October 22, 2013 / Missio Alliance

Revitalization-Reformation-Restoration: W(h)ither Global Renewal in a Post-Christendom World?


A post by Dr. Amos Yong is Dean and J. Rodman Williams Professor of Theology of the School of Divinity at Regent University.



It has been said that, and many have wondered if, Pentecostalism and the charismatic renewal movements rely on an established Christianity – some would say “Christendom” – since historically both are believed to have fed off a languishing Protestantism (in the Euro-American West) and ritualized Catholicism (across Latin America). But in a post-Christendom context, w(h)ither renewal movements in so far as they may have little or nothing to renew in a globalizing, transnationalizing, and dynamic religious marketplace? With historic, established, and tradition forms of institutional Christianity on the wane (some critics aver), what is left for renewal movements to do?

While a more complete response would have to be simultaneously and at least definitional, phenomenological, and theological along both fronts – that of renewal and that of post-Christendom– a few considerations can help us determine w(h)ither global renewal in the present time. First, renewal movements are associated with revivalism and in many cases there are connections. Revivalism presumes a foundational identity that is in need of repair and renewalist strategies in such contexts assume that what is needed is reawakening to that primordial reality – not necessarily “Christendom” (with its pejorative connotations) but foundational Christian or Catholic commitments. In such a context, however, if the nature of Christian or Catholic identity is now in flux, as in the present post-Christendom climate, then renewal understood in that sense may also well be in decline.

ReNEWal, not REnewal

But what if the emphasis were placed not on renewal but on renewal? What if renewal were understood in relationship to revitalization, reformation, and restoration instead? Revitalization movements, sociologically considered, involve both retrieval and construction: retrieval of more ancient or indigenous traditions reappropriated for the purposes of cultural adaptation in response to wider social pressures. The Reformation, understood according to the Renaissance programme of rebirth according to classical ideals, was motivated to return to ancient sources, including the Jewish and Christian scriptural authorities; however, the main lines of the Reformation tradition have also always realized that return is never a one-directional process, and hence has emphasized ecclesia semper reformanda est (Latin for “the church is always to be reformed”) as involving the reappropriation of the past for present and dynamic purposes. Similarly, pentecostal movements were like other restorationists who preceded them in the sense of desiring to emulate, lived under the authority of, and be inspired by the early, primitive, or New Testament Christian community (hence pentecostals have been called not only restorationists but also primitivists). However, restorationism in the biblical sense, including in the apostolic self-understanding, never could be reduced to merely a re-instantiation of the Mosaic ideal or the Davidic monarchy. Rather, the restoration that was hoped for (Matt. 17:11, Acts 1:6, 3:21) anticipated that achievements of the past would be surpassed in the messianic reign of God.

Christian theology also insists that what is yet to come is not merely a repetition of what has gone before or was lost. Being born again is not a mere matter of re-birth, as Nicodemus failed to comprehend. Redemption is not a mere matter of being bought back, as if only into a former condition. Resurrection is not a mere matter of resuscitation, as if only to die again. And the recreation of the world is not a mere matter of refurbishing the Garden of Eden. Rather, being born again, redeemed, resurrected, and recreated anticipates the New Jerusalem even if that also includes a garden, trees, and fruit for the healing of the nations.

The Future of ReNEWal

Christian renewal, I want to claim, is but a species of such salvific dynamics, not merely in looking backward toward past ideals (here renewal), but also in looking forward toward what is now seen “in a mirror, dimly” (1 Cor. 13:12) – this latter accentuates the new (here renewal): “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived” (1 Cor. 2:9), and what is “far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20). Renewal movements broadly considered therefore look back only insofar as such helps the looking ahead. The light of Christ hereby inspires, through the Holy Spirit, the impossible possibilities that may yet appear. This is the genius, if such may be so called, of renewal, that which generates the unpredictability that is both the cause of consternation and the source of its improvisational capacity.

Hence this ought not be read as a renewal apologetic; any -ism, even a renewalism, in need of defense suggests that its renewing power has been domesticated by the forces of creational inertia – and it may be just as well then to allow such to wither away. Instead, the preceding is hopeful that renewal movements, if nothing else, stimulate, motivate, and precipitate for the present tasks the new starts, the innovative desires, and the creative impulses unleashed at Pentecost. If this is so, that still may not answer the question of “whither renewal?” But it will urge us all to pay renewed attention to the divine ruach, whose sounds we hear and whose rustlings we feel, but we “do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8).

This post is cross-listed on the Renewal Dynamics.