful nation on the planet, spreading its influence and power from the Atlantic Seaboard to the Pacific Ocean and from the Rio Grande River to Canada and usurping the global influence of such stalwarts as Britain, Germany, and France, which had been adversaries in world affairs for centuries. At the end of World War II, America stood alone, militarily victorious around the world and the lone possessor of the atomic bomb.
     History is replete with the stories of nations and the triumphant rise and fall of each. Americans, due perhaps to the streak of independence instilled in their psyches, have a tendency to feel that the United States is somehow insulated from this ebb and flow of nations, and due to our establishment in a “New World” complete with new ideas and no preconceived notions of classes of citizens nor limits to our measures of success, the United States will live forever. The last fifty years, however, have begun to reveal cracks in the foundation of the nation founded “under God,” and the expectation of success, bequeathed as a birthright to every American, is eroding at an alarming rate.
     The Korean War of the early 1950s was a sobering wake-up call for a nation which only six years earlier had been unbeatable worldwide. Fighting the Chinese and North Koreans to a standstill along the 38th parallel of South Korea, the U.S. consoled itself that it was still undefeated. The Vietnam War of 1964-1974, however, was a disaster. Unaccustomed to a “limited” war and with political leaders convoluted about the objectives of the U.S. in Southeast Asia, the nation slipped ignominously out of Vietnam as the North Vietnamese army videoed the scenes of U.S. helicopters, packed with refugees, abandoning the country. 50,000 U.S. troops gave the ultimate sacrifice not in the defense of the United States but in the defense of a colossal political blunder on the part of the U.S. government. In addition, the conflict over the Vietnam War had created social trauma in the U.S. as well. Violent student protests and clumsy governmental responses tore at the fabric of American society. Soldiers in the war zone of SE Asia were exposed to exotic drugs which were brought back to the U.S. and spread to the general populace, and today the drug epidemic is destroying our society.
     At the same time, a single book was changing the way parents related to their children. Dr. Benjamin Spock, a noted pediatrician, wrote “Baby and Child Care.” Spock broke with the strict tone and rigorous instruction of previous child care books and encouraged parents to give their children “freedom to grow” with limited parental correction. “Baby and Child Care” outsold every book in America with the exception of the Bible…and did so for ten years. Its influence on child care was incalculable, and we are living with the consequences today. Undisciplined children have become undisciplined parents, creating more undisciplined children. In the United States in 2010, forty percent of all children were born to unwed mothers, and in one ethnic group alone, the number is 75 percent. In addition, only twenty percent of all households in the United States consist of what used to be called the “nuclear” family…a married father and mother with their own children.
     Coupled with the breakdown of society has been the breakdown of government. Democracy traditionally involves a group of legislators duly elected to formulate policy, understanding that with different ideas represented, every decision is a compromise with the objective being the best interests of the citizens. No more. In 2008, Barack Obama and the majority Democrats were elected due to the reaction of voters to the weak economy. Promising change, Obama spent the next fifteen months fighting for a new health care program for the U.S., even though eighty percent of all Americans had said they were happy with their medical care in poll after poll. With a continued weak economy in 2010, the voters rejected Democratic policies and gave the Republicans the majority in the House of Representatives and a much more powerful voice in the Senate. Results: The new Republicans have done nothing about the nagging unemployment and have set their sights on revising Medicare, even though eighty percent (there’s that number again) of all Americans are happy with their Medicare coverage. The United States government can no longer govern, and America as we remember it has disappeared. A recent poll indicated that for the first time in our history, parents are less optimistic about their children’s futures than they were their own.
     Pentecost, or the Pentecostal movement, if you will, has a history paralleling that of the United States. In the mid to late 1800s, massive spiritual revivals swept America, and a great spiritual awakening jolted the traditional, mainstream churches. Within those organizations, individual leaders sought a closer communication with God and began to search the Scriptures to try to gain more knowledge of what God’s plan or objective may have been for the age. The result was that around the turn of the 20th century, the greatest revival of all began with the revelation of the individual’s potential for receiving the baptism of the Holy Ghost with the evidence of speaking in tongues as described in Act 2:38. A new spiritual experience with life-changing aftereffects, the Holy Ghost transformed men and women and drew believers from every church organization. Within ten years, the Holy Ghost phenomenon had swept the country, and those who had been recipients of this spiritual experience felt an overpowering urge to tell those who had not yet heard. These early Holy Ghost pioneers sacrificed everything to spread the news, depending upon their prayers and faith in God that He would supply their needs to survive. Living simply and modestly, they traveled the country, preaching the gospel and converting new believers. It was a time of powerful ministry and powerful music, with singers and composers creating timeless compositions describing spiritual experiences and God’s love for humanity. They came to be called Pentecostal, or Pentecostalists, because in biblical history the events surrounding Act 2:38 occurred during the Jewish feast of Pentecost.
     In time, the Pentecostals, still within their own traditional organizations, began to feel resistance from nonbelieving ministers, and as a result, several Pentecostal groups began to splinter off the major denominations. These splinter groups, all of a common experience and mind, eventually united to form the United Pentecostal Church, which became the largest Pentecostal organization in the United States. By the time the UPC was created in 1946, the Pentecostal “experience” was well established. In the 1950s, Life Magazine, the most dominate news magazine of the era, produced a series of articles analyzing the Pentecostals and discussing the phenomenon of “glossolalia,” or “speaking in tongues.” Churches across the country had been established, usually identified with the sign “United Pentecostal Church.” Preachers and pastors preached a message which was common to all churches, and believers lived lives of moderation, adhering to basic standards of dress and behavior. In that age before the internet, the church was the center of activity for believers, providing social interaction as well as spiritual guidance. The twenty five year period after 1946 was the golden age for the United Pentecostal Church. It was a period of amazing growth, unity, and spiritual development. The believer carried the description “Pentecostal” with pride, because to be Pentecostal meant that a person subscribed to a standard of behavior, dress, and spiritual beliefs.
     As the seventies faded into the eighties, however, outside events began to have a dramatic effect on the Pentecostal church. One of the most influential was the introduction of cable television to most markets. It may be difficult to get the connection from Pentecost to cable television, especially in the light that in the early days of Pentecost, television was reviled as the devil’s instrument. Of course, as we grew more sophisticated, the evils of television were minimized, and TV ownership became universally accepted. The major facet of cable television which affected churches, though, was the creation of channels and networks devoted exclusively to “religious” programming. Whereas radio evangelists of yore were restricted primarily to local markets, a preacher or church on cable television could reach nationwide and draw a tremendous audience. The United Pentecostal Church still did not subscribe to broadcasting via television, although most of its preachers and pastors had already given up fighting the TV wave. What its leaders did do, however, was watch the television broadcasts and observe how services were conducted, the styles of music offered, and the message that was preached. Another thing which caught their attention was each of these TV evangelists or churches was independent…none of them claimed any allegiance to any religious organization, and in the era of self importance, that fact appealed to many Pentecostal ministers. The result was a resistance of sorts to the control exercised by the United Pentecostal Church over its churches, especially in the areas of pastoral replacements and church organization. Finally, the UPC created a new form of partnership, an “affiliation,” with many of its churches which meant that the local church accepted the beliefs of the UPC but did not have to be subservient to UPC headquarters. The end result was many churches dropped the nomenclature “United Pentecostal Church” from their signs, choosing to be Pentecostal when it was convenient and not to be if it was an embarrassment. “Embarrassment” because it was not uncommon for the TV preachers to take little gigs at the Pentecostals and their “weird worship” whenever possible. I remember one time watching a TV evangelist who is still on TV today proclaiming that he was proud that his wife cut her hair and wore makeup and earrings because he didn’t want her to look like one of those “far-out, ugly Pentecostals.” And the audience roared with laughter when he said it.
     Pentecostals who should have known better watched these programs with envy, and decided to tailor their services and music to match these mega-churches in the hopes of drawing like numbers of visitors. Since most of the televisions church services were organized functions with choreographed performers, the same became true of many Pentecostal churches, and audience participation was practically eliminated, with the exception that audiences were expected to erupt into joyous spiritual celebration at the drop of a hat or the raising of an “applause” sign. But congregational singing and individual testimonies were discouraged, and prayer and worship were orchestrated down to the second. Church music became uber-contemporary, based on the latest top picks on the gospel hit parade or the latest choir arrangement from a well-known director. The traditional songs of the early to mid 20th century were dismissed as far too staid, rigid, and lacking in rhythm. Fortunately, up to this point, the message of Holy Ghost salvation was still being preached, but the concepts of condemnation and consequence were soft pedaled to avoid causing the listener to feel self-depreciated, and instead the positive aspects of Christian living were emphasized.
     Fast forward to the current day. In the last three months, I have had two separate evangelists tell me without any prompting on my part that in many churches that they visit a person would not realize they were in a Pentecostal church unless someone told them. Ministers, in an attempt to reach an audience, avoid the term “Pentecost” like the plague. Churches are carefully named “The Solid Rock,” or “Helping Hands Outreach,” or “Oasis of Love,” or some other generic equivalent to avoid any indication of the message that is preached inside the four walls. If the biblical plan of salvation does happen to be preached, it’s done so surreptitiously, hopefully at a time when the listener excited enough to yell, “Yes! I want to be baptized!” Services are choreographed and music is arranged to create an artificial excitement with the audiences being limited to controlled responses…preferably enthusiastic yelling. Every service becomes a emotional high, and, with very little spiritual foundation being built for the new convert, it’s no wonder that many enthusiastic converts, upon returning to the daily humdrum of life, feel their spiritual euphoria wane, and they never return to church.
     A few days ago I was in a Pentecostal service which featured a well-known choir director from another state. She had been invited to offer advice to the local choir and assist in preparing some musical arrangements. A live-wire bundle of energy, she proceeded to tell the audience that, in so many words, Black gospel was where it’s at. She proudly announced she had taught the choir how to “dip,” that is, sort of lean down and then sway to the left or right in rhythm to the music (heavy drums, of course.) We were then instructed that we in the audience needed to learn how to “dip,” and then, looking over the crowd and seeing several African-American members, this Caucasian choir director stated, “I see several of my brothers and sisters out there and I KNOW you know how to dip!” I was floored. I also noticed there was not much reaction from her “brothers and sisters” at that time or when we started “dippin’ and swayin.’” The music (?) started and in a short time the choir was in orbit, although I noticed that the audience was exercising remarkable restraint, with the exception of the normal select group who would probably dance and yell at a funeral. I have a confession…for the first time in my entire life I was embarrassed to be in a Pentecostal service. I slipped out a side door and back to the empty fellowship hall and sat down. As I looked out the open windows to the broad field behind the church, I pondered if this is what Pentecost is coming to. The evening service was a repeat of the morning with the exception that we were instructed to “rock left” and “rock right” instead of dip. Thank you, but, no thanks.
     With the exception of the Pentecostal message, Pentecost as we knew it has disappeared. I have heard of alleged Pentecostal churches which now teach that the infilling of the Holy Ghost with the evidence of speaking in tongues is optional, or if the tongues speaking is expected, then just a couple of mumbles and that’s sufficient. These disturbing trends and allegations are connected to another bit of data I read recently. The average age of a United Pentecostal Church minister is now approaching 50 years of age and a decreasing number of young men and women are entering the ministry. The prediction was made that in twenty five years the UPC will be faced with the same dilemma that many mainstream churches have today: not enough ministers to fill the pulpits of their churches. Conclusion: The established fifty years old ministers of today will be out of the pulpit in another 25-30 years and the new breed of contemporary ministers with no connections to the early day traditions and heritage of Pentecost will be leading the congregations…and the last domino, that of the preaching the biblical plan of salvation, will fall, and the UPC will enter the mainstream of religion in America. By that time, it is highly likely that the organization will have a new name without the distasteful “Pentecostal” albatross.
     I realize that I am presenting a very negative viewpoint to these affairs. At the same time, I am searching desperately for something to offer as a glimmer of hope for the future. Believe it or not, Vice President Joseph Biden made a statement recently that may be applicable concerning these issues. He was asked about his sometimes contentious dealings with Congress during his long career and how he managed to avoid letting every stressful issue become a personal vendetta. Biden stated that when dealing with a political adversary you had to make sure that you questioned the methods but not the motives of your opponent. Biden, who is fairly liberal, said while many of his struggles were with conservatives, he never questioned their loyalty to America, only the methods by which they strove to attain their goals. I am trying to apply that same philosophy to what I see happening in the church, and I am convinced that many of the actions which are done to which I vehemently object are done with the best interests of the church in mind. However, the motives may be honorable, but the results of the methods, I feel, are going to be catastrophic for the church to which I have given my life. Perhaps due to a change in attitude or spiritual awakening, there will be in the future a drifting back to a more balanced form of worship and praise. If, as we believe, the Lord is coming after His church in the near future, this will be a moot discussion anyway. But of this I am absolutely convinced…when I enter those Pearly Gates, I’m not going to be “dippin’” and “rockin.’”