Connections: Edith L. Blumhofer
Dec. 28, 2014
Historian Edith L. Blumhofer is well acquainted with the Assemblies of God. Her books include the two-volume The Assemblies of God: A Chapter in the Story of American Pentecostalism; The Assemblies of God: A Popular History; and Restoring the Faith: The Assemblies of God, Pentecostalism, and American Culture.
As the Pentecostal Evangel prints its final edition with this issue, Blumhofer also is experiencing the demise this week of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, which she has directed at Wheaton College since 1999 (although she will continue as a professor at the evangelical school).
Blumhofer, 64, recently spoke with Evangel News Editor John W. Kennedy, who has worked at the magazine since 1999.
evangel: Do you foresee the explosive growth of the Assemblies of God continuing?
EDITH L. BLUMHOFER: The wave of the future seems to be toward the charismatic style that has always been characteristic of the Assemblies of God. Other movements are becoming more like the Assemblies of God, although some are going to more structured, even liturgical settings.
The growth of this kind of Christianity seems likely to continue in the foreseeable future, but not necessarily for the health of the church as a whole. Because of extreme individualism, there is a fine line in Pentecostalism between following the lead of the Spirit and doing what I want to do.
evangel: What is the most significant change in the Assemblies of God during the past half-century?
BLUMHOFER: Professionalism and streamlining. Buying into a different model of functioning comfortably and administratively, a new direction of credentialing in areas that had not been part of the experience before within American culture. The whole movement toward the business model and the move to the professionalization of accreditation has been gradual. There is a brand new direction of looking for consultants on various things.
evangel: What challenges does the U.S. Assemblies of God face in the short term?
BLUMHOFER: One challenge is balancing various things that can pull so easily in one direction or the other to extremes: the prosperity gospel, media-driven demands to find an audience, the radical charismatic movement, balancing the demands of modern culture with the values that stand at the core of what the denomination was. For instance, the denomination is not going to deny that prophesies happen, but they aren’t going to be highlighted in the foreground either.
Another challenge is the individualism that a Pentecostal spirituality can encourage. Pentecostalism is more than a religious experience of how the Spirit empowers me to do my thing. God gives His gifts to build up the individual local church. We don’t want to be so forward looking that we lose the authentic sense of why we exist, that we lose the identity of what we were.
evangel: What are the most vital contributions the Pentecostal Evangel made to the Assemblies of God?
BLUMHOFER: The Evangel at the beginning was the primary tool for holding the Fellowship together. Back in the early days how did people keep in touch with others far away? The Evangel let them know when and where the next revival meetings would be held, where the next camp meeting was, and who would be speaking. The Evangel provided the news, spiritual food, and reflection for those who may not even have had a Pentecostal church nearby but they identified in their own experience with the Movement.
A scattered constituency who had a common interest were united by a periodical. The Evangel collected money to support foreign missionaries. The periodical was the mechanism to build the grassroots constituency and keep it going. The Pentecostal Evangel was one of the definers of Assemblies of God doctrine to mentor the whole constituency.
Early Evangels were read by people — like my father, an independent pastor — who didn’t affiliate with the Assemblies of God per se. But my father subscribed because he found rich biblical teachings and testimonies in the periodical. It served a wider purpose in the Pentecostal Movement and even beyond it. The Evangel helped people navigate good resources for Bible study. My dad liked reading old timers like Ernest S. Williams [AG general superintendent 1929-49].
The editor of the Evangel used to be an important person in the denomination. Robert C. Cunningham [editor 1950-84] was seen as deeply spiritual.
evangel: Any comments on the magazine’s Key Bearers program, which started in 1996?
BLUMHOFER: Key Bearers harkens back to the early days of the Evangel when people were getting the Word out and had passion for it. It’s a venerable Pentecostal tradition. Print isn’t dead in prisons. It is something people can hold onto.
evangel: With the discontinuation of the printed Pentecostal Evangel and the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals, are we experiencing the end of an era of historic, traditional means of communicating who we are?
BLUMHOFER: Sometimes changes are made with good intentions of trying to reach young people. However, changes sometimes are made without serious reflection of the consequences. We lose important things that had a reason for being, but don’t fit the new model of slick graphics.
A lot of it is being driven by costs and the economy. Today there is a different mentality in terms of business models and trying to work with fewer resources. Institutions have life spans. One of the things to know is when to change and when to let go.
But when the Evangel is no longer printed, there is an assumption about people’s willingness to go online. It may be weakening the denomination in the sense of it’s not available every week in churches. When people read a magazine that is handed to them, it forces them to recognize names of leaders or specific programs.
The source of news about the denomination will be less overtly in the face of those in the local church. In the end there will be a cost to that. People who will go online for PE News will have to take the initiative to go find it. As forward looking and as cutting edge as online material is, when you see something on a screen it passes by and you can’t recover it.