Monday, August 17, 2009

church and ministry

Yesterday at church, the pastor welcomed three old women who had come in support of another old woman, a regular at the church, whose son and his new wife were supposed to attend that day to receive a special blessing for their marriage. The son and his wife never came, so the significance of the other visitors' presence had to be found elsewhere--and it was.

The three visiting women all represented "classic" Pentecostal denominations, in this case, the Assemblies of God (AOG) and the Apostolic Faith Mission (AFM). Both of these denominations trace their origins to the founding event of modern Pentecostalism, the revivals of Azusa Street in Los Angeles, 1906. Within months of the movement's origins in California, participants in the Azusa Street revivals were on the ground in South Africa.

I do not know whether or not these three old women know of their churches' American roots. In this case that is not the most relevant point; Pentecostalism has taken on a life of its own within the South African context, and it was events pertaining to that particular history which concerned the pastor on this day.

"All of these ministries which we are leading come from your churches," he said, addressing the old women. "We are your children."

The pastor's statement was the most explicit affirmation that I have heard within a congregational context of the distinction that scholars have made between Pentecostals and New Pentecostals. The "we" of the pastor's statement is church leaders of his generation, forty-somethings on down, who lead "ministries". The pastor's type of Pentecostalism can perhaps best be distinguished from his spiritual parents by name rather than doctrine; he and his contemporaries are inclined to use "ministry" more than "church" to describe their work for the Lord. Thus the pastor's "church" is Harvest Time Ministries. On Sunday, another woman who now worships with Harvest Time Ministries explained that she used to worship in town with Last Hour Harvest Ministries. Last November, I met a young pastor who was leading simply God's Ministry. Our Mennonite colleagues in South Africa do worship with a "church", Breakthru Church International, but it is part of a "ministry", New Zion Ministries International.

I often wonder about the independent character of such ministries. In this situation, the pastor was expressing his dependency on those who have gone before. He owed a debt of gratitude to the mothers of the AOG and the AFM who, on this day, had entered his church to confer a special blessing upon his ministry.


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